Um… This Is Kinda A Big Deal

June 29, 2009

The People’s Republic of China bans real money trading.

No. REALLY.

“The virtual currency, which is converted into real money at a certain exchange rate, will only be allowed to trade in virtual goods and services provided by its issuer, not real goods and services.” it said.

China has the world’s largest population of Internet users, with 298 million people online as of the end of last year.

According to media reports, the virtual money trade topped several billion yuan last year after rising around 20 percent annually.

China being the largest MMO market in the world, and many Chinese MMOs being dependent on RMT for their income — this will have some ripples.

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Oh, COME ON, People

June 8, 2009

Porn star paid $500,000 to have an RMT site’s logo and URL engraved on her assets.

I mean… really. Come on. I know it’s Monday, but… really. I see terabytes of “pics or it didn’t happen” in our future. And it’s an ugly, cold future.

But as always when gold farming is involved, THERE ARE SHENANIGANS.

I have done the unthinkable and actually researched this mindblowingly retarded press release, and apparently “Anna Morgan” hasn’t appeared in any films, pornographic or otherwise. The IAFD, the porn version of the IMDB, returns no hits. Googling “Anna Morgan porn” returns… pages of entries about this press release.

I really hate to point out the stupidly obvious here, but if I was going to spend $500,000 on body modification advertising, I would spend it on a nubile starlet who had actually, you know, some notoriety. Heck, I’m pretty sure Paris Hilton would be down.

But really, if you want to know what’s going on… go to the source.

anang

So, to recap:

  • The porn industry is probably not branching out into WoW gold sales
  • One RMT web site has discovered a new way to gain tons of publicity through exploiting both the credulity of the media and, most likely, his girlfriend.
  • The Easter Bunny doesn’t exist, either.

SOE Adds RMT To Vanguard, Vision In A Corner Weeping Softly

March 16, 2009

SOE continued its adding RMT components to its games last week with the addition of LiveGamer support to Vanguard.

Notably, unlike Everquest 2 where Station Exchange (now operated by LiveGamer) was limited to a few new servers, Vanguard players were told that it was being added to the entire game. This is similar to the Station Cash item shop which was added to all Everquest and Everquest 2 servers last year; the differences being while StationCash is an “item mall” where SOE sells low-impact items such as decorative clothing and XP boost potions, Live Gamer is a player-to-player items-for-cash arbitrage. It was pitched as ‘voluntary’ since, you know, no one is actually forcing you to buy anything!

The ensuing discussion was somewhat heated. An SOE-penned FAQ which resulted from the thread had probably the clearest defense of corporate-sponsored RMT ever put to virtual print:

As several people have pointed out in the discussion thread, Real Money Transactions between individuals and 3rd party sites have been happening since the early days of MMOs.  What you may not know is that there are significant costs to game companies that result from homegrown transactions or unsanctioned 3rd party web site sales in our games.  Personal trades go bad (fraud) and 3rd party sites scam people and strip accounts, it’s a fact that SOE Customer Service been dealing with here since day 1 of EverQuest.

What happens when unsanctioned transactions like these go south?  Customers petition for help and sometimes it can take hours for a GM to research and get everything back to the way it was.  By providing a safe, secure, and sanctioned way for these types of transactions to take place for those that wish to participate, SOE is reducing CS costs while providing a little more to the bottom line.

So there you have it, RMT is here because you people keep doing it, so you might as well get it all sanctioned-like and save us some time.

The irony, of course, is that Vanguard, before its launch, positioned itself as the haven of the EQ hard core, standing bravely athwart the ramparts of history, watching the waves of easier gameplay and gold farmers break across the bow. In fact, IGE (back when they were the Bad Guys And Still Somewhat Relevant To The Discussion) actually funded buyouts of Vanguard player-run sites as a pre-emptive strike against… well, it’s not really clear what, any more.


RMT "Inevitable"? Not So Fast…

January 21, 2009

augustusRedBedlam/Roma Victor founder Kerry Fraser-Robinson, previously best known for crucifying his user base, gives an interview where he makes controversial statements to gain publicity on blogsexhorts game developers who dislike gold farming to suck up and deal with it.

The closer you get to having a virtual world that has any kind of trading, barter or value system you have to take virtual economics very seriously. I strongly recommend that people at least allow for purchase and sale of gold within their game, otherwise third parties will and that will ruin their game. Even if it’s not their central revenue model they’ll still need to do that, if it’s a subscription game, they’ll still need to have at least the awareness and preferably the capacity for people to buy and sell currency in their virtual world.

I think part of the resistance to that is the same thing I was alluding to earlier, it’s another discipline and no company really wants to accept that there is a missing area in their knowledge that is required before they can embark upon a project.

I tend to agree with his source assumptions, but not his conclusions – for example a subscription MMO is not compelled to create currency out of the ether and sell it (as Roma Victor, Fraser-Robinson’s title does) simply because gold farmers exist. And Eve Online, which Fraser-Robinson praises effusively, is not the end-all and be-all of virtual economic thought in MMOs. For example, the “grey market” in game time cards for in-game currency, I suspect, is not a savvy co-opting of gold farmers so much as, I suspect, an accidental consequence of an unrelated marketing decision. Of course, accidental design in MMOs has a long and glorious history – raiding is born from Everquest adding monsters effectively impossible to kill and players deciding that no, actually, they’d be killed anyway.

I’ve talked before about how MMO companies need to re-examine their business models, and explicitly how gold farming tends to be an inevitability of a free market. To wit:

No reputable subscription-based MMO will sell you gold because, well, you’re already paying them money. Charging for in-game money or items is double dipping, right? No one would stand for that. But clearly the market is there regardless. And as long as that market is not served internally by the game developers themselves, it will be served by people who not only do not act in the best interests of the game as a whole, but have a very real financial incentive to act contrary to the interests of the game as a whole – gold duping, hacking the client, farms of unattended macro bots, whatever. Whereas a game who has gold selling as a revenue model (and it can be done without making a Entropia Universe-esque ponzi scheme of gameplay – dual currency models being IMHO the best way of hitting this from the design standpoint) puts those bad actors elegantly out of business, because no matter how low salaries are in whatever sweatshop, a gold farmer will never be able to compete with a SQL query for the cost of doing business.

But being open to RMT does not equal being compelled to enable RMT. A successful market implies the availability of options; there is a fairly large segment of the market that wants nothing to do with microtransactions. These people should not be told to go hang, any more so than the people who dislike subscription fees and prefer more granular per-access transactions should be told to go hang. A truly free market requires a minimum of managing intervention and the availability of options.

And most importantly, the viability of virtual gold sales as a business model does not mean that it should be added to all business models. Players who do not mind microtransaction-level virtual currency transactions in a free to play title would – quite correctly in my view – feel double-dipped if hustled for cash in a title they already paid for, and pay on a monthly basis to access. Virtual gold sales is a business model. It is not all business models. Tossing it in willy nilly, regardless of the impact on the game’s economy, simply will convince your customers that you’re out for short term gain at the long term expense of your game’s health. And they’d be correct.

Simply throwing up your hands and saying “farming happens” is as much an abdication of development responsibility as deciding your customer service staff will just deal with it in their free time. Much as how the great majority of free to play games have been hindered in the Western marketplace not so much due to their business model as to their lack of quality in comparison to better funded and executed traditional games, a solution to gold farming and RMT will require a bit more forethought and design than “screw it, open up a shopping cart on our web site!”

Or, as Linden Lab just announced yesterday, buy shopping carts that other people came up with.


Requiem For A Gold Farmer

December 3, 2008

Julian Dibbell writes in Wired on the decline and fall of IGE.

At the same time, the so-called free-to-play model—no subscription fees, revenue derived entirely from direct sales of in-game items—has made inroads in the Asian MMO market and is being embraced by no less a gaming giant than Electronic Arts in the upcoming Battlefield Heroes. But both these models, in their blunt rejection of IGE’s third-party retail model, only underline what Pierce himself implicitly conceded when he sold out to Yantis: There is no future for his once-bright dream except in the dimness of what is plainly now a permanent gray market.


How To Stop Gold Farming

September 25, 2008

Link 1: Mark Jacobs describes the “naming and shaming” Warhammer is doing re: gold farmers
Link 2: Syp, Warhammer blogger, on the above link, with his own take
Link 3: Tobold on the above 2 links, with his own take
Link 4: Michael Zenke on the above 3 links, with his own take

This was something that very much was a worry on the project I was working on at NCsoft. From a professional standpoint, the type of game we were working on (fantasy MMO, free to play, mass market) would have been very attractive to gold farmers. From a personal standpoint, like Mark Jacobs, as a player I was sick of gold spam and as a developer I was profoundly sick of leeches profiting from hurting games I worked on. So this was something I wanted to solve. And because I am an egotistical bastard, I worked from the assumption that I could.  And since I’m now currently out of the MMO business, I thought I’d share some of the brainstorming I did, if for no other reason than smarter folks like you could tell me how full of it I am.

Warning: something about this post will piss you off. Just prepare for it and deal with it.

Postulate: RMT = Vice

Vice in the real world includes such happy subjects as drug sales and prostitution. Some people argue that they are victimless crimes. Others argue that they are signs of moral decay. Still others argue that aside from any moral implications they are damaging to society as a whole. But what is not inarguable is that there is a market for drugs and prostitution, regardless of their legal status. People are willing to break the law to buy and sell vice. It should not surprise us that the same holds true in online games. In online games that follow the high-fantasy kill things get points model, the vice is shortcuts. People will buy the points in lieu of killing things. This is not up for debate. It will happen. People will do it. You cannot stop it, because you cannot stop the human desire for vice.

The first decision: Prohibition or Legalization

This is clear cut, but will have significant impact on your game design and your support costs, whichever decision you take. Do you, as part of your design, prohibit or enable the buying and/or selling of in-game assets for real-world cash?

Most Western MMO players will insist on prohibition. This is the “moral” position. Gold farming is cheating, cheating is wrong, players should not cheat, we will not enable cheating. And since most MMO developers are also MMO players, this is by default the decision they take as well.  As Syp put it:

The problem lies with Mike[, a friend who purchased gold], and people like him. People who have no sense of morality or honor in online games. People who go ahead and buy gold to be instantly gratified, and a lesser extent, friends that see them do this and say nothing.

Those players will be enraged if you make the decision to legalize.  Many of them will simply not play your game because of that one decision. Yet there are many players who will buy and sell in-game assets for real-world cash. And some of them are the same players telling you they will not play if you make that decision legal. Because it’s vice. And few admit to vice.

There is also the point that if you legalize RMT, you can make the effort to control it – and in so doing profit from it. Again, this will be considered evil by your players, and probably by many of your developers. Will you make a decision based on gaming morality to not serve a market for your game?

If you are a free-to-play MMO, the decision is a bit looser, because you’re not making money off subscription fees, so the perception that you are greedy bastards trying to soak your players through in-game exploitation is less. (It will still exist. But it will be lessened.) And it also provides a revenue source for your game to actually exist. That’s kind of important, too.

To date, most subscription MMOs (all but Ultima Online and special Everquest 2 servers) have made the decision for prohibition. This is popular with their users (see the reaction to Warhammer’s naming and shaming) but is costly – someone has to stop all those gold farmers. The extreme example of prohibition is probably World of Warcraft, which has the operational budget to afford a truly massive customer service organization which has as a priority finding and banning gold farmers, and has gone to great lengths to automatically detect and suppress gold spamming in-game.

Yet it still happens. People still farm gold in World of Warcraft, still advertise it via means subtle and gross. Prohibition will never win. You will simply spend a given amount of money, and in turn gain a given level of suppression. That suppression will never reach 100%.

Which, again, should not be a surprise, since in the real world despite the huge budgets and judicial powers  given agencies like the DEA, vice in the real world still exists. You cannot legislate the marketplace out of existence. You can suppress it, much as the Soviet Union tried to suppress their own free market. But there will be costs, and if you do not pay those costs, the reaction from your players will be that your game is overrun with farmers and spammers and that you just don’t care. To quote Michael Zenke:

It’s 2008, and if you are still getting spammed by goldfarmers in-game it’s because the game developers want you to be. It’s as simple as that.

That is the perception you face. The players not only expect you to enact prohibition, they expect it to work. Which cannot happen. And when it does not happen, you will be blamed.

So, given all that, I made the decision for legalization. Which went against my every impulse as an MMO player, and my sense of self righteous fury as an MMO developer. Oddly enough, that was the most difficult part of the process – simply making the decision that we would not play King Canute at the beach.

Which, once you make that decision, leads into how.

The second decision: Arbiter or Dealer

Just because you have decided upon the legalization of vice does not mean that you immediately start issuing your players with free Heroin Injection Kits upon first login. In fact, now that the decision is made, you actually have to juggle what is a pretty classic game design problem: the illusion of free will.

Namely: you want the players to take an action, and you want them to think they made the decision to take that action, and you want them to take the action that results in moving the game forward. If that process is fun, you’re on the road to a fun game.

Legislated RMT is similar. You want the following to happen:

  • You control the in-game economy
  • You control what players are buying and selling
  • You influence the rates that players buy and sell at
  • You discourage other third parties from controlling these transactions
  • You profit from the transaction

There are valid reasons for all of these, and hopefully they are fairly self-evident – you want to control the game because you have a financial, professional and hopefully personal interest in its long term success. You discourage third parties because they do not share those interests and will encourage actions (such as gold farming) that will harm your game’s long term success.

Once you accept these reasons, the RMT transactions you foster organically follow. For example: you can’t directly sell in-game currency. Because if you do, you lose control of the in-game economy – the value of your game’s currency will deflate if people can just hit a lever and pump out gold. There are ways around this, but they involve an arms race of gold sinks that alienate your newer players and take over the economy of the game.

So instead of a dealer, you are an arbiter. You don’t create gold out of ether (well, your game does, but that’s another design discussion). You are instead the trusted broker who manages the buying and selling between players.

Luckily, the most effective way to do this is a solved problem. It’s called the dual currency model, and Matt Mihaly of Iron Realms/Sparkplay Media has what is probably the most coherent writeup of the design (primarily because it’s his company’s business model and has been for years.)

Then it occurred to me, in early ‘99: Everyone can get what he wants here. Simply turn credits into a currency and allow players to trade one currency (credits) for another (gold). Everybody wins!

* Paying User buys credits from Iron Realms, giving Iron Realms what it wants – revenue.

* Paying User sells those credits to Non-Paying User for gold, giving both Paying User and Non-Paying User what they want (the essence of healthy capitalism).

Effectively, what we did was allow non-paying players to sell the result of their time (through completing activities that require time, like quests and hunting) to the paying players, but only via a currency that had to be purchased from us to begin with. Suddenly, the teenager with lots of free time but not a lot of money could get anything in the game that paying players could get, and a busy professional who has disposable income but not nearly as much free time could gain large amounts of gold without having to spend the time in-game. (Of course, it’s important that paying players still have to play the game to achieve something that matters. There has to be some time investment on everybody’s part.) It was a win for everybody.

Go read all of it, it’s good and if you’ve made the decision to legalize, you will need to take notes. In fact, when he wrote that blog post, I sent him an email cursing him, because when the game I was working on came out, people would say I lifted our dual currency model from that blog post wholesale, because I had come to the same conclusions. Save one element – which Matt briefly alluded to in his post, and what I thought was going to be the ‘secret sauce’ that would finally drive a stake in third party gold farming. Which I’ll just cut to the chase now and tell all of you, because I’m nice like that.

The third decision: The ‘Secret Sauce’ (hint: it’s thousand island dressing!)

Even though I had come to terms with legalization, I had most definitely NOT come to terms with the more negative aspects of that legalization – specifically, gold farming/spamming/etc. I most definitely did not want that in our game. Yet with the dual currency model, we were not only enabling farming, we were ENCOURAGING it!

So. Why do people buy money from gold farmers? Simple – they want gold. Simple enough, right? They want gold badly enough to purchase it from bad actors.

Yet – the dual currency model also has within it the solution. As Matt wrote, one of the benefits of this model, ideally, is that it allows for a free market to develop between time-starved players with real-world wealth, and time-rich players without real-world wealth. The dual currency model allows this market to develop WITHIN the game, while in games with a single currency model, this market develops OUTSIDE the game (because the dual currency becomes, say, WoW gold and US dollars).

So, the ‘secret sauce’. Set up a special auction interface, ONLY for the exchange of in-game currency and RMT currency. Allow players to place buy and sell orders freely, one for the other.

But –

  • do not allow the players to know who is placing those buy and sell orders within the auction interface
  • enforce through the game rules that the ONLY place to exchange RMT currency between characters is that auction interface

A blind auction. ENABLE the free market of in-game and RMT currency between the game’s players. But DISABLE the ability for players to assign an out-of-game worth to that currency, outside of your own storefront.

(By the way, I’m under no delusion that a blind marketplace in MMOs is in any way original.) 

Now, of course, there is no realistic way, no matter what controls you place on RMT currency trading between players, of stopping out-of-game trading completely. Even if players cannot physically trade the currency, they simply will trade whatever the currency can buy and use that. Remember: prohibition does not work.

However, my belief – and this may well be false – is that enlightened self-interest does in fact work, and given the choice between patronizing other players and bad actors for RMT sales, players will patronize other players.

And that, I believe, would completely devastate the third party markets because there was no financial interest for that free market to develop external to the game.

It would not only slow gold farming, it would KILL it.

And that was what I wanted. Because as a developer I was profoundly sick of leeches profiting from hurting games I worked on. I wanted gold farming KILLED. And I was convinced this plan would work, and I could kill gold farming in our game.

Told you I was egotistical.


Hey, Everybody, It’s Time For Reader Mail!

April 17, 2008

From: Thomas Cheng [thomas.cheng@…]
To: Scott Jennings [my work email address, NOT the one posted here]
Subject: brokentoys.org’s blog
Sent: 4/17/08 6:17 PM

Hello,

I noticed on your website that you have blog posts that relate to the MMO gaming industry. We are in the virtual currency industry where MMO gamers buy and sell virtual items such as weapons and gold for popular online games such as World of Warcraft. We are wondering if you would be interested in posting a blog about the virtual currency industry, which is also known as RMT (Real Money Trading) which includes topics such as gold farming. We would be happy to supply you with any information from within the industry provided that you mention our company so that we can get some publicity.

Please let me know if you are interested. We have press releases ready and can provide you with additional information.

Regards,

Alex Chang
[company name, US postal address, phone number, fax number and email removed]

To: Clueless In RMT-Land

Hello,

I am your enemy, not your friend.

Regards,

Raving Ass With A Blog You Clearly Don’t Read That You Emailed At Work