Last Night's Diablo III Debacle Demonstrates The Problem With 'Always-Online' Games

We were all excited last night. After a 12-year wait, Diablo III, Blizzard's much-anticipated action-fantasy loot-fest, had finally arrived. It was sitting there installed on our hard drives, waiting for midnight to come, for Blizzard to unlock the game so we could play it.

The midnight hour arrived, and Blizzard's servers were overwhelmed. Too many people were trying to play at once, and most of us wound up locked out.

Diablo III requires a constant internet connection to play. Not just to start a game or activate a new copy, but to play. Always. An hour and a half after I had started trying to log in from the title screen, I gave up. I couldn't play Diablo III, even the singleplayer portions of the game, because Blizzard's servers weren't working.

This is a problem.

It wasn't the end of the world. Not even close. I'm not going to climb up here and holler about what a travesty this is, or how angry I am, or anything like that. It's not, and I'm not. The servers are mostly stable as of this morning. When I woke up, I made a groovy monk character and had a lot of fun blasting a ton of shambling corpses into bloody bits. All the same, last night's logjam neatly demonstrates the single greatest problem with any single-player game that requires an internet connection to play.

There will likely always be server problems with the launch of any popular, ambitious online game. Something like this happened recently with Star Wars: The Old Republic, for example -- players had to wait a good chunk of time to get onto the server of their choice and start playing.

The thing is, The Old Republic is expressly intended as a massively multiplayer online game. That's the point -- the game exists only as a multiplayer experience. But I don't really play Diablo games with other people. I like to click and plunder, to level up my guy and get lots of great loot. I can tell I'm going to have a complicated critical relationship with Diablo III, but I value the refreshing simplicity of its feedback loop.

I don't really play Diablo games with other people.

But the game I play doesn't need to be online. With Diablo III, Blizzard has melded the classic Diablo formula into something of an MMO/Single-player hybrid. That's an experiment that I'm very interested to watch unfold, even while I'm not sure that I personally want to be a participant.

I remember last year when another hotly anticipated PC game came out, Valve's Portal 2. The build-up felt very similar to last night -- we'd all pre-loaded the game on Valve's distribution client Steam, and anxiously awaited the midnight unlock. And when midnight came, there were some issues -- the game took a while to decrypt, and twitter-grumpiness ensued.

Twitter-complaining about Portal 2 was met with plenty of sarcasm and good-natured derision. "Oh, you have to wait an extra 10 minutes to play your video game? Poor you! Let's keep things in perspective! These things happen."

Those chiders had a point. In under 30 minutes, we who had been complaining were all happily messing around in Portal 2.

I saw some of those same chiders online last night, but their tut-tutting felt more misguided. This was a different scenario, and so people were reacting differently. Portal 2 simply required an internet connection to unlock the pre-loaded game, but due to Blizzard's always-on internet requirement, there was (and will forever be) no way for us to play Diablo III without their servers up and functional.

Right then, during the launch hour, Blizzard's servers couldn't handle the truth. I tried for an hour and a half to get in and play the game to no avail. "Error 37" after "Error 37" after "The operation has timed out" after "Error 37."

If it had been a simple matter of activating my game, I would have been fine -- time and again I logged in for long enough to shake hands with the server before getting kicked because, presumably, the server couldn't handle the increased load that came from letting me actually play the game.

I'm sure there are lots of reasons that Blizzard has decided to require a constant internet connection, and fighting piracy is only one of them. Certainly the in-game trading economy, which will be hugely engaging for a subset of players and hugely profitable for Blizzard and their parent company Activision, also factors. Doubtless there's also a desire to cajole single-player guys like me to dip into multiplayer, a game-mode that will engage and retain players for much longer than single-player.

But I don't want to get sidetracked making guesses about the ins and outs of Blizzard's online strategy. The important thing to note is that last night, a game was rendered unplayable for a large amount of time entirely because of server failure on Blizzard's part. Maybe it'll never happen again. But maybe it will.

We always knew that by demanding a constant internet connection, Blizzard was taking away a portion of the consumer's ownership of their game. Last night, as the starting gun fired, we got a reminder of what that really means. It means that we play at their pleasure, and that we no longer have the power to decide when our game starts and when it doesn't.


    I hope they learn their lesson and deliver some sort of patch to let you play the single player portions offline. (Or maybe the pirates will!)

      So long as they are arguing that to do so would make it much easier to hack items into the MP. It won't be happening.

      Still wish that they were able to deliver offline only characters. Create a completely different system for loot(Since currently the master servers decide what you get) that has no correlation to the one being used for online. One would think that by doing so you would prevent the so called hacking as they wouldn't have any similarities in order to spoof the stuff. And if they did they would only be able to spoof offline only items. Which if they pop up online should just result in an insta-ban by whoever rocked up with them.

      Though the pirates probably won't be delivering it any time soon unless they are able to completely replicated the server side of things. So that the player can spoof a server on their own computer. (In which case hacking the online segment will probably be doable too)

      The pirates definitely will if they haven't already.
      What I'll probably end up doing is buying a copy and then 'pirating' one so that I can play it offline and don't get constantly kicked because of my shithouse internet connection

    Tried to log in at 5 but had no luck tried again at 7 and i was able to play until the early hours of the morning without a hassle...what a game!

      same. by the time i got home from work around 7 everything was working fine

    Just had a lot of fun killing some stuff. Then got booted after 10 minutes. Still LAME.

    Took me an hour. Got on at 6, was reallyr eally really really really really awesome.
    Hate life today until I see my monka gain

    Great way to generate hatred for your product on the launch date.
    It took me 2 hours to get in last night.

    They should probably have staggered the release.

      No, they should have removed the DRM when everyone told them it was a bad idea.

        I prefer the DRM, because i KNOW that there would be day one hacks otherwise

        I prefer the DRM, because i KNOW that there would be day one hacks otherwise

        They won't remove the DRM because its obviously more profitable to have it, but from a company with a solid set of Wow servers, and a huge amount of financial resources, how could they not have adequately accounted for the amount of load especially after running a public beta.

    I REALLY want a lot of people to DDoS the servers in hopes that it'd get the message across that always online DRM isn't acceptable.
    Heh.. Remember when the original shitstorm came about when it was revealed? They said everyone was over reacting and always on DRM won't ever affect anyone realistically. Great job.

      For 99% of the time, the DRM won't effect people. Blizzard would have been fully expecting their servers to be overloaded on launch day. They'd design their infrastructure to handle the average usage, then build in some overhead. It makes no sense to build a system that can handle every single user simultaneously, since the ONLY time that'll happen is once, on launch day.
      And personally, I'm all for the DRM in a game that involves real-world money. Probably won't ever use it myself, but the alternative is the auction house dissolving into a cesspit of duped items and in turn, hacked OP characters. Because people suck.

        It makes sense to build a system that can scale to demand. This has been done with other large scale applications ver y successully in the past.

        Oh, we need more CPU/RAM/Bandwidth/IO- we'll throw some money at our datacentre (or a datacentre hosted by a partner company who can help for the duration) and they'll allocate it to us for the next few weeks.

        But instead of spending a bit more money and doing it properly, this is what happens. I didn't buy the game, and I don't really care about anyone having login issues in D3. But this is the kind of problem that can be anticipated, and avoided if their infrastructure and software is designed properly from the start.

    yeah. I actually dont mind the always on-line part since well... im always online when playing games lol and because i have a group of friends im playing D3 with but its incredibly stupid to make you always be online.

    Im sure there are many ( a very large portion at least) that have no interest of being online and just want to solo it. Why cant they just active the game and play it offline?? If they are worried about hacks/cheats whatever, why dont they just make it so any characters that are created offline, can only ever be played offline?

    Bad PR move on blizzards part

    Can we all just admit now that "online only" just encourages people to pirate games rather than buy them?

      No because you can't pirate the game. All the mob data is stored server side so even if you wanted to you can't play the game. So the DRM is doing what it was put in place to do stop the piracy of the game.

        You keep telling yourself that.

          Telling himself what? The stuff Blizzard has said themselves, that the mobs and other important aspects of the game are generated at a server level and that, if there was no server, there would be no game?

          Unless someone manages to leak or reverse engineer the source code for the servers, there's not going to be a pirated version of this in the foreseeable future.

          While annoying and completely inappropriate for a single player game, this version of DRM is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing - eliminating piracy.

            It already has cracked servers have been up for 2 weeks already.

        You probably also believe that World of Warcraft can't be played offline.

    I could see issues like this coming, its even more stinging because for a single player campaign it really shouldn't be this way. Blizzard were responsible for launching WoW with too few servers, and they did not learn that lesson with StarCraft II, and they have not learned that Lesson with Diablo III. I've once heard it said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same experiment and expecting a different outcome. The real question is whose expectations are we talking about.

    In my opinion, problem with these games having to always connect to servers even to play single player is, what if, at some stage the company, Blizzard in this case, goes out of business.

    No more servers, no more game.

      Prize for the stupidest hypothetical in this comment string.

      Blizzard-Activision control two of the most popular game genres and the profits therein, FPS and MMO. Unless the game industry itself crashes and burns, I wouldn't expect them to go out of business.

    I think the reason for online all the time is to stop the character and item hacks (as well as piracy). When you hace groups and eventually they will be adding PvP so everyone's characters have to be legit.

    I also think eventually the game will evolve into more of an MMO, zones of non grouped people, etc

    While i originally felt that the always online was a big negative for me, I managed to get online at 7, which was fine since I had other things I had to clear up before then anyway. Once online, it was smooth sailing. And I managed to connect with one of my mates and have a co op game really seamlessly. All on launch day.

    So from my experience, it was actually quite smooth.

    Psh. Always on DRM is just, Psh

    After 5 hours of stuffing around i couldnt even get the game to install. First and last time Im buying a digital copy of a game. FU Blizzard.

      my flatmate had a similar issue. solution was to re-download the installer to the same folder is already in. it will search for any missing / broken files it needs & will only download the ones that need fixing.

        Will try that when I get home, fingers crossed it works haha cheers mate

        Yup, +1 to this. Had the same issue myself. Backed up my download folder just in case, and it worked a treat :)

        Downloaded my original a couple of weeks ago. Turns out it was slightly broken and "completed" the download 50MB short.

    Personally I think the pros outway the cons here:

    Chatting in game, joining friends games easily, auction house, saved games and characters in the cloud. A bumpy release day is not the end of the world here, and blizzard have a good track record of looking after legacy games.

      Well, All of those functions can be made available to your game client if and when it connects, without a requirement for you to be on-line during single player activities. There are no Pro's to requiring permanent online internet connections for the single player campaign that could not be delivered by detecting the presence of a connection then offering them. Your point really is moot.

      Now one day you're going to travel and you may want to play while you are travelling, perhaps you go somewhere where you can not get ADSL (perhaps the exchange is over subscribed) maybe your 3G service just doesn't cut it at 17:30 when everyone is back from work.. The inconvenience of this artificial requirement will get you in the end.

    The requirement for always online is much more insidious than just DRM. D3's real revenue is going to be riding on the RMAH. That's not going to work if people are offline. They WANT people to be online so that the temptation is always there to splash some cash on items.

    That's why Blizzard will ride out the shitstorm.

      You nail it. The RMAH is set to become a giant gambling machine, and as pokie machines operator know, you've got to expose your gamblers to the temptation full time and they'll give in. Sigh, I hate when games are turned into gambling...

      The other side to that is that because it is dealing with real money, they have to ensure that no item-duping or hacking of save files can happen. If they didn't have the RMAH requirement, they wouldn't have needed the always-online req.

    It never even occurred to me that you would play Diablo single player... I think I played Diablo 2 single player the first run through. Maybe if you were focussed on the story, or levelling up to play with your friends.

    The best parts of the game are when you are playing with friends and you find an awesome item that they really need. You trade it and you share that experience. Or you manage to just barely get out of a sticky situation.

    Lets face it, Diablo doesn't have the best story and doesn't have a rich world. What it does have is great mechanics and a good reason to be social. I am a board game player as well as video games, and to me Diablo feels much more like a board game than a video game. It's a reason to get together with your friends and do something.

    One of the best parts of playing the beta was when my friend just joined my "single player" game (I didn't have any friends online at the time). I was excited that he had dropped in and the real fun could begin. That experience wouldn't have been possible with an offline single player mode.

    I didn't have ANY problems connecting last night, and played for 4 hours with my friends. Kotaku is just trying to stir shit and get views (as usual).

      "Lets face it, Diablo doesn’t have the best story and doesn’t have a rich world"

      Are you high? Or just lethargic from playing Diablo 3 all night?

        Well, in comparison to other fiction, Diablo's isn't 'great'. It's good, don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan. But a lot of people don't actually care about the story, and for them it's mostly 'meh.'

        Think about this, how many memorable characters are there in the Diablo canon? And I mean actuall fully realised characters, with motivations, needs, relationships? Just about the only one is Deckard.

    Don't excuse this as a non-issue. Think back before DRM and all that rubbish when you would go home with your new SNES game and actually WORKED. No issues, no activation, you got to play it as long as you want (or until your mum told you off and wanted the TV back)!

    A counter argument of "but the tech is so much more advanced these days, you can't compare them!" doesn't even come close to being valid. either. The tech was new back in the SNES days, yet they managed. The key here is Blizzard (and others like Ubisoft) are pushing flawed systems out there without even testing them thoroughly. They don't give a stuff about the players of their games, so long as they get their money.

      Name one SNES game that allows you to trade items for real money via online transaction in game.

        Booka, your comment only reinforces Tits McGee's statement in fact. He's talking about experiences focused on fun, you're talking about an experience centred on real money...

      Yeah but back in the SNES days you were also only dealing with a market of a few thousand users, release dates in this country were hardly widely publicised or timely we often got games for the SNES and other consoles months to years after they were released elsewhere, games were often of dubious "quality" and you often had no way of knowing beforehand etc

      Its a little silly to compare those times you can now look back on with rose tinted glasses and think everything was wonderful but it was far from it. Today millions want to access the exact same content at the same time it's a wonder it only took a few hours for them to fix the problems and as far as I've seen everything has ran fairly smoothly since. It's also quite typical whining and moaning about minor inconveniences from the same generation of spoiled retards who expect everything having contributed nothing.

    Blizzard will issue a half-arsed "yeah sorry about that lol" and the fanbase will quickly forget that they spend a couple of hours yelling profanity at the screen. Companies don't bother gearing up for this sort of thing because they KNOW that we, the gamers, will never say "enough is enough", we are happy to grovel at their feet and eat whatever scraps they give us (hi Nintendo fans!). Never forget that the game companies don't care unless we make them care.

      I wonder why that is? Because at the end of the day once all the server flooding problems are resolved what are we left with? An enjoyable and well crafted game, one that Blizzard will support and patch for the next decade (if not longer), not release Diablo 3: Modern Warfare 2 sometime next year.

      Yeah their fans grovel and Nintendos feet do they? Thats why Nintendo was in steady decline since N64 and only survived by taking a gamble and appealing to the casual crowd with the Wii. that both microsoft and sony are currently trying to pander to with their own version of motion control. What a joke. Not to say that NIntendo (or its fans) are not guilty of this because they are, but to single it out is stupid (all platforms have this problem). Im and Nintendo fan and i enjoy the games Nintendo have been making for years. I respect them for sticking to their gaming principles of family gaming and not trying to change their style of gaming whilst at the same time trying to do something different and innovative with their games through the systems they release. However i dont buy everything with a Nintendo sticker on it (Yup no DS or 3DS). To say Nintendo gamers are not discerning gamers is insulting (Well to be honest im more of a PC gamer but still like playing Nintendo games).

      I would have agreed with your statement if it werent for the cheap anti Nintendo comment. Why did you have to turn an article which has nothing to do with Consoles about consoles?

    This kind of DRM actually encourages me to pirate games. Because i dont want to support this cluster fuck crap.

    If you wanted to get on enough, you would have done what we did - copy and paste your password into the field and spam the hell out of it.

    Kirk's nailed it. Diablo 3 is an experiment into a style of MMO gameplay that more accurately reflects what actually happens in WoW. Everybody levels up their characters on their own, then farms loot until they get the best in the game.

      "Everybody levels up their characters on their own, then farms loot until they get the best in the game."... So what was the goal of Diablo 2 then?

    A stable connection to the net is now just a part of minimum requirements.

    Do I agree? Hell no, I've just moved house and I'm waiting for my ISP to service my line, which won't happen till Friday. I'm sitting on my hands waiting around while everyone else is having a blast.

    Look beyond the obvious reasons for an "always-on" connection, that is in this case, DRM and RMAH security. With that expectation of an "always-on" connection, it allows developers to be more expansive in their design of games, without being restricted to what is established as the user's minimum hardware requirements.

    It allows them to take on the load of a host of gameplay functions, toning down requirements at the end point, and hopefully generating a smoother experience. Someone with more technical experience in game development could probably articulate this better, but slowly we are getting to the point where "dummy" client for gaming are a very real possiblity in the near future.

    That means, decreased development costs, cheaper hardware (for us) and less focus on getting a game to run on as many machines as possible, and more on actually creating games that the developers want to create without tardy restrictions.

    I quite like always online if it adds extra features. I think how it is executed in Anno 2070 is really good, I like the pick up & play multiplayer and the senate and world council elections is quite cool.

    Of course its a pain in the ass when the servers are down.

    I didn't get to play D3 last night, but I only tried once, gave up and played Company of Heroes

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