Diablonomics: How Diablo 3's Auction House Makes It Feel Pointless
Enjoying Diablo 3 too much to bother with the Auction House yet? Heard some of the stories about the things you can find on the Auction House? Wondering whether or not you should check it out?
DON’T DO IT.
Please. Stay away from it until you finish reading this. You can choose to use it, but you may well be better off without. It may not seem that way right now, but it’s true: the Auction House in Diablo 3 changes the game tremendously. In fact, it changes almost everything about how the entire incentive structure in the game works. It changes how you think about items, how you think about your character, and even how you think about the game itself.
More than that, it can make all those changes even if you never use it. All it takes is a glance, and your attitude towards the game will likely change forever. There’s no going back—and to explain why, I’m going to have to tell you a little bit about the economics of Diablo 3.
“Economics”? Yes. Economics. Diablo 3 has an economy. Most games do, when you come down to it. Economics, in many respects, is about the tradeoffs involved in managing scarce resources. Ask any Starcraft player: they’ll tell you that a big part of the game is paying attention to a variety of scarce resources: Time, minerals, gas, units, production facilities, unit resources, mining and gas patches, along with any number of other considerations. You’re constantly trading one resource for another: trading time for more minerals, trading attention for more gas, abandoning existing units for the opportunity to make new ones. It’s not as complex as a real-world economy, but there’s a reason Starcraft forums always talk about the importance of “managing your economy”. A successful Starcraft player is one that can quickly made these decisions.
But it isn’t just Starcraft. ALL games are about scarce resources. Ammo, lives, weaponry, time, experience: there’s always tradeoffs. Anything you can think of that isn’t plentiful is going to be affected by economic considerations. That doesn’t mean it’s the only thing going on–I’m the last person to engage in economic determinism–but it’s important enough to always keep in mind.
Diablo 3, though, is a whole different story. It isn’t just an economy. No, it’s a CASH economy. In previous RPGs, you’d generally trade time and a little luck for your gear and capabilities. In a game like World of Warcraft, for example, there were stark limits on what you could buy; most high-level gear needed to be earned through gameplay. Not in Diablo 3. Everything can be legitimately bought and sold in Diablo 3, whether on the Auction House or just between players. Absolutely everything.
Gear? Just buy it with gold. Enhancements (gems, in this case?) Gold. Weapons? Gold. It doesn’t matter whether it’s early-game magic gear or end-game legendary weapons dripping with power, all of it can be yours if you have enough gold. And, sure, there’s also the real-money auction house, but that’s only one small part of it. Gold and real money are interconvertible currencies as well; gold in Diablo 3 is a currency as much as any other, albeit one that’s backed by a game-maker instead of a state.
That changes things a lot. It makes the game’s economics ultimately much like the real world’s economics, where the value of things are usually reducible to cash. Your time, your luck, your skill in acquiring gear—it really just determines your gold-earning power.
No, there’s only one stat in Diablo 3 that matters, and it’s not strength, or vitality, or any of the others. It’s “Gold Find”. All other stats are “Gold Find” wearing a variety of silly masks. They might be more effective. But they’re the same thing. It’s just gold.
Is the cash economy a problem, though? Yes, for two main reasons, stemming from two different economic traditions. From Marxian political economy, we’ve ended up in a situation where players are “alienated from their labour”. And from more mainstream neoclassical economics, we’ve got players learning that the value of their gear isn’t what they think it is; it’s what the market says it is. Those aren’t the same thing, and the realization is showing players how little their effort is really worth.
Look a little closer, and you’ll see why these things are contributing to the sense of ennui and dissatisfaction that is plaguing the game, and have been plaguing it since the game was launched. It’s why people are complaining that they just don’t find it “fun” like they did Diablo 2—and it might just be why the reviews seem not to capture these issues.
(The Real Money Auction House if anything just makes these issues worse, but I’m looking mostly at the gold one this time.)
Marx and the Alienated Labourer
Marx’s “Marxian” economics (or “political economy” depending on who you ask) is hellishly complex and difficult. It doesn’t really have that much to do with what we think of as “economics”, and doesn’t have much to do with what we think of when we think of “communists”, either. Most of what Marx wrote wasn’t really about communism or socialism or any of that, anyway. His game was about criticizing the problems that he saw in capitalism.
Some things were probably accurate, some likely weren’t, and a LOT of it is opaque. It’s still handy to know when you’re poking at some of the issues with a market, though–and Diablo 3 is as much a market as it is a game.
One of the handiest ideas in the Marxian tradition is about “alienation of labour”. What’s that? In short, it’s the idea that there’s no true connection between what you do and the product that comes out the other end. Marx (and others) saw what was going on with the factories of the industrial revolution and realized that people weren’t necessarily going to have the pride of creation that they used to, because they don’t really make things. They might contribute a nut here, or a bolt there, or maybe they sanded down some pointy bit, but they’ll never see the finished product, and they don’t necessarily feel like they made anything. It’s even worse with modern office-type jobs: even if you’re contributing something important, you aren’t doing the same thing as a skilled craftsman was doing back before the industrial revolution.
Sure, you get paid for your time. Sure, you can use that money to buy other things. But it all boils down to cash; there’s no direct connection between the things that you did and the things that you get. It’s indirect and, in many minds, unsatisfactory. That’s why you get so many middle-aged men puttering around in a shop in their garage, and why knitting has become this massive, ubiquitous international subculture. They want that direct connection between labour and product.
(Seriously. Never, ever mess with knitters. They are legion and they are ARMED.)
You can still get that feeling in video games, though. RPGs, especially, give you the sense that you’ve earned something, that you’ve made something. Sure, the labor and work involved is a bit obtuse and arcane, with you clubbing some poor orc to death a bunch of times in order to get a neat sword—but there’s still that connection there between the thing that you did and the thing that you get. When you’ve got some guy strutting around Orgrimmar with his new dragon mount and glowy sword, you know he’s saying “look at what I did! Look at what I earned!” That direct connection’s the key.
Diablo 3 severs that connection. Since everything boils down to gold, you quickly become aware that the direct connection is only an illusion. Sure, you could just use the stuff that you’ve found, and people do. But you’re going to know that the stuff you’re using is substandard; and, eventually, you’re going to be forced to hit the Auction House or the forums just to be able to keep up with the punishing difficulty of high-level play.
The gold is ALWAYS there, hidden under the surface. That knowledge is ALWAYS going to be standing between you and that sense of accomplishment. Seeing someone else in awesome gear is ALWAYS going to be devalued in your eyes, because you know that they could have just bought it. Even looking at the auction house is ALWAYS going to make it absolutely impossible to ignore the big golden elephant in the room. You’ll never forget what your gear really is, or what it’s really worth.
If you don’t buy the gear, you’ll feel like a sucker. If you do buy the gear (and sell the stuff you get), you’ll be alienated from what you made, just as Marx said. It’s all indirect. It’s all just cash. It’s all unsatisfying.
Everything Has Its Price
It gets worse. The Marxians may have come up with alienation, but regular “neoclassical” econ has something to say too. Neoclassical econ is partially about sorting out the pricing of stuff; whereas the Marxians drew a distinction between something’s “use value” and “exchange value”, more mainstream econ says that it’s quite a bit simpler: things cost whatever people are willing to pay for them. A lot of microeconomics focuses on what conditions are necessary for a market to “clear”: that is, when sellers manage to find buyers for all their goods.
There’s a lot to it. The math can be nightmarish. But here’s a microeconomic lesson that people are learning on the Auction House right now: their stuff really is worth what people pay for it. Full stop. No more. No less. If you can find someone who’s willing to buy a bushel of corn for five bucks, then guess what? It’s worth five bucks. If you can’t? Then it wasn’t worth five bucks. It was worth less than that. Maybe it was worth three bucks. Maybe two. But, ultimately, the seller doesn’t decide what it’s worth. The buyer and sellers do it together.
Of course, sellers and buyers have to get together first. Buyers have to see all their different options in order to make a maximally informed decision. And if you’re bartering, then it can be really difficult for buyers to sort out what something’s really worth. Is a bushel of wheat worth two piglets? Is it worth [x] dozens of eggs? Hard to say. Add a currency that’s convertible into everything though, and it ends up mostly working out. A bushel of wheat costs a certain amount of cash, and a piglet costs a certain amount of cash, and you can compare the value just by comparing the cost. Marxian alienation or no, it does make things simpler.
Let’s bring this back to gaming. In previous small-scale RPGs, you were mostly bartering, and you didn’t know what all the options were or what people were REALLY willing to trade for the items. Sure, you could usually sell your gear to some NPC vendor, but so what? The gold could only buy a certain subset of items. The REAL stuff, the stuff you actually wanted, was bartered: you bartered your time spent monster-bashing for the gear that came with it, or you bartered gear with your friends and guildmates. And those values were mostly whatever you wanted them to be.
Even MMOs work that way: the stuff you really want can’t be bought with anything but time and effort. Free-to-play games change that up a bit with their cash shop, and there’s usually some kind of black market, but the trend remains. You traded your effort for rewards, and both were worth what you THOUGHT they was worth.
Diablo 3’s auction house changes everything. It provides a near-infinite amount of sellers and a near-infinite amount of buyers. Searching for the best deal is (relatively) easy for buyers, and you have no reason NOT to take the best deal, since all the sellers are completely faceless and anonymous. EVERYTHING is priced in a discrete currency, so you can precisely and quickly gauge the value of goods. And with the way that Diablo 3’s items prioritize a clear, easily understood set of stats, it’s easy to weigh which gear is more usable, too. Driving a hard bargain couldn’t be easier for buyers.
“Bargain” is the word: everything’s cheap. It’s so very cheap. Thanks to all those sellers driving down prices, you can get amazing, top-notch gear on the auction house for a pittance. Early “Rare” gear, which only occasionally drops in Normal mode, can cost a few thousand gold, which players can farm up in a pretty short time. Gear that outclasses anything you find, anything you find, is so incredibly cheap that it takes your breath away. The market’s set the prices, and those prices are damned low.
Seems great, at first—until you find out that the stuff that YOU get isn’t worth anything at all. Since the gear outclasses anything you find, you don’t really have any need to use the stuff you get. You can’t sell it, either: most of it is low-level “magic” gear that is so incredibly outclassed by the things other people are selling, it won’t sell on the auction house at any price.
You could turn it into crafting commodities, but those are just as cheap as the gear, if not cheaper. And why would you bother crafting in the first place? Crafting in Diablo 3 is a expensive, randomness-plagued experience. The stuff you make likely isn’t worth much, and even if it’s perfect, it’s still not going to be worth any more than the cheap stuff you’re finding on the auction house.
Inevitably, auction-savvy players realize that they only thing they can do with the vast, vast majority of the stuff they find is to sell it to the vendors for almost nothing. The stuff that they find is worthless. It’s worthless to others, and since they’re buyers just like everybody else, it’s worthless to them, too.
That’s what that big, convenient Auction House economy ends up telling these already-alienated players: nearly everything they find and make is worthless. Crafting’s worthless, drops are worthless, gems are worthless, all of it. Sure, that might change as they level up to 60 and get into Inferno mode: but that’s hours and hours and hours of gameplay where you’re just trashing everything you find. Players have already complained that gear in Diablo 3 isn’t really that interesting. How much worse it when it’s literally garbage?
These two issues add up to real dissatisfaction. You aren’t really connected to what you make anymore: you never use it, and don’t trade it to friends, but just sell it on a big faceless auction house. That might be okay if you were making good money out of the deal, but the vast majority of players don’t see a dime out of anything but the most valuable gear. There’s no point to either crafting or looting. It’ll all just get trashed anyway. If it weren’t for the pittance you get from vendors, you might as well just leave everything to rot.
I think that’s one of the main reasons why people have been so vocally dissatisfied with the game. Even if they don’t realize that it’s the combination of the gold economy and the deflated value of what they find and make, it’s always there, right under the surface. It robs people of a lot of the satisfaction that they could get out of game like Diablo 3. Diablo 3’s game mechanics are so good, too, that it’s almost tragic that this is taking place.
Worst of all, there’s no going back. These issues are all about knowledge. If you know that all the awesome stuff that you find is ultimately only valued in gold, and if you know that it’s not even worth that much gold, you’ll never forget it. Even if you never actually use the Auction House, you’re going to be aware of what the options are. Some may argue that they can just turn their back on it and ignore it. They might even succeed. But you don’t know if you’re one of those people. For many others, it’s always going to hang like a shadow over the whole experience.
There’s a way out, though. NEVER VISIT THE AUCTION HOUSE. EVER.
I know it sounds drastic, even ridiculous, but it may be the best choice. You will never have to deal with any of these issues; not the gold economy, not the low prices, none of it. You won’t even know.
There’s precedent, too. Look at all the positive Diablo 3 reviews that are out there. Notice something missing? Like, say, everything I just mentioned? I don’t think that’s because they’re being fawning or fanboys or anything like that. I think the answers simpler: they gave the game those high scores and the laudatory reviews because they played the best version of the game: the one where you never even see the Auction House.
High-profile reviews at places like IGN or Gamespot rave about “finding new loot” and “trading with your friends”, and a few mention the prospect of selling things on the auction house. Look at Arthur Gies’s incredibly positive review on The Verge: he never really talked about the experience of going to the Auction House and replacing everything every few levels, or the realization that crafting wasn’t worth it. He didn’t really talk about the Auction House at all. Many happy reviewers like Gies didn’t, because that isn’t the experience that they had. They looted and traded and crafted and had a grand old time, precisely because the gold economy and the Auction House weren’t looming over their whole experience.
So, now, you have a choice to make, at least if you’re lucky enough to be one of those people who hasn’t used the Auction House yet.
Do you want to play the version of Diablo 3 that got the game all those amazingly high scores and had Arthur Gies saying that Diablo 2 was “obsolete”? Or do you want to play the version where so many people are vaguely dissatisfied and not sure why? Do you want the economy that’s fun and rewarding and exciting? Or do you want the one that makes you feel like you aren’t playing the game properly unless you trash almost everything you make and find?
Me, I think the choice is clear. Stay the HELL away from Diablo 3’s Auction House. Never click on it. Never even think about it. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Do your best to BELIEVE it doesn’t exist.
For Heaven’s sake: play the better game.