DRM

What do you think about a single player game that requires you to be online every second that you play it? Pure vitriol, if internet message boards and comments are any indication. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a wildly unpopular idea and yet another front on the war between freedom and security. In the real world at airports we fight terrorism but in the digital world piracy is the enemy. Still, the laments are the same- security measures are an inconvenience that often get in the way of the experience they exist to protect.

In the grand scheme of things media rights are a fairly trivial aspect of security and it comes easy for users to slam the need for it. I personally wouldn’t buy music with DRM and avoided iTunes because of it. Why would I buy controlled music when my entire previous collection was uncontrolled? Why would I give up that freedom?

It has taken some time but games have finally surged ahead in this realm. Valve launched Steam, a storefront to hold your game collection. It wasn’t hard to hide from people the fact that it was a DRM application but Steam offered enough perks that it actually enhanced the experience rather than destroyed it. You can buy a game and play it on PC and PS3, you can install the game on multiple machines, or delete it and always have a backup in the cloud. And you could certainly still play the games offline.

This is where the new trend of always on DRM emerges. Ubisoft has released many PC games that require an internet connection to play and there have been many complaints and calls for boycott. None of the detractors have stopped the company from claiming that their solution has successfully reduced the amount of piracy they suffered. And so, despite being popularly reviled, their business plan continues.

And this leads us to Blizzard and Diablo 3. Previous versions of the game have allowed you to have separate games for online and offline play, but no more. Diablo 3 forces a single game type, for the “convenience” of the player, that always requires an internet connection. It is obvious that this simplifies the experience for the player and the development of the game, and honestly, I will be playing this game online with friends a lot of the time. It is also clear that this is DRM to prevent piracy and will inconvenience players who can’t be constantly connected or who have a router that resets itself every night. But what I think is slipping past most people is the online auction house.

Blizzard is including a real money auction house for items in Diablo 3. Remember previous games where you had to hunt and work for items? Well this time around you can just go to the store and buy them. This is an outrage to some people as is but i’m not really opposed to the concept of microtransactions on face value. However, I’m of the mind that the reason Blizzard always wants you to be online is so you can partake in the auction house. You can’t buy gear if you aren’t online after all. And think about the item economy. If you could play offline and save locally, you could hack the save files and get free items. This obviously doesn’t work when you can easily sell these items for real money, endorsed by Blizzard. Of course there would still be the limitation of not allowing SP and MP items to mix, but what happens when you buy an item in SP – should that extend to MP as well? Shouldn’t it because you paid for it?

These are all problems that have solutions, but Blizzard is solving an awful lot of their problems by forcing you to be online all the time, and they are leaning heavily on their online World of Warcraft expertise. This is a case where I actually think piracy isn’t the driving concern of requiring an internet connection. Don’t be fooled by Blizzard’s claims that they are not planning on making money off the auction house and just expect it to cover server costs. That’s laughable. And dishonest.

So when it comes down to it, is Blizzard doing anything wrong? They are following the rule of popular DRM in that it will offer the users more features than if it didn’t exist. They are vastly simplifying item management and relying on existing technology by using their Wold of Warcraft (always on) knowledge. As a developer myself I need to respect those points. I’m sad to say it but I don’t think this move bothers me a whole lot and I only see the industry moving towards this model more in the future. Soon we will see ads, like on web pages, in digital storefronts like Blizzard’s auction house. Games are becoming more connected to the web and social media and marketplaces that soon enough the line will be so blurred that we will forget what we were complaining about here. The golden rule will, as always, be to make sure the game itself does not suffer.