It's been a month and a half since Blizzard launched the third game in the Diablo franchise and made it the fastest selling PC game in history, and the hack-and-slash game is now in a somewhat precarious position. While the bugs and stability issues that it suffered from at launch are largely resolved, hardcore gamers are starting to bristle at some controversial changes being made in Diablo III. Their complaints basically boil down to one central issue: This game is not Diablo II.
The New Loot Piñata
Diablo II was a game about random drops. You clicked on things until they died and then clicked on all the things they dropped to see if any of the gear was good enough for you to switch out your equipment or if you should simply sell it for gold.
While Diablo III can still be played that way, the addition of an in-game auction house which allows players to easily buy and sell gear complicates the game far more than you might expect from a system for simply buying the new gear you need and selling whatever you don't want to somebody that does.
Let's look to the past for a moment; what economy Diablo II had was largely a black market of shady deals haphazardly assembled by the game's community. It's telling that Diablo II traders used an item, The Stone of Jordan, as a de facto currency rather than the in-game gold (which was practically worthless in player-to-player transactions). Blizzard hadn't really planned for much of a trading community in Diablo II, and it showed.
Diablo III, however, has a highly organized auction house (though I'll be the first to admit the interface needs work) that allows you to search for the stats you need on your gear to quickly and efficiently improve your equipment using the money you've made from playing the game and selling other items you've found.
Diablo II was about gambling, hoping that you'd get lucky with a random drop and then playing again if you didn't. Diablo III is about investing.
Cynics would point out that Blizzard designed the game this way to push players toward their real-money auction house, where players can buy virtual items for real money and where Blizzard gets a cut of the profits on every transaction.
There's probably more than a little truth to that, but the game also has an auction house that operates using in-game gold rather than real currency and I recommend players take a look at it, because it's where the real game in Diablo III is going on right now.
Recently a player managed to defeat Act II of the game on Insanity, the game's highest difficultly level using gear bought off the auction house with only 200,000 in-game gold. To give you a sense of perspective, it takes a max level character about two hours to gain that much gold if they're dedicated to making gold quickly.
The achievement was notable for a few reasons. The first is that the player who made it, Jipptomilly, managed to rake in a hefty profit. After spending 200,000 on his gear he managed to make over a million gold in a single run of Act II thanks to some quality drops, including a single item worth six times as much as his initial investment on its own.
That's not that surprising. Act II of Insanity drops item level 63 weapons and equipment at a small but respectable rate of 4%. Level 63 items are the highest currently available within the game, meaning that by completing Act II with the cheapest possible gear you're capable of seeing the theoretical "best" item in the game using far less money than a Diablo III character is likely to earn while completing the first three difficulty levels.
Finally, the run displays a new kind of game mastery that's integral to Diablo III, one focused on the economic metagame around the base game rather than the (fairly easy) base game itself. It's too early to tell if "return on investment" runs of Diablo III will have the same kind of staying power that magic-find runs did in Diablo II, but they do present an interesting way forward for the game; not as a shinier copy of its predecessor, but as a new kind of game that encourages you to smartly manage your playtime for maximum returns rather than compulsively replay the same levels over and over in an attempt to get item drops that complete your equipment set.