Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Going, Going, Gone: Ramifications of the removal of the auction house from Diablo 3

Yesterday, John Hight and Josh Mosqueira, the current brain trust of the Diablo franchise, announced that they would be removing the gold and real money auction houses entirely from Diablo 3. This represents a massive shift in design philosophy from Jay Wilson who has since migrated to a different title within Blizzard. Today I aim to elaborate just how radical this change is, why I think a change of this magnitude was needed (although not necessarily this change), and what repercussions it will hold for to future.

Why something major needed to be done
Diablo 3 is not a bad game by any standard except Blizzard's own (and a few internet crack pots who don't count). Currently sitting at 88 on metacritic with sales reported at well over 10 million units, Diablo 3 should be considered a resounding success. Unfortunately, its predecessor legendarily set the bar for the best action RPG of all time. Couple this with the fact that Blizzard is renown for holding themselves to a ridiculously high standard (even willing to scrap titles entirely after several years of development if they aren't up to snuff), it isn't hard to understand that expectations for Diablo 3 were going to be practically impossible to meet. As such, despite Diablo 3 being a great title by most objective standards, it is considered to be a colossal disappointment by a moderately sized group of fans. Blizzard has taken the criticisms of those who have expressed disappointment with Diablo 3 to heart and I applaud them for doing so. While the task ahead of them may be impossible, recognizing that they have let fans down and are clearly taking steps to remedy the situation shows a commitment to excellence that many developers claim but few live up to.

Whether Diablo 3 can actually be 'fixed' to match initial expectations is a question for another day but, I do think that any solution with this goal in mind will need to be drastic. A year's worth of patches and improvements have shown that whatever needs to be done is not small; additions to core mechanics such as the Paragon leveling system and Monster Power have all improved the base game but have been insufficient. What this means to me is that a core element of the game needs to be overhauled; adding more vegetables to boiling water is not going to change the soup to stew. Removing the auction house clearly qualifies as an overhaul to core design and, given Blizzard's dedication to the title, is a good move if only for the recognition that something major needs to be done.

What was wrong with the auction house
The primary drive for ARPGs is usually the discovery of better gear to enhance the power of your character. Through the implementation of the auction house, players were given immediate access to browse millions of items for upgrades. What this meant is that, invariably, the best upgrades were most easily found through the auction house rather than through finding the gear through monster killing. This makes sense when you think that the odds of any particular piece of gear dropped by a monster being appropriate for your class as well as an upgrade to your current setup is quite low while the auction house is virtually guaranteed to be able to show you something better. Thus, in practice, the most efficient route to the quintessential ARPG reward became a glorified spreadsheet as opposed to actual gameplay. Removing the auction house should shift the focus back to actual gameplay. Obviously, that gameplay will need to be compelling and the removal of the auction house is just the central piece to an overhaul that will require the re-balancing of the efficiency of finding gear through monster killing. While I recognize that the removal of the auction house will have a significant impact on Diablo 3, it is too early to say if this is the right move. 

Some thoughts on the future without the auction house
The auction house was initially envisaged as an easier way for players to exchange gear. In Diablo 2, players would spam chat windows hawking their wares and organizing a trade could be a hassle. In this way, the auction house represented a major quality of life improvement. Exchanging items can be a pretty fun ARPG activity and provides a means of trading trash for treasure and vice versa. As such, I think that the complete removal of trading is not a good idea and thus a balance between the over-convenience of the auction house and no trading at all will need to be found. Personally, I would like to see a transition to a barter approach, rather than gold based economy, where putting a numerical value on an item is much more difficult to do and trades are completed through negotiation of items for items.

Another reason for the implementation of the auction house was to provide a safe means for players exchange items for real world money without the use of a third party. While I find the exchange of real money for virtual items to be crazy, I recognize that it is a widespread phenomenon. Some people are willing to pay and sellers are more than eager to take their money. Thus, the real money auction house was a means to provide transaction security through an official source instead of providing personal payment details to an unknown website completely unaffiliated with the developer. Provided that trading is not entirely removed, I suspect that we will see the resurgence of the independent retailer for virtual goods. While this might mean a bit more competition and better consumer choice I think the security risks far outweigh any possible positives you can see here. I will be interested to see if Blizzard has a solution to this obvious problem but am doubtful they will have one.

One other reason for the implementation of the auction house was that it allowed Blizzard to take a small cut of real money transactions. No matter how you slice it, Blizzard stands to make less money through the removal of the auction house. If anything, I think this demonstrates just how serious they are to making the best game possible. Very few developers would be willing to cut off a revenue stream in the name of a higher quality product. While Blizzard can easily afford the relatively minuscule amount of money (compared to the billions they make annually), this couldn't have been an easy sell to management. Long term, I see the loss of revenue to have no major effect but it should drum up some good-will in the community and should serve as a tangible example of the developer wanting to make the best game possible.

In sum, I think that the removal of the auction house is a necessary but, still, ballsy move by Blizzard who has clearly committed to perfecting an already great title. A core mechanic needed to be overhauled and while the auction house may prove to not have been the right one, lacking a crystal ball, it is simply too early to tell. However this pans out, I don't think fans can criticize Blizzard for not trying.