Diablo 3 is gearing up for the beta test phase and a couple of really big and very controversial announcements were just made. The tidbit that has the forums in a knot this time is the Real Money Auction House. Basically what happens is players can sell each other items either in in-game gold currency or in real dollars and players will be able to withdraw or add money to their account through PayPal or some similar service. I will be rich!
Or not. Here's the rub: If people can make money playing the game then the amount of money that can be made will be sharply limited to the amount that a Chinese sweatshop farmer using every bot, hack and cheat available is willing to work for. I expect that fairly shortly after release there will be a big market for items and the farmers will not have had time to get their cheat on so it will be possible for clever individuals to make $10-$20 bucks an hour selling in game items. Within a couple months at most or a couple weeks at least that range will drop to $2-$4 bucks an hour and the idea of 'making a living' in D3 will permanently vanish into the ether, at least for anyone on this side of the Pacific.
That said, there are some pretty big unknowns in this equation. If, for example, Blizzard actually manages to completely prevent botting then D3 items will keep their value *much* longer. Farming up items when you actually require a person in front of each monitor is a monstrous hit to profitability for sweatshops and how this particular battle will play out is unclear. A lot of people point to the continued existence of bots and hacks in WOW as a sign that Blizzard can't deal with them but WOW has the problem that new accounts are free to create so keeping the hackers out is a huge logistical issue. In D3 every time a hacker has an account get banned they have to buy a new copy of D3... not an appealing idea. Another big obstacle for hackers is that in WOW they have a regular source of free accounts obtained by selling other services such as powerlevelling whereas in D3 everything is sold through the game interface.
The factor that absolutely cements the constant, inevitable decline of prices in D3 will be people leaving the game. When a player quits D2 for example they just leave their items to rot as they have nothing useful to do with them. When a player leaves D3 though I fully expect them to dump every item they have on the RMAH and then cash out with as much real money as possible. This is going to mean that there exists a constant supply of people selling items who will sell at any price and want to move their items *now*. Items of any significant worth will never leave the economy and will constantly be produced but the demand will ever slide downwards... a recipe for massive deflation if I ever saw one.
As always the forums are full of silly complaints. The two big ones are that
1. Maniacs with huge bankrolls will walk in, buy all kinds of incredible gear and casuals will be unable to keep up due to the ridiculous prices.
2. Botters and hackers will flood the market with items, forcing the prices of all the best gear to the floor and making everything a player does worthless.
Note that the two big fears are mutually incompatible. If the prices are tiny then every player with $20 to spend will be able to buy a fantastic gearset. If the prices are huge then casual players can make big money selling the stuff they find. It is certain to work out just like real life - items that are stupendously rare and powerful will be worth a ton of money but items that most people can get in a reasonable time frame will be practically valueless in comparison. The price vs. power scale will be not be linear but rather exponential. Whether or not having the RM option in the game will make it more fun for people is certainly a valid question however, and that is one I cannot answer.