Tuesday, August 2, 2011

That is quite a treasure you have there in that Horadric Cube

I have been an avid gamer all my life, but as a gamer, I have been almost entirely focused on MMOs for something like seven years now. Right from the first day I played Horizons (and what a poor first MMO that was!), I've been hooked by the online worlds. Not long after that, World of Warcraft launched, and any chance of this interest not sticking was gone. WoW is the MMO that I have spent by far the most time playing, starting on release day in November 2004, although my subscription has been off and on as I have taken a number of lengthy breaks in between expansions.

But before I encountered a massively multiplayer game for the first time, my consuming obsession was Diablo 2. I played it a lot. Single-player, multiplayer, softcore, hardcore. I theorycrafted builds, pored over drop rates, did my own parsing of the game's datafiles, wrote some tools, all sorts of stuff. I was a serious D2'er for a couple of years there. So, needless to say, I've been quite keenly anticipating the upcoming release of Diablo 3.

And last night, wow, what a bombshell of a news release there was, in the form of Blizzard's announcement that D3 would have an auction house where items can be bought and sold both for in-game gold, and for real cash.

While goldbuying is a scourge of modern MMOs, the black market in D2 was all about selling items directly. Back in the day, before Blizzard cracked down, you could search on eBay and find all manner of items for sale. Once that avenue was closed, RMT went to the same sort of sites as currently sell MMO currency. Just now I googled for "Diablo 2 items" and straight away found many results, the top sponsored link selling various items for prices ranging from a buck or so to a staggering $100+ for some items!

So given this market, Blizzard have decided to take a leaf from Sony's Station Exchange, enable and moderate the trade themselves, and - of course - take a little cut from each listing. Now that's a fascinating idea for a revenue stream other than the currently common subscription and cash shop models!

Here's why I think this idea will be popular

Diablo 2 was the ultimate casino game. WoW pales in comparison. You kill a boss in WoW, you know he's going to drop, say, two epics from a table of 10 possible drops. Kill anything in D2 and it could drop anything. In the highest level zones, literally any mob can drop any of the most valuable items in the game. Sure the odds might be millions to one against, but yes, that imp could drop a Zod rune.

And on top of that, the stats on the items were random too. Sometimes to variations were minor - the much-loved Windforce bow only had one variable stat, 6-8% mana leech. One in three chance that when one dropped it would have 8%, and be "perfect". But The Grandfather had 150%-250% increased damage - a massively important stat, and the odds were 100:1 against getting a perfect one. That's if you ever saw one drop. Elite uniques like that were extremely rare to start with.

So if D3 follows a similar pattern, I expect to see perfect instances of rare items sell for large sums of money. Which means that every time you play, it will be like being given a lottery ticket. When any piece of loot that drops could be a perfect elite unique that sells for serious cash, you better believe killing bosses will get your pulse racing.

Here's why I think this idea is cool

Obviously, "subscription vs. free-to-play" has been the debate of the last year or two in the MMO world. I've had a lot of fun with free-to-play MMOs such as Atlantica, and with subscription-turned-F2P games like LOTRO. But one thing that has always bothered me is that in a subscription game, the developer and you are partners. They want to entertain you enough that you'll keep playing and keep paying, and you want them to entertain you because, well, that's what games are for.

But in a F2P game - the developer wants to entertain you, sure. But just keeping you playing is not enough. They need to keep you paying, too. And therein lies conflict between player and developer. They need to make playing totally for free kind of frustrating. They need to make you wish that you could be more powerful, or less restricted.

This is the point where someone usually says "why aren't there more buy-to-play games like Guild Wars?" And sure, as a gamer, that's great, but it's tough for a developer to provide ongoing support and content without a revenue stream.

This auction house idea? It has the potential to make the game generate a massive revenue stream for Blizzard, whilst the players can buy the box and play for free. Or, they can buy the box and then spend a fortune buying stuff from other players. Or, they can buy the box and then recoup the money farming and selling. But the relationship between Blizzard and the players is once again one of "we need to keep you having fun so you keep playing."

Here's why this idea worries me

Diablo 2 was always something of a cheat's paradise. Maphacks, teleport hacks, townkill hacks, duping.. it had the lot. And WoW also has had no shortage of teleport hacking, with all the underground miners and so on you see about the place.

Combine that with the amount of account hacking going on these days. Everyone knows people who have had their accounts jacked. I get dozens of spam emails every week trying to phish for my WoW login.

Now combine all of the above with a means to cash out ill-gotten gains with Blizzard not only facilitating it, but profiting from it! And good luck relying on your players to report cheats if the game is instance-based rather than persistent world, and thus none of your honest players are ever in the same gameworld as tele-hacking farmers.

I'd like to think Blizzard have the ability to counter all this, but honestly, I'm not sure they do.


  1. Diablo 2 theorycrafter eh? You didn't hang out at the Amazon Basin or the Lurker Lounge did you? I was known there as Brista.

    I think you're precisely right in your analysis - D3's trading game will be fun until the cheats ruin it. And that's going to be the cyber-security battle of the decade with Activision's hopes for one of their greatest cash cow in the blue corner and the Russian mafia tag teaming with corporate China in the red corner. With billions of dollars in prize money.

    (Nice to see you blog again, always enjoy your thoughts).

  2. Heya.. yes indeed I did hang out on both AB and Lurker Lounge. I wasn't a hugely social player - I played a few games with other AB people but mostly solo. And I probably spent more time reading the forums than posting on them, but my handle was Stormie.

  3. Cool. Well I would say hopefully we'll get a chance to play together in D3 but we're in different regions. Or you could come over for a LAN party - oh wait.

    Oh well I'll see you on the theorycraft boards.