Feature Article

Ten Years Later, Lessons From Diablo III's Auction House Disaster Have Not Been Remembered

How Blizzard attempted to make its own play-to-earn game--and how it failed in just two years--haven't stopped further attempts in the space.

There's no disputing that, after the decade-plus long wait for it, Diablo III was not the game so many had had hoped for when it launched 10 years ago. Aside from numerous launch-day woes highlighting its reliance on a persistent online connection--no offline mode was available--Diablo III suffered from a critical balance problem. In a game where the progression of loot is critical to its enjoyment, it was hampered by a grand idea: What if players could sell in-game items between each other, even for real-world money?

Diablo III's Auction House seemed like an interesting idea. Loot that you gathered through traditional play could be put up for sale in-game, letting you trade for better, more character-specific items or just allowing you to make real money for the hours you've spent hacking away at demons. But the problems with this approach didn't take long to surface. For one, Diablo III's loot system was unsatisfying. You got lots of it, with items flooding out of the bodies of slain foes, but most of the time it was either of low quality or not useful for your chosen class. Compounding this frustration was the ever-present temptation of the Auction House--if I couldn't get the crossbow I wanted, why not just buy it? And if I can buy it, why play at all?

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Diablo, and action role-playing games of the same ilk, are all structured to elicit one reaction for its players: a near-insatiable urge to continue getting better and better loot. It's the singular goal that all other supporting gameplay mechanics serve, whether it's effects-laden animations that make a new weapon stand out, or the mathematical equations in the background ensuring that you always have a consistent, but engaging, challenge ahead, encouraging you to continue the grind. The Auction House removed that entirely. The ability to just purchase your way to the best gear made the actual playing of Diablo III feel completely redundant. Why spend hours and hours playing when you can just buy the gear you want, especially when Diablo III's initial loot system did a frustratingly poor job of serving you loot you could use?

The dissonance between Diablo III's Action House and its underlying gameplay holda extra resonance today, given the rise in interest over "play-to-earn" games. While not new--many spawned just after the first NFTs were minted in 2017--these have become big talking points amongst large, publicly traded games publishers and their plans for including blockchain technology in their futures. Axie Infinity is arguably the most popular of these. Launching in 2018, it looks and plays a lot like contemporaries like Pokemon, letting you collect a range of monsters and battle against other players. Battles reward you with Smooth Love Potion crypto tokens, as well as Axie Infinity Shard (AIS) tokens, both of which can be traded for other cryptocurrencies or fiat currency (traditional money like US Dollars). The monsters used in these battles are NFTs, too, letting them be sold and traded for the same income, creating an economy around rare creatures and players grinding out battles for the respective tokens.

At its height, Axie Infinity attracted many players looking predominantly for a new way to make money, not those necessarily looking for a captivating gameplay experience. This is most evident in regions such as the Philippines, where numerous young players were using the profits of Axie Infinity as their sole source of income. Certain pools were created where a singular owner would supply players with the three necessary monsters to begin playing (a barrier to entry that cost hundreds of dollars) and take a cut of any profits from battles they were used in. While initially lucrative, the interest in Axie Infinity has steeply declined since the end of 2021 and has struggled to recover from a detrimental hack that lost the players millions of dollars earlier this year.

Although Axie Infinity uses the blockchain and Diablo III's Auction House utilized an ecosystem that Blizzard controlled entirely, the design of both serve the same purpose. In Axie Infinity, all of the gameplay is designed around its economy--how much is awarded to players after a battle, the rarity of certain monsters, and what traits are most desireable. With Diablo III, you can see that Blizzard was thinking about the same things a decade ago. The game was criticized by players who suspected it had been balanced in a way that pushed them towards using the Auction House, thanks to loot that felt overly repetitive and fairly worthless. By enticing players to spend money rather than playing, all in pursuit of the cut that Blizzard would take from all real-money transactions, this undermined Diablo III's ability to be anywhere near the same engrossing dungeon-crawling, loot-hunting experience as the lauded Diablo II.

The good news is that with this realization, Blizzard made two of the best possible changes in Diablo III. Firstly, was the removal of the Auction House entirely, again establishing the enduring trope killing enemies for better loot. The other was the introduction of what it called Loot 2.0, which came a few months later and just before the launch of the game's first, and only, expansion, Reaper of Souls. With Loot 2.0, Blizzard loosened the limits of gear that was bound to characters, instead binding high-tier items to your account and giving you a handful of chances to trade it between created characters. The algorithm behind loot was also overhauled with the idea of "quality over quantity" in mind. No longer were you getting swaths of lower-tier items or gear that was reserved for other classes. Instead, you consistently got gear that tempted you to immediately equip it, bringing back the fervor to continue grinding for hours on end.

Diablo 3
Diablo 3

It helped immensely that this patch came before Reaper of Souls, which itself overhauled numerous aspects of Diablo III to give it a far stronger lasting appeal. Aside from a rather brilliant campaign and storyline that followed the events of the good, but safe, Diablo III, it introduced the endgame loop that many players are still engaging with today. Seasons were introduced to give players a reason to return every few months, while Adventure mode let you explore the many maps of Diablo III and the rewards they offered outside of the confines of the campaign's linear path. With that came Nephalem Rifts--randomized dungeons that offered numerous loot rewards and chances to open even more lucrative Greater Rifts. Paragon levels were also changed to be account-based rather than per character, letting players reap the rewards across a variety of playthroughs.

With this new base established, Blizzard had successfully course-corrected what it set in motion nearly two years prior. And despite the bad taste it left in so many players' mouths, the continued success of Diablo III shows that the work was worth it. To this day, Blizzard continues to update its ARPG with new seasons and support it with patches, as the developer steams forward with work on Diablo Immortal (originally announced as a mobile-exclusive entry that is now also coming to PC) and Diablo IV.

Diablo III was close to being a catastrophe--a new-age take on the ARPG that firmly cemented why the genre had fallen from grace since the release of Diablo II. It embodied so many of the industry's worst fears at the time, with its always-online requirement locking thousands out for days and its Auction House confusing its balance focus. It's in the ways that Blizzard eventually found its way out of the mess that should stand as a lesson on its 10th anniversary: that players will endure the occasional inconvenience and frustration if your game is simply too fun to stay away from. And, given the reignited interest in play-to-earn games, it seems inevitable that others will have to learn this the hard way, too.

Read more: How Diablo 3 Went From Disastrous Launch To A Hell Of A Good Time

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