On the day of Diablo III's release, I want to take a moment to reflect on what we've lost over the past fifteen years in PC gaming. In the name of combating piracy, DRM has slowly infected PC games to the point where games require constant Internet access to play single player, and, hearteningly, a whole anti-DRM movement has also sprung up. But in mainstream games, legitimate customers are being treated as criminals, and losing access to features we have always taken for granted. This post is intended to be a very specific anti-DRM rant, lamenting the loss of sharing.
Sharing is a fundamental human tendency. We share houses, cars, food, stories, jokes, movies, and lives with siblings, friends and spouses. We used to share computer games too, but over the past decade, game studios have not only attacked our ability to share, but somehow made it taboo as well. If I mention that I’m upset that I can’t share newer games with, say, my partner, I’ll often be made to feel like a software pirate.
I want to get one thing clear: when I say “sharing” I’m not talking about piracy. “File sharing,” copying a game to thousands of strangers, or even just a circle of close friends, is wrong and I don’t deny that it costs the industry in lost sales. But what I am talking about is something far more benign and natural for human society. Consider this perfectly normal scenario for any game in the 1990s or early 2000s:
I purchase a game (say, Diablo II). I take the box home and install it on the family PC. I create a character (“Matt”) and start playing. Then, while I’m out, my brother picks up the game and creates a second character (“Joe”, not his real name but whatever), and he plays the game for a bit. Over the course of the next few months, we share the game, in just the same way as we might share a car, computer or book. I don’t think of this being immoral (“cheating” or “piracy”) in any way. If you do, I’d like you to consider whether you would have ten years ago, or whether you’ve become conditioned to it by the behaviour of modern game studios. Do you consider it “piracy” if two people watch a single DVD? If two people play with a single deck of cards? If two people use the same toaster? Now we might push this morally a bit if we installed it on separate computers and played simultaneously — I still don’t think it’s immoral but it’s certainly a grey area. For this discussion, just consider the first usage scenario. One computer, two players, not playing simultaneously.
So how does the modern game industry treat us differently? Diablo III still allows us to create several characters (of course it does — otherwise you wouldn’t be able to play more than one class). But it is what I would call sharing-hostile. First, the game allows installation on multiple machines. But it requires that you connect to Blizzard’s Battle.net service at all times during play — even when playing single player. When you install the game, you have to create a new Battle.net account, or link the game to an existing one. Battle.net accounts are permanently associated with the game copy, and the name of the account (the BattleTag) can only be changed one time, and after that they are permanently frozen. In the game, you may choose a separate name for your character, but — and this part I consider to be deliberately designed to prevent sharing — your character name almost never appears in the game. The name above your character’s head; the name everybody associates with you when playing the game, is your immutable BattleTag.
This means that if I bought Diablo III and installed it, then my brother wanted to play it, the following limitations would apply:
- The second player would be forced to go by the name of “Matt” for most purposes.
- The second player would receive chat messages from my friends while playing. There would be no way for him to build a separate friends list.
- The second player would be unable to earn any achievements that I had already earned. Worse, any achievements the second player earns while playing would be permanently unlocked in my account, and I wouldn’t be able to earn them myself.
- The global statistics page for my account would show combined statistics for both of our characters.
At least StarCraft II also has guest accounts for secondary players to play offline (with achievements and other profile-specific data disabled). Diablo III has no such mode. StarCraft II is even more sharing-hostile for players who wish to play online (again, not simultaneously). Because you can’t use more than one Battle.net account per copy of the game, StarCraft II has all of the restrictions above, but also:
- The second player’s player ranking would be combined with the primary player’s. This means that if the second player played poorly, it could drop the primary player out of his hard-earned league.
What ever happened to profiles? Remember those? Just about every game — even Blizzard’s games (StarCraft and Warcraft III) — would let you create as many as you wanted, specifically for the purpose of letting multiple players play the game without stomping all over each others’ game data.
I don’t want to just pick on Blizzard. Lots of companies are doing this. At least Valve games let you change your name, but other than that, they have all of the same restrictions as above: friends lists, achievements and statistics, for example, are permanently bound to the Steam account you used to purchase the game. Team Fortress 2 also has unlockable items, which would be shared across the primary and secondary players, while Portal 2 has some (minor) story elements which can only be completed once.
Of all of these things, it is the “you can never change your public user name” thing that bugs me the most. That one “feature” is going to make Blizzard millions upon millions of dollars, as thousands of families buy multiple copies of the game in order to give each family member the right to choose their own name. Worse, it reinforces the idea among average gamers that games “belong” to individuals (as opposed to families), and that it’s “wrong” to play another individual’s game. It subtly defines usage of someone else’s game without paying for your own copy as a taboo activity.
There is nothing “moral” about this feature. Assuming we were not planning to play the game simultaneously, I see no reason why Blizzard couldn’t let me log out of one Battle.net account and log into another (which was their policy in Warcraft III and their earlier games), allowing my family to have their own names, friends lists and achievements. As it is, each copy of the game is artificially made the property of one person, which is usually reserved for such personal physical objects as toothbrushes and clothes. Especially with increasingly social elements being added to games, it feels a bit like being forced to share a Facebook account.
I worry about the future of gaming, where we’re likely to see games build ever-increasing amounts of data into the single player profile you purchase with the game, until it becomes basically impossible for more than one person to enjoy the game unless individual family members purchase the game. It’s sad, given that the games industry began marketing consoles and games to families, as something to be enjoyed together (just watch any of the 70s or 80s Atari ads, like this one, showing four family members play the games one after another). Games had high-score tables letting different players record their names for comparison. Games had profiles allowing players to completely restart the game or allow family members to play separately. Modern games are designed to make sure that, as much as possible, the person who purchased the game is the only person who plays it. I for one lament the death of sharing games.