Diablo II was consistently popular for over a decade thanks to its immense replayability. At its core, D2 was a game about building new characters and gearing them up by any means necessary. Every enemy in the game was a loot pinata just waiting to be popped, and players farmed endlessly for a few sought-after unique items. You almost never found an item that was ideal for your particular class and build, but you could usually trade for what you needed via trade channels and forums.
Blizzard claimed that the auction house was intended just to streamline this process, but when Diablo III launched, it was clear that the entire game had been designed to make the auction house almost necessary for progress. The fault here lies not just with the concept of an auction house but with the game designers.
That's right: I'm here to argue not only that Jay Wilson was right about the auction house ruining Diablo III but also that it was his own damn fault.
The AH distorted value and rarity
Blizzard had access to hard data on drop rates and item stats from Diablo II when designing the sequel and claimed that legendary items at D3's launch were about as rare as uniques in its predecessor. Players always complained that the drop rates were lower, but there's no reason to think Blizzard didn't use all the stats at its disposal and match up the drop rates. So why then did good items seem so rare? I think this was completely the auction house's fault. By showing up to several million players' items in one searchable place, the Auction House distorted the appearance of rarity and value.
In a grey economy such as trading on a forum, you see only a small percentage of the items for sale and have to invest effort in looking for what you want to get your hands on. Even World of Warcraft's auction houses exhibit roughly the same behaviour because each shard contains only about 5,000 players. But when you find what looks like a good item in Diablo III, it inevitably turns out to be not quite as good as you thought because there are so many better ones already on the auction house. If you can see the farming output of millions of players and compare it to your own findings, of course your loot is going to seem like crap. Ironically, this problem has lessened over time only because Diablo III's playerbase has been shrinking since launch.
Linear item power made the AH an easy option
While it's possible to blame the auction house itself on the apparent low quality of loot in Diablo III, a large part of the blame has to lie with the game designers. Buying items on the auction house was always the easiest way to progress through the game, making it almost mandatory. The main reason for this is that items in D3 had built-in linear power progression. Each item has an item level that determines its maximum stat budget just as in World of Warcraft, making gear from further along in the game almost automatically better than gear from earlier areas. The auction house then made that gear readily and cheaply available to everyone.
For example, a level 61 item that was common in Act 1 Inferno at launch physically couldn't roll as high damage or intelligence as an item level 63 item that you could reasonably farm only in Act 3 or 4. The result was that if you were stuck in Act 1, the quickest way to progress was to buy some good gear from Act 2, 3 or 4. When you finally beat Act 1, you'd then already have better gear than you were likely to find on your own. It was also often difficult to judge whether items you found were worth selling on the auction house, and with only 10 AH slots available you couldn't realistically list every item you found.
This same problem existed all throughout the game's 60-level race to Inferno too, with the easiest way to progress always being to skip ahead on the loot curve by throwing some gold at the auction house. But in doing so, you forfeited the ability to find nice loot for the forseeable future. This is probably why so many people complained about never finding any gear upgrades that they could actually use. (In fairness, this is something that developers have since fixed by making all of Inferno drop level 63 items and adding the Monster Power system.)
Gear should be a customisation system
Gear in an Action RPG is always a form of character customisation, with certain items synergising well with particular character builds. But when most items in D3 are directly compared, one is usually categorically better than the other regardless of build. This seems to have been done intentionally so that every item in D3 can be reduced to a three easily comparable numbers: Damage, Health, and Protection. Blizzard even built this into the UI as a way to easily compare two pieces of gear, so this stat simplification was clearly no accident.
Certain builds require minimum levels of Life on Hit, Lifesteal, or resource-generation stats, but at the upper end of the gear treadmill, nothing beats pure all-out damage. Rares can have up to six stats, but each slot still has an optimum set of stats to aim for that maximises its contribution to your damage output or survivability. The decision to dumb Diablo III's loot down for easy comparison robbed the game of character customisation options and reinforced the linear power scale for items. The auction house didn't do this; Blizzard did.
Bringing back things from D2 that worked
In other action RPGs, low-level or poorly rolled items can still be valuable to high-level players because they can still roll a few key stats that synergise well with a particular build. A good example is Diablo II's Stone of Jordan, which is one of the most sought-after unique rings in the game despite being a level 29 ring that can drop in Nightmare mode. Many other items gave unique auras, skills, and bonuses that synergised well with particular skills and you didn't have to sacrifice raw damage to use them.
The number one thing Blizzard could do to fix Diablo III now is to introduce ladder seasons. Periodically resetting the ladder is what has kept Diablo II running to this day, as it wipes the game economy clean and everyone who wants to can start fresh. The gold supply would be reset and items that are mediocre by today's standards would be rare and useful again. Starting a ladder with no auction house could help improve the perception of loot quality, and the fact that the ladder will be reset again soon means drop rates can be increased significantly without impacting future ladders. New seasons could also let developers test big itemisation changes without interfering with the rest of the game.
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