Blizzard and the Two-Level Deception

Recently we discussed Blizzard’s announcement that they are saddling Diablo III with terrible DRM, which they say isn’t DRM, but which everyone knows is DRM. I mentioned that there was much to be said about the contemporaneous announcements of a real-money auction house and a ban on modding. Well, the time for that is now.

The auction house is getting good press. After all, it’s an example of a very good pattern in business - when there is something you can’t stop your customers from doing, embrace it in a way that makes it safer and more convenient for the customers and profitable for you. This is the way of thinking that says the proper response to Napster is not lawsuits, but iTunes. And it says that if your customers are selling their virtual goods on eBay, you should make an in-game auction house and take a cut of each transaction.

There is one little piece of news, though, that is disquieting, and that isn’t being reported much: transactions are anonymized. That’s weird, right? World of Warcraft’s auction house is not anonymized, and Blizzard is the same company that brought us the Real ID fiasco. Why, once money is involved, would they suddenly take the opposite course?

“I love the idea that the reason you need to stay connected is to keep people from cheating, while at the same time creating an infrastructure to purchase equipment straight out with cold, hard cash. Blizzard has no plans to sell items themselves - oh no! - but the sellers are anonymized, so… hm. Apparently you’re supposed to report things like these with a straight face."
—Tycho, The Fire

While Blizzard claims that the auction house will only be player to player, if it’s anonymized, there’s no way to be sure. If the economy is stagnating, Blizzard can just spawn some epic drops and sell them. They can, in essence, print money. Lack of transparency in this case means we can never know what Blizzard is up to behind the curtain. Even if Blizzard genuinely has no plans to engage in these sorts of actions now, they are leaving the option open. How long before they give in and try it?


Now let’s talk about the next announcement: no mods. This seems to go hand-in-hand with the constant connection requirement as an overly-draconian anti-cheating measure. After all, even World of Warcraft supports mods. And the question again becomes - why not just prevent the cheats in multiplayer, and allow single-player to stand alone, as before?

The given answer is unsatisfying at best. The natural reaction, especially with Ubisoft’s ludicrous “mission accomplished” still ringing in our ears, is to assume that it’s about DRM, in a misguided attempt to thwart privacy. Blizzard has actually thrown fuel on this fire, having one of their VPs claim that DRM never even came up in conversation about this. It’s a ridiculous idea, especially since they already said that preventing piracy was one of the reasons for these decisions. So we reject it and congratulate ourselves for spotting their deception and figuring them out, seeing that they just don’t want to admit that it’s all about DRM.

But this might be exactly what they want. After all, if they are (as I wrote last time) smart enough to see this coming, then the only logical conclusion is that things are going just as planned.

What if the real answer isn’t DRM at all? What if the real reason that Blizzard doesn’t want you to be able to “cheat” in single-player (despite the impossibility of this) is because then you’d have no reason to use the auction house?

“Who is being cheated? This is the part of the movie where, in a series of retrospective realizations cut with you looking at your own face in the rearview mirror, you come bit by bit to the heart of it. The person you are cheating is Blizzard, Blizzard in the aggregate, with your attempts to interfere with their digital marketplace. You mustn’t play offline or goof around with your files or any other naughty business because they are endeavoring to transform your putative ownership into a revenue stream."
—Tycho, Sound and Fury

The auction house is more than a way to legitimize and profit from item selling. It’s a continuing income source. It’s important enough to Blizzard that they were willing to substantially restrict the single-player experience, cutting off some percentage of their potential market, in order to force it on the single-player users who remain. Blizzard isn’t chopping out offline single-player because no one would use it; it’s chopping it out because too many people would use it. The ugly surprise hidden behind the DRM smokescreen is that Diablo III is a microtransaction game. The best way to get you to participate is to block off your ability to tweak your character for free, and then force you to play in such a way that paid tweaks are constantly available.

But they’d rather you not think of them as the sort of company that does that. Here’s what they want you to think:

PCG: Why did you decide to implement an auction house system instead of typical microtransactions, which have pretty much been turning everything they touch into gold lately?

Bridenbecker: Really, what you’re talking about there is the hallmark of what Blizzard’s all about. We really try and get into what’s in the best interest of players. And any time you introduce that business-to-consumer relationship, it muddles the waters some. So the person starts to think “Why is Blizzard doing this? They’re obviously doing it because it’s in the best interest of the business.” But if it’s something where it’s player-to-player, it actually takes away some of the questions as to why we’re doing it. Just by the very definition of player-to-player, it shows that it’s actually for the players. It’s about the players.
—Nathan Grayson, Blizzard defends Diablo III’s auction house, always-online requirement

Blizzard would love for you to believe that everything they do is designed to make you happier - but if that were really the case, they wouldn’t take away your offline single-player. Letting you believe that their decisions are about DRM is still preferable to you seeing the truth. It’s very easy to believe the DRM story, since we’ve heard it before. We can roll our eyes at Blizzard’s corporate overlords who just don’t understand that DRM is a losing battle, but at least we are used to their viewpoint. We’ve demonstrated as consumers that we’ll complain about it for a while, but then we’ll move on. It’s a very different story from crippling a product in order to charge players for something they used to be able to do for free.

Imagine if movie theaters could forbid you from bringing in outside food or drink and prevent you from watching films at home. Don’t you think they’d do it if they could? Don’t you think they’d try to tell you it was to improve your film-watching experience?