Why I have a problem with Diablo III

Today, after a seemingly endless wait, Blizzard announced the official release date of Diablo III as May 15, 2012. This is almost perfect timing, as I had been thinking about Diablo III quite a bit lately, after watching someone play the beta at an Internet cafe recently. It looks incredible, and Blizzard has a strong reputation for gameplay quality. So strong, in fact, that the only people who bitch about Blizzard games are their own fans, because they've been so thoroughly spoiled.

That may sound like exaggeration, but ask anyone who has seriously surveyed the MMORPG market: even if they've moved on from World of Warcraft, or never got into it in the first place...there's respect there. Starcraft was an RTS so solidly crafted that it has practically become the national sport of South Korea. But those games were made quite some time ago, and the Activision merger has, over time, altered Blizzard's business practices. Starcraft II was not greeted entirely without controversy after LAN play was removed, and many gamers were not happy about the game being "split" into three games (each selling for $60) to be released over the course of several years.

So, too, has Blizzard been forced to make unpopular decisions with regards to Diablo III. The game will ship in two months, but it will ship without PVP (Player Versus Player) multiplayer features. This is a minor, and temporary, inconvenience. Blizzard will likely take action to prevent the kind of rampant griefing that Diablo II multiplayer became synonymous with, but this can only improve the game. Contrary to the shrill cries of forum trolls, griefing does not add value to gameplay, any more than bullying adds value to grade school education, or sexual harassment adds value to office culture.

The problem, in my opinion, is the "always online" requirement, but not for the reason you think. Many people I've spoken to about this talk about the inconvenience of having to be online at all times. "What if I'm playing on a laptop?" they ask. This is the wrong question. The right question is "Why are we pretending that you're trying to sell me a game?"

Some time ago I purchased a "Battle Chest" for Diablo II, containing both Diablo II and its expansion pack, Lord of Destruction. These games are quite old. They are mine. I own them. I possess the physical discs containing their code, and a license number that identifies me as having the right to play the game. Blizzard, ever forward-thinking, is also kind enough to recognize my ownership online, and with a registered Battle.net account and my product license, I have the right to download Diablo II and Lord of Destruction on any computer I wish from the Battle.net website. That's very nice of them and all, but what if they went out of business? Or more likely, what if a service interruption made their website inaccessible?

Nothing, that's what. I own the discs, I own the game. I own every part of the platform and content that is Diablo II/Lord of Destruction. If the Internet ceased to be, I could still install and play the game. Twenty years from now, I could open up a storage container, dust off my 2012-era computer, and show my kids how we used to entertain ourselves in an age that they will have only read about.

But Diablo III is not a game. Certainly not a game that we will be allowed to purchase. It is merely content, and a software engine to run that content on. We will possess the engine, but it won't be our's. Characters in Diablo III exist solely on Blizzard's servers. While this makes sense in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft, it does not make sense for a single-player game. I understand Blizzard's point of view on this - by hitching the single- and multiplayer modes of the game intrinsically, players will be able to have total continuity of character in both modes - but I cannot, in good conscience, support this. I will not pay $60 plus tax to be a sharecropper on my own fucking computer.

This is not about inconvenience. My computer is always online, whether I'm playing games or not. I have a cable modem, so I'm actually connected to the Internet even when my computer is turned off. I would, without a doubt, voluntarily be online whenever I was playing Diablo III, alt-tabbing to my browser, chatting with friends, tweeting, and writing wordy essays on inconsequential bullshit to post on my criminally-underused website. But that's not the point. I am okay with MMORPGs being a software service. It's part of the genre. When I don't feel like putting up with it, I unsubscribe. When I buy a "real" game though, I expect to be sold a game. Not a license to occupy a few megabytes on a distant server.

What Blizzard is doing here is akin to a dealership selling you a car but keeping the keys. All you have to do is call them to start up your car whenever you want to use it - they'll be there in no time flat - but woe to you if the key delivery guy is out sick that day, or the dealership goes out of business.

As much as I want to play Diablo III, as much as I'd like to compromise on this and roll over like so many gamers certainly will on May 15th, I cannot, in good conscience, purchase Diablo III on these terms. It's irresponsible to support a business model like this. If gamers want to be treated with the respect we deserve by the industry that supplies our opiate of choice, we're going to have to start making tough choices. This is one of them.