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Editorial By Dan Fortier on July 22, 2006

Debate: Real World Cash for In-Game Coin

Dan Fortier and Jeremy Starley debate

Editor's Introduction: Every Saturday, we feature a debate between two writers here. If you have any ideas for future debates, please do not hesitate to post them in the comment thread linked at the end.
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Dan Fortier: The buying and selling of virtual items and currency for real money is touchy subject and in most gamers' eyes, gold farmers and virtual dealers are one the main things that can destroy fragile game economies more than anything else. Who is really to blame though?

Most MMORPGs are based on a tedious grind in some form or another. Whether it's gold, the best items/weapons/gear, or simply levels/skill points, the creators have determined that whomever has the most time and/or friends will have an advantage over someone without these real life resources. Why is real life money any different? Should someone be blamed for the economic woes of the genre when all they want is to keep pace with those who simply have more time and guild mates? A good portion of the blame must rest with the game designers in this regard.


Jeremy Starley: While I agree that the blame lies mostly with the game designers, I cannot condone the buying and selling of in game currency. My reasoning is simple: Games, and in this case MMORPGs specifically, are meant to be a fun diversion from the real world. When you take away the ability to progress in a game based solely on your in game life, you remove a large part of the diversion. Suddenly you are no longer equal in game, but once again the stock broker with the Ferrari has you beat because he has more money to spend than you.

Now, you may argue that the stock broker has considerably less time to play the game than a poor college student, and therefore his money puts them on equal terms, but you'd only be looking at the two extremes of the spectrum. The time that the college student can put in and the money the stock broker can shell out can't be equalized by anyone in the middle of the two extremes. These people represent the bulk of the player base, and these are the people that are affected the most by the sales of in game currency.


Dan Fortier: Look at it this way, The developers created a game with time sinks to keep players occupied while they create more content and most charge a monthly fee. They create systems without regard for inflation, by allowing unlimited gold and items to drop from infinitely re spawning creatures. Anyone who buys/sells the items they gain is not the one responsible to the devaluation of currency, they just make money doing it. The designers ban this activity is most cases, but not to preserve the game economy, just to keep the money going into their pocket and no one else.

As far as play balance is concerned, all games have different ways of maintaining balance, but remember I'm not condoning duplicating items so someone had to actually earn that item for you to buy it. Money can't buy skill or experience in playing that epic character you just bought and besides, MMOs are by nature a group oriented game and even money won't buy you gaming buddies for very long.


Jeremy Starley: Yes, someone did earn the items that other players buy. If you yourself earned the in game currency to purchase it, then it's all fine and dandy. If you bought it using your Discover card on Ebay, then you just tipped the in game balance using a real world resource that not everyone has abundant access to. That's bad for everyone but the people who can afford it.

On the other hand, everyone has some varying degree of time to devote to the game, or they simply wouldn't be playing it in the first place. To make things even all around, time needs to be removed as a constraint for quests, items, and levels. To clarify, one should not be able to achieve the highest levels by using an inordinate amount of time to "grind" to higher levels. Delivering orc toes to the magistrate one thousand times in a row for thirty real world hours should net you less experience than doing one two hour quest that involves slaying an ogre and rescuing a princess from his ruined castle. Effort and some small degree of skill should be a much bigger factor in advancing in game than oodles of real world time and money.

Also, just as a counter point: Developers do show regard for inflation and the economy in general. This is why they build in currency sinks like repair costs, rent, and travel expenses. This is why they remove people who are screwing it up in a major way. That money is taken out of rotation. (Unless you think Goomba the dwarven landlord is secretly selling it on Ebay...) The problem is, economies are something of a pain in the behind. Hundreds of thousands of real world economists are trying to fix them every day, yet they still run rampant. What chance does a small team of developers have to conquer utter chaos like that?


Dan Fortier: My point on the game economy was simply that they pretty much set themselves up by giving players virtually unlimited access to gold, via mobs and quests, which pretty much comes from thin air. In a mostly player run economy, that money goes back into circulation instead of being hoarded by NPCs. Unless everything is balanced perfectly then you will always have inflation, but that's another topic entirely. Like it or not, these sites like IGN are helping people who enjoy the depth that MMOs’ offer, but simply don’t have the time to invest to reach the endgame. It’s a shame the developers brought it on all of us with their shortcuts to content.

I don't think you can really blame people for wanting some way around spending half their life killing pitiful AI just fight another player without being run over. Unfortunately, the consumer is a loser both ways, they are paying for the game on both ends whether they are earning the wealth or buying it. It's simply a matter of supply and demand economics and until there are no items that require dozens of man hours to acquire, we will continue to see this kind of commerce.


You can comment on this debate here.

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