Diablo III has been a long time coming. The ultra-popular Diablo II came out eleven years ago, and an awful lot of things have changed in the video game industry since then. We probably shouldn't have been shocked last week when we learned that Diablo III will be taking a cue from a number of other modern PC games, but the announcement of a real-cash auction house, an always-online requirement, and a complete ban on all mods caused a great deal of fan outcry. After all, this isn't Ubisoft or EA we're talking about. The average Blizzard developer is supposed to be one of us, a dedicated gamer who puts fun and polish before business considerations. Isn't that why Blizzard games take so darn long to develop?
According to Blizzard, the reasons behind these development decisions were more about the player's experience than about making money. The real-money auction house is meant to take the place of the risky underground cash market that existed for Diablo II. Requiring all characters to be on-line allows Blizzard to ensure that any characters who enter the multiplayer game are legit, and banning mods was also done to preserve the integrity of online play. Even with player needs as the primary reason behind them, though, these decisions reflect a negative development trend that Blizzard has been displaying over the last few years: making decisions that privilege highly competitive online gaming while removing options for gamers who primarily value exploration, experimentation, and unstructured play.
This isn't a "hardcore" versus "casual" debate, as it might mistakenly be framed. It has nothing to do with player skill level or time invested in a game, but is rather about the way that different gamers like to play. The recent decisions made by Blizzard show a desire to exert control over the gaming experience of its players in order to ensure maximum fairness in player-versus-player combat and to ensure player "fun" in a rather strictly-defined way.
Diablo III's always-online requirement is the most extreme example of that kind of thinking so far. In the name of fair competition for the segment of the player base that cares about such things, Blizzard has greatly restricted how and when Diablo III can be played. The requirement inconveniences people with less-than-stellar Internet connections, prevents certain groups like deployed members of the military from playing at all, and keeps Diablo III from being played in any situation in which there isn't a reliable Internet connection available. Considering how many people played Diablo II on laptops while traveling, that seems like a rather steep price to pay in order to allow a single-player character to be able to jump onto the Battle.net servers at any time.
The real-money auction house is another feature provided mainly for the kinds of highly competitive players who bought and sold rare gear and powerful characters for Diablo II. While it may seem like a harmless addition that can be safely ignored by players who don't want to make use of it, the real-cash auction house is likely to have a major impact on the prices in the game-currency auction house. Having a real-money economy in an online game tends to heavily devalue the in-game currency over time, as can be seen in any free-to-play MMORPG that allows players to trade in-game currency and real-money currency with each other. Giving in-game currency an obvious real-life currency value comparison magnifies the natural inflation that occurs in online game economies over time. The upshot is ever-increasing price inflation in the in-game currency auction house, shutting out trade for players who don't care to spend an inordinate amount of time grinding for gold in the game.
While the always-online requirement and the real-money auction house are the biggest topics of discussion, there are many smaller examples of how Blizzard seems to be overly concerned with control over the player experience. The modern Battle.net divides players by region, meaning that Diablo III players with European clients can't play with anyone who has a North American client. This was probably done for the purpose of providing fast connectivity, but since Diablo III won't have LAN play, there is no option whatsoever for players in different parts of the world to group together.
The party size in multiplayer Diablo III has also been restricted to four, despite the fact that the game could support up to eight without a problem. The reasoning was that the developers found the game to be more fun with four, so instead of making four players the default, they removed the option to have more players entirely.
Of course, every game company must make tough decisions during development, and game fans will never receive everything they hope for in any game. Usually that's a good thing, but Blizzard has been moving too far in the direction of removing choice and freedom from players, resulting in gameplay experiences that are annoyingly restrictive and ultimately feel somewhat sterile. World of Warcraft players have been noticing that development trend for a while, it was seen in several decisions around Starcraft II, and now it's affecting the Diablo series as well.
Experimentation, exploration, and even playing games as they weren't intended by the developers are all ways that players have had fun throughout the history of PC gaming. That kind of freedom is also a big reason behind the longevity of the Diablo II community, a very diverse group of gamers that enjoyed the game in many different ways. With these development decisions, Diablo III shuts out many players who happened to enjoy the game in ways that deviate from Blizzard's strict idea of how the things should work. Because of this, Diablo III is likely to have a shorter lifespan than Diablo II, and drive a number of customers to other dungeon-crawling series like Torchlight.
There's still time for the Diablo III team to wake up and smell the coffee. Diablo games are fun time-wasters that are primarily about smooshing lots of monsters and collecting lots of loot, alone or with friends. Blizzard needs to look at ways that gameplay has been restricted and consider giving players the option to do things like group with more than four players. They also need to take away the always-online requirement and give players the choice to play on Battle.net or simply alone and offline. And they need to allow LAN play again, letting a group of friends set their own terms and rules. If some players want to have a Diablo III Twink Night, in which everyone is armed to the teeth with hacked items and plays using a mod that turns every enemy into a boss, who are they hurting?
It's time for Blizzard to rethink the heavy-handed way that it has been treating its customer base, provide an optional highly-controlled environment (complete with certifiably-legit real cash options if desired) for players who desire it, and let the rest of its customers have the choice to enjoy the game in their own way.
By Becky Cunningham
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*