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Antonio Hernandez is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it any more. As a long-time player of the world's most popular massively multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft, he's spent the last two years watching the in-game economy being utterly devalued by the actions of companies selling virtual currency to players for real money.
They're called "gold farmers", a piece of net slang which refers to groups of people in low-income countries who are employed purely to play games like World of Warcraft. They attain large stocks of virtual cash and sell it on at a dollar premium.
Explained in simple terms like that, it sounds utterly ridiculous - people paying real money to acquire in-game currency? Chinese "sweatshops" filled with low-wage workers playing orcs, dwarves and elves? Depending on which angle you look at it from, gold farming either sounds like an outlandish idea from a cyberpunk novel, or a sad reflection on first-world society. Or both.
However, the reality of the situation is that gold farming represents a very real problem for companies who operate MMOG games - and for the players of those games, who see the balance of resources in their games being destroyed by an influx of players whose sole objective is to make gold and sell it to others.
Which brings us back to Antonio Hernandez. Like many World of Warcraft players, he hates gold farmers - but he has decided to take the matter into his own hands. This week, he instigated a class-action lawsuit against IGE, the biggest gold-farming company in the world, alleging that they have profited from deliberate interference in the enjoyment WoW's subscribers.
It's tough to see Hernandez winning this case, but even if he does, it's eminently unlikely that it will have much impact on the inexorable rise of the gold farmers. What the case will do, however, is draw further attention to IGE - the leading company in this field, and perhaps the firm which has done most to legitimise gold farming as part of the videogaming ecosystem.
Although IGE's biggest business comes from World of Warcraft, the firm provides in-game currency for 14 different MMOGs - everything from EverQuest through to recent arrival Lord of the Rings Online.
Its highly professional website is covered in logos attesting to the firm's reputation as an online retailer, and is translated into French, German, Japanese and Korean. Buying in-game currency from the firm is a highly automated, well-implemented process, with good communication, order tracking and prices set based on availability and demand.
What's more, IGE has firmly lodged itself within the MMOG ecosystem - and has made impressive moves towards establishing its credibility with MMO players. Last year, the company acquired popular MMO website Allakhazam, which includes vast databases of statistics, information and guides for popular massively multiplayer titles. Other database sites routinely used by MMO players, such as World of Warcraft's Thottbot, also belong to IGE.
Keenly aware of the hatred some players hold for gold farmers, IGE has resisted the temptation to brand those sites, or to advertise on them; but nevertheless, the connection exists. It's a foot in the door for IGE and its ilk - but the gold farmers' courtship of respectability doesn't stop there. Gamers will take a long time to change their minds about gold-selling practices, but the multi-billion dollar industry behind MMOs could move a lot faster.
A few paragraphs ago, I referred to gold farming as a very real problem for MMO companies, and that's entirely true; however, it's also a very real opportunity for the same companies. Certainly, in its present form, gold farming can damage gameplay and destroy other people's enjoyment of an online world.
However, it's unlikely that it will go away, despite the actions of angry players like Antonio Hernandez or the various technical measures used by firms such as Blizzard to ban the farmers. As such, the question being asked by many MMO firms is straightforward - why not embrace it as part of the business model?
That's why Sony Online Entertainment earlier this year hired former IGE executive Dave Christensen - a move which was roundly slammed by the MMO community. SOE is by no means at the top of the MMO game any more, but despite this, the gamer outcry at bringing an IGE executive into the fold feels a bit like building sand walls against a tsunami. SOE's stance is logical; companies like IGE aren't going to go away, so finding some way to build a cash-for-gold service into Sony's business model makes sense.
It makes sense not least, in fact, because doing so will allow companies to build games that allow players to buy gold without damaging the economy for everyone else. The biggest problem with gold farming is not some kind of overbearing moral question, as some gamers appear to believe; the problem is that it unbalances games and destroys in-game economies. That problem exists because bought gold is a factor which designers don't allow for in creating MMO titles.
The irony here is that, if anything, World of Warcraft is proof that a game gold business can work. The game has encouraged an explosion in the gold farming industry, and not just because of its own vast commercial success.
WOW uses gold as a "speed bump" for players, essentially pausing their progression through the game while they save up currency to buy their way to the next stage - be it a new type of mount, new armour, or new skills. The really desirable items in the game can't be bought, so people still have to play in order to get them; in this regard, gold farming has little impact on the game.
The question, then, for anyone buying gold is simply this; how valuable is your time? If saving up gold is a tedious part of gameplay which is merely there to prolong the game experience and prevent you from reaching end-game content too quickly (which it is), and you consider your time to be worth more than a handful of dollars per hour, then buying gold is a perfectly logical thing to do.
The success of IGE proves that many gamers think this way; what remains is for MMO operators to bite the bullet and accept that this is something which many of their subscribers want to do. It's foolish for them to leave it out of their designs, and business models, for much longer.
Despite this, it's likely that it will take some time before gold sales are fully incorporated into the MMOG business - there's simply too much resistance to the idea from a vocal part of the community, and of course, companies must take that into account. Gold farming is an unpopular idea, and this has become a matter of dogma for many players.
However, it's clear that not all players feel that way - and as the market for MMOGs expands, the lure of a new revenue stream is likely to prove far stronger than the objections of a minority. The biggest threat to IGE, indeed, isn't the anger of gamers or Antonio Hernandez's lawsuit. It's simply that in a few years, IGE's existence will be pointless, because companies like Blizzard, SOE and NCsoft will also be selling gold - their own gold.
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