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Scott Jennings: Real Money, Real Problems

Column By Scott Jennings on November 18, 2009

A brief personal note: I’ve been hired (again) by NCsoft this week, to work as a developer and data analyst for their new Game Surveillance Unit. This CSI-sounding department is responsible for quashing botting and gold selling in their titles, some of which has been a bit of a problem of late. While this does introduce some potential biases in anything I might write here, I would hope that you, the reader would understand that I am already chock full of bias anyway, as would be anyone with strongly held opinions, and evaluate my writings accordingly. Especially when I write about something directly related to what I’m working on… say, gold farming?

Gold farming and selling in MMORPGs (the commonly used term within the industry being “RMT”, which stands for “Real Money Trading”) is, it’s safe to say, fairly controversial. A few games such as Ultima Online and Second Life embrace the blurring between virtual and real cash, but most games prohibit it, and most players (especially the more hard-core) claim to despise it. Yet, much like any other vice, there still seems to be a market for it.

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I won’t rehash here whether or not RMT itself is a bad idea – there are plenty, including myself, who have written page after page on the subject. Instead, I think it would be interesting to look at a few commonly held opinions and suspicions players have about RMT and how game companies deal (or more often, fail to deal) with the problem.

“The great majority of gold farmers come from China. Why don’t Western games simply… ban China? Problem solved!”

Part of this is actually true – recent estimates place 80% to 85% of the RMT industry in China. This is because $1 goes a lot farther in China than in the West (and the Chinese government does its share to keep it that way), so it’s cost effective to pay workers to generate in-game cash and then turn around and convert it into its real-world equivalent. The stereotype of the Chinese gold farmer is unfortunately, for the most part, accurate (and the cause of a great deal of ugly racism in the process).

So given that, why don’t Western MMOs simply block players in China from accessing the game? Seems simple enough – after all, it’s not like Western MMOs are even sold in China, or intended for Chinese audiences (which have hundreds of MMOs that are). Yet, in practice? Not particularly. And again, we can blame the Chinese government for this, at least indirectly. Although a far cry from the oppressive regime it once was, the Chinese government still seeks to control the flow of information to its people on sensitive topics, and as part of that much of Chinese internet access is filtered – what some wags call “the Great Firewall of China”. Of course, this results in people being quite adept at dodging these restrictions through the use of proxies and VPN servers outside of the country. And those same proxy servers make it close to impossible to determine where users originate – something which tech-savvy Chinese farming operations make great use of. The cat and mouse game between these operations and MMO providers set on hunting them down has been going on for years, and as long as there is a real financial incentive for both sides to continue, it’s not set to stop any time soon.

And, while we’re on the topic of financial incentives:

“[MMO company] doesn’t do anything about gold farming because they’re in on it. They get kickbacks under the table from gold sellers, so they won’t ever make any serious attempt to stop them.”

Few rumors enrage me quite as much as this one – because not only is it fairly obviously untrue, it’s also pretty insulting. I’ve worked for two large MMO companies now, and have friends at most of the others, and I can say with 100% certainty that this is absolutely not happening. I have heard rumors of a few back-channel attempts by RMT companies to “come to informal arrangements” with MMO developers, and the response has always been overwhelmingly, brutally negative. In fact, few things anger MMO developers more than piratical gold farmers who make billions off of their work, and angering paying customers in the process, without so much as a by-your-leave.

But don’t take my word for it – take Occam’s Razor. If game developers wanted to monetize gold sales, they wouldn’t rely on uncontrolled offshore gold farmers that wreak havoc for their support staff. There are many examples of MMO developers who’ve tried to further monetize their game:

  • The “free-to-play” option, as seen recently by Dungeons and Dragons Online. Stop charging a subscription fee, and start monetizing through well-proven free-to-pay methods such as item shops and in-game advertising. This is an attractive option for games with low subscriber numbers who’d like to get a second chance at success.
  • Adding “item malls” even though you’re charging a subscription. World of Warcraft is hard to ignore here, and judging from all the people running around with Pandarens in-game it seems to be popular, if controversial.
  • The “SOEBay” model, where the developer runs eBay-style auctions between players and makes money off of transaction fees. In addition to SOE (which has also been aggressively introducing item malls), Linden Lab relies on transaction fees on currency sales between players in Second Life for a significant portion of their income.

Given all of the above, hopefully I’ve demonstrated that MMO developers are rarely shy about asking you for money directly. Why would they rely on shifty brokers outside of their control when they can simply open up a shopping cart directly, if they cared to?

“If MMO developers cared about farming and botting, they’d stop it. They don’t, because they make money off the accounts that the farmers and botters use, so they ignore them.”

The answer for this one sadly isn’t as cut and dried as the others, because to some extent it contains a grain of truth. Some farmers do in fact use paid accounts (especially earlier, when MMOs were first launched), and part of the cat-and-mouse game between CS enforcement and farming operations involves trying to drive up their cost of doing business by banning their accounts and forcing them to buy more. And, much as I noted in my last column, the amount of support dedicated to driving farmers and botters out of business is directly related to how much the developer is willing to allocate (and in so doing, take limited resources off of other parts of their budget). So, to some extent, it is true that some farmers are actually paying customers.

But not all, and the number of gold farmers that pay their $15 a month is dropping. How do farmers get around that cost?

  • Free trial accounts. If you’d like to know why you are prohibited from doing pretty much anything involving money or talking to people while on a free trial, this is why. Farmers would (and in some games still do) burn through an endless number of free trial accounts for games, naming their characters something nonsensical and spamming and killstealing their way through the game knowing (and not caring) that they would be banned quickly. Since that sort of behavior chases off paying customers fairly effectively as well, most developers that offer free trials have placed draconian limits on how much damage they can do in response, which then cripples new players who know the least about the game. This is why we can’t have nice things.
  • Credit card fraud. The next step, then, is to get an actual account without paying for it. Credit card fraud, using stolen cards, and charging back the transaction after the sale have all become so prevalent that credit card processors are actually starting to be leery of MMO developers due to the vast amount of fraud they’re saddled with. There’s not much about this that can be done that banks in general aren’t already dealing with; it’s just another cost of doing business, but this time on the developer’s side. (And some of the least reputable RMT sites have been known to turn around and use credit card numbers used to purchase gold to buy more game accounts.)
  • Account theft. Especially for World of Warcraft, stealing already developed characters has become quite the growth industry; to the point that more Trojan horses and keyloggers directly target World of Warcraft then, say, banking websites. Once an account is stolen, its wealth is disbursed (for later resale) and the character itself is used either for gold farming (especially using exploits, since the account is by definition not going to last very long) or for spamming and then rapidly discarded.

So, while there is a profit motive for dealing with farmers, it’s not the most obvious one – in addition to costing developers the subscription of angry players who don’t want to deal with farming and botting in their game, in many cases the accounts of farmers and botters are a net negative themselves.

This is a very brief summary of a fairly large problem, and one with few value judgments on the relative morality of gold buying, powerlevelling, or what have you. However you feel about these subjects, the wreckage from the current state of “the game” between developers and farmers is plain to see, and dealing with this is a challenge that every developer has to tackle if they want to deliver a successful, fun, and profitable product.

And much like any other vice, enforcement only goes so far, as long as there is a demand.

Next week: “No Russian” – Gaming, politics and morality.

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Scott Jennings
Scott Jennings is a veteran MMO designer and the Internet personality once known as Lum The Mad. He has previously worked for Mythic Entertainment, NCsoft and others. His popular blog can be found at BrokenToys.org.

Aside from this column, Scott is also currently contracting with NCsoft.

Every Wednesday he provides us an insider's look at the MMO industry.
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