Monday, May 28, 2012

Diablo III Auction House - Killer of Fun or Shrewd Business?

So the past week or so, I've been playing the heck out of Diablo III (or at least as much as my free time would allow), and wondering what sort of blog to write about it.  After all - I have a gaming blog - Diablo III has already become the fastest selling PC game in existence - seems like I should put something up about it.  Unfortunately, "ZOMG I LURVES TEH DIABLO TREE!" doesn't make for that exciting of a blog.

But as I played through the week, humming along quite nicely with incredibly few deaths (far fewer than I dimly recalled from my old Diablo II days), quite enjoying myself, someone mentioned in passing they doubled their DPS at the auction house for surprisingly little money.  And I thought - Hey.. I'd like more DPS.. Hmm.. maybe I should look at the auction house!  And let me tell you - I can't say how sorry I was.

Loot Pinata!
Before we go much further though, I want to spend a bit of time recalling the things that made the Diablo franchise so successful - and so addictive.  There were two parts of it - really.  The first, was that perfect progression mechanic - of easily advancing your character, unlocking new traits and abilities - and seeing (and feeling) the power of your character grow.  And tied directly to that, was the lure of the loot pinata - of seeing  (and hearing) the loot spring from each fallen foe, knowing the vast majority of it was worthless, but eagerly picking up every blue drop, the rush of excitement in seeing a rare drop, and the jaw-dropping heart-thudding rush of adrenaline when something extraordinarily rare dropped - a legendary or a set-piece.  Those two elements, combined with a deeply satisfying combat experience, are the things that for me draw me from room to room, level to level, and have me saying long past the time at which I should go to bed - Just let me get to one more waypoint.

While there's an entire other blog waiting to be written on the changes in Diablo's skill mechanics, and whether the new system of skills and runes is better or worse than the old talent-tree model (I've heard good arguments from both sides of the fence), there's almost no argument that the auction house effectively and utterly kills the value of in-game loot drops for the average player.  And it's hard to describe how wrong I feel this is - because it is for me such a huge part of the enjoyment of the game.  I'm so glad that when the first legendary for me dropped - early - before I'd finished Act II in normal mode in fact - that I hadn't yet even used the auction house - because I was able to experience that whole ZOMG AH GOT A LEGENDARY feeling.  If a legendary dropped for me now, I'd still be greatly pleased, but already I know its value, and the fact that for about a half hour's work I - or any other person playing a demon hunter - could just buy one.

But allow me to continue the story I started above.  I was humming along in normal mode with only things that had dropped for me, or things I had crafted, genuinely enjoying what I felt like was a pretty well balanced experience - if perhaps a tad on the easy side - when one of my friends watching over my shoulder - mentioned "You need to get better crossbows.."  Oh man.  Why did he have to plant that seed in my head?  Because.. even though I was doing fine - it got me to thinking - well maybe I do need better crossbows!  So I went to the auction house, and in about 15 minutes of searching (only taking so long because the auction house interface is so mindbogglingly awful), I found two crossbows, each of which were easily close to twice the DPS of the crossbows I currently using - and each was less than 4000 gold.  Good Lord when my character sneezes the monsters drop 4000 gold.  And an immediate entitlement vibe starts going in your head.. "Why shouldn't I have those crossbows," it says.  "You deserve those crossbows!  You're entitled to them! They put those up there just for you!"  So I bought them.  Feeling incredibly dirty, I equipped them, and sent my previous, much beloved crossbows to the stash.  And of course, immediately set about steam-rolling my way through the mobs that quite literally had no idea what hit them.  The real sadness came when, midway through Act IV, a really good rare crossbow dropped for me.  It was a significant improvement over the crossbows I had been using, and I should have been delighted at seeing it.  But it still wasn't as good as the one's I'd already purchased, so sadly, directly into the crossbow chipper it went.

See what I mean? Core satisfaction mechanic utterly destroyed.

Or.. maybe not.  Whenever I see a mechanic and the first thing I think is - "How could the developers not see how wrong this is?  How broken this makes the game?" - the first thing I do is to try to look for a deeper, more subtle purpose.  I think perhaps I'm not seeing the bigger picture.  And maybe that's the case here.  For instance - it's clear (at least to me) that Diablo III is not a single game - it's an online franchise.  Those always-on (or mostly always on, ahem servers are not cheap to build, service, and maintain.  For all intents and purposes, Diablo III is a free-to-play multiplayer online game.  And so far anyway, beyond the purchase of the initial game - the only revenue source Blizzard has set up to keep those servers running, to keep the live-team paid, and to keep patches and enhancements and expansions coming - are those real-money auction house transactions.  For the players that play the game over and over - the ones they built those servers for - they are relying on those players making use of that auction house for their revenue.

And though I have only dabbled in Nightmare mode - everyone that I personally know that is in Hell mode or beyond - has already made use of the auction house in one way or another to supplant their gear.  Which leads me to believe that the difficulty ramp is intentionally set so that once you leave normal mode, the difficulty design is built not around you being able to progress using random-drop, but rather built around assuming you are using the auction house to buy best-of-slot gear for your character, to the extent that you can afford.

So though in the early stages of the game, the auction house certainly kills that rush of adrenaline from getting an awesome drop - I suspect Blizzard knows about it - but doesn't mind too much.  That that part of the fun, in the same way that some people considered making inventory decisions about identify and town portal scrolls fun - is okay to be lost - sloughed off like some vestigial limb in the wake of the needs for the New Diablo franchise - the always on, always connected - online service.

I do know this: the real-money auction house opening has been delayed twice, as of this writing.  Many people have speculated it's because of technical limitation, of reports of people's accounts being hacked - and making sure they have every security loophole closed.  And I certainly think those are some of the reasons why as well.  But I also speculate that the reasons for the delay are not entirely technical.  I suspect they are watching the existing auction house transactions very closely, and are harvesting reams of information about how much and how often characters are using auction-house items to progress in their game, how fast prices are falling, and how willing players are to put their items up for certain price thresholds. And most importantly - how powerful players are being able to make their characters.  Because when the real-money auction does launch, I suspect the design will actually be much more tightly tuned than we think.  But it won't be tuned around the old Diablo fun - the random loot drop.  It will be tuned around the expectations and availability of the auction house market economy.

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