Thursday, March 20, 2014

Virtual Obamacare

“Stay a while and listen.”

Coming up on March 25th, the first expansion pack for Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo 3 will be released.  Reaper of Souls, as it’s called, has gotten many gamers, including myself, to take a second look at a game that didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.  While ruminating on the successes and failures of Diablo 3, it occurred to me there are some striking parallels with, of all things, Obamacare.

Back in Diablo 2, Blizzard had a multiplayer component that allowed users to trade in-game items, and naturally a market formed between the players. It wasn’t long before people started paying real money for these digital goods, and of course some people got ripped off.  You may even remember news reports from around that time of people paying exorbitant sums of real money for items in Diablo 2 or perhaps later in World of Warcraft.

When Blizzard created Diablo 3, they decided to take control of this market by adding the Auction House, an online exchange if you will. They argued that with it players could more easily trade their items and be protected from getting their money stolen. (And of course, Blizzard could get a cut.)  However, for it to work, Blizzard had to mandate that everyone play the game online, even if they just wanted to enjoy the story in single player like the previous games.  Otherwise people could have abused the system by hacking their copy and/or pirating the game.

Like Obamacare’s exchange, Diablo 3’s launch was a disaster, with most players spending days after its release staring at error screens instead of playing. People who did get in were plagued by bugs that lost their items, progress, and in some cases, entire characters. The dreaded Error 37 even became a meme for a time. 

Eventually the tech problems were sorted out, but then a new issue began to emerge: the existence of the Auction House totally undermined the gameplay. The Auction House had actually made it easier to just buy loot rather than work for it in the game, and further, the transitions between difficulty levels punished players that didn’t use it because the game was designed assuming they would.  Since the attraction of continuing to play up through harder difficulties is to get epic loot, and the Auction House has the epic loot, why bother to play?

All of these inevitable problems were foreseen by forward looking gamers by the way.  That didn’t stop Blizzard though.  Instead they swore up and down the Auction House was not an issue and went on adjusting all the other underlying rules of the game to try and compensate.  To no avail, I might add.  Fortunately, unlike Obama, they eventually came around.  As of Reaper of Souls, the Auction House will be no more.

So, when you’re trying to explain why Obamacare is such a colossal failure to millennial gamers, try putting it in terms of Diablo 3.  They might just get it.


  1. If not for Auction House Valve/Steam might have made a similar error with TF2.

    Instead they managed to create a market for items that have no appreciable impact on gameplay.


  2. Second article I've read by you relating games with politics. I like it. As a gamer, avid political junkie, there are definitely lots of parallels and ways that those on the right could reach modern male populations through that medium.

  3. Great analysis, but you missed one key point. What really sank D3 is that, in order to force people into the auction house, Blizzard greatly reduced the number of useful item drops (partly by reducing the number of actual good items but also by making so many class-specific (9/10 times for a class other than the player's. In theory, that meant players would go to the AH to buy good items for themselves. But since the main draw of the game; the chance of finding epic items to power up your character as you played, was now almost gone, there was no reason to play (and especially not to keep playing.

    1. Well, I was talking about that generally in terms of how punishing it was to play without using the AH. The reason it was punishing is what you're describing here.


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