Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Moral Fibre; Now Only $4.95 From Blizzard Entertainment

Apparently, according to the people at Blizzard Entertainment and Activision, you can indeed put a price on anything, including your own ethics.  Yes, while many may arduously defend the continuously declining business practices of the once-great game developer, the truth of it is that Blizzard Entertainment has shown its true colours.  And they are ugly indeed.

Just what am I on about?  Well, if you've had even a passing interest in Diablo 3, chances are you've already heard about the extremely controversial 'real money auction house' system.  This story is available on just about every gaming website and blog out there, so finding out the details on it should not require much digging.  In brief summary, however, the idea behind it is that this player-driven auction house will allow players to literally sell their own virtual items for real cash.  I am not kidding.  The ramifications of such a stunt are a bit dizzying.

I told you I wasn't kidding.
How this works is that Blizzard will host the auction service, upon which you will pay a fee for every item you put up on the auction house.  You set the prices, and yes, you make real money if your item sells, albeit after Blizzard takes a percentage cut on your profit.  And yes, I am aware that apparently you will get a set number of free auctions per day or per week.  However, first off, I can't imagine the number will be very high, and second, the biggest point to keep in mind is undercutting.  If you've played World of Warcraft or any other MMO, you'll know what I'm talking about.  You set a reasonable price, and Johnny Jackass comes along and undercuts you by 1 copper, 1 credit, 1 ISK, or in this case, 1 cent.  Best case scenario, you've just lost one of your 'free' auctions for the day/week because of undercutting; worst case scenario, you've just paid real money to feel cheated.  Oops.

Now, even if Blizzard prevents undercutting through some technological witchcraft, the fact of the matter is that the BIGGEST problem with this system remains.  What?  Potentially losing money and feeling the fool on a virtual auction system isn't the worst bit?  No sir.  The worst thing about this system is that it breaks the game on a fundamental level.  It allows the most disgusting thing imaginable in an online game; players can BUY power.  It's as simple as that.  Buying gear in an RPG like Diablo makes you more powerful; period.

So this is where obnoxious teenagers and idiots with no understanding of how game development or indeed competition is supposed to work come in and raucously yell and scream about how Blizzard is in the right on this.  Some slightly more logical people may also bring up the point of how people bought items in Diablo 2 anyways, only indirectly through 3rd party websites.  But even those types are missing the point.  The point here is that Blizzard is not just accepting this behaviour, but endorsing it.  They are saying the competitive nature of the game does not matter.  Why doesn't it matter?  Because the gamers with more disposable income have a huge advantage over those who do not.  That should never ever be a factor in any sort of competitive scene.

Take this image, replace World of Warcraft with Diablo 3, and you have
the future vision of Blizzard Entertainment.
Some arguments can be made against this.  The first, and no doubt the first for Blizzard fanboys to run to, is comparing it to World of Warcraft.  In WoW, gold selling and gold buying has been a known entity for a very long time.  It is, however, illegal and immoral.  In the case of that game, Blizzard constantly and consistently stood by their notion over the last 6 years that gold selling and buying is completely unacceptable, and they will never allow players to buy their way into a tangible advantage.  Of course, silly nonsense like the mounts and pets available from the Blizzard store are not tangible advantages; they are vanity pieces for people with too much money and too little sense.

Anyways, back to the point at hand.  Why is it that Blizzard has suddenly changed their mind?  Just what the hell happened to turn them from stoic, anti-cheating do-gooders into seemingly lazy enablers of this bad attitude toward game design philosophy?  To most people, the answer would immediately come to them in the form of Activision, everyone's favourite game publisher to hate.  But don't be fooled.  While it's indeed possible that Activision may have had a hand in corrupting Blizzard's once-pure motives, they also claim that they have an entirely 'hands off' approach with their Blizzard partners, allowing them to, in their own words, write their own cheque.  And while that may not be entirely true, the real point here is that what better opportunity did Blizzard ever have to start performing shady business practices than when it was taken under the wing of the world's most hated publisher?  Naturally, every idiot who can't see through the shroud of ignorance they've encased themselves in will automatically assume Activision is at fault for any shenanigans performed by Blizzard.  Nonsense.

Blizzard continues to dazzle with their exuberant
understanding of their gaming customers and what
they do and do not appreciate.
And don't think this is all Blizzard has in store for you when it comes to less than good ideas.  Here's a real winner in the world of gaming; always online DRM!  Yes, that has certainly worked wonders in the past, treating your customers like criminals.  For those of you who don't know, always-on DRM (or digital rights management) involves you being forced to be online with a constant internet connection for the entire duration of when you play the game.  If your internet connection drops, the game stops.  Simple as that.  Now, this is obviously a real, unavoidable issue for any online multiplayer game, which is indeed the strength of a game like Diablo.  However, the game does have a single player option, and indeed there are situations where just hoping on single player for a time, while you're away from any reliable internet connection, is an attractive idea.

So why is it that Blizzard is saying you cannot do this?  Well, their argument comes in the form of something along the lines of "you should play another game offline", which is garbage of course.  Their real reason for the DRM is to prevent what some people did with Diablo 2; making sure you don't just pirate the game and cleverly find your way online with no cost to you and no profits to Blizzard.  Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't security for games these days improved enough that this sort of thing just isn't possible for an online game?  Certainly for a company like Blizzard, which requires you to sign in to your Battlenet account in order to login to the game, whether it be Diablo 3, Starcraft 2 or World of Warcraft.  I really can't see how it would be possible for anyone to pirate the game and exploit the online function.  Are they seriously only paranoid about people getting the offline, single player experience for free?  To the point where they're willing and eager to prevent their paying customers from ever experiencing such a thing?  Because here I was thinking that when you buy a game, you own it.  When you buy, say, a car, you generally don't have the manufacturer remotely cutting power to your car when you drive outside of a city.  Why is this not the case for games?  Why are developers becoming more and more paranoid, giving their paying customers the same treatment as pirates that don't contribute a dime to the development of their game?

Replace Ezio with your class of choice, Italy with the world of Sanctuary,
and the sci-fi, Matrix-esque Animus message with something infuriatingly
coddling and pandering from Blizzard, and you have Diablo 3 in offline mode.
Take a look at Assassin's Creed 2.  This is a game that grew in infamy because of its flagrant always-on DRM.  A fact, I will admit, that I was ignorant of when I played the game, since I had a constant internet connection.  However, not everyone does.  Connections may be dodgy or outright nonexistent in some more remote locations, and some people may not have the proper setup at home for connecting their console to the internet.  The latter is not doubt a much smaller issue when it comes to PC gaming, but the fact remains that it's just wrong, and Ubisoft learned the scale of their wronging of their customers.  People did boycott Assassin's Creed 2, and effectively.  To the point where Ubisoft made the decision to remove the DRM.  However, I just don't see that happening with Blizzard.  They're too stubborn, too set in their ways with their heels dug in, and above all, too money driven.  I get the feeling that this isn't something that 'old Blizzard' would have ever even considered back in the days of Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3.  Oh how times change.

And so do my favourite and most respected developers.  Blizzard may have fallen from those graces some time ago, but they're approaching the bottom of the barrel now.  Developers like Bioware, Arenanet and CD Projekt RED continue to produce extremely high quality products without treating their fans and consumers as criminals.  And don't forget Indie companies; these developers have really exploded in popularity more recently, with the popularity of games such as Minecraft, Braid and Limbo.  Some Indie games outright surpass mainstream games when it comes to quality and content, for a fraction of the price.  All the while, they maintain a positive outlook on gaming, whereas their big brother developers would rather start enforcing ridiculous DRM and selling bits of their game as piecemeal DLC on launch day.

In light of all this, I will not be buying Diablo 3 in its current announced form.  If Blizzard decides to remove the DRM and have a rethink of the auction house, I will certainly reconsider.  But I'm sorry, with amazing looking games like Guild Wars 2, The Old Republic, Torchlight 2, Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 coming out, I really do not lack for quality RPGs in the next year or so.  On top of that, the developers for these games generally maintain a positive energy for the world of gaming.  I do not feel the need to give my money to a developer that continues to degrade its moral values in the name of short term cash-ins, thus further enabling them to make more and more controversial decisions.

Where will we be in 10 years time if we continue to support this nickle-and-diming nonsense from the likes of Blizzard?  Will we be spending 60 dollars on an incredibly basic, shell of a game, then be forced to fork out cash for any meaningful content?  Will the concept of the offline game become a relic of the past?  Will competition in gaming devolve down to who has the most spare cash floating around, and is the biggest consumer of virtual items?  I find it to be a bleak future.  That's why I'll only support developers that continue to maintain a positive attitude toward the industry as a whole.  I encourage you to do the same, if you have any objection whatsoever to the world of gaming slipping further and further away from common sense.

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