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Diablo III: Always-On DRM Is a Bad Idea

Let us start with the basics. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. When applied to the context of PC video games, DRM is the method a publisher uses to verify that the game was purchased through a legitimate source and not pirated. Back in the early days of games, there was no DRM. I still have a few MS DOS games in a box somewhere that employ no method of verifying the game was actually purchased and not just illegally copied. As time went on, CD keys became the industry standard for DRM. Every game would come with a long string of numbers and letters that had to be entered before installing the game. Eventually, with the increasing popularity of the internet, those numbers were checked with an online server and if the same number was used too much, it was no longer valid.

But times are changing.

Technology keeps growing and the latest chapter in the DRM story falls on something called “always on” DRM because it requires the user to always be connected to an active internet source in order to play the game. Gone are the days where an owner could verify the authenticity of a game purchase once and be done with it…or so it would seem if certain publishers get their way.

I am going to be talking about the recent controversy surrounding Diablo III, but I should mention that Blizzard is not the first major publisher to require an always on internet connection to play their game. Ubisoft has taken a lot of criticism for forcing this kind of DRM onto consumers. Assassin’s Creed II, Splinter Cell: Conviction, and Settlers 7 all required an always on internet connection to play. When the servers were down, no one could play. This led to so much controversy that Ubisoft ended up changing the authentication system for Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood so that a onetime authentication was all that was required.

The worst part about Assassin’s Creed II’s DRM was that if your internet service went out, the game would pause wherever you happened to be and wait until the connection came back before you could play again. If service took too long to come back, any progress made since the last save would be lost.

DRM Hurts Consumers

The Assassin’s Creed II situation is a perfect example of why always on DRM is a bad idea: it hurts the consumers who legitimately purchased the game and not the people who choose to pirate it. Just one month after the game was released, hackers had already discovered a way to make the game playable without being connected to the internet. So everyone who purchased the game has to work around internet outages and downed servers but the people who downloaded it for free do not? Explain to me again why always on DRM is a good solution.

The arguments in favor of this type of verification typically center on the fact that in this day and age, everyone is always connected to the internet anyway, so what is the big deal? Well, I have already mentioned the fact that downed authentication servers and internet outages would prevent people from playing the game, but how about the much simpler example of people not having access to the internet? And I mean more than the people who have no internet connection at their home, but the people who want to play games in places other than their home.

Where I live, the big city is about an hour and half away by train. That is a perfect time to grab a laptop and enjoy a game for a bit, but that obviously cannot happen if the game requires an internet connection to play. And yes, it is possible to purchase mobile data plans that give internet access on the go but they are very expensive and definitely cost-prohibitive it if all you are using it for is authenticating a game.

Another equally valid reason why always on DRM hurts consumers is that some people do not have an unlimited data plan from their ISP. Some people have caps on allowed internet usage and must ration data on a monthly basis. The Assassin’s Creed II DRM required the game to frequently and continuously communicate with the authentication server, which is an incredible waste of bandwidth.

Many gamers are fundamentally opposed to having single player games require an always-on internet connection. In my experience speaking to gamers, those who prefer single player games often find it frustrating when a developer chooses to add a multiplayer aspect “where it has no place.” Bioshock 2 came under a lot of criticism for its inclusion of multiplayer in a sequel to one of the most highly acclaimed single player games in recent times.

Needing a constant internet connection is something multiplayer gamers are familiar with. While it is not needed for DRM reasons, playing others online clearly requires an active connection. I believe many gamers who predominantly enjoy single player games enjoy the fact that they can choose to play the game whenever they are in the mood and are not limited by the availability of other players. Adding always on DRM introduces a burden that those gamers have specifically tried to stay away from.

Diablo III Takes it a Step Further

Diablo III is a special case though. Whereas most always-on DRM is implemented for the purpose of ensuring that players actually purchased the game, the biggest reason Diablo III requires it is because of the Real Money Auction House (RMAH). The RMAH is a feature that allows players to purchase in-game items for real-world cash. The stakes have never been higher to ensure that a game cannot be exploited. Can you imagine how the RMAH would crash if players discovered a game-breaking feature that allowed for the easy acquisition of rare and powerful items?

Blizzard has the potential to turn Diablo III into a highly profitable game with little effort on their part. Blizzard takes a $1 fee for every piece of equipment sold, and it takes a 15% fee for every commodity sold, such as gems or crafting materials. There is a maximum purchase price of $250. In other words, Blizzard has a very big incentive to keep players using the RMAH and to ensure its integrity.

That is what makes Diablo III’s always-on requirement so much worse than any other game.

Blizzard’s major concern in implementing an always-on internet connection is not to prevent piracy. In fact, Blizzard gave away over 1 million copies of Diablo III for free to World of Warcraft subscribers that agreed to continue playing for one year. No, the biggest reason for necessitating an always-on internet connection is to ensure no one can cheat.

That might not sound like a terrible thing. No one likes cheaters right? Well, I only care about cheaters in the context of multiplayer games. I have no problem with people giving themselves gold or items in single player games. I am a big advocate of being able to play a game the way you want it. When entering a multiplayer setting though, that changes because most people go into that expecting a fair fight.

Diablo III is largely a single player game. Yes, there is online cooperative mode and yes, a multiplayer player versus player aspect has been promised for the future as well, but by and large it is a single player game. Blizzard’s top priority is not to prevent cheaters for the sake of online play, but rather to prevent cheaters from destroying the validity of the RMAH.

What makes it even worse is that a better solution to this problem already exists in the game’s predecessor, Diablo II, where characters were available in offline play. Players could choose to create single player characters or realm characters. Realm characters were treated much like how Diablo III characters are currently treated because the characters were stored on Blizzard’s servers. Single player characters were stored locally and could not be used on “closed” realms which required realm characters only.

What is a Realm Character?


Realm Characters are played exclusively on Diablo II Realms over Battle.net and cannot play in Single Player, Open, or TCP/IP games. A Realm is a Diablo II game server hub that is hosted and maintained by Blizzard. While playing on a Realm, your character is secure from many cheats, hacks, or other abuses that could occur in an Open Battle.net or TCP/IP game. Realm Characters are stored on a Diablo II Realm and can be accessed from any computer when you log into Battle.net. There are several Realms on Battle.net, each located in a different part of the world. When creating a Realm Character, choose a Realm whose location is closest to you for the best play experience. Source

That sounds like the perfect system to me. Players wanting to enhance the game by giving their characters items or gold could do so and still have fun by creating a single player character, while players looking for fair competitive or cooperative gameplay could do so by creating a realm character. It is win/win, right?

Well, it is a great solution for consumers but a less than ideal solution for Blizzard. Had Blizzard implemented something like that for Diablo III, single player characters could not use the Real Money Auction House. My non-scientific feeling is that at least half of all players would create single player characters and not bother with the Real Money Auction House at all,  either the gold or actual currency version. And Blizzard would not like that at all because it drastically reduces the potential profit they can make from Diablo III.

And in keeping true to the idea that this kind of DRM only inconveniences people that legitimately purchase it and not the people who would pirate it anyway, it appears offline access to Diablo III has been available since the game was still in beta. On top of that, Diablo III was met with one of the worst launch weeks than any other game in recent memory due to authentication issues. Players attempting to log in were met with a myriad of error messages.

It was so bad that, for a game that was so highly anticipated, consumers tore it apart in reviews.

And I should point out that the log in problems were not confined to launch week. At the time I am writing this, almost two months after release, I have tried and failed for the past 30 minutes to log in. Although eventually you will be prompted to check the server status page, which looked like this for me.

It is pretty clear that publishers would really like always-on DRM to become the accepted standard, but all I see is the benefit that would confer upon publishers and the detriment it would cause to consumers. There is no way I am going to support this change. Please let publishers know that these restrictions are not ok.

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