Since I was part of Bungie when they sold-out at the beginning of the halcyon Halo era, a large slice of my retirement portfolio is in Microsoft, makers of the Xbox game console. A scant few weeks after I joined them, my new employer Sucker Punch sold-out to Sony, creators of the PlayStation game console. Now, in-so-far as my contributions to Sony games makes their video game system a more effective competitor against Microsoft’s product, and to-the-degree that this competition hurts MS’s stock value, I have a conflict of interests.
In my situation, the conflict is minor and insignificant. The rewards for doing a good job far outweigh the potential negative side-effects. For a game designer working on a free-to-play game, the conflict is large and debilitating.
The traditional objective of game design is to craft a game that is so much fun people will exchange money for the opportunity to play it. In order to make more money, the game must be more fun for more people. The creative and financial goals of a game designer are in perfect alignment. But no matter how fun a free-to-play game might be, nobody will give you money to play it, because they can’t. It’s free. So while it is still the creative goal to build a game that is fun, it is financially a waste of time. This is not a happy situation for a game designer.
Actually, it’s worse than that. Most free-to-play games make money by being not fun in clever ways. People will pay to skip the boring, repetitive or difficult parts. They will pay to get new floors in Tiny Tower, or earn money faster in World of Tanks, or play their favorite hero in League of Legends… In most games, “this part of the game is so boring, I would pay money to skip it” is something you would find in a bug report, not a business plan. It’s the kind of issue a good game designer would fix, no extra charge. Most micro-transaction games put the creative and financial goals at odds with each other.
Which brings me to Diablo III. (At this point I should mention that while I know many designers at Blizzard, this post is entirely speculative.) One might assume that since WoW mints money faster than the Fed in an election year, it doesn’t really matter if any other Blizzard games make revenue. But as a consequence of their success, every minute any employee spends doing anything other than building new WoW content carries an enormous opportunity cost. After such a long development cycle, if Diablo III doesn’t make as much in revenue as two or three WoW expansions, it was a poor business decision… unless it tests out an experimental business model like a real-money auction house, that is.
That’s why I am frustrated by commentators accusing the Diablo team of selling out and cashing in on the popularity of the franchise. They must test a new business model to generates revenue beyond initial sales, or they don’t get to make their game. (Just like Starcraft II needed to be an e-sport experiment.) They could have tried free-to-play, but thankfully they didn’t. I hope they never do! It would mean they had compromised themselves as designers and would doom a lot of other companies to following the same path. The real-money auction house is a long-term revenue source, but it doesn’t force designers to choose between making the game more fun and making more money. And nobody else is in a position to take a risk and show the industry another way.
So, as a designer, I am excited by the direction Blizzard has taken with Diablo III because it can save us from the conflict of interest caused by the glut of free-to-play games. And as a gamer, you ought to be happy about the auction house because it means the Blizzard designers haven’t sold-out and still prize gameplay above all. At the very least, everyone should understand that without the real-money auction house, or something like it, Diablo III probably wouldn’t exist.