With the news that Blizzard are finally caving and removing the auction house from the PC version of Diablo III, I thought it was time to weigh in on why this was such a bad idea to begin with, and the surprising turn of events that has caused Blizzard to ultimately capitulate to the almost overwhelmingly negative feedback about the system.
First things first: Diablo III was not a terrible game, but it wasn’t great either. The story was mediocre; the gameplay was fun in places, but what really turned people against the game was the always-on DRM (requiring a connection to Blizzard’s Battle.net online gaming service, meaning no offline play) and, tied to that, the auction house. No longer did you need to kill certain bosses to get particular pieces of loot, but you could now swing over to D3‘s auction house and pick up extremely powerful gear for either gold or real money, no gaming required.
This was a tremendously bad idea.
Not only did it fuel the perception of “pay to win”, it de-emphasised actually having to play the game in the first place. People with a not-inconsiderable disposable income might think nothing of dropping a few dollars here and there on what was sometimes the best loot in the game. When you get down to it, there are essentially two things you need to do in order to play a character in this kind of game effectively. The first of these is to learn their abilities, to see what works in certain situations, what doesn’t work in others, and be able to tailor your character to any given scenario. The second is to obtain powerful equipment/gear in order to maximise their abilities. By essentially removing the need for this second path, (or at least letting you short-cut it using real money) the whole gameplay paradigm was changed and not in a good way. Oh, and Blizzard was earning a nice cut of every transaction completed on the auction house too, which has likely racked up a substantial amount of money two years later.
When the console versions of Diablo III were announced it was telling that Blizzard took great pains to mention that there would be no auction houses in any of them, and that they would support offline play (which the PC version did not). In a stroke, two of the most contentious aspects were removed, and I had only paid $60 for the privilege of beta-testing the PC version so that Blizzard were able to remove the kinks for the consoles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy this is happening; no one will be happier than me to see the back of the auction house, but it would be nice if Blizzard could throw us the bone of offline play as well. Considering that Blizzard stated that the necessity of a connection to Battle.net was chiefly included because of the auction house, it stands to reason that the online requirement could also be removed now that the auction house is going away. We’ll have to wait to see if that actually happens or not.
Is this too little, too late? Possibly. The auction house isn’t being removed until March 2014, at which point the game will have been out for almost two years on the PC. During that time Diablo III has seen competition from free-to-play titles like Path Of Exile (a good game worth checking out if you haven’t), but principally from Torchlight II – a game I believe to be superior to Diablo III in almost every way (other than graphically, which is an acquired taste, I guess). No auction house, no endless nerfing of abilities, stat points, mod support (and Steam Workshop support too), and heck, the game is just plain fun. It was also a little easier on the budget, since it launched at only $20, and has been on sale numerous times for only $5 which might be the steal of the century. I consider Torchlight II as essentially the real Diablo III in everything but name.
Blizzard recently announced the first expansion for Diablo III – Reaper Of Souls – which is expected to be released sometime in 2014. It would go a long way with me if Blizzard were to offer this to PC customers free of charge (or perhaps at a substantial discount, because Activision don’t exactly like giving things away for nothing), since we are essentially playing an inferior version of the game and will be for months to come. I personally uninstalled D3 months ago, and whilst the auction house’s removal and the Reaper Of Souls announcement were interesting, I still find myself playing Torchlight II when I want to scratch that ARPG itch. It’s a true David-and-Goliath scenario how Runic Games – on a shoestring budget – were able to poke Blizzard in the eye, creating a vastly superior game in almost every way with only a tiny fraction of their resources. As they say, pride goeth before a fall, and Diablo III represented a big fall on Blizzard’s account.
Blizzard have said that they will be unveiling more information regarding Reaper Of Souls and Diablo III at this year’s Blizzcon, which begins on the 8th November. I for one will be hoping for good news, but won’t be holding my breath.