Monday, August 1, 2011

Diablo III Hands-On Preview - Real Money in a Virtual World

If you were a PC gamer back in 1996, then chances are your index finger is still a little cramped from clicking through the original Diablo, an action role-playing game from a little company called Blizzard. Its sequel was every bit as addictive, and now the upcoming third entry in the series aims to bring that same magic to the modern day. Recently, we got the chance to travel down to Blizzard HQ in Irvine, California, to get a look into some of the new features coming in Diablo III. Skill-altering runes, customizable banners, and item management were expounded upon--but the biggest surprise had to be the announcement of a real-money auction house for trading in-game items.
The presentation began with an overview of all the different character classes in Diablo III. No matter which character you choose, they will each have six slots for active skills and three for passive skills. Your first two active skill slots will be free, with additional slots opening at levels 6, 12, 18, and 24. Passive skill slots open at levels 10, 20, and 30. Each of your active skills also comes with a rune slot that lets you customize its effects. To help demonstrate the drastic changes runes can make, Jay Wilson, the game's lead designer, took us through his version of a battle mage--a wizard built for melee combat.
Spectral blades, a short-range slashing spell, was given a rune so that it healed the caster when damaging enemies. Diamond skin, a defensive spell that protects the caster from harm, was customized to also reflect damage back at attackers. Arcane orb, a powerful projectile spell, was altered so that the projectile orbited the caster and would explode when an enemy got too close.
But skills are just half of your character's equation in Diablo III. The items you have equipped are just as important. Of course, you're going to need room in your sack to lug all those extra swords and staves around. Thankfully, Blizzard is going to make that task a little easier for you. The Cauldron of Jordan lets you sell items no matter where you are for the same price you would get in town. And if gold isn't an issue, the Nephaleim Cube lets you convert any item into crafting materials from any location as well. "Filling up your bag didn't feel like a very cool reason to go back to town," Wilson said.
Your private stash, which has been greatly expanded since the previous games, now carries over across all your characters. If your wizard happens across a really awesome bow for your demon hunter, you just need to drop it in your stash, switch characters, and have your demon hunter go pick it up. Wilson also showed off how followers work in the game. These "mini-heroes" can be recruited to join your quest and help flesh out the world of Diablo III. They also come with four pairs of skills, and only one skill from each pair may be active at a time. Perhaps you'll want your Templar follower to lean more toward healing than brute force.
Once Wilson had finished, Diablo III executive producer Rob Pardo took the stage to talk about some of the additions coming to the online portion of the game. Just like Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, Diablo III will require a persistent Internet connection to play. Pardo stated that this was to help curb cheating, especially in the player-versus-player areas. Each player will also receive a customizable banner that the game will decorate as you unlock different achievements. However, the biggest announcement had to be the inclusion of two auction houses for in-game items, one using gold and the other using cold, hard cash.

That's right, in addition to the standard gold-based auction house, Diablo III will have a separate auction house that uses actual money. Weapons, items, crafting components, and (in the case of the real-money auction house) gold can all be auctioned away. Selling entire characters is something Blizzard is considering, but it wasn't ready to confirm that feature just yet. There will be a single, regional real-money auction house for each type of supported currency. Auto-bidding and instant buyout options will also be available, and you can set your items to be buyout only.
We chat with executive producer Rob Pardo about the economics of Diablo III.
When you're listing an item in the real-money auction house there will be a small upfront fee. Pardo explained that this was so players wouldn't put every single item in the game up on the auction house and flood the marketplace with unwanted items. So what happens when you actually sell one of these items? In the case of the real-money auction house, either the money you earn can go into your account, and you can then spend it on future listings or on Blizzard products (like your WOW subscription), or you can cash that money out through a third-party payment provider. Cashing out will incur another small fee, and you will not be able to cash out your account.
Items you buy in either auction house will be sent to your private stash in the game, and players will be anonymous during transactions. Pardo also made sure to stress that this isn't a Blizzard store. The auction houses will be stocked by players with the items and equipment they find in the game. He also added that players, just like in previous Diablo games, will want to trade with each other regardless. Now, instead of having to go through a "shady" third-party service without the guarantee that you won't get ripped off, you can rest easy knowing you're guaranteed to get what you paid for.
Once the announcements were finished, we did get some time to go hands-on with the game. We decided to load up the monk character who, unlike in our previous play session, started out at level 1. Our brief adventure was centered around the village of Tristram, an old favorite with a recent undead problem. Once we gained a few levels and unlocked our third skill slot, we settled into a combination of Deadly Reach, Lashing Tail Kick, and Breath of Heaven. Deadly Reach is a basic damage ability that replaces your normal attack and can strike multiple enemies if they're close together. Lashing Tail Kick is a stronger attack that costs some spirit energy--the monk's energy resource--and knocks enemies back. Finally, Breath of Heaven is a great burst healing spell that can save you in a pinch.
We quickly found that once you fall into the groove of Diablo, it's hard to pull yourself away. Encounters also felt a bit more dynamic in this game than in the previous ones thanks to the variety of enemy types. Some would explode when defeated and damage anyone nearby, while others would release smaller foes upon death. And since the monk's spirit enemy is slow to generate, we could just rush through an area spamming our most powerful attacks at will. When playing in multiplayer, gold and loot drops were unique to each person, though we could still trade items once we had picked them up. Based on what we played, Diablo III is coming along well--but even so, Blizzard still wasn't ready to set a release date other than to repeat its new catchphrase of "when it's ready."

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