So far in our four-part investigation of gold trading - the grey market for in-game currencies, services and items in MMOs - Nick Ryan has introduced us to this shady business, investigated the lives and motivations of the gold farmers and sellers themselves, and talked to the games' players about why they do - or don't - buy gold.
In this week's final instalment, Ryan gathers the opinions of the games' developers and operators on the trade so many of them say they want to stamp out. They talk tough and ban thousands of accounts. Yet are those in the MMO industry really playing double-ball when it comes to gold sellers, launching their own sanctioned products while lambasting those who purchase outside the game?
"For those who might be tempted to think that we are doing this so we could offer our own service, or because we do make money off their boxes... let me tell you this. I've been offered 'a piece of the action' both personally and corporately in the past if I will either turn a blind eye or help them in their actions. This would have netted me and/or Mythic a very, very tidy sum, far more than we would see from box sales. My answer was and always will remain the same:
"Go to hell."
So wrote Mythic (Warhammer Online) boss Mark Jacobs on his blog in autumn last year about his hatred for gold sellers. And Jacob's response, whilst more personal - and popular with fans - than most corporate entities might put out, did strike a chord. Clearly many, many gamers are fed up with spammers, scammers and hackers. Whether that image of the gold seller is 100 per cent true or not seems a moot point. Most MMO manufacturers and game studios remain heartily opposed to sanctioning real money trading (RMT), to give gold selling its formal name.
Yet at least two MMO firms - CCP (EVE Online) and Sony Online Entertainment (EverQuest) - have released sanctioned forms of RMT within their virtual universes, while another, Jagex (RuneScape), has changed the design of its game to combat the gold seller "threat". You could describe it as dipping a toe in the water, so far, and market leader Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft) has yet to follow suit.
It's not always easy to find a human being willing to be quoted inside such a large organisation (unlike Jacobs, above), but Blizzard did release a specific statement when I asked if the attitude there was likely to change.
"Many people don't realise that the companies selling services for World of Warcraft often target the players they've sold their services to," argues the spokesperson. "Once these companies have access to an account, they will often turn around and sell the equipment and gold on the account or the actual account itself - if not immediately, then at some point down the line. In effect, players actually end up purchasing gold, items, or entire accounts stolen from other players. In addition, these companies are even sometimes able to use the player's account-login information to wreak further havoc in the player's life by accessing other private information outside of World of Warcraft.
"Our development, community, customer service, anti-hack and legal teams all work hard to stop the exploits these companies use, educate our players and help those who have become victims of their services," Blizzard says.
"Beyond the direct impact that these companies can have on individual players, their actions end up affecting everyone who plays World of Warcraft in that the time and effort we have to put into assistance, education and our various countermeasures ends up taking time away from our normal development and customer service efforts."
The company has posted a page about the subject up at its WOW site. Basically, it states that all of the content in World of Warcraft is the property of Blizzard Entertainment, and Blizzard does not allow "in game" items to be sold for real money. The company even goes so far as to suggest this is "illegal". As a final warning, the company says that purchasing in-game property from sellers on personal and public auction sites "can result in a suspension of the involved account, and at the very least, deletion of the offending items".
A generic answer, perhaps, but it would be surprising to think that the world's largest MMO manufacturer had not at least entertained the thought of launching its own, sanctioned RMT. After all, barbershops and even paid-for sex changes have come about due to player demand in World of Warcraft. As we'll see, other developers are more candid about the battles - and strategies - involved in the gold-selling wars.