Archive for May, 2012

Diablo III and Real Money Trading

Spoiler-free, I hope!

The third game in the fairly legendary Diablo series was released last Tuesday, to much fanfare, an insane amount of sales and a few million jokes about how no one can play the damn thing because all the servers died 37 seconds after release. And while I want to take a hard look at the game’s storytelling at some point down the road, right now the juicy topic is the Real Money Trading aspect of Diablo III that is proving to be fairly controversial, even if it hasn’t been released yet.

The basic story here is that Diablo III, a sequel to a game that basically revolved around loot, will be giving players a way to sell items that they found in-game to other players, either for the in-game currency (Gold) or for real-world money, with Blizzard taking a modest cut of course. The Gold auction house is currently in the game, and is seeing a lot of use, generally being considered the most reliable way to get gear while leveling.

I imagine that Blizzard’s hope for this feature is to provide a modest amount of revenue, primarily to keep the servers running, while also raking in enough after to fund additional development of in-game content (they’re probably going to need it…) and to, of course, bring in a nice profit. The inspiration for this idea was, no doubt, the large amount of underground item selling that existed in Diablo II and is still around in World of Warcraft. As always, if something’s happening underground, there’s usually a good reason behind it, and bringing it above ground can lead to some massive profits.

…obviously, not the perspective to take with EVERYTHING in the black and gray markets, but its nice to see Blizzard taking a shot.

Guinea pigs and all.

How Microtransactions Change a Game

The big elephant in the room is that Blizzard is now trying to make money off of player actions within the game, instead of from box sales or subscriptions. Calling this a massive change may very well be a serious understatement.

With most retail games, you make a game and you sell it. Shocking, I know, but the order is important: The game gets made and (for the most part) finished before its actually sold. As such, you’re really just focused on making the best game possible, maybe with some concessions made to increase the breadth of the game’s appeal. Of course, there’s a lot of things that go into the sales of a game, but the developers really only have to be focused on making the game as good as possible.

Keep in mind, broad strokes here. There are always exceptions, such as sequel baiting that can weaken a plot, or introducing characters and gameplay elements designed to make the game more ‘hip’ or something. DLC can also often fall into this trap, such as the DLC for Assassin’s Creed 2 (…all three Assassin’s Creed 2’s) which had non-critical but still interesting bits of the story left out of the overall game, in order to develop and sell post-release.

But once you start trying to make money off of player actions in-game, entirely voluntary sources of income that don’t add content? Then you run into a sadistic choice: Do you improve the quality of the game, or do you try to improve the potential for revenue?

Always Online

Obviously, the Always Online aspect of Diablo 3 has been… unpopular. The general gist of this is that you must be logged into Battle.Net in order to play Diablo 3. You can play by yourself, of course, and in fact that’s the default option, but you still have to connect to a server and stay online in order to play Diablo 3.

For comparison purposes? Diablo and Diablo II were completely playable offline, but both also were playable online via Battle.Net, and a ton of people did, since you could join up with other players, trade items and take on the legions of hell as a group. The popular reaction by players, possibly because the industry has been rather savaged by poorly implemented DRM, is that Diablo III’s Always Online play is a form of DRM, in order to prevent nasty pirates from stealing the game for free. And, well, there’s something to that argument. After all, its probably impossible to crack Diablo III right now, since the server runs the game for the most part. So, yay for a form of DRM that doesn’t cause pirated copies to have a better version of the game, but boo for its flaws.

But, the real reason? Probably has to do with the online marketplace and the RMT. Extra Credits did a great piece on this: By going all-online, everyone is a potential customer of the auction house, and everyone is also a potential seller.

And all it cost them was the inability for a lot of their players to play the game at launch. Or if they have a server downtime. Or if the player has a finicky internet connection. Or any number of other problems.

And what happens in the future? 15 years after release, I can still play Diablo I on my computer (…well, on A computer. Backwards compatibility from Windows 7 to Windows 95 isn’t perfect). 15 years from now, I’ll probably still be able to play it, even if Battle.net has shut down (again, assuming I have a Windows 95 machine around…). But Diablo III requires the server to be there, and will not be playable, at all, if Activision-Blizzard goes bankrupt, or Diablo III stops being profitable to run.

Simply put, the game is made weaker by forcing everyone to play online. But it will likely increase revenue. And someone, somewhere, felt that was an acceptable trade-off.

Not to say it won’t be a good trade-off for Diablo III. After all, the numbers might be completely right, and a company can’t develop content and pay employees without making money. They can’t keep servers running without money. Money is not evil.

Please repeat that. Money is not evil.

The Little Things

That’s not to say that the Always Online aspect of the game is the only situation where Auction House Revenue was looked at in the design process.

In all honesty? I would wager that, once they decided that the Real Money Auction House was going to be in Diablo III, someone at Blizzard went over every part of the game with a fine tooth comb to make sure that everything in the game either went towards encouraging Auction House use, or at least didn’t contradict it.

Just a few examples…

  • Gold: Gold is much, much harder to get in Diablo III, compared to Diablo II. This is primarily because non-magical items, the bulk of what drops from monsters, is worth a handful of gold. The best sources of gold are now: Killing monsters for dropped gold (which will have a very predictable formula), raiding treasure chests in caves for the gold and magical items within (which will take a lot of effort and time) and selling powerful, rate items on the Gold Auction House.Also, there’s a lot of gold sinks in the game. Diablo II just had armor repairs, which could generally be paid off by killing a handful of enemies, and gambling, where you throw money at a vendor for a random magic item. In Diablo III, the Gold Auction House takes a ‘service charge’ of sorts from items sold, you have to spend gold to increase the size of your stash (a LOT of gold, too), you need to spend gold to upgrade your craftsmen to unlock stronger patterns that they can make (which also require Gold to make), and you can change the color or visibility of your equipped items for a fairly nominal charge, at least in comparison to the 100,000 Gold needed to unlock a new Stash tab.All of that means that you’re not going to get filthy rich in in-game currency very easily. And if it becomes easier to tap yourself out on Gold, popping down 2-3 bucks on an item in the Real Money Auction House? That starts to sound more appealing…Or maybe its just a balance decision in order to prevent the need for alternative currencies, like in Diablo II when the Stone of Jordan became a defacto currency amongst item traders, and it sure is nice for Gold to actually be useful for things…
  • Inferno Difficulty: Diablo II came with three difficulty settings: Normal, Nightmare and Hell. In order to reach Nightmare, your character had to beat the game on Normal, and to reach Hell you had to beat the game on Nightmare. This was generally for the best, as you needed the extra levels and stronger gear in order to beat the higher difficulties. Diablo III adds a fourth difficulty, Inferno, which is intended to be, well, nigh-impossible for most players to beat (Of course, Inferno difficulty was beaten in the first week by a team of dedicated players…).So, what’s the evil part of this? Well, Diablo III is very, very, very, VERY gear based. Obviously, skill is needed too, but the old math still applies: Skill + Gear > Skill. Having a hugely difficult game mode will only entice players more and more to try to beat it at any cost. And if their gear isn’t up to the task, and they can’t suddenly get ‘better’ at the game? Some are going to want to spend money in the Auction House to boost their stats.Or maybe they just wanted to add a super-hard mode, beyond even Hell difficulty, to provide an extra challenge to people once they hit level 60.
  • Arena: This isn’t in the game yet, of course, but… yeah. PvP combat. Diablo II had a bit of this, but it was not a focus of the game at all for the bulk of its players. Diablo III is aiming to make this a major feature, once it gets finished and properly balanced.Ha. Properly balanced.In a game where you can buy powerful items for real-world money.There’s a general rule when it comes to micro-transactions: Don’t sell power. This isn’t as hard a rule as some would like, as it can be very tempting to sell a minor boost in power, but for Diablo III? This is likely the big revenue enhancing feature. A lot of players will be at the level cap of 60, and thus the only way to get more powerful would be with getting better gear.

    Then again? People like PvP, and having stronger support for PvP can only be a good thing for the game as a whole.

The fun thing about all three of the above? All three changes are an outright improvement over Diablo II. Gold was truly worthless in Diablo II. 4 difficulties is definitely a step up from 3, especially since the barometer for true success in Diablo II was getting to level 99, not something so pedestrian as beating the final boss on the hardest difficulty. And PvP was barely supported in Diablo II, generally an afterthought. But that’s not to say that tweaks weren’t made here and there for the sake of improving revenue.

There’s other little things, too…

  • Bosses in Nightmare for me haven’t been dropping Rare items, is that a mechanism to prevent boss farming from being a reliable source of powerful loot?
  • Is the lack of an EXP penalty for Nightmare and Hell (Something that Diablo II had) the result of Blizzard not wanting to punish players too much, so that they feel okay to keep pounding their head against a boss and take the Gold penalties from death, making it harder to use the Gold Auction House?
  • Is the presence of a somewhat accessible level cap at 60 (instead of the nigh-unobtainable level 99 in Diablo II pre-expansion) there to make sure that the potentially VERY profitable Arena is something players will shift their focus to?
  • How much of a focus in playtesting and QA was there to find areas too useful for grinding GP?
  • Did the lack of permanent build customization factor into things, to prevent players from starting from Level 1 repeatedly, and thus prevent there from being a severe drought of high level items being sold on the Auction House?

There’s a streak of paranoia running through all of that, of course, and much of that is probably completely wrong. But some of those questions, particularly the ones relating to farming, were definitely considered by someone at Blizzard. This is what Micro-Transactions can do to a game, it gives you another level of problems to worry about, and sometimes, you want to make a choice for purely financial reasons.

Not all of them are bad, of course. Blizzard is likely going to release content for Diablo III post-release, in order to keep the game feeling fresh. The Arena, for example, is going to be 100% post-release. They might throw in special bonus bosses here and there, unique events on occasion, anything to keep players playing, and the development and production costs of that is going to be paid for from the Auction House.

And I really should be fair here: the best way to encourage in-game purchases by players really IS to have a good game! If you take too many money-based short-cuts, you end up hurting sales because the game isn’t good enough! I have no doubts that Blizzard considered and rejected a lot of ideas that would have increased the attractiveness of the Real Money Auction House, but at the expense of players actually wanting to play the game. I’m loving Diablo III right now, and while I probably won’t spend money in the Real Money Auction House, I definitely understand the appeal of such a system. But its also not worth ignoring the potential player abuse that can go into the development decisions when micro-transactions come into play, and the Always Online “Feature” was almost definitely an example.

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