A Philosopher's Blog

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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A Virtual Economy

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2010
Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

Spending money for games that allow you to play in an imaginary world is nothing new. However, a new way has been found to monetize games: selling items within games for real money. While this has been done in various online games against the terms of service of such games, Playfish has this as their business model. Facebook users can play their various games for free, but they buy the items in the game with real money (and lots of it).

Of course, virtual commodities are nothing new. People buy music, videos and software online. It can be argued that the virtual items in online games are similar-after all, they are digital “entities” that are purchased for enjoyment or use. Of course, music, videos and software do seem a bit more “substantial” than items in a video game, but perhaps this is not really a difference in kind but one of complexity.

While buying such game items might seem odd, it actually does make some sense. After all, if it makes sense to buy a song on iTunes because you enjoy it, it seems equally sensible to buy items in a game so as to enjoy the game. While the song might be seen as real, the game item is also real insofar as it creates enjoyment (as Mill argued, anything that can produce an effect is real).

In the case of competitive games, the selling of items does create the obvious problem of game balance and does violate a rather common principle of gamer ethics regarding buying advantages in a game with real money (that is, this is wrong).

Interestingly, this virtual economy is being lauded as not just a rather clever way to make money,  but also as a way to gain excellent data about economic behavior. While gathering such data in the real world can be costly and difficult (and often yield dubious results) the virtual economy in such games can be tracked with  precision.

However, there is the obvious concern of whether or not the online behavior matches real world economic behavior. Another concern is whether the people engaged in the online games differ in important respects from the general population. However, this is certainly interesting to folks who are into economics.

To close, I cannot help but think about Pet Rocks. When I was a kid, some clever people found a way to sell rocks as pets. When I think about people buying virtual things for real money, I keep picturing Pet Rocks.

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