Reflecting on 15 Years of Hell: Media Practice and Diablo

An Introduction to “Ro15YoH”

Diablo III’s release nearly a month ago has garnered a significant amount of attention, interest, ire, parody, … from game players and the enthusiast press. What has been more interesting to me, has been to reflect on Diablo III as an artifact nested in a social, political, economic and technical system. In particular, I’ve observed my friends, many of whom were avid gaming ~17-18 somethings at the time of the first Diablo game’s release in 1997 (A December 31st, 1996 release date counts as 1997 for me) are now middle-aged professionals/partners/parents trying to squeeze this new game into a much more complicated lifestyle.

Why should the readers of #cultd care about this? Diablo III represents 15 years of attention from game players. That represents half of the videogame industry’s history. This, is literally long-term media practice and cultural production unfolding and shifting before us. It is also an opportunity to explore how media practice has changed around a single product line. There are likely many directions to explore media practice surrounding Diablo III, but I’m going to focus on three over the course of the next few posts. The first (the one you’re reading now) is a reflection on media acquisition and acquiring the thing that is “media.” The second examines the End User License Agreements (EULAs) associated with the games. The final is the phenomenon of “always online,” and the legitimization of real money trading in virtual goods in the Diablo games.

Playing Diablo III on Facebook

Playing Diablo III on Facebook

It was this image, posted on Facebook, of my undergraduate roommate and my best friend from high school and my own quipping about difficulties in getting to actually play the game that prompted my thinking about the shifting context of digital game play. I first played Diablo with my two best friends from high school. We primarily ran the game on the two computers located at one friend’s house. The computers ran Windows 95 and were connected over parallel ports that allowed us to play on our own or together in the randomly generated tombs and passages leading ever towards hell. In all likelihood, this kind of collaborative play was a precursor to the guilds and raiding activities now so prevalent in the World of Warcraft. In my friend’s photo, I also likely connect with his kids, for my recollections of Diablo are based on experiences with two other friends and only two computers. One of us was always the observer in the system too.

This should remind us, that even “back then,” the mythology around how and why young people play games is quite different from how it was or is imagined. While research is only now demonstrating that gaming is not particularly asocial, it never really was, at least not in my or my friends’ experience of it. But, this isn’t new, instead demonstrating what many people have known for a great deal of time.

Shifting Physicality and Technologies

Diablo came in a box, which you bought at a store. The box contained marketing materials for other Blizzard games, like Warcraft II, a Diablo paper tablet and a booklet that was the user’s license agreement (more on this in a bit). Despite their unpopularity during the late nineties, I owned a Mac in 1997 and despite Wikipedia’s claim that the Mac version of Diablo was released in 1996 it was not available for Mac until much later in 1998. I remember pirating a beta version of Diablo for Mac via the “Hotline” software popular at the time just in order to play it on my own computer a week or two earlier than the arrival of the actual disc. Of course by this point I was doing it over my University’s network, which was the only real reason downloading ~600MB was a remote possibility. A few weeks later I drove to my local Best Buy on the day of the Mac version’s release. The Best Buy employees working the software section laughed at all the “Excited Mac Boys” buying a game they’d been playing for nearly 18 months.

By the time Diablo II was released during the summer of 2000 (the Mac version followed only by a month or so if I recall), I had a credit card and had pre-ordered the software from, an act that even two years previously I hadn’t really imagined. Indeed, my friends had pleaded that I not pre-order the game, because they claimed that it was my pre-ordering of Starcraft for Mac that had delayed that game’s release by nearly six months. The game was shipped to my room at Caltech on three CDs. Like its predecessor it shipped in a box, though with mostly marketing material enclosed, and certainly no notepad. My PC-based friends had already had the game for a month, so it took a significant amount of time before I could catch up enough to make adventuring with them fun. But it happened soon enough.

Unlike the first game, Diablo II was built around the idea of multi-party players adventuring together. Blizzard had been observant enough of the communities that formed around Diablo, that they knew it was this collaborative exploring that interested users the most. Much like WoW, players attempted to reverse engineer the underlying mechanics of the game to better work the system. Players that reached the level cap continued to play, hoping to collect the very best equipment. At first this was based on experimentation and play. Later it became more systematic, as teams of players managed to fully carve out the underlying mechanics of the game’s systems.

Diablo III, on the other hand, I installed before the game was actually released, which is a strange statement to make. The large multi-gigabyte (~8GB) file was downloaded with the benefit of Blizzard’s custom-packaged BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing system. In part, Blizzard asked players to wait until that particular date, because it was when the game would be available at retail outlets. Thus, the game was installed on my system a week prior to its release, but I couldn’t play the game. There it was on my system. The game ostensibly went live at midnight pacific time on May 15th, 2012. As an east coaster and a parent, I wasn’t part of the initial crush of players. However, like my college roommate, I did rise early to play a bit of the game the next morning.

Nice Nostalgic Fanboy Account…

I’d like to think that this isn’t what I’m doing. Diablo represents a microcosm of a seismic shift in media practice (both as production work and player practice). In 1997, media was a thing that one had to go out to buy at a physical location. Downloading illegally the data contained on that media was a difficult thing. Being on a PC or a Mac mattered in ways that it does less-so now. Multi-player gaming occurred with people primarily co-located (yes, modifications were made that allowed Diablo to be played over the Internet/Modem/etc, in part because Macs and PCs had differing ports). Diablo II was something that I pre-ordered. Diablo II’s three-disc distribution demonstrated that media was straining under the weight of the systems that leverage it. It is also about capital. People were willing and able to conduct commerce online in 2000 in ways that were looked at askance in 1997. Diablo III demands that I be online all the time to play, and indeed my access to the game can be revoked at any time (and I’ll get to the EULAs in the next post and the always online parts in the third post). These are designed changes to our media systems that we don’t always reflect on.

What these 15 years of hell offer the analyst, is a chance to reflect on shifting media practices and the systems that grow up around them. It is an opportunity to explore how media practice has changed when people still remember those practices. It is also an opportunity to explore the implications that these shifts have going forward. I’ve argued that the game industry paves the way for other media industries and in this, Diablo (taken wholly) is another exemplary instance of this. I wonder, what are the consequences of growing up in a media environment where Diablo III represents a starting point, rather than a 15 year exploration. Not in a sense of, “where will we be in 15 more years?” but rather, “how will users know media differently with that perspective?”

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