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Why Diablo 3’s Auction House Went Straight to Hell

Posted 24 Sep 2013 by

Wired has posted an article/editorial about the end of the Diablo 3 DiabloWikiAuction House. They tried harder than most gaming/media outlets and didn’t just blurb Blizzard’s official announcement, but I think their explanation is incorrect and misses the larger issues. Quote:

But Diablo III’s main problem was not exclusive to the real-money sector of the market. Rather, most of the game’s woes center on the existence of the auction house in the first place, whether for real cash or fake gold.

MMOs like World of Warcraft have auction houses that don’t upset the gameplay balance. But there are key differences that set Diablo III’ and World of Warcraft’s markets apart.

As a player nears the end of Warcraft, their goal is to continue to complete dungeons and raids and kill higher-level bosses, with the goal of obtaining better equipment that will allow them to kill even harder bosses. The majority of this epic loot is classified as “Bind on Pickup,” meaning that once it enters a player’s inventory it cannot be traded or sold.

In the Warcraft auction house, the most popular, most-traded items aren’t weapons and armor — they’re crafting materials, used to create consumable items (such as potions that grant temporary stat bonuses) used by serious dungeon raiders.

But Diablo doesn’t have more dungeons, more bosses, etc. Players just play the same procession of levels on harder and harder difficulty levels, picking up better and better loot. In other words, the loot isn’t just a helping hand towards their ultimate goal — better loot is the ultimate goal. And with the auction house, players found that the best way to obtain it was to just buy it.

And the next thing you know, they’re not playing the game anymore. Why would they, when the reward structure that would otherwise motivate them to play was no longer there? Without the promise of better stuff, Diablo was all stick and no carrot.

It’s true that Diablo 3 offers a sort of double-edged sword of a feedback loop: you need better loot to do higher level content and you do higher level content to get better loot. Except that many players use super quality loot to do easy content (MP1 farming) at very high speed, and the randomization of the loot drops means that higher level content will not necessarily pay off in better loot. But those features were nearly identical in Diablo 2 and no one was really complaining then.

So what was the real failing of the Diablo 3 auction house? Read on…

First of all, was the AH a failing? I guess we have to bow to majority opinion and say that it was, given the 74% approval for the end of the AH. That was not always the opinion, though. Most players used the AH at some point, and it was very popular (though something of a guilty pleasure for many) shortly after release. I remember clearly how people thought I was weird and crazy for not using it then, to the point that it was fairly controversial when I wrote an article about my first AH use in August 2012. Skim the article or don’t (and gasp at the thought of 18k DPS in Inferno qualifying as “well-geared”) but I strongly recommend viewing the comments since it’s fascinating the see the attitudes players held for the AH back then, 3 months after release.

Flashbacks aside, the main problem with the Diablo 3 Auction House was the Diablo 3 item system.

Some players loved it the AH and some players hated it, but everyone hated the Diablo 3 item system and economy upon release. After all, if you ignore the RMAH as many players did, the D3 AH was just trading made much easier.

There were (are) a lot of issues with itemization in D3, but probably the most complained about is the fact that (especially early on) not enough good items dropped. This was a design choice made at least partially since the devs knew the good items would flood the AH. So D3 had to drop only a few top quality items or else the easy-trading tool that was the AH would cause them to flood the economy and lead to instant gear inflation. That was logical, but had exactly the wrong result since the extreme scarcity of good gear forced everyone to use the AH to gear up for Inferno.

Thus an economy designed to limit gear to thus limit AH use had a doubly-bad result. Players hated not finding any good gear and hated having to use the AH to survive. Mission unaccomplished!

The Future: Different Loot System, Same Result?

Jumping to the future, the benefit (to players) of shutting down the AH isn’t so much that with trading made much more inconvenient we’ll find it harder to instantly obtain great gear… it’s that without an AH the devs don’t need to put such a harsh limit on the quality/quantity of gear that drops. (Item binding on top gear will help as well, of course.)

I think it would be unwise to expect DiabloWikiLoot 2.0 to be quite the orgy of uber gear that the console players keep describing, but from everything the devs have said we should find it much easier to obtain gear upgrades.

Will that change things long term, though?

I think it’ll be great fun early on, along the lines of what the Console players describe with their current “upgrades every run” play experience. Perhaps that won’t literally be the case in D3C’s Loot 2.0, since most players have top gear already… but come RoS the first first weeks/months will be amazing. Much better gear drop rates, tons of new legendaries, and almost everything an upgrade since all the base items will be 64-70 in the expansion content. WANT!

The hardest decision in those early RoS days will be to build up a new Crusader or to play your current mains so they can play with Paragon 2.0 and work through Act Five while finding amazing gear upgrades from the higher level items.

How long will that last, though? The console players have Loot 1.5 with its console-speed of “instant gratification” loot upgrades, but many console players were already worrying about long term viability after just the first week. After all, finding a ton of great gear very quickly is awesome in the short term, but unless there is a steady influx of higher level content/gear, (and there’s not in D3) players are pretty quickly going to move to the top level(s) of the item quality pyramid. And then it’s fun since you have awesome gear on, but it’s no fun since you’ll very seldom find any upgrades. And without an AH you’ve really got no other way to get them but to find them.

In a way, the D3 end game loot is better. Sure, the odds of finding an upgrade are astronomical, but 1) you know exactly where to get upgrades and how much they cost, and 2) all those medium-quality items you find can be sold in the AH. Thus the progress for most high level players in the current D3C is largely to their bank balance. Which isn’t as much fun as finding upgrades (At least I assume so. it’s not like I’ve ever actually found one in D3C.) but at least it’s steady progress towards a clearly-identified goal.

What will we progress towards at the high end in D3X? There’s that one in a million chance of finding an uber item upgrade, but you’ve got that now in D3C (though it’s more like one in ten million). What we (probably) won’t have in D3X is the steady gold-building progress you can get now in D3C. If the economy becomes item-for-item barter that’s hell; it’s hard to fix item value and almost impossible to find someone who has your dream item and who wants what you’ve got to trade for it. Even if gold retains trading value (or some other item or commodity becomes currency, like SoJs and then Runes in D2) it’ll be much more difficult to gain wealth via low and mid-range item trades, since we won’t have an AH to automate that process.

Conclusion

Beware of unintended consequences. We don’t know all the details of the RoS economy yet, so we can only conjecture at this point. I think it’s pretty likely they’ve got some new trading system in the works, and who knows what other changes we’ll see to the economy.

But look back at our expectations pre-D3. Most players and the devs thought the AH would be a nice tool, a way to automate trading, and a way to circumvent black market item sales and the rip offs that came with it. And then the game started and the AH worked well… too well, and a whole raft of (mostly) unforseen complications came floating into existence.

Frankly, I’m surprised they’re dumping the AH entirely. I don’t think the current economy is ideal, but I thought their plans for RoS and Loot 2.0 were going to shake things up nicely. Better drop rates plus a lot of binding on top gear would have made self finding much more viable, and they could have left the AH active to provide convenient exchange of commodities and low/mid level item sales/trading.

it+s+not+about+the+money+_c12e45b923dede0603587df8dea12ca0It seems to me that dumping it entirely was perhaps an overreaction, at least partially (and wisely) meant as a PR move. Blizzard knew that many players blamed the AH for D3’s problems, so while limiting or modifying it might have been more viable for the long term Loot 2.0 economy, the devs went for a more dramatic and headline-grabbing move.

So, anyone agree that we’ll probably miss the AH once it’s gone? That it’s being unfairly blamed for larger issues with the item system and drop rates? That without the AH trading will go from an effortless convenience to an annoying WUGgy time sink? That working your way to upgrades with lots of mid-level item finds will become nearly impossible?

Or do you reject all of those theories since 1) you hated the AH, and/or 2) all you care about is a big boost to the item drop quality?