Diablo III Fallout Should Put A Nail In The Coffin Of Always-On DRM

It promised to be one of the biggest videogame launches of all-time. 12 years in waiting, Blizzard’s Diablo III was already the biggest pre-seller ever and as highly anticipated as any game has been in recent gaming history. But it's launch will be one the team behind will not forget in a hurry - it was one instead deeply, drastically marred from the very second Blizzard turned the switch on its quite hellish creation. The perils of always-on DRM security and our route to a digital-only future are only now beginning to reveal their ugly faces.

Tuesday 15th May 2012. D-Day. Blizzard has opened the Diablo III gates to the public and released what has been slowly stewing in Blizzard towers for a little over a decade. The reports of server outages and unfavourable error messages from its player-base begin to seep through the surface a short while after the launch. The dreaded Error 37 – the sign that the game’s servers are full – soon takes its place in gaming history and the internet is taken abuzz by rib-tickling memes swiftly created to make a joke of the whole thing. The beginning of the backlash has begun.

The quite disastrous launch represents one of the most uncharacteristic of oversights from a company that, lest we forget, is an MMO stalwart. “We want to sincerely apologise for the difficulties many of you encountered on day one,” said Blizzard in a statement on its forums, adding that “preparations for the launch of the game did not go far enough.” While many fans of the series will lap up the apology, the excuse overlooks some crucial points. How can a company whose bread and butter has been for quite some time massively-mulitplayer online games not have an iota of understanding that Diablo III would stretch the capacity of its servers to breaking point? For a company behind the likes of WOW and Starcraft II, it beggars belief.

But what I don’t want to do is bash on the door of Blizzard for the entirety of this piece. Blizzard has made the most unfortunate of mistakes with one of its most high-profile and highly anticipate of games, and that’s that. It’s sad for the many gamers it meant were locked out of their own purchase, but a mistake. Rather, it demonstrates aptly the problems with such stringent security as always-on DRM and, moreover, reflects badly on where we might be heading in the coming years.

Type in ‘always-on DRM’ into Google and you’re likely to see a torrent of criticism aimed at the publishers who employ it. While it is the draconian likes of EA and Ubisoft that have committed to implementing strict always-on DRM security in a good many of their respective titles – both have received negativity for doing so – it is the Diablo III fiasco that exemplifies the problems with the system only all too well.

Upon arriving at the wee hours of the morning on the 15th May, gamers from across the length and breadth of the Diablo III player-base were reporting server errors, kicking them out of any attempt to gain access to the game. If it was an online multiplayer title only, the authentication measures we could live with. But for Diablo III, the error meant that thousands of players had no chance whatsoever to play the game, even in the typically-offline single player story mode. Unlike most launches, for the many who had pre-loaded the game or taken a trip to the local game store under the veil of moonlight for the midnight launch, it didn’t matter – Diablo III was inaccessible. So much for the global launch 'event' that Blizzard had been hyping for months, nay years.

To me, it's inexcusable that players can so abruptly no longer be able to access the single player portion of a game. Why shouldn't players be allowed to experience a game if they don't have an internet connection to speak of; whether at home, or on public transport, in the park, whatever? A 3G data plan could be purchased for such instances, but why should we have to live with added costs on top of the licence of using the game? Single player is by its nature a solo activity in which interference from the outside world is not at all needed, so to have such ridiculous policies in force is, well, ridiculous. Anti-EA became a victim of piracy with Crysis 2. Crytek's game was up for download weeks before its street date.piracy measures might well be needed, but whatever happened to the relatively simple CD key input or a one-time authentication process online when the game is installed?

I wholly respect the need for piracy measures, I do. The piracy scene is more prevalent now than it has ever been, with new releases often being leaked days if not weeks before going to market in the form of 'cracks' on torrent sites and other file-sharing software – Crysis 2, as an example, was up for download a whole month before the anticipated street date. But the whole 'Error 37' debacle has done nothing but convince me the need for more transparent DRM that doesn't punish the legitimate owner of the game for buying it legally.

We've seen time and time again examples of DRM working against its publisher. In 2008, excessive DRM in EA's Spore saw crowds of gamers revolt against its makers, leaving negative press for the title wherever they went – sites like Metacritic took the brunt of the backlash; Spore still holds a score of just 4.7/10 within the 'User' section compared to the 84/100 backed by critics. Though it's difficult to pin-point, the negativity that surrounded the launch of the game is widely believe to have been a significant factor in the title becoming the most pirated game of that same year. Gamers had a point, though. With the legitimate copy of the game restricting buyers to just three activations, the DRM-free pirate copies in stark contrast had no restrictions to impose on its users.

CD Projekt's CEO Marcin Iwinski has a more level-headed approach on the impact of DRM. Last year, CDCD Projekt's The Witcher 2 notably shipped DRM-free Projekt released The Witcher 2 DRM-free, no security measures to speak of. His insight into the matter is alarming. “The truth is [DRM] does not work. It's as simple as that,” Iwinski says resolutely in an interview with Forbes. “The technology which is supposed to protect games against illegal copying is cracked within hours of the release of every single game. So, that’s wasted money and development just to implement it...” he continues. “Quite often the DRM slows the game down, as the wrapper around the executable file is constantly checking if the game is being legally used or not... Illegal users who downloaded the pirated version have a clean–and way more functional!–game. It seems crazy, but that’s how it really works. I do not see any future for DRM at all.”

But while developers like CD Projekt pray for a DRM-free future, persistent rumours abound alluding to the implementation of such security within the next generation of consoles. Rumours are that the next Xbox will use always-on DRM as standard, though what that would mean for Xbox owners without an internet connection, it'd be a big move for Microsoft were it to happen. The future of DRM is thus difficult to forecast but with what we've witnessed this past week from Blizzard and the launch catastrophe of Diablo III, I'm fearful of the direction the gaming industry is heading.

Richard Birkett