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Real Money, In Game Items

Jon Wood Posted:
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Staff Writer Jon Wood Examines the Idea of Game-Run Item Sale

Editor's Note: This editorial only examines the effect and concept of game-sanctioned or run resale of in-game items for real world cash. The effect of companies like IGE who run similar operations for a great profit without the blessing of game companies is the subject of a forthcoming article.

Right now, this is one of the most hotly debated issues on the internet. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft strictly prohibits profit from in-game products. Sony Online Entertainment, on the other hand, encourages the practice (albeit within the confines of their own “Station Exchange”). Should it be done? Of 3956 votes tabulated (as of August 24th, 2005), an overwhelming majority of 55.7% answered that it ruins games, while only 5.7% felt that it was “wonderful”. Why is it then that it happens at all? Should it happen? Is it wrong for players to buy an edge over non-buying players?

Sony Online Entertainment recently announced the first month’s figures from “Station Exchange”, their own forum for the sale of in-game goods. According to SOE, over 45,000 characters from EverQuest II have been active on the exchange and have spent over $180,000 USD. In ONE month. Over half of the items that go up for sale end up selling, and 60% of those end up selling for $20 or less. The monetary limit over there in the Exchange is $2,000. Someone met that price when one user paid that much for one character (Iksar, level 50 Fury/ level 50 Sage).

Of the $180,000 spent, $80,000 was spent on characters and $10,000 was spent on various and sundry items. The figure that game me the most immediate pause, however, was the $90,000 that had been spent on in-game coin. That’s right, digital bronze, silver, gold and platinum pieces brought in the most money in this venture. SOE has reported that 1 platinum piece sells for an average of over $8. If we assume that gold is the equivalent of the base currency in the game (like the US dollar or British Pound), we can put this into perspective. Take that $8 platinum. We know that there are 100 gold in a platinum. That makes our base currency (gold) worth $0.08 USD. I suppose I just find it personally odd that we can take an in-game item and ascribe a real life price to it. I suppose I should not be surprised. More and more MMORPGs are looking to provide a livable alternative to real life. Players are spending more and more time online, 31.3% of our readers who responded to our poll play between 4 and 8 hours a day. If we think of the average time for sleep to be 8 hours a day, work or school to be 8 hours a day and 6 hours a day to be average playing time, that only leaves 2 hours a day to spend money on real-life goods and services. It is not a surprise then that players are choosing to spend more of their money on in-game merchandise, couple that with a society (albeit an online society) that respects the powerful and it is no wonder that people are spending money rather than time to gain that wealth and power.

Another question that raises itself in this story is whether or not these practices are fair. Let’s face it. Most of us can’t drop $2,000 to pick up a level 50/50 character and have to do it the hard way: with lots of time and energy. I think that’s where people get annoyed. They work hard to get the status that they have, while someone else can come in and surpass them using only their checkbook. That is, however, the way that society generally works. Some people work long and hard to make a product that sustains them, while others swoop in and buy everything that they need. So, what’s the difference? I mean, our society is not new to online trade. Look at sites like eBay, where people sell all kinds of things there (including contraband in-game items, a quick search on eBay for World of WarCraft turned up dozens of offers of in-game items or characters). Game economies are becoming more and more complex and closer to our real-world economy anyway. Many would argue that there is nothing wrong with this kind of gaming. Heck, I remember playing marbles as a kid. The object was to get as many as you could. Then some other kid would show up with a whole hoard of new ones, many more than I ever had, or could really compete with. No one ever really complained about that. Some would also argue that if you’re not playing a PvP game, then it really should not matter to anyone else what you do or how you play.

Using a “my character is no concern of yours” argument, Valaruk, an MMORPG.COM member, had an interesting take on the situation. “It's all a question of perceived value. For someone who spends 50+ hours a week playing a game it may make sense to them to purchase a character for $2000 if the utility (enjoyment) they receive from the character is worth more to them than the cash. Also remember that they aren't purchasing a consumable resource; they will still have the option of reselling that character to recoup at least some of their initial investment (you can even make money this way if your lucky/have lots of time to spend developing a character)”.

The other side of the coin is players arguing against this kind of gaming. “If they allow it on my server, I'm out, plain and simple”, says anarchyart in our forums. Players making this kind of argument might tell you that this kind of practice unbalances a game. That the game’s economy is not built for it. They might tell you that people who buy characters and items are nothing but cheaters, looking to get an edge. Some have even speculated that developers might use their power to profit further from their in-game power. Minimum, an MMORPG.com member, had this to say on our forums: “Why would I play a game where the developers have a direct financial interest in the items and content?” Most of all, they will say that it isn’t fair. They will say that people should earn their prestige in these games. These games are seen by many as a leveling field. Somewhere those regular social conventions (such as wealth) get thrown out the window and the “little guy” gets a chance to shine. Buying items and characters destroys this.

You may want to know who wins this argument. I am afraid that there really does not seem to be a convincing answer. I can offer you only some thoughts of my own. I think that at times, people lose sight of what they are doing. These are games and are meant to be fun. I truly believe that there is room for both opinions in the wide world of MMO gaming. While people may criticize SOE for their choice, I believe that in opening this service to only two of the game’s servers, they are giving the players who are against this practice another option where real life pocketbooks will not play a role in their game – at least not legally.

Bottom Line on Real Life Money Buying In-Game Goods: It is here. There is not much that can be done about it. Items and characters are being sold online every day, even for games that have policies against it. SOE may be bold, bringing such a controversial (and somewhat unpopular) feature to the mainstream of their game, but I believe that what they are doing is a good thing. I think that this kind of service has the potential to keep the two sides at least somewhat separated so that everyone can enjoy their game, their way.


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Jon Wood