It's a multi-billion dollar trade, yet denied in public by most players. In the first of a four-part weekly feature series, Nick Ryan reports on the current state of the thriving grey market in MMO currencies, characters and items. Future instalments will look at this shady virtual business from the perspectives of the gold traders themselves, the games' players, and the developers who make and run MMO games. This week, we offer an overview of this burgeoning and controversial market - and wonder why, if it's such big business, so few admit to doing it.
Is gold selling like pornography: something more of us do than admit? A shameful secret, something indulged alone and at night, in front of the screen; or during a lunchbreak, safely away from a partner, when a quick credit card or PayPal transaction will go unnoticed by others in-game?
Secret or not, we all hate 'gold sellers'. Apparently. Despise them, even. Ask your friends or colleagues: how many will openly admit to buying services from a gold farmer? Not many. And the ones that do probably harp on just as loudly against them as the next person.
But just who are these scourges of the gaming world? You probably know them as the anonymous figures plaguing your trade chat, offering great deals for game currency, power-levelling services, or the sale of rare items and recipes. In games such as World of Warcraft, the infamous random whisper from a level 1 - "Hello, are you there?" - quickly leads to a macroed advert if you bother to reply. With the well-known 'grind' present in most massively multiplayer online games, how many of us have been tempted to take that short cut?
The received wisdom, as we'll see later from the major games companies, is that such outfits are as good as organised crime: they support and promote hacking and stolen accounts and credit cards. They are not merely a nuisance and headache, but a plague to be stamped out which costs us all millions of greenbacks.
Yet if there was no demand, there'd be no market, and no gold sellers. On the contrary, gold selling - or "real money trading" (RMT) to give it its emasculated, industry name, defined as the real-world sale of virtual goods and services produced in online games - is now worth an estimated USD 2 billion annually. And that figure is growing.
Are more and more of us secretly buying gold and power-levelling services? Certainly when Mythic (Warhammer Online) boss Mark Jacobs posted on the topic back in autumn last year, he stirred up a huge response.
"I hate gold sellers/spammers," said Jacobs. "No, that's not strong enough, let me try again. I HATE GOLD SELLERS WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING. Ah, that's better... And now that they have taken their obnoxiousness to new levels with gold service spamming, I HATE GOLD SPAMMERS EVEN MORE NOW THAN EVER BEFORE." He went on, in a highly personal tirade, to claim that "we have been banning these jerks like crazy."
"We don't wait and let them stay in the game and ban them en masse, my guys ban their useless, time-consuming butts right away. We have a strike team whose sole job it is to get these guys off our servers as quickly as possible." He even introduced a public ban message every time a spammer was kicked. Messages like "Tchar'zanek has ordered the slaughter of [Spammer] and all others of his kind who weaken the Raven Host by providing wealth and power to the unworthy" became commonplace.
Jacobs finished by saying: "We are in for a real fight against these bottom-feeders and it will be a long and costly battle, but it's one we are going to take to them and this is only the first step. After all, this is WAR..."
There followed hundreds of messages in support of his post.