So a few weeks ago I got Diablo 3, largely because I was bored and because it had been long anticipated. I’d played previous iterations of it and to cut a long story short, I’m not new to this ‘playing obsessively’ thing. I sometimes feel like a twat talking about games on this blog because it feels like I’m talking to myself but I’ve already cleared that bit up so here are some thoughts that have come up in conversations but are ready to be committed to pixels.
Diablo 3 has been about 10 years in the making, previous games were ‘classics’ that defined generations of people, so naturally the expectations were quite high for this one. People that were anywhere between 12-16 when the first came out are now likely to be around my age or towards their 30s and even 40s in some cases. I think it’s now the fastest-selling PC game of all time or something (may be wrong) so that gives outsiders an idea.
It’s hard to not compare Diablo 3 to World of Warcraft (both produced by Blizzard), mainly because they’re visually similar, even though mechanics are very different.
#1 “12 years in the making and…”
As someone who has spent far too much in World of Warcraft, very near every in-game mob ever produced*, I could see a lot of similarities, if not the very same ones with different skins and names at times**. The forums are full of vitriol (ie ‘12 years in the making and you can’t create new ones’) which suggests there are many people who go from one game to the other, but I suppose it makes sense from a game design perspective: if they’re useful and not broken, don’t break them; reuse them.
It would be interesting to see
a) the percentage of (dare I say it) return customers vs. new ones in the Diablo franchise,
b) the crossover between World of Warcraft players and Diablo 3 players — and even other games. It goes back to a point made by Martin Weigel – customers aren’t exclusively loyal (ie Blizzard only games, and in spite of attempted platform lockdown, be it Steam or Battlenet).
I’ve noticed it’s largely about new customers, so with the risk of enraging some nostalgics, any other quote on the look and feel of the game (eg ‘the graphics are too much like World of Warcraft and not dark enough’) is probably redundant.
“I think when someone like Blizzard comes out with something like Diablo 3—where they’re doing TV commercials on ESPN, real mass market stuff—they’re bringing in millions of new gamers into the gaming community [...]. They’re bringing in lots of people into this genre.
#2 The economy has gone to crap (does this sound familiar?)
This is seriously bad and seriously complicated. People have written before on in-game currencies and exchanges (please let’s leave Second Life out of this), but they never talked enough about game mechanics and how they facilitate or hinder the economy.
World of Warcraft had simple guidelines: you, player, can go against the environment (PvE) and/or against other players (PvP). Down the PvE route you get a number of instances (dungeons, though no one uses that term) ranging from the easiest to coordinate (5 players) to the hardest (20-40 players raids).
Rules were: you kill a number of mobs that rarely drop anything useful for your character or for trade apart from money, you get to a ‘boss’ fight where you (might) get the nice in-game loot. Anything between two boss fights in an instance would be called ‘trash mob(s)’. Trash mobs were unavoidable 90% of the time because of the game design, and instances worked on a weekly reset basis. Once a boss was killed, you had to wait a week to kill it again given the subscription was around £10-£13 per month, but all in all the design ensured that killing and waiting to kill would be worthwhile as far as progression went.
What of the casual players who couldn’t commit so many hours per day to play? You could choose to play solo (PvE) all your life. It’s highly tedious and unproductive, and the carrot on a stick is in the form of dungeon loot, but that requires more time, thus more subscription money.
However, what helps casual players also enables ‘bot farming’ or just farming. Like with any process that can be automated, you could have bots mechanically programed to kill world mobs for money. Keep them on all day, make lots of money and skew the currency (eg. 1 bot collects 500 gold pieces per hour, times 12 hours at least, times any number of mobs/accounts you own).
Blizzard had no qualms with real people behind accounts, but it had problems with those who used bots (scripts). An internet cafe of people farming is ok (the World of Warcraft equivalent of a sweatshop), one person with 50 accounts and the same script running on all of them = bad. There weren’t real checks in place, other than letting players report farmers and in-game ‘game masters’ checking to see if they reply. Although you’d think it’s easy to spot the same mob-killing procedure repeated thousands of times over the course of hours, it was still flourishing.
Diablo has the same problem: bots make more money than any normal or even hardcore player can ever make. A number of game flaws were exploited as soon as the game was launched (by some normal players and farmers alike) and the in-game economy is now suffering from huge inflation. Blizzard worked to fix some of the easier ways to make money***, but in doing so they scarcely hurt the bot farmers – they hit the normal users even more.
Its game mechanics mean that there are an infinite number of items available in game. Unlike world of Warcraft, the rare (good) items don’t necessarily drop from boss fights. They can drop from anywhere. There are so many variables influencing the chances of a drop at play, the mind boggles****. An interesting mechanic is that you’re less likely to get items for your class when you play in order to encourage trade via the in-game economy. Or more recently, through the real money auction house.
The idea is simple: casual players are likely people who work. People who work don’t have time, but they have money. Rather than encouraging the black market (paying the farmers real money for in-game currency), support it and take a share of the profit from all these transactions.
You’d think this would work – but I suspect it hasn’t been very well thought through. The people who build games are not economists. And economists don’t make games (cue ‘come for the cute characters, stay for the cruel mathematics‘). Therein lies the problem.
So hats off to a company like Valve who got Yanis Varoufakis onboard thanks to Gabe Newell:
Valve’s digital economies are a marvelous test-bed for meaningful experimentation. Not only do we have a full-information set (making sampling superfluous) but, more importantly, we can change the economy’s underlying values, rules and settings, and then sit back to observe how the community responds, how relative prices change, the new behavioural patterns that evolve. An economist’s paradise indeed…
While a total ignoramus of the world of video games, the people at Valve and I discerned a double coincidence of interests. My academic curiosity blended nicely into Valve’s burning desire to serve its gaming community better, through the development of services that are in tune with the community’s needs as gamers but also as traders, developers, participants in something much bigger than just video games.
So I guess that’s a month of Diablo – fun until it’s not anymore. Precisely because of real world issues like economics. In my mind they’re facing the interesting dilemma of a) how to avoid bot farmers while b) not ruining real, honest players, c) not resetting any progress and d) still making money off the real money auction house.