In my last Monthly Musings blog I discussed how sex was used as an offensive and profitable tool in early online games. While the decreased cost of webcams and digital media has nullified some of the more opportunistic and shady online transgender pretenders, another practise has risen to proliferation in its place.
I speak of the heinous cash for gold/silvers/platinum/credits/ISK/characters/ratings/achievement points/ et al. phenomenon.
Harking back again to my Gemstone IV days I recall the very first inkling of $$ 4 Cyber Goods. Rumours were rampant at the time (1997?) that a particularly powerful sorcerer had tired of the game and literally “sold out”. Via a couriered cheque the player had sold his account with all his items for approximately $3,000. Not an inconsiderable chunk of change for lines of text and code.
Soon more characters were being traded for cash or in-game wealth. Something was bound to go wrong. Which it did when a GM also decided to quit, selling his account with various GM related items (such as one that granted infinite silvers and exp) still in his possession. Simutronics, the parent company, caught on to this growing trend, and imposed a $15 surcharge for each character trade.
Soon everything was for sale: silvers, items, characters, even in game-real estate. With the birth of PayPal even international movers and shakers such as myself could get in on the fun.
That’s right, I’ll admit it, I bought and sold various things for cash in the game.
Mainly it was silvers. A character to trade here and there. Even some armour on eBay for $50. Laugh all you want. Call me a nerd who wasted my money. Perhaps I was. But on the flip side I once sold a sword I had acquired for $1000. Your cat-calls of dweeb don’t sound so hilarious now do they?
Gemstone being a small MUD only saw the beginning of this phenomenon. Virtual items have gone under the hammer in nearly every MMO and online game since. In WoW we have gold sellers, levelling services. Eve has its ISK farmers. Even XboX Live has drones offering their services (for a premium) for accomplishing those annoying achievements. Effectively every sand-box world has people willing to grind or develop scripts to grind in order to sell in-game services or currency for real world cash.
Many games, including most browser-based free-to-play games, offer extra items, perks or bonuses via micro-transactions conducted with real life money. Maple Story (the 3rd most successful MMO of 2008), Shanda and Dungeon & Dragons Online all feature this system.
Comparably the paradigm (in PC retail, at least) has shifted now from real life media to virtual data. Is spending your hard earned pennies on an intangible game on Steam any different from buying a flashy new intangible mount for your level 80 in Warcraft?
Consider also how many of the top-end MMOs are pay-to-play. Is buying in-game resources any less peculiar than paying to access a virtual world in the first place?
So is this practise right, wrong, stupid, genius, geeky, cutting-edge?
The typical argument against is that you’d be foolish, nay retarded, to not only risk your credit card details, your account (in games where it is illegal), and your money for items that do not exist in a physical sense. Opposing this philosophy are gamers who insist that they save valuable in-game time, have more fun because of the enhanced options their cash buys, and that, fundamentally, it’s their money to spend on what they want at the end of the day.
Regardless of the argument it all comes down to a simple question that each gamer much consider: does the effort equal the reward?
Does the time it takes to make the money in real life equate to more or less the amount of fun or time-saved in the game you’ll be spending it?
I’ll explain: I’m playing World of Warcraft. It takes me say three hours to grind one thousand gold. That is three hours of mind-numbing questing, ore-node farming, auction-house hugging etc. Also bear in mind that is a best-case scenario. No annoying PKers, no inflated AH etc.
Now consider that it costs me around 12 euros to buy that 1k from a shady gold-seller. Theoretically, even at minimum wage I can spend two hours at work and then purchase my gold with my money.
So the choice: spend time out of game to spend time in the game doing more fun, useful things. Or spend my money on real life things, and then spend an extra three hours in the game earning money to buy in-game things.
There is of course risk. You could get your account banned. You could get scammed.
In that instance it is basic risk versus reward.
Otherwise you must judge whether or not the effort, in & out of the game, is worth the reward in the game.
Is the effort worth the reward?
Like it or hate it, it’s clear that many think the effort of spending a little cash to enhance their gameplay is reward enough for their hard work. They argue that it is no different from spending your money on say a gaming mouse, or a strategy guide, or indeed any hobby that you enjoy.
Regardless or your preference though, it often comes down to whether or not whomever runs the games wish to keep micro-transactions illegal for the most part (such as Blizzard), or support it and gain from it in the style of Gemstone’s $15 character transfer fee.
Blizzard itself has a no-holds-barred policy in regards to such people infringing on their turf, often banning slews of gold-farmers, levellers as well as the people who happen to use their services. Famously their most prominent victory in this arena was against the website Peons4Hire in 2008.
Previously eBay had also put a stop to virtual items sales with a change of policy, but did that or Blizzard’s successful lawsuit diminish the amount of spamming, usage of, or demand for such services?
One could also find incredible irony in the fact that while Blizzard so staunchly rails against third-party micro-transactions, it is all for players spending “extra-curricular” cash on in-game items from its own store. The success of the celestial steed can only herald more similar developer supported DLC.
With Paypal and psychotic Chinese Gold-Farm operations becoming far more accessible and far more lucrative, there is no easy solution to this situation. It is going to continue. Which companies maintain a hardline policy against such activities as apposed to those who will capitulate or soften their approach will be interesting to see in the coming years.
The giants (Blizzard, Activision etc) can afford to be stubborn. But what of the developers of
smaller-scale “freebie” games? Revenue of any type (subscription, advertising, micro-transaction) is crucial in remaining both prominent and afloat, let alone successful.
But ultimately the choice will be ours. It’s our dollar, our cash. And while many will whine and complain that those with the extra money will be getting an “unfair advantage”, isn’t it just as easy to say “life is unfair”? Should the game world be exempt from economic circumstance? That’s a discussion for another time, I suspect.