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The popular perception is that Diablo 3 is a game that’s been balanced for its Auction House.
My personal suspicion, though, is that D3 is actually a game that is fundamentally balanced for its Hardcore mode. The earlier outcry that D3 has a weak endgame always struck me as interesting because, for me at least, that’s what getting to and finishing Hardcore Inferno Act 4 seemed intended to be. As well, the gnawing background knowledge (and cheapening effect thereof) that you could just pay real money to fast forward your progress was never an issue in Hardcore, simply because it was never an option.
Of course, it’s true that the always-online requirement is a terrible burden in Hardcore play, so that’s at least one example of the above suspicion not being entirely accurate. The fault of two out of the three (or, 66%) character deaths I’ve had in HC can be laid squarely at the feet of lag/connection drop—a rather common situation, if my impressions from other players are correct.
At any rate, the point here is that when you look at the Auction House from the perspective of Hardcore mode, it's something that actually begins to make sense, and even adds an appreciable deal of gameplay value. That is to say, it actually increases player agency and freedom.
For starters, let’s talk about what gold in Hardcore means in terms of player experience.
Importantly, just as in normal mode, Hardcore gold is account bound instead of character bound. This basically softens the impact of permadeath by offloading some of the progress to an independent pool. But this is only true as long as there is an Auction House.
(We can talk about crafting, I suppose, but without some serious luck, crafting even an Archon item that you can actually use is going to be significantly more expensive than going through the Auction House—at least, in the HC AH. Plus, pretty much all of the most useful items can’t be crafted anyway.)
In other words, gold in Hardcore is very much a measurement of tangible progress.
We can put this another way. In Diablo 2, the endgame was simply to reach level 99. Beating the final boss at the final difficulty actually came quite early: for most, probably around level 70. Über Tristram wasn’t a thing until over four years after the release of the expansion, and even then, the endgame remained about leveling/ladder climbing.
In Hardcore Diablo 3, then, gaining gold essentially serves the same mechanical purpose as, and feels quite similar to, gaining XP in endgame D2 (particularly prior to the introduction of Paragon levels, though somewhat less so now*). Level 60 happens early. The rest is about gearing up, and gearing up, to a large extent, is about earning gold.
That probably sounds terrible to a lot of players, and understandably so. Playing the auction house, knowing the market, knowing which combinations of attributes are worth paying for and how much they are worth—this is not necessarily a set of activities that players just looking to hack and slash want to have to deal with.
At the same time, and you can call me crazy or unfair, carefully expending and maximizing the returns of the agency represented by gold, to me, seems clearly to involve more player agency than relying exclusively on luck and brute force spamming.
Again, keep in mind that all gold in HC must be earned through play. And the HC AH never really had the ridiculous Weimar-inflation that softcore AH did—at least, to my knowledge and experience. An hour of Act 1 farming, translating to about 200-300k gold drops for a low Paragon player, produces a solid and worthwhile chunk of agency when a bracer with all the requisite mods, including crit hit chance, can be had for a million or two.
About “freedom”, then: let’s talk about those “combinations of attributes”.
Diablo 3 in its current state has a comparatively robust system of skills that play off of items in meaningful ways. A good example is how the item mod “increased pickup radius” can completely change the way the Witch Doctor class plays.
The Witch Doctor class has two passives which benefit directly from increased pickup radius items: Circle of Life and Grave Injustice.
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In small increments, the benefit of increased pickup radius seems marginal at best, and the value of those passives themselves seems rather minimal. Once you start hitting 20-30 yards increased radius range, though, they take on an entirely new significance. Substantial cooldown timer reduction introduces a slew of new possibilities. Slap on Next of Kin, and suddenly you find that you can start spamming Sacrifice almost constantly. Even further, just the pickup radius alone, and the ease with which it makes gobbling up health globes, practically eliminates the need for life leech. The playstyle change is as dramatic as the transformation of the rather weak defensive skill that Zombie Dogs is into the massive offensive powerhouse that it becomes. Jungle Fortitude suddenly seems quaint in comparison.
Right now, all it really takes to make this build in HC with current AH prices is around 800k~1mil gold—the price of a decent Thing of the Deep—and much less if you settle for a version with crappy mod values. Such swift accessibility is what makes the AH so valuable; once you realize how pickup radius might actually make a considerable difference, it’s a very short step to test out that theory in practice. After the Auction House is gone though, well...
Alternatively, of course, you could try to farm for Rares that have that mod. Endgame D3 items basically have five mandatory mods: Primary attribute, Vitality/Life %, All Resists, Armor/Strength, and Critical. Tossing in “increased pickup radius” to an already crowded list of requirements is a pretty tall order; it seems reasonable to say that hitting six out of six will probably be out of the reach of the majority of players, even with the “smart drops” being proposed. (I should also mention that almost every class has similar systems/item mods can that transform gameplay, though they mostly have to do with resource building through critical hits.)
In other words, once the AH is gone, that entire playstyle/build strategy of Witch Doctor, for one, is likely going to be far less accessible, not to mention the impact on the player’s ability to experiment, respec, and optimize. I really can’t stress that enough. A decent Manticore is far more accessible now than a Buriza ever was, for instance (the point of that comparison being, we're basically talking about going back to the days of the Buriza). The solution, of course, is to increase Legendary drops and once again force players to hope against chance for a specific drop. But, well, is that actually a solution? I just can’t see how we’re going to have as much freedom to try out new things without the AH.
All in all, if Blizzard is going to keep always-online, and if we’re going to get Loot 2.0 anyway, is the removal of the Auction House really that much of a player benefit? Isn’t that just closing off—that is, making more exclusive and elitist—entire avenues of playstyles simply because the instrument used to facilitate them is unpopular, has a perception problem? It seems to me that, if Loot 2.0 is indeed an inevitability, we could have the best of both worlds just by removing real money purchasing. But of course, all this, again, is from the perspective of the non-real money AH and its prices as they stand in Hardcore mode.
Personally, I am seriously dreading the return of the days of one-on-one bartering and trade chat spamming, and have my fingers crossed for an actually viable crafting system that doesn’t feel so much like punitive gambling.
*One perhaps unexpected result of the Paragon system is that the Auction House actually magnifies the rewards of extended play. The higher your Paragon levels are, the much more money you are able to earn, which translates into ever higher levels of gear quality. It's still about earning gold, then, only now, gaining Paragon levels makes earning gold even easier, and so also becomes a goal.