The Psychology of the Diablo 3 Auction House

If you’re a serious RMAH user or plan on becoming one, then you may want to take a look at a  new article on Gamasutra called The psychology of Diablo III loot. In the article the author looks at three factors that make up the RMAH experience and how Blizzard could tweak things to make the RMAH experience more useful and exciting, based on advanced understanding of human psychology. Thanks snipeattacker for the tip.

Here’s a quote relating to one problem with the Auction House; that it makes obtaining good gear so easy that the joy of finding a better item in the game is diminished. (Since you’ll never find better than what you’ve already bought.)

The reason is that the auction house is actually a far more effective but much more predictable way of finding better gear for your character than hoping for good loot drops from fallen enemies or treasure chests. In my experience it was super easy to buy equipment so good that the magical “ting!” sound soon lost its effect because the loot that dropped was no longer a reward. It was just gold in a slightly more inconvenient form, destined to be sold to a vendor or at best on the auction house for a little more. In effect, the auction house system excised the entire dopamine rush, loot drop appeal of the game. Yes, high quality items still mean big returns on the auction house, but the whole process of listing, selling, and transferring the money is too far removed to elicit the same dopamine rush.

This is basically a scientific explanation (the article cites numerous psychological studies, with footnotes) of the, “Auction House has ruined Diablo III” argument we hear all the time. The AH does indeed make it much easier to trade or sell or buy equipment… but many players feel that it’s too easy, and that AH’ing players can obtain great gear that basically turns the game into a walkthrough, until they hit the Inferno gear check wall.

This article is more realistic than most critiquing players, since the article suggests things Blizzard could change about the AH to make it more fun, rather than pretending the whole AH might magically vanish and that the game would be better off for its disappearance.

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    47 thoughts on “The Psychology of the Diablo 3 Auction House

    1. The snipped opinion is pretty damn spot-on.

      Essentially, Blizzard has taken the Zynga business model and tweaked it for D3. Smart from a business standpoint, just not sure it jives with the core gamer base.

      • I’m sorry, but f— “core gamer base”.

        Who are you to tell me what core gamer base? Noone knows what core gamer base is. Because there is no core gamer base.

        D2 frustrated me to the point of quitting with it’s bloody WUGs, WUWs and FGs. AH in D3 is what saved this game from becoming the cesspool of scammers and trade chat kiddies who flooded D2 (now these kiddies are whining on the forums btw).

        Yes, the items you can actually use on your current character are 1 in a 100, or less. But is that bad? I “omfg”ed when I found my first 870 1hander back awhile ago (top on HC ah was 700 at the time). Rarity creates excitement. And is it really that different in D2? Had fun hunting down those HRs? The big difference between D2 and D3 is that D2 was brutally easy, where D3’s Inferno is brutally hard, in comparison, so as a result the gear gaps are felt sharper. You could be happy to find Viperskin in D2 and it would last you to Hell Baal.

        You bloody whiners would bloody whine about everything.

        • ^ fanboy patrol

          I swear this guy was hired by Blizzard at the rate of $1/hr to support their games.

          Further proving D3 = sweat shop

        • “You bloody whiners would bloody whine about everything.”


          Read my post. Now re-read your post. Which one of us is actually whining?

          • You made an assumption as to what the “core gamer base” is and produced a whine based on this assumption, saying that Blizzard is now following Zynga’s model.

            Oh and I get to whine about your whines. I get this prerogative as the good guy.

            • “the good guy”?


              ya thankfully god is on YOUR side right?

              you pretty much just summed up why all wars are retarded and spotlighted yourself as completely clueless

        • I think your rant misses the article’s point. Drops are useless; they’re just a monetary means to and end to get all of what you want (need) from the AH. The rare usable drop isn’t remotely frequent (or good) enough to even necessitate examining items as they’re found. I just take a quick pass when my inventory is full before I sell them all in 12 seconds. This is compounded when one reaches even NM or Hell as the necessary gear to survive (HC) or at least be effective (SC) can ONLY be found on the AH.

          • Drops useless not really, it just you can get the gear you want gear faster via the AH that all.

            • Do the math man – you would grind nearly endlessly to get the ‘usable in the next difficulty’ level items if you merely waited for drops. Trust me, I tried. It turns into a pure time-sink.

      • I’ve only found a couple items that were better than what I bought on AH, which is disappointing… but on the other hand, I just HATE farming. I refused to do it in D2 and I’d do the same in D3, which means I’d just be running around in shit gear instead.

    2. I 100% agree with this. The loot hunt became unfun the instant I had such easy access to buying my way to good loot. It was especially awful when you hit 60 and buy a weapon it means every weapon drop is almost guaranteed to be something you’d never want.

      The instant that jolt of excitement went away when I saw the loot drop, that’s the instant I started getting bored with the game. I don’t really care about finishing the game on Inferno, I care about that next awesome upgrade, but buying it on the AH isn’t fun or rewarding. However on the business side? They’re making extra cash on the RMAH and some people really enjoy making real cash.

      I dunno where the win is, but for me I’d rather get rid of both AH’s *entirely* and have the only path to gear be in game. To make this work Blizzard would have to remove *all* forms of item trading. The side benefit of course to getting rid of the auction halls and item trading is Blizzard loses their major reason for always online, and the game could be offline. (Also hackable, which could damage the online play experience to a significant degree)

      • “I dunno where the win is”

        I know. Make it so you can’t use about half of the dropped items at the moment you drop them due to level requirements. Raise the max character level.

    3. Yeah, I’m still enjoying the game, but this snippet is spot on.

      I don’t agree with Vander’s suggestion to remove all forms of item trading, but I’m down with removing both AHs. Will never happen, however. The RMAH is going to be a cash cow. Just wait until the next Blizzard conference call.

    4. Hopefully this makes clear to my vocal friends that you cannot expect to both A) buy items and then B) still receive dopamine rush from item drops.

      I just stay off of the auction house and keep my MF high. If you do otherwise, you are going to fit the picture the author is illustrating.

      All of that said, no need to remove the AH and RMAH… just sell on them and don’t buy. Self-control.

      The author also mixed up bind on pickup and bind on equip. Still a pretty solid article. I’m not sure BoE fits in the Diablo universe.

      • I can’t say I agree with your theory that “self-control” solves the problem. For me, and I imagine many others, the mere existence of an “easy” way makes the hard way less satisfying.

        It’s why I have no plans to play Torchlight 2 unless they decide to separate modders from non-modders. It’s why I didn’t play open in Diablo 2. Even if I play how I want to play with no AH (or mods in the case of TL2 and Open Bnet), the fact that I can purchase or mod myself the Sword of Awesome cheapens the thrill of getting the Sword of Awesome to actually drop.

        Perceived scarcity is the driving force behind the rush that you get in games like D2. Both mods and AHs reduce that perceived scarcity by giving you access to anything you want at any time.

        • Well that’s your playing style.

          I don’t think the vast majority of Diablo players will bring their daily lives in front of a screen to gather gear at 12/24 hours a day…

          Diablo 3 is a little MMO with an economic gear chase attached to it.

          I don’t think that trading some gear is counter productive for the vast majority of noob players at all.

          7 million players of which … 90% will never touch Inferno Act 3 and 4. I am pretty sure they’ll have fun and MUCH of challenge in Hell even WITH the trading aspect of the game.

          • Sure, it’s my play style. Obviously. That’s probably why I said “for me, and I imagine many others.”

            But even more to the substance of your post — the Diablo series is about the loot hunt. It’s about the dopamine rush of getting drops. It’s very similar to playing slot machines in a Casino.

            What the AHs have done is severely mitigate, or altogether remove, the dopamine rush of getting new drops.

            I’m OK with player to player item trading because perceived scarcity is still there (you only see a rare item for sale if you get lucky enough to run into someone in chat advertising that rare item for sale). The AH allows you to simply search for them, so nothing is truly scarce.

            The longevity of Diablo games does not come from the story. It does not come from the challenge. It does not come from leveling each class. It comes from the loot hunt — chasing your next fix if you will.

            When you get rid of that chase, which the AH has done, you’re left with a game with a mediocre story, smooth gameplay, and a ton of repetition.

            Yes, those who work (like myself) or have lives outside of the game will get more longevity out of it when measured by actual days on which at some point you log into the game because they haven’t seen all of the non-loot stuff there is to do (including classes, difficulty, etc). But when those things are complete in a few months time, there is little to keep someone coming back to D3 the same way the loot hunt kept someone coming back to D2.

        • just an FYI in case this was not obvious to most people

          but Runic has specifically talked about mods and “classic” TL2 and ways to keep them separate

          to expect there to be and “open” mode and a “closed” mode where open allows ppl to play multiplayer with mods and “closed” is multiplayer but only the base game

          of course in single player you do whatever you what, as usual AND OFFLINE!


          • AFAIK, Runic specifically said modded chars and non-modded chars won’t be separated in multiplayer. Not talking about people with level mods and what not, but people who edit themselves items will be playing alongside people who play “legit.”

        • So you’re basically saying that the presence of cheat codes make the game less satisfying for you? Then you probably don’t find a lot of games satisfying…

      • I agree with this wholeheartedly, and it’s the way I’m playing through the game. It’s just not as fun to buy the items, so I don’t. So far, the sum total of items I’ve bought from AH is 1 chipped ruby.

        I think this play style, though, is much more doable and palatable for D2 single-player diehards. We’re used to farming our own stuff so it’s kind of lame to buy it. The only time in D2 I wished I could buy something is when I needed one really rare item to perfect some oddball build I was making. Then it was kind of irritating, but otherwise SP + Atma took care of me.

    5. These are a couple of smart articles and I think they have hit on some really valid points on what DIII is lacking currently.

      The loot drops, variety, and quality really need to be focused on and changed to be more exciting.

      I’ve played around a little bit with the auction house, and although I see it’s worth in buying those few items which would help me complete a set (for example, I mean, when they become worthwhile to collect) I tend to stay away from it simply because I don’t get the rush from buying and selling items that I do from actually playing the game and finding them on my own.

      Even rare items had more appeal in DII because they didn’t drop that often for me. In DIII, they are less special. I’m easily finding a handful every game session (granted, over half of them aren’t even close to being useful), and that doesn’t count the endless amount I can have Hadrig craft which turn out to be duds.

      I particularly enjoyed these two quotes from the second article:
      “In Diablo 2, players could find a wide variety of item rarities and modifiers from the get-go, and that feeling that you could find something great at anytime was an excellent motivator. With Diablo 3, both modifiers and higher item rarities can only be found on the higher difficulty levels.”
      “. . .it’s like being given a cake that’s 10 days old, and told that once you eat that, then you can have one that’s 5 days old, then 2 and finally a fresh cake.”

    6. i wanna slap everyone that says the ah ruined diablo 3, at least i dont need to farm stone of jordan dups in trading games to get what i want.

    7. On the contrary: the AH is a kind of support for all those gamers that hit a wall in the game.

      At ANY level.

      As such it serves its purpose to “help out” the blocked ones (be that hardcore players in Inferno or noobs in Nightmare).

      It is a kind of trading cheat system where players can get their fix when that road is blocked by the limits of their eye hand capacity or gaming skills.

      As such the individual player is free to play with or without it.

      AND he even can get the satisfaction of selling, buying things on the AH; be that Gold or RM.

      It is a COMPLETE new concept that will keep players turning to it for a very long time.

      As the vast majority of players only play games for a few minutes or an hour a day.

      Only a very small minority would keep playing a game for 10 hours per day.

      • an AH is a completely new concept ?

        I thought you said you played WoW?

        oh, and there you go recommending your own post again

        “As the vast majority of players only play games for a few minutes or an hour a day”

        proof to back up that claim ?

        you realize you just claimed that the vast majority of WoW players and SC and SC2 players play less than an hour a day ?

      • “the AH is a kind of support for all those gamers that hit a wall in the game.”

        Nope. The auction house is a kind of support for all those Blizzard executives that hit a wall in the real world.

        They’re under a LOT of pressure. WOW has hit it’s peak, Mists of Pandaria is … well, corny at best, and Activision probably doesn’t want Blizzard to wreck their bottom line by running even more free servers for decades (like Diablo 2).

        Now, I’m not saying Blizzard is in a bad position by any means, but I do believe the RMAH was more of a business decision to continue funding Blizzard’s future beyond initial box sales, and less of a gameplay decision to fuel your hunger for more D3.

        I also think the RMAH and Blizzard Bucks is a testbed for the more radical business model of the upcoming Project Titan. I would elaborate on my speculation, but that would be even more tangential than my post already is, so I’ll stop here 😛

        • You “think” and “believe” a lot.

          I only saw ebay scams, duping, copying and cracked software and fake fabricated items in D2.

          In D3 these things don’t stand a chance in the long run because you can trade without risks and everything is server controlled.

          That’s not a “I think”, that’s a fact.

    8. I used to hate the idea of Bind on Pickup, but I’ve changed my mind. It would be neat if there were a good chance on rolling a BoP item on Inferno boses. Like other loot, the BoP items would be largely useless because of the sheer number of mods available. But there would be a chance it would be awesome, and in general BoP items should be better than other available items (and I don’t mean “better” like ethereal items were “better”, but they should be different and cool, as well as have better stats).

      My only added wish would be that BoP items should bind to the account, so if you find an awesome bow while playing your barb, you can still use it.

    9. Here’s a quandry:

      Has the dopamine rush of finding an item upgrade to your gear truly been ‘removed’ by the Auction House, or has it simply been replaced by a dopamine rush motivated towards finding an item that could be sold on the Auction House as an upgrade for someone else?

      Personally, when I see a weapon with 1200 DPS drop, I still get a rush even though chances are that it won’t be useful to my character because I know it’ll sell for a lot to someone else whom will find it to be an upgrade.

      • Agreed, to an extent. So long as finding expensive items remains a reasonable way to generate income, finding items will be fun. The fun dies when it becomes more efficient to farm gold or crafting mats.

        Note that “income” also includes upgrades for the other characters I’m planning on building.

    10. The problem is not the AH its the fact that to get items that are for a lvl 15 to drop you need to be ~lvl 30 (that what been the case with my characters). If they fixed the drop table so you get items of a more sensible level range the problem wouldn’t be so bad, IE my lvl 30 should be find some items that are for lvl 25+ at lest, maybe even the odd 30/31 item depending on area I am in.

      But no Blizzard made it where you get items where the level way below your Clvl dropping, and as such it no wonder the AH is the best place to get gear.

      • You’re just unlucky as this is what happens to my currently farthest chars. Yes sometimes I was blocked because I didn’t find a good item for that char yet to progress, but I would just play another one with the higher level items I found and then find something that unblocks my blocked char and etc. Until I reach Hell/Inferno on each of them (currently in Act 4 NM for my highest char at lvl 51, others all in NM from Act 1-3)

        • So, you’re telling you’re routinely dropping items you can’t wear because your char lvl is too low? I don’t believe you…

    11. F the AH. It’s absolutely, positively the worst thing they could have done to the game. The Diablo end game is and always has been about the loot hunt, and they broke it. And ruined their ability to balance the game in the process.

      I’m a broken record on this, but they need to scale the AH way back or just get rid of it, and refocus the game on finding YOUR OWN items, or items for the people you’re playing with. Bind-on-Pickup to your entire account, tradeable to anybody who was actually in the game at the time the item dropped.

      • The Diablo series were ALWAYS a game of trading AND hack/slash.

        That sets them apart from the rest of the bunch.

        NO BOP (which is lame btw in such kinds of games).

        The AH now makes it possible to trade with the world in an economic system.

        If you don’t like that, no problem. Play another game.

        But if you would leave out the trading system (scams in D2 by lack of controls) and D3 you really aren’t interested in playing that specific kind of game.

        Of course you can always leave out the AH. But that’s a simple option. Like playing hardcore only etc …

        • The Diablo series were hack-and-slash games. Fun, action-heavy isometric hack-and-slash, powered by searching for better and better items. That’s the core of the game.
          Were they games that intimately involved trading? To some extent. It was at least rudimentarily supported within the game, in the form of in-game trade channels. Otherwise… trading was “supported” in the sense that you could drop any item on the ground and any other player could pick it up, but frankly that’s the default implementation behavior for a game like that and it would have taken more effort to change it than to just leave it alone and call it “trading”.
          Diablo 2 is a 12 year old game, with distinctly primitive multiplayer game mechanics. There are very important reasons why virtually every item-based progression game since then has made items bound to players; opening up items to be freely tradable opens up a ton of issues. Suddenly you can’t control the difficulty or pacing of your game, because people can very easily gobble up items that are way beyond their expected level of progression. You’ve got extremely volatile forces of supply and demand pushing item values all over the place, often making the high-end items super expensive and everything else dirt cheap. You need to find ways to control inflation, but since you really can’t model the various influences on your game that well, your controls usually end up failing. You’ve attracted farmers from all over to your game, who in the process of trying to make a buck are now flooding your game’s economy with items of all kinds right along with your actual players.
          You can see all of this in Diablo 3 right now.
          Imagine, if you will, that instead of an Auction House, each vendor was replaced with a different sort of salesman who had millions of items for sale, all randomly generated by Blizzard, and all of them ranging from somewhat desirable to extremely desirable, at prices ranging from a couple of piles of gold all the way up to more gold than you could ever make from playing the game. All you have to do is tell that vendor exactly what you want and how much you want to pay, and he gives you not one option but usually *pages* of options to choose from, many of them *extremely* affordable.
          If such a vendor existed, everybody would scream and cry that it made the game too easy. They’d ask, “why the heck did they put this vendor in here that makes it so easy and painless to get items that I barely even have to play the game anymore??” They’d realize it was pay-to-win bullshit. That’s *exactly* the experience that players are getting with the Auction House, except for some reason it’s more tolerable because those items are put there by other players through Blizzard, rather than Blizzard putting them there directly. Except the prices are actually *much cheaper*, on the whole, then the prices that Blizzard would probably set if they laid out the pay-to-win scheme themselves, making the game that much easier.
          I can choose to play without the AH, but it’ll take me much, much, much longer to make any progress. It’s so much slower that I doubt even 0.001% of the player population has tried. Doing so means you’re playing a different game than everybody else around you, and if you want to stick to “pure” gameplay then you also have to go solo, or risk another player just steamrolling everything for you. It’s like playing Softcore but pretending it’s Hardcore; you can tell yourself that you’ll stop playing when you die, but more realistically you’ll realize how much work it is to level a new character, or realize that the guys you’re playing with would rather not wait for you to spend 20 hours re-leveling for reasons that have no basis in the actual rules of the game. 
          There’s not much about Inferno difficulty, or anything else in the game really, that isn’t trivialized by gear. This is a game whose entire element of challenge revolves around what gear you have.  Somebody going into Inferno Act 2 with 0 resists, low hit points, and shitty weapons is going to find it so insanely difficult that they don’t find it fun, while somebody going in there with 1500 resists, a huge health pool, and the best weapons the game can roll is going to find it so easy that they don’t find it fun either. That’s where most players are right now; since gear to get through Act 2 is basically trivially purchasable, the “end game” is now Acts 3 and 4. So you’d better get used to those Acts, never mind that Act 4 is so short and uninteresting that it might as well have been rolled into Act 4.
          When you open up a “magical loot vending machine” with wildly variable prices but a lot of high-tier stuff available for dirt cheap, you’re basically saying “I don’t care if my game is consistently challenging or interesting to players.”

          • “Suddenly you can’t control the difficulty or pacing of your game, because people can very easily gobble up items that are way beyond their expected level of progression.”
            You know, Blizzard was supposed to balance their game, including balancing for the usage of the AH. But for some reason they didn’t do that! I sometimes wonder how they could have missed something so obvious, and if they’re not flat-out lying and the AH is only there so that Blizz can generate a profit…

            • Well, I can’t fault them for not balancing around it, because frankly I think balancing around the AH is an impossible task. You don’t know how many players are going to be playing your game at a given time. You don’t know how much they’re playing it, how well they’re playing it, how far they’ve professed, how effective their strategies are, what items they prefer, or any of that. Without knowing that kind of stuff (which you can’t ever know for sure because it’s incredibly, inherently variable), you can’t design a consistent play experience. 

              WoW and other MMO’s approach this problem by having all the tradable items basically be totally optional. Convenience items, cosmetic perks, consumables or craftables that you usually had the option of creating yourself for cheaper, that sort of thing. People still mostly got their stuff from *playing the game*. And even then, in an extremely carefully-managed and constrained economy, prices were wildly erratic. 

              Now it’s like Blizzard has forgotten why they made those decisions in WoW, they’ve forgotten how crappy trading was in D2, and they’ve forgotten basic economics. They just made all the items tradable and threw it all at the playerbase with the prayer that it would sort itself out. It hasn’t, and people on the whole aren’t enjoying the AH-driven end game very much, and the early game is completely trivialized by the AH. 

          • Herein lies the problem. Right now, using the AH before Inferno is a bit like using cheat codes… but it’s presented like it’s part of normal gameplay!

    12. What a rip. Just a bunch of pseudo-psych stuff. If you really want to know the psychology of D3 auction house just read about learning theory and behavior in a psych textbook.

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