Diablo III server debacle demonstrates the problem with ‘always-online’ games

By Kirk Hamilton on May 15, 2012, 10:44 PM

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."

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.

Republished with permission. Kirk Hamilton is a contributing editor at Kotaku.

User Comments: 66

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ikesmasher said:

The companies (especially activision and ubisoft) will learn eventually it hurts them more than it helps them to have always online requirements.

davislane1 davislane1 said:

The companies (especially activision and ubisoft) will learn eventually it hurts them more than it helps them to have always online requirements.

I wouldn't be so confident in this. People have been saying that about the MPAA and the RIAA for years...They still haven't taken the hint.

Guest said:

Well said. Another problem we'll face is when they no longer support the servers for Diablo 3 to be played. I'm sure that'll be quite a ways down the line but will be unfortunate since we will no longer be able to revisit this game. I still have three G3 iMacs that my kids and I use to play Diablo 2. May once interest wanes in a few years they'll patch it for offline/LAN play and we can load it up to reminisce.

Johnny Utah said:

Yup, this is the biggest joke of a release in a while. There always should be an offline mode, always. How long has Blizzard been doing this now?

Guest said:

I wouldn't worry about continued support for hosting the servers. You can still play Diablo 1 on battle.net to this day, I connected 2 weeks ago out of curiosity. It's been available for 16 years and counting.

davislane1 davislane1 said:

^ Moreover, by the time they discontinue any servers Pirate Bay will already be saturated with DRM-disabled versions of the game -- and that's the issue here. Those of us who paid $60 for the game are dealing with this always-on nonsense ultimately for no reason at all. I'll bet on a functional single-player version hitting the pirate waters in less than three weeks.

psycros psycros said:

The companies (especially activision and ubisoft) will learn eventually it hurts them more than it helps them to have always online requirements.

I wouldn't be so confident in this. People have been saying that about the MPAA and the RIAA for years...They still haven't taken the hint.

But the game makers are <I>already</I> getting a clue. Some of them are doing away with online authentication and DRM. The smarter developers are figuring out that only paying customers are impacted by meaningless protection schemes, and all the bugs and hindrances they bring. Meanwhile the pirates happily play without any of those inconveniences. God bless the pirates, I say, because their clearly NOT hurting anyone's bottom line significantly and their exposing DRM for the consumer-hostile joke that it is.

Guest said:

Spot on. And it's not just last night. It's been like this all day and now their servers are down again. I've requested to get a refund, because I purchased it to play as a single player and I am no longer willing to put up with this BS from Blizzard or anybody else.

Guest said:

"But the game I play doesn't need to be online."

"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."

Couldn't have said it better myself. I understand what they are trying to do, but I think Blizzard thought itself mighty enough to take on such a challenge in order to stop any kind of tampering with the Diablo III world. What this has showed is that there are some severe repercussions to not letting customers opt-out of these 'experiments' on their own terms.

Although as soon as everything is running smoothly, everyone will forget about it, just like WoW's nightmare release queues have been all but erased and went on to be the most successful MMO in game history.

treetops treetops said:

Yeah I was quite surprised they offered no form of offline play, looks like you will have to pirate offline mode.

Guest said:

just spam the login with a automated macro like everyone else was doing thats why no one could get in

Guest said:

They have already emulated World of Warcraft servers, so it will be done for Diablo 3 as well. But since Diablo is suppose to be a singleplayer game with option of co-op, I'm sure they'll be an offline only crack. As for preventing cheating, they built a real money action house right into the game - so cheating is part of the game.

ramonsterns said:

They won't do anything because they have enough brainwashed ****** to make up for the loss of anyone with their brains intact.

Marnomancer Marnomancer said:

Am I not glad on my decision to end my gaming career...

Guest said:

I can't understand what brain can think about a internet conection as a way to stop piracy, you just have to google crack "X" game and in 5 minutes, or less, you can play without any internet conection, but no, why don't we just punish the people than buy our games?, you know, the requeriment of an internet conection is a way to stop piracy........

Chazz said:

It's an extremely popular game. They'll get it sorted out. I have the game and am going through the same issues but, I'm not gonna be childish about it. They'll have everything sorted out soon(sometime this week soon).

Guest said:

And people wonder why the PC platform is in the poop house.

Piracy is a result of sinful society. People steal because they think it is "ok".

Laws will not change that unfortunately.

Guest said:

I can't understand what brain can think about a internet conection as a way to stop piracy, you just have to google crack "X" game and in 5 minutes, or less, you can play without any internet conection

It's not a matter of 'google crack X game' for D3. It'll be months before (bug-ridden & laggy) D3 emulation servers start popping up...

Guest said:

@Guest on May 16, 2012 1:50 AM:

That's not true at all. This isn't WoW or SC2 we're talking about. This is Diablo 3, a game that most people are very happy to through the game alone. So this means they won't need to set up actual cracked servers. Store the content locally then connect locally ( to retrieve the content - since that's the way the game works. They already did it both ways with the beta, your assumed server way and the local way, so obviously it won't be hard for them to make it for the full game. I guess they first have to play through the entire game however and copy all the content...

ramonsterns said:

And people wonder why the PC platform is in the poop house.

Piracy is a result of sinful society. People steal because they think it is "ok".

Laws will not change that unfortunately.

Sinful society?

I see, you're one of those. Is it difficult to walk and breath?

Guest said:

Wrong, wrong, wrong and once more 100% wrong. That wasn't the issue that prevented others from loging in.

Guest said:

One of those what?

fimbles fimbles said:

Wait for a proper offline server emulator to be released.

As usual pirates will have a better gaming experience than those who bought the original.

amstech amstech, TechSpot Enthusiast, said:

Kirk, your article demonstrates the problem with people who cry about issues with 'always online games'. Remove your inner gaming child who wants to cry because his new game didn't work perfectly and view this with a business perspective.

It's thier product and they can choose how they want to distrubute it and control it.

They (Blizzard) should have planned better but other then that I don't have any problem with anything they have decided to do with Diablo III.

Twixtea said:

That's exactly why I didn't buy the game.

fimbles fimbles said:

@ amstech

Im a former world of warcraft player who has sat in queues for several hours, Only to connect and find the server laggy and unplayable.

I have been in ( 20 man) raids for several hours only for the server to crash before the last boss the day before a server reset.

When I first played wow several years ago any server crashes or offline days were compensated by a free day of play. This stopped after about 6 months. ( I played for 5 years )

This is time I had PAID to play in. I will never get the money or my time back.

You must be either a game dev or someone with more money than sense.

amstech amstech, TechSpot Enthusiast, said:

@ Fimbles

I am a current player of WoW, have played for 4 years.

Everyone deals with issues once in awhile, but overall its been great for years.

As far as ques, the new raid finder/dungeon finder is great. That being said I never had trouble getting into good Raids as a skilled Mage.

Some games need to be online 24/7 for critical updates and surveillence.

Diablo III is one of those games.

Do I agree that it needs to be "always online"? No.

But I understand it.

Guest said:

I'm really sad about all this, I have been a Diablo fan for years. I haven't even got my copy through the post yet (although I preordered it from Amazon months ago! why dispatch it the day before it goes live! grr) and already it has lost some of the shiny newness factor. I'm not interested in co-op apart from over a local lan (Which I would have brought more copies for!) and that looks to be off the cards. I didn't realise the always on internet connection would be as bad as everyone is making out. Tempted just to send it straight back when it arrives and get a pirated version. Blizzard needs to wake up. I know people who have specifically brought a new PC for this game!After 12 years this bitterly, bitterly disappointing.

Guest said:

Thas why I hate STEAM and Origin

if I want to play the SP on my laptop while I dont have internet I CANT Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

PLus one of the first comments is so true.. It hurts them more than helps them. Since most of the game these days have a emphasis on online multi player, I may download the game for the Single Player and if I like it ill get retail version so I can play online WHEN I have a connection!! this is the studio own fault has most of the game dont offer a Demo and im not paying 70+$ anymore for a game without trying it first

Ouf that felt good


benken2202001 said:

First of all, I'm glad I slept that night, worked all morning and got in right when the servers came up. Everyone knows (or should know) that a game won't perfectly on hour 1. I actually didn't expect it to be working when I got home, but I applaud Blizzard for their swift recovery. I was able to play several hours and thoroughly enjoy the first few quests. In fact, I was able to play more than my friends who went to midnight openings and brought it home only to wait for the servers to get fixed. I ain't complaining, the game is just wonderful, and the seamless transitions between playing coop with friends and playing alone is amazing. 9.9 from me so far.

Guest said:

It is very sad that a single player game has to be online constantly. Not even Star Craft 2 need a constant internet connection. I know his because I beat the game at work with the internet turned off. Maybe it is something it can fix but for now I guess I will play when I can play and wont be playing at work. That Sucks.

Guest said:

Diablo III server debacle demonstrates the problem with 'always-online' games

Diablo III does? Hardly. Try again.

9Nails, TechSpot Paladin, said:

I was also upset last night when I couldn't play. I didn't make any colorful worded messages about it tho. It's just a fact of demand out-stripping supply. It is unfortunate that the single player portion of the game was unusable product, which is what upset me. I checked the support feed for some enlightening news, maybe I need to unblock a port on my router? But it wasn't meant to be. I do hope a lesson was learned at Blizzard.

Guest said:

Piracy can be a problem but generally speaking great games sell well.

Let's take a look at Blizzard's Starcraft I:

StarCraft was released internationally on 31 March 1998 and became the best-selling PC game for that year, selling over 1.5 million copies worldwide. In the next decade, StarCraft sold over 9.5 million copies across the globe, with 4.5 million of these being sold in South Korea.

There is no argument for why any single-player game should ever require a constant Internet connection to play. I am perfectly fine with logging in once to activate the game key online but after that please let me play the campaign without having an Internet connection.

Guest said:

The logic of people is, if it works for me, everyone is a whiner and I don't care.

Such great society we have, right?

Everyone knows (or should know) that a game won't perfectly on hour 1.

Single player games are supposed to work on hour 1.

MilwaukeeMike said:

You guys really do sound like a bunch of whiners if you can't play on day 1. According to the story above 'The servers were mostly stable as of the morning' So they were busted at midnight, but fine by morning and you're still upset?!

If playing on hour 1 is that important to you, consider yourself lucky that you don't have any real problems in your life.

Guest said:

It would be no problem if the game was free. But I paid some good cash that could've went to something that actually works wherever and whenever I want it to work, for a piece of HD space that does nothing right now.

That's a huge problem for me, but who cares, right?

Guest said:

in a year from now when Diablo III player numbers begin to plummet and the number of players drops to just the fan based members say just a million or two worldwide. technically they have the wright to shut down all the servers (lack of $$$.$$ to the company to run the servers)

at that point there is no more game anymore

doing a protection scheme to an online game to prevent cheaters (hell yes ban the stupid ones)

doing an constant online protection scheme for an off line game to prevent cheaters (W.T.F.) (who cares if you cheat in an off line game the only person you are cheating is yourself)

NO one gives a rats A%@ if you cheat in an off line game

Guest said:

"Thas why I hate STEAM and Origin

if I want to play the SP on my laptop while I dont have internet I CANT Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"

I played BF3 (Origin) offline... I custom built a ~1500 PC for the game and the game turned into a buggy nightmare when I would play online. Haven't touched it in months.

Diablo 3 is a different story. But I can bare it. I'm actually pleased the servers had issues at 15 May 2012 @ ~1130PM EST, else I would have played with my friend until 1-2AM (knowing I have work early the next day). So, I was able to get a good nights rest :)

Guest said:

@ MilwaukeeMike

No, it's not about not being able to play in the first hour or day or even week. It's about any single player campaign requiring a constant internet connection to play it. If this sets a precedent for the entire PC or console gaming industry, good luck with that. I find it amusing that in the last 5 years PC gaming developers started to cry non-stop about PC gaming piracy. Yet when PC gaming was booming from 1997-2005, hardly anyone complained. That's what happens when most of them start making games with 5-10 hour single player campaigns. $60 for any game with a campaign 5-10 hours long is a joke. Such game would have failed miserably in 1998. Nowadays, the new generation of gamers have smartphone addiction, ADD and they don't want any challenging games (health regeneration, lack of in-game bosses). What you get is generally more dumbed down games and Diablo 3 was just the next one on the list to make it more appealing to the mainstream crowd. It's understandable from a business perspective and frankly everyone should have expected it.

lalaman lalaman said:

Ever feel like Diablo 3 is not eerie enough? I mean, it's so damn bright everywhere, it doesn't even have that scary feel to it anymore. Looks more like a happy game to me than a dark and evil one. Diablo 2 had the dark and eerie feel. Caves and tombs were actually dark as shit and you couldn't see some enemies until they start attacking you. Too "hello-kitty-adventure-island" for my taste..

Vrmithrax Vrmithrax, TechSpot Paladin, said:

Thas why I hate STEAM and Origin

if I want to play the SP on my laptop while I dont have internet I CANT Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I'm always highly amused by the misguided STEAM hate comments like this. STEAM has an offline mode, I have it running on my laptop for gaming on the road... And I am on the road a LOT. It runs in offline mode virtually 24/7, with the only exceptions being when I want to install something new or refresh an update cycle. With STEAM, I actually have a CHOICE on whether I want to be connected to play my single player games.

Rather than just deciding to blindly hate something because of what you think it does, maybe you should take a moment to learn about it first? Just a thought...

Guest said:

That "always online" crap is the reason I'm not buying Diablo 3. I will not support that kind of marketing. For everyone who whines about it, 9.9 out of 10 people still buy the game. Hell of statement we're making here, boys.

Guest said:

One of those ignorant bible thumpers who blames everything on God or the lack thereof.

He should have just clarified to begin with, being sly about how you view ignorance is deceitful and damaging to the cause of sanity.

Does this help?


BTW, the original article fails to mention that the game was being happily played by those who just downloaded the cracked version while the paid customers ran into the engineered BS Blizzard created for them.(it was up VERY shortly after release)

So all that time, all that money, all those angry customers....and still failed to prevent the piracy. But then, that wasn't the goal was it? It was to try to cash in on the private transactions of their users, it had nothing at all to do with piracy. As someone mentioned earlier, the only thing you can't do with the cracked one, is use the built in trading features, as they harken home to Blizzard for their slice of the pie.

I honestly hope this isometric hype wagon falls from the news so fast it makes Ke$ha look like the Mona Lisa.

Guest said:

The other half of the story that Blizzard and Activision haven't exactly addressed is they have 3 popular games using its Battle.net service. You have Starcraft2 that yields at least 100,000 users a night, perhaps more when it is being played during the prime time of the week. Next, you have to consider World of Warcraft services millions upon millions of users. The last time I checked, World of Warcraft had a population of 9 million gamers. Therefore, you have that many people using the Battle.net service. Finally, you have Diablo3... case in point, there are millions of users on the Battle.net servers. At World of Warcraft's prime, its population of gamers ballooned to 12 million. Blizzard's games are some of the most popular games to be played. Instead of looking at population by game, Blizzard needs to look at the number of Battle.net accounts because this is the potential how much the service is going to be used. My suggestion is to make the Battle.net servers to be strong enough to service at least 15 million users.

Only a week ago, the @NBA on Twitter reached 5 million followers. Battle.net services at least 10 million users a day. Across a week, Blizzard/Activision need to address its population and how much it is capable of booming. World of Warcraft may be ancient history to some people, but it is still being played.

Guest said:

When they say jump, you say how high? Your brain dead.. fn bullet in your head. - RATM

Guest said:

Blizzard made a grievous error by not allowing offline sp. And you know what ? I will hack my own legit copy to play offline SP at one point, and keep a non hacked version to play with my friends online.

As it ******* should be.

Anyway, thanks Blizzard.

PS: Oh and nice try, you won't stop piracy. Sowwy.

Guest said:

That's why I pirate and continue to pirate these games..If I hear of any issues like this with a game they lost any chance of me paying...I will take the pirated stable offline version any day! I feel bad for the developers but if they haven't learned yet maybe if enough people decide not to give them their money they will reconsider.

Guest said:

The problem here isn't that some people had to wait a bit to play the game. The problem here is that Blizzard and Activision made a futile attempt to stop piracy and the people who bought the game suffered because of it. Because people were expecting the release and looking forward to it so much they thought that they could put in a measure like that and it wouldn't hurt the sales. Once again. This isn't a problem because some people had to wait to play the game. This is about how blizzard gets to treat the customer badly and get away with it. They will do this again. And again. Because people will forget about it, and just buy the next game. They are forgetting that we are the people supporting them. They shouldn't be able to treat the consumer like this to get a mild increase in profits. I would have bought the game, but because of this issue I will pirate it. I support game developers when I can, but when they do something like this they deserve what's coming to them. I sincerely hope as many people as possible pirate this game, to tell them that they can't treat their customers like shit.

Guest said:

Money well spent for that game huh?

Try Path of Exile. It is just as good as Diablo 3 if not better in many ways, and it's practically free.

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