Diablo 3 was released recently to much fanfare in the gaming community. The much anticipated game doesn’t stray too far from its roots; the gameplay is pretty true to the click-and-kill formula popularized by the legendary Diablo 2. Not to say that nothing has changed of course - one massive new feature is the addition of the auction house where gamers can buy and sell in-game items for in-game currency or real money.

The auction house, while not the first of its kind, makes a huge difference in how players attack the game. With the popularity of Diablo 3, it’s also got a huge variety of items that have been randomly generated from around the world. The items don’t ever get destroyed, so unlike with real world auctions, there’s no reason the total number of items is ever going to decrease. That means there needs to be an efficient way to search through all these items. Unfortunately, that way doesn’t exist yet, because right now the auction house is…you could say…“hell” to use.

Items that exist in Diablo 3 are entirely randomly generated, from their names to their stats. That provides a few problems - first of all, the name doesn’t help you at all to figure out what the item is. Also making life harder, each item is imbued with anywhere from one to six+ modifiers (called “affixes” in Diablo terms), basically a random magical attribute (like +10 strength, for example). These affixes are what makes each item different, and it’s really how you determine which items are worth your time. So let’s look at a screenshot from the auction house that I took when recently looking for a set of armored gloves:

Search results for the Diablo 3 auction house

On the left is a list of search criteria that I entered to help narrow down the search. But now, how do we make a good decision on what to buy? You’ll notice there is a big list of yellow (rare) item names - those names really don’t mean anything to anybody, so that doesn’t help. There is the “armor” value listed in a column, okay, that’s a start. But as mentioned, the affixes are what matters, the actual armor value isn’t much of a big deal. Besides they are all the same in this screenshot, right? So where is all the information we care about? Well, here it is:

Diablo 3 auction house, with item details being displayed

You have to hover over that tiny icon next to the item name to see the detailed information for each item. Helpfully, it does show you what you are currently wearing so you can compare (that text in the blue is what we really care about). That means to compare all the items on this page, that’s a lot of hovering over tiny icons and reading blue text. And trying to remember what item on the page was the best one? That’s quite difficult when trying to compare 6 attributes across each item on the page. The whole process is very annoying; even something as simple as navigating the list via arrow keys instead of the mouse might make life better.

Fitts’ Law declares that larger targets are easier to hit, and the auction house would benefit considerably from a bigger target to hover over. It would also benefit from some way to give you the details you need on each item. Maybe that means showing fewer items on each page, but more information on each item? Or maybe a column off to the right that would at least show you the details on click instead of a giant hover box that covers up half of the search results.

No help in figuring out what similar items might have sold for

Also making it challenging is the difficulty that sellers have in determining how to price their item. When selling, there isn’t any real help given to show what similar items have sold for. And at least with the gold auction house, there isn’t a huge incentive for sellers to accurately price their items. That means there is a big incentive for buyers to scour the market looking for crazy bargains. Unfortunately, that means you have to do a lot of looking - a lot of hovering one item at a time. With the introduction of the Real Money Auction House, this may change, as there’s a real financial incentive for users to get the highest dollar possible for their items.

One last random thing - as a sometime frequent eBay user, I know that the key to winning an auction is bidding in the last 60 seconds of the auction (“sniping”). That’s really the only time that matters. Interestingly, Diablo 3 doesn’t let you sort results by time remaining. So if you’re looking to score a deal on an item that is about to end, that’s going to be pretty difficult to do. Maybe they were trying to prevent sniping? Maybe it would have just been too hard to manage, with too many items ending all the time. In either case I was surprised to see that this wasn’t possible.

So what can we take away from this tiny review of the usability of Diablo 3’s auction house? Three items:

  1. If you’ve got a big set of items that users are searching through, figure out what criteria users are actually looking to compare, and make that easy to see for multiple items at a time.
  2. If you’re introducing an element on the page that users need to hover over continuously, make sure it’s big enough to make it an easy target. Especially when your users probably have a twitchy mouse good for gaming!
  3. If you’re thinking about making users hover over every row in a set to look at something, don’t do it. Just try it out for like five minutes and you’ll be inspired to try something else, like a static column for instance.

Blizzard does do a couple of things well - the search criteria really do help users narrow it down by the right criteria. At first I was lamenting the lack of a “last” button in the search results, but once I figured out how to use the search criteria it was clear that is a better solution. Also, Diablo 3 makes it relatively easy to compare items for sale with whatever you have equipped.

The markets of Diablo 3 are a really interesting social experiment, and I’m excited to see what changes the Real Money Auction House will bring in the in-game economy. And hopefully, some day Blizzard will take a good, hard look at improving the usability of the Diablo 3 auction house. As with all things Blizzard, I’m not holding my breath.