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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

The Grey Economy: MMOs, RMT and Credit Card Fraud

Posted by UnSub Monday February 18 2008 at 10:20PM
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MMOs have a dark spot around them that few people like to talk about in depth, fewer people like to admit using and that few MMOs are safe from. But it's a serious problem for the industry as it costs them millions of dollars, forces them to ban revenue-generating players and is increasingly leading to MMO companies having to deal with dismissive credit card companies.

The problem is external RMT (which I've seen as an acronym for 'real money transfers' or 'real micro-transactions') providers and the parasitic relationship they have with MMOs.

Blizzard recently won an injunction against an aggressive external RMT provider that a lot of people misconstrued as some sort of big victory against external RMT. It really wasn't. The RMTer settled and agreed to the terms of the injunction (basically to leave WoW alone) and thus far has gone quiet. However, as best as I can tell, if the external RMTer decided to move their operations out of North America, set up shop elsewhere (their domain comes out of China anyway) and start again then the Court of California is arguably not going to have jurisdiction over them.

It seems that Blizzard went in against a small-yet-vocal external RMTer who folded rather than fight against them in a long legal battle. Perhaps Blizzard will use this win to try to take on other RMTers, but it will be interesting to see what happens when an enternal RMT provider decides to dig in and force a court to decide what exactly those terms of service (TOS) and end-user license agreements (EULA) actually cover as well as if external RMTers have a legal right to be in-game. (I'm aware that a WoW player is taking on IGE, but that lawsuit is still ongoing.)

But that was just one external RMT operation. There are loads more and lots of them are smaller and will move quicker. They can set up multiple web storefronts in order to offer their services online and if one gets blocked, another clone site can appear very quickly. Lots of RMT operations come out of countries with cheap labour rates (e.g. China, Eastern Europe, South-East Asia) meaning 1) it's not hard to find people to farm the game in order get currency / items to sell for RMT and 2) they sit outside the scope of North American law and its findings.

But you probably know all that. If you play a MMO, you are probably used to getting RMT spam in one form or another. It's a huge business - IGE states they were worth $220m in legal documents - and one that generally sits under the radar in a kind of grey economy. The usual suspect in this case are trial accounts, which are free and widely available for some MMOs. Certain methods are becoming more common in MMOs for dealing with trial account spam - restricting communication types, limited access to certain areas - but that is only a solution in the  short-term because ways are always found around it. One way (and a way that is allegedly costing MMO devs a lot of money) is the use of credit card fraud.

In short - if you need a full account to spam effectively, then you buy a full account. Online credit card fraud isn't just limited to using fake / stolen credit card numbers (although I'm sure that is there); it's also using credit card charge back facilities to bascially play for free. Although I'm sure some unscrupulous players have been doing this ever since pay-to-play was born, the issue is that external RMT farmers can do this on a large, organised scale. I have no idea what the maximum number of accounts that one credit card can buy, but any number will be enough for a few months' use. At the end of that period (i.e. the maximum length of time you can charge back), the farming characters have their possessions emptied onto new paid accounts and turn into spambots with no restrictions because, hey, they are paid accounts. The old farm characters get burned on spam protection measures, the account gets locked and the RMTer authorises a charge back through their credit card supplier.

Yes, that credit card number is now unusable for that MMO, but there are other MMOs to farm where the credit card will be accepted. If you've burned the card at all the MMOs your operation deals with, you can always seek to get a new credit card from your friendly financial institution who's bills you always pay on time.

All of this sees money flow out of MMO development and into external RMT organisations thanks to players who happily pay real money for virtual goods. Now, the common tactic is to criticise the users of these RMT services who are responsible for creating the demand, but that's shortsighted. In MMOs, where time = progression, there will always be those who wish to shortcut the process or don't legitimately have the time to keep up. So they spend money to make up for the time they lack or grind they wish to avoid. Typical MMO design, especially those games who desire a pseudo-working in-game economy complete with auction / consignment house, encourages farming to drive the economy - farming for RMT is just a version of farming, after all. 

The solution to all of this isn't easy. A MMO with no in-game economy would be safe from all but powerleveling spam, but most players want to be able to get new items from shops or drops. Not allowing any sort of trade within a MMO would also work (i.e. gold and items still drop, but you can't trade them to other players) also stops RMT spam / operations, but I don't think players would be happy with it. Draconian enforcement systems could be implemented to stop RMTers and those who buy from them, but monitoring such things is costly and always risks banning legitimate players (as was the case when players who legitimately bought duped items were banned in EQ a long time ago).

In my opinion, the only way MMO companies can drive external RMTers out of the game is to price them out of the market. Since MMO companies can't drive the prices external RMTers pay up and make it too expensive to operate, the only way I can see this happening is for MMO companies to offer their own authorised internal RMT channels. These would be straight purchase channels - no auctions for real world money (which only gives RMTers a channel to work through anyway) - where a player pays the MMO dev studio a fixed price for in-game currency, levels for their character, even items they want. Provided the price charged by the MMO company is less than the cost of an external RMT operation in providing the same service, such a move will see external RMTers driven out of the MMO because it is no longer cost effective to operate. (Duplication bugs would need to be stomped on hard, because that would be the only way external RMTers could compete.)

I know that such an idea will be unpopular in certain circles and does disadvantage casual players with low-incomes. Such players would have to hope for random drops to roll their way to get what they wanted. It will also relegate the in-game economy to hyper-inflation, since large sums of in-game currency could be literally created out of thin air by the devs. But it's the only way I can see of having a chance of driving out external RMT from MMOs before it tightens its grip further.

Evilsam writes:

The main draw back I see in you last  Idea is that some companies will put some items up for sale in their "stores" exclusively.As in the only way to get them.their are some that have shown that they have no real intrerst in their player base other than the dollars per month they can get out of them.SOE comes to mind..

 A real win-win solution to the problem i don't have.

 Some player GM's with the power to ban accounts of people offering gold or such for sale for real money would ,I think,help a lot.Just give them the ability to take a screen shot that goes directly to the company of the offence and ban the account..Stop all of it would make a large dent in it.

Just my opinion

Tue Feb 19 2008 8:25AM Report
Hrothmund writes:

Nice write-up there. However, my initial feelings remain the same. Let's crucify the imbeciles that succumb to these services, and, ehm, stone them. Yes, indeed, stone them and cut off their arms so they never play MMO's again!

Tue Feb 19 2008 9:33AM Report
ulfr writes:

What about a solution of the game company providing a "sponsored" gold farming company through their site? The company making the game asks for a percentage from the "gold farm" companies that use their sponsored service? This way, companies making games can keep easy tabs on major sources of "gold farm" companies. This would give the game company the ability to adjust the game's distribution of gold gain accordingly so that they still have control over the game's economy, and it doesn't throw the game out of sync. General rules of human psychology help us understand that if such sources were easily accessible through the main game source than not only would it be likely that the players would choose to use those sources cause it'd be easy, but they'd do so cause it feels safer for them as well. The company can also provide an allotment of XXXX gold to these companies as an incentive to use the program, that way independent gold faming companies couldn't survive in the competition, and the ones that use the program will survive.

Sat Mar 01 2008 12:50AM Report
ulfr writes:

to add to that, a similar program could be used for auctioning characters off. By providing simplistic incentives and accepting this to be an evolution of new-wave MMO gaming, Game companies could maintain control over their game.

Sat Mar 01 2008 12:52AM Report
UnSub writes:

ulfr - I don't really support a MMO having an official external RMT supplier, since such RMTers would still likely be relying on sweatshop workers to do the job of provding resources for sale. I still think that the devs could cut out the middleman (given that they can create all in-game resources automatically) and do it themselves.

That said, if you could have a legit RMT organisation that paid a fair wage and provided an official service, it would certainly be a lot more ethically acceptable.

Sun Mar 09 2008 10:15PM Report writes:
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