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Simon Ludgate, Blogger

May 15, 2012

4 Min Read

This isn't the first time I've seen Blizzard defending their Real Money Auction House. I addressed the issue back in August when it was first announced and had many a lively discussion, including with Blizzard employees. Their argument has always been: "this isn't about exploiting people, this is about giving them a service they want."

I'm sure the cigarette industry has the same argument when they supply people with cigarettes: we're not forcing them to smoke, they just really like it! So what if we make a bit of money on the side for providing them with smokes?

Arguably, I shouldn't be bothered by D3's RMAH. I won't buy anything from it, and I won't play multiplayer with people who do, so why should I care what other people do with it?

I think what I don't like about this system is that it follows in the footsteps of cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, and lotteries: it exploits the uneducated, the unintelligent, the easily decieved and those prone to addiction. The RMAH is there to tempt and torment those those who find its allure difficult to resist; it's there to supply a vice to those who eagerly look to trade away their dignity for exclusivity or entertainment.

Diablo 3's Real Money Auction House is predicated on the illusion of real value of items in a game, value partially enforced by the player's desire to perceive the game's space as real, but also enforced by the fact that Blizzard forced the game into an online only space, limiting the influence players can have with their game.

In sharp contrast, Diablo I and II's value was left to individual players to dictate. If you wanted to play online and engage in that illusion, you could; but you could also play offline or on LAN and construct your own value, including through modifications, cheats, duplication exploits, and the like. Ultimately, while the first two games sacrificed value for fun, Diablo 3 sacrifices fun for enforcing a singular illusion of value.

In Diablo III, Blizzard has taken away the power to customize the experience. Or, rather, they've locked that power away behind a money barrier in the RMAH. By locking that customizability away, Blizzard can try to convince people that these game items have value. Furthermore, they can entice people with the illusion of profitability: that they could make money playing the game and selling virtual goods! Certainly, there will be a few winners in that proposition; no doubt we will soon read articles about those few people who make lots of money. But for those few wins, the game industry as a whole takes a serious loss.

It seems hypocritical for us to be concerned about exploitative practices in social games, to the point of regulation that leads some developers to pre-emptively halt these kinds of things, while eagerly embracing the opportunity to buy and sell items in a game for real money, with the game's developer skimming all the profits.

It seems to me that Blizzard has found a wonderful way to make money by selling people something they used to get for free, and people are embracing it because it's wrapped up in all the wonder and mystique of randomization and chance. It's like if a grocery store stopped letting people pick the food they wanted to buy, and instead offered them a parcel of random food items. Don't like what you just bought? No problem! We'll let you sell that food to other people and we'll only take a small cut!

What people need to realize is that Diablo 3's RMAH isn't much different from a casino: the money you can make selling stuff is never more than the money other people spend buying it. If everyone goes into Diablo 3 thinking they'll make a mint on the RMAH, no one will. Oversupply, underdemand, and all that. One person's luck at selling something comes from someone else giving in to the temptation and buying it.

The bigger worry is that people will hone in on video games as vehicles for satiating their lust for gambling. Games used to be about having fun, about going on adventures, about grand exploits and tall tales. And now they're all about money?

How long before the AAA games industry spirals down the same pit of depravity to join the social games we loathe so dearly?

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Simon Ludgate

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Simon Ludgate has worked at numerous game companies, including Strategy First, Electronic Arts, and Gameloft, as well as a journalist and radio personality with GameSHOUT Radio. He recently obtained his Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto iSchool, with a focus on Knowledge and Information Management. His areas of expertise are broad, though he has a particular interest in massively multiplayer online games, both subscription- and microtransaction-based. He currently maintains a blog at soulrift.com and can be contacted through that site. Twitter: @SimonLudgate

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