Last week's rough launch of Diablo III neatly illustrated the biggest problem with the game's 'always-on' internet requirement. It was a reminder that consumers have lost a portion of their ownership of the game, that we no longer have complete control even over whether or not our game will start.
That's as true this week as it was last week, but the more I play, the more I've found that there are also some things about Diablo III's always-on world that make it more vital, exciting and engaging.
Last night, I found myself in town doing a loot drop-off. I told my smith to strip a rare magical bow for parts. I didn't need the bow — I'd already given my NPC companion a better one, so there was no reason to keep it around. When I hit the "salvage" button, a dialogue box popped up. Was I really sure I wanted to do this? It could not be undone.
I paused. Yes, I was sure I wanted to do this. There was no future for that bow — unique or no, it was basically junk. But I paused nonetheless, because this decision was permanent in a way that most video game decisions aren't. If I changed my mind, I couldn't just reload an old save and undo it. No takebacks.
That's due to the the particular way that Diablo III operates - you can't save a snapshot of the world and reload it at your pleasure. Whether you're playing by yourself or with friends, you're always connected to the servers, and even when you're in the menus, life goes on around you. It's Blizzard's world; we just live in it.
This has proved irritating to a lot of people, myself included — I mostly want to play Diablo III single-player, so why can't I just do that? Why do I have to connect to the internet to play this game? This isn't how I'm used to playing video games!
I still think that the game would benefit from at least giving players the option to play the game in an entirely offline mode — you choose to make a hero an "offline hero" and you can never take that hero online. I'm no expert in the technical aspects of MMOs and server-based gaming, but it seems like it should be possible to keep single-player gamers and whatever weird gear and hacked loot they can come up with out of the shared servers.
But now that I'm partway through Diablo III's second act, I'm actually glad to be playing online. I don't usually play with others (though thanks largely to Mike's excellent review, I will), but all the same, I'm enjoying the feeling of being in a connected world that doesn't reside on my computer. It makes my actions feel consequential — granted, they're consequential in a small way, but all the same, each thing I do feels permanent. It lends the world an intangible credibility that feels exciting and new.
I've seen plenty of folks online complaining about Diablo III's lack of a traditional save-system. When it's time to stop playing, you just sort of…stop. Your progress, gear and level is saved, but your location defaults back to the last checkpoint. The first few times this happens, it can be a bit galling — Wait, I was near the end of the dungeon! I have to do that again?
But the lack of proper saves also makes the game feel vital and alive. (And remember, Diablo II worked in much the same way). For a more recent touchstone, I'm reminded of nothing so much as Dark Souls, where the game's constant auto-saving makes it impossible to undo mistakes. As a result, each action in Dark Souls feels immensely more vital than in, say, Skyrim.
When I play Skyrim, I'll often quicksave before doing business in town or attempting to craft items — if I make a bad impulse decision or fail a dice-roll, I can always reload and try again. But at its core, this sort of save-game manipulation is a perversion of the game, isn't it? It's treated as common practice — I'd venture a guess that everyone who has played an RPG has at some point reloaded a saved game to undo mistakes (heck, we even advise on how to do it in our How to Play Video Games guide).
When a game takes away our ability to meta-manipulate, it feels alive in a way that most games do not. The compromise for all this vitality, however, is that we have to be willing to give up control over a game's world. (Note: Not the same as requiring us to connect to Blizzard's servers.) If we control the world, if it lives entirely by our rules on our hard drives. If that's the case, it seems we wind up unable to keep ourselves from abusing that power. It's a matter of preference — sometimes, I want to mod and tweak, to exert control over the world on my computer from outside the traditional bounds of the game-world. But other times, I'm finding that I like to give up control and try to succeed on someone else's terms.
"But!" you may be saying, frantically gesticulating in the air, "This doesn't excuse Blizzard from forcing us to play Diablo III online! You don't have to play Dark Souls online, after all!" And that's absolutely true — Diablo III could do all of this stuff, the constant auto-saving and the persistent world, in offline mode.
"And!" you continue, struggling to find the words to express your outrage, "You just said last week that the always-online thing is a big problem!" Yeah, I did, and I still think that. The internet requirement seems like unnecessary overkill, and I believe Blizzard should add a walled-off offline mode to the game for those who want it.
Then again, if Blizzard did add an offline mode, I'm not sure I would use it, even as I would welcome its presence. Something about the fact that I don't have control over the world, and never will, makes it feel less "of my computer" and closer to "real." There's something uniquely exciting that happens when you play a game on someone else's servers.
I'm sure this is old hat to MMO players, but as a mostly single-player guy, it feels fresh to me. I get the sense that Diablo III will push single-players like me to really experience server-based gaming for the first time, and that a lot of us may find that we have a taste for it.
It's Blizzard's world; we just live in it. But visiting another world can be pretty exciting.