Thursday, April 4, 2013

More on Diablo 3's Auction House

Today's "bonus" opinion article is all about Diablo 3, just fair warning in case you're looking for anything WoW related, it's not in here.

Per my Tuesday post, I poked a little fun at Jay Wilson's comments at the GDC last week.  I found them amusing because to be totally and brutally honest, I'm not a fan of his and the comments seemed sort of like thumbing the nose at a feature many players today enjoy and even asked for during D2.  Why was he allowed to say anything remotely close to what he said?  I felt like Bizarro Blizzard was in attendance, given they've long had a good solid track record of believing their own press and propitiating the kool-aid drinking masses that believe everything they say.

Just as a commentary on this situation, I want to give you some backstory about myself:

* Installed Diablo 2 in July 2000
* Installed Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction July 2001
* Played this game almost exclusively until 2006
* Expert in all facets of trading in that game, including RMT, lobby trade, game trade, and forum trading.

I was one of the biggest fans of that franchise, anxiously awaiting D3's release last May.  I proudly saved my Beta invite email from November 2011 and showed it off to all my guildies.  What I was not a fan of was the inclusion of the RMAH the way they were implementing it.  Having lots of non-WoW AH experience, the rule is simple:  When everybody plays, nobody wins.  And if Blizzard is going to handle it, you're playing with fire because they'll flat out not put much into it.

Wilson says that prior to release, Blizzard had expected only rare and valuable items would be listed, but in reality many players put "nearly everything" up for real-money sale because "there's no reason not to."

Exactly.  During the time Ebay allowed virtual item sales, they had a clear and present cost system that was once entertained by Blizzard, and then completely abandoned.  If you were looking to buy some pixels for cold hard cash, you found nothing but the best quality items (dupes, but go with me here) and lots and lots of legit items being sold that were definitely the best items you would ever see.  And they sold for lots of money.  If you wanted to sell an item, you were going to pay a fee to even list the item, and pay a final commission to Ebay when it sold.

Even from the very beginning of D2's launch, back in the great cash rush of 2000-2001 when people were calling in sick days for several weeks and even quitting their jobs, they were posting only the best possible items on Ebay and selling them for several hundred dollars a piece, even in the thousand dollar range.

So why didn't this happen in D3's RMAH?  Why was it littered with crap, even today, and the average person has to wade through a sewer of $100-$250 items that we used to send to Charsi?  Easy.  They changed the deposit requirement that they initially talked about implementing, and instead they only charge you if the item sells.  So it's a no-lose proposition, and with only 10 slots available at any given time, it makes no sense to keep them not full with postings at all times, because someone may buy the item.  And if they don't?  You lose nothing but the time during which the item was listed.  So your end result is an AH with thousands and thousands of items that require detailed and knowledgeable searches to get through.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this model was flawed from the start.  I have a pet theory that Blizzard researched this Auction House model like most large corporations would do it.  They bring in experts in the field, maybe even pay some Ebay personnel to come consult for a few days (after all, they were the ones who were making bank on their virtual items for almost a decade).  The consultants put together a list of things that Blizzard needs to do to make it successful, and just like Lumberg from Office Space, totally shit-can the ideas of the consultants because they have a deluded god complex from selling millions of copies of games.  Having been around corporate America most of my life now, these are exactly how decisions are made - spend a ton of cash asking consultants, and then write that expense off because it just won't work, in management's opinion.  Then when the project doesn't work out as intended, blame the overall idea, and not blame the implementation.  And heaven forfend if you point any fingers of blame, someone's bonus may not come through and you can't have them running off to upper management telling them about your stealing of office supplies and inappropriate use of company internet resources when they fire them.

The answer should have been:  Listing fees to be applied on all items that were in the RMAH

People who engaged in RMT were completely used to them before, and anyone new to it would get used to them.  This prevents a lot of clutter, makes the system easier to use, and a person can locate what they're looking for instead of seeing listing capped results and not finding exactly what they want.  People listing items would think twice before posting something for an unreasonable amount, and you wouldn't see a million people a month posting every flipping rare and bad legendary that they find.  The biggest thing - if your goal was to only see the best possible pieces on the RMAH, people will definitely post it for money with the listing fee just being a minor annoyance.  It's like they never learned a freaking thing from the Warcraft Auction House, something else they happen to not pay any attention to.  You either run a good business model, or you don't.

Wilson now freely admits it was "the wrong solution" to the problems Blizzard was trying to solve. "It's not good for a game like Diablo. It doesn't feel good to get items for money, it feels good to get items by killing monsters," he said, echoing the complaints of a vocal group of fans.

In most well run corporations, everyone knows you don't make even the slightest resemblance of an apology, that's for press releases and the PR department to decide.  You don't "freely admit" anything unless you're waiting on your severance agreement ink to dry.  In one company I worked for, unless you were the Chairman of the Board or in the PR department, making any comment to the public was grounds for immediately packing your desk.  I saw one Divisional Vice President get stripped of his security access within 30 minutes of reporting to work one morning because someone identified him on a talk radio show and he was merely commenting on an incident that was in the news.

Was Wilson's comment merely a talking point he went armed with to the GDC?  The guy isn't even on the project anymore, but he's making comments like this?  Someone's either playing apologist or rebel, and given he probably wants his 10 year ring, I'm going to guess it was planned.  Blizzard has a pretty good track record of firing employees for slight infractions, coming out and talking down about a major revenue source of a title that was possibly going to have a subscription (Blizzcon 2010) would probably rank up there with a punishment between burning at the stake or the pear.

This comment is also very subject to interpretation - was he saying it's better to invest thousands of hours to get that one item that's a top tier item rather than trade maybe an hour or two of your real life paycheck?  What would feel better?  Waiting for Christmas or slapping down the plastic, getting the instant gratification, and being able to go to MP10 faster?  For me, I like finding items, but I'm also familiar with the game's mechanics, and have been for over a decade. 

I know that trading is one of the only ways you're going to improve your character in the Diablo universe, and the AH (gold or money) was the next evolution.  During Diablo 2, gold was absolutely useless.  You were then left with farming up chips or Pgems, or items to trade for Pgems, or trading for SOJs (Stones of Jordan, heavily duped), and then later high runes.  If you wanted to trade, you were then stuck for hours spamming chat channels hoping for a buyer to appear, or waiting in a trade game, or reaching out to the community via forums.  The AH makes it very convenient to put buyer and seller together, without demanding hundreds of unproductive hours on the part of the players.

Now, if you're talking about an MMO, where loot properties are usually fixed, and retaining them only requires a group that is capable of killing a boss, and who has a guaranteed loot table and very predictive odds of dropping an item - then this comment is very apt.  Having spent weeks trying to get certain drops off bosses (and get the kill) it feels really good to acquire the piece, rather than just toss some coin to a bleeding edge guild who can walk you through the entire fight.  But Diablo is NOT an MMO.  It's an Action RPG.  Specific loot is not guaranteed. 

Alternatively, maybe he was actually talking about the business of RMT in general being handled by them?  Blizzard's entry into it was definitely precedent setting.  They were merely trying to protect the playerbase by preventing third party sites from possibly hacking accounts.  Of course, this was a strawman argument, most sites retained no entry to your account, they merely delivered items to you in-game or by a mule account.  Sure they could send a trojan in emails, but those were very rare cases.  If anything, most people familiar with account hacking that occurred during D2 got their viruses almost entirely by the number of hacks that were available on the internet.  That's right, people would install them along with the hacks that Blizzard aggressively cracked down on during the first 5 years of the game.  /snicker  Now, credit card fraud, that's another matter entirely.  That was very, very rampant and it's good they chose to protect the banks.

Another interpretation - for a newer player, getting the best possible gear at this stage of the game means you're fighting an uphill battle, or you're going to have to dip into your personal bank account.  It's very, very difficult to collect millions of gold in the game on your own.  And by millions, I mean hundreds of millions, lest you be stuck with an MP0-2 budget character for a very long time.  I know this would not feel good - having to buy your way purely because you're not very good at the economic aspect of the game. 

The answer to this problem was to control inflation, which the wizards of Blizzard did a fine job.  What are we at now?  50 million for an item that was 1 million 8 months ago?  I heard through someone running bots that he hasn't seen a ban in months, and he's running multiple accounts almost 24 hours a day, every day.  Why?  Like the RMAH, there's no reason not to.  This simply fuels the exponential inflation, and definitely hurts the legit new players.  Who's fault is this?  Someone wake up the crack team of anti-hack security professionals that bust their butt everyday, make sure their eyes aren't painted on.  Ironically, this article came about 2-3 weeks prior to the last massive bot ban they had.  Maybe the team had their future freed up for them after the job was done.

And finally, maybe he meant they should guarantee loot in the future?  If they went the MMO route, they'd destroy the game's legacy of RNG and enraging players for hundreds of hours of frustrating play.  Guess what?  Diablo was always this way.  Did you even play the franchise?  Maybe the complete randomization of loot (class specific legendary gear having not-that-class mods on it, what in the hell were you thinking) is more of an annoyance and issue and what he meant. 

If you're a D2 player and I tell you I have an Occy, TGods, and Eaglehorn, you pretty well know what I have as the mods hardly vary on those.  190 Eth Titans, 8/8 Gaze, 148 UNID Stormshield and 141 Shako, or even a 390 Eth BOTD, you know that I'm carrying some highly desirable items.  Now take a look at any one of the new legendaries and set items in D3 - every single mod on them is usually within a range of variance.  So if I tell you I have an Echoing Fury, the odds of it meeting expectations or your needs, or coming even near them are very, very remote.  Only specific mods are desired or else the item is trash.  Further, it requires the average player to have to completely understand the mechanics that are best for them, rather than build around cookie cutter pieces to enjoy the game.  While this isn't too bad a thing, it is frustrating for your average player.  And average players are the market for trading or buying items via the RMAH/GAH.

But why would you feel the need to remove the feature, much less make that comment?  If you removed the Auction House, there's an army of third party sites waiting to start selling the best possible items and lots and lots of in-game gold.  Mark my words, the second the lights go out in the RMAH, it will take less than 24 hours before you start seeing game spam for items, dupe techniques will be heavily sought after and exploited by them, and Blizzard will be highly successful at accomplishing almost nothing (yet again) to counter it.  Further, this is the world you would be in today had you never implemented the AH to begin with.  The players that decried the AH before will then proceed to scream about the additional spam, account thefts, and other shenanigans the sites develop all in the name of chasing the almighty pixelated dollar. 

Count on it.  It's a no win situation.  At least Blizz has some control, right?


For me, I like Diablo 3.  I invested several hundred hours of play time before I left last summer sadly.  I knew it wasn't going to be Diablo 2 with better graphics since I played the beta, but I still wanted to see it succeed.  Lately I've returned to the game and am working my Paragon levels, and to be honest, the game is way more fun than when I left it last year.  Something they definitely did do correctly was make the game more interesting, add a little more depth, and match the end game to your equipment and allow you to potentially locate good pieces rather than require specific gear to proceed.  For example, I'm no longer being one shot by certain mobs just because I'm melee and didn't have 50,000 hit points or the armor requirements.  If I want to improve my character, it will take a while, or I can visit my friendly neighborhood auction house and improve the performance of my character that way.  Of course I don't mind twinking, I'm not that hardcore a purist.

Thanks for stopping in!

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