With the recent release of Diablo 3, a lot of controversy has been around the fact that you require an always-on internet connection to play the game (including the single player). Blizzard (the makers of the game) are not the first games company (nor do I expect them to be the last) to require an always-on internet connection in order to play the games a gamer has paid for. Who benefits from such requirements - the gamer or the publishers?
The Argument For Always-On Requirements
Up until the release of Diablo 3, the reason games required an always-on internet connection was for the games' DRM (digital rights management), in order to prevent pirated versions being played. The publishers' argument for using this method was to stop pirates having access to the games they publish. The problem with this is that if someone wants to pirate a game they will, and someone will always find away to hack it. So the games will still be pirated, and the only person who suffers is the honest gamer, who paid for the game but still requires an internet connection.
Diablo 3's approach for requiring an always-on internet connect (according to Blizzard) is to provide an 'enhanced gaming experience'. As the character is saved on Blizzard's servers it can be accessed on any computer and a gamer can use the same character for both single player and multiplayer. This all sounds good but when you realise Blizzard have released a real money auction house in which players can buy and sell in game items for their character (Blizzard takes a cut from all sales) the reasons why they want an always on internet connection becomes more apparent.
Offering an "offline" version in which a single player game can be played without an internet connection could cause problems for Blizzard, because they would be integrating this into the auction house. There could potentially be an issue where less scrupulous people would hack their character to give themselves better items to fetch more money at sale and thus make more money. So Blizzard's reason for requiring an always-on internet connection seems to be more for monitoring purposes and to ensure they receive their share of the sales, rather than stopping pirates.
Why It Does Not Work And What Is Needed For It To Work
Sadly, as the release of Diablo 3 showed, requiring the internet to play a game does not work. The servers that Blizzard had in place were not enough to cope with the demand for the game. Even two weeks after the launch the servers still go down for hours at a time, preenting people from playing the game.
If publishers want to offer such services then they need to make sure that the infrastructure is in place to provide an uninterrupted reliable service.
Even though Blizzard had a few issues with the launch of Diablo 3, if they manage to make the auction house a success (which they probably will) then other companies will take note and look to implement such features themselves.
When Should We As Designers Implement Such Features?
As we are becoming a more connected world, in a few years' time, with the rise of technology such as 4G, we will probably not need to worry if a user is not online. Until then though we have the problem of a user wanting to use our applications without an internet connection. What should we do? As designers and programmers we should not shy away from enhancing our applications with features that are only available to user tshat are connected to the internet - providing that the features add benefit to the end user. For users that aren't connected to the internet, we should not freeze them out from using our application. Instead, we should degrade gracefully and make our applications as useable as possible without needing an internet connection.