This topic has been on my mind for a long, long, long time. Mostly it has to do with item shops but I think that RMT also figures into this equation as well. After much thought and analysis I've come to the conclusion that, ethically, there is nothing wrong with either item shops or RMT. The following explains why.
In real life there are many games that revolve around money. Not just poker, although that has direct bearing on this issue as well, but also things like car racing, CCGs and most fantasy miniature games like Warhammer and Mage Knight. Let's start with poker.
In poker, you have a set amount of money and the object is to be the last person at the table with all the money in play. The environment changes in a casino where people can come and go at will. At a casino, it's not uncommon for someone to sit down with a stack of tokens bigger than anyone else's in play. It's also not uncommon for people to decide to cash in their winnings rather than giving you the opportunity to win back what you've lost. With the game being this unfair, why would anyone play it? Aside from the unlikely occurrence of winning a huge sum of money, that is.
It all has to do with the fact that money alone doesn't dictate who wins and who loses. It has more to do with how the cards shuffle and who can hold a mask of indifference while manipulating the way that other people bet. I could roll $1000 dollars onto a Hold 'Em table at Vegas, but I'm probably not going home with it. Let's take a look at some other RL money games and investigate this "unfair" advantage that money implies.
In Motorsports, you have to buy the vehicle and the upgrades. You'd think that the guy with the most expensive vehicle made of the nothing but top 'O the line parts would always win right? Wrong! With enough money, I could buy the most advanced open wheeled race car on earth. I'd be very lucky to not get killed while racing in it. I could hire a professional race car driver, but he'd still have to be the best driver on the track and know how to work that particular track in order to win. Seriously, there's a whole tactical metagame to racing that puts American football to shame, and only those with intimate knowledge of racing can play it well. So again, money doesn't translate into an instant win or even much of an advantage.
Magic: The Gathering has a special name for money players: "Mr. Suitcase." With enough cash, I can purchase four of every card in the entire set and make any deck that I want! Unfortunately, You're confined to 60 card decks and with the volume of cards available under the Type II M:TG tournament rules, it's very unlikely that you'll find the most broken 60 card combination before the next set comes out. You could always buy a ready made champion deck off of ebay, but you'd be facing two obstacles right out of the gate:
1) You'd have to understand the strategy behind the deck
2) Everyone already knows about this deck so it's more than likely that someone has designed a deck specifically to counter the threats in it.
Hmmmm...... Money games: 3, "unfair" advantage: 0. Let's keep playing.....
The last real life game I'm going to look at is Warhammer. This game is one expensive hobby. Not only is the rule book alone $50, but you can find yourself spending hundreds putting together an army and buying the supplies to paint and decorate your plastic and pewter minions. Let's not forget that Games Workshop is constantly adding new units and running limited edition figures all the time. And yet, just investing more money doesn't mean that you're going to win every time. Each figure in your army has a point value and each scenario you play limits you to a set number of points on each side. As with CCGs, having more money simply means that you have more options. Not that you are any better than any other player.
So now we come to the part where I have to answer the common rebuttals to these examples. Don't worry, this won't turn into a FAQ.
Let me start by answering the obligatory response: "You can't compare real life with a game!!" Can't I? Especially if it's a sim that sells itself as an accurate approximation of a real life <whatever>. As for MMORPGs...... The people playing the game are real. The social interaction is real. The items, even though they are just entries in a database, are real in the sense that there is a limited number of them and they are owned by actual people. When you really look at MMOs, they're more of an extension or real life rather than a completely separate reality.
Now let's move on to RMT over ebay. Buying gold, buying items, buying characters, etc., is usually perceived as both dishonest and lazy by most of the community. Question: If you've been playing the game for two weeks before I start, don't you have an unfair advantage over me? How is it more "unfair" for me to buy gold, items, characters, etc., than you having an advantage from time invested? Let's really take a good look at this.
The first argument is that it invalidates the time you've put into a game when a newbie can just pay for all the things you had to "work" (more like wait) for. I see this as a statement about the arguer more than the practice of RMT itself. If you measure your progress in comparison to others, then this becomes completely offensive. Never mind the fact that you are just as free to purchase things as the gold buyer that you're bashing. You don't have the money? The exchange rates are actually very reasonable. You can get one hell of a lot of plat for a dollar. From a purely PvE point of view, this is a lot like casino poker. People come and go, to and from the table. Sometimes they show up with more money than you and sometimes they show up with less, but it's your own progress that you should concern yourself with.
The next argument is that it give a PvP advantage to the RMT buyer. This has more to do with the developers naively ignoring the fact that RMT is going to happen regardless of EULA restrictions and designing the game without RMT in mind. Although this has it's own little caveats that I'll discuss when we get to item shops.
The final argument is that it's like stealing from the game developers. This is just plain weak. There is no reason why Blizzard or Mythic or SOE can't get some payment from the practice of RMT. In fact, SOE already does. How hard would it be for a developer to put up an RMT auction site and charge sellers something like 25 cents for each thing they auction? If you think WoW's subscription numbers are high now, imagine how much higher they would be if they allowed and made a profit off of RMT! Bots and hordes of professional gold farmers? You already have those and just having a whole crew of Blizzard employees banning accounts left and right has done next to nothing to stem the tide. Can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Now, before I move on to item shops, I need to point out the main contributor to their origin. Piracy. Item shop games seem to have started in South Korea. In comparison to the US, South Korea has a much lower minimum wage and a much higher cost of living. As with most entertainment, most people would rather steal than go without. Incidentally, this is the main reason why most games on this side of the pond are going console. I can find and download any major release PC game using Google and Bit Torrent. Console games require me to break out a soldering gun and mod my console with the very real danger of "bricking" the system. Item shops get around both problems by requiring that you play online and charging the player a couple of bucks here and there for in-game stuff. This doesn't get around private servers, but that a subject for a different entry.
At any rate, item shop games were designed to make money off of players that didn't want to spend a whole lot at once and were prone to pirate games that they wanted rather than pay for them. You could also say that MMORPGs are taking over all PC releases for the same reason. The question here is which business model is better or worse. On closer inspection, there isn't a whole lot of difference.
Both models use grind and addiction to bleed their player base. Subscription games use a shorter grind to get players to spread the game out till the next expansion where they can hit them for another $40 box and, hopefully, another three to six months of subscription fees. Item shop games use a heavier grind that doesn't kick in until the player hits a significant level, usually their first job change. After this, item shop games hook the thumscrews of grind up to a Hemi and revs the engine until you cry uncle and pay for some stuff in the item shop to reduce the pain. considering that the gameplay in most MMORPGs gets stale in about two hours, which model is more dishonest? Trick question, they're both sleazy.
That's not to say that people don't have canned responses to item shops and bogus reason as to why they suck. But, as with the arguments about RMT, there isn't a lot of substance to these responses. Actually there's less substance since many item shop items are only temporary or consumable items.
As and example, I'll use Archlord. This is currently the only "true" MMORPG that I have installed on my PC even though I haven't played it in a couple of weeks now. Yes, I still have Guild Wars installed, but purists will cry foul if I call it an MMORPG. Moving right along....
Like all item shops, you trade money for item shop credits. In Archlord, you buy these in lots of $5, $10, or $15 which gets you 1000, 3000, and 4,800 credits respectively. I invite you now to take a look at the list of items sold at this shop. Notice how most of these items are either one-time use or limited to a number of days that they can be used. Notice how the most expensive thing in the shop is the storage expansion for 1,800 credits. The next most expensive thing, ringing in at 1000 credits, is The Talisman of Awakening PLUS which increases XP and gold drop for the space of 14 days.
Let's do the math here. Let's assume that the ToA+ increases the XP you gain by 50%, ditto for the gold drop. We know that players that group advance 30% faster than those that don't. So by paying $10 and grouping, you can decrease the grind by 80%!!! That's $5 less than what you pay to play WoW, Eve, or Vanguard. It's funny how people bust on F2P gamers because they're too cheap to pay $15 a month, but those same trolls think that paying $10 a month to keep up is too much.
Speaking of in-game arms races, that's the second most common criticism of item shop games. I actually have two responses to this one and I've already stated one of them. Worry about your own progress and less about the progress of others. Next, realize that levels serve a very clear purpose both in PvE and PvP in these games. I may be able to buy tier 3 gear for my character at this or that level, but that same gear is going to be totally useless after I've leveled up a couple of times. Also, you don't have to fight anyone outside of your level range. With most of these games giving players items and skills that allow them to teleport out of an area instantly, the chance of getting ganked by a much higher level character is pretty much nil if you're paying attention. This is why you have the automated, color coded CON as a feature of all MMORPGs. This keeps you from getting into a fight that you can't win.
I'm sure there are still some of you begging the question: "isn't it unfair that a person that pays in the item shop advances faster than a person that plays for free?" Um..... No. No it isn't. Why should a freeloader get the same advantages as someone that actually pays for their entertainment? Are you saying that you should pay the same amount of money for front row seats as you pay for spots in the nosebleed section? Are you saying that I should get a five star meal for the price of McDonald's? Are you saying that I should be allowed to play WoW for free because you being able to play is unfair to those of us that aren't paying and aren't allowed? Exclusion is a part of life. Don't practice one form of it then pontificate to others about their exclusionary practices. We call that sort of thing hypocrisy.
The last thing I'm going to say on this regards free trials in subscription games. Most subscription games let you try a game for 14 days. Most veteran MMORPG players will tell you that you need at least two months to experience the most aspects of any given game. This means that you have to buy the box (between $20 and $50) plus pay the subscription for one month ($15) before you've seen most of what the game has to offer and be able to make a truly informed choice about whether to continue playing or not. That's $65 just to see if I like the game or not......
Item shop games generally don't crank up the grind until you've hit somewhere between level 20 and 40 which is usually the point where you've gotten to the meat and potatoes of the game. That's as long as I want without paying a dime.
<shrugs> Let the flames begin I guess ;-P