Playing Diablo III's Meta Game
The much ballyhooed and/or widely-booed Real Money Auction House has now launched for Diablo 3, reconfirming, as if we needed such messaging, that the dynamic for advancing your character has firmly changed. The reaction from fans has been typically schizophrenic in that it has involved both extremely vocal opposition and equally massive adoption, giving us yet another opportunity to recall that gamers do not speak with one hive-mind voice, but are actually a collection of millions of asynchronous individuals, despite how inconvenient that may be when wanting to draft broad sweeping generalizations.
I feel like one of the quiet majority in being a Diablo player who has never had an objection to the auction house, real-money or otherwise. In fact, now 150 hours into playing my various characters, I find that the auction house is more than a distraction or even a necessary resource for advancement. In fact, it’s become a key element of my gameplay.
As I have with relatively few games before, I have become as enamored with the meta-game surrounding Diablo 3 as I have with the game itself.
Since day 1, I’ve really looked at D3’s auction house in exactly the same way as I looked at World of Warcraft’s. For all practical purposes, most players can get through the core game on normal without ever having any need or reason to dive into the auction house, and though it might take a little longer and involve more challenge, the same can really be said of Nightmare mode as well. Hell begins to become a different beast, and — let’s be honest — Inferno makes the AH a practical necessity.
If you never liked World of Warcraft — or MMOs in general — then these are going to be alien ideas to you. But once I connected the neural pathway that identified Hell and Inferno as basically dungeon, heroic and raid-like efforts in WoW, the necessity of multiple pathways to getting the best gear became completely natural. Diablo 3 may be a sequel to its predecessors from the perspective of themes and gameplay mechanics, but in many other important ways this game is also WoW-Lite Goes to Hell.
Something about coming to this conclusion actually made the auction house make much more sense, and even become attractive. One of the many things I enjoyed about my time in WoW was playing the auction house. The ebb and flow of priorities and balance tweaks in that game consistently had an impact in the auction house in much the same way that rational and equally irrational trends make stocks rise and fall.
There is a thrill to being in front of the market, knowing when to pick up just the right item, the right reagent, the right material in advance of a coming change, and building an imaginary profit from shrewd transactions. In some cases it is about taking advantage of those that don’t understand, or don’t care about, properly valuing their wares, where you can see the true value of a commodity that its original seller did not. Other times it is just about knowing or sensing the coming changes to the larger game that play out toward a long-term investment.
As much as anything, there were times where World of Warcraft scratched an itch that only games like SimCity or Railroad Tycoon could before. As an economic simulator, it was brilliant, unpredictable, fascinating, frustrating and highly addictive.
Over the past week or so I've come to the same conclusion about Diablo 3’s system.
Saturday morning found me with time on my hands, and every intention of working my way through Act 1 of Hell with my Wizard, and yet as I fired up the game my first reaction was, and now regularly has become to check the auction house and see what sold, what didn’t and what opportunities there were from the night before. In my completed tab I grinned inwardly at the 150,000 gold waiting to be transferred to my stash from three items sold. The pretend money represented roughly an 8x profit over the amount I had spent to acquire them.
And, that profit is the hook in my mouth, pulling ever more insistently. Instead of diving into the game as intended, I switched over to the auction browser and began deal-hunting. Here was a 1-handed legendary level 8 monk weapon with 8 dexterity, 5 vitality and a critical hit bonus, listed on the house for 12,000k. I click the buy button, but even by the time I’ve put in my request, someone else has already recognized that the real value of this piece of equipment is substantially more and snatched it up. I move on, win my next bid and find myself the proud owner of an item with decent enough stats but high DPS (damage per second) for its level range. I repost it for a 100% markup. It sells within the hour, rewarding my continued assumption that right now DPS is a highly, perhaps overly so, valued statistic in the economy.
I sort and shuffle the findings, matching up qualities that work in tandem like gold find/pickup range, critical chance/critical damage, armor/percent chance to block. Most of the items I find actually seem over-priced, but I’m fine with that, because when I do find the bargain it makes it all the easier for me to resell at a reasonable price. After 45 minutes or so, I do finally start actually playing the game, but in the meantime I’ve spent my 30,000 gold expecting a return of another 100k or 200k.
Up til now it’s all been pretend money. I get that. But, then again the points I get in any game are no more or less pretend, and they can have value and influence in the way I play the game. And, let’s be honest, every now and again I convert some of that profit into actual equipment that I’ll use to improve my own experience.
Now that the Real Money Auction House is a thing that exists, it changes the somewhat innocent nature of that game.
I have no illusions about the fact that I probably stand to make about as much money in the RMAH as I did playing $2.00 buy-in online poker, which is to say after a few months maybe enough to fund a nice date-night with my wife. I’ve no doubt that someone out there will unlock the system enough to earn a significant amount, though I’d be hard pressed to think that anyone is going to be in position to make this their job. But, that’s not the point.
The point is that for me, finding a great deal on the auction house has the same game experience effect as finding that item as a loot drop in game. Learning the system and devising ways to “win” within that system feels exactly as much like a game, and therefore fun, as really anything else I could be doing with that time. That it actually has real-world value is just flavor, a small but tangible icon of whatever savvy or prowess I may manage to conjure.
I get that these auction houses represent something that may seem sinister in the changing dynamics of a company that has parlayed industry darling status into firmly capitalist venture. It’s like slowly watching your once anti-war protester, flower-child parents become people who talk about border fences, the liberal media and socialist agendas. I get that not everyone signed up to play Market Broker Simulator III, but for me it works.
Maybe I just drank the Kool-Aid early on and was able to segment out Diablo 3 into that MMO headspace, which would make things like microtransactions and auction houses a natural next step. It probably means when they announce a Diablo 3 store where you can buy a vanity pet to take with you to Caldeum or browse cosmetic outfits you can dress your hell-spawn-fighting avatar in, I won’t really bat an eye while the rest of the internet completely loses its mind.
No, I’ll be sitting at the browse window as these and other changes ebb and flow, trying to outthink the almost recklessly insane Diablo 3 market. And I’ll be looking for the edge that lets me net my tiny, tiny profit.