Diablo's finally back, but has it sold its soul to a bonafide gaming devil? Not exactly. After the big unveiling of Diablo's new real money auction house, we sat down with online technologies VP Robert Bridenbecker to hear Blizzard's side of the story.
PCG: Why did you decide to implement an auction house system instead of typical microtransactions, which have pretty much been turning everything they touch into gold lately?
Bridenbecker: Really, what you're talking about there is the hallmark of what Blizzard's all about. We really try and get into what's in the best interest of players. And any time you introduce that business-to-consumer relationship, it muddles the waters some. So the person starts to think “Why is Blizzard doing this? They're obviously doing it because it's in the best interest of the business.” But if it's something where it's player-to-player, it actually takes away some of the questions as to why we're doing it. Just by the very definition of player-to-player, it shows that it's actually for the players. It's about the players.
PCG: Obviously, though, monetizing virtual goods is a touchy subject. Are you expecting any fan backlash? I mean, your fans have been known to keep pitchforks and torches stuffed in their giant foam “Blizzard is number one” fingers...
Bridenbecker: No so much, no. Because the players want it. They've shown in the past that there's a demand to buy items. And from our perspective, what we determined was that we needed to provide a safe and secure environment for that demand. By putting it in the game—integrating it and providing it in a way where we're really just facilitating it—it really opens it up for them. I think everybody's going to be really happy with it.
PCG: Given the success of free-to-play games and the premium society in general now places on digital, well, everything, do you think the notion that virtual items aren't worth real money is antiquated?
Bridenbecker: Well, one of the things that's unique about what we've come up with is that players don't have to use it. It's completely optional. We provide a couple different facilities for players who feel like the real money aspect somehow taints the experience. We've got a gold-based auction house [as well]. So those players are going to be able to avail themselves in that gold-based auction house. And then for players who are excited about purchasing items or even selling them, they'll be able to use the real money auction house.
PCG: So, with Battle.net, you've got your own storefront/network that binds all your games' communities together. But then, over on the other side of Activision, there's Call of Duty: Elite, which does many of the same things, but for different games. Elsewhere, meanwhile, there's Origin, Steam, and all their ilk. Do you think social features are becoming overly stratified and proprietary?
Bridenbecker: Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, it's a really unique time in the industry. You've got all the various social landscapes that are cropping up. I do believe that players are always going to want to gravitate toward the games. And individual game networks that provide social networking capabilities just enhance that overall quality. So the fact that there happen to be different products isn't that much of a concern. The fact that I have different social networks in those products is really not that big of a deal.
PCG: Diablo III is following in StarCraft II's footsteps and going online-only. Is it possible, though, that you might be pushing online functionality a bit too hard? I mean, what about the players who just want to tune out the world? If they, say, slay a big boss and then a chat bubble suddenly pops up, doesn't that sort of ruin the moment?
Bridenbecker: I don't think that individuals want to isolate themselves and be solitary cave people. But I definitely believe that individuals prefer to play in more isolated environments at times. That doesn't necessarily have to compete with the goal of having things online. The capabilities that get presented when you push people into an online connected environment are so much broader. It's like Rob [Pardo] was talking about: Imagine you have a world where you want to play in an entirely single-player environment. You go through and you level up your character and you get all these awesome item drops and so forth. Then you say, “OK, I do want to play with my buddy.” Well, guess what? We have to make you re-roll a new character because we can't guarantee [a lack of cheating or hacking]. In an online environment, we can do that.
PCG: Is there any way to make sure that people can't bug you, though? To essentially replicate a completely single-player experience even though you're required to be online?
Bridenbecker: There's definitely a question as to how much an individual is participating in the community and how much you award them the option to say, “I'm no longer a participant.” I mean, the reality is that most people, when they're in a game and they say that they're busy, other players are going to respect that. If somebody happens to intrude, you know, it's your friend. Just tell them, “Hey man, when I'm busy, leave me alone.”
PCG: Do you have an overarching plan for Battle.net as a whole? An idea of what you'd like it to evolve into? For instance, would you like to expand it to include more games—say, from other developers or publishers?
Bridenbecker: Our main focus is enriching Blizzard titles. We definitely have had conversations about the best way to evolve Blizzard titles. Could that lead into a different [publisher/developer] world? You know, who knows what the future holds? But right now, no.