The Psychology of Diablo III Loot Part 4 Historical Items

Wait, did I say the series on Diablo III loot would be a three parter? By that I obviously meant it would have four parts. Don’t put words in my mouth.

I was listening to the always excellent Giant Bombcast podcast recently1 and the gang was talking about their experiences using the Diablo III auction house:

Vinny: I’d love to see how many times stuff is used. I want a pristine, new sword, I don’t want it used.

Jeff: How many owners has this thing had?

Vinny: Yeah. How many people has it touched?

Jeff: It’s a single owner, smoke-free home.

Vinny: They should definitely allow item descriptions. That’s the next thing, like little bubbles that are like “Get this amazing dagger right now! A+++”

Patrick: “Killed Diablo THREE TIMES!”

Brad: “Get the dagger used in a Hardcore, Inferno Diablo takedown!”

Ryan: Forget that, I want the Carfax. I want the owner history of this item. How many hands has this passed from? I want to know the mob that dropped it, the first guy that picked it up, if it’s been sold through the regular auction house or the real money auction house. I want to know that entire past. What’s the VIN on this axe? I don’t want some lemon.

You know what? These guys are totally right. Having this kind of history on an object –even a virtual one– would drastically affect auction house prices. Because history matters. A few months ago I was visiting Tulsa, Oklahoma2 and on a lark took my kids to the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. In the lobby there’s a big rock encased in plastic and settled behind a sign indicating its place of origin: the friggin’ moon. I stood there staring at this rock for a good 60 seconds, intrigued by its extraplanetary history. This despite the fact that the thing was virtually indistinguishable from any of the thousands upon thousands of rocks of similar size that I’ve seen in my life. If the sign in front of it had read “We found this out back. Woo!” I would have been baffled for a second before moving on, but this rock was special because it had once been on the damn moon.

Yale University psychologist and author of the book How Pleasure Works3 Paul Bloom would understand. He notes in his book several ways in which the history of an object affects its value to us. This ranges from wanting a little more money to sell back a coffee cup we’ve only owned for a few seconds (c.f., the endowment effect) to selling a tape measure from the Kennedy household for $48,875, to the theft of Napoleon’s penis by the priest who conducted his last rights despite the fact he presumably had a perfectly good penis already.

Bloom and his Yale colleagues George Newman and Gil Diesendruck conducted a series of experiments to test what they called a “contagion” hypothesis –the idea being that an object’s value is affected by its history of contact with someone else.4 As part of the study, they asked subjects to write down the name of a celebrity they admired (examples included Barack Obama and George Clooney) and then consider an article of clothing (e.g., a sweater, a pair of gloves, or a wristwatch) owned by that person. Subjects were then grilled on how much they would be willing to pay for that item versus an identical item from a non-celebrity. Unsurprisingly, people valued the item owned by the famous person more.

Nice stats

In subsequent experiments, though, the researchers drilled down into the phenomenon by tweaking the scenario. What if you were forbidden from reselling the item? That dropped the price a little, but honestly not much. What if the item had been thoroughly dry cleaned and sterilized after being used by the celebrity? That reduced the price people were willing to pay by almost one third. What if the celebrity had been given the item as a gift but had never actually worn or otherwise used it? According to Bloom, another study showed that this also drastically reduced the value of the item. What seems to be important here is that subjects felt the object had some kind of residue or essence about it because of its prior association with an admired celebrity.

Similarly, I think that if Blizzard were to enact the Giant Bomb crew’s suggestion of including historical information with auction listings it could really spike the prices on some equipment, though I think they have it backwards in that an item with a more interesting history would be more valuable. Would you pay more for a sword that has dealt over 15 million points of damage in its lifetime? Would you pay more for a helmet dropped by a champion mob with a particularly nasty attribute combination like Horde/Jailer/Mortar/ Teleporting? How about this off-hand power source that was only used by one little wizard on her way to church on Sundays?

No? Okay, let’s switch games and talk about World of Warcraft. Would you pay more to own the original armor worn by Leeroy Jenkins in that famous video?

Yeah, I would too.

Done? You can go back to go back to Part 1 about anchoring in the auction house, or back to Part 2 about the availability heuristic. Or back to Part 3 about dopamine and the auction house.


1. Seriously, you should be listening to the Bombcast every week; these guys are great.
2. Go Thunder or something? I dunno.
3. Bloom, P. (2010). How Pleasure Works. W.W. Norton & Company: New York
4. Newman, G., Diesendruck, G., and Bloom, P. (2011). Celebrity Contagion and the Value of Objects. Journal of Consumer Research, 38.

9 thoughts on “The Psychology of Diablo III Loot Part 4 Historical Items

  1. Ever the cynic, I would like to point out that the history of the rock had absolutely nothing to do with the interesting-ness [sic] of the rock. 100% of what made it interesting was the sign.

    And of course from a programming point of view, this is either trolling or at least far beyond the current technology. Where devs are working to avoid increasing the number of items that currently number in the tens of thousands, saying you would want ten million warcraft players to generate tens of thousands of “I interacted with this object” transactions a year is so technically daunting that I am distracted from the thought experiment.

  2. Well, right, but what made it interesting was the knowledge that the rock had been on the moon. No matter how I heard about it. And the The Telegraph story kind of underscores that: if the item’s essence or history didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be a headline.

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  5. As with many other things, Valve is kind of on the cutting edge of this with TF2. They have an entire class of “Vintage” items that are basically items that the player acquired before the game went F2P (I think. There are some other conditions too). You could probably see if there’s a price differential there between vintage and non-vintage items. I think there is.

    A lot of what applies to Diablo could apply to TF2, in terms of the loot chase at least. I definitely think people would value a weapon in TF2 with millions of points of damage or thousands of kills over a new one.

    There are also medals that record your “Join Date”, basically the first time you played, with earlier join dates being, one presumes, more prestigious. But I don’t think those are transferable.

  6. I think a lot of the value would be based on the verification of the history and on the history chosen to be displayed.

    1) Would Blizzard find it cost effective to write a script and set aside processing power in order write in that history? Or would they allow players to write their own history, in which case, that would be a turn-off for me because then anyone can write anything and charge crazy prices for the item.

    2)If Blizzard did take it on themselves to write the history, which tidbits of history do they include? For high-end players, having an item that says “Killed Diablo X times on inferno” wouldn’t really mean much and low-end players probably wouldn’t be able to afford it. If they went the “WoW route”, like you described, how can they tell whether or not a player will be famous before the item changes so many hands?

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