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The Psychological Considerations Of Diablo 3’s Real Money Auctions

Diablo 3 will feature real money auctions. What does this mean for, or say about, the player experience in loot-centric games?

Taekwan Kim, Blogger

August 1, 2011

4 Min Read

So by now, everyone’s heard about the auction thing that D3 is going to have, right? Personally, I am more or less ambivalent about the feature, and in some ways I think it will definitely contribute to the investment or replayability some players will experience by allowing them to indulge in the illusion that their game time has monetizable value (a crutch for those who feel that ludic engagement in and of itself doesn’t have enough worth).

This is both ingenious and devious—let’s face it, we’ve all experienced that feeling of guilt when we sink too much time in a game. Such a system alleviates said guilt and lets the player avoid facing the question of why they feel guilty about it in the first place. And this will hold true even if the player never actually engages with the auction system because the theoretical value is always there. (Remember Mr. Gordon’s comment about “gamers need to generate around $3 of in-game value per hour for themselves to stay entertained”?)

Is this the logical conclusion to socialization/gamification? That is, isn’t this what the whole externalization of in-game ludic rewards into “real world” accomplishments is all about? I think the most troubling aspect of this is that it feels like an unintentional capitulation to the idea that playing games is inherently a waste of time—mostly because there’s no money (or expressly monetizable skills) to be gained out of it (“you’re not going to make a living playing games!” etc.).

I mean, why do people buy gold to begin with? Because they can’t justify the time spent getting it themselves. Somehow, it feels less guilty (or at least, less frustrating) to spend real world money on a piece of intangible code than to spend the time getting it for free (which says a lot about our perception of the worth of games). It also reflects on the “fairness” of making some of these items well-nigh impossible to obtain at all. (Do designers have a social responsibility to reduce said impossibility? Etc.)

A more concrete concern here, however, is that this will adversely affect pickup multiplayer games and essentially make PvP a considerably unbalanced (unengageable) endeavor. The question that will be on everyone mind is, has the game now been reduced to “pay to win”? Even in a PvE game, it gets old pretty quick to join a party in which one person carries the entire team, reducing one’s role to that of a spectator or leecher.

Unfortunately, for some, even if the answer is no, all it takes is a small seed of doubt to destroy engagement—a problem exacerbated by the fact that Diablo-likes require such high amounts of time investment. Plus, even if you got all your items by yourself, there's no way to prove that, so the legitimacy of your efforts (or those of others) will always be in doubt. Again, we return to the question of the value of time spent in a game, and the thing that must be avoided is the player questioning his ability to control his own agency through effort and due diligence.

How the player experience in Diablo 3 will play out, then, will probably rest on how important player skill will be compared to items in determining player efficacy. If we have a situation like Guild Wars where the effect of items has been minimized (or egalitarianized) as much as possible, the impact on player investment will be less pronounced. However, this is a Diablo game we’re talking about here, so it’s hard to see that happening.

My concern is that Diablo 3 will be a more or less isolated and single player (or friends only) experience, where anyone can connect if they want to, but nobody actually does (except to buy and sell loot). Which is actually fine. That’s how I play Titan Quest; Torchlight is singleplayer only; and, unless I was power leveling, that’s basically how I played Diablo 2 as well. Loot selling just makes it so the de facto single player experience appears to be more “legitimate” (i.e. less onanistic) and to have more “value” (because it’s monetizable).

But a worst case scenario would be a sort of negative feedback loop of diminishing perceived worth for multiplayer games, fueled by the perceived value and impact on player efficacy of loot, which ends up choking the longevity of the game. This, however, is really a doomsday scenario which is unlikely to unfold. After all, Diablo 2 multi is still going relatively strong, and that game had/has serious devaluation with atrocious amounts of botting.

A final conversation topic: compare with EVE Online’s ISK/PLEX conversion. Discuss. (Mind, ISK to real world money is prohibited.)

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