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Diablo III's Online DRM is a Drag

Feature; Jun. 11, 2012; Channels: Video Games; By John Theodore
Subtypes: Opinion
Lag spikes, hitches, and other quirks slow down what should be a great game's flow

Diablo III is a single-player game. It has co-op play, but it is a single-player game at its core. You create a character, go on quests, gain experience, discover treasure, all with the goal of improving your character so you can take on greater challenges. There are social and multiplayer components that enhance this experience. You can play with up to four friends or with total strangers. You can also trade gear and equipment with your friends or sell it on a public auction house. Additionally, you get notifications whenever your friends level up or earn achievements. All these additions enhance the experience and make it feel more social. However, none of them require the game be played socially -- it works just as well on its own.

Diablo III

The decision to host on its own servers does give Blizzard additional security, making it virtually impossible to pirate the game. For players, however, it means the game was incredibly difficult to play for the first 24 hours after launch. It also means you need a fast Internet connection in addition to a fast computer, and even if you have a great connection, you will still experience lag spikes, hitches, and all the other little quirks that slow down and interrupt what is otherwise an amazingly smooth and seamless gameplay experience.

It also means that you, the user, don't even own the game you purchased. What you really have is permission to play the game on Blizzard's servers, but you still paid full price. Once again, gameplay and user experience have been sacrificed in the name of Data Rights Management (DRM) and the almighty dollar. It's another little shift where the publishers get a little more, and we get a little less.

Diablo is what I like to refer to as a "flow" game: Smooth, flowing gameplay is a core component of the experience. The game is at its best when carving through immense hoards of enemies, firing off special abilities, and leaving a satisfying path of destruction in your wake. Everything is designed to support this -- the smooth animations, the colors, the brilliant effects, the fountains of blood. And all of this is undermined when the action suddenly freezes during a lag spike, brief connection loss, or worse, a server connection timeout that kicks you out of the game entirely. I have experienced all of these on multiple occasions in my relatively brief time with the game thus far. The worst possible scenario is a disconnection while playing a Hardcore character during combat, which has the potential to permanently kill the character, erasing hours of the player's work.

Hosting the game on servers does have some benefits. It makes the game feel more social, to be sure. Joining friends' games is quick and easy, and this certainly helps what has long been one of the best features of the Diablo franchise: co-op play. The only thing better than chopping up hoards of monsters by yourself is chopping up hoards of monsters with your best friends. You also get updates when your friends level up or earn achievements, giving a sense of camaraderie while playing solo. You can also chat with your friends or in general chat (though I have yet to bear witness to anything worthwhile being discussed in general chat). Also, all of these features could have been achieved with an online connection being optional, rather than mandatory.

The one feature that truly requires online connectivity is the auction house, which will allow players to buy and sell items with one another for gold (in-game currency) or real money. In order to make this work, Blizzard had to restrict players' access to certain areas of the game to prevent cheating, and hosting the game on servers was really the only way to do this. Whether an auction house that lets players make real money was worth all these drawbacks is up to the individual. Apparently Blizzard thought it was.

Diablo III is a fantastic game and a great deal of fun to play. The classes are all fun and unique. I hope to play each extensively, and this is the first role-playing game I've played where I've been able to say that. When it's all working right, it's a blast to play, as well. It's a shame that there are so many times when lag spikes, latency, and other connection issues get in the way of that experience or block it altogether.

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