A Personal Argument Against the Always-On Trend

So last Sunday I was all set up to write a post about crafting in The Secret World, how there is no real guide for it, and essentially make a guide for those not really knowing what to do with the random runes and dust they pick up. However, my Comcast internet would have none of it. Trying to play the game for research was an abysmal failure. Every mob I fought would straight-up slaughter me during a lag spike. My once strong download speeds without packet losses, lag, latency, or jitter, great for gaming and watching streaming video has, over the past week, degraded to the point that my primary hobby is fully out of commission.

Now, I’m relatively tech savvy. I built my own gaming rig, I know a thing or two about the multitude of OS options out there, and I’m asked frequently by friends, family, and strangers for tech advice. So, when I encounter network problems, I generally know how to approach them. After going through all the checks and rechecks, the problem is not my router, it is not my cable modem, nor is it my computer. The problem lies outside of the tech that I can affect, and now I must rely on Comcast to come and attempt to fix the problem, which could take weeks (or as a friend lovingly told me about dealing with Comcast, possibly months). Lovely.

Gaming wise, though, I have been stuck on The Secret World. Trying to play it now is utterly futile. Any MMO I would play is futile. Without a stable and reliable internet connection, there is no point in even trying.

But ANY game needing a full-time internet connection is out, for possibly weeks. With the current trend in gaming this would also means games like Diablo 3, SimCity, and if I had the next generation XBox, literally any game I would own for that console. These aren’t just MMOs, games where always being connected gives you the benefit of community, these are single-player games with unnecessary multi-player extras tacked on. But yet, if I owned them, I would now be completely unable to play them.

So, tell me, honestly, who hasn’t this happened to? Who hasn’t, at some point, lost usable service? Apparently,  if you have Comcast as your service provider, which in my area Comcast is the ONLY choice for wired internet and holds a monopoly, service drops are frequent and the norm. Getting lines repaired could cost me more out-of-pocket expenses (on top of my monthly fee) and take weeks or months to fix. I’m sure it’s not just Comcast, though.

If there is any physical component, and hardware involved in your network, that hardware is capable of failing. Sometimes there is nothing you can do about it, either. It’s not a question of how or why, but when.

So who is this shift in the always-on trend really supposed to be benefiting? With Microsoft telling us to just #DealWithIt, EA being named the worst company in America due to gamer backlash from it, and Blizzard straight-up not caring, it is certainly not the gamers. And yet, gamers will still throw money after money at these games and think nothing of it. Think nothing of the possibility of having their single-player games servers being shut off, or the possibility their hard-earned money is going  to a purchase that can instantly become as useful as a paperweight (less, even, a paperweight can still hold down papers).

I hope companies like EA and Blizzard really are getting the message that this is not acceptable. We, as intelligent people making intelligent purchases, should not give them a single dime for any product that demands these always-on connections. We’re simply paying them for the privilege of giving them more power. Power that they, frankly, don’t deserve. Give us real reasons as to why an always-on connection is beneficial, or options to use it or not, put the power back into the consumers hands.

Until then, I’m voting with my wallet, as it seems the only language these companies understand.

// Ocho

Shroud of the Avatar, DRM, and Why the Gaming Industry Should Take Notice [SOTA]

Blizzard, EA, and apparently now Microsoft, too, have thrown their companies full-ahead into the age of Always-On DRM. In other words, you must always have a stable Internet connection and be communicating with their servers at all times in order to play their games in an effort to crack down on piracy. The issue of always-on DRM is one that has been long in coming with the industry having finally taken the leap and now making the worst fears of gamers a reality. So far we have seen massive server problems, delays, and stoppages preventing players who have purchased games like SimCity and Diablo 3 with their own hard-earned money from accessing these games. Games that could have easily been played without the need to be connected at all!

Murphy’s Law at it’s finest.

However, Shroud of the Avatar, just 35 hours away from finishing up it’s successful Kickstarter venture (for which I am a proud backer) is bucking the new trend. Bucking it, hitting it over the head with a chair, and throwing it completely out the window. The 5th update given during the Kickstarter campaign, only 3 days after it started, came right out and said they were listening to feedback and decided to make the Kickstarter version of the game DRM free and thus could be played completely off-line.  5 days later, the 10th update kicked it into high gear and is making, what I think, one of the greatest methods of handling gameplay I’ve ever heard.

You can play SotA in 4 completely different ways. Single-player Offline (SPOff), Single-Player Online (SPO), Friends-Play Online (FPO), and Open-Play Online (OPO).

Single-Player Offline

Just like pretty much every single-player game ever made since the dawn of gaming, single-player offline is a DRM-free, completely offline version of the game. Your character is stored on your own computer, there are no micro-transactions, and the game is played entirely client-side, no internet connection needed. Any character you create will only be playable offline to prevent hacking or exploits to enter the online play, but you can still experience the full story.

Single-Player Online

Single-Player Online mode is a version of the game where once more you are the only player in the game. However, you connect to the server, receive content updates, and get to see any long term changes other gamers have made on the world. You play the game still entirely on your own, but it would be like a single-player MMO. This is like the instanced-solo dungeons that you see in games like Neverwinter, the original Guild Wars, or Star Trek Online. You see the effects of a changing game, can participate in the economy, but you don’t have to play along with anyone else.

Friends-Play Online

Friends-Play Online is the multiplayer that we see cropping up in numerous games these days. In effect, it’s the same as SPO, but you see other players that you have already tagged as friends. It works as a limited online experience and is described as “For those who prefer the quieter game with friends or maybe for those who prefer a more focused role playing experience”.

Open-Play Online

And finally there is the method of playing that is most like the MMOs we have come to know today, Open-Play Online. In OPO, you will not be seeing everybody, but when you enter an area you will see other gamers that the server thinks you should see. Based on your own style of gameplay, you will see strangers, but strangers you might have a connection with. If you enjoy role-playing, you might find yourself surrounded by players who also enjoy role-playing. Or PvP. Or grouping. I take it you would have to fill out a small survey about your gaming style ahead of time, but even the complete strangers you’ll meet in Open-Play you’ll still have some sort of connection to.

Also, not only can you play Shroud of the Avatar in these 4 different ways, but you can switch between SPO, FPO, and OPO almost at-will while playing!

I don’t use this phrase often, but this is Revolutionary. Seriously.

What are Yew looking at?

Just imagine if a game like Diablo 3 had launched with this system in mind. For those without the greatest internet connections in the world, they could enjoy the game off-line, just like they did Diablo 2. Or, they could create an online character and play the game solo with benefits like the auction house, or only seeing other friends they have played with through Battle-Net, or a version of the game that randomly grouped like-minded and skilled gamers together. Then, if the Auction-House was only available to players who played the online versions, that would be reason enough to play online for most people and DRM would’ve just been an afterthought. Under that model, I really could’ve seen Diablo 3 being named game of the decade. As it stands now, I’ll never even touch Diablo 3. See the difference, Blizzard?!

Playing on Portalarium’s servers is now a choice that is in the gamers hands. A choice that discourages piracy, not through brute-force like EA does, but by giving tangible benefits to those that don’t pirate, playing with others and seeing the game change over time.

Instead of being treated like a criminal, SotA is going to treat gamers like guests into their world. When you empower the gamer and give us a voice, it’s not surprising at all to see the pledge number edging ever closer to $1,500,000. Through this simple action, Portalarium, and Garriott himself, has shown that he wants to work with us gamers, not against us, to make the best gaming experience possible for everyone.

// Ocho

Blizzard’s New Not-So-Secret MMO: Diablo 3

I know it wasn’t too long ago that I published a post all about how Diablo 3 was blurring the lines between a single player game and an MMO and I concluded it with this statement: “When all is said and done, the answer to whether Diablo 3 classifies as an MMO is really ‘No’.” I take it back. When I said that, I was under the assumption that the primary arguments were an auction house and “Always-On” play. Yes, an auction house needs a lot of other players to make it work, and Always-On play does make multi-player gaming a lot easier, but really, Diablo 3 has let loose the final trappings binding it to the single player genre.

I apologize for being mistaken before, but Diablo 3 IS an MMO.

Pfft… anyone can memorize that…

May I submit to the court a few pieces of evidence that clearly show that Blizzard has finally taken the final steps and have crossed the MMO boundary that they have been stumbling toward the entire time. First and foremost, a very strict No Cheating policy.

Now, in a game that not only has an auction house, but one where you can trade real money for in-game items, preventing players from cheating is a necessity. If one could create cash and items from thin air, then the concept of trading items in the form of an auction just makes the entire process futile. So, yes, I agree, cheating should not be allowed. This keeps everything fair between all of the players partaking in the auction house.

I want to go down on record as saying I’m not a fan of cheating in games, either. Game guides, boss videos, the whole nine yards, I consider it all cheating. But really, a game isn’t just about being fair to others. Since when do we all play a game for the same exact reasons? One time, while I was playing World of Warcraft, I wanted to pick up all the backstory from Warcraft 3, but I wanted to do so very quickly. So, every level I played, I cheated and gave myself full invulnerability. This wasn’t because I couldn’t get past the levels on my own, but I wanted to see the full story, and the sometimes hour+ levels were just getting in the way. So by cheating I was able to see every level beginning, every piece of dialogue in between, every level ending, and every cutscene. Having cheat codes allowed me to see the game’s full story in a quick, condensed manner. Did I get a huge sense of accomplishment? Of course not, but that wasn’t the purpose I was going for. Cheating in single player games allows players to explore the game on multiple levels and fairness never even comes up in the equation.

However, you cheat in Diablo 3, which does not claim to be an MMO and what happens? You get BANNED. Banned! Done! Thanks for the $60! Now maybe you will learn your lesson! Next time maybe you’ll think before your single-player game is taken away from you!  This truly is the end of an era, isn’t it? Will we be sitting on our front porch years from now, playing our brain-embedded Google contact lens gaming system, telling our grandchildren about how we had “Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Select Start” practically programmed into our muscle memory? You know what those whipper-snappers will say, too, right? “Jeez, gramps, lame! I bet you couldn’t even feed your family and put down “World of Warcraft 5 Player” as your profession on your taxes!” (To which, you know you must reply “Get off my lawn!” to keep your retirement home street cred)

For all the ladies out there… who wouldn’t want the romantic heart of Griswold? Only $4.50!

My second piece of evidence is one that has been brought up before, but it needs a solid repeating: A Real Money Auction House! This… well, it honestly scares me a little about society. Not for the sellers, mind you, the sellers I can see this as almost being a genuine source of income (Taxes and all!), and so one could, if one knows the system first, end up making back the couple of Jackson’s needed to get the game in the first place, after taxes of course.  (Why do I keep bringing up taxes? Well, as my good friend has so adroitly pointed out, not only are you held liable for reporting ALL income gained from using the auction house, but if you get any money back through PayPal, they are obligated to report that income to the IRS. If you don’t claim it, but Paypal says you do… well lets just say that you might want to get your paperwork in order for a forthcoming audit.)

Anyway, for players who ARE making some extra scratch from Diablo 3 I say “Awesome!” A good friend of mine even recently said that in a few weeks, he’s been able to net himself about $20 off of items sold in the auction house. You know, he was able to do what the alchemists of old tried to do and failed miserably… create gold from thin air. He was able to, using Diablo 3’s auction house as a medium, turn a digital axe he found by the pure luck from a random number generator, and was able to sell it to someone else for more money than you could sell an old lamp at a yard sale. Wow. If this doesn’t make your head spin and show you exactly how much Diablo 3 is changing the face of gaming, then you’re really not paying enough attention.

Now let me go ahead and fire up Final Fantasy X, get a nice drop from this giant bird-like creature and… wait… I can’t trade it for some Taco Bell? Oh that’s right! There are no other players to trade anything to! To have that kind of market, you would need a lot of players… a Massive amount of them, one would say, and the storefront better be an Online entity. A Real Money Auction House can really only exist in an MMO setting. Too few players or too little exposure to it, and the destruction of foreign policy and the world’s litigation won’t be worth the cost of having it in the first place.

Seriously, if you haven’t read this… you need to.

Finally, for my last piece of evidence, a quote from Blizzard’s own mouth, that Diablo 3 lacks a “long-term sustainable end-game”.  Sustainable end-game? This right here, aside from the huge other two pieces of information, just seal the deal. Now, having a replayability factor is very good for a game. It allows you to play the game through a second or third time and play with a different ending, or a different playstyle. But to just come out and say you’ve attempted to make your game with a “sustainable end-game”? Sorry, guys, just come out now and admit that Diablo 3 is an MMO. Admit it! If what lay for me at the end of every game was a treadmill-style gear grind just to be able to play more and more dungeons, I think I’d give up gaming forever. If you watch a movie… it has an ending. If you read a book, it has a final page. If I play a board game, there is a winner and a loser. If I play a single-player game, I want to be rewarded with an epic ending cutscene! (I guess by not having a solid ending, they were hoping to avoid the Mass Effect 3 fiasco). But it comes down to this… no ending, no single-player.

In conclusion, in the case of the Players vs Diablo 3, I hope you find that with the evidence strongly presented here to you today to find Diablo 3, with it’s strict No Cheating policy, it’s Real Money Auction House, and an admittance of the attempt for a “sustainable end-game”, that Diablo 3 should stop trying to pull the wool over it’s clients eyes and just admit that alongside World of Warcraft, Diablo 3 is Blizzard’s second MMO.

I rest my case.

\\ Ocho

P.S. – It sounds like if Diablo 3 can’t find itself a very good sustainable endgame solution, that it might end up…… getting burned.

YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!

Diablo 3 Blurs the Line Between Single Player Game and MMO Even More

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote a post on how single player games are being treated more and more like MMO’s by the gaming community. Well, Blizzard has, with its latest offering, blurred the line between the single player game and MMO even further. Is Diablo 3 a single player game? Yes… and no. Is it an MMO? No… and yes. Here are some reasons showing the similarities of what can make Diablo 3 a new breed of MMO.

1) An auction house. First and foremost, Diablo 3 has an auction house. An auction house is a feature found in almost every MMO on the market. A place to barter, buy, and sell from other players, an auction house is essentially its own form of PvP. Buy low, sell high, corner the market on iron ore, etc. Diablo 3’s auction house takes a new twist by selling items with not just in-game funds, but also real money. Find an item you think would sell well for real money? Post it on the region’s auction house. If it sells, Blizzard takes a $1 off the top. If you then want to transfer the money to a PayPal account, Blizzard takes another 15% cut off of that. It’s a nice little racket Blizz has going there. Considering the drops in the game are randomized, if you play enough and find enough high quality items, you could potentially make Diablo 3 a side job! I wonder, though, how many people are going to claim any money made through the auction house on their taxes…

2) Public Play. When it comes to playing the game, you have a few options. You can play it solo, you can play it with friends, or you can set a “public” option and play with complete strangers. Playing with complete strangers is the cornerstone of the MMO. Sure, you eventually form guilds and then play with just your guild, but you usually find those guilds at first by playing with the random public, and Diablo 3 lets you do that.

3) Always On. You have to have an “Always On” internet connection attached to Blizzard’s servers to play Diablo 3. Blizzard recently just had the equivalent of “launch day blues” where on the day the game launched, it had multiple problems and the game’s server crashed. Usually, this wouldn’t be a huge deal for a single-player game, but for Diablo 3, it is. Certain features that Diablo uses, like the auction house or public areas lend credence to needing to always be connected to the internet and in this day and age, most of us ARE always connected to the internet. However, the internet isn’t always perfect. Comcast (or whoever your service provider is) could have some downtime, your router or modem could fail and you’d lose internet for hours or even days. Blizzard has essentially said “Too bad” to this, and demands all systems be connected at all times, just like an MMO. The difference is that an MMO’s primary content and focus is online play. A single-player game? Well… not so much. My good friend Tushar over at Technical Fowl has quite a bit to say on this matter, and you should check it out.

I’m 37, I’m not old!

4) Class Reveals. Diablo 3 has five distinct character classes: Barbarian, Demon Hunter, Monk, Witch Doctor, and Wizard. Nothing like choices to fit multiple styles of  play. However, each individual class has had its own separate reveal. Now, this could be an indication of a new age of gaming, in which every little scrap of information about an upcoming game, MMO or not, is heavily consumed up to and well after a game’s release. However, this is a trait that has primarily settled in the MMO space. Guild Wars 2, for example, spent months dragging out their multiple character classes, with each reveal showing videos, ability breakdowns, and a ton of screenshots. I didn’t see Skyrim flaunting its Battlemage class or that the Rogue (my preferable Elder Scrolls class) was a class being brought back, but every class in Star Wars The Old Republic got its time in the spotlight, and this is something new for single-player games.

5) MMO News Sites Can’t Make Up Their Mind! Have you seen Massively, lately? They initially placed anything relating to Diablo 3 in a “Not So Massively” tag, relegating it just like any other games that are popular, have multiplayer components, but aren’t as massive as they could be. However, as it got closer and closer to launch, they almost dropped the tag entirely and started giving Diablo 3 just as much space as other MMOs, sometimes even giving it the “Free-To-Play” tag. Its absolutely true, Diablo 3 has no subscription whatsoever, but then again, neither does my copy of Ultima VII.

When all is said and done, the answer to whether Diablo 3 classifies as an MMO is really “No”. The ability to play completely solo with nobody else around, even if you still have to be connected to Blizzard’s servers, takes a big ‘M’ away. However, by adding features never really dreamed up in any other single-player game before, Blizzard is setting a new precedent, and like it or not, we may see new single player games released from here on out change as a result.

Lets just hope they keep the necessary online connection to a minimum.

\\ Ocho