Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 18, 2013
Blizzard officially announced the shut-down of their auction house for Diablo III. There are several more months of operation before it gets phased out, but Blizzard has thrown in the towel on this controversial in-game feature.
I don’t play Diablo III, myself. Oh, I was going to. I very nearly pre-ordered it. But then I heard about the always-on DRM, which caused me to pause with concern. And one of the reasons cited for the “always online” aspect of the game was – surprise! – the auction house. And of course, there were big launch issues, which naturally follows from the “always on” crapola. Once that all settled down, hilarity began to ensue about the auction house. Exploits, player bans, and of course balance / loot issues. Because it was so integral to the game for many players (directly or indirectly), all other aspects of game design kinda ended up passing through the rather perverse filter of the auction house. It skewed the design.
The project lead John Hight admits exactly that, noting that “it ultimately undermines Diablo’s core game play.”
I can’t pretend to be an expert on it. I’ll defer to the experts on the details and on whether or not it really was a bad thing. One thing I DO know from professional experience is that that when real-world money has changed hands on your watch and with your apparent blessing, it’s REALLY hard to simply do a database rollback when you discover shenanigans. It sounds like Blizzard – in intent, anyway – decided to go back to what they are famous for, and focus on making a good game with a great loot system, rather than forcing their auction house to work. They seem to be taking the high road. Maybe I’ll end up playing Diablo III after all.
Anyway, I don’t really want to talk about Diablo III. It’s just kind of a big-profile example of a problem facing all game developers. The point was brought up in a panel with the Romeros at Salt Lake Comic Con, reiterating a position Brenda Romero has stated on numerous occasions. While it was mostly applicable to “free to play” games, as I recall they mentioned the Diablo III auction house as another example. The problem with these games is that the designers are forced to serve two masters – game design versus maximized revenue stream. Guess which one wins out when the suits run the show?
This is hardly unique to anybody. Any kind of game that is intended to extract money from players as they play – instead of acting as a product that you pay for up front – is going to face exactly this problem. With a product, it’s straightforward – you make the absolute best game possible that players will absolutely love, and they just can’t help themselves but want to buy and tell their friends about.
But when a game is more of a service, a recurring revenue generator, things get… weird. To make the game successful, you have to keep asking the player for money. You have to keep providing them motivation to part with their money. To borrow an analogy from the Comic Con panel, to pay for the free meals at your restaurant, you may have to charge for the plates and utensils – not to mention exorbitant charges to use the restroom! While many of the goals to make the “best game possible” run parallel to making “the most profitable game possible” (after all, if the game sucks, nobody will spend any money on it…), there are points where the two may diverge. Lots.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to take the high road and try to make a great game that has premium add-ons, services, DLC, or whatnot. But there are going to be difficult trade-offs, regardless. This isn’t new, or unique to a particular class of games. There are always trade-offs, and we’re always serving several demands / masters, compromising our design to meet the needs of reality. That, or we never release our games.
In the modern era, these problems may be more acute. The awesome indie revolution has made things more competitive than ever. All game designers have to deal with the realities of time, budget, the market, and the need to serve the player as best as possible while still profiting enough to afford to stay in business so you can keep doing so. There’s never a perfect compromise. Ultimately, game developers have to decide individually to what extent they will allow these economic realities to undermine their gameplay and game quality. “Not at all” sounds like great PR copy, but it’s an ideal, not reality.I just worry about a new generation of game developers that seem to be happy to take the path of the dark side when those paths diverge. They don’t even compromise, but instead treat players as credit cards with legs. Will their influence spread? Will they poison the gaming well, as customers eventually get sick of “being had” by these diversions?
Filed Under: Biz, Design, Production - Comments: 5 Comments to Read