Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Talk About Free Publicity (Diablo 3)

Diablo 3 will let you sell pixels for dollars, in-game, and vice versa.

My first thought, along similar lines to Alto, was: can you imagine the number of gold guides for Diablo 3? WoW alone supported one costing $47 for the majority of the game's lifespan, and that is discounting the other, cheaper ones of the last few years. And you couldn't even really cash your gold out! In a game where you could presumably spend $47 and make $100 in-game using the tips, it might be foolish to not do so. Unless you could get those same tips from anyone with a blog, of course.

My second thought was self-reflection on why I instinctually despised this news. If you never use a cash shop, and if you don't care that other people do... then why hate it? There are two reasons why.

  • Number 1: It removes, or diminishes the value of time. 

When you drill it down, by "value" I really mean "advantage." If I can play five hours a day and you can only play two, all other things being equal, I will have an advantage over you in an MMO. Especially in MMOs, where the design is to throttle content to ensure monthly subscriptions. I will reach the level-cap sooner, I will level more alts, I will have access to more professions, I will have more attempts on raid bosses, I will be geared to the teeth while you are still struggling for your two-piece bonus. Skill can overcome Time in many areas (Arenas, raiding, etc) and obviously a complete moron would be incapable of any number of activities no matter how much time they spent playing.

Most people, grudgingly, can accept when their Time was beaten by an opponent's Skill. In RPGs, people are more forgiving of when Time beat Skill - the premise being that Time is something that acquires value in only one specific way ("earning" it) that is available to anyone*. Cash Shops, RMT, and so on radically change the calculus. Time, which hitherto was "priceless" in-game, now has a price. If we are equally skilled, I can win by either Time or Cash whereas you may be limited (literally or philosophically) to Time alone. If the game makes Time capable of beating Skill, and Cash = Time, then Cash > Skill becomes possible. This is where the whole "Pay-To-Win" (Golden Ammo, etc) pejorative comes from. As a gamer, you have to start asking yourself why you would "invest" in Time in a game where anyone with more Cash could stomp you at any moment. If Time is all you have, there are other games without Cash Shops which would give you a better return.

Blizzard has thus far avoided the Pay-To-Win scenario in WoW by keeping the Cash Shop limited to cosmetic items and preventing gold from being (legitimately) purchased. Meanwhile, Diablo 3 is balls-deep in Pay-To-Win by every available measure. From their FAQ:
Will players be at a disadvantage in the game if they do not purchase items in the auction house?
All of the items available in the auction house can be obtained in the game. The auction house system is designed to facilitate the exchange of items (items can also be exchanged through character-to-character trades). Diablo III is primarily a cooperative game; while the game will offer some highly entertaining player-vs.-player options, we don't intend to balance items for player-vs.-player gameplay. We feel that a robust and powerful item-trading system will make the co-op experience more enjoyable.
 The question after that is equally hilarious.
Can I just buy the most powerful items and breeze through the game?
Items will be level-restricted, meaning your character won't be able to use an item until he or she is at the appropriate level for that item.
Read: you can purchase the most powerful items for your level to breeze through the game with, until you hit the level cap of 60 where uber-gear** will likely make or break your character just like in WoW. For the low, low player price of $100 per slot, if we are lucky. And we may actually see sales that high or higher, given that it would be "affordable" after the sale of a bunch of $5 auctions. Keep in mind that while Blizzard is providing a "cash out" advanced feature, it is actually pretty misleading:
How do I cash out from the currency-based auction house?
As an advanced feature, players will have the option of attaching an account with an approved third-party payment service to their Battle.net account. Once this has been completed, proceeds from the sale of items in the currency-based auction house can be deposited into their third-party payment service account. “Cashing out” would then be handled through the third-party payment service. Note that this process will be subject to applicable fees charged by Blizzard and the third-party payment service. Also, any proceeds from the sale of items in the currency-based auction house that have been deposited into the Battle.net account will not be transferrable to the third-party payment service account. Not all regions will support this advanced feature at launch. Region-specific details, as well as details regarding which third-party payment services will be supported and the fee that Blizzard will charge for the cash-out process, will all be provided at a later date.
In other words, any dollars that actually reach your Battle.net account essentially become carnival tickets - non-refundable currency that performs as pseudo-cash, buying you the big fuzzy bear, Disco Lion, or 30 days of WoW. The "cashing-out" only occurs if you tweak your Battle.net settings so that AH proceeds never actually touch your Battle.net account, but get directly deposited into your Paypal account or whatever. Considering you can't actually buy anything with dollars until said dollars are loaded into your Battle.net account (thereby making them non-refundable), I have little doubt there will be quite a few surprised AH goblins out there who find that their $1000 nest egg will, at best, keep them subscribed to Titan or whatever for the next half-decade.

  • Number 2: It threatens design integrity.

This is decidedly a gray area, especially in a post where I already said "[...] the design [of MMOs] is to throttle content to ensure monthly subscriptions." What design integrity means to me is asking yourself whether what you are about to do is going to make for a better game (story, simulation, etc). I intentionally did not say "makes your game better" because typically gaining more subscriptions or selling more boxes makes a game with a multiplayer component better. Instead, design integrity is about making the game in of itself better at what it is. If a game can only be better if it had more people playing it, that is a job for the marketing department, not game designers.

One of the clearest, most easily recognizable breaches of design integrity to me would be the Firelands daily quests. There is nothing about this series of quests that gets better for them having been spread out over 30+ days. Nothing. Even if your argument is that the number of days serves to simulate the long struggle of a dangerous military campaign, I would counter that the same feeling could be accomplished by doubling the number of actual quests, and allowing a choice few to be repeatable once complete. An example could be, I dunno... the entire Hyjal zone itself? 

Obviously the Firelands dailies were not the first incident of intentional content throttling (there were reputation grinds, etc, from Day 1), but it is particularly galling to me insofar as the way it was hyped and presented. Seriously, they came out and said...
Rather than these stages only becoming available after a certain period of time or at the end of a long quest series, players will instead get to use a new alternate currency called Marks of the World Tree to unlock them at their own pace.
...as if stages were not available until after a certain period of time (weeks) or at the end of a long (daily) quest series. Again, the Argent Tournament et tal did this years ago, but in that particular preview they merely state exactly what was going on: new dailies.

How this relates to Diablo 3 is simple. Does a currency-based AH make Diablo 3 a better game? I do not think it does. What it seems to be aimed at is what Blizzard mentions in the FAQ, along the lines of "since you guys are going to do crack anyway, we may as well supply it." If getting the perfect item or set is the motivator for playing the game (after finishing the story), does the inclusion of an AH at all make Diablo 3 better than, say, some profession/item/etc that could randomly turn items into a different version of itself? Such a thing would perhaps be distracting from the Skinner Box lever that is grinding bosses for loot (e.g. spend more time randomizing one item than simply killing things for a random shot at another), but it is a question worth asking anyway.

The fear here is Cash Shops and RMT lead to F2P-esque games that sacrifice the fun of the game for monetization of the game. Tobold has talked about the World of Tanks model many times, but it is most succinctly described in the opening paragraphs of his Payslope post:
Even Free2Play games need to make money to be sustainable. Many have some sort of paywall, reserving certain content for people who pay. World of Tanks doesn't have such a wall, everybody has access to all the maps and tech tree tanks in the game. Instead WoT has something I'd rather describe as a payslope: The high-level game becomes very tedious if you don't pay.

The effect is first noticeable around level 7 (out of 10): Starting from this level regular tanks on regular accounts tend to spend more credits on ammo and repair than they get as credit reward at the end of the battle. There are some variables there, winning earns you more than losing, and dealing a lot of damage also earns you more. But with level 8+ tanks costing millions of credits, money definitely is getting tight at the higher levels.
I am not opposed to game designers being paid for their quality products. I am, however, opposed to intentionally hobbling the player's game experience to "trick" them into paying to continue playing a game they found fun. If World of Tanks did not have a Cash Shop or RMT, do you think they would still have a point in the leveling curve where it became extremely tedious to play? Maybe. You would rightly call that bad game design however. Same deal with MMOs and systems designed to take weeks of repeated content to complete.

Blizzard stated that Diablo 3's loot system was developed before they decided to add an AH with RMT options. I have no choice but to accept that statement on face value. But given the carnival ticket structure of money in Battle.net accounts, it is abundantly clear Blizzard stands to make an absolute killing by implementing RMT even without considering the Blizzard cut on both listing and successful auctions. Even if you are a pro AH goblin and amass $10,000 without yourself ever paying anything into the system, that is $10,000 (+X% of whatever Blizzard cut) sitting in a Blizzard escrow account earning interest, all of which would have been "left on the table" otherwise. They repeatedly said they will not be selling anything or setting prices, but it would be incredibly naive to believe that future Diablo 3 balance decisions (drop rate, etc) will not directly affect Blizzard RMT profits, and/or Blizzard would not ever make changes with such things in mind.

Bottom line: you can only really trust someone who makes you pay everything up front. Provided they actually deliver the product you bought, you will know that they had no incentive make an inconsistent experience. And inconsistent experiences make for the worst videogames.

*In reality, Time as an advantage is just as "unfair" as Cash could ever be. Just ask anyone who has typed the phrase "no-lifers" or "you just live in your mom's basement."

**Even more interesting to ponder is whether Blizzard intends to limit the gear from Nightmare and Hell difficulties to only being wearable by players of those difficulties. I mean, I can only assume gear dropped from Hell difficulty would be better than Normal mob drops. It is possible they intend the level cap of 60 to only be achievable on Hell difficulty, although I imagine it would be almost as tough a sell as the opposite - not everyone can/wants to play on that level, but do you simply not give the average player access to the coolest spells? Or are the gaming veterans stuck with merely upgraded spell stats instead of abilities?


  1. After some time some people will have accumulated enough money in their battle.net account to play a subscription game for free, be it WoW ot Titan. How is Blizzard going to burn that money away? What's going to be their monocle? Are they going to add more cash shop items to their subscription game with the intend to make you spend your $1000 on a mount instead of on 6 years of subscription? Or will they find a way in D3 to burn that money?

  2. Money ,Money ,money. this is all BLiz is seeing, its simple as this, the idea that you can make real money playing a game will probably lure many players in.
    None aware of the cuts Bliz will make in your earning.
    I have very similar ideas to your own, you pretty much explained it better then I can.
    So lets see what will come of this.

  3. If I can make enough side cash playing Diablo 3 to pay for my WoW account each month, then I am happy enough. Then toss any super rares I won't need up for the extra cash AH. Sounds good to me. I doubt it will be a fulltime day job, well, unless your a chinese prisoner.

  4. "Even if you are a pro AH goblin and amass $10,000 without yourself ever paying anything into the system, that is $10,000 (+X% of whatever Blizzard cut) sitting in a Blizzard escrow account earning interest, all of which would have been "left on the table" otherwise."

    What? How can you seriously propose that anyone will make 10 thousand dollars off the D3 RMT AH without remembering at some point to set up a paypal account to deposit the money into instead of their bnet account. Surely you're not serious.

  5. What? How can you seriously propose that anyone will make 10 thousand dollars off the D3 RMT AH without remembering at some point to set up a paypal account to deposit the money into instead of their bnet account. Surely you're not serious.

    Forgive me if I was not necessarily clear. Even if a goblin set up their Battle.net account to transfer all $10,000 into their Paypal account, that $10,000 was at some point sitting in Blizzard escrow accounts (perhaps in $1-$5 increments) prior to that. Nevermind how much "liquid cash" the goblin would need to keep in their Battle.net account to keep their AH empire running.

    Aside from that, you know there will be goblins who did not read the terms and conditions closely enough when it comes time for them to cash out. It may not be $10,000, but it will quickly add up across the millions of accounts there undoubtedly will be.

  6. I just wandered over here from Gevlon's blog, looking for new reading material, and this post alone got you bookmarked. The two posts preceding this confirmed that bookmarking was a good idea.

    I'm pretty much 100% in agreement with you on this and the previous post (re: Microtransactions). I actually wrote a giant essay on why this whole RL$-AH is a shitty idea on a discussion thread my WoW guild was having on the idea, and a lot of it is similar to what you've stated here.