"The Auction House is a very complicated conversation..."
Josh Mosqueira, like Blizzard teammate Kevin Martens, is holding a bottle of beer, occasionally tapping it on the table at which we're chatting about Reaper of Souls, the upcoming Diablo 3 expansion. It is the end of the day, Gamescom 2013 will soon be over, and there's a spark of excitement in the room. Josh (game director) and Kevin (lead content designer) crave fresh air, sunshine and escape from the bowels of Blizzard's Koelnmesse business center booth, but, to their credit, they never let it show. They're here for the long haul. New character class The Crusader, almost motionless save for his expanding and collapsing chest, watches over us from within a giant TV like some virtual dungeon keeper.
The Diablo 3 Auction House. Once the drama over Diablo 3's catastrophic May 2012 launch calmed and the servers powering the long-awaited always-online action role-playing game whirred at top speed, the shocking reality of the Auction House hammered home. Scores of hours in, on harder difficulties and after yet another act four run later, players realised Diablo 3's itemisation was broken, and the Auction House was the only answer.
In basic terms, in Diablo 3 the items you really want very rarely drop, so off to the Auction House everybody goes to bid virtual, and sometimes real, money. Players who need more powerful equipment to combat Diablo 3's harder challenges feel forced to use it - and that's the problem. The fact the console version doesn't have the Auction House suggests Blizzard agrees. And yet, here we are, chatting about the upcoming expansion, and it's clear the Auction House is here to stay.
"Honestly, at the end of the day, trading is an important aspect of Diablo," Mosqueira continues. "Like it or not, there are players out there who actually attribute real world monetary value to their items. So it was really important for us to provide a safe environment in which they could trade items."
Online safety - the protection of our data - is more important than ever. The most high-profile game-related security breach came in April 2011 with the great PlayStation Network hack, but in truth online game account compromises have been par for the course pretty much since online gaming became a thing. It's not even a new thing for Blizzard, which launched the first iteration of Battle.net in November 1996 with Diablo 1.
That didn't stop the account hacks flooding in when Diablo 3 launched. I have a degree of sympathy for Blizzard here: high-profile games with millions of players suffer more than others on account of their popularity. Blizzard's situation apes EA Sports', whose hugely popular and lucrative FIFA Ultimate Team attracts nefarious internet goers. But any excuse will be scant consolation to those who've lost hard-fought items and gold because of an account hack.
"In the territories where we do not have an Auction House the number of account compromises is completely out of whack with the rest of the world," Mosqueira says, to my surprise. "So the Auction House is serving that intended purpose of providing a safe environment for players in which to trade."
But at what cost? Diablo 3's Auction House at best saves time, but at worst it renders extended gameplay somewhat redundant. Why bother slaving away for hours on end and smashing a never ending stream of monsters in the face if all you're going to get for your trouble is a pile of useless tat and, perhaps, an item that at first glance looks like it might be useful but upon closer inspection just doesn't quite cut it? And in any case, whatever you find out in the dangerous world of Sanctuary, the Auction House is bound to have a better piece of equipment just a click away.
It's reassuring, then, to hear both Josh and Kevin acknowledge this problem, and it's exciting to hear them suggest a solution: Loot 2.0.
"We acknowledged early on the Auction House did have an impact on the moment to moment gameplay," Mosqueira says. "The whole motivation behind Loot 2.0 is to make sure playing the game was the most fun, the most rewarding and the most satisfying way to get items. That resulted in the philosophy of dropping fewer but better and more epic items. We want players to be in the game and playing.
"Ultimately the Auction House will still be out there, but we don't want players to feel they need to go to the Auction House. If they want to, that's their own choice. But we don't want them to feel they need to go to the Auction House."
"Think of the Hobbit," Kevin interjects. "Nobody wants Bilbo to have gone on an Auction House and have gotton the ring, right?"
I laugh and suggest such a thing might have been preferable for all involved, including the millions who soldiered through six hours of Peter Jackson's fantasy films.
"When they kill the trolls and that's where they find the swords, Glamdring, that's the fantasy, right?" Kevin says. "You go out, you slay the dragon, you get the treasure, not, you heard about somebody who slayed the dragon and then you went to the store and you bid on his items he had found."
"It's a very different fantasy," says Josh.
"Trading's valid, but it is out of whack," Kevin says with a more serious tone. "The basic fantasy should be the dominant one. Trading shouldn't go away. It's valid. It just shouldn't be as overwhelming."
Were you tempted to scrap it entirely? I ask. Did the thought ever cross your mind?
"We'd be lying if we didn't say yes," Josh replies after a moment's contemplation. "We saw the reaction. Again, it's a complicated matter. It's not just complicated at the team level, or even the Blizzard level.
"I feel this is what Obama must feel like with the whole healthcare system! Obviously that's way more important!
"...Yeah, it did cross our minds..."
"We discussed it at length," Kevin admits. "All options were on the table and all of them got their share of mind share. But the Auction House went in for reasons, and the problems it solved... if we just turned it off those problems would come back, and we'd either need good solves or ideally even better solves, and those weren't readily apparent."
"If people want something, they're going to want to pay money for that," Josh says. "It's just human nature. It saves time.
"The logical conclusion of removing the Auction House might include a version of Diablo where there is zero trading, because that would be the only way we could guarantee that no-one's going to want to hack your account to get at your items.
"It keeps me up at night sometimes," Josh says, flatly. "But beer's good."
"The logical conclusion of removing the Auction House might include a version of Diablo where there is zero trading, because that would be the only way we could guarantee that no-one's going to want to hack your account to get at your items."Diablo 3 game director Josh Mosqueira
I'll never forget May 2012, the Diablo 3 launch and "error 37!" It felt like the straw that broke the camel's back - a catastrophe critics of always-online held up as proof of the folly of Blizzard's philosophy. "We told you so," the internet said. Indeed it had.
In the run-up to release I had worried such a thing would happen, and on the eve of launch I quizzed Blizzard staff on their preparations for the coming onslaught. I was reassured. "We have fantastic guys working on that stuff," Blizzard's Leonard Boyarsky told me. "We have people who've worked on World of Warcraft. It's not like this is our first multiplayer game. I'd put my faith in them." And I believed. I was there when World of Warcraft launched, and spent hours waiting in virtual queues to enter a virtual world I was paying a tenner a month to enjoy. Surely history wouldn't repeat itself.
For me, Diablo 3's login issues overshadowed a more important issue with always-online. I understand why Blizzard made it so Diablo 3 required an internet connection - for gameplay reasons, for security reasons, for the good of co-op, to combat piracy, all of it - but I shed a tear at the loss of solitary play, at no longer being able to sit on the two-and-a-half hour train from London to Leeds and smash through monsters on my laptop. That saddened me. It was a sadness that came again with EA's new SimCity.
And then Diablo 3 was announced for consoles and, lo and behold, we discovered it was playable offline. Well, it didn't take long for PC players to ask the obvious question: if Diablo 3 on console can be played offline, why can't Diablo 3 on PC?
Josh, who in June this year replaced Jay Wilson as Diablo game director having worked on the console team, thinks for a moment before offering his thoughts on the always-online debate.
"I got to see it from all angles, especially having worked on console," he says. "Something Kevin says all the time is: Diablo plays best when you're playing with other people. Because not a lot of people connect their consoles to the internet, that's where the whole idea of having to get four people on the same couch playing together. That's how we get that social aspect.
"But on PC, we really want players to feel they're part of the bigger Blizzard and Diablo community. It's a choice of platform and opportunity for our players to benefit from. There's a more secure item trading environment, but also a more social environment.
"We have a lot of plans to make online matter. For us it's about that connected experience."
"We developed this as a co-op game from day one," Kevin says. "We didn't add co-op in. It's not a value added feature. It is the ideal.
"It's not something we want to force upon people, but the idea it's always available - the whole drop-in, drop-out thing - has been of value since the very beginning of the project. We tried to make the game with that in mind.
"As we add new things, as we look to the future, we're still trying to enrich that. We still are doing a lot to make online matter. Improved matchmaking, new social systems and extra rewards for playing together."
"We developed this as a co-op game from day one. We didn't add co-op in. It's not a value added feature. It is the ideal."Diablo 3 lead content designer Kevin Martens
The development community and its relationship with its fan base is one of the hottest topics in the games industry today. Perhaps this started with the reaction to the ending of Mass Effect and BioWare's decision to change it. I've spoken to many developers over the last 12 months who've told me they're worried about the impact online negativity is not only having on their work, but on their lives.
Diablo 3, despite selling a whopping 12 million copies and becoming the fastest-selling PC game of all time, was met with a tidal wave of negative reaction, much of it justified, upon launch. Blizzard has been battling to address complaints since then with updates and gameplay tweaks. But the release of Reaper of Souls will mark Blizzard's strongest message to Diablo 3 players yet: we heard you, and we've fixed it.
Reaper of Souls' darker aesthetic and tone (the new setting of Westmarch is one of the older cities in the world of Sanctuary, lending it a Gothic feel) rekindles memories of the now defunct Blizzard North's art. We've already mentioned Loot 2.0, Blizzard's attempt to solve Diablo 3's itemisation problem. And randomised "Loot Run" dungeons are a direct response to those who simply got tired with the game, those who found that beyond the thankless task of grinding for new items, Diablo 3's engame was, frankly, boring.
So far so good, but behind Josh and Kevin's enthusiasm and willingness to engage in Diablo 3's deeper issues is a resignation that Blizzard is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.
"When we announced people could play offline on console, within seconds there were posts on the forums asking for an online-only mode for console, to make sure people weren't cheating," Josh says. "We cannot win."
"That's something all game developers have to accept very early in their careers," Kevin suggests.
"We realised we can't make everybody happy," Josh says. "We just wanted to do right by the game. What is the right decision for the game? How do we make sure people are having the most fun possible playing the game?
"Each game stands on certain pillars that hold the game up," Kevin says. "What are those core things that never change? A good vision for a game can state those in such a way that no matter how you iterate over and over again and change all the details, those things still stand true. The online one is one we've tried to stick to throughout the whole thing."
So, always-online isn't going anywhere?
"It's not going anywhere."