There was an awful lot of noise last month around the whole XboxOne DRM/features/whatever debacle that ended up with Microsoft doing a 180 on their often-on DRM stance. Ostensibly it was reactionary due to the amount of praise that Sony was getting at Microsoft’s expense, even though they’d managed to hold fast during the initial PR stampede. There were a few though, certainly not the majority but a non-zero amount, who lamented this change by Microsoft, saying that they had capitulated to the crowd and were essentially keeping gaming services in the dark ages. There’s a little meat to this story as the removal of the daily check-in requirement meant that some of the features that came along with it had to go away. Initially the things people were talking about didn’t require a daily check-in to achieve (like worlds that “live on” between game sessions, I think Animal Crossing had that covered pretty well) but there was one that was so revolutionary that I thought people were just making it up.
That was the ability to sell your digital only games.
Now as someone who’s got a massive library of these kinds of games on Steam (last count was in the realm of 300+) the ability to sell, or even just transfer, these games would be a pretty great feature. It’s possible that residents of EU countries might end up getting this by default thanks to a 2012 CURIA ruling but the idea that this could come to the XboxOne, regardless of territory, would be very appealing to a lot of gamers. The often on check is then required to make sure you haven’t sold the game through one channel and then continue to play it offline, which makes some sense in context, although I’d argue that the number of people who’d do such things would be in the minority (and you could just check whenever they did eventually get online anyway). However all that still has the one enormous caveat that I think was the crux of the issue for everyone: you have to rely on a service that may or may not be there in the future.
“Ah ha”, I hear you say, “but that’s the same for Steam and everyone just accepts it there!” and you’re right, to a point. That was probably the biggest thing that Steam had going against it at the time as PC gamers were most certainly not welcoming of it, I know I certainly wasn’t. However once the value proposition became very attractive, mostly through the sales, ease of use and increasing broadband penetration we started to warm to the service. There was also the assurance from Gabe Newell (although trying to source a direct quote relating to this is proving elusive) that should Steam have to shut down there’ll be a patch issued that would free your game library from its decaying hands. With Microsoft’s announcement there wasn’t, or at least it wasn’t communicated well, an equivalent assurance that would allow gamers to continue to play such games past the time when the Xbox Live service disappeared.
Indeed this problem faces all gamers as many titles move towards a more connected model which could mean that core features become unusuable the second the developer can no longer support running the back end infrastructure. For some times, ones that are traditionally multiplayer only, this is kind of expected but the difference between Diablo and Diablo III for instance is that in 20 years I can almost guarantee the former will still be able to be run by anyone with the disc, the latter I’m not sure will see the end of this decade. Sure the number of people doing this might not be in the majority but they’re a vocal one and the sole reason why services like GoG exist. Had Microsoft given some assurances to the contrary they might not be in the position they are today and those features might still be available to Xbox customers.
It may seem like we’re just being backwards Luddites bent on keeping the status quo but it’s far more than that, we just want to be able to play our games long into the future like we can do with so many titles we grew up on. I see no technical reason why systems can’t be built to enable both sides of the equation, one that allows us to sell/trade digital games whilst also giving the opportunity to play offline whenever we want, but the reasons are far more likely business in nature. It’s a real shame as Microsoft could have really outdone Sony on this particular front but it seems like they’re instead gearing up for being second place, capitulating just enough so they don’t end up competing with the Wii U for scraps of market share.
Whilst its easy to argue to the contrary Microsoft really is a company that listens to its customers. Many of the improvements I wrote about during my time at TechEd North America were the direct result of them consulting with their users and integrating their requests into their updated product lines. Of course this doesn’t make them immune to blundering down the wrong path as they have done with the XboxOne (and a lot would argue Windows 8 as well, something which I’m finding hard to ignore these days) something which Sony gleefully capitalized on. Their initial attempts at damage control did little to help their image and it was looking like they were just going to wear it until launch day.
And then they did this:
Essentially it’s a backtrack to the way things are done today with the removal of the need for the console to check in every day in order for you to be able to play installed/disc based games. This comes hand in hand with Microsoft now allowing you to trade/sell/gift your disc based games to anyone, just like you can do now. They’re keeping the ability to download games directly from Xbox Live although it seems the somewhat convoluted sharing program has also been nixed, meaning you can no longer share games with your family members nor can you share downloaded titles with friends. Considering that not many people found that particular feature attractive I’m not sure it will be missed but it does look like Microsoft wanted to put the boot in a little to show us what we could have had.
I’ll be honest and say I didn’t expect this as Microsoft had been pretty adamant that it was going to stick around regardless of what the consumers thought. Indeed actions taken by other companies like EA seemed to indicate that this move was going to be permanent, hence them abandoning things that would now be part of the platform. There’s been a bit of speculation that this was somehow planned all along; that Microsoft was gauging the Market’s reaction and would react based on that but if that was the case this policy would have been reversed a lot sooner, long before the backlash reached its crescendo during E3. The fact that they’ve made these changes shows that they’re listening now but there’s not to suggest that this was their plan all along.
Of course this doesn’t address some of the other issues that gamers have taken with the XboxOne, most notably the higher cost (even if its semi-justified by the included Kinect) and the rather US centric nature of many of the media features. Personally the higher price doesn’t factor into my decision too much, although I do know that’s a big deal for some, but since the XboxOne’s big selling points was around it’s media features it feels like a lot of the value I could derive from it is simply unavailable to me. Even those in the USA get a little bit of a rough ride with Netflix being behind the Xbox Live Gold wall (when it’s always available on the PS4) but since both of them are requiring the subscription for online play it’s not really something I can really fault/praise either of them for.
For what it’s worth this move might be enough to bring those who were on the fence back into the fold but as the polls and preorders showed there’s a lot of consumers who have already voted with their wallets. If this console generation has the same longevity as the current one then there’s every chance for Microsoft to make up the gap over the course of the next 8 years and considering that the majority of the console sales happen after the launch year it’s quite possible that all this outrage could turn out to be nothing more than a bump in the road. Still the first battle in this generation of console wars has been unequivocally won by Sony and it’s Microsoft’s job to make up that lost ground.
If the deafening outcrying from nearly every one of my favourite games news sites and social media brethren is anything to go by the console war has already been won and the new king is Sony. Whilst the fanboy in me would love to take this opportunity to stick it to all the Xboxers out there I honestly believe that Sony really didn’t do much to deserve the praise that’s currently being heaped on it. More I feel like the news coming out of E3 just shows how many missteps Microsoft took with the XboxOne with Sony simply sitting on the sidelines, not really changing anything from what they’re currently doing today.
The one, and really only, point that this all hinged on was the yet unknown stance that Sony would take for DRM on the PlayStation4. It was rumoured that they were watching social media closely and that spurred many grassroots campaigns aimed at influencing them. The announcement came at E3 that they’d pretty much be continuing along the same lines as they are now, allowing you to trade/sell/keep disc based games without any restrictions built into the platform. This also means that developers were free to include online passes in their games, something which has thankfully not become too common but could go on the rise (especially with cross platform titles).
There wasn’t much else announced at E3 that got gamers excited about the PlayStation4 apart from seeing the actual hardware for the first time. One curious bit of information that didn’t receive a whole lot of attention though was the change to Sony’s stance on free multiplayer through the PlayStation Network. You’ll still be able to get a whole bunch of services for free (like NetFlix/Hulu) but if you want to get multiplayer you’re going to have to shell out $5/month for the privilege. However this is PlayStation Plus which means it comes with a whole bunch of other benefits like free full version games so it’s not as bad as it sounds. Still it looks like Sony might have been capitalizing on the notion that there will be quite a few platform switchers for this generation and thus took the opportunity to make the service mandatory for multi.
It could also be partly to offset the extremely low (relative) price of the PlayStation4 with it clocking in at $399. Considering its specs it’s hard to believe that they’re not using the console as a loss leader yet again, something which I thought they were going to avoid for this generation. If the life of these consoles remains relatively the same that means they’ll at least get the console’s price back again in subscription fees, plus any additional revenue they get from the games sales. At least part of it will have to go to the massive amount of online services they’re planning to release however, but overall it seems that at least part of that subscription cash will be going to offset the cheaper hardware.
The thing to note here is that the differences between Sony’s current and next generation console are far smaller than those for Microsoft. This is the same Sony who were ridiculed for releasing the PSN long after Xbox Live, pricing their console way above the competition and, even if it wasn’t for games specifically, had some of the most insane DRM known to man. The fact that not much has changed (they have, in fact, got objectively worse) and they’re being welcomed with open arms shows just how much Microsoft has dropped the ball.
Whether or not this will translate into lost sales though will have to remain to be seen. The consumer market has an incredibly short memory and we’ve got a good 5 months between now and when the XboxOne goes on sale. It’s entirely possible that the current conversation is being dominated by the vocal minority and the number of platform loyalists will be enough to overcome that initial adoption hump (something which the Wii-U hasn’t been able to do). I’m sure that anyone who was on the fence about which one to get has probably made their mind up now based on these announcements but in all honesty those people are few and far between. I feel the majority of console gamers will get one, and only one, console and will likely not change platforms easily.
The proof will come this holiday season, however.
[UPDATE]: It has come to my attention that Sony has stated that they will not be allowing online passes from anyone. Chalk that up to yet another win for them.
After spending a week deep in the bowels of Microsoft’s premier tech conference and writing about them breathlessly for Lifehacker Australia you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m something of a Microsoft shill. It’s true that I think the direction they’re going in for their infrastructure products is pretty spectacular and the excitement for those developments is genuine. However if you’ve been here for a while you’ll know that I’m also among their harshest critics, especially when they do something that drastically out of line with my expectations as one of their consumers. However I believe in giving credit where its due and a recent PA Report article has brought Microsoft’s credentials in one area into question when they honestly shouldn’t be.
The article I’m referring to is this one:
I’m worried that there are going to be a few million consoles trying to dial into the home servers on Christmas morning, about the time when a mass of people begin to download new games through Microsoft’s servers. Remember, every game will be available digitally day and date of the retail version, so you’re going to see a spike in the number of people who buy their Xbox One games online.
I’m worried about what happens when that new Halo or Call of Duty is released and the system is stressed well above normal operating conditions. If their system falls, no matter how good our Internet connections, we won’t be able to play games.
Taken at face value this appears to be a fair comment. We can all remember times when the Xbox Live service came down in a screaming heap, usually around christmas time or even when a large release happened. Indeed even doing a quick Google search reveals there’s been a couple of outages in recent memory although digging deeper into them reveals that it was usually part of routine maintenance and only affected small groups of people at a time. With all the other criticism that’s being levelled at Microsoft of late (most of which I believe is completely valid) it’s not unreasonable to question their ability to keep a service of this scale running.
However as the title of this post alludes to I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.
The picture shown above is from the Windows Azure Internals session by Mark Russinovich which I attended last week at TechEd North America. It details the current infrastructure that underpins the Windows Azure platform which powers all of Microsoft’s sites including the Xbox Live service. If you have a look at the rest of the slides from the presentation you’ll see how far that architecture has come since they first introduced it 5 years ago when the over-subscription rates were much, much higher for the entire Azure stack. What this meant was that when something big happened the network simply couldn’t handle it and caved under the pressure. With this current generation of the Azure infrastructure however it’s far less oversubscribed and has several orders of magnitude more servers behind it. With that in mind it’s far less likely that Microsoft will struggle to service large spikes like they have done in the past as the capacity they have on tap is just phenomenal.
Of course this doesn’t alleviate the issues with the always/often on DRM or the myriad of other issues that people are criticizing the XboxOne for but it should show you that worrying about Microsoft’s ability to run a reliable service shouldn’t be one of them. Of course I’m just approaching this from an infrastructure point of view and it’s entirely possible for the Xbox Live system to have some systemic issue that will cause it to fail no matter how much hardware they throw at it. I’m not too concerned about that however as Microsoft isn’t your run of the mill startup who’s just learning how to scale.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how right or wrong I am.
I’m not a big user of the second hand market but there have been times when I’ve delved into it in order to get what I want. Usually its when I find out about a particular collector’s edition too late to buy a retail copy and will just wait it out until someone wants to hock their copy on eBay where I’ll snap it up for a song. The last game I did this with was Uncharted 3 (although I failed to mention the saga in the review) and whilst I didn’t get all the collector’s edition downloadable goodies the seller went out of their way to make sure I got a similar amount of value as they did when they purchased it new. I certainly didn’t expect this but it was deeply appreciated all the same.
However his generosity is a symptom of the larger problem at play here. Almost 2 years ago a silent war began between developers (well mostly likely the publishers) and the second hand market where first sale doctrine was being usurped by crippling used games. The first title that I purchased which was affected by this Mass Effect 2 and whilst I have no intention of ever selling that game the fact that it was crippled after initial sale didn’t sit particularly well with me. The trend has been on the increase as of late with many games including some form of one time use DLC in order to make second hand titles less attractive.
It gets even worse when rumours start surfacing that the next generation consoles will start supporting features that cripple second hand games natively removing the requirement from game developers to implement their own system. The justification would probably be something along the lines of “this is what we’ve done for ages on the PC” which is kind of true if you count CD keys but they were usually transferable. There’s also the sticky issue of digital downloads which currently have no method on any platform for enabling resale which is why many publishers are beginning to favour those platforms instead of physical retail releases.
The golden days of unsellable digital titles (and by extension crippled second hand titles) may not be long for this world however as the German consumer protection group VZBV has started legal proceedings against Valve in regards to the Steam platform. This isn’t the first time they’ve gone up against them but recent rulings in the EU have set up some precedents which could lead to digital distribution platforms having to implement some kind of second hand market. Considering Steam has been dealing in digital trade for many years now it’s not like they’re incapable of delivering such functionality, they just simply haven’t had the incentive to do so. Heavy fines from the EU could be the push they need in order to get them moving in the right direction but we’ll have to wait until the court case resolves before we’ll see any real movement on this issue.
I have real trouble seeing how the second hand game market is such a detriment to publishers. Indeed many people use trade-ins in order to fund new game purchases and removing that will put a downward pressure on new sales, to the tune of 10% or so. Now I don’t know how much revenue that publishers are making off those second hand uncrippling schemes but I’m sure a 10% increase is above that, especially if you count the amount of good will generated from not being a dick about the used market. Valve would be heralded as the second coming if they enabled used game trading on Steam, even if they charged a nominal fee to facilitate the transaction.
Really I can’t see any downsides to supporting the second hard market and actively working against it doesn’t do the publishers any favours. I’m not saying they have to go out and actively help facilitate it but they could simply not try to work against it like they’re doing right now. Digital distributors do have to pick up their game in this regard however and I hope it doesn’t come down to strong arming them with the law. Should the EU ruling hold up however that’s could very well be what happens but it would at least be a positive result for us consumers.
The 3D printing revolution that has occurred over the past few years can be directly traced to some intrepid hackers wanting to bring a technology that was usually reserved for companies with large budgets down to the level where it was affordable for everyone. This then created a whole new industry of consumer level 3D printers which started out as kits that required a lot of construction and tinkering (I’m not just saying that either, I’ve been there) to today where there are dozens of printers available with the vast majority coming ready to print right out of the box. This commoditization of 3D printing has led to a lot of interesting and controversial situations, not least of which is Intellectual Ventures latest IP filing.
For the uninitiated Intellectual Ventures is essentially a giant patent portfolio company who makes their money by licensing out said patents. Primarily this is done through them filing lawsuits against companies who they find are infringing on their patents, essentially forcing them into a licensing arrangement with them. The term Patent Troll could not be more apt for any other company as whilst they might have a token research lab their mainstay of business is acquiring patents and then using them to bilk others for cash. Recently Intellectual Ventures announced one of their newer patents called Object Production Rights, something which seems eerily familiar.
The system they describe is essentially a plugin for 3D printer software which, upon receiving a file of an object that the user wants to print, contacts a server somewhere and verifies that this particular printer/person/software is allowed to print this object. Should they have the required access they’ll be able to print it, otherwise the software will just simply refuse to do so. If you think you’ve heard this before its basically Digital Rights Management directly translated into the 3D printing world and because of that it brings with it all the issues that plagued it in the digital world.
For starters DRM/OPR only hurts those who are using that particular product as thanks to the grass roots nature of the 3D printer movement most of the stuff that’s already available (and what will likely be available in the future) is done so free of charge. Realistically the only way that OPR would work would be with “genuine” model parts from manufacturers but the thing there is that there’s nothing stopping an intrepid user replicating that same part from a scan of a copy or simply designing one themselves. Whilst there might be some kind of copyright implications for direct scans (although I’m struggling to find anything concrete) the latter is not covered at all and is how the majority of 3D printed objects are created.
I’m sure that the end goal for this particular patent is that all 3D printer manufacturer’s will be required to implement this in their firmware/software suites and thus Intellectual Ventures can collect a tidy licensing sum on each 3D printer sold. Whilst I’m hopeful that this won’t come to pass even if it does it won’t be long before swaths of custom firmwares and third party software hits the market that does away with OPR, rendering the system moot once again. Of course you might then get a RIAA-esque outcry about how 3D printing is killing the manufacturing industry but just like the music industry such outcries are hollow when their profits are largely unaffected by the prevalence of piracy.
I believe that the 3D printing industry is poised well to resist OPR, at least at the consumer level. The explosion of this nascent industry is almost wholly due to its openness and fervent support from people giving their work away for free. Trying to work this kind of system in will be met with heavy resistance and the only entry point I can see for them would be at the higher end where there are much more juicy litigation targets. Still nothing is stopping those same high end printers from utilizing the freely available work of others, again rendering the OPR idea moot.
It’s no secret that I’ve never been much of a fan of the OnLive service. Whilst my initial scepticism came from my roots as someone who didn’t have decent Internet for the vast majority of his life while everyone else in the world seemed to since then I’ve seen fundamental problems with the service that I felt would severely hamper adoption. Primarily it was the capital heavy nature of the beast, requiring a large number of high end gaming PCs to be always on and available even when there was little demand for them. That and the input lag issue that would have made many games (FPS being the most prominent genre) nearly unplayable, at least in my mind. Still I never truly believed that OnLive would struggle that much as there definitely seemed to be a lot of people eager to use the service.
For once though I may have been right.
OnLive might have been a rather capital intensive idea but it didn’t take long for them to build out a company that was getting valued in the $1 billion range, no small feat by any stretch of the imagination. It was at that point that I started doubting my earlier suspicions, that level of value doesn’t come without some solid financials behind it, but it seems that since that dizzying high (and most likely in a reaction to Sony’s acquisition of their competitor Gaikai for much less than that) that they only had one place to go and that was down:
We’re hearing from a reliable source that OnLive’s founder and CEO Steve Perlman finally decided to make an exit — and in the process, is screwing the employees who helped build the company and brand. The cloud gaming company reportedly had several suitors over the last few years (perhaps including Microsoft) but Perlman reportedly held tight control over the company, apparently not wanting to sell or share any of OnLive’s secret sauce.
Our source tells us that the buyer wants all of OnLive’s assets — the intellectual property, branding, and likely patents — but the plan is to keep the gaming company up and running. However, OnLive management cleaned house today, reportedly firing nearly the entire staff, and we hear it was done just to reduce the company’s liability, thus reducing employee equity to practically zero. Yeah, it’s a massive dick move.
We’ve seen this kind of behaviour before in companies like the ill-fated MySpace and whilst the company will say many things about why they’re doing it essentially it makes the acquisition a lot more attractive for the buyer, due to the lower ongoing costs. Whoever this well funded venture capitalist is they don’t seem to be particularly interested in the company of OnLive itself, more the IP and massive amount of infrastructure that they’ve built up over the course of the last 3 years. No matter how the service is doing financially those things have some intrinsic value behind them and although the new mysterious backer has committed to keeping the service running I’m not sure how much faith can be put in those words.
Granted there are services that were so costly to build that the initial companies who built them folded but the subsequent owner who acquired everything at a fire sale price went onto to make a very profitable service (see Iridium Communications for a real world example of this). However the figures that we’ve been seeing on OnLive’s numbers since this story broke don’t paint a particularly rosy picture for the health of the service. When you have a fleet of 8000 servers servicing at most 1600 users that doesn’t seem sustainable by any way that I can think of lest the users be paying out the nose for the service (which they’re not, unfortunately). It’s possible that the massive amount of lay offs coupled with a reduction in their current infrastructure base might see OnLive become a profitable enterprise once again but I’ll have to say that I’m still sceptical.
Apart from the monthly access fee requirement being dropped none of the issues that I and countless other gamers have highlighted have been addressed and their niche of people who want to play high end games without the cost (and don’t own a console) just isn’t big enough to support their idea. I could see something like this service being an also-ran for a large company, much like Sony is planning to do with Gakai, but as a stand alone enterprise the costs of establishing the require infrastructure to get the required user base are just too high. This is not even touching on the input lag or the ownership/DRM issues either, both of which have been shown to be deal breakers for many gamers contemplating the service.
It’s a bit of a shame really as whilst I love being right about these things I’d much rather be proven wrong, especially when it comes to non-traditional ideas like OnLive. It’s entirely possible that their new benefactor could turn things around for them but they haven’t done a lot to endear themselves to the public and their current employees so their battle is going to be very much up hill from now on. I’m still willing to be proven wrong on this idea though but as time goes on it seems less and less likely that it’ll happen and that’s a terrible thing for my already inflated ego.
In the days before ubiquitous high speed Internet people the idea of having games that were only available when you were online were few and far between with the precious few usually being MMORPGs. As time went on however and the world became more reliably connected game developers sought to take advantage of this by creating much more involved online experiences. This also lead to the development of some of the most insane forms of DRM that have ever existed, schemes where the game will constantly phone home in order to verify if the player is allowed to continue playing the game. The advent of cheap and ubiquitous Internet access then has been both a blessing and a curse to us gamers and it may be much more of the latter for one particular type of game.
Way back when an Internet connection was considered something of a luxury the idea of integrating any kind of on line experience was something of a pipe dream. There was still usually some form of multiplayer but that would usually be reserved the hallowed times of LAN parties. Thus the focus of the game was squarely on the single player experience as that would be the main attraction for potential gamers. This is not to say that before broadband arrived there was some kind of golden age of single player games (some of my favourite games of all time are less than 5 years old) but there definitely was more of a focus on the single player experience back then.
Today its much more common to see games with online components that are critical to the overall experience. For the most part this is usually some form of persistent multiplayer which has shown to be one of the most successful ways to keep players engaged with the game (and hence the brand) long after the single player experience has faded from memory. We can squarely lay the blame for this behaviour at big titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield as most multiplayer systems are seeking to emulate the success those games enjoyed. However the biggest blow that single player games has come from something else: the online requirement to just to be able to play games.
Now I’m not specifically referring to always on DRM, although that is in the same category, more the requirement now for many games to go online at least once before they let you play the game. For many of us this check comes in the form of a login to Steam before we’re able to play the games and for others its built directly into the game, usually via a phone home to ensure that the key is still valid. Whilst there is usually an offline mode available I’ve had (and heard many similar stories) quite a few issues trying to get that to work, even when I still have an Internet connection to put them into said mode. For modern games then the idea that something is truly single player, a game that can be installed and played without the need of any external resources, is dead in the water.
This became painfully obvious when Diablo III, a game considered by many (including myself) to be a primarily single player experience, came with all the problems that are evident in games like MMORPGs. The idea that a single player experience required maintenance enraged many players and whilst I can understand the reasons behind it I also share their frustration because it calls into question just how long these games will continue to exist in the future. Whilst Blizzard does an amazing job with keeping old titles running (I believe the old Battle.Net for Diablo 1 is still up and running) many companies won’t care to keep the infrastructure up and running once all the profit has been squeezed out of a title. Some do give the courtesy of patching the games to function in stand alone mode before that happens, but its unfortunately not common.
It’s strange to consider then that the true single player games of the Internet dark ages might live on forever whilst their progeny may not be usable a couple years down the line. There’s a valid argument for companies not wanting to support things that are simply costing them money that’s only used by a handful of people but it then begs the question as to why the game was developed with such heavy reliance on those features in the first place. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like this will be a trend that will be reversed any time soon and our salvation in many cases will come from the dirty pirates who crack these systems for us at no cost. This can not be relied on however and it should really fall to the game developers to have an exit strategy for games that they no longer want to support should they want to keep the loyalty of their long time customers.
I’m a really, really big fan of nearly every Blizzard game that’s come out over the past 2 decades. Their dedication to releasing games when they’re done, whilst irritating to the extreme sometimes, means that they consistently deliver highly polished titles. They’re also extremely dedicated to their fans being deeply involved in the communities that surround their games, taking their suggestions and criticisms and using them to improve their games. I’ve gladly parted with many of my hard earned dollars for the privilege of enjoying their games, and I’ve gladly planned to part with a whole lot more in the coming months.
The next title that’s gearing up to part me with a good chunk of change is Diablo III, the next instalment in the Diablo series that I’ve been playing ever since its original release. The game play videos have captivated me and the continuation of the story that’s been on hiatus for over 11 years was more than enough to sell me on it long ago. I’m also very interested in some of the latest developments like the real money auction house which will allow players to sell in game items for cold hard cash. Sure it might look like a game breaking money grab but I’ve got every confidence that Blizzard knows what they’re doing and the actual impact on the every day game play will be minimal.
What does give me the shits however, is the price that we all have to pay as part of it.
Diablo 1 and 2 were, as many Blizzard games were, long time favourites because of their awesome multi-player experience, in particular the LAN play. Of course back in those days where Internet connections were no where near as good as they are today LAN play was critical, but today it’s much less of an issue. However there are still occasions where you might be without an Internet connection and still want to play the games you purchased, say when you’re moving to a new house or travelling. StarCraft II skirted around this requirement by allowing you to login as a guest when offline, which is an ok solution but a far cry from what it used to be. As it turns out Diablo III won’t even be offering any kind of offline play at all, requiring players to be constantly connected to the Internet:
Executive vice president of game design Rob Pardo notes that the wealth of improvements and features Diablo 3 brings to Battle.net necessitate the always-online requirement. Specific additions that he refers to include:
While Pardo recognizes that people sometimes want or need to play offline (such as internet outages, or playing on a laptop during an airplane flight), he notes that the increased security, plus benefits like the above, outweigh those other concerns. “I want to play Diablo 3 on my laptop in a plane, but, well, there are other games to play for times like that.”
Now this isn’t the first time a game developer has implemented an always online DRM system. Ubisoft implemented such a system with Assassin’s Creed II and the results weren’t pretty, with the game instantly booting you out the second it couldn’t communicate with Ubisoft’s DRM servers. This meant that issues on either the customer’s or Ubisoft’s end could trigger a swift boot out, losing all your progress since the last auto-save point (which could be quite a bit of game time). Initially Ubisoft had planned to roll this out to all their games but has since taken a more lax approach with the only other title to receive such restrictive DRM being Driver: San Francisco.
Blizzard, for what it’s worth, has to put this kind of DRM into the game should they wish to implement features like the real money auction house. Honestly though I thought they had this problem all sorted with the Open/Closed Battle.net system¹ they had in Diablo 2 which worked quite well. The same system could have been integrated into Diablo 3 without too much hassle, making sure that the real money auction house wasn’t a hotbed for exploiters. Sadly this seems to be a trend for many larger game publishers and there are no signs of them changing their behaviour any time soon.
As someone who’s lived with patchy Internet for many years I can attest to how irritating it can be if a game drops you out the second you lose your connection. I understand why it happens in online game modes but for a game that will (hopefully) have a great single player as its predecessors did my Internet connection shouldn’t have to matter at all. I gladly made the trade off back in Diablo 2 to play on the Open Battle.net because my connection was tenuous at the best of times and I’d gladly do the same with Diablo III should I be given the option (and find myself without Internet). Blizzard seems committed to this always online idea however, so I’m not hopeful that it will change.
Now usually I’d just vote with my wallet in this case, either buying another version of the game that didn’t require an Internet connection (like a console version) or just abstaining from it altogether. Problem here is that I don’t want to miss this release from Blizzard yet I don’t want to encourage them to continue down this restrictive DRM path. In the end I’ll probably end up buying it anyway but I’m not going to be as happy with it as I would’ve been otherwise.
DRM only hurts your honest customers and whilst I’m sure that Blizzard won’t suffer because of the DRM in Diablo III it’s definitely not doing them any favours. It’s worse than Ubisoft’s case as Blizzard has managed to work around these problems before, as recently as their latest release. It won’t take the crackers long to get passed it either thereby negating a good chunk of the benefits that Blizzard is spruiking. Hopefully they’ll provide some sort of compromise like that did for StarCraft II, but with the release date coming up fast I wouldn’t be holding your breath for it.
¹For the uninitiated the “open” Battle.net let you use characters that had been created offline. It was very well known that these characters could be hacked, items duplicated and game mechanics exploited when not tethered to Blizzard’s servers. The closed Battle.net kept all characters on their servers, ensuring that hacked items and characters wouldn’t be persistent in the game.
Sony really has no tolerance when it comes to piracy on their systems. Whilst in the past they were mostly disinterested (since there was little they could do about it) their reaction to the current state of piracy on the Playstation 3 has been nothing short of full fledged war on those who’d seek to get something for nothing. Still it seems like their efforts might be misplaced as the damage has already been done and any methods taken to try and contain it merely serve as a Streisand Effect, further publicising the efforts of those they’d seek to contain. Still for all the hubbub that’s going on I personally believe that it’s a storm in a teacup, with both sides making a bigger deal of this than it really is.
The roots of this entire debacle can be traced back to one curious hacker, Geohot. Just on a year ago he released details of a hack that basically enabled him full control over the PS3 when it was in OtherOS mode, opening the door for much better homebrew applications that could take full advantage of the PS3’s power. Sony, to their discredit, overreacted to this by removing OtherOS as a feature in the next update. In all honesty Geohot’s initial hack was barely a threat to anyone as it required a very high level of knowledge and the guts to crack open your PS3 and solder switches across vital components. Removing said feature then triggered many other hacker groups to start having a shot at breaking open the PS3, and 8 month’s later we saw the rise of the PS3 jailbreaks.
Most recently however the whole scene went into overdrive after the hacker team fail0verflow released details on how to recover many of the private keys that Sony uses to verify game discs and other critical GameOS functions. It didn’t take too long after that for Geohot to release the root key which, in essence, cracked the entire system wide open. Whilst I’ve yet to dive into the nitty gritty myself it would seem that this round of hacks requires no crazy dongles or anything that’s above the level of the average Windows user. A quick look over some of my old hacking haunts shows there’s quite a spread of tools available, even a nifty little program that can point your PS3 to a share where you can store all your games, neat. Sony has been quick to come down on these hacks and the hackers have been even quicker in response, showing that the arms race Sony is playing against the masses will never be won.
The thing is though that whilst this enables piracy on a console that has been immune to it for the majority of its life it’s far from being the catastrophe that Sony seems to think it will be. The PC and the Xbox have both suffered from rampant piracy from their earliest days and the industry continues to flourish in spite of them. The fact is that anyone who would be solely pirating games isn’t a lost customer in the first place and many of them would’ve steered clear of the PS3 because of that. Heck even after I modded my Xbox so I could play some “backed up” games I ended up reverting it back simply because I wanted to play online and I didn’t play any of those games for longer than an hour. The simple fact is that a game I’m not willing to part with the money for is a game I wouldn’t play anyway, and I’m sure that’s common across most console owners.
Piracy is often the excuse used for all sorts of draconian measures that publishers use to try and protect their investments. Time and time again however it has been shown that users who can’t pirate aren’t instantly converted into paying customers, they simply do without and move onto another source of free entertainment. Piracy, on the surface at least, appears to be a much worse problem than it actually is and whilst the PS3 may now be wide open for all those who want to exploit it I doubt we’ll see publishers pulling releases for the platform any time soon. Personally I’d love to be able to rip my library of games to a hard drive so I could have them all on tap whenever I wanted them, but with Sony’s rampant anti-piracy stance it looks like I’ll have to forgo that dream until I don’t want to use my PS3 online anymore.
And I don’t think that’s going to be any time soon, either.