The Gold Rush
Close your eyes and listen carefully; that’s the sound of the thunderous stampede as hordes of lapsed Diablo III players rush back to Blizzard’s hack-and-slash Goliath, a shared vision of endless mountains of cold, hard cash spurring them on. The cause of all this gold fever is a recent ‘ask me anything’ post on Reddit, in which one budding online entrepreneur claimed to have made ten thousand dollars from working the Diablo III Real Money Auction market.
It’s impossible to verify the chap’s claims completely, but he seems articulate, believable and learned on the subject, providing several screenshots of various high-level items selling for bafflingly inflated prices. In further proof that our reality has slipped completely off its axis, he even discusses the concept of paying tax on his in-game earnings. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, now the government can take a cut from your sale of that ‘Deadly Morning-star of Smiting +5’. Madness reigns.
Not surprisingly, people tend to get pretty excited over stories like this. For many of us stuck in boring or financially unrewarding jobs, the idea that we could earn almost a years salary by playing our favourite games seems like the ultimate dream ticket. Most dedicated gamers spend hours each week working their way through various titles for no real reward, other than an inherent sense of joy and satisfaction. For all that we love the medium, we all occasionally get that guilty feeling that we’re wasting our time. I mean, double jumping over an alien plant to get the last Super Golden Star, or sticking someone with the Hurricane Bowel Punch is unlikely to really benefit us in the long term, is it? You can’t exactly put it on a CV.
Now, the idea that you could put those practised skills to work earning real honest-to-goodness cash? That’s a tantalising concept.
If it’s easy for us to see the attraction behind legitimate real-money markets, it must be music to the ears of Blizzard themselves. It’s a remarkably good business strategy. In one deft move they’ve legitimised the third-party monetisation of their product, protected interested consumers from the large majority of scammers, and simultaneously made sure they got a nice cut of anything that sells through their system. Brilliant. Evil, but brilliant.
I say evil, because that’s the default reaction we’re accustomed to feeling whenever a big company flexes their money-making muscles. The days when gaming success stories like Molyneux and Carmack just seemed like basement nerds come good have gone, and in their place have risen great faceless monoliths. EA, Blizzard, Activision, Ubisoft; none of these companies engender a great deal of warmth, especially when they’re bleeding money out of us for on-disc content or punishing loyal consumers with hateful DRM. Even when we try to work a little profit outside their systems, they eventually work out how to get a percentage themselves. You can’t blame publishers for doing what they’re paid to do, but the relentless hunt for profits does begin to make one feel a little jaded after a while.
We’ve even reached the point when this hunt for profits begins to affect the mechanics of the games themselves. Blizzard might insist that their always-online service for Diablo III is merely intended to help players network with potential co-op partners, but its also undeniable that if you keep all your players online, and the option of paying actual cash for an in-game boost just a click away, you’re far more likely to persuade them to use your service. Micro-transaction models, whether on the core systems or mobile devices, are a huge source of profits for developers. We won’t know exactly how much Blizzard has made from these transactions until official figures are released, but the service wouldn’t be there if they didn’t feel it could benefit them financially. For every entrepreneur that successfully plays the system, its likely that there are thousands of auctioneers who make a relative pittance- a multitude of hive workers from whom Blizzard skims off a healthy profit.
Time will tell whether the concept of a player-driven economy will catch on with other developers, but experimenting with the model has certainly done Blizzard no harm thus far. This particular success story will be music to their ears, and will inevitably intrigue players who haven’t yet dabbled in the real-money auction house, thus earning Blizzard even more market transaction fees. Before people get too excited, however, it should be noted that the author of the Reddit post is a business student who admits to spending a hefty portion of his time, occasionally up to 14 hours a day, working the auction house. The reality for most gamers is that to spin a decent profit you would almost certainly have to have a certain flair for playing the markets and a willingness to spend many, many hours doing so. At that point, are you really playing a game any more, or effectively working another part-time job?