One of the most fascinating aspects about the Diablo franchise is the emergence of a thriving trading economy among players. It’s the only gameplay completely generated by the players, organic and in flux from day-to-day. I’m going to give a brief rundown of the various overarching movements in a video game economy.
Drop Your Weapons and Walk Towards Me Slowly
Trading items (magical weapons, armor, etc.) among players has been a pillar of Diablo gameplay since the original. It was exciting in a Wild West kind of way. Either Blizzard didn’t anticipate or didn’t have the resources to implement a trading system into the UI, so the players made do. Often this meant each player dropped their item on the ground at opposite ends of town and walked forward towards each other hoping the other player wasn’t ripping you off. It worked because all characters walked at the same speed so it was impossible to get both items on the ground without trickery (blocking the other player somehow, your friend jumping in the game and taking the item, etc.). I tried to find video of this but it seems nobody has youtubed this excitement. Trust me, it’s as primitive and stupid as it sounds. Luckily things changed in Diablo 2.
Adam Smith Comes to Blizzard
In Diablo 2, Blizzard added a trade screen to the UI so you could see exactly what you were trading for. Like Diablo, it’s still a simple face-to-face transaction, but at least the chances of you getting ripped off were lessened. Now that trades were safe for all parties, players felt free to engage in it.
The economy started as pretty basic bartering. I have a sword, you have some robes kind of thing. But as more and more players put in more and more hours played, the super rare items began to accumulate. Most of the very best items in the game have an insanely low drop percentage. For example, the Zod rune has a 1 : 3,000,000 chance of dropping from a single monster in the whole game. In other words, you would have to kill said monster an average of three million times before you’d see a Zod drop. This site has a good breakdown of the amount of time you’d need to play to get one. This meant an overwhelming majority of players have never seen a Zod, most probably didn’t even know what it did. However, the lucky few who did get one had something extremely valuable.
If you were the lucky S.O.B. with a Zod this was a problem. Nobody had enough items to trade for one. Even if someone had the pu-pu platter of items, it’s the classic four quarters for a dollar trade. The economy was jammed up until players found a secondary use for a ring, the Stone of Jordan.
The Stone of Jordan (SoJ) was a ring that packed with great stats, only took up a 1×1 inventory slot, and the chances of finding one were rare, but not infinitesimal. These factors allowed the SoJ to become the currency of Diablo. The barter system was dead, now everything was paid for in SoJs. A nice sword could be worth ten SoJs, a rare rune worth two. Players began to farm the rings and duplicate them via bugs, and soon the market was full of SoJs. The plight of players with ultra rare items was solved, SoJs became the price for everything.
Quick aside, I’ve never found an SoJ naturally. I played this game for years, collected enough loot to fill ten museums and never saw this damn ring drop. Ever. I am bitter about this to this very day. Seriously, I’ll think about this from time to time in normal life, like in a staff meeting at work. This site traffic is great for our new website but JESUS HOW COULD I HAVE NOT FOUND ONE! NOT ONE! YARRRRRRRRRGH
Attack of the Bots
The SoJ economy lasted throughout the early 2000’s, Diablo 2‘s heyday. As the playerbase began to shrink, bots began to proliferate. A bot was a third-party program that logged into your Diablo 2 account, played your character, and collected any good items that dropped. Bots primarily farmed Pindleskin, an easily accessible monster that could drop any item in the game. He was the ultimate slot machine. Players turned on the bot overnight or when they went to class, putting in hours of Pindleskin runs. Before long, the market was flooded with high-end items and suddenly SoJs had no value. Inflation!
This actually wasn’t as bad as you might think. The flood of items allowed players to experiment with previously sub-optimal character builds. Builds like the melee sorceress were not possible without extremely rare, highly specialized gear that wasn’t available to the majority of the playerbase before bots. This trend continued despite Blizzard’s attempts to stop it.
Today it seems most everyone has a chain gang of bots working 24/7 while they are wearing more Uniques and Rares than an entire guild in 2001. The difference between a common item and an elite on is literally a handful a stat points or an extra percentage of fire resistance. Third party sites sprang up and began selling these items for real life dollars for people too lazy even to bot. So to recap, we’ve gone from a hardscrabble barter economy, to a robust SoJ one, to robot slave labor and item glut. Sounds awfully familiar.
Diablo 3 Wants All Your Money. All. Your. Money.
Blizzard’s response to all the third-party item sale sites is to have a full, built-in auction house in Diablo 3. One will be paid with gold found in the game, and another for real life dollars. I was initially put off by this announcement, it just feels strange paying real money for digital items. I won’t use it but it’s a way people without a lot of time can get rare items without putting in the hours (or botting). I’m not going to get into the argument over whether these players should get items without “earning” them because frankly I don’t care. Though maybe I’ll buy an SoJ, so I can finally have one (yyeeeeeaaaaAAARGGGHGHHHH).
OK I think that’s enough to earn my Economics Ph.D. See you on CNBC!