The Decline of Videogames (again)

Author’s note: this was originally written to coincide with the launch of Diablo 3. In the years since the RMAH has been turned off and the game has continued to suck.

When Activision and Blizzard merged in 2008 there was a lot of speculation about what, if anything, would change about the way Blizzard develops games. Blizzard are the pioneers of the ‘it’s done when it’s done’ school of game development and Activision like to jam Annual revisions of games down consumers’ throats until they choke. See also: Guitar Hero.

How exactly would Blizzard’s methods fit into a corporate culture so opposed to quality? The answer for a long time was: just fine. Blizzard pootled along in seeming autonomy and continued to release polished and well-received games at long intervals.

A short time ago Diablo III, sequel to the game that defined the action RPG genre, 7 years in development, finally came out.

Oh.

Oh dear.

Ignore the unequaled debacle that was the D3 launch, with players left unable to play for days after the game theoretically came out. Ignore the addle-pated game architecture that forces you to be online, even when playing alone, connecting to a remote session on a server somewhere like this was 1974 again. Let me just fire up telnet so I can play Diablo. Ignore that there are no Australian servers – again! – which means you will experience significant lag, even in singleplayer. Ignore the literally unkillable, by anyone elite monsters that the game generates with alarming regularity. Ignore the multitude of imbalances, poor design decisions and the shocking lack of content.

Ignore all that.

The thing you have to understand is that Diablo 3, as a game, does not matter. As an experiment in alternative pricing models, on the other hand, it matters a great deal.

For those of you not in the know, D3 has a ‘real money auction house’. Meaning that the game facilitates transactions between players whereby they pay actual money for virtual items, with (Activision)Blizzard taking a cut for every item sold.

Paying real money for imaginary goods is nothing new, Korean MMOs have been doing it for years and ‘free-to-play’ games (which make copious use of micro-transactions) are becoming normal with alarming speed, but this differs from previous incarnations of the system in a couple of significant ways.

The first major difference is that Blizzard are not directly selling anything. From a PR perspective this is enormous. Appearing to nickle and dime your customers for magic swords and horse armour makes you look like greed incarnate, allowing them to nickle and dime each other looks considerably less fiendish.

The second major difference is that the prices of these virtual goods will be decided by market forces. This means there is no limit to how expensive this crap can get, already there are high-level magical items listed for hundreds of dollars and the very nature of the game (randomly generated loot with ever increasing levels of power) means that there can never be a market equilibrium.

It would be like you and I trying to agree on a price for apples when your apples sing show tunes and mine fire fishbowls at my enemies, we are unlikely to reach consensus.

I find this entire situation reprehensible and I have no desire to play any game where my efforts can be trvialised because someone else can afford to drop five hundred bucks on imaginary trinkets. However, Diablo III is not a directly competitive game. At the time of writing there is no PvP, no prizes for getting to the end first, nothing.

“Then why do you even care?” you are no doubt asking, in a long-suffering tone.

Ah-hah! (I reply) because they’re patching the game as though it were a competitive multiplayer game.

Virtually all of the post-launch patches that have been made to the game boil down to one of the following.

  1. Emergency fixes because the game doesn’t work.

  2. More emergency fixes because the game still doesn’t bloody work.

  3. Power reductions for various classes that were clearly never playtested

  4. Nerfs to gold, item and XP farming.

It’s number four that makes my sphincter clench. In a non-competitive game like D3, who the hell cares whether I get to maximum level by killing the same guy 400 times or by actually playing through your chore of a plot?

Diablo is not World of Warcraft. WoW (and games of its ilk) are terrified of player frustration. Players who aren’t having fun stop subscribing, and you stop making money. To that end the developers of WoW have made it easier and blander with each expansion, desperately trying to combat their falling subscription numbers.

On the other hand, once you’ve bought D3 for seventy bucks (or whatever the hell games retail for now, I got the digital version for seventy) then they’ve got what they wanted from you and should let you get as frustrated as you like. Unless, of course, they had a vested interest in getting you just annoyed enough to fork out the money for better gear.

If this is starting to sound familiar then it should, because it’s the exact same model that Zynga and other “social” game developers use to make obscene amounts of money: charging the player to not have to endure your game’s bullshit any more.

Another factoid: The real money auction house was not available at launch. Its introduction was delayed until all the most obvious/profitable ways of grinding new gear (which is boring, but not frustrating) had been found and removed. I’m just saying.

Now, the reason that this is interesting is that, unlike Zynga, Blizzard actually made a game that you can play and enjoy without ever having to pay an extra cent. You can beat the entire game on normal difficulty without breaking a sweat, and nightmare is only slightly harder depending on what class you picked (cough barbarians suck cough). It’s only on the brutally hard Hell and Inferno difficulties that you run into dumb crap like unkillable elite packs. At that point just buying your way out might start to look pretty attractive.

Let me say that again, for emphasis: you can do and see everything the game has to offer without needing to hit the auction house. Easily. The only people likely to be tempted are the terminally inept and those frustrated by the horrible unfairness of the higher difficulty levels.

This, four years later, is the effect that Activision has had on Blizzard. This is a game that has clearly had significant changes made to its design in order to support an experimental business model.

So what does this mean for the future? If it works, and Activision get rich(er) off their 15% of real money transactions, then a company will have succeeded in sneaking the nicest possible version of the parasitic social gaming model into a mainstream game.

The trick to this business model, (which future imitators will completely fail to get) is that the goal is not to hook the player for life, but to get their money up front and maybe a couple of equipment purchases before they check out. It’s the icing on the cake.

Activision will, of course, fuck it up because they are Activision. But the model could potentially give developers a little extra cash and let some (filthy, weak) players enjoy their games more, which isn’t entirely bad.

Diablo III still sucks, though. Just so we’re clear. 2/5

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About nooneiverse

I am on the interbuts, look at me go!
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