Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Goodbye, Diablo 3 Auction House

The trick with playing with real money is when you start letting that real money drive game design decisions – or even give the appearance of doing so.  When Diablo III launched last summer, most people (myself included) felt like the game just wasn’t as sticky as it was in the old days.  Since the one thing that was significantly changed in the design was the introduction of the Auction House (for either real money or in-game gold), this was pointed to as a culprit- clearly, said the players, loot rates were driven down to make people used the auction house (this link is a very good read, btw).

Diablo 3 has no real reward loop – there is only a frustration loop, which can be temporarily alleviated by using the Auction House. As the game progresses in the hardest difficulty (Inferno), the frustration part of the loop gets longer and longer, as upgrades become more and more difficult to buy…. New players will not experience Diablo 2’s reward loop, and will not get hooked. They will enjoy the game, get to the end, and (for the most part) wonder what the big fuss was about, lose interest, and wander away….

Out of necessity, Diablo 3’s reward system has to account for the Auction House. Because equipment is never destroyed, in-game rewards can never be too frequent or powerful or they will flood the Auction House, eventually trivializing game difficulty. There have been many solutions proposed (here is one particularly insightful discussion), but the reward system seems so intertwined with the Auction House that it’s difficult to see a radical change coming.

One of the interesting points made by the players was that the issues were made worse because the playerbase was so much larger.

 Even World of Warcraft‘s auction houses exhibit roughly the same behaviour because each shard contains only about 5,000 players. But when you find what looks like a good item in Diablo III, it inevitably turns out to be not quite as good as you thought because there are so many better ones already on the auction house. If you can see the farming output of millions of players and compare it to your own findings, of course your loot is going to seem like crap.

No matter what the truth, the players will want to assume the worst out of the developers.

Cheng’s comments are a blatant lie, and while a lot of people claim that this voids Blizzard of fixing loot drops, it actually confirms it. You see, there is no single-player offline mode, so what is Cheng talking about fixing rates for players who never use the Auction House?

In a postmortem of the game in March, former game director Jay Wilson admitted that it hurt the game in unforeseen ways.

Wilson said that before Blizzard launched the game, the company had a few assumptions about how the Auction Houses would work: He thought they would help reduce fraud, that they’d provide a wanted service to players, that only a small percentage of players would use it and that the price of items would limit how many were listed and sold.

But he said that once the game went live, Blizzard realized it was completely wrong about those last two points. It turns out that nearly every one of the game’s players made use of either house, and that over 50% of players used it regularly. That, said Wilson, made money a much higher motivator than the game’s original motivation to simply kill Diablo, and “damaged item rewards” in the game.

Even though Wilson believes the RMAH has accomplished the goal of reducing account fraud (third-party Diablo 2 item trading sites frequently stole passwords and credit card information), and asserts that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many people do want it based on the number of transactions happening daily, Wilson now freely admits it was “the wrong solution” to the problems Blizzard was trying to solve. “It’s not good for a game like Diablo. It doesn’t feel good to get items for money, it feels good to get items by killing monsters,” he said, echoing the complaints of a vocal group of fans.

It didn’t help that the economy quickly hyperinflated, helped largely by a couple of untimely dupe bugs.

Although its anonymity may make it subject to skepticism, several weeks after the game’s debut a source claimed that there were at least 1,000 bots active 24/7 in the Diablo 3game world, allegedly “harvesting” (producing) 4 million virtual gold per hour.[4] Most of the gold generated by the ruthlessly productive, rapidly adapting bots found its way to third party vendors in a black market which undercut the prices in the sanctioned, in-game auction houses… An exasperated player complained in August 2012: “I purchased most of my gear for around 5 mil [gold] early on. I’ve been farming for awhile [and] have saved around 30 million gold [but now] I can’t upgrade the gear I have … Where is all this money coming from? Why is everything so expensive?”

It would seem it is time for this experiment to end.  Today, Blizzard announced that they will be removing the Auction House as part of the next Expansion pack.

“When we initially designed and implemented the auction houses, the driving goal was to provide a convenient and secure system for trades,” reads the post. “But as we’ve mentioned on different occasions, it became increasingly clear that despite the benefits of the [auction house] 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.”  The auction house will be shut down on March 18, 2014.

Which once again goes to show, screw with your core game loop at your own peril.


  1. I am particularly fond of that very last sentence. Seems to be an ongoing theme with the games I love.

  2. Yay! This is great news. I might actually go ahead and play again.

    Diablo 2 is my favorite game of all time, but D3 was a total bust for me.

  3. Nice. I’ve got to admit, the auction house always felt more like a really bad gameplay mechanic than anything particularly helpful or fun.

    It definitely seemed very mandatory, due to the crap drop rates of awesome gear. It also totally removed the value of playing the game, since you want cool loot to play the game better, but without earning the cool loot by playing the game, it created a rather bland disconnect.

    I’m really glad Blizz is manning up on this one.

  4. The question in my mind is what is the difference between the WoW and D3 auction houses? Is it more the core gameplay or the scale that makes it work in WoW but a liability in D3?

    Also interesting to consider how the same issues apply to GW2. I found the trading post on that game to be uninteresting because the scale made stuff so cheap. Given how fast level progression went, the loot I found just wasn’t terribly interesting because if it bound to me I’d outgrow it fast, and I could get lots of cheap unbound loot from the trading post that I could sell back in a few levels.

    • With D3, those issues run together. Most importantly is certainly scale. If they want the best items to be worth anything with hundreds of thousands, or, potentially, millions of players, loot has to reach odds that compete with winning the jackpot in the lottery.

      Since that’s violently at odds with the core gameplay of “kill monster get cool stuff”, having the auction house, especially for real money, makes the best items pay to win, and the “simply good” items take hours and hours of insane repetition for even a single upgrade.

      It reaches the point where you only even collect the highest grade loot, then you identify, scan them quickly, spot zero upgrades, and vend them. You never even expect upgrades. You get in such a rush that you don’t even look at stats that would be good on a secondary character. Because it slows down trying to gather the tens or hundreds of millions of gold you need for a single top tier item, because gold is constantly being made more and more useless by bots.

      Gold is currently at 50,000,000 for ~$2 USD. That’s compared to days of work, maybe finding 1-2 marginally decent items. Amazing but not perfect items sell for amounts of gold that could take you weeks of actual gameplay to earn. It’s horrendous, and since it’s the only way to get items, you’re either buying gold, or telling Blizzard where to shove it.

      I got tired of playing for days or weeks to earn the gold to buy a single pretty good item, with the knowledge that it would only get worse over time. You can’t even casually play a few hours a month, because every time you log back in, your gold can have depreciated by 20-30% in a span of weeks. You’ll actually be further away from high end items, because only mediocre items ever seem to drop in value.

    • I think there are some key differences in the D3 vs WoW auction houses. In WoW all but maybe 1-2 pieces of the best gear cannot be obtained from the AH, they must be attained by the player at the time. On some servers you could pay a high end guild an exorbitant rate to take you in a give you that piece if it dropped but primarily you can’t buy the best gear. You purchase things for crafting, pets, gear for leveling or making low level characters into gods temporarily, or consumables to make you perform better in game briefly. There are significantly more gold sinks in WoW than in D3. Another major difference is once you start using any significant item in WoW it’s permanently linked to you, in D3, as soon as you’re done with something you can resell so more gear never leaves the system save from players quitting, or vendoring gear that is no longer deemed worthwhile to the player economy.

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