Earlier this week, details about the upcoming "Diablo 3" beta were released to the public. One of revelations that got the most attention was the fact that both the beta and the final version of "Diablo 3" would require a constant internet connection to play.
During an interview at last week's press event, Alex Mayberry, senior producer on "Diablo 3," discussed the required connection. "You can play by yourself but your character is going to be saved on our servers. You have to authenticate through our servers to be able to play the game. I think it's not just 'Diablo 3' but with our games as a whole we're tying everything into Battle.net these days...We can provide a much a much more stable, connected, safer experience than we could if we let people play off-line."
This was before the internet went berserk over the news that they'd need an internet connection. This posting on Reddit, for example, has more than 2,700 comments, most of them pretty sour on the idea of being forced to play online.
Given the reaction, it seemed only fair to go back to Blizzard and have them go a bit deeper with regards to why they made the decision to keep "Diablo 3" online only. Yesterday I spoke with Robert Bridenbecker, the Vice President of Online Technologies at Blizzard to get their side of the story.
"I'm actually kind of surprised in terms of there even being a question in today's age around online play and the requirement around that," said Bridenbecker. "We've been doing online gameplay for 15 years now…and with 'World of WarCraft' and our roots in Battle.net and now with 'Diablo 3,' it really is just the nature of how things are going, the nature of the industry. When you look at everything you get by having that persistent connection on the servers, you cannot ignore the power and the draw of that."
One of the reasons the online-only decision upset fans was because it was believed limiting piracy was the rationale. Other companies, like Ubisoft and Capcom, have implemented strict digital rights management (DRM) rules about keeping even single-player games connected online. Was this the case for Blizzard? Bridenbecker says not at all.
"Internally I don't think [DRM] ever actually came up when we talked about how we want connections to operate. Things that came up were always around the feature-set, the sanctity of the actual game systems like your characters. You're guaranteeing that there are no hacks, no dupes. All of these things were points of discussion, but the whole copy protection, piracy thing, that's not really entering into why we want to do it. I'm a huge purveyor of online sites and from my standpoint, I don't look at DRM solutions and go, 'Wow, those are awesome.' I look at those and say, 'Wow, those kind of suck.' But if there's a compelling reason for you to have that online connectivity that enhances the gameplay, that doesn't suck. That's awesome."
So if piracy and DRM never came into the decision, why not just offer an offline mode for those that want to use it? "Let's say we want to create an offline capacity," he explained. "You're introducing a separate user flow, a separate path that players are going to go down. And, at the end of the day, how many people are going to want to do that?"
Bridenbecker continued, mentioning the fact that offline characters in "Diablo 2" could not be used for online play on Blizzard's servers, thus forcing people to start from scratch. "If [offline players] want to come over to the online environment , what are we going to have to do about those players that are in the offline environment coming into the online environment? We said we don't want to look at that [in 'Diablo 3']. Let's just keep everything clean."
Bridenbecker wanted to make it clear, though, that solo players still have a home in "Diablo 3."
"There seem to be folks that believe that because you have to be connected, it's like you're on Facebook or out there with the rest of the world. That's really not the case. Yes, you're going to have a connection, yes, your character will be stored on a server, but it doesn't mean you have to socialize with people. It doesn't mean you have to do anything but play the game by yourself. You'll still be able to have a private game. You'll still be able to go off and play the game solo and adventure solo. You can opt to bring other people to your world if you want, but that's up to you."
Although Bridenbecker's comments probably don't give offline fans much solace, there's little doubt that the industry is slowly but surely moving to this model of constant connectivity. It's also a safe bet that, despite the complaints, "Diablo 3" will be enormously successful. It does seem like the game is being built for a world that's a few years in the future, as WiFi hasn't reached the sort of total ubiquity that Blizzard is claiming. Those who travel frequently or must rely on free WiFi networks often find themselves without a consistent connection, and that would leave them without the ability to play the game they've purchased. Then again, the same problems exist for "World of WarCraft" players, and there's not much of a question of that game's success.
In the end, there's little option but to accept that this is where the most successful gaming company on the planet has decided to go. You could, I suppose, not play "Diablo 3." But really, what are the odds of that happening?