At its peak, this kind of “farming” was a multi-million dollars business – and a bothersome source of scamming, spamming, and potentially game-ruining distortions of virtual market forces. In its latest title, then, Blizzard has taken the logical next step – and brought the entire business in-house.
Enter one of Diablo 3’s boldest gambles: a “real money auction house”, where players can sell to each other almost every kind of virtual goodie it’s possible to earn through hours and days of dungeon-crawling and baddie-bashing. At the time of writing, a week after the game’s release, the auction house’s doors had yet to open – but what’s promised is a service allowing players freely to sell the spoils of war to each other at any price they like, with Blizzard taking a 15% cut (or flat fee on some items), plus a similar percentage again for those wishing to “cash out” their profits via PayPal.
The service won’t be available everywhere in the world, and using it is entirely optional – but it’s likely to have at least hundreds of thousands of users. In Blizzard’s words, it’s designed to provide “the foundation for a player-driven economy that’s safe, fun, and accessible to everyone” – an aspiration that will be music to many ears after years of gold-purchase spamming in World of Warcraft and its ilk. What Diablo 3’s auction house also represents, though, is a fascinating fiscal experiment in its own right – not least because it explicitly acknowledges something that has been implicitly true within online gaming for a long time: economics is an awful lot of fun.
Indeed, economics isn’t just “fun” like football or kiss-chase. It’s good, hard, complex, peer-to-peer fun, in the way that work ought to be but most often isn’t. As anyone who’s made more than a few purchase on eBay will know, electronic auction houses offer labyrinthine delight once you’ve learned their language of bids, deadlines, quests for rare purchases and sudden discovery. Match this with the option of earning your assets by teaming up with other players and slaughtering picturesque hordes, and you have a seriously entertaining business proposition. Not to mention the pleasures of making a sale and learning to read the market. Does it look like demand for high-end barbarian swords is rising? Buy now, hoard your product, then sell when prices hit their peak.
So far as Blizzard Entertainment themselves are concerned, potential problems abound that will make compulsive viewing for anyone interested in the future of digital assets: from attempts at exploitation and monopoly to the security of users’ accounts and the black market’s ability to undercut official sales. Then, of course, there’s the nebulous realm of addiction, work-life balance, and the question of just how much time it’s healthy to spend waving around unreal swords.
To me, though, what’s most interesting is the near-seamless alignment of play and labour a system like Diablo 3’s represents – and the willingness of all involved to pour time, money and belief into assets that have no existence beyond the magic circle of the game.
In this respect, the fantastical prizes of a game like Diablo 3 are very much like money itself – which is only as real as collective belief, and just as meaningless if this fails (ask a Greek if you don’t believe me). If you need a lesson in 21st Century social realism, in fact, there’s a lot to be learned from video games. There are few things we humans like more than the serious business of play. And of all the games we play, there’s none more absurdly serious than money.