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In ‘Diablo III,’ happiness that money can’t buy?

A scene from “Diablo III.”

Blizzard Entertainment

A scene from “Diablo III.”

An interesting thing happened a couple of weeks ago: a video game company, after extensive pressure from the players of one of its marquee titles, removed one of that game’s most convenient, innovative features.

The game in question is “Diablo III,” a very popular “hack-and-slash” game published by Blizzard in which players kill endless waves of monsters in search of ever-more-powerful loot (equipment that improves characters’ stats). The feature in question is an auction house.

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Now, a bit of back story is required here: Ever since early online games like “Everquest” and “Ultima Online,” players have bought and sold virtual goods. Often this practice hasn’t been sanctioned by the game developers themselves, but that hasn’t stopped players from advertising useful in-game swords, shields, and the like — either in the game or in online forums dedicated to such matchmaking — and selling them for real-life money. (I even did it once; the details are hazy, but I believe I received a money order of $8 or $10 for a weapon I sold from one of the first two “Diablo” games.)

Blizzard decided to bring this underground economy into the light of day. When the game launched in the spring of 2012, the auction house was one of its most heralded features. It allowed players to buy or sell sword, shields, magical rings, and the like, using either real money or in-game gold earned from killing monsters. The idea was to make it easier for players to get exactly what they needed for their characters. It’s an oversimplified example, but say you’re looking for a sword that provides a bonus to your “strength” statistic. You just click into the auction house and adjust the search criteria accordingly, and boom, a list of swords for sale by other players pops up.

This is unlikely to produce enough money for one to make a living, but a dedicated player with lots of time on his or her hands can regularly sell items for three-digit amounts. One Reddit poster claimed to have made $10,000 in the auction house within just a few months of the game’s release, and posted screenshots that seemed to validate his claim, but this was very much an exception rather than the norm.

So if people are making money and getting the items they want, what’s the problem? It comes down to a perception of unfairness. Some “Diablo III” fans complained that the auction house made it too easy for rich players to quickly snap up top-tier items, driving up their prices. Others charged that Blizzard tinkered with item drop rates (how likely a given type of item was to pop out of a dead monster) to squeeze profits out of the auction house (Blizzard took a cut out of every transaction), which players saw as an unfair milking of cash out of consumers. Blizzard received enough negative feedback to make a major alteration to the game, albeit one that won’t take effect until next March.

This is surprising. The auction house, after all, represented convenience above all else. If you wanted a certain type of item, all you had to do was enter certain search criteria, and it would likely pop up. Compare this to older iterations of the game in which you had to enter a chat channel and paste in what you were looking to buy and sell over and over until a fellow player saw the “advertisement” and responded. (Blizzard’s other mega-hit franchise, “World of Warcraft,” also has auction houses, but among other important distinctions between the games, the “World of Warcraft” auction houses don’t operate with real-world money.)

I decided to e-mail a few academics who study virtual economies to get their thoughts on this. Isn’t it weird, I asked, that some players would ask to have such an efficiency-enhancing system removed?

“My guess is that real money trade in this game led many players to view the usual grind as even more of a chore, since the goal was not the challenge but the possibility of riches,” wrote Robert J. Bloomfield, a management and accounting professor at Cornell. In other words, by explicitly stating, “Yes, you can make money off of this,” Blizzard sapped “Diablo III” of its essence, turning it into something less pure than a game.

Bloomfield also cited the well-known psychological finding that paying people to do things they enjoy can actually reduce their enjoyment of it; the activity in question comes to feel more like a chore than a recreational endeavor. “Diablo III” is particularly susceptible to this sense of chore-itis, because at a certain point there isn’t really all that much new to do — players at the highest levels tend to just complete the same randomized levels over and over, searching for better and better stuff.

Edward Castronova, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, noted that “Players are also increasingly rejecting ‘pay-to-win’ revenue models. Imagine an Olympics where people could simply purchase the right to stand on the podium and get the medal? Pay-to-win breaches the Magic Circle of the game, allowing some people [to] start the race way ahead. It’s completely understandable that players would reject that. . . . Pure game, like pure sport, is more interesting and more entertaining to most people.”

But what does “pure sport” mean? Especially when so many players do seem willing to buy items for real money, both in “Diablo III” and through so-called “microtransactions” in other games?

It might have to do with the difference between useful and ornamental items. As Joshua Fairfield, a law professor at Washington and Lee, explained it, “The new microtransactions model is here to stay,” he wrote, “but . . . people really prefer it if their opponents look fantastic rather than having an insurmountable game advantage. And people are willing to pay to look fantastic (and demonstrate their prestige and wealth) even if it does not confer an insurmountable game advantage.”

In the “Diablo III” auction house, the items were anything but ornamental: They offered serious advantages to players who can afford to buy them. If Fairfield is correct, that could explain some of the anger.

Ultimately, I can’t help but think about how little we know about how gaming works — about the thin line that separates a positive experience that will keep gamers roped in for hundreds of hours from a negative one that will drive them away for good. But much of it might come down to that old, simple adage about life being a journey, not a destination. Players don’t want to buy their way to the top, and they don’t want anyone else to be able to, either.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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