Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Blizzard, a Few Words on API Implementation

Over on battle.net, Blizzard is defending their action of banning users for using Wine to run copies of their hugely popular Sword & Sorcery game Diablo III. In Blizzard’s words:
Account Action: Account Closure
Offense: Unapproved Third Party Software
A third party program is any file or program that is used in addition to the game to gain an unfair advantage. These programs may increase movement speed or teleport heroes from one place to another beyond what is allowed by game design. It also includes any programs that obtain information from the game that is not normally available to the regular player or that transmit or modify any of the game files.
Now I happen to know a fair bit about the internals of Linux and Windows, and can say one thing for certain: Wine is not the problem.
As mentioned on Ubuntu Vibes, the Wine developers are keen to distance themselves from the issue, and fair to them it is not their fight. But Blizzard definitely has some explaining to do.
I have been very much on the side of those calling foul of Blizzard's method of providing the game state, essentially running a single-player game on their servers. While Diablo II saved locally and ran game logic entirely independent of servers, a single-player game in Diablo III is essentially a single user multiplayer instance – all state is held on their servers. This has advantages, like quickly and more reliably allowing me to invite internet users to join my game, but that’s about the only benefit I can see.
It would appear that Blizzard are trying to clarify that they don’t ban based on OS (or API implementation), and its a subtle point. Whether cheating is actually happening in this particular community as they allege is not quite evident, but since Blizzard don’t reveal the exploit a user is supposed to be using there is no recourse for refund or rectification. I’ll leave that point alone, save to say that I would prefer other users don't cheat, but that it’s irrelevant if I’m in a single-player game. Unfortunately, the way the game is designed there is no such thing.
There’s been ranting about other problems, but one I’m most interested in is legacy. The reason almost any software has a minimum specification for operating system is a guarantee that they APIs they need will be present. Wine is an undertaking to replicate the APIs in Windows for use on other platforms, prominently Linux. Backwards compatibility is the bane of Microsoft’s existence, but there’s no option there really.
The big issue here is the digital legacy. I used to play with my father’s toys as a kid, and he with mine – that is until I started gaming. I have a partner who went barking mad as the release for Diablo III approached simply because she was excited to relive the enormous amount of time she wasted in college playing Diablo II. The problem is even graver than if Steam went dark for good where i simply couldn’t install my games. If Blizzard pulls the plug I cant launch games I’ve already installed, ever! And frankly, twenty years from now I just might like a shot of nostalgia.
But the hardware/operating system of the future might not support it you say? I’d say you’re dead wrong! Steam released the classic X-COM games packaged running in DOSBox, showing that there are solutions to anciently legacy games on modern platforms, and open-source no less.
So just what is Blizzard’s problem? The fact that Wine presents a functional implementation of the Win32 API is of little relevance. there’s no clear statement that non-Microsoft/Apple platforms are enough to get you kicked, far from it they leave it up to users to employ best-efforts. Blizzard may very well claim that they only support native implementations, but WOW64 is really an implementation of the Win32 APIs, when the underlying system is in fact 64-bit.
So, we have both closed-source and open-source solutions to the problem of running legacy code, both apparently providing a reasonably good experience (in fairness I think the Windows implementation is excellent, no idea on quality using Wine). Twenty years from now I have a fairly good feeling there will be legacy emulators (Windows 7-in-DOSBox, Wine for Linux 7 or something as-yet undreamed of), but I am almost certain Blizzard won’t be keeping up a service for Diablo III, even if I just want to show my kids how their dad used to kill demons fell more in love with their mom.

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