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The Real Cost of Diablo 3's Real Money Auction House
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The Real Cost of Diablo 3's Real Money Auction House
by Simon Ludgate on 05/15/12 01:47:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This isn't the first time I've seen Blizzard defending their Real Money Auction House. I addressed the issue back in August when it was first announced and had many a lively discussion, including with Blizzard employees. Their argument has always been: "this isn't about exploiting people, this is about giving them a service they want."

I'm sure the cigarette industry has the same argument when they supply people with cigarettes: we're not forcing them to smoke, they just really like it! So what if we make a bit of money on the side for providing them with smokes?

Arguably, I shouldn't be bothered by D3's RMAH. I won't buy anything from it, and I won't play multiplayer with people who do, so why should I care what other people do with it?

I think what I don't like about this system is that it follows in the footsteps of cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, and lotteries: it exploits the uneducated, the unintelligent, the easily decieved and those prone to addiction. The RMAH is there to tempt and torment those those who find its allure difficult to resist; it's there to supply a vice to those who eagerly look to trade away their dignity for exclusivity or entertainment.

Diablo 3's Real Money Auction House is predicated on the illusion of real value of items in a game, value partially enforced by the player's desire to perceive the game's space as real, but also enforced by the fact that Blizzard forced the game into an online only space, limiting the influence players can have with their game.

In sharp contrast, Diablo I and II's value was left to individual players to dictate. If you wanted to play online and engage in that illusion, you could; but you could also play offline or on LAN and construct your own value, including through modifications, cheats, duplication exploits, and the like. Ultimately, while the first two games sacrificed value for fun, Diablo 3 sacrifices fun for enforcing a singular illusion of value.

In Diablo III, Blizzard has taken away the power to customize the experience. Or, rather, they've locked that power away behind a money barrier in the RMAH. By locking that customizability away, Blizzard can try to convince people that these game items have value. Furthermore, they can entice people with the illusion of profitability: that they could make money playing the game and selling virtual goods! Certainly, there will be a few winners in that proposition; no doubt we will soon read articles about those few people who make lots of money. But for those few wins, the game industry as a whole takes a serious loss.

It seems hypocritical for us to be concerned about exploitative practices in social games, to the point of regulation that leads some developers to pre-emptively halt these kinds of things, while eagerly embracing the opportunity to buy and sell items in a game for real money, with the game's developer skimming all the profits.

It seems to me that Blizzard has found a wonderful way to make money by selling people something they used to get for free, and people are embracing it because it's wrapped up in all the wonder and mystique of randomization and chance. It's like if a grocery store stopped letting people pick the food they wanted to buy, and instead offered them a parcel of random food items. Don't like what you just bought? No problem! We'll let you sell that food to other people and we'll only take a small cut!

What people need to realize is that Diablo 3's RMAH isn't much different from a casino: the money you can make selling stuff is never more than the money other people spend buying it. If everyone goes into Diablo 3 thinking they'll make a mint on the RMAH, no one will. Oversupply, underdemand, and all that. One person's luck at selling something comes from someone else giving in to the temptation and buying it.

The bigger worry is that people will hone in on video games as vehicles for satiating their lust for gambling. Games used to be about having fun, about going on adventures, about grand exploits and tall tales. And now they're all about money?

How long before the AAA games industry spirals down the same pit of depravity to join the social games we loathe so dearly?


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Comments


Tony Kingston
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At the peak of Diablo 2 popularity, accounts could be bought on Ebay for over $100. World of Warcraft accounts go for over $1000 nowadays. If Blizzard took away the RMAH, people would still buy Diablo 3 items and characters online. The RMAH doesn't seem as dismal to me because Blizzard is just replacing itself as the middleman.

Simon Ludgate
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I just can't fathom WHY anyone would pay money for Diablo 2 items, when you just load a character editor and spawn any customized item you want. It's like if someone was standing around in the park holding out empty bottles, screwing on the lid, and selling them to people walking by: "hey, $100 for a bottle of fresh air!"

Henry Tuttle
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For a lot of people, Diablo II was about (for lack of a better word) e-peen. Having powerful gear and killing people with it was their objective. It didn't matter that they were just wielding a bunch of binary data, because they got a sense of satisfaction teleporting on top of someone and one-shotting them with a Blessed Hammer.

Joe Wreschnig
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There's an assumption underlying this, and a lot of other writing on the RMAH I've seen, which is that the always-online DRM is because of the RMAH. I admit it's possible but I don't think it's the case. Starcraft 2 essentially required you to be online to play the single player game, had no LAN play, and did not have an RMAH. Plenty of other games have implemented similar requirements.

Rather I suspect Blizzard was told, or decided itself at an executive level, "we will have an always-online requirement." And the RMAH is the result of the design team using that fixed constraint to provide more value to players.

So I don't see the presence of the RMAH driving the always-online requirement. I think a lot of the railing against the RMAH is actually confused railing against the online requirement - including this essay. That in turn divides the fanbase - for many of them the RMAH is not an issue - and works to Activision/Blizzard's advantage to stop people from a coordinated push back against the actual way they're being mistreated.

Simon Ludgate
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Actually, Star Craft 2 had the online requirement for multi-player; single-player could be played off-line.

I think the combination of RMAH and DRM drive Diablo 3 to be a purely MMO-like online experience.

This particular "rail" against the RMAH is that it exploits people who seem to be willing to pay money for something of no real value; something that other players are accustomed to getting for free. This particular "rail" is arguing that Blizzard should provide mod tools rather than RMAH in order to allow players to "skip" content.

Joe Wreschnig
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"Actually, Star Craft 2 had the online requirement for multi-player; single-player could be played off-line."

While it was possible to play the campaign online, you couldn't get any achievements, and no information was synchronized to your Battle.net account. It also required an online activation. My point is not that SC2 was identical to this; rather only that given SC2, this is not a surprising decision for Diablo 3 even if the RMAH was not in the picture. And if your problem is the always-online check, your problem is the always-online check, *not* the RMAH.

"This particular "rail" against the RMAH is that it exploits people who seem to be willing to pay money for something of no real value; something that other players are accustomed to getting for free."

I still don't understand this. What makes the items "something of no real value"? They're not physical items, but the whole game is also not a physical thing, and you paid for that. Payment for services has existed since economies existed. So how is it exploitative? This isn't a Zynga where you have to pay to make it fun. It's a player-to-player economy. Is EVE exploitative? Is poker with your friends on the weekend exploitative? Who is being exploited by this system?

Blizzard not giving you mod tools might be rude, it might make you upset, it might even offend you, but it's not exploiting you.

Brad Borne
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@Simon: "This particular "rail" against the RMAH is that it exploits people who seem to be willing to pay money for something of no real value; something that other players are accustomed to getting for free"

For free? Either loot just shows up magically in Diablo with no effort required by the player, or you're trying to say that my time isn't worth anything. OR you're trying to say that 1s and 0s are incapable of holding value.

Define 'real value'.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"or you're trying to say that my time isn't worth anything."

When the time that one "must" put into a game to progress is viewed as a "cost" to pay instead of the point of purchasing said game, so much so that offering money to get past this "obstacle" is deemed rational, game designers have failed unforgivably at their duty to provide entertainment. I am more disappointed with the abuse and neglect of our art form with every passing year.

"Define 'real value'."

Here's a starting point: real value is not produced by selling the cure to your own poison.

Matthew Dodd
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"This particular "rail" against the RMAH is that it exploits people who seem to be willing to pay money for something of no real value; something that other players are accustomed to getting for free"

The entire economy system revolves around perceived value of items - I believe my time at work is worth a certain amount, and so I get a certain pay from it (the money I get paid with then has a perceived value - the paper holds no value, only the expectation of value). The bread I buy has a value placed on it due to consumers perceiving the value of that bread to be a certain amount, and so on.

There is of course a difference between need and want with all products (including those for pure entertainment), and things get ethical when you start trying to get your players to have a need for items that should be in the want category (feeding a addicts need for a payout, for example) - but if someone perceives the value of a item to be worth paying a few dollars for it (compared to the value of their time), I don't really see that as exploiting players.

Since players get both the full game experience without paying (unlike with social games, where you can only play continually if you're willing to pay the developers for the privilege, and many of those games are aimed at trying to force you to need to play), and you can choose who you play with..then in the end, the auction house just provides a place for people who believe that their time is more valuable then the cost of the items to make that transaction.

I won't get anything from there myself, since I'm not that interested in the game - its fun, but I prefer my money more then the value of beating things up with a bigger sword. But if others want to..then at least the developer is going to get something out of it, rather then just some gold farm operation somewhere.

Brad Borne
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@Jeffrey Crenshaw: While this is something that can certainly be abused (I was almost personally offended when I saw that I could unlock all the cars in Burnout Paradise for a few bucks, but more because it marginalized my time spent unlocking cars), I think it's even more disastrous to think that all games should be a downhill slip-slidey fun ride, shoving the player along without any real friction.

Getting players to pay money may be a terrible way to get players invested in a game, but player investment is almost becoming a lost art in AAA games nowadays.

You certainly can't tell me that if a player is 'working' towards a payoff in a game, that a developer has failed (getting better at an 8-bit Mega Man, learning fighting game combos, or heck, simply 'playing' Minecraft).

So you're trying to say that any moment that a player isn't simply being massaged forward is a poison?

Buying effort from other players may not be a good gameplay addition, but don't discount the entire role of player investment in video games.

John Flush
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"Games used to be about having fun, about going on adventures, about grand exploits and tall tales. And now they're all about money?"

Yep. But Blizzard is doing it now so it is okay. /sarcasm

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Simon Ludgate
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I dunno, I still think it's preying on Oniomania.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oniomania

By augmenting social norms and peer pressure to spend more on virtual goods, companies establish a culture of frivolous buying as a means to attaining the sense of satisfaction and pleasure normally attained from actually playing the game rather than shopping through it.

Note that this is closely related to pathological gambling too.

Joe Wreschnig
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The problem with describing D3 this way is it's a player-to-player market. For someone to "pay to win", someone else has to have won and put their win up on the market.

Did you buy a house rather than build it? Go to a restaurant rather than farm? Read a book rather than tell stories around a campfire?

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Betable Blog
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I wholeheartedly disagree with the sentiment in this article, in particular:

"I think what I don't like about this system is that it follows in the footsteps of cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, and lotteries: it exploits the uneducated, the unintelligent, the easily decieved and those prone to addiction."

This argument misinterprets the actual functionality provided by the RMAH. The RMAH is brilliant because it provides the same functionality that you would get from your typical virtual goods store in a social game. However, instead of a Blizzard store where there's an endless pipeline of Broadswords of Awesomeness, Blizzard has replaced this with a user-powered, market-driven in-game economy. That's a huge win for the players because they can actually participate in what makes the game successful.

People buying in-game items to improve their hero, army, farm or whathaveyou is a $2B industry in the US and a $7b industry worldwide. You can't pretend that this isn't going to happen because Blizzard doesn't provide it (just look at IGE, which makes millions per year selling WoW gold). It's a big improvement for the players to make Blizzard the official middleman of this transaction. It brings the black market into the light, ensuring that players don't get scammed by shady providers. And to be clear, the RHAM is not gambling: the vast majority of players will not use it as a mechanism for "making money", and even those who do are more likely to be operating like stock market brokers than slot machine players. Comparing the RHAM to gambling, cigarettes and alcohol is sensationalist and inaccurate.

Julian Pritchard
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Tyler, you have raised a very good — and important — point that the article omitted. Before Blizzard included the RMT in its game people would go out of there way to purchase accounts and products through third parties; from my days playing WoW I am well aware of the issues that it has caused.

While I do not question the validity of your points: I do suggest that such issues should be kept in the realm of social and MMO games. Whilst one may argue that it has been shown that people will seek to augment their game via the spending of real money; I argue that such things should not be the primary focus of the developer.

Simon stated that "Ultimately, while the first two games sacrificed value for fun, Diablo 3 sacrifices fun for enforcing a singular illusion of value."

It is my belief that as game developers it should be our aim to make fun and enriching experiences for our players. Due to the focus on RMT — RMAH — I as the player (and one who is still extremely fond of Diablo II) do not find the game to be fun.

In conclusion while I do not disagree with the presence of the RMAH. I find that all the supporting functions of the game which are touted as enhancing the experience to in fact diminish the fun of playing the game.

Bruno Xavier
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"Games used to be about having fun, about going on adventures, about grand exploits and tall tales. And now they're all about money?"

Sad but true. Indie devs nowadays do it mainly because of money too.
I blame the social gaming phenomena. I blame facebook.

Alan Youngblood
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Very sad but true. Blame whoever you want, but there's the elephant in the room of the current global great depression. But on the brightside: we as humans made it through the last two. I thought we had learned our lesson though. Casino-banking/rich-only-bailouts/stag-flation/no regulation for risky banking/businesses that try to "cut" their way into growth are all suspect. I hate to get all political on you, but these things are the real culprit and they are easy enough to fix if people try.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I'm in absolute agreement with you Alan, but to get people to try to fix our economy requires disillusioning the many Americans that still believe they will be rich if they just work hard enough under capitalism. That's a nice thought and how it should be, but there's just no evidence to correlate work with wealth and plenty of evidence to correlate inheritance and privileges of the already rich (tax havens, globalization, etc) to more wealth. Unless you think the rich have just worked so much harder than the rest of the country over the last 30 years, and suddenly in about 2008 everyone got lazy and that's why they lost their jobs. Until people start understanding that we have designed a competitive economy where _every one_ must fight _every one_ for scraps and that said competition guarantees losers no matter how hard everyone works, I don't see things getting better.

Brad Borne
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I can't think of any argument that doesn't lose all validity once they bring up the 'evils' of cigarettes. I just picture some pompous ass saying to a smoker, 'oh you poor thing you, I bet you didn't know that cigarette there is BAD for you, and also ADDICTIVE! I sure bet you're glad that I'm here to educate poor ignorant you!'

On top of that, isn't actually playing a loot based game like gambling, while buying at the RMAH is more like, I dunno, an auction? While playing, the player spends time and is randomly rewarded with better equipment, but at an auction, the player doesn't lose real money unless they gain something of value. And argue about 1s and 0s all you like, but hey, what do you think you paid money for when buying the game?

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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It costs the player time to bid on an auction item that they end up not getting, just like it costs time to grind for that random drop.

"what do you think you paid money for when buying the game?"

Happiness and/or enrichment at experiencing another world. You paid for an experience that requires man hours to create. Not a service, not a product, not a disc, not 1s and 0s. Just answering this question because it comes up a lot, not because I have skin in the game regarding the "real value" of auction items.

Brad Borne
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@Jeffrey Crenshaw: That doesn't sound much different from the core of the game. If real money wasn't involved, if players could use in game goal or whatever to participate in the auction, would that fact make the auctioning part of experiencing another world?

We're operating under the assumption that money can't / shouldn't cross the barrier into the game's world. I'll be first in line to blast casual games for ruining the experience by introducing money walls and gutting gameplay for the sake of microtransactions, and any company that sells what are essentially cheat codes should be clubbed in their collective kneecap, but this seems like something completely different to me.

If anything, it's something that will happen with or without Blizzard's involvement.

Tyler King
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While I myself will never use it I think Blizzard putting it in is not a bad thing. In Diablo 2 there were dozens of sites that people would go to and buy in game items. All of them were run by people farming via bots from there basements and none of them were super secure sites. Its the same thing with buying gold in wow, how many gold farmers are out there and how safe is it for people to go to their sites and give them credit card information. Its probably not the smartest thing in the world to do, however there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions who do it.
It's like when the prohibition happened in the US. People still drank alcohol, they just got it from shady dealers(Mafias, who incidentally came into their power largely because of their liquor sales.). People are going to go out buying items either way, I don't fault Blizzard for providing a safe market for that to happen. Will they profit, sure. Does it matter, nah. It's their game.

Ramin Shokrizade
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As a virtual economist my concerns with the D3 monetization model are not ethical, they are financial. I wrote a paper last year explaining the weaknesses of the RMAH, you can read it here: http://gameful.org/groups/games-for-change/forum/topic/smedleys-d
ream-part-i-ii/

If I thought the model was financially strong, but dastardly enough to invite regulation, then this might be another conversation. I applaud Blizzard for thinking slightly out of the box (though this approach is not novel as explained in my analysis), but they can afford to be more innovative than this.

Matt Cratty
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For me, its the loss of the barter system that sprung up. The buy low, sell high simulation of a real economy.

Yes, you can accept and enjoy Blizzard's mantra that this is for the masses and the masses don't want more work they want less. I get it, and I can sympathize with it.

But, for a minority segment, the inclusion of the RMAH pretty much kills the part of Diablo that gave it a decade of longevity. Understandably, the minority segment is not going to be catered to anymore.

The only part that bothers me is that I have to play single player online because of the RMAH.

Julian Pritchard
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Excellent article Simon. As I mentioned in my reply to Tyler above: the inclusion of the my be necessary, but the systems of the game that force players to be online is something that the game should not have. It is in fact worse than Ubisoft's always on DRM, because the game runs on the server: I now have a single player game with lag.

Timothy Ryan
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Time = money. What's the difference if someone owns me by buying his way to victory or by grinding for hours every day instead of working a real job? I still feel I was in an unfair fight, but the penalty of losing is slight and I continue to play knowing that investment in my character (time or money) is key to victory.

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