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World of Warcraft Column: Blizzard’s Cash Auctions are a Bad Idea

By Suzie Ford on August 24, 2011

Disclaimer: The Devil's Advocate is a place where the MMO-Loving world can go to hear the unpopular opinion. Please note that this article does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff of MMORPG.com, the article’s writer or any of the game companies that may be discussed.  The Devil's Advocate is an opportunity for the oft-shunned and little discussed “Other Side of the Story” to be heard, promoting open discussion on a heavily contested subject.

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It has been said that Blizzard’s cash auctions are a bad idea.

Au contraire…

One of the cold hard facts about gaming since the days of yore is that virtual items have value. They are valuable to those who hunt them and valuable to those who buy them. Just a cursory glance at Ebay reveals that the virtual goods market is alive and well. Put in “Diablo 2 items” and check out the over two hundred pages of goods that pop up. And this is for a game that is over ten years old!  Gamers have clearly shown over the years that they are willing to use and even like the virtual goods market. Whether we agree with it or not, the idea of selling pixelated goods online is here to stay.

So from a developer’s point of view, how can the buying and selling of virtual merchandise be better controlled to ensure that buyers aren’t being exploited with financial scams and account hacking by those less-than-honorable sellers? And while they’re at it, how can developers make a few bucks off their own creations?

Simple: Create a way for goods to be sold within the framework of the game that safeguards the buyer through a series of financial checks and balances. Making a bit of cash on the side through the payment of listing and selling fees isn’t a bad addition either.

Blizzard brought this whole discussion to light in a big way when it announced that Diablo 3 will feature an in-game auction house where players will be able to buy and sell items for real world cash. Devs are also including a separate auction house that will utilize collected gold. Blizzard will require sellers to pay a flat fee for each item listed in the real world cash auction and then collect another flat fee after the sale is finalized. This seems pretty fair all in all. Remember the days when the best Diablo 2 items were going for hundreds of dollars? Seller makes some money minus a couple of small fees. Buyer gets a great item and heads in game to do his/her thing. Talk about win-win!

Still some folks are skeptical about the cash auction house by saying that it’s nothing but money grabbing on the part of Blizzard. There’s no question that Blizzard is going to make money from the venture but not as much as might be expected. As yet, the gaming behemoth has not revealed what the fees will be for selling items in-game but assuming it’s a lowball figure, the amount collected will be significant, but not as significantly awesome as if they collected, for instance, 12% (to pull a number out of thin air) of the final sale. Do the math.

For years everyone’s cried about EULAs and the fact that Blizzard owns the copyright to its materials etc. And, honestly, they’re right. But that hasn’t done a thing to stop those who buy and sell virtual goods. If Blizzard couldn’t stop the practice, no one could. They’ve not been exactly shy about cease and desist orders, have they? So while we’re at it, why shouldn’t Blizzard get in on the sale of the items that they actually created? Why should some guy from who knows where make big bucks without having to even write a thank you note to Blizzard for his ability to buy that Porsche? There are actually folks out there who only work collecting the best, most sought-after items in the game. They turn around and sell them for big bucks and do nothing else. No need to work a “real” job. That is the job.

But what about those who say that real money transactions (or RMT) are a “plague” on games? To a certain degree, they may be correct. RMT is the ultimate pay-to-win scenario. But these same fine folks are fooling themselves if they don’t realize that this is already happening and will continue happening with people snapping up the best items without any official approval. The only thing different in the Diablo 3 scenario is that Blizzard is giving the officially sanctioned rubber stamp to the practice.

The bottom line here is that player and account safety is job number one. Buying and selling items in an auction house contained wholly within Diablo 3 or any other game is a great idea. One click of a button and you’re finished. Items are sent through the included mail system, the payment is sent and received in nanoseconds, Blizzard makes a few bucks and everyone’s happy.

Right?

Well… maybe not everyone.  This is gaming, and games are serious after all.

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