When something goes wrong in a commercial transaction between a creator and a customer, the morality of the situation is rarely complex. Lay out the facts of the situation clearly and few people will disagree with the final assessment; in the cold light of day, the party who's being greedy, or unreasonable, or over-entitled, or a combination of all of the above, isn't usually hard to identify. While the vocal over-reaction of a (thankfully small) band of game consumers to various titles in the past couple of years has generated a backlash against the "entitled gamer", the reality is that few game companies have anything like a spotless record in terms of dealing with their consumers. We may sympathise with the developer forced to ship a product it knows to be buggy, or the publisher who pulls support for an online title after a relatively short amount of time, but the party truly deserving of sympathy in these situations is the consumer.
"I'm simply not sure that a lot of people in the games industry actually understand the value decision involved in buying a piece of entertainment that costs £40"
It's with this in mind that I find the discourse around this week's Diablo 3 launch a bit unpleasant. Certainly, some of the reactions from fans of the game have exceeded disappointment and justifiable upset and verged on the outright threatening and obscene - but this is a small minority. Most of those who have experienced problems with Diablo 3's launch have expressed their concerns reasonably, if angrily, and should by no means be dismissed with the "entitled gamers" label.
After all, what's being discussed here is fairly straightforward - an expensive product that doesn't work as it's intended to. The problems attendant at Diablo 3's launch aren't universal, and many users are having fine experiences, but that doesn't excuse the obvious errors on Blizzard's part which have resulted in other users being unable to play a game for which they've paid a not inconsiderable amount of money.
Unlike the recent controversy over Mass Effect 3, this is not a matter of players having a difference of opinion over a creative matter and deciding that it's their right as consumers to be listened to. Diablo 3 will undoubtedly earn criticism from various quarters on creative terms - criticism which Blizzard, which has deftly steered World of Warcraft through the slings and arrows of outraged forum posters for the best part of a decade, is well placed to deal with. This is different, though. Customers have bought a game which they can't play when they want to play it. They have every right to be upset.
Those white knights springing to Blizzard's defence would do well to realise how simple this issue is, at heart. Certainly, one might argue that the problem is temporary, and everything will be fine in a while. Equally, it's absolutely true that the world faces bigger problems than a gamer being unable to play his videogame for an hour or two. However, such infantile whataboutery misses the point entirely. If someone has an hour or two set aside to play videogames - which is about all that many people can manage in the space of a week - then they're quite right to be upset if half that time is spent staring at an error screen (which, incidentally, is also the reason why Sony should be utterly ashamed of what a mess the patching system on the PS3 continues to be so many years after launch - it's an embarrassment to the company and a constant, unwelcome reminder of how far their system software has to go to catch up with rivals like Microsoft). As for there being more important things than playing videogames, quite right - let's just shut down the games industry now and get on with those things, shall we? I thought not.
There are two major aspects to this whole fracas which strike me as worrying, in that they represent a potentially serious disconnection between some parts of the industry and the people they're meant to be addressing. The first is simple - the majority of the "oh calm down, it'll work eventually, stop fussing" reaction has come from people who, bluntly, don't pay for their videogames. This is a factor which unsettles me slightly whenever our industry has a discussion about something like cost, or business models, and it emerges here too. I'm simply not sure that a lot of people in the games industry, especially those on the media side, actually understand the value decision involved in buying a piece of entertainment that costs £40. I don't think they quite grasp how much money £40 is to the average consumer, how much expectation that outlay brings with it - and how much disappointment a seemingly never ending litany of error screens is going to engender as a result.
The second aspect is that I wonder if, as an industry, we make assumptions about the reputation of companies which are simply too broad. My instant reaction to the Diablo 3 problems, I confess, was straightforward - "calm down, it's Blizzard, they're good guys, they'll fix it". I honestly see the situation that way - but then again, taking a step back, I'm in a rather privileged position. I've written about Blizzard for around a decade, interviewed many of the studio's senior executives and developers several times, been to their offices, gone drinking with their staff. Many others in the media have enjoyed even closer links to the company. I'm not in any way saying that this is corrupt - but does it change the value judgment I make on a situation like this, compared to the judgment made by a consumer who just knows that he likes Blizzard's games? Yes, it does.
"This is only a sneak preview of an undercurrent of problems that's going to continue, and indeed grow, in the years to come"
These kind of concerns matter, I believe, because while Blizzard is far from the first company ever to launch a product whose servers are overwhelmed in the first few days or whose technological underpinnings go through some serious teething problems, the firm is in uncharted waters in certain other regards. Diablo 3 is a huge game, perhaps the most important launch the PC full-price market will see this year - and it's launching with an always-on DRM approach which means that even the single player campaign won't work without an internet connection and, as gamers are discovering in droves, won't work if Blizzard's servers are acting up.
That's a big leap, and not one that everyone's comfortable with. Blizzard will have done its homework, I'm sure, but it's still taking a gamble - because this approach is going to annoy a certain number of consumers, not just while launch problems persist, but throughout the lifespan of the game. Internet connections in 2012, even in the world's richest and most developed countries, are flaky and unreliable. Sure, we can watch streaming HD video on them now - but only when they're actually working. Last Sunday evening, my (generally excellent) broadband connection went down for three hours - I couldn't play anything on my Xbox 360, as I'm (foolishly, I now suspect) using the poorly implemented Cloud Save system, and I wouldn't have been able to play Diablo 3 either. I couldn't play it if I brought my laptop back to my family home for a break. If I moved apartment, even in a digitally connected city like London, I'd be unable to play the game for a fortnight.
In summary, the annoyance that Blizzard faces now needs to be taken seriously for two reasons. Firstly, because gamers are customers who have paid a lot of money for something, and to dismiss legitimate grievances smacks of certain corners of our industry which have forgotten what it feels like to part with a serious amount of cash for a game, and are making odd judgment calls as a consequence. Secondly, because this is only a sneak preview of an undercurrent of problems that's going to continue, and indeed grow, in the years to come. Several other companies are viewing Diablo 3's always-online approach as validation of something they'd love to implement too. They should know that this storm might die down significantly, but it's never going to go away entirely - and while Blizzard is well-equipped to weather it, lesser companies are not. Don't dismiss this as "entitled gamers". Listen and learn - inside the fury, there's an important message here.