…And if you buy now…

“500 armor, 200 vitality, 80 dex. Looks good,” I hesitated. “Oh, wait a second, no resist all elements.” I sighed loudly to my wife. “Back into the woodchipper.” I groaned as I went to the salvage tab of the blacksmith UI and fed in the newly minted shoulder piece. That piece cost me 86,000 gold, 28 exquisite essence, and 8 iridescent tears. That is at least 28 items I needed to melt down and more than a full pack of gear I needed to vendor just for that one roll. Yet, this is still a far superior system to the one in place in Diablo 2.

This week I wish to discuss the role of a new feature popularized (and soon to be abandoned) by Diablo 3, the real-money auction house. “This discussion is over already, AH is going down in march” such is true, the AH is going down, nor do I wish to dispute the at-times questionable, yet infallible wisdom of Blizzard (RIP reforging). That being said, the discussion is far from over. In fact, when it comes to any form of monetization in the internet age I believe wholly that the discussion is never over. We are quickly approaching the singularity, an era where the properties of our world are beginning to change at a faster rate than we could ever hope to build rules to contain them (video games and law, seed 1).

Let us return to the inspiration of this essay. I was playing Diablo 3 with Jesse when I noticed a discussion concerning the role of the Auction House. It was a long conversation so I will state the first line then finish explaining throughout the entire essay. The conversation begun, “What is Diablo going to be like after the Auction house goes down?”. Remember, this was an in-game chatroom so I had to edit for grammar and translate from Barrenspeak, the original message looked nothing like that. I’ve heard that question framed a hundred ways in a hundred places. I’ve even attempted to answer the question a few times using Diablo 3’s atrocious general chat system (how to craft a good chat system, seed 2). It, like all questions, was a good one (my motto is “The only stupid question is the one left un-asked.”), I’ve been meditating on it intensely for a few weeks now. I’ve even jumped sides in the argument a few times. I eventually came to the conclusion that this question was effectively 2 questions worded singularly. This is how I plan on tackling the essay. I will attempt to answer the first question in a paragraph, then the second. I will then describe the ways in which the Auction House changed Diablo, both good and bad, and wrap it all together nicely with my opinion on the post-auction world of D3.

The first question asked by the unnamed player, “How is it going to be after the Auction house goes down?” was a straight forward one. In game nothing will change. You will still farm, you will still die (a lot if you’re as broke and skill-less as me). The standard game will remain unchanged. You will still see gold farmers blowing up your friend requests. Diablo’s Lightning Snake will remain a mockery of the Weapon of Mass Destruction it once was. You will still hate Arcane enchanted packs as well as Jailer/Plagued. There will be a little more conversation in the general chat as people make awkward attempts to hawk their full Immortal Kings set, but the biggest difference will be that Mathiel may or may not be waiting for you at the end of your journey from Khanduras instead of Diablo. We can’t know for certain on that last bit seeing as there is no official launch date for Reaper of Souls. The only difference the Auction House will make is in the metagame. Unless you have a robust understanding of Ebay or Amazon (or even Freecycle) you are going to have to do a great heaping deal more farming to get a full set of orange.

This brings us to the second question, the one I’m sure that astute gamer intended: “How will I improve my loot now? I can’t farm all day!” correct, you are screwed royal on that front, I hear you there. Diablo is primarily an ornately disguised Skinner Box (The Skinner Box, seed 3). What does that mean for loot? Well, in short, it is designed to be simple in use but complicated in mastery. If all you want is the story then you can blast your way through normal mode in about 5-10 hours. You’ve got your story and the experience of crushing thousands under heel while you laugh maniacally is right there. Only have 5 minutes before your big meeting and you’re really nervous? Find an alcove in your office, crack open your laptop, crush a few dozen skeletons while you shotgun that 5-hour energy (preferably not on the company’s Wi-fi, that could end tragically), load up your presentation and get in there (you magnificent bastard).

However, if you want more than that, if you want to claim to have plumbed the deepest reaches of Hell, climbed the Crystal Spire in the Shining Heavens, and defeated the Lord of Terror in his full majesty, then you are going to need an exorbitant amount of time. Hundreds of hours, maybe thousands. You will need to do Azmodan runs 8 hours a day for weeks, research effective strategies for pumping your Paragon level (By the by, the Alkaizer run is a load of crock, what happened to the Bloody Runs of Diablo 2?). You will have to research optimal builds, and remember that 5-10 hours I mentioned to beat the game on normal difficulty? You will spend the same 5-10 hours figuring out how to hotkey your spells to match your reaction time and play style (even if there are only 6 of them). Oh, and I almost forgot, for people my age you have to squeeze that into the time you aren’t cleaning up after your incompetent boss, figuring out why none of the computers in the northwest corner of your office can access your company’s intranet or trying to explain what progen content is to your mom in Florida.

For those of us in our 20s and 30s, this made the Auction House a huge boon. I can tell you, Diablo 2 was the singular biggest time sink in my highschool years (and not studying, as my grades clearly indicated). I even lost a legendary sword to my best mate over a Superbowl bet! This brings me back to the issue at hand. The generation of gamers that grew up on Diablo and Diablo 2 are in their late 20s to early 30s. That sword I bet so callously on the Panthers would have constituted 20 or 30 hours of my life that today would have taken me weeks to farm (whoever told you being self-employed was waking up at noon and quitting around 6 was lying through their teeth, here in the private sector 9-5 becomes 5-9). We have a bit more money but a disproportionately shorter timeframe. This is why the real-money Auction House was created. It gives hope to those of us who want to see end content but can’t sink hundreds of hours into Diablo.

Hold right there! There is a sound, like a thousand voices from the Barrens shouting in unison, “If you wont put in the time then you shouldn’t be here”. I could write an entire essay on you guys, (social pressures seed 4) but I will summarize here quickly. Less than 10% of all of the guilds in all of World of Warcraft have even beaten the first boss of Seige of Orgrimmar 25 heroic. That is ridiculous. How would you feel if you paid full price for Halo 4 but weren’t allowed to even look at Legendary difficulty because you didn’t have 40 hours a week and 50 bucks a year to dedicate to unlocking all of the optional armor sets for the multiplayer? Insane right?

“Well that is how life works, can’t make a dime if you won’t give the time”. But why? Why do we have to shoehorn the same rules into our video games as we do in real life? Especially power fantasies like 60% of the AAA market. Games like Diablo or Call of Duty exist to give us some sort of agency in a world that really doesn’t give a copper if you can enter 100 words a minute if you don’t also have Voice of the Emperor (note to mom, that’s a skill from the game Elder Scrolls : Oblivion that instantly raises a target’s opinion of you by approximately 20 points via modification of your Speechcraft skill). This is the best possible utility of an in-game auction house, and before you start moaning about how we shouldn’t give scrubs a free ride, tell me what you did as soon as your Death Knight hit 90? Did you switch over to your already max level Blacksmith to make a set of armor, then to your leatherworker to craft leg enchantments, followed by a trip over to your enchanter for chants, a jaunt to your jewelcrafter for blue gems and finally your Inscriptionist to get a full compliment of glyphs? Also, while I’m at it, did you spend the average 10 hours required to farm every bit of ore, every leather and every plant required to make the materials to craft these items? How about farming the Motes of Harmony? We all know how much work it is to put together even 1 full Spirit, even if you dedicate all of your Sunsong Ranch plots to generating them, and you need 8 of them.

Back to the point. If you answered yes to all of these questions then I’m sorry for accusing you, you win at WoW, but if you answered any 1 of those questions with a ‘no’ then you have profited in time from the labor of another and condemning your peer for wanting to do the same is hypocritical at best. I know the gut reaction to that claim, “But they’re using real money! That isn’t fair!” in fact, a few days ago, before I started brainstorming this essay, I felt the same exact way. However, once you think about it, how is it unfair? Money is and always has been a means of measuring effort invested, and while an element of our society has always managed to break that system via manipulation of the law and artificial inflation, it remains as such for 80% of the world’s population. We could get into an argument about gold farmers in China getting paid 10 cents an hour or children in Africa who get paid zero for mining diamonds (covering real world events, seed 5) but that isn’t what we’re here for. For the most part, with a few glaring exceptions, money exists as a way to quantify the worth of effort. A dollar bill is ultimately worthless in itself, want to prove it? Go to China and try paying a convenience store clerk in USD. It’s worthless to them because there is no system in place that acknowledges the worth of a green piece of cloth with a white guy’s face on it.

The same holds true for in-game currency from World of Warcraft, Diablo, or Star Wars: The Old Republic. You don’t get gold from anything other than killing monsters, completing quests, or farming materials to sell on the auction house. In other words, gold is a means of acknowledging the worth of the time you invested in farming that Ghost Iron. The only difference between your dollars and your credits is whether you got them from McDonalds or trade skills.

This brings us naturally to the effect of a real money auction house. Do you like Diablo? Silly question on the surface, but I’m not talking about tossing in an hour or 2 a day. I mean really loving the game. While you’re bored in lecture you’re contemplating whether tonight’s runs will be key runs, paragon runs, or UBRS. You’re sitting on the train and jotting down a fun variant for your favourite Witch Doctor build. Maybe you’re like me in highschool, you get home from school, dump your bags, tell your parents you did all your homework during study and dash at mach 10 up to the computer room to do Bloody Runs and Baal runs until your eyes bleed. Now imagine you could actually make money from those hours upon hours spent grinding Uber Tristram. For a good long time in Diablo 3 you could. If you don’t like playing Witch Doctor but you just found an Unspeakable Thing with 3 meters health pickup, thorns, life steal and 200 intellect you could throw it up for 10 bucks and someone who wants to run UBRS but is bogged down with presentation after project after assignment at work can hand you 10 bucks and head off to UBRS after dinner. She gets a sweet offhand and you are 10 bucks closer to paying off your rent. Not to mention the fact that Blizzard gets 20 cents off the top which goes towards keeping the servers up for longer. To tally it all up, you have time, you trade it for money, and Blizzard takes out tax which goes towards allowing you to invest more time and get more money. Sound like a job? Yet, you’re playing Diablo in your apartment for 16 hours a day.

I see a future not too far off where more and more perpetual games adopt a similar monetization model as Diablo 3. Think about it, if you play World of Warcraft you essentially got the game free of charge. How were they able to do that? D3 cost millions of dollars and you got it by saying “Sure, I’ll just keep playing your other game for a year”. How many of you who signed up for the annual pass played every single month of that time? 93%, 95%? that means you got D3 for free. While monetization schemes could be a whole new essay in itself, (seed 6) I’m going to massively oversimplify just to keep on subject. You know that 5% that Blizzard took for every real money sale? That adds up really bloody fast if 60% of your MMORPG fanbase is constantly making and completing trades. In fact, just to make a guess, Ill say we as a community probably paid off Blizzard’s monetary investment within 2 or 3 weeks, maybe 5 tops. How does this affect other perpetual games? In Star Wars : The Old Republic you can play for absolutely free, but if you want to equip purple quality gear or higher then you have to pay the monthly subscription. However, imagine what would happen if we added a real-money auction house. Bioware could skim 5% off the top and make the game fully free to play. I know on paper this sounds mildly exploitative but do you really think you’re going to miss 1 dollar if you just got 20 for sitting naked in front of your computer eating Doritos (fighting the stereotype, seed 7)?

Great, so I’ve determined that real-money auctions are good for Diablo and The Old Republic. How does that affect those who just want to play Rage of Bahamut on the train? Well, imagine you were playing Rage and wound up with a playset of Lilith, then got a third copy. As it stands your only recourse is to grind it down for rupees and use it to upgrade your battalion. No fun, right? Damn wasteful to boot. You paid 2 or 3 bucks for that card and it was worthless to you. However, someone in Oklahoma wants to finish off his Lilith playset and for some reason keeps cracking God-class rares. Too bad, no way to trade it unless you want to buy 10 holy powder and use those. All you can do is keep cracking packs. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Now, I know Rage of Bahamut is a bad example because the model around which they build their cards clearly isn’t for any level of deep gameplay. They don’t really want you trading with anything that you didn’t buy directly from them because if you have a reasonable means of trading then you don’t have to buy as many packs to get truly ultimate cards. Lets just assume they mean the best but they don’t have anyone particularly skilled at building a rich array of cards, maybe they need to hire more help for building a resource system or something. They could let people trade with real money instead of stuff you can only get by buying randomly generated card packs. If they did that they could skim as much as they want off the top and still say “Well, we could take away your capacity to make real money if you really don’t like it”. Oh, and while you’re at it, you could make card packs that cost Rupees but don’t always contain rares since anyone who plays this game for more than 5 or 6 hours winds up with an absolutely ludicrous amount of money that they can’t really do anything with if they don’t know a lot of people (I don’t have a battalion because I really only have 6 friends, including my mom and brother, only two of whom are as passionate about video games as I). That way it doesn’t feel like someone is laughing at your face when you open a card pack to find yet another Vampire Kid and you have a use for that full playset of Fighter other than tossing it into the mountain of rupees that you can dive into like Scrouge McDuck.

I know I’m wandering a bit in this essay but I would like to go back to World of Warcraft. Remember that 5% I mentioned? I see a day when 70% of all guilds are statistically capable of taking a crack at Garrosh (or Grommash in Warlords of Draenor). “Woah! Why are we letting the nubs in? Work for your achievements, scrub!” Slow down, Sonic. I’m not saying we need to be lowering the bar at all! The difficulty is just where it needs to be, in fact, we would do well to have our difficulty tuned up a little bit. Everyone who has ever raided knows the stark difference between having the gear and having the skill. 25 heroics are called 25 heroics because only heroes should be able to complete them. That being said, there are plenty of people with massive skill who just don’t have the time! They have 9 to 5 jobs, kids, et cetera. If they didn’t have to go through the massive slog of a gearing process, farm for days for the money to get their peasant purples, just to learn they have to do 4 weeks of Throne of Thunder to have enough gear to even consider Seige while Blood Legion’s healer sighs at the 30th Chestplate of Fallen Passion he has seen and shards it, the results of which will be dropped in the guild bank and forgotten. Wouldn’t it be nice if one could take that absolutely amazing chest piece, throw it up for 50 bucks and make some money?
I repeat. I am not condoning the further watering of World of Warcraft. If anything we need to wheel our encounter difficulty back to The Burning Crusade. I am not saying raids need to be easier, just more accessible for people with loads of skill but little time. The World of Warcraft I see in the future is one where almost anyone can take a crack at Kalecgos (I’m not saying beat him, that two-world mechanic was spectacular and we need more bosses that can’t be mechanic-proofed, seed 8) but only the top 1%-5% have the skill base to win (statistics vs. skill, seed 9).

Back again to Diablo. Those of us old fogeys that played Diablo 2 remember (often with rose tinted glasses) the experience of gearing. You beat normal, you beat nightmare, you beat Hell, then patch 1.1 came out and suddenly Hell was a 5 act meat grinder and unless you had a gear level that made pre-patch Baal look like Kraid’s mentally addled nephew you got busted back to act 1 or 2. At least, that was what happened to me. My sorceress wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, she could drop Baal given enough time, but it was never a breeze for me. I was only 13 and didn’t understand the intricacies of loot quite yet, so I’m sure that was a problem. I’m sure I made some questionable gear decisions, but as any marketer knows, for every one person that complains about an experience there are a thousand others who have had the same experience and remained silent.

How did Diablo 2’s community handle this? The Stone of Jordan. This little ring was pretty weak comparatively, +1 all skills, +1-12 lightning damage, +20 Mana, increases maximum Mana by 25%. it was a decent leveling piece but once you got into your 70s it was pretty worthless. What it did have, however, was an extremely low drop rate, inventory occupation of 1 square and set-in-stone bonuses that never changed. This made it a perfect benchmark for currency, it was rare, easy to carry, and easily quantifiable, you could only trade 40 at a time because of trade screen limitations. Diablo 3 has no such item. The Stone of Jordan exists in Diablo 3 but it has variable stats, I wont list them here because there are 290 separate prefix/suffix combinations and trillions of different value permutations (literally, I did the math). This removes the viability of the Stone as a currency base because 1 Stone will never be worth exactly as much as another. We will have to find another bartering chip. Maybe Demonic Essences could become our new trading platform, but you can carry tens of thousands of those because they stack. We could even see the real-money auction house get pawned over to Amazon or eBay. Only difference is that the cut taken off the top wont go towards making our game better. I could spend another 6 pages contemplating the worthiness of every possible platform but there are far smarter individuals then I working on the same thing. I’m good with ideas but ultimately I’m not a very knowledgeable person. If I was I would be The Scribe or The Professor and not The Author.

Well, I hope I gave you some food for thought. I hope you enjoyed this essay. If you agree, feel free to extrapolate in the comments or email me with suggestions (see Need Additional Pylons). If you disagree feel free to spew your unrelenting hate in the comments.

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