It’s safe to say that Diablo III had some big shoes to fill when it finally hit the scene last year. Twelve years after its release, there’s still a dedicated fan base mopping up showers of loot in the dungeons and swamps of Diablo II. For years, its many fans had been waiting for a sequel that would deliver on all fronts—a product boasting Blizzard’s usual polish and benefiting from the significant technological advances that these past many years have afforded. And Blizzard made good on those expectations… sort of.
While it met with great critical success, it’s no secret that Diablo III received a mixed reaction from series fans. Though an impressive title in technical terms (Blizzard never fails to deliver on its jaw-dropping cinematics), many longtime fans were disappointed with its story, the brevity of its campaign, and the malleability of its swap-on-the-fly skill system. Whichever side of the aisle you land on, one major point of contention in the game’s design is soon to be put to rest: both the gold and real money auction houses will close their virtual doors for good on March 18, 2014.
Diablo III’s auction house was an interesting experiment for Blizzard. A similar system worked wonders for the player economy in World of Warcraft, and the ingenuity of that system has since spawned carbon copies in just about every major MMO that’s since come along to try to shake WoW from its lofty throne. But Diablo III is a different beast, and the devs over at Blizzard seem to have realized it.
Firstly, let me get something out of the way here to illustrate what a genius I am not. When Blizzard laid out the specifics of the real-money auction house before Diablo III’s release, I thought it was sheer brilliance. Millions of players slash away at endlessly regenerating baddies who in turn generate endless streams of virtual items 24 hours a day, and when players sell them to other players for real money, Blizzard takes a cut. It was like the inner workings of some new, benign species of mafia were laid out right in front of me. I remember blinking at my computer screen like Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Close Encounters thinking, this is going to change everything. With Diablo III, Blizzard had essentially built a digital money mill that would use us—its players—as the force that drove the wheel. They’d just have to release it into the wild and millions of gamers would wear their mice to nubs with Diablo’s clicky goodness, spawning real money from thin air along the way. This is the stuff that Bond villains’ dreams are made of.
Except that it’s not just the company itself that reaps the benefits; players are still out there making real money; though the returns seem to have dwindled to a trickle with the saturation of the market over time. As millions of items are generated, the trash drops get sold to in-game NPCs or are salvaged for crafting materials—thus disappearing from the world—whereas the valuable rares and epics constantly grow in number because they keep floating around changing hands via the AH. As more are generated over time, their value decreases, and players logging in to the game now can buy full sets of epic gear for a song.
And this is precisely where the game has hit its most damning snag. I recently dusted off my copy of Diablo III after about a year-and-a-half hiatus, just to see what the good folks at Blizzard had tweaked while I was away. After getting reacquainted with my Witch Doctor and shambling around town a little, I popped over to the auction house to see if I might improve my gear a bit.
Christmas, friends. Christmas had arrived in August, and I had apparently been a saint this year. Full sets of ridiculous gear were available for next to nothing.
A few clicks later, I was a powerhouse. Unstoppable, it seemed. I remember thinking that Inferno difficulty would be tough when I’d retired the game those many months ago. Nay, it was a joke. I had a bit of fun experimenting with various builds and running through the story again, but even with the postgame leveling system, in which level 60 characters continue to progress through Paragon levels, gaining bonuses to Gold and Magic Find percentages as they go, the thrill was very much absent. Why? Because no matter how high my Magic Find % or how many bosses and elite mobs my zombie bears went tearing through, the best possible gear I might encounter was that which I was already wearing. I could only hope for lateral moves from here on. As much fun as it is to see those rare and epic drops spraying from slain monsters, the very spirit of the Diablo experience was behind me. I had “won”—climbed the highest mountain, as it were—but that wasn’t quite right; I’d just clicked a few buttons in the auction house and leapfrogged the whole process, bypassing the very reason for playing the game.
This, then, is the reason that shutting down the auction house is a wise move on Blizzard’s part: because doing so gives Diablo III its very Diablo-ness back. Casual players may be content with progressing through the story and advancing their characters’ abilities, but for the die-hard Diablo crowd—that angry, torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mob masquerading as disappointed fans that I mentioned several rants ago—the core of these games has always been the hunt for better loot, and the siren’s song of the auction house is one too sweet to deny. The auction house was removed from the game’s recent ports to PS3 and Xbox 360, and its player-base is thriving on those platforms.
Now, whether you’re with me on this one or you’re Tristram’s Gordon Gekko and the AH closure is going to topple your bargain-hunting, item-flipping empire, there’s good news on the horizon for all. With an upcoming patch that will precede Diablo III’s first expansion, Reaper of Souls, Blizzard is introducing its Loot 2.0 system, which aims to provide players with less loot overall (which means fewer annoying runs to town to purge your bags), but better loot—more epics, and more drops suited to your character class. Additionally, the Mystic, a new town-dwelling NPC included in the Reaper of Souls expansion, will provide services that will further specialize a player’s gear to suit his/her needs. The Mystic’s Enchanting service will allow players to reroll one of its attributes for a fee, while Transmogrify will allow a player to customize the aesthetics of his/her gear by swapping the stats and properties of one item with the appearance of another.
Thankfully, for those of you who have been away from the game and are worried about those unfinished sales and unclaimed auctions that are gathering dust in cyberspace limbo, there’s still plenty of time to fire the game up and tend to what needs tending. Blizzard has thus far given no official word on what will become of those items left in the Completed Items section of players’ accounts come March 18, but it’s probably prudent to go ahead stash those away someplace before the hammer drops. Your Stash seems a fitting place.