Diablo 3’s gold and real-money auction houses have long been a bone of contention for the playerbase. But in a long discussion thread over in the Diablo 3 forums, a number of Blizzard developers have expressed some misgivings on the effects of auction houses on Diablo 3’s meta-game.
The core of their discussion was simple, "the fact that most players get their gear from the AH is an issue."
Diablo 3 has two auction houses that players can use to buy gear and items. An in-game gold house, and one that allows players to pay for items with their real cash.
Soon after it launched Diablo 3's two auction houses went live, one used in-game gold as its currency system and the other used real cash. This was the first time a Diablo game had featured an item barter system of this scale, one that allowed players not to simply make item trades arranged on forums but to see a whole wealth of kit on sale and, if they had the money, buy all the necessaries to outfit their character in the build they wanted. They would no longer need to run the game's dungeons repeatedly in search of rare drops that might be equippable by their character and might be better than what they are already wielding.
At the time, former game director Jay Wilson said in an interview with Gamespot that "if you look at Diablo 2 there was no difference. Players bought items in Diablo 2. They just didn’t buy them in a service that we provided. [...] The core of Diablo is a trading game. The idea being that the best items you’re going to get are going to come through trade.”
“My general response to [critics of the real money auction house] is if they didn’t think real money was involved in Diablo 2 then they were fooling themselves because it absolutely was. And it didn’t ruin that game so we don’t believe it will ruin Diablo 3.”
Players have long felt differently about the auction house: it often feels like you’re farming the listings for new items, rather than actually playing the game.
Now it seems Blizzard have come to the same conclusion. "We don’t really like that, for most players, all of your current gear is very likely to be something you’ve found on the Auction House," says Diablo's senior game designer Andrew Chambers. "This can create a situation where it doesn’t feel like you "own" the gear you’ve obtained; instead, it feels like you are renting it."
Game designer Travis Day details how they've tried to return to that sense of owning something in Diablo, by building a new tier of items that have to be crafted - and making the crafting materials bind on account. They can’t be traded.
"Making the new crafted items account bound was done for one very distinct reason: to give players more incentives to play the game rather than the Auction House. Something we discuss frequently is how the Auction House has impacted the game and how we can refocus players away from farming the Auction House and onto farming monsters.
"Demonic Essence was made account bound to encourage players who wish to create the new items to play the game instead of simply going to the Auction House and buying all the mat[erial]s necessary to mass produce the items. For that same reason we wanted the product of the recipes to be account bound as well. We want players to not only find or produce their own items more often but also diminish the impact the Auction House has on the game, and we felt like this was a good opportunity to take our first steps in that direction."
This would appear to represent a significant shift in Blizzard's thinking as they continue to re-appraise the quality of the game. Recently, Blizzard acknowledged that “Diablo 3 needs to be a better game.”
The latest patch brought with it PvP brawling, class changes, changes to the experience received from kills, and also the already mentioned account bound items.
Wyatt Cheng, Diablo 3’s senior technical designer, does however reveal the limit of what they are able to do to remedy the problems players are calling out, saying "no matter what we do, some players are going to have vastly better gear than others, and that’s probably always going to be the case depending on your level of investment."