Blizzard made some interesting announcements about their upcoming Diablo III game. No, they didn't give a ship date (they're trying for 2011, but it may not hit until 2012). What they did say had two key facts: 1) You'll need a continuous Internet connection to play the game, and 2) The game will include an auction house where you can buy and sell items in the game for real-world money.
The two items are linked, of course. In order for Blizzard to really make sure that you have the items and acquired them properly, they have to keep the player information on their side. I guess they feel that people are going to buy and sell items anyway, they might as well try and regulate the trade and keep it honest (and make some money, too). Of course, I can think of all sorts of problems and issues that can arise from having virtual items bought and sold... Chinese gold farmers are going to have a new crop to play with.
The requirement for a continuous online connection is many ways more problematic. It can significantly erode your potential market; military members, for instance, are often without Internet connections (that they can use for hours at a time) for weeks or months. Any little hiccup in your connection and you'll find yourself being kicked out of the game, having to restart. This can be quite annoying.
The auction house will be based on the one in World of Warcraft. You'll be able to deal in in-game credits, or a third-party company will handle real cash transactions. Of course, there will be listing fees and transaction fees. Still, I can see teenagers who play for hours on end picking up some spending money by selling off some of the rare items they find. It'll be interesting to see what sort of price points emerge over time. Are we talking about items that will cost $1? Or $10? Or $100? What will the top end items go for? I'm very curious to know.
I realize this is not the good old Diablo from the last century (has it really been so long? Yes, it was introduced in 1996!). But the game market is changing, and designs and business models have to change too. I suspect there will be plenty of bitching about these features (there's already been a fair amount), but I think the game will be hugely successful anyway. I'm sure there will be problems to work out with the auction house, but I'll be watching closely. I'm sure other developers will be, too. I expect we'll see more of this business model in the future, and not just from Blizzard.