Diablo 3 and the Real Money Auction House (Diablocalypse?)

Yesterday, Blizzard disdained the notion of adjusting potential customers’ expectations for an upcoming game gently in favour of dropping a PR bombshell during a press/ fansite preview day for Diablo 3. There is a lot to like about the new game, with features that I think players will enjoy, but that is now going to be eclipsed by the more attention-grabbing news.

The headline reveals were:

  • Diablo 3 will have an auction house facility via Battle.Net (players will be able to trade under game IDs and this will not require realID)
  • There will be an auction house that allows trading via in-game gold. There will also be a facility to trade via RL currency. Players will also be able to trade in-game gold on the AH for real currency (ie. sell gold to other players)
  • There will be no offline solo mode for Diablo 3, running the game will require a permanent internet connection.
  • Mods and addons will be prohibited.
The Escapist posts comments from Rob Pardo explaining why the cash AH is such a great idea. My view is that each of these things can be carefully and logically justified on its own, but taken together they may force a large change in how the typical player approaches the game.

Speaking as someone who mostly played Diablo 2 solo and offline, I understand the issue of preventing piracy but I will still miss the offline mode and the relative quietitude and non-competitiveness of playing alone. I understand that it’s still possible to play solo online, but much like soloing in an MMO, it’s harder to avoid the ubiquity of online achievements and pressure to compete or keep up with friends when you’re in a multiplayer game. (I don’t buy any connection with this and cheating, since it’s easy enough for them to keep offline characters out of the auction house or online PvP games.)

The in-game gold AH is a great idea and something that was very needed in Diablo 2, where there was a clear desire for players to be able to trade drops but no real mechanism for allowing it. Even swapping items between alts needed some quick logging in and out and leaving the item on the floor in the meanwhile. The real money AH is a sensible way to legitimise the grey market that would inevitably form for D3 goods and characters. People are still buying and selling D2 items on ebay and that game is now 11 years old (I do not know who these people are who buy the stuff from ebay – if you’re one of them feel free to explain why it’s worth it to you in comments.) However, the people who bought and sold D2 goods were a small and hardcore minority of the playerbase — this playstyle is now going to be pretty much forced on everyone else.

Scrusi comments   that most players fail to recognise opportunity cost in MMOs, I prefer to think that players are quite well able to value their own time and some of them get more enjoyment out of grinding and creating their own goods and materials than they would from ‘industrial strength crafting and trading.’ However, once real money enters the picture, I think people will become very sensitive indeed to opportunity cost.  Because any time you are not farming valuable items as fast as is humanly possible and then selling them on the auction house, you are leaving money on the table.

So while I have no doubt that many many players will be delighted by this development, I’m left feeling that I won’t much like the evolving game community that this spawns and since there’s no offline mode, I won’t have the option to opt out either. Maybe I’m the aging gamer with odd ideas from an earlier age here and the new breed of online gamers wants nothing more than to be able to buy and sell random items for cash. I’m thinking you might as well go and play poker.

The decision not to allow adds or mods follows from the previous two choices. With no offline mode there’s no room for a non-competitive/ non-real-money-selling gameplay where players might easily experiment with interesting new mods or addons. So this also makes sense, but it’s a shame in an area like PC gaming where the modding community has added so much to the player experience (including previous Blizzard games like Starcraft) in the past to rule it out completely. I don’t think PC gaming died with this announcement, but it’s a sad day.

Now I’m not saying that Blizzard announced this cash item auction house today just to wind me up because they knew I posted about the pointlessness of gold accumulation in WoW, but you have to also wonder whether they are considering developing WoW in the same way. As things stand, you’ll be able to cash in proceeds from the Diablo 3 AH to pay for a WoW subscription or other items from the cash shop. I don’t think it is likely that things will go in the other direction, but if they do, I’ll have to eat my proverbial hat and admit that the goblins were right.

And that since I’m not one, I fail at online gaming.

On the cost of MMOs

Tobold argues today that MMOs are too inexpensive on the grounds that the average US consumer spends $58 per month on hobbies.

I noted on following that link that what it actually says is:

The average monthly cost of Hobbies in the U.S. is $58.

The median monthly expense, which is sometimes a better indicator of typical spending behavior, of Hobbies in the U.S. is $23.

Median. What that means is that most hobbies are not actually as expensive as $58 per month (which is probably closer to what you might intuitively expect.)

The other issue I have with this argument is that many MMO players probably see their hobby as gaming/ computer gaming rather than just one specific MMO. So their monthly hobby spend is split between the MMO and whatever other new games they are buying, probably spread across multiple platforms (eg. mobile phone apps, console, PC, etc).

The other huge argument is that a virtual world environment becomes less pure as a simulation the more people can bring real world funds to bear. There’s a concept of ‘the magic circle’ in games/ simulation which affects how good the simulation is and how easily people can become immersed in the game world.

So really, to me, if MMO devs want more of the monthly hobby budget without weakening the games, they should be looking harder at bringing more aspects of the game offline. This means the spin-off cardgames, the conventions (hi blizzcon), the t-shirts, the community stuff, the branded phone apps, etc. Which is I think where people are going — virtual shops can only go so far, after all and only appeal to certain types of player.

And still, the average (median) hobbyist in the US spends $23 per month on their hobby, which is not a million miles away from the average subscription when all’s said and done. I think game devs get their pound of flesh.

Blue Booking, PvE Grind, and what do we do in games inbetween scheduled groups?

I have been thinking recently about the patterns in which I tend to play MMOs. I’ve been spending more time in LOTRO recently, and my guild there is mostly made up of older players. They’re grumpy and proud, and they are very very good at organising their gaming to fit lifestyles which involve kids, non-gaming commitments, and a mix of casual and hardcore players. They are also awesome (if any of you are reading this!)

This means a lot of scheduled runs, even for small 3 man groups. Of course you can just log in, see who is around, and put a group together, but players with time limitations prefer to be able to arrange their free time in advance. I’ve noticed that players are also quite conscientious about notifying the other people involved if something comes up in advance and they can’t make it. I’m sure there are also a lot of informal but pre-arranged levelling groups and skirmish groups which don’t use the bboards and calendar to organise.

And this reminds me a lot of my old pen and paper groups. We’d have regular gaming nights and if anyone couldn’t make it then they’d let the rest of us know.

It’s a good rhythm for any organised group hobby. You have ‘group’ nights. And then if you want to work quietly on your hobby you can either skip a group night or do it when no one else is around, or at home.

But I’m interested in what it means to work quietly on your hobby if your hobby is an MMO. Because these games tend to be based on progression, then either time spent solo will progress your character (in which case all min/maxers will feel they must do it) or else there is some other purpose.

Blue Booking in RPGs

Blue Booking is a pen and paper technique that has dipped in and out of popularity. And it is all about immersively answering the question, “What does my character do in between scenarios?” You can imagine a pen and paper scenario as a short story. A  bunch of people turning up to a group and improvising their way through a brief storyline which consists of a plot hook, a few scenes, some conversation, roleplaying, fights, and a conclusion.

So if your character’s life is a bunch of short stories (think of it as an anthology) then what happens inbetween?

The idea was that players could try to answer that question and the GM would award xp for good efforts. They might write a short story explaining what their character had done, or was trying to do, after the last scenario. Maybe it would represent a day in that character’s life, or introduce some of their family or friends who the GM could use in scenarios later.  Players might draw pictures or use any other type of creative activity to do this. They might have a private chat via email with other players to discuss what their characters were getting up to, and then let the GM know later.

And if a RPG scenario is like an instance (which it isn’t really, apart from the fighting) then MMOs answer the same question by actually letting players play through some of what their characters do between group adventures. But of course, RPGs are all about roleplaying so we expect players to seek immersive answers. MMOs – for a lot of people – have almost nothing to do with roleplaying at all. Most players won’t care what their character is doing between fighting dragons.

And yet, MMO design is so rooted in old immersive goals that these things tend to be built in anyway. The origin of our grinds is not just to keep people playing but to answer the question, so what does your character do when they aren’t killing dragons?

  • Maybe they are a crafter or tradesman, and have to keep up with the day to day demands of running a business. (In MMOs, that means gathering, crafting, playing the auction house or otherwise toying with the economy.)
  • Maybe they have an active social life with friends, parties, drama, love affairs. (Roleplaying.)
  • Maybe they are involved in defending their homelands. (PvP … sort of.)
  • Maybe they just like wandering the world (not really much to do in most MMOs here.)
  • Maybe they are ambitious and are trying to impress superiors in some organisation? (reputation grind.)
  • Maybe they are ambitious and trying to impress other players in an organisation, for example in their guild. (Organise guild activities, offer to help with guild website, other out of game activities.)

And you can see that PvE grinds and activities try to replace the notion of the blue book, with some occasional success. Many possible activities are not modelled at all (which is a shame because it would give non-raiders more to do in the endgame). Others are not well supported because devs just don’t like or understand the gameplay (like roleplaying.)

But truth is, the majority of players will prefer to log off and do something else in between adventures. They won’t want to play out every single thing their character does, or even the majority of it.

And here is where the blue booking side comes in. Even players who don’t want to spend hours gathering to simulate the crafting activities that their character does might still be interested in having the activity recorded. There are games where you can set your character to do something useful while you are logged off. You don’t need to actually pick all the grass. Maybe you could just leave your character to do it and then when you log back in the next day, your packs are full.

And this I think is where the opportunities are for integrating casual or even mobile gaming with an MMO. What does my character do between adventures could be answered with ‘runs a farm’, for example. I don’t honestly know if this is the way that MMOs will go; for every EVE which is trying to integrate a MMO with a shooter (Dust), there will be others who decide it’s easier just to leave separate games to be separate. WoW is looking to battle.net and the RealID to push the solution that says, “I play SC2 while my WoW character is not involved in anything,” for example.

But I am intrigued by the possibility of finding more and more varied answers to the question, “What does my character do in between group runs,” in MMOs.