Diablo 3 Auction House Shutdown: Why it’s Happening & the Elements of Good Economy Design

Blizzard announced earlier this week that both the real money and gold auction houses for Diablo 3 would be shutting down soon, and the reactions have been mostly positive. Despite the groundbreaking features of the auction house, its negative effects on the game outweighed the benefits. Specifically, it made obtaining items useful for you pretty impossible and necessitated its use in order to play at any meaningful level.

But why? What about WoW and its auction house and microtransactions? What about Hearthstone; isn’t it also “pay-to-win”? I think the design flaw in Diablo 3’s auction house came down to not managing the following concepts correctly: “gameplay first” and “economy as gameplay”.

Gameplay first

In the email Blizzard sent out regarding the shutdown of the auction house, Blizzard gave this reason for removing the AH:

“When we initially designed and implemented the auction house system, the driving goal was to provide a convenient and secure system for trades. But after much review and player feedback, it became increasingly clear that despite the benefits of the AH 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.”

WoW has this down: bind-on-pickup gear. While you can buy gear on the auction house, it probably won’t be the best gear and you can get comparable gear from questing or doing dungeons and raids. The core gameplay is very clear: kill monsters to get better gear and cool stuff.

In Diablo, because of the item randomization, full-tradability of items, and ease of trade, the gameplay became “kill monsters, get gear, hope I get something that’s worth a lot of gold” instead of “hope I get an upgrade”! And when you can plunk down a few bucks and get many hours worth on gold on the auction house, the “gameplay” starts to look a lot more like “work” instead of “play”.


Economy as gameplay

Another big problem was that using the auction house wasn’t fun. In MMO’s, players commonly can choose a limited number of professions to specialize in, meaning that you will often have something to offer other players (like raw materials) and they’ll have something to offer you in exchange (crafted goods). This offers a fun gameplay opportunity that encourages trade – it encourages various kinds of player interactions – haggling, auction house strategy, and competition (or cooperation). In Diablo, everyone has the same things to bring to the table. Sure, you can level the Blacksmith or Enchantress, but the rewards weren’t very good, and everyone had access to them. If they were very profitable, everyone would do it until it wasn’t profitable anymore.

The auction house mechanics were very limiting in Diablo. Unlike WoW, where half of using the auction house is configuring your interface settings, Diablo had only the standard interface. It was difficult to use and occasionally buggy. You could only list 10 items on the auction house at a time. This meant checking it frequently just to see if something sold so you could list something else, and it really impacted how “fun” the auction house was. The limitations are understandable since gold could be sold for real money, but it severely impacted players and only barely limited bots.

Diablo’s gameplay just isn’t set up for a fun economy. Without professions, gathering, or bind-on-anything gear, the kind of massive player trade that the auction house was an unfortunately required part of the game, one that could be won with real money, and was overly frustrating to use.


How is Hearthstone different?

Blizzard’s experiments with in-game economies have been very interesting; for example, the Guardian Cub in WoW could be bought with real money and sold for gold. But it was not extended to other real money items, and Blizzard has been very careful with extending features for fear of negative gameplay impacts. The in-game store selling experience-doubling potions and Lesser Charms (for bonus loot) seems mostly for eastern countries; but it could come to the west as well. Battle Pet trade restrictions in WoW cover anything that you catch in the wild – the vast majority of pets – and require players to participate in RNG gameplay in finding the rarest pets themselves.

Hearthstone is not so different from Battle Pets – cards are not tradable with other players, and if you want rare cards, you basically have to play the RNG game with opening packs (there is the crafting option, but it is very expensive and not feasible to obtain lots of cards). Some players in the beta have bought many, many packs, which they may not have if they could get easy trades or purchases with other players.

This is the core difference that relates to Diablo: even though in a sense it is “pay-to-win” (or, at least, “pay to get the best stuff or grind a lot”), there is no circumventing the “core gameplay” of opening packs with only a chance to get the cards you want. Playing games earns you a tiny amount of gold, so if you really want that golden Sylvanas card, you are probably going to have to plunk down some cash (cash that goes straight to Blizzard, I might add, and not other players) or grind out many, many games.


What are other ways to spice up game economies?

I think Blizzard had the right idea with the Guardian Cub, and I’d like to see it extended to other WoW items, and all Blizzard games for that matter. I’m not going to pluck down $10 for a transmogable helm, but if someone else does and lists it on the auction house for 50,000 gold, I’d consider buying it from him. He gets gold, I get the item, Blizzard gets $10, everyone is happy! It really blows my mind that this hasn’t been extended – they did it for the TCG items and that is one way to pay for items you can sell in-game; why not add more items and streamline the process? Heck, why not sell the TCG items in an auction-style format on the Blizzard store so players give those hundreds of dollars for a spectral tiger to Blizzard instead of eBay with much less risk and time?

On that note, why not sell things like in-game time as tradable items in WoW? Eve Online does this successfully – if players could buy an in-game item that on use, grants a month of game time, a lot more people could “afford” to play by earning gold. You still can’t easily get money for your gold, so it wouldn’t do much for bots (though I bet the black market value of gold would go up). Character re-customizations, server transfers, all the things players complain about costing money could be a great opportunity to make some money and make players happy. And if they made them occasional drops off of the hardest heroic mode bosses as well, it could add some really interesting player interactions and gameplay.

For Diablo, what if you could buy an in-game item to upgrade to the expansion pack with gold? Blizzard still gets money for every expansion pack and it doesn’t impact gameplay or the gold to money channel that draws in bots. Items like experience-doubling potions that could be bought with real money and sold for gold wouldn’t impact top-tier players and still provide some market gameplay. Other cosmetic items are another no-brainer.

Adding some character specializations, like the once-a-day profession cooldowns in WoW, could be another mechanic that could enter the game without adding full-fledged “professions”. For example, what if you could choose the ability to make one of these for your account per day, and could not switch to the ability to make the others without waiting 1 week:

  • Make a potion that increases your magic-find by 5-25% for 1 hour.

  • Make a potion that increases for gold-find by 5-25% for 1 hour.

  • Make a potion that gives a random cosmetic effect for 1 hour.

  • Make an item that gives you one to (large amount of gold) randomly.

More players would log on more often, and if you could trade these in an in-game marketplace, players could pay a lot for the 25% magic-find and much less for the 20%, adding a “fun” RNG element and marketplace.

What’s next for Diablo?

Realistically, these ideas aren’t on the developers’ minds. Loot 2.0 is at least one major change to address the item acquisition mechanic and a version was implemented already in the console versions of the game. Players will simply get gear that has their primary stats and higher quality gear in general so they don’t have to sift through piles of stuff they can’t use. Additionally, the new artisan the Mystic will be able to re-roll secondary stats, so if the item you got isn’t quite what you wanted, you can work on adjusting it.

Coming from the Diablo 2 loot system where it was “party loot” as opposed to “individual loot”, it’s understandable how there are some kinks in the system. Its unfortunate that the game has to be changed fundamentally, but getting good loot and less crap will make the game more fun for everyone.