Diablo III Will Scare the Hell out of You

And not for the reasons you might expect.

It won't be the sight of a bloated corpse exploding into a cloud of snakes that frightens. It probably won't be the visage of a once proud king, now merely a vessel for an evil spirit. In fact, no specific paranormal or demonic resident of Diablo III's vast menagerie of hell's starting lineup need concern would-be demon hunters, monks, barbarians, wizards, or witch doctors.

To the contrary, it will be the clicking of mice in the Diablo III auction house that will raise the most eyebrows and drop mouths agape, in fear of not only what it means for the game itself, but also what the ramifications are for future Blizzard games and the industry at large.

While it's important to keep in mind that Diablo III and its auction house are still very much in beta, Blizzard has already made its intentions clear--it wants to create and control a safe space for equipment and gold transactions that originally occurred on auction sites outside of its domain. Also, every transaction that occurs for that new piece of armor or that enchanted sword lets Blizzard skim a set fee off the top.

It all seems very straightforward and harmless--an everyone-wins scenario. Some might even traverse Diablo's wistfully detailed lands without ever knowing of the auction house's existence, but here's the sinister short and simple of it, part one: Blizzard just boldly (and perhaps unintentionally) subverted the free-to-play model, and it has done so by retaining all of the characteristics of that ecosystem while simultaneously charging an admission fee of $60 to access them. If the idea of grinding for gear or gold doesn't sound that appealing, but spending real-world money for fake-world items does, then the auction house is the place to go, as long as you paid for the game like everyone else.

Granted, the foundation of this system sits firmly on the idea that this economy is adequately funded by its players and not Blizzard, which means that its success largely depends on player behavior and the audience's ability to keep the auction house stocked with items players actually want--the simple economics of supply and demand. If World of Warcraft's own auction house is any indication, that shouldn't ever be an issue, and if anything, positioning gold as an additional commodity to be sold all but ensures a steady inventory of frequent activity and a happy Blizzard.

And therein lies the foreboding part two: Gold farming (or item farming of any kind) by proxy is not only condoned but encouraged and incentivized through the use of real-world money. That alone is cause for trepidation since Battle.net will no doubt be flooded with games dedicated to solely accomplishing such dubious tasks, but the bigger concerns are gold inflation and equipment deflation--otherwise known as the whirlpool of contradictory economic sadness.

If acquiring wealth is as simple as paying real dollars for it, then what's preventing gold's purchasing power from dropping faster than it did in World of Warcraft? Likewise, there's no binding on equip in Diablo III at this time, which means any kind of item (aside from some generated by quests) can feasibly flood the market, making even the best gear worthless from a valuation standpoint. Members of the development team have stated that they believe the salvaging feature (using items to craft other items) combined with a strategy of consistently introducing new items will counteract the problem, but these both leave a massive lingering question: Is that enough to combat the problem?

The Diablo III auction house rabbit hole raises even more questions the deeper it goes, and while there's no way to accurately predict what will happen, this much is certain: Its success would have far-reaching implications on the gaming industry. For example, there's no reason a similar feature couldn't exist in any other game with a prominent multiplayer component, namely something like Battlefield or Modern Warfare, but even single-player games could integrate an auction house funded via other players playing the same game. Even Titan, Blizzard's massively multiplayer online successor to World of Warcraft, can theoretically toss the shackles of a subscription fee and its associated problems--one of which is motivating the user base to subscribe to more than one MMO--in favor of a strictly real-world currency auction house, provided the economy can sustain itself and generate enough income for Blizzard.

In its current state, the auction house fulfills its purpose beautifully, enabling those with less spare time these days to create a respectably geared character without slaying so much as a single demon. That's an attractive proposition for many and will no doubt fuel much of the engine that drives this business model forward. Still, it's a little frightening that the seedier side of the gaming industry now has an official place to conduct its boomtown operations, but perhaps even more worrisome is Blizzard's amalgamation of the free-to-play and traditional retail model--the best of both worlds for those whose eyes are planted firmly on the bottom line.

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