Does Diablo III's big online-only bet pay off?

We've been playing the biggest PC game of the year to see if it can overcome a problem-plagued launch and onerous DRM.

Blizzard Entertainment

One week after its release, Diablo III remains the only PC game anyone is talking about . Some of that talk is about how the game, a decade in the making, is a huge hit, with millions of copies presold before the May 15 launch. But much of the talk is also about the big bet developer and publisher Blizzard is making by forcing even solitary players to log in online to play.

Dan:
I've spent years attempting to divine the line between mainstream and enthusiast gaming, trying to figure out which games could cross over into popular culture, and which ones were going to stay locked into a small, but dedicated, core audience.

After following Diablo III's development, and playing the beta version earlier this year, I was initially more inclined to put it in the latter category. The gameplay style was old-school, cosmetically different from its 1996 and 2000 predecessors, but with the same nerdy (in a good way) vibe as a tabletop role-playing game mixed with hack-and-slash retro arcade games such as Gauntlet.

But, a couple of weeks before the official release date, I started hearing from friends and acquaintances who were not serious PC gamers, but were eagerly awaiting Diablo III. Some of these were casual, mainstream gamers who got caught up in the hype, others were former PC gamers with fond memories of the earlier games, but who hadn't played a PC RPG since Baldur's Gate.

The cross-pollination of these different types of players, along with the hard-core PC gamers who had been counting the hours down until May 15 (and in some cases, still counting many hours after that ), creates a strong, vibrant online community, with friends of different experience and skill levels playing together. Taken like that, Diablo III is a huge success in promoting multiplayer PC gaming. It's literally a party game, and I'm constantly checking my online friends list to see who I can jump in with.

As great as the multiplayer game is, the single-player experience can be underwhelming, even though it's essentially the same game content. The first problem is the requirement of an always-on Internet connection for both DRM and game-save reasons. When many purchasers couldn't even play the game for the first 24 hours, it exposed the flaws in using always-on online DRM, and left people who bought the retail version temporarily stuck holding a brick. Online buyers were stuck with an equally frustrating virtual brick.

For those who counsel disappointed players to "Get over it," imagine if you picked up a new Blu-ray movie from the store, but it wouldn't play in your Blu-ray player because the online authorization servers were down, even though you had the physical media and the playback device sitting right in front of you (and if you think that era is far off, good luck).

The multiplayer game feels more like hitting shuffle on an iPod. Depending on which game you join, you could end up on nearly any level or location (go too far ahead, and your underpowered character won't stand a chance, however). It's an interesting approach to snippet-style gaming, but a confusing save system makes it more frustrating than it needs to be. Join a higher-level game, and the next time you start a solo game, you'll be back on that higher level. Going back erases some of your subsequent progress in ways that are not always clearly decipherable, lost in a quagmire of quests, checkpoints, and teleport locations, some or all of which may vanish, depending on a few mouse clicks.

The reason for this confusion is that the single and multiplayer games are deliberately linked, but it ends up being suboptimal for those who want to play with friends, but also use the same character and follow the single-player storyline. At least hopping back and forth in the game via a few multiplayer sessions will cure you of wanting to follow the plot in a linear fashion. It's hoary, cliche-filled stuff, with bad voice acting and writing. It's "traditional" for hack-and-slash role-playing games, I suppose, but since Diablo II, we've had a decade of pretty advanced storytelling development in interactive entertainment, from branching dialogue trees to film-quality acting. Instead, this just feels like those intervening years never happened.

The gameplay itself is almost entirely mouse-dependent. My Witch Doctor character was more of a ranged attacker, so he also needed the Shift key to attack without moving, plus the occasional keyboard tap to access items or spells. For all the complaints games such as FarmVille get for being mouse-button clickfests, Diablo's left-click-heavy design isn't philosophically all that far off, even if it looks and feels quite different. It also makes me wonder if Diablo couldn't work in the future as an actual Facebook game -- there certainly are Facebook and browser-based games right now that come close to that level of interaction, even if the speed and graphics aren't the same.

In the end, Diablo III is terrifically fun when played in a group online, and even more so when sitting in the same room as the people you're playing with. The single-player experience feels a bit cold, like playing multiplayer shooter with bots, but as long as my friends list remains populated, I could see going back regularly.

CNET Senior Editor Rich Brown describes Diablo III's environments as "gloomy, foreboding, and gorgeous." Rich Brown/CNET

Rich:
When Blizzard launched Diablo II in 2000, the World Bank considered only 43.1 percent of the U.S. population Internet users. The most recent figure? As of 2010, 79.3 percent.

People likely to buy Diablo III: those original Diablo II gamers from 12 years ago, their kids, anyone else who might have become a gamer over the past decade. That's a lot. And the majority of those people, certainly an even larger majority than the general U.S. population reflected in those World Bank figures, has an Internet connection.

Most of those people also probably have Web-enabled smartphones. And Facebook pages. And Twitter handles. And Xbox Live accounts. They expect to have the ability to communicate with friends and loved ones at all times, seamlessly.

Diablo III does not require you to ever engage in multiplayer gaming. But quite reasonably, Blizzard is betting that you will. And for the large number of people who will want to play Diablo III with others, an imperfect multiplayer experience won't cut it against the backdrop of all those modern online services.

If you played Diablo II multiplayer, you know what "imperfect" can mean: cheats who throw off the game mechanics, item duplication hacks that ravage the in-game economy, gold and item farming (and in-game message spam advertising the services thereof), bad actors scamming players out of in-game items in order to sell them on eBay for real-world dollars.

Blizzard/Activision

With some controversy, Blizzard has elected to spare Diablo III multiplayer gamers from that mess by locking down the whole thing, even the single-player game. Every game client must pass an integrity check before it can access the game servers. That way Blizzard can filter out any hacks, cheats, and any other irregularities that might disrupt the game for other players.

Such a lockdown provides many benefits for both Blizzard and for Diablo III players. Without cheating, in-game player accomplishments occur on a level playing field. That means Blizzard can offer achievements, a (dubious) necessity in modern games (anyone want to trade Diablo III points for Reddit karma?).

Minimized cheating also means Blizzard can protect the in-game economy, which opens the door to the real money auction house. The auction house is important because of the nature of Diablo III. Like Diablo II, it's about loot. And repetition. And loot.

The bane of single-player Diablo III gamers.
The bane of single-player Diablo III gamers. Rich Brown/CNET

Here's how it works. Diablo III is structured on tiers of difficulty. You start the game on the "Normal" difficulty option. Once you play through the whole game once, you open up "Nightmare" mode. In this harder difficulty mode, your character starts with the the same level and gear you had at the end of normal mode. Then you play through the same story as before, but with harder enemies and better loot as a reward. Then you play through the game again to unlock "Hell" difficulty. Then you unlock "Inferno" mode.

At this final, most challenging difficulty level, you encounter the most powerful items and the most challenging monsters. And once you've finished a level, you can restart it from any previous point. That means you can pick the game up right at the point where you can fight a certain boss who's known to drop certain items. Then you kill that boss, over and over and over, until you get the item you're looking for.

This is the repetitious model that keeps the old player base, a small remainder of it, anyway, still farming away in Diablo II. It's what keeps many hard-core players going in World of Warcraft, and it's the model on which Blizzard has constructed Diablo III.

Those players are also the most likely to populate the auction house with high-value items.

Wizards: Pretty much the coolest
Wizards: Pretty much the coolest. Rich Brown/CNET

Blizzard never saw a piece of Diablo II's vast secondary market. And with cheating and scammers running rampant through the previous game, the risks for players in that secondary market were appallingly high. The secure single-player system now not only makes it easy for anyone to join a multiplayer game. Anyone from that expanded pool of potential Diablo III players can play online, and anyone can turn imaginary armor and weapons into a real money via the Auction House.

To cash out, you submit your Auction House Battle.net Balance (Battle.net is Blizzard's all-encompassing networking service) to PayPal. Blizzard then takes 15 percent. You can also use the balance you accumulate to pay for other Blizzard games and services.

There are downsides to this model if you aren't interested in auction houses or playing with others. You must always be connected to the Internet to play Diablo III. A rocky launch saw players locked out of the game due to overwhelmed servers. Blizzard also takes its network down periodically whenever it needs to patch the game.

The capacity issues will likely disappear, but you should expect at least occasional server maintenance downtime throughout the life of the game. Dedicated single players get no true benefit from Blizzard's newly secure network, only lost play time.

I've played through the game once with a wizard character. It took me about 20 hours, I reached level 32 out of a maximum of 60, and I spent maybe 6 of those hours progressing through the game with friends.

I like it. My character felt like a true magic-wielding tough guy, slinging disintegration beams and exploding balls of arcane energy all over the place. The game was challenging in some parts, perhaps too easy in others, and only on a few occasions did it feel like I was playing through filler content.

The Diablo III Auction House offers gamers, and Blizzard, a source of real world income.
The Diablo III Auction House offers gamers, and Blizzard, a source of real-world income. Rich Brown/CNET

I also like the character skill system. You get six skill slots, and 25 different skills with which to populate them. Each of those skills also has six different customizations, allowing you vast flexibility to create new gameplay for yourself on the fly.

As I played, though, I couldn't help feeling like my gear was always lackluster. Grinding away at the game for longer could help mitigate that problem. I could also expedite matters by either shopping on the auction house, or trading directly with other players.

In his Diablo III review, Kotaku's Mike Fahey said, "If you're not interested in multiplayer, you aren't getting the most out of the game." I agree. The single-player game is entertaining enough, but Blizzard has clearly tuned the Diablo III experience for playing online.

Blizzard is one of the few very game developers that can take big risks like potentially alienating its single-player base. I suspect that risk will pay off with Diablo III. But Bethesda Games' Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim taught us that single-player-focused games still represent a very healthy market segment. With Diablo III, Blizzard has just decided to focus on a more connected gaming experience.

 

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