Speak of the devil…

diabloImagine my surprise when I saw this announcement upon re-installing Diablo 3 after several months. Only days before, I wrote a post, mentioning the problems currently plaguing the Diablo 3 auction house. No small coincidence, I’d say.

Now, for those living under an even bigger rock than I, it seems that Blizzard is actually planning to shut down this auction house system completely. Over the past few days, this has led to excited whispers and heads-ups from several of my friends and co-workers, some of whom I wouldn’t have even suspected of knowing the Diablo franchise. Apparently, news travels fast. So, having heard several opinions on the topic, I might as well try to give my own view on matters, even though that opinion is somewhat twofold.

First off, let me say that Blizzard seems to have understood the core problem: Diablo 2 set the expectation where players want to to and “kill monsters to get cool loot”, as they put it. For me, that has indeed been the reason why I played Diablo 2 for years on end. Running around like a crazed prospecting hermit in search of uncovered riches. Nothing wrong with crazed hermits running around swinging axes, mind you. Anyway, I find their observation — that the convenience offered by the auction house is a direct threat to that play goal — quite accurate. Also, it takes a lot of guts to admit that you made a mistake, and it’s good to be thorough about rectifying them.

Another aspect of the issue that isn’t really mentioned is the fact that good loot is actually very hard to find. I think I played all the way up to level 57 on my barbarian, without finding one single item that made me go: “wow, that’s an awesome one!” Revisiting the game, I must agree with the rumors I’d heard from friends: the drop rates and item stat rolls seem to have been improved. Somewhat.
Still, there is a large gap between what you are likely to find, and what is offered by the auction house. Example: for just a 5-figure number (nothing major in this game’s economy) I was able to choose from a selection of weapons, and instantly doubled my barbarians DPS. Every weapon I’d found in all my hours of gameplay were grossly inferior when compared to what is available on the market, at a cheap price. Yes, the gap is that large.
Even though the post does mention the “Loot 2.0 system” that comes with the expansion, I truly wonder what this new loot system will entail. Will it simply bring some new item mechanics, like the runes and runewords in Diablo 2: LoD? Or will we see a full overhaul of how items are generated? That might be great, but how would that fit in with existing items? I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

As brave as admitting defeat might be, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed at Blizzard deciding to simply scrap the  auction house completely. I know it’s easy to offer criticism when you’re not the one coming up with the ideas, but I still feel that better solutions must exist. Actually, let me try and offer one.

My main problem with blatant removal is this: you aren’t going to prevent people from trading, anyhow. If they need to, people will resort to opening trade games and spamming the public channels (hey, they did it on BattleNet with Diablo 2) or communicating via smoke signals and using colored shells as currency (ehm…no. You got me. I don’t have an example of a game where that happened). Trading is simply part of the game, just as item hunting is.
The only thing you’re changing by removing the auction house is the level of convenience, Perhaps the idea is that if you make it inconvenient enough for people to trade, they will be bullied into looking for their own items. I don’t agree with this philosophy.

You don’t need to limit people’s access to the heaps of cheap, available items out there. Limits on the number of concurrent auctions, imperfect search interfaces, separate servers or inconvenient trade channels won’t do the trick.  Neither will removing the auction house completely.
You simply need to limit the ever-increasing amount of items that people have to offer. The underlying problem is the game’s distinct lack of a proper item drain — no, the game’s salvaging feature is not enough. A proper item drain should not be optional. That would be my first thing to implement, in an effort to salvage the game’s economy (no pun intended).

We don’t even have to invent a solution — it’s already been done, and is called soulbinding. By binding items to a player when equipped, one would still allow trading, but prevent massive flooding of the auction house (or trade channels). I know that Diablo 2 didn’t have such a feature either, but it worked well in World of Warcraft (and many other MMO’s).
Currently, people use good items when they find them, give them to alts as hand-me-downs, and can still sell them when they completely outgrow them. Enforcing people to choose (“you can’t have your cake, and eat it”), would ensure that top-of-the-line items stay rare and remain valuable. As they are meant to be.
Admittedly, implementing soulbinding this late in the game might feel a little strange, but so is removing a whole auction system. It will also scare off fewer customers than dooming them to an eternity in Hell, staring with bloodshot eyes at game names like: “O HRs W HoTO” . . .

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