A Philosopher's Blog

Diablo III

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on May 21, 2012
Deutsch: Logo von Blizzard Entertainment Engli...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like most gamers, I’ve been playing Diablo III. Well, at least when the servers are up.  I do get that servers go down from time to time, such is the way of imperfect technology. I also get that when I am playing an MMO a down server means that I cannot play (on that server at least). After all, an MMO is the sort of beast that needs to be served up. However, Diablo III is not the sort of beast that needs to be so served. After all, Diablo II functioned just fine without being connected to Blizzard’s servers. I do, of course, “get” why Blizzard decided (or was compelled) to require people to be connected to the server to play. After all, it does help combat piracy-if people must be connected to a server and the server can verify the game being authentic (via the authentication key), then the game becomes very hard to pirate. Also, Blizzard also no doubt hopes to cash in on the real money auction house and this requires having tight control over the game-otherwise people some people would just hack to get items rather than spending real money to buy fake stuff. Being an author, I do get that it is important to protect and maximize that cash flow. Of course, I am also a consumer and I regard being able to use something that I have paid for as a reasonable sort of things. To use the obvious analogy, if people buy my books, but could only read them when my “book server” is up an running, then I better make sure that the server is up and running 24/7. After all, there really is nothing about a book that requires that it be served up rather than being readily available and book customers have a reasonable expectation that the book should be available. Likewise for a game like Diablo III.

Now that I have got in the mandatory complaints about the server problems, I can say that I otherwise really like the game.  As with Diablo II, I have been playing with my friends and we quickly fell into our traditional roles, although there were some changes in the classes usually played.

I generally look for the class that has just the right blend of holiness and destructive potential (or, as my detractors might say, viciousness). In Diablo II I played a paladin and in the expansion an assassin.  Not surprisingly, I ended up playing the monk. My friend Ron traditionally has gone for big melee fighters, but he has been on a “weird caster” kick in more recent years, so he ended up as the witch doctor. Dave usually goes for a caster, but he went for the barbarian. Despite the change in classes, we (as noted above) quickly slid into our accustomed roles.

Ron: “Where’s Mike?”
Dave: “I’m not sure. He ran off. Like usual.”
Ron: “Damn, I know he’s stirring up some stuff.”
Me: “I am so glad to see you guys again. I really missed you.”
Dave: “What? Are you talking to us?”
Me: ‘No, the monsters.”
Monsters: “Nooooo, the end of days is upon us! Run!”
Me: “Don’t run! You’ll just get evil sweat on the loot!”
Dave: “Should we help him?”
Ron: “Get back here.”
Me: “I can’t. There are still standing monsters in my field of vision. Plus my weapons get very sad when they are not coated in the blood of the wicked.”
Dave: “Monsters incoming!”
Monsters: “Hey, it’s Dave! Swarm him!”
Dave: “Not the face! Help!”
Ron: “Hmm, I wonder if these boots are better than my current boots? I can’t tell if this staff makes me look fat or not. I need to check the forums on that.”
Me: “Hey, Dave didn’t die this time!”
Dave: “Yeah, that’s why I’m playing the barbarian.”
Me: “Hell, the server is going down in five minutes! I don’t think I can kill any faster…”
Monsters: “Quick, cut those wires faster…we have to get the server down before they kill us all!”

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Diablo III & Selling Fake for Real

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2011
Demon Hunter [661]

"Cash or credit?"

While Diablo III will not be released for a while, it is already generating controversy. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with the demons in the game but with certain features of the game. In a previous post I discussed the matter of Blizzard requiring Diablo III “owners” to be online in order to play the game. In this post I will discuss the auction house.

One new feature in Diablo III is the game’s auction house. While auction houses are nothing new in games (World of Warcraft and other MMOs feature them), what is somewhat new is that players can auction game items to each other for real money. As with a real auction house, Blizzard gets a fee with each transaction. There is also apparently a fee for cashing out the money for real money (but no fee for using the money to buy Blizzard stuff, such as games and in game items).

The selling of fake stuff for real money in games is also not new. Second Life has its own economy as do other games/online worlds. However, most of these involve participants selling virtual things they have made.  In such cases, the selling does seem to make sense. For example, if Bill designs an elaborate virtual house and sells it to Sally, this seems comparable to Bill selling Sally a drawing or photograph. However, in Diablo III, players will be selling loot that randomly drops from monsters which does raise a question about justifying paying cash for such items.

The obvious way to justify this is to argue that while the players did not create what they are selling (it is not like selling a drawing), they did put in the time playing the game to get the item. Of course, luck is also a factor-the loot drops are random, so getting good stuff that people will buy is both a matter of time and luck. As such, these transactions could be seen as comparable to the way prospectors found and sold random bits of gold or other valuables and then sold them. While the prospectors sold physical objects, the value of a flake of gold or a magic sword seem to be primarily in the mind. As such, there seems to be no problem with the selling of “fake” stuff.

One point of concern is that Blizzard would seem to be using players as laborers who mine Blizzard’s game for random items to sell to other players. Blizzard profits from selling the game and also profits from the game’s real money economy. This, some might contend, seems a bit shady. The obvious reply is, of course, that participation is voluntary: players do not need to buy or sell. Also, the players have a chance to make money while doing something fun-which makes this way better than most jobs.

Another point of concern is that this real money auction house will encourage hacking and item farming. Of course, the hacking is mainly Blizzard’s problem-unless people “hack” by stealing from players (as happens in Warcraft). Item farming is, fortunately, not a big concern. Unlike World of Warcraft, you can play Diablo III alone or just with friends. Hence, you do not need to worry about farmers showing up to ruin your game by grabbing up all the monsters. Also, by having a legitimate and controlled means of selling items, the auction house bypasses the black and gray markets that have grown up around MMOs. So, for example, rather than players giving their credit card numbers (or game account information) to people selling gold or leveling, players can just buy stuff through Blizzard’s auction house.

A final point of concern is the ethics of buying items in terms of fairness and in terms of what some might call the spirit of gaming. Being able to just buy items with real money is not cheating in the sense of breaking the game rules (since it is part of the game), but could be seen as cheating in the sense of violating the spirit of gaming. Among those who might be derided as gaming purists, there is a view that items and advancement in a game should be earned in the game. To simply pay cash is cheating since it yields by cash what should be earned by effort. To use an analogy, if someone could just buy a bike and be able to use it in a 5K footrace because she paid for it, then even if this were in the race’s rules, it would still strike runners as a form of “sanctioned” cheating. This is because an increase in speed should be earned and not merely purchased. Likewise, in a game like Diablo III, players should “earn” that magic sword or armor in the game, rather than being able to gear up their character because they have access to mom’s credit card.

It is, however, worth considering that Diablo III is not really a competitive game and, as noted above, players can chose who they play with. Going back to the bike analogy, if someone wants to hold a private race(and the times do not count for records, etc.), in which participants can buy advantages with real money ,  then it should not really be a matter of concern (other than to note that it seems a bit silly to pay money for such an “advantage” in such circumstances) to people who are not participating in the event. As such, my considered view is that it is silly for people to spend real money on fake stuff and it does seem a bit shady. However, if people want to do this, then so be it.

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Diablo III & Ownership

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2011
Diablo III

Image by Kimli via Flickr

Like most gamers, I am looking forward to the release of Blizzard’s  Diablo III. However, also like most gamers, I have some concerns about certain aspects of the game. These concerns have nothing to do with the demons in the game-I’m fine with killing them. While discussing a video game would generally not be a very philosophical sort of thing, the game does raise some important general issues about ownership and fairness.

While Diablo II offered online play as a feature, it did not require players to be connected in order to play. This was, in part, due to the fact that Diablo II arrived on the scene before the days when people could be connected at all times and nearly all places. Diablo III, at least currently, requires that players be connected to Blizzard’s servers in order to play. The folks at Blizzard claim that this is to keep people from cheating in the game.

On one hand, the folks at Blizzard do have a point. People routinely hacked Diablo II to provide their characters with all sorts of goodies and this was made incredibly easy by the fact that character files were stored locally. On the other hand, if Diablo III is like Diablo III, then cheating is really not a point of major concern. In the Diablo genre the player and a few friends (or strangers) travel about in dangerous places (dungeons) and click on monsters until they die. While it is possible to fight other player characters, this was not a significant part of Diablo II and presumably will not be a big part of Diablo III.  Of course, this is from my perspective-I did know of some folks who were obsessed with battling other players (and cheating to win). In any case, Diablo III is not a MMO like World of Warcraft (so you do not have to share the game world with people you do not like) and it does not have (as far as I know) competing factions or battlegrounds intended for player versus player combat. As such, cheating does not seem like it would be a big deal-it is easy to avoid and would have no impact on your game, unless you allowed it by inviting cheaters into your game and decided to fight them.

What is most likely the real reason for the online requirement is, obviously enough, to deter piracy. While this is not a perfect defense against the theft of the game, it does make it somewhat harder. Blizzard does seem to have a right to protect its games from theft and the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who would claim that people have a right to avail themselves of other people’s work without paying for it. As such, I will not argue that Blizzard should not protect their product. However, the means does raise some concerns.

In the past, one important concern would have been the reliability and accessibility of the internet. However, this is not  supposed to be a major concern these days since the typical gamer will only be disconnected (yet able to play) during rare outages and when flying (and only during certain parts of the flight). Also, as the Blizzard folks have helpfully pointed out, there are many other games than Diablo III that people can play when they are not connected.

One legitimate concern is the matter of what the consumer is paying for. When I buy a MMO game like World of Warcraft I accept that it is part of the very nature of the product that I have to be online in order to use my purchase. To use an analogy, when I buy a phone I accept that I need to be connected to a network for it to function as a phone. that is how phones work. While Diablo III does support online play, it is not an MMO and hence does not actually require being connected to the internet for the game to function (aside from Blizzard making it that way). To use an analogy, it would be like a company selling an  MP3 player that only works when it is connected into the phone network owned by the company. While being connected can add extra features, there is clearly no reason why a MP3 player needs to be connected in order for the owner to play her music on it.

As far as why this should be a point of concern, consider the following. Suppose I buy an MP3 player. I can put my music on it and play it for as long as I own it. If the company tanks or if I am out in the woods, I can still use my purchase until it finally wears out. But, suppose I buy an MP3 player that refuses to work unless it can check in with the selling company. This means that if the company tanks, changes it policies, discontinues the product or if I cannot connect, then my MP3 player is just a paperweight. This certainly changes the nature of the product in important ways in terms of what I am buying and what I actually own. In the case of the first player, I am buying a device that I own and control. In the case of the second player, I am handing over money in the hopes that the company will permit me to keep using the product. While this can be an acceptable situation (after all, this is how MMOs and phone contracts work),these conditions should be reflected in the price of the product. After all, if a product can simply stop working because of some external factor, then this changes the value of the product.

In a second post I will address the other concern I have with the game, namely the real money auction house.

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Diablo III

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 30, 2008

Blizzard recently announced Diablo III. The first Diablo was essentially a dungeon crawl in the classic sense: you create a character and increase in power by killing monsters. After you kill them, you loot their bodies for gold and items. The game had an interesting backstory and the dungeon levels were well designed.  It had only three character classes, but had great reply value-it takes a long time to tire of killing and looting.

Diablo II improved on the original by adding better graphics and more character classes. It provided large gaming areas for killing and looting; it also provided yet another interesting plot to provide some additional motivation for killing and looting. Blizzard came out with an expansion set (Diablo did have a third party expansion set) that added a new area as well as new character classes.  While I played the game solo sometimes, the real fun was in teaming up with friends. Since these were typically my D&D buddies, we quickly fell into our usual roles. For example, Ron would always be gathering loot, buying, selling and gambling. He is the merchant of the group. I usually played the assassin. I’m always the killer in the group. I’d loot from time to time, but for me the real joy was in watching the bodies pile up. Of course, all the monsters are bad-so they are in need of killing.  Dave was usually the magic user (sorry, AD&D flashback there). Sadly for Dave, the monsters trying to escape from me would run into him. Since Ron would either be picking gold off the dead or back in town selling and shopping, Dave would usually die fairly often. This was, I must admit, not his fault. Eventually he learned to deal with my bloodlust and Ron’s loot fixation and managed to avoid dying.

Since Diablo and Diablo II were so good (Diablo II is still installed on my Mac and PC), I am really looking forward to Diablo III. I played WoW for over a year, but eventually found that things just took way to long. Believe it or not, I actually am a casual gamer-I spend most of my time running, writing, teaching and taking Isis to the dog park. Diablo II was always great for playing an hour or two with the guys and it looks like Diablo III will have that same sort of fast paced action.

As far as the classes go, Blizzard has only released information about the Barbarian and the Witchdoctor (seems a lot like the Necromancer). The Barbarian seems like the original-he yells, he jumps, he pulls the jaws off big monsters. The witch docter can cast fire and disease spells, plus summon pets. I do hope the assassin returns-that is my favorite class. Blizzard does allow players to switch their characters’ sexes. In previous version, each class had a fixed sex. For example, the assassin was a female.

I’ve just seen the gameplay video, but the graphics look good. The game still seems to preserve the Diablo feel-only with better graphics.

I’m stoked for it, but I expect that there will be quite a wait. Blizzard makes great games, but greatness takes time.