So, the Diablo III Auction House will allow us to pay real-world cash for in-game items – any in-game items.
I’ve seen people saying it will be awful. I’ve seen people saying it will be pay-to-win. I’ve seen people saying it will be genius.
But I’ve yet to see anyone commenting from an… “exploit-focussed” perspective. (As opposed to, say, “cynical and untrusting”.) Now, for better or for worse, I tend to think in that direction. And so, a few things have occurred to me as likely unintended consequences of the real-money Auction House in Diablo III.
A note, before I begin. This stuff will probably not happen to you. It might not happen to anyone you know. But if Diablo III ends up with millions of players, it will happen to someone.
And the Legendary Sword goes to the gentleman from the Rosthchild Foundation
Tobold has commented that he thinks items will be far, far cheaper than expected. He’s absolutely right – mostly. The per-hour rate for “work” in Diablo III will stabilise at far below minimum wage for the average person, thanks to 3 factors – people cashing in items they aquired for “free” (“Woo! I was playing Diablo and I got this awesome sword! Free cash!”), farmers in developing countries (it’d be very easy to set up a Diablo III content farm in the Phillipines paying about $1-2 per hour), and people who are desperate to make money who fail to understand basic economics.
The latter will probably be the biggest problem – on every other “easy” money-making opportunity (Ebay, for example) there tend to be hordes of people trying to make money who are satisfied with insanely low profit margins, or make basic commercial mistakes. In WoW, this would be the classic “I farmed the mats, so they’re free!” error.
On the other hand, some items will go for insanely high amounts of real world money. Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Assume the legendary for your WoW class (or equivalent in another game) is coming in Patch 4.3. Assume it takes the usual amount of work to aquire – ie insane amounts with the full support of a large guild.
How much real-world money would you pay to get your hands on one of them, completely legitimately? What’s the maximum one of your guildies would pay?
Right. Now imagine you earn $30,000 per month in the real world.
How much would you pay for the legendary now?
There will be Diablo players out there who earn that much. There will probably be Diablo players out there who earn a lot more. I seem to recall one of the major EVE players is actually a Russian millionaire if not billionaire. These people will have no problem dropping sums that most of us would consider insane, just to outfit a new alt.
Of course, this very much depends on how large the market for Diablo III is. But if it gets anywhere close to WoW, very, very rare items are going to go for art-world level prices. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But not all items are going to go for that much, of course. You might not ever see an item worth $1000 in years of playing Diablo.
That doesn’t mean RMT won’t affect your gaming.
Here’s another thought experiment. You’re off playing Diablo with your friend, who happens to be going through a rough time – she’s broke, she’s unemployed, maybe her health insurance is running out. Maybe she’s got debts.
And a very rare world drop randomly drops. Something that won’t sell for a fortune, but will sell for $50 or so. It also happens to be a massive upgrade for you.
What do you do?
As far as I can tell, there’s no good social outcome here. You Need, you feel like a bastard. She might well be legitimately upset – that’s $50 she just lost, and she really needs that $50. You give it to her, you probably feel a bit resentful, she feels like she’s had charity given to her, she also feels bad because she got an item you needed. You both roll, whichever one wins feels bad.
Now, you might be saying that of course you’d see past that. She’s your friend.
Now imagine she’s in your regular group. And you’re pretty good. Every night you see 3 or 4 drops, worth about $10 each. Every night she’s down, and talking about how her mum’s medical bills are hurting her, or how she’s getting sued by creditors. And every night, you have to make the decision above three or four times.
That’s going to start to suck.
TL:DR – gaming groups with major income disparities – and there are a lot of them – are not going to find Diablo III much fun sometimes.
But what happens if you DO see something valuable drop?
Someone’s going to emergency, someone’s going to jail.
Gamers, I think it’s safe to say, are not universally well-heeled, highly intelligent people with a great deal of sense and impulse control. All sorts of people play games. Some of them are not very nice people.
Sometimes, you don’t know that much about your guildies.
Now, I’m sure all your guildies are lovely people. But I think you’ll probably in the past have had the experience of being in a guild – perhaps even a raid group – with someone suddenly turned very nasty. If not, you’ll have heard of it, perhaps on WoW Insider’s Drama Mamas column.
Some guilds are going to have that problem in Diablo – but a lot worse.
We’ve all seen some pretty major loot drama from WoW. I know of plenty of friendships breaking up, threats being made, torrents of verbal abuse, sometimes even physical violence.
Now imagine that each of those fights were backed by anyone involved having either won or lost some fairly serious cash.
Go Google “Poker murder”. A lot of people get killed over poker – a game involving real-world money – every year. Enough that it doesnt show up in the national news – because it’s sufficiently common.
Think of the worst loot argument you ever got involved in. Now imagine if there had been hundreds of real-world dollars at stake there.
Think anyone could have gotten hurt?
If Diablo III’s a WoW-level success, someone’s going to get their legs broken over a Diablo III item, and probably sooner rather than later. Someone’s going to go to jail.
Someone’s going to get killed.
What’s a serious Diablo III group going to feel like? Think dark glasses, smoky rooms, and quiet voices
Now, don’t get me wrong. None of this stuff is a good reason that Blizzard shouldn’t institute RMT in Diablo. I’m not against poker, either – indeed, a friend of mine is a semi-professional poker player.
But if you want a good idea of what a serious Diablo III gaming environment is going to look like, you probably want to look at the equivalents currently existing.
The closest equivalent I can think of is poker.
We’re talking very intense expressions. We’re talking a lot of very controlled people – after the first few Nasty Incidents happen, people on Diablo III are going to start prizing calm, reasonable, grounded guildies with stable income streams a lot higher than anyone who might go mad with an axe. We’re talking very, very dedicatedly polite gaming.
(Oh, and just like you get professional poker cheats, you’re going to get professional ninjas. See “This Is Not A Game” by Walter Jon Williams. Lovely.)
Of course, all of that only applies if there’s some way people can track you down in RL. (Don’t use the same username you use ANYWHERE else on the Internet – I personally have tracked one person to his RL identity from their WoW handles. It’s easier than you think.)
Which brings us to…
Forget “Dirty cop”. Think “dirty GM”
The biggest, fastest money in Diablo – assuming you’re not a very nice man or woman – will be made by compromising account security in one way or another.
The AH is going to be anonymous. That’s a very sensible move – as previously mentioned, tracking most peoples’ online identities through their WoW handles isn’t too hard, and you do NOT want any yahoo on the Internet being able to track you if you’re currently selling a $75,000 Legendary. Or undercutting someone else’s.
However, just how good will that anonymity be? For starters, will GMs have access to the account details of people who are trading on the AH? It’s quite likely that some of them will – after all, Blizzard will want to be able to monitor and police activity. If Blizzard’s development team don’t think too hard about Bad People (a very common mistake), all GMs will be able to break AH anonymity at least to the character name level.
Being a GM is not a very highly-paid profession. Being a GM who passes on contact details for people selling high-priced items, however, could well be a very lucrative profession indeed. Even if nothing nasty subsequently happens, if you can directly get in contact with the guy who is selling the Legendary Staff of Awesum, you may well be able to negotiate 10% off his asking price – that’s serious cash.
And Nasty could well happen. Getting the account details of someone with said Staff of Awesum is worth $75k, after all. That’s good money for a wide variety of criminal types, from hackers to legbreakers. There will be people out there intending to make money from Diablo, and not all of them will be doing it in legitimate ways.
Most of the time, it’s perfectly safe to sell a valuable painting, too. But not always.
Even if Blizzard are more clever than that with their security, exactly how good will it be? True anonymity is hard to do. And as the Sony debacle proves, games companies ain’t always at the top of the security game. Once serious RMT starts happening – on a huge scale – a lot of very serious computer cracker types are going to be interested in breaking that security. I hope Blizzard is prepared.
(They might want to start by reading “Halting State” by Charles Stross.)
Oh, and as a final point – if you manage to get your hands on the Super-Rare Staff of Massive Awesum, may I heartily recommend you don’t Tweet or blog about it?
It’s not all bad
Now, you might be thinking I’m saying that Diablo III’s going to be a total disaster, and that people are going to be getting killed like they were in a civil war.
That’s not the case. There are plenty of games out there where a lot larger volume of money changes hands than will do in Diablo III, and for the most part, they’re perfectly safe and fun to play. Poker, backgammon, horse racing – these are major and legitimate sports and games that add fun and relaxation to the lives of millions of people worldwide.
But what I’m saying is that the environment of Diablo III is going to look a lot less like WoW, and a lot more like one of those games. And the various unintended consequences of the RMT in Diablo III will be much more wide-reaching than anyone realises – even more far-reaching than EVE, a game without much in the way of random drops and an overall gameplay that’s not terribly mass-market appeal.
That might be a good thing. It might be a bad thing. It might depend on who you are.
A lot of this will depend on how the loot system in Diablo works.
If it’s very non-random, and the most valuable items are only accessible to people who put in the hardest work, then you’ll end up with a poker-type situation. Very low-limit poker is basically completely risk-free. Very high-stakes poker, on the other hand – well, let’s just say I wouldn’t expect to get into the Diablo equivalent of Paragon without a criminal background check.
(Of course, in the future, the hoped-for result from that criminal check for some top groups might end up being “right, you’re part of the Mob too, let’s get on with exploiting the hell out of Heroic Diablo for the $65 grand loot payoff”. With the amounts of money that might be at stake, cybercriminal groups could be extremely interested in getting early access to top loot. Imagine the current exploit dramas around top guilds, and add in six-figure payoffs. I look forward to the official Russian Business Network raid group. )
On the other hand, if there are random, ultra-rare item drops which are very useful or otherwise sought-after – you’re going to have more the equivalent of a lottery, or roulette.
Very nasty things happen to lottery winners sometimes.
We don’t know which way it will go. But, regardless, when you think Diablo, you might want to add to the usual jokey Vent conversations, Twitter flamewars and loot arguments the image of smoke-filled rooms, desperate lucky-break hopes and large guys with lumpy suits and shaved heads.
Update – Diablo III has individual, not group loot. That solves the problem of loot drama to some extent – however, I’d expect groups to rapidly come up with informal trading rules anyway (“Hey, Bob needs that healing mace more than you”). Blizzard wants RMT, so they have a vested interest to make sure many items that drop are more useful to other people than to you.
Do you think Diablo III will be carefree and fun times? Or shady and a bit scary? And which would you actually prefer?