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

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 single-player 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 ten 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."

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

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.