Auctioned Off

Diablo III released on PC in May of 2012, and the fan response was mixed to say the least. For everything Diablo III seemed to do right, it did some other thing wrong, and often for what felt like disingenuous reasons. It forced you online under auspices of enforcing some kind of co-operative sense of community, but many players interpreted it as heavy-handed DRM. It offered a skill and progression system that felt unfamiliar and unnecessarily reductive. And — perhaps most egregious of all — it offered and even encouraged a separate auction-house system where players could buy or sell items for in-game or real money.

Those who experienced Diablo II probably understand at least why the Blizzard team was looking into alternatives. Not only was the act of picking up loot and getting equipment in any cooperative game a cutthroat and largely unfair proposition, there was endless abuse of the limited system that fostered a hazardous black market.

Players, however, suggested from the moment that the Auction House was discussed that the whole point of Diablo was to kill monsters and find loot, and that the very nature of the AH would undermine that fundamental point of the game. It’s been 18 months, and at last, Blizzard has conceded this point and laid out plans to bring the Auction House to an end in March of next year.

But, I wonder on news of this announcement: If Blizzard had it all over to do again, would they actually do anything substantively different? Is this year-too-late decision the mea culpa that a lot of players have been waiting for, or a half-hearted gesture to excise a system that has finally stopped being profitable?

If I were a betting man (and I am), I’d be willing to wager that over the past six months the marketplace has stopped being a cash maker, and instead is becoming an unnecessary and possibly expensive distraction. I can only imagine the resources necessary to update, maintain and host that kind of tool, and if people are less and less likely to use the part of the service that provides direct revenue through fees to Blizzard, then the enthusiasm at the company for sustaining this money sink that consumers don’t even like must have become very low.

I realize I haven’t cracked some secret code or exposed a grand secret here. Essentially this would just mean that a business is making a business decision based on business conditions. Oooooh, scandal!

It’s conjecture, of course, to suggest that Blizzard is just doing away with the Auction House because they’ve squeezed out whatever money was there and now will simply throw away the empty husk — maybe generating a little customer goodwill in the process. After all, Blizzard has demonstrated many times over the years that they are genuinely interested in crafting a valuable gaming experience and refining their products over time to adapt to the changing expectations of players.

And, though players may have expressed dislike for the Auction House, they didn’t dislike it enough to not buy or play the game. Diablo III might not be the hallowed titanic game that its direct predecessor was, but its more than 12 million units sold in 2012 alone is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and after a year and a half it is still extensively played with no shortage of people dropping hundreds of hours into the game, waiting for their own epic drop. And, grudgingly or not, people used the Auction House, though not always with real world money.

Though the first month was a kind of Wild West frontier in the Diablo III commodities market, in the long run the market very much stabilized and skewed dramatically in favor of the in-game gold marketplace. Tales of $250 transactions for some lucky rare item became less and less common, and because both markets sold the same goods with in-game gold becoming increasingly easy to acquire, there was no compelling reason for people to spend cold, hard cash on gear.

I personally made off in the early days with around $60 in real cash from selling and trading on the RMAH (Real Money Auction House), effectively making the game a free-to-play affair for me. It’s hard to feel too frustrated with a system that allowed me to pay virtually nothing on a game I ended up spending days playing.

Even in that light, though, instinctively I joined an underlying sentiment that felt like the Auction House was a distraction — an ugly and unwanted mutation to the shape of the difficulty curve. Running Inferno-difficulty dungeons was no longer about trying to find that legendary piece of gear I could use. It was now about min-maxing the runs so that I could have the best chance to get a broader range of gear I would never use but could sell for gold to someone else. I wasn’t playing the game to equip my own character, but rather playing the game so I could afford to buy my equipment somewhere else.

While it might be tempting to feel like gamers are vindicated by the decision to close the Auction House, I’m not sure they have been. If the financials worked out on the aggregate, and the Auction House made a profit for most of the time it was up, then I don’t necessarily think Blizzard would have done things differently. Yes, they are saying now that the Auction House fundamentally changed the way people played the game for the worse, but does that mean they wouldn’t still do it again the exact same way?

I don’t imagine for a second that they’ve been sitting around for the past year and a half high-fiving each other over what a great experience it provides for the player, and only just got the memo. I’m not under the impression that Blizzard is so slow to the punch that they’re just figuring out the negative impacts of the Auction House now after 18 months. And now that they’ve publicly identified this problem, I can’t help but notice that they aren’t talking about fixing it for another six months.

I feel cynical when I think about it, and cynical isn’t a place I like to be. It feels a bit like when my ten-year-old, who is hungry all the time now, goes into the fridge, eats most of a treat I’d been saving for myself, and then later points out that he shouldn’t have done that. Well, that’s great, but you did do that, and frankly I think you’d do it again, because I think you knew it was wrong from the start and made a calculated decision that you could live with that. After all, getting a treat and feeling a little guilty is probably better than not getting a treat and feeling hungry from the moral high ground.

Which, of course, brings up the question: If I were Blizzard, would I have done it any different than they did? What call would I make if someone said, “You can do this thing that will provide possibly millions of dollars in revenue over an 18-month lifespan, and though you will deal with a slight loss of player goodwill you will still sell 12 million copies of your game. The only real downside is that it will make the game slightly worse.”

Would I put in the Auction House myself, and show up a year-and-a half later saying, “Oops, sorry. That might’ve sucked for you guys a bit. Well, no more, kind customers! Enough is enough! We are definitely getting rid of this thing that is not fun for you as soon as possible. Which is to say in six months. Probably when it finally stops making us money.

“Again, we’re sorry.”

I’m not sure if I would make that call or not. Would you?


@TheGameGuru: What you say about Kotick goes contrary to common knowledge about him, his well-documented philosophy of extreme corporate greed, how he handles his underlings in other companies, but most importantly, the way his gaming products are made.

There are plenty of bad people out there who are personable and highly intelligent. You can't be that naive.

Kotick was(is?) the CEO, President and Director of Activision Blizzard, Inc. Distancing the familiar path Blizzard followed after he took over from the man itself, is a rather laughable position to take.

Under this man, Blizzard lost its reputation as the company that can do no wrong, and became "just another hit-and-miss gaming company". The bulk of WoW's extreme de-evolution happened after he took over, violating a lot of trusts that gamers held sacred since 2004. Previously unfathomable things happened to that game, all of them related to microtransactions and "increasing appeal for new gamers at expense of old ones" and they continue running it into the ground.

That said, it is quite possible that the mental degradation that lead Blizzard to the ill-advised decision of merging has started way before that, considering that Diablo3's design showed signs of stupidity as far back as 2008, when they were discarding much better mock-ups in favor of WoW-style overlit, overprocessed bloom&blur you're stuck with now.

Well...that's just you know your opinion man.