Blizzard Puts Fun Before Profit, Kills Diablo 3's Auction Houses

When Blizzard launched Diablo III, one of the game's most controversial features was the inclusion of a real money and standard auction house. This was an optional component of the game that allowed players to purchase items and equipment for real money. It ran concurrently with the game's traditional auction system and no one was required to use it. Gold could be bought and sold on the RMAH -- if you wanted items that were available on the "regular" auction house, you could buy gold with them on the RMAH, transfer it to your character, and then use it to purchase equipment.

The entire system was billed as an experiment in funding and game design -- an experiment Blizzard has decided to end. Today, Blizzard Production Director John Hight posted the following to a blog:
But as we've mentioned on different occasions, it became increasingly clear that despite the benefits of the AH system and the fact that many players around the world use it, it ultimately undermines Diablo's core game play: kill monsters to get cool loot. With that in mind, we want to let everyone know that we've decided to remove the gold and real-money auction house system from Diablo III... Please note that the shutdown will occur on March 18, 2014. We will keep everyone informed as we work through this process.
Aside from tipping its hand on when the new expansion, Reaper of Souls, might ship, this announcement is an interesting example of how the company is putting fun before profit and a hint of what the real impact of the Auction Houses was. It's something I can speak to.

How Buying on the Auction House Kills The Game

I started playing Diablo III again early in the spring. I wanted to come back to the game and evaluate the new patches, the loot changes, the Paragon system, and the various other mods for the classes, characters, and quests. I was enjoying the game enormously but had begun to hit a difficulty wall as far as progressing further into Hell. My equipment drops weren't providing the stats I needed, while the standard auction house prices for the particular gear I wanted to try were far above my price bracket.

At the time, the price of gold in Diablo 3 $0.25 per million. At four million gold per dollar, I bought up 40 million gold for $10, bought the equipment I needed, and tore into the game. I was not a spendthrift -- I still have the bulk of the 40 million on my character -- but I outfitted myself in various sets of gear for different playstyles. At first, this was enormously entertaining -- I shredded enemy packs that had stymied me previously and found myself dying significantly less.

Then I got bored. Nothing that was dropping actually fit the sort of gear I needed, which means I spent more time hunting the auction house for ideal combinations of randomized attributes than I did actually playing the game. Playing Diablo 3 had become a game of "Hunt the perfect breastplate" not "Kill the evil monster." It felt directly tied to my wallet, which I emphatically dislike, since even 40 million gold will only take you so far.

But the problem with Diablo III isn't just that the RMAH pulled down the game's design by introducing real money and turning the game into a "He who buys the most gold, wins" event. Here, I think it's critical to refer back to World of Warcraft.

The Difference Between WoW and Diablo III

Back when I was playing WoW, from Classic - Early Pandas, I spent a great deal of time looking over entire websites dedicated to tanking in a raid and the proper gear / strategies for doing so. The difference was, while getting that gear was varying degrees of difficult, I knew exactly what Tovah needed for progression. If I needed a tanking shield, and Gruul dropped a tanking shield, then it was important to kill Gruul. If your main healers needed better healing gear, you killed the bosses that either dropped that gear directly or dropped tokens that could be turned in for that gear. Loot distribution in WOW changed tremendously from 2005 - 2012, from static drops off fixed bosses to a token system that awarded players with objects that could be turned in for the gear of their choice. What didn't change was knowing which gear you needed and how to get it. Whether you were grinding 5-man bosses in traditional dungeons to earn Tokens of the Bandersnatch (not an actual item) or killing 20-man bosses in weekly raids, WoW always gave you a gear progression path to follow.

Diablo III, for the most part, doesn't. Uniques have more predictable stats, but the vast majority of equipment is a grab bag of features. You might end up with a rare sword that carries every single stat you're hoping for -- or fairly useless boost. This means grinding the same areas repeatedly hoping to get lucky -- or -- taking advantage of the auction house. But the problem with the auction house is that even the traditional version is automatically the best place to find your gear.

That's a problem, because while it doesn't cost me money, it's still depressing. With all boss drops randomized and the best chance of good loot coming from non-boss mobs, the appeal of grinding towards a particular item or items is basically nil. Killing the AH's can work, but only if the loot system becomes something players can actually depend on to serve up the gear they need to play the game effectively. That's going to require an enormous overhaul of the entire loot distribution system, but it's not impossible.