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The Slippery Slope of Diablo’s DRM

Diablo 3's DRM model means it belongs more to Blizzard or your ISP than you - are you happy with this model for all digital media

There’s been no shortage of pixels expended on Diablo III over the past couple of weeks. Reviews have mostly been very positive, some critics have talked about its worryingly addictive qualities in the face of what ought to seem like relatively weak play and a lot of gamers got very angry over their inability to play right after launch due to server overload. Some people have made light of this and, in fairness, entitlement-rage in gamers is never a pretty sight. But to me, this is indeed an occasion for rage. Serious rage. Just not over entitlement.

The fury unleashed by the initial unavailability of the game was a consequence of its DRM model, which requires players to be online all the time even when playing solo. However, that DRM has other consequences that don’t seem to have been widely considered. It means that if your broadband provider has a blip, as is not uncommon, the game boots you out and you may loose progress. If there’s a broadband outage, you can’t play. If, like me, you’re fond of taking a laptop on road trips or flights to help keep yourself entertained, then Diablo 3 as the source of that entertainment is not an option. The product which you’ve paid good money for is not really yours at all – your access to it hangs on the whim of a number of outside agencies who at any time may fail to live up to the service you expect, or pull the plug entirely. There are advantages too, of course, such as the ease with which you can join multi-player games and cloud storage for your characters, but Blizzard could easily have given you these benefits of always-online as an option, providing a get-out clause for people who want to play on the move. They didn’t.

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This is a new and extremely dangerous precedent. Think about it for a moment: by accepting that this is a valid model for the publisher of a video game to thwart pirates, you are effectively condoning similar action by the purveyor of any digital content. You’re telling the people making the next generation of games consoles that you don’t mind if you can only play a game on it – any game at all – when it’s online. How about if you couldn’t watch the DVDs you own without an internet connection? How about if you couldn’t play the MP3s you own, or read the e-books you’ve bought, without an internet connection? Does that suddenly seem so fair and reasonable as it does with a video game?

If you think I’m overstating the issues, then perhaps you should know that copyright people are very happy to leverage child pornography in order to get governments and legislators to do what they want. That’s the kind of people you’re dealing with here, and to think they aren’t looking at the widespread acceptable of the Diablo III DRM model and not twitching with delight, or that that it’s not being stored as ammunition for use in the debate over denying access to used games, is naive. If you’re a Diablo III owner, I suggest you at least stop and think about the wider ramifications of what you’re signing up to before you next play the game, otherwise the unfortunate consequences could be with you sooner than you think.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded and writes there and at

34 thoughts to “The Slippery Slope of Diablo’s DRM”

  1. The bottom line here, sadly, is that over six million people (and counting) have bought the game, demonstrating that this kind of DRM is implicitly acceptable to the consumer regardless of forums bitching and it does not affect the profitability of a title..

    Expect more of it. Thanks Diablo fans, for grinning and bearing it.

    1. And this is exactly why I hate Diablo 3. I didn’t care about it until now. I had no interest in playing it, and that’s fine. If six million other people want to waste their time clicking repeatedly, who am I to tell them not to? But now this game will affect the future of other games I do care about, because it’s a giant buttfuck to consumers and six million people lined up to willingly take it up the ass. Thanks a lot for pushing the future of gaming further down the drain Diablo fans.

    2. I think that the sales numbers say far more about the popularity of Diablo as a franchise than they do about the DRM. The D2 battle chest was a top 20 selling PC game in 2008, seven years after that content had been released. Very few other games have this type of following, so I’m not sure that projecting this success forward as evidence that people don’t care about this DRM for video games (or even applying it to other media)is entirely reasonable.
      Then again, this industry is not known for a sober assessment of its own franchises (example: Amalur).

    3. It is indeed acceptable to me… for Diablo 3, that is. If the servers go away? I won’t really miss Diablo 3 all that much. It isn’t the kind of game that I look forward to play again years from now, and it’s not the kind of game I’d play in single player or offline at all (it it was, I wouldn’t have bought it). I see it as a sort of MMO, a “Guild Wars Lite” if you will, and that’s fine for me.

      But I didn’t buy Silent Hunter 5. I didn’t buy the latest Settlers game. I didn’t buy Starcraft 2. All of them for the very same reason – the always online requirement. It felt out of place on all of those for me, and thus I didn’t buy them. Simple.

      Now back to the argument that the success of Diablo 3 will mean other publishers/developers will try to do the same thing. Newsflash: they have been doing so for quite a while, well before Diablo 3’s release. Ubisoft did that a lot of times, and keeps on doing it. A few MMOs would fit that description (Guild Wars being the most notable). Most recent games have received a “tacked-on” multiplayer component to do the exact same thing. How many recent games *require* logging on to something (an uPlay account, EA/Origin account, GFWL, or even Steam) to work correctly? A lot of them. Do I have to mention new attempts on those “networks”, like the Rockstar Social Club or RADNET? Not really, do I?

      So, of course publishers/developers will try to do the same, because they’ve been doing so already. Some of them will succeed (Blizzard). Some will have limited success (Ubisoft). Some will fail altogether. And we’ll always have games that are ruined by that kind of requirement, and games that don’t have it, and games that find a middle ground. Diablo 3 isn’t the beginning of that trend – it’s merely the most visible product of it.

      Now, what everyone seems to be missing here is how the perception of the gamer/customer on DRM changes. Years ago, one-time online activation on install would “destroy the games industry, and prevent us from playing the games we bought”. Remember the whole Spore/Mass Effect rage on the release of those games? I do. But now? It’s considered “fairly mild DRM”. It’s in our nature as passionate gamers and domesticated human beings: we adapt. We conform. It has happened before, and it will happen again.

      If you want to blame the “always online” aspect on someone, specially when it comes to PC gaming, then you should probably look at Valve and Steam. The fact that most PC gamers nowadays won’t even consider buying a game if it’s not on Steam scares me a whole lot more than the whole Diablo 3 thing, because it affects the industry a whole lot more than Blizzard would ever dream about doing.

    4. I am getting pretty tired of the demonization of Diablo players happening around the internet. That we have bought the game ‘in spite of the DRM’ or that we ignore the ramifications like sheep to the slaughter. I bought a product with full understanding of what I was getting because that is a product which I want, including the online portion. I don’t give a damn about your ability to play Diablo 3 on the train or mod it into a brilliant zombie survival horror game. I want to play the sequel to Diablo 2 in an online environment which isn’t full of dupes and hacks and Blizzard is selling that.

      Furthermore, this is not the great moral quandary which posts like this make it out to be. The term ‘slippery slope’, of course, refers to a logical fallacy. If other developers produce games I am interested in with useful online features then I will gladly buy those as well. If the combination of game and online features is not interesting to me, then I won’t. Just because Blizzard can still make a profitable game with DRM (which provides some benefits to some customers) doesn’t mean any old developer can do it with any old game.

      Don’t let me get in the way of you Chicken Little’s patting each other on the back though.

      1. Granted, the slippery slope argument by itself is indeed a logical fallacy. However in this case I wanted to demonstrate that copyright people have track record when it comes to using and abusing … pretty much anything … when it comes to pushing their case.

        You may very well be right. It may very well be that as this becomes more and more common – and you can bet your bottom dollar it will – consumers will start to push back sufficiently hard to stop it happening. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no value in erecting the barricades as early as possible and saying “this stops here”.

  2. Just think of it as an MMO, subject to the same availability restrictions as WoW or Guild Wars. Which is how Blizzard has been marketing it all along.

    1. No, because an MMO has no single-player experience. That simple fact undermines this line completely and totally. All it would have taken was a simple in-or-out option on installation and everything would have been fine. But it’s not convenience, it’s not a “feature”, it’s by far the most intrusive, problematic DRM model yet devised and millions of people have thumbed it with their money and said it’s okay.

      1. Have you played Guild Wars? Alot of it is instanced single player games while connected to a central server to store character data. That is exactly what D3 is. If people want a single player game, that’s fine. But Blizzard never said it would be a single player game. I’m pretty sure people knew what they were getting and still bought the game anyway.

        1. Yes they did know, and they bought it anyway. That’s precisely my point: that action condones this as an acceptable DRM model which can now be applied to any content.

          I do not think it’s an acceptable model.

        2. I’m enjoying the game. The online only component doesn’t really bother me because I’ve played WoW for a number of years. The way that the online component is structured, it is an all or nothing proposition. If you want the chat and options to join a friend’s game you have to be online, as all of the loot is randomly generated server side. Would consumers be satisfied with another “offline” version that had none of the online features as well a reduced loot table? At the same price point? Too the point of setting a precedent, Blizzard has had 7 years to perfect it’s online infrastructure. Do other developers of single player games have the knowledge and funding to merge a similar online ecosystem in to their games? It not just DRM, black and white.

      2. There is however a plus that I have not observed in these arguments. Because dupes and hacks were common in Diablo II, the solo/Lan versions (offline) stayed offline and the online stayed online only. Now I can raise one character and use it to solo or play with friends/family. That’s actually a plus for those of us that enjoy both play styles and don’t wish to raise two separate characters to accommodate that.

    2. Jeff, why should you think of it as an MMO, if it’s not? I might think of driving as a collaborative multi-player experience. In some cases, like carpooling, that might actually be the case. But the idea that the multi-player game should somehow define the single-player game, when there is no logical connection between them, is infuriating.

      As Matt said, it’s also more than consumer-unfriendly, it’s consumer-hostile. It’s on par with asking car manufacturers to install cameras in every vehicle, just so that the police could check on whether your infant car seat is up to spec, and properly installed. But wait a minute, I don’t have a child…

      And no, I’m not some hypocrite carping about Diablo III while playing it. I didn’t buy it, and I have no desire to buy it, for these very reasons.

    3. I reject your relativistic fallacy. Just because it’s not in your eyes a single player game does not render the claim it is functionally capable of being a single player game invalid.

      Blizzards slippery slope in this case is not so much a fallacy as a business attempting to enforce a shift in consumer behaviour and rights as regards software entertainment products by forcefully redefining them as for hire service arrangements.

      This is something people should be getting angry about, rather than being herded like sheep.

  3. OK I’m off work today. Just tried to log in and the servers will be down for maintenance until 2 o’clock EST.

    I take it all back. Blizzard should burn in hell !!!!

    1. But wait! Almost every Tuesday is like this for WoW; why shouldn’t my offline single player game not be down as well? I’m willing to bet my first born that if Bioware was releasing BG3 they wouldn’t force online always bullshit.

  4. It’s weird I know what they are doing is wrong and I’m against it but I bought it anyway. Usually I stand firmer on my moral high ground. I blame the 20 people on my friends list who are playing it.

    Also being online doesn’t bug me. I have had a near constant internet connection for like 5 years. It’s the concept of property rights that are totally getting thrown to the wayside. I am essentially borrowing Diablo III for my 60 dollars.

    I’m not sure if it was here or Qt3 but another poster said something like “The pirates are playing right now while you wait for maintenance.” And that’s an interesting point, because they in fact stole the game and they have more ownership of their copy then I ever will.

  5. Ubi finally got a shred of common sense, and with Anno 2070 and Heroes VI offered both offline and always-on play, with the always-on option adding additional elements to the games.

    I don’t see why Blizzard can’t do the same thing.

  6. I had it on preorder.. I was looking forward to it for YEARS.
    Then the combined double-dragon-kick to the groin of always-on DRM and the Real Money Auction House ™, made me cancel my preorder completely.

    I’d actually LOVE to play the game, but I refuse to accept the rules set forth by Blizzard, and so, I do not.

    How come, we as gamers are proud as HELL when we kickstart a doublefine adventure with 3 million dollars, but we’re not totally and completely ashamed of ourselves when we accept being bent over and screwed royally, simply because the game is a certain IP which we can’t overlook?

    I’m going to go away now and find a different tag for myself besides “gamer”.. I don’t want it anymore

    1. This kind of attitude makes me laugh. Ashamed because I bought a game I wanted to play? Please. This is entertainment. We aren’t funding exploitation of child labor or supporting animal cruelty here. I’ll choose to stake out my moral high ground elsewhere thank you very much.

      1. How confident are you of that claim? Very? Shall I point out one of the reasons why the RMAH was made an integral feature was to essentially legitimise the black market in online / virtual items and make a transaction tax off of it, which given a not insignificant percentage will come from Chinese farming company type arrangements, your claim that this doesn’t fund child labour starts appearing to look VERY shaky from where I’m standing.

        1. “your claim that this doesn’t fund child labour starts appearing to look VERY shaky from where I’m standing.”

          What about animal cruelty? Any way we can tie the Diablo 3 always online requirements to killing lab bunnies?

  7. I didn’t buy Diablo 3 not because of the DRM but because I didn’t like Diablo 2 so I expect I wouldn’t like 3.

    From the peanut gallery I say that I have no problem with Diablo 3 implementation when compared to Ubisoft strategy. Yes on the surface they could be confused as the same but Diablo actually has online play and character persistence unlike Ubisoft PC games that is all about the DRM. Also think that the online features first motivation was not DRM but just part of the game.

    Now the question comes to your point if they should made an offline version along side with the online one? In that case, besides the obvious development costs, I think DRM plays a huge part in the decision although in the long run pirated version offlne will certainly appear but the task is harder and it always will be behind the official one. Also think that Blizzard wants players to be always online regardless of DRM because social interactions and persistent loot and constant updates could make players stick with the game for more time that they would otherwise. Of course the argument could be made that mods for an offline version could extend the game just as easily.

    All and all I think that a case for always on DRM could be made on a game to game basis, I think Diablo makes a acceptable case and Ubisoft does not. I don’t equate games to music and movies because of high dependency on the technology so I don’t apply the same DRM standards, less DRM is always better but good service and support can be more important.

  8. Full disclosure: I bought D3, and I’m also enjoying it. I am not fond of the game’s “always online” policy, but I’ve dealt with it. That out of the way, let me play devil’s advocate for a minute.

    This is a response to piracy, right? Game makers wanting more control over what they put out doesn’t necessarily seem like an evil intention, but depending on whose eyes your looking through, perhaps a necessary one? Clearly from an honest consumer’s standpoint, the policy can’t be favorable. That being said, the gaming public have shown that we’re willing to put up with it. As Mr. Thrower has already stated, we are complacent. If we as an entity truly wanted this to change, then voting with our wallets is truly the only pushback we can give.

    From a manufacturer’s viewpoint, what’s the best solution? Trust people to do the right thing? I think we’ve seen what happens when you leave large segments of the population to do that, and it’s probably a less profitable one. Expecting a company to look at the large number of downloads from, for example, piratebay, and thinking they’re just going to ignore that is foolish. Always requiring your account to be online at least soothes some of that anxiety from their angle. From a maker’s standpoint, I would imagine gamer angst is almost something akin to getting mad at the police when the criminals are running rampant.

    I don’t like DRM, I don’t like having to always be online, but I’m not sure I can really blame Blizzard for taking this route. Maybe that’s a bit of Stockholm Syndrome on my part, but if you were Blizzard, how would you handle this?

    1. What would I do? Nothing.

      This is pure speculation, but i suspect that games industry suffers far less damage from pirates than any other commonly pirated product. You need a modicum of technical knowledge to even find a cracked version. The file sizes, compared to music and film, are enormous. It’s executable software so any pirated version carries a significant risk of malware with it. Compared with professional software it’s relatively cheap. I don’t think people are rushing in droves to rip this stuff off.

      (don’t quote industry figures to refute this. They’re a nonsense based on the fallacy of every download is a lost sale. No-one really knows the answer)

      But Blizzard won’t care about that. Their calculation is simply that they’ll loose less money from people not buying because of the DRM than they will through piracy, which, given this is an addictive game in an iconic franchise, is certainly correct.

  9. I think the worse offence for D3 is the fact that drops are fixed so the house always wins because the’re afraid of dirty dups or hacked characters. Even though they really just want to make money off their auction house in a TF2 fashion with hats, only hats being item drops.

    1. “I think the worse offence for D3 is the fact that drops are fixed so the house always wins because the’re afraid of dirty dups or hacked characters. Even though they really just want to make money off their auction house in a TF2 fashion with hats, only hats being item drops.”

      The previous statement makes me want to fire up my copy of Icewind Dale 2, not because I’m an antediluvian gamer, but because I enjoy just playing a frigging dungeon crawl.

  10. The only reason I own D3 is I got with my Annual Pass deal on WoW. So, I essentially got the game for free by committing to subscribe to another game I already play. Would I buy it? No. Even having sunk something like 50 hours into it, I still wouldn’t buy it, because the DRM is a pita. I shouldn’t have to deal with not being able to play MY game for over a day because they’re tweaking the servers.

    So yeah. I have the game. I’m playing the hell out of it, when the servers allow me to. And unlike the previous two incarnations, I’m actually enjoying the multiplayer. Not having to deal with hacks has made it fun for me, which is essentially what the DRM is about.

    Am I buying a second copy for my son, or my brother, or any other person I want to play with me? Oh hell no. I will not support DRM of this type, even if it does work for this style of game.

  11. Seems like many of you are missing the point. Other than not being called Diablo Online, what makes this game feel like anything other than an online multiplayer game with single player options? This game is different on a basic level from Diablo 2, and it’s folly to not see that. You might be able to click aimlessly through normal mode and survive nightmare mode, but above that the game is designed for multiplayer.

    Just like Starcraft and WoW. The majority of the game is intended to be multiplayer. I don’t want a hacked multiplayer experience in any of these games.

    Real money auction house is dubious, but with that feature, there’s no way this game works fairly without DRM. That’s a design choice I don’t agree with, but Blizzard wants that auction house so those are the consequences.

    Plus, Blizzard wants to encourage community across games with It has been their strategy for the past half decade to bring this all together like a steam community.

    Although their enforceability is dubious, you don’t actually own any piece of software you buy. When you sign that EULA, you play by the industry’s terms and you are typically granted a license to use the software. You don’t own the game, whether it is call of duty or diablo. You haven’t owned a game for a long time. Deal with the reality.

    Bottom line: yes it is DRM, but in this case it comes with so many good reasons. If there were no good reason other than anti piracy then I would agree, but this is the wrong time to go chicken little. And copyright lobby will always play dirty. We can’t stop that. We just must protest when the time is appropriate like during SOPA PIPA.

    1. EULA’s can go hang. They really are legally unenforceable due to the fact it creates an unfair bargaining position. We (the consumer) have no access to the EULA before purchasing, and cannot alter them after purchasing. Because of the non-refundable nature of many PC games we have little choice but to mindlessly click through them. Were they to be challenged in court precedent would almost surely yield them void.

      RMAH is annoying.

      Forced connection is a deal breaker. For multiplayer then yes by all means handle those characters server side. Having fair multiplayer (especially if they add PVP) makes sense, and so preventing dupes, or cheats is a good thing. For single player why can’t I cheat to my hearts content. What if I just wanted to give myself the sword of demon explosion? What if I wanted to make the game harder by dropping some elite mob? Why shouldn’t I be able to do those things in a single player game? If I think that it is more fun that way I should be able to do it. As long as I cannot affect other peoples games with that kind of thing then it shouldn’t be an issue.

      Nope D3 went beyond the pale for me. I have not, nor will I ever, buy it.

  12. And this is no joke why I (sometimes) download cracked games now. Like my current instance, I am on my way to a big dustbowl where people like to shoot at me and I will not have Internet. I guess I am expected to not be able to play the large library of games I have legitimately purchased. So Blizzard would have not received my dollars for Diablo had I not been given it for that “other” game. The issue is there is no way for these companies to determine who didn’t purchase their games and they certainly will not invest in a system to find out.

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