It was 12:30 a.m. and the end of a four-hour Diablo 3 run for my campaign partner and I. “Alright, time to call it,” I said. Pause. “But that just means I’m going to the auction house now.” “Well, yeah,” my friend replied. “Let’s not get crazy or anything.” And while he, as a father of two and someone who therefore has to wake up early even on the weekends logged off shortly thereafter, I was online for another hour and a half listing auctions and shopping for bargains to replace almost every piece of armor my Demon Hunter was wearing.
I've decided that Diablo 3 isn't a dungeon crawler. It's a massively multiplayer online game. And the game doesn't take place in the dungeons. It takes place in the auction house.
I've never played either prior Diablo game, but I did play Titan Quest, a dungeon-crawler (and virtual Diablo clone) set in ancient Greece. Titan Quest didn't sink any hooks into me so I didn't understand what had made Diablo 2 so addictive and fantastic when my friends raved about it.
When I started playing Diablo 3 I marveled at the cinematics, but the gameplay itself wasn't anything special. I don't understand why the game forces you to begin at Normal difficulty rather than allowing you to jump straight into higher levels because Normal is too easy and can be outright boring for long stretches.
I finally understood how addictive Diablo was when I spent my first hour in the Diablo 3 auction house. The granular level to which one can sift for gear makes every shopper adroit at wading through the avalanche of virtual goods. It’s never been so easy to price items and estimate what the best sales points are, and my items have never sold so quickly.
My only qualm about the auction house was that gearing up felt an awful lot like twinking to me. Twinking is the process of equipping alt characters in MMOs with gear and resources beyond their level in order to level them up faster. You can spot a twinked player from a mile away when you see a low-level character bearing gear from dungeons they never could have survived in or showing stats they just shouldn’t have achieved yet.
Twinking usually carries an air of cheating about it. Progression is one of the defining mechanics, if not the solitary mechanic and concern for most players, in massively-multiplayer online games. MMO play is all about getting to the next-level instance and looting the best gear and there’s a certain disdain among MMO stalwarts for players who twink their characters out rather than earning their status. If Player versus Player combat is involved then twinking can be an even larger sin, as now not only has the status system been broken but other players are dying as a result.
Referring to the process of gearing up characters in Diablo 3 as twinking isn’t factually correct, as anything your character buys is paid for by the fruits of their own labor. Yet there’s a big difference between looting a piece of gear from a monster or crafting it oneself and just clicking the “Buyout” button on the auction house and depositing the new gear in your stash.
My friend and I have walked into the auction house looking like paupers and walked back out looking like royalty. We’ve taken before-and-after screenshots to laugh at the instant difference in what our Demon Hunter and Wizard pairing looks like. Now we’ve gone from looking less wealthy to more wealthy after every auction house trip to looking increasingly badass after each substantive shopping spree.
The other reason twinking is frowned upon in MMOs is because the challenge evaporates. When a player takes a low-level character and beats the dungeons built for that character’s level there’s a sense of accomplishment. Dungeons are meant to be tasks that test a player’s ability and impart new skills. When a twinked character runs a dungeon they cut through it like a hot knife through butter.
That’s precisely what’s happening to us in Diablo 3. We’ll be in a dungeon and get killed just once, which is the signal to purchase new gear. We go to the auction house and drop ten or twenty thousand gold pieces to upgrade and when we go back into the same dungeon the difficulty is a joke. We laugh vengefully at the ease with which we cut through swathes of the enemy who actually had a chance of killing us just a half hour ago. Hence even if the metaphor is factually inappropriate on account of the origin of our gear, the process feels like twinking to me.
Even as I acknowledge that I’m making my character so powerful that the dungeons cease to present any challenge whatsoever, I don’t feel like I am denying myself of a single damned thing that Diablo 3 has to offer. Our progress feels measured less by how many objectives we’ve achieved than when it’s time to sell gear. Our signposts of achievement aren’t the completion of tasks, but the times when our inventories are full and we have to teleport back to camp to sell everything and do the really important thing: Make money.
As we finish playthroughs and step up to the next levels of difficulty and we start playing with full groups of four which also increases the challenge of the game, I imagine the drastic nature of the change in difficulty between auction house trips will decrease. I can’t imagine it evaporating completely, though, and I’m totally fine with that. If the best part of Diablo 3 remains the before-and-after pictures of how ridiculously more powerful my character is after each wallow in virtual consumerism, I’ll remain completely satisfied. I’m cool with being a virtual shopaholic.