Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Biz: Serving Two (Or More) Masters

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

  • Nachtfischer said,

    “The project lead John Hight admits exactly that, noting that “it ultimately undermines Diablo’s core game play.””

    Yeah, it undermines the Skinner Box. People don’t get addicted to this non-system of a game enough. So they remove it. It’s exactly the same as perfecting a designer drug.

  • BarryB said,

    I seem to recall that Hight and his team were at one time marketing the hell out of the 24/7 auction, which they (at least on the surface) believed was a core element of gameplay. -In a world where anything can be trumpeted as core gameplay, as long as it helps sell more copies. That sounds cynical, of course, but we’ve seen too many games where what you and I would call core gameplay has hardly changed at all, but elements of newer technology have been used to graft on multiuser experience with great fanfare. Achievements are perhaps the most notorious example, but Diablo III’s auction is yet another instance of the same. With its eternal DRM, it was an albatross, not a banner to wave and call forth the troops.

    On the hand, perhaps there’s a silver lining to all this. Perhaps between Diablo III and EA’s latest SimCity Game Industry development houses will realize that customers don’t want the “features” that cost permanent DRMs. That when core gameplay improvements are advertised, they want, well, core gameplay improvements. Not glitz that seriously detracts from their enjoyment.


  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I’m less interested to learn about why Blizzard is removing the Auction House now, than I would be learn WHY they continued to go ahead with it in the first place.

    There were MANY MANY articles systematically pointing out how the Auction House would “ultimately undermine Diablo’s core gameplay”. They were on Kotaku. They were on Gamasutra. They were on other blogs. And this was 6 months or more before release, surely enough time for Blizzard to strip the Auction House and rebalance loot table before the game launched.

    It’s probably “the suits run the show” reason, but I’d be insanely curious to learn exactly why Blizzard ignored advice from all sides that they were heading for a disaster (with charts to show why) and pressed ahead with the Auction House.

    The cynical side of me thinks they are doing this now because they feel they’ve gotten all the money they can out of the Auction House idea and are going to target the demographic that avoided the game because of it and get THEIR money now.

    But yeah, I suppose they could just now be seeing the error of their design, even if everyone has been pointing it out to them for years….

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I am sure their realization / motivation is not some sort of altruistic or a moment of game design purity. They tried it, they did their best to make it work, and after spending a TON of money and resources on it, I’m sure it was a very hard decision to let it go.

    Regardless of motivation, it was clearly the right decision. I would HOPE that the motivation came down to a realization that this has really wrecked their reputation and that they need to rebuild trust for making outstanding games that people love rather than a rep for trying to fleece their customers of every cent they can squeeze out of ’em. But who knows?

    But again – this isn’t about Diablo III, they just made a handy lead-in and a big-profile example. I’d love to blast Blizzard and say, “Oooh, burned! See! This is what happens when you chase maximized profits instead of maximized customer experiences!” But the truth is… it’s complicated. I know that’s not a wonderful, feel-good, power-to-the-people, soapbox-y response. The trick is that it’s a spectrum where everybody has to find a balance.

  • Xenovore said,

    I think all most of us wanted was another Diablo game, i.e. you play the game, you find decent gear (usable by your class), you continue playing the game.

    But Blizzard, in their infinite design wisdom (said with tongue firmly in cheek), has created something that is ultimately just a huge distraction to the actual game-play. (Rather like other pay-to-win games, by the way.)

    To elaborate: when you play Diablo 3, you very rarely, almost never, find decent gear (usable by your class); therefore, you’re forced to the AH to find useful gear. Of course, while in the AH, you are not actually playing the game. So either you don’t visit the AH and suffer through the game with sub-par gear. Or it’s this back-and-forth constant interruption of the game-play — game-to-AH, AH-to-game, game-to-AH, etc. ad nauseam. Either way, it ends up being rather annoying.

    And the other major gripe: Diablo 3 has nearly zero procedural level generation. Part of the Diablo experience should be that, while not necessarily seeing completely new levels all the time, you get to explore “newish” levels at least. There is still variation in the levels. But in Diablo 3 only the loot and creature spawns vary, so for the most part, once you’ve played though you know exactly where to go, what’s going to happen there, and when it’s going to happen.

    So yeah… AH removal? Loot 2.0? Pointless really. It’s like scraping off the vanilla frosting and replacing it with chocolate frosting; underneath it’s still just yellow cake. Slightly tastier perhaps, but still dull at its core.

    Personally, I think I’m pretty much done with Diablo 3. (And Blizzard for that matter, unless someone over there starts pulling (more) heads out of asses; I hope a trend is starting…) I mean, I’ve got such a bad aftertaste from that game that it doesn’t matter to me what they do with it now; I just don’t want to play it any more. I’d actually rather play Diablo 1 or 2 at this point. (Or something else entirely, like say, Torchlight 2.)