Diablo III's Teething Troubles: A Stumble or a Fall?
GamesIndustry International's writers on whether Bizzard's latest launch causes long-term damage to the company
When you release a AAA title, the third in a much loved series, after a twelve year hiatus, you want to get it right. When you're catering to a legion of adoring fans who have lapped up the months of hype and PR, who, shall we say, have perhaps developed a slightly over-evolved sense of entitlement, you want to get it absolutely right.
Luckily, when the game you're making is Diablo III, you have the resources of the world's biggest game publisher at your back, working within a team which has the experience of running the world's most successful online title, full of genius and startling creative energy. What can possibly go wrong?
Well, we all know the answer to that. Error 37. Error 12. Furious fans loudly declaring their disgust all over the internet so vociferously that they're being lampooned by other, less furious fans.
"Despite very aggressive projections, our preparations for the launch of the game did not go far enough"
Blizzard's official apology
Whether or not you put any faith in the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity, Diablo III's launch has certainly been a mixed bag. The strength of Blizzard's reputation, justly earned from the quality of its products, should see it ride out the storm - but should Blizzard have done more for its fans, or is this just another casualty of internet over excitement syndrome? Problems aside, should we not be hailing one of the best games of the year for the triumph it clearly is?
Below, GamesIndustry International's writers from both sides of the Atlantic give their thoughts on the controversy surrounding Diablo III's launch and what it means to them.
Hiccups during launch day are not terribly uncommon. Does anyone remember the first year or so after World of Warcraft released? It was plagued by connection issues, but it eventually racked up 12 million subscribers. This isn't even the first time recently that Blizzard has had to deal with this - around the release of StarCraft II, the idea that there would only be one faction's campaign, that there was no LAN plan and that the Real ID system might force users to register their real names was hugely controversial, at least for some. Well, Real ID got nixed, and the game worked itself out and it's now the top online competitive game on the planet.
The point is, people might complain about the real money auction house and get ticked they can't log onto Battle.Net... but the level of attention just shows how passionate these fans are. It's a first-world problem to have an overwhelming number of customers, and I think when things calm down and Blizzard sorts the server situation, the game will go down as a wild success.
I'm not the Diablo fanatic in my household, so the game's release is mostly academic to me. Diablo III will be another blockbuster hit for the company, but I'm interested in seeing how the community adjusts to the changes Blizzard has made to the fundamentals of the game.
While the Diablo franchise was a single-player or LAN co-op affair for many players in the past, Diablo III is built as a multiplayer title. The always-online nature of the game is a sticking point with some hardcore fans, but outside of early server issues, it's gone off without a hitch. Diablo III completes Blizzard's change into a full online services developer.
"Blizzard is pushing users online because the real revenue is in the real-money auction house"
Blizzard is pushing users online to keep player retention high because the real revenue is in the real-money auction house, which has yet to launch. They want players selling and buying items. Blizzard wants to tick off those fees with every transaction. It's why they gave Diablo III away for free with a 12-month World of Warcraft subscription. If Diablo III's real-money auction house takes off, then expect to see the concept mirrored in Titan when that finally releases. The system could also be grafted onto World of Warcraft as that game enters its twilight years.
I have to say, this whole Diablo III server malfunction seems to be a non-issue. The "uproar" appears rather muted. Blizzard is getting off easy compared to how badly BioWare has been trashed for both Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age II. Blizzard is a company that has successfully been able to push itself away from the Activision association, and it sort of has that 'Valve Time' thing going on when it comes to releasing titles.
Honestly, I think that Diablo III is another major hit for the company, and one that will be yet another cultural statement on gaming. StarCraft, Diablo, WarCraft... all of these titles command respect and admiration from gamers, and this latest edition is not going to change that, despite launch glitches.
Remember, Battlefield 3 had a horrible launch thanks to server issues, and that really didn't affect them. And the same goes for CoD Elite when it stumbled out of the gate. All of these issues are just buzz, something to talk about and to keep people busy with on message boards. The moment things are smoothed over, no one will care. I doubt many will remember this a year from now. Diablo is simply too much an obsession for gamers for them to focus on the bad when so much good will surround them in due course.
To echo the thoughts from David and Ben, gamers appear to have short memories. Look at how PlayStation Network bounced back from the catastrophe Sony allowed to happen. The PSN breach makes any launch struggles for Diablo III look like a walk in the park. If people can forgive Sony for exposing their credit card information to hackers, then they can certainly get over something far more trivial.
The bottom line is that people will bitch and moan, vent their frustrations, and then they will get back to playing more Diablo III.
Blizzard is one of those studios that always manages to get things right. They listen to their fans, and they'll probably make good on their failings with the fan base in the long run. The company should be given the benefit of the doubt. Besides, Diablo III is just too damn good to ignore.
Early server issues and the Error 37 problem will go away soon. The more important long-term issue for Blizzard is how the game balance has turned out. You'll recall they basically performed a heart transplant on the game system earlier this year, ripping up basic mechanics and starting over. I got the impression they were handed a ship date by Activision, rather than taking the usual Blizzard "we'll ship when it's done" strategy. It seems to work OK, but subtle balance issues may take a while to manifest. It probably won't matter to someone who's just playing the game through on their own.
"You'll recall they basically performed a heart transplant on the game system earlier this year, ripping up basic mechanics and starting over"
Game balance will matter hugely when you're dealing with the auction house, though. When real money is at stake, players will be annoyed if their purchase turns out to be underpowered. I think we'll be seeing a lot of tweaking going on as Blizzard uses the data from massive numbers of users to adjust the play experience. The game will be a good performer; to me the real question is whether the auction house will become a major cash cow for Blizzard or end up as an interesting experiment that didn't work out.
This is a difficult question to answer, because, yes, Blizzard almost certainly has the brains and resources to avoid day-one server problems. But at the same time, I just can't shake the feeling that all of this public ire doesn't matter. At all. Whether we're talking big picture or tight focus, the 1 star Amazon reviews and 0.0 Metacritic ratings are a fly buzzing around Blizzard's bountiful picnic - unfortunate, and I'm being charitable.
Yes, Mike Morhaime will furrow his brow, and say in the most grave manner possible that the company could have done more, and how sorry Blizzard is for spoiling the fans' special day. No doubt he is entirely sincere, but he is also sitting on a chair made of their money and, judging by the ecstatic reaction from everyone who has actually played Diablo III, every penny is entirely deserved. If that sounds cynical, it isn't my intention. Those who stood in line for Diablo III won't make a better or more value-packed purchase this year - hell, they probably won't make a better one this decade.
In situations like this we often refer to the 'contract' that exists between creator and consumer, and, more often than not, opinion favours the consumer - they're the ones paying, after all. But in this case the notion that any Diablo fan has been "cheated" strikes me as absurd. Server issues could persist for another week and I'd feel the same way. I have paid £40 for enough six-hour games to know the difference between a cause for complaint and a cause for gratitude, and this is as fine an example of the latter as you're likely to find.
Blizzard baked one of the most delicious cakes you'll ever taste, refining and perfecting the recipe for more than a decade so it'll stay mouthwatering for years to come. Just give it a day or two to find a cherry for the top.
Despite what you might have seen on Twitter, YouTube and Reddit, Blizzard have nothing to worry about when it comes to the long term effects of Error 37. There won't be any. We gamers are an embarrassingly easy-going bunch when it comes to screw ups.
James mentions the the PSN apocalypse. Not only did PlayStation owners flock back to the service, but by September it had gained 3 million new users too. And Microsoft's ruling console, the Xbox 360? Does anyone remember that little red ring issue? And then you've got Skyrim being completely broken for PS3 players, Battlefield 3 servers breaking, day one patches as standard. We're used to it, it's as much part of being a gamer as hand cramp.
"I'm not saying it's excusable, but I think it's indicative of a larger problem in our industry"
I'm not saying it's excusable, while Blizzard was signing off on those 8000 late night openings and 2 million pre-orders they should have assumed all those people would like to play the game, but I think it's indicative of a larger problem in our industry. And we gamers are part of it. Things get released too soon, break, and we rush to Twitter and cry about it. The publishers patch it, plug in another server, put out a press release and we forget about it, and hand over our cash for the sequel.
Does it stop anyone buying the next game? No. Is that what matters? Yes. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Witch Doctor called Stabitha who wants to do some looting.
One of things I love the most about games is the sense of community that comes from the players, and in particular the feeling that there's a "moment" - a day or a week where everyone is talking about one particular game. It's similar to what Mark Sorrell was talking about with broadcast TV - conversations with peers, whether face-to-face or via social networks, where there's a palpable buzz from an audience experiencing an event together. It's bloody exciting.
And that's the perfect moment for publishers to capitalise on a launch. Everyone is talking about their product, it's the pinnacle of what they've been working for. Unfortunately in Blizzard's case it's completely bungled it. From more than 24 hours the audience is only talking about one really bad thing. And there's nothing else to distract them. With no reviews from the specialist press, and barely any access to Blizzard through other promotional activities, everyone from the cosplayers to the curious are collectively confused and screaming at a company when they should be immersed and absorbed in a great game. It's WTF when it should have been OMG. What should have been a special occasion turned into a missed opportunity. Poor show.
Firstly I'm going to go out on a limb with Mike here and say that I'm not really a Diablo fan. I'm not being contrary in the face of its popularity, it just doesn't appeal - I felt exactly the same way about other loot-'em-ups like Torchlight, Sanctuary and Titan Quest.
So I don't share the fever. That means I'm not about to excuse the service's failings because of the game's qualities, but it also means that I'm not say here frothing idly from a corner of my mouth whilst my finger taps incessantly at some spectral mouse button because OH GOD I WAITED 12 YEARS FOR THIS AND TOOK THE DAY OFF AND BLIZZARD RUINED MY LIFE. So, I have a bit of untainted objectivity here.
"So much over reaction, so much entitlement. So much hatred for a company which only a few hours previously had been feted as the most benevolent of entities"
But still I'm torn. Initially, my British reserve takes precedent, which means that I wanted to raise a sardonic eyebrow at both parties before exhaling gently and moving on with a slight shake of the head. The more I think about it, though, the more it imbues me with that other staple of the UK's emotional repetoire: mild embarrassment.
On the one hand we have a huge, multi-national company that has been doing exactly this sort of thing for Wikipedia knows how long, with a twelve year run up and all the cash and resources at its desposal it could hope for. Fireworks are launched, doves released, fanfares blast. Then someone does a little fart in the corner, the banners all fall down and the doves fly right into the fireworks. Shame.
It's a little like a race. Blizzard have crouched, poised like a lithe athletic statue on the block, waiting for the starter's pistol, for months. And then, when the sharp crack of release day has rung out across the arena, it's realised that its shoes are untied and has stumbled, rather than sprinting, out of the trap. Again, as has been pointed out above, it's no disaster. Limbs remain intact and doubtless Blizzard's pedigree will steer it right. This is most definitely a marathon, not a sprint.
Nonetheless...it's a bit embarrassing, isn't it? Midnight launches for a game that can't be played when you get home? Error lists so long and complex that whole articles are dedicated to explaining them? Really?
As Matt says, this should have been a watercooler moment of shared experience, comparing loadouts and character rolls, war stories and discoveries. Instead it was shared frustration, anger and disappointment, and that is undeniably a huge shame and a horribly wasted opportunity.
But then you flip the coin and examine the reaction. The rage. Oh god the rage. So much over reaction, so much entitlement. So much hatred for a company which only a few hours previously had been feted as the most benevolent of entities. That, for gaming as a whole, is massively embarrassing, serving only to reinforce the still widely held belief that gamers are largely shouty basement gentlemen, hollering into the void because someone is threatening to take away their toys.
Of course you should give feedback when a product fails to meet your expectations or its manufacturer's promises - just make sure you get dressed properly and put up a spit guard before you do.
It'll blow over. As Rachel points out, gamers are generally pretty easily appeased. Like saplings in the wind, they are bent out of shape easily, but they snap back just as quickly. Occasionally, however, you'll come across a fan so deeply rooted in their absorbtion that they'll withstand a dozen gales without dipping a leaf, before creaking straight down the trunk with a noise like thunder and crushing everything for 40 yards.
Blizzard, it seems, lives in a forest of these fans, but luckily, it's a very, very large one.