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The idea of making money playing video games is something that appeals to most gamers but remains a dream to all but a few.

Diablo III’s real money auction house, however, enabled any player of the PC action role-playing game to legitimately buy and sell in-game items for actual cash. It inspired some creative traders, some of whom worked just 30 minutes a day turning virtual items into real dollars.

For a game built around collecting bigger and better gear, Diablo III’s auction house was a huge deal. Intended to disrupt any gray-market item trading and reduce fraud, while offering a service developer Blizzard Entertainment thought the community wanted, it courted controversy from the start.

With Blizzard pulling the auction house completely yesterday — less than two years after its launch — GamesBeat wanted to find out more about the gamers who earned big and the secrets of their success.

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The auction house expert

By day, Christopher Antoni is a computer engineer. On the side, he likes to program video games for fun. He also has a background playing massive multiplayer online games, such as Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and NCsoft’s Guild Wars.

When he heard about the Diablo III real money auction house (RMAH), he decided he’d try making some money. “I figured I had a leg up because I could determine what players wanted in the game fairly early on, just from previous experience in other games,” he told me via Skype. “And it worked out pretty well.”

Antoni was making a good thousand dollars a month on the RMAH at its peak — and even more from selling guides and running a forum that helped others do likewise. “There were multiple people emailing me doing the same,” he said. “So it wasn’t just me making money here.”

Running two Diablo III websites with active forums — Diablo III Gold Guide and Just My Two Copper — Antoni (known as Markco in the Diablo community) could track Diablo III’s fluctuating popularity from the traffic hitting his sites.

“This game was a huge disappointment,” said Antoni. “I feel that there were like six million people who started and there were probably a million left after the first two months.”

The auction house also reflected both Diablo III’s early success and its subsequent decline. “Early on there was a peak period,” said Antoni. “We had a bunch of issues with launch, and that hurt it. And then what would happen was, every time there was a major patch, the auction house would see this flurry of activity and then it would just die like a month later.”

Antoni used these renewed periods of interest to sell the kind of items Blizzard never expected to feature on the auction house. “Any time you had an influx of new players or people coming back to the game,” he told me, “I had a really easy time selling low-level stuff. Even stuff that had no level requirements I could sell for a couple of bucks.”

His highest profit item was the Mempo of Twilight, a legendary helmet that, with the right stats, would sell for 700 million to 900 million gold. Converted to dollars, these sold for about $50 a pop.

diablo_iii_character_classes

Above: Diablo III’s character classes.

What surprised me most talking to Antoni was that these items weren’t ones he’d pick up playing Diablo III. In fact, in his own words, he “almost never played the game.”

While not strictly true — he did get all the classes to level 60 in order to learn them and explore some builds — the majority of his trading success came from simply buying and selling on the auction house, using it a lot like eBay.

Having invested some initial time in learning the game, and what was and wasn’t valuable, Antoni then spent about 30 minutes a day looking for stuff to buy and flip for profit. ”I could sift through and find the good items and then put them up in such a way that others could find them. That was the secret,” he said.

Antoni used other classic eBay tips, too, like buying resalable items at the last-minute, timing his own auctions carefully, and bidding unusual amounts to help beat last-second rivals.

“It didn’t take a lot of time,” he told me, “but that being said, you needed experience. You needed time invested over a long period, and if you didn’t do that then you couldn’t do it fast because everything was new, and too big and too complicated.”

The auction house’s clunky interface didn’t help players looking to buy items for personal use, according to Antoni, but it did unwittingly help the item traders. “The problem with the auction house was the interface,” he said. “The nature of Diablo III is that of a ridiculous number of worthless items and a small percentage of valuable ones. People couldn’t use the auction house properly to find the really good items. It was so convoluted and difficult to search with unless you really knew what was going on. I think they tried to have a solution that was a little too convoluted. It needed fine-tuning, and, like most things in the game, they rushed it.”

Antoni’s time selling on the auction house wasn’t profitable enough to replace work, but he wouldn’t want it any other way. “I think I’d be a little scared of making a living [from Diablo III] because of the amount of time invested,” he said. “Making $40-$50 a week was probably the cap for most people. Some people were able to invest the time and really learn it and make a couple hundred bucks a week.”

There was one guy, however, who made more on the auction house than Antoni himself. “Obviously, I was making more [overall] from helping people because of the sheer number,” he told me. “But I was laughing — I’m like, ‘You should be teaching these guides, man. You’re doing better than me.’ Some of that was just his persistence. He was willing to sit there and win a bunch of bids. He spent a lot of time monitoring it.”

But as Antoni said, “Because you’re making money, you have to equate it to how much is this worth compared to a job.”

The part-timer

Kevin Krizan followed Antoni’s tips for auction house success, purchasing his guide and spending time on the forums. While it didn’t earn him a fortune, he was more than happy making some extra cash with limited effort.

“I spent quite a bit of time at launch just playing the game, which included leveling my barbarian,” Krizan told me via email. “But once I got the hang of things and moved on to other games or activities for leisure time, I got into a routine of logging in to check the auction house in the morning before work, listing my auctions for the day and bidding on and buying items to resell.”

Krizan would then log on again before going to bed in order to put up more auctions. “I would literally invest all of my gold into bids in the morning and then come back at night to list the items I won, collect my gold and money from auctions I sold, and then re-invest all of my gold into bids,” he said.

Diablo-3-Auction-House-bids

Above: The Diablo III real-money auction house.

Image Credit: Blizzard

“Using this strategy, I was making about $5 a day or so, and it was interesting to learn more about new markets and try to find other ways of turning a profit,” he said. “Nothing earth-shattering, but $5 a day adds up.”

Krizan says that he could have earned more by flipping items multiple times each day, but “it wasn’t worth the time and effort at that point.”

Like Antoni, Krizan had a background in World of Warcraft. “I spent a lot of time learning how to make gold in [WoW] through farming, questing, and playing the auction house.”

“I learned that an easy way to make extra gold on the [WoW] auction house was to buy uncut gems and use my max-level Jewelcrafter to cut the gems and re-list them for a profit,” he said. “I watched the markets for a while and learned what prices certain cut gems sold for. Once I had my selling price, I simply would search for uncut gems and buy any that were under a certain price where I would make a profit from cutting them and relisting. For example, I’d buy a rare red gem for 50 gold, cut it, change it to a strength gem, and sell it for 100 gold.”

This method enabled Krizan to spend more time actually playing World of Warcraft, raiding and improving his character and not farming gold.

For Diablo III, the opposite was true. The real money auction house was what kept Krizan interested once the gameplay itself lost him.

“People have been buying and selling virtual goods for decades, said Krizan, “so the concept was a good one — I just don’t think the Diablo 3 platform was strong enough to sustain it.”

The $10,000 Redditor

Antoni didn’t disclose how much money he’d made in total from Diablo III. One Reddit user, going by the name WishboneTheDog, seemed more than happy to do so in public, though, starting an “Ask Me (Almost) Anything” thread a year ago titled: “I’ve made $10,000+ legitimately from the D3 market. AMAA.

WishboneTheDog posted pictures of their PayPal transactions and auction history [below] as proof of his trading endeavors. Their time spent with the game was way in excess of what Antoni and Krizan invested, averaging around eight hours a day during Diablo III’s first two months and as many as 14 hours on occasion.

Diablo Redditor Paypal payments

Above: Redditor WishboneTheDog shared details of their earnings from the real-money auction house.

“My playtime now has dropped off because of the slowing economy and lots of [real-life] responsibilities,” WishboneTheDog said at the time. “Some days in the past week, I have only logged to repost auctions and do a quick 20-minute scan. I’m back to playing other games now, too.”

WishboneTheDog defended the relevance of in-game currencies as a genuine economy on their Reddit thread — and the right for players to pay-to-win in an auction house setting.

“When there is collective demand from real people for an item within a game market, the same value is created as anything else in the world, and you can put a number on it,” WishboneTheDog said. “That number can be different depending on the currency you are using to represent the value. You need a lot more Yen than Euros to represent the same value. The same goes for [in-game] gold.

“What people don’t realize is that currencies are only a numerical representation of value. As soon as there is a collective demand for goods, both virtual and ‘real,’ value is created. Humans developed currencies to represent this value in a tangible way, and to make the exchange of these goods more liquid.”

WishboneTheDog argued that those who play within such economies create the value of the in-game currency when they take time to accumulate it, with an item’s rarity contributing to its value equal to the amount of time a person would have to play to statistically obtain it. “This is very similar to any currency and wage labor,” they said.

“You always pay to win because you either pay in time or in a currency. Some people are rich in time, and some people are rich in currency. And anyone who spends more time will also have the skills to back it up. Plus, why not let people with a lot of money give your game time real-world value?”

Diablo Redditor auction house sales

Above: WishboneTheDog sold multiple items for over $200 on the auction house.

The 80-hours-a-week guy

In terms of hours invested in the auction house, a Diablo III player named Tou — also known as Diablo Billionaire — may top the leaderboard.

In a YouTube interview with MMO personality Marcus Eikenberry, Tou revealed that he had made around $5,000 during the auction house’s first month. He also shared the bags under his eyes from the hours he’d invested in buying and selling online.

Tou revealed that as a full-time Diablo III player and trader, life wasn’t all a game. “This stuff is actually harder than a real job,” he said. “You have to do work – you have to read.“ He told Eikenberry that he was putting in over 80 hours a week and that his girlfriend had broken up with him as a result of his work. “I spend about 10 to 14 hours a day,” he said.

I tried to catch up with Tou to find out if he’d managed to maintain his big-money start to the real money auction house, but I couldn’t track him down.

Given that he had a background of selling memberships for the popular MMO Runescape, though, claiming to have made $25,000 in one month, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is still making real money from the gaming scene, even if it’s not from Diablo III.

You can check out the full interview with Tou below.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veWNB5zDnpY]

Shutting down

How players will respond to the auction house closing remains to be seen. Some say the only thing keeping Diablo III going are visitors to the auction house, while others think it will its salvation.

Diablo III director Jay Wilson admitted last year that the real money auction house was “the wrong solution” to the problems Blizzard was trying to solve. “It’s not good for a game like Diablo. It doesn’t feel good to get items for money: It feels good to get items by killing monsters,” he said.

The upcoming release of Diablo III expansion Reaper of Souls on March 25 created an opportune window to close the real money and gold auction houses, according to Blizzard cofounder and president, Mike Morhaime.

“We saw the expansion as an opportunity to make some changes,” he told Polygon. “We all sat down, we talked a lot with the developers, especially the game director Josh Mosquiera, and just tried to look at ‘if we could do anything we wanted, what is the right thing to do for the game?’

“We all agreed that the game would be better without the auction houses.”

So, is the closure of the auction house the end for making money on Diablo III?

“Trading really is going to die,” Antoni told me. “Even though you can trade items among players, you’ve got to have another class that can use the same primary stat as you, because that’s what’s dropping for you. If they’re a Monk and you’re a [Demon] Hunter — great, that’s going to work out. If they’re a Demon Hunter and you’re a Witch Doctor, it’s not going to work. And you only have a two-hour window, and they have to be playing in your game. So its silly. It’s not going to be feasible.”

As for Antoni, he says he’s considering turning his Diablo III website over to a “free site with a bunch of farming videos.”

Despite that he will no longer be earning from the game, Antoni is positive about Diablo III’s move away from a real money economy. With the updates and expansion, he says, “The game is going to be about grinding with your friends and gathering loot, and once you have what you need you’re going to find the materials you need to craft.”

Now, that sounds like a game.

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