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.
Smashing the spammers
Whilst MMO producers have tried to crack down, hard, upon the gold sellers where they can, Richard Heeks of Manchester University argues that controls on gold farming "may introduce other 'disutilities' for regular players".
"In 2008," he says, "RuneScape forums were flooded with players complaining about what they perceived as the deterioration in gameplay since anti-gold-farmer controls were introduced by Jagex at the end of 2007."
In fact, a former Jagex source tells me that when Jagex banned all IPs connected to gold selling, "they lost 10 per cent of their membership, and still haven't recovered in terms of numbers since they did it two years ago. Even though they have almost stopped gold selling in RuneScape, it has cost them two million active accounts; i.e. there were four million players, there are now two million players, of which less than one million actually subscribe."
"With Jagex, it was all personal," he adds. "Andrew [Gower, Jagex founder] has always taken it personally - he's a gamer."
Few companies will divulge exact numbers of accounts banned, nor how swiftly they are managing to deal with the problem, other than to say: they are. There are some exceptions to the rule, of course. Jagex spokesperson Adam Tuckwell, admits, for example, that the company had problems back in 2007 "which were taking up vital development time fixing, rather than developing new content of our players".
"The game was becoming increasingly overcrowded with [gold sellers'] bots, exploiting bugs and scamming legitimate players out of items and their accounts," he explains. "RWT [real world trading] was the source of the majority of rule-breaking in RuneScape and without removing it, RWT could have ruined the game."
Tuckwell says that while real world traders claim they are running legitimate businesses, in reality it is akin to organised crime.
"There is a whole industry built up around it, exploiting cheap labour and involving illegal activities. The majority of bots that we ban from members have been paid for with stolen credit card numbers.
"Such accounts don't earn us money, they cost us money in bank refund charges - money that could be better spent on creating new content for our players; money that could help us increase the level of support our players receive. Also, in the longer term, if we had continued to experience these problems with account fraud, then it could have led to us no longer being able to accept credit card payments from legitimate players."
His point is taken up by Brad Wilcox at Sony Online Entertainment, which handles the EverQuest games as well a large portfolio of other MMO titles.
"We're affected by the cost of dealing with the credit card fraud, and the contacts that are generated by the customers who have fallen victim to the compromised accounts and are just tired of the 'spammers/botters' within the game," he says.
Ditto, replies Ned Coker of CCP, which produces EVE Online: "We actively hunt down and ban ISK [in-game currency] sellers whenever and wherever we find them, with a dedicated effort from our game master team. The main reason for that is those accounts are more often than not associated with credit card fraud, account hacking and using macros. All of this affects the game experience for our regular players in a negative way, and hence we do all that we can do in order to minimise these illegal activities within the game."
He adds: "Some are pretty savvy, going to lengths that would astound even the most ardent financial criminals in the real world. But there's always a trail and we eventually track them down."
However, he says that the EVE economy is "so massive and resilient" that the gold sellers have little overall effect or power over its 66 regional markets and 260,000-plus players. But he agrees that gold selling does cost the company money, in terms of manpower and financial resources.
"The financial costs are mostly related to the use of fraudulent charges on credit cards and account hackings. The manpower resources simply mean that we need to spend more customer support time dealing with RMT spamming, etc. It is therefore something that no game-developing company wants to deal with, but all must do so."
At Jagex, Adam Tuckwell says that the RuneScape game engine, its code, has been altered many times to break macro programs. "The first Random Event - we call them anti-macro events (AMEs) - was added to the game one month after the March 2004 release of RuneScape 2. As the game has grown, the demand for gold has grown with it, so it is worth gold sellers' time to make smarter bots.
"We keep developing technologies to combat it, but it's like an arms race, we stop bots, they improve their macros, we stop them, they improve again. The longer we keep doing this, the harder it's going to be to keep stopping bots. If we don't break that vicious cycle now," he maintains, "it would just keep getting worse and worse. It could reach a point where macro software becomes undetectable."
During 2006, Jagex banned accounts carrying RuneScape gold and items worth over 200 billion. During 2007, it banned over 525 billion, which had a real-world value of over USD 2.6 million - an increase of over 250 per cent. "At that rate of growth," he said, "we'd be looking at banning over 8 trillion in 2010 - that's 8,000 billion - which has a real-world value of over USD 40 million. It's an almost unbelievably high number, but it hammers home the sheer size of the problem we are facing and why we had to take action against it."
In EverQuest, Sony's Brad Wilcox says the company has worked on two fronts to tackle the problem. "First of all we have formed a team of game experts that are able to find, track and then ban those that are participating in this activity. We call this team the 'N.U.G.I.T', which stands for Norathian Underground Gnome Investigation Team.
"Together with the game developers, who have created various tools and logs, the individuals on this team spend their day finding and tracking individuals that participate in RMT, remove the ill-gotten gains from the worlds and ban the accounts of these individuals. On the other side, we have put additional security measures in place to track the use of perceived stolen credit cards, so that accounts cannot be created. Last year alone we banned over 135,000 accounts."
Bowing to the market
It's certain that MMO developers are talking to one another about the best methods of tackling the problem. "I know that other companies in the industry have the same issues," says Sony's Brad Wilcox. "We have met and talked with them and shared best practices."
"These gold-sellers are businessmen. They're in it for the money and are going to be looking at the bottom line: their profits," agrees Adam Tuckwell of Jagex. "The key phrase is 'not profitable'. We're changing our game in a way that doesn't negatively affect its gameplay, but which makes real-world trading not worth the effort."
He mentions that Jagex has looked at any number of different possible solutions to the spammers and bots. "We read independent studies and spoke with other people in the MMORPG industry. Ultimately, the consensus was that the only way to remove the real-world trading market was to develop your game so you cannot make unbalanced trades.
"An unbalanced trade is where one player trades something of value to another player, but does not receive something back of roughly equal value. Real-world traders have used this method to trade millions of gold pieces in exchange for nothing in game, as they will already have been paid in real money. Removing unbalanced trade will mean real-world traders can't do this, so there is no way for them to deliver gold to buyers - and if you can't sell gold, why bother farming it in the first place?"
"The difficult part was not the removal of unbalanced trade," he says, "but the creation of new content to replace what would be lost. This change was not taken lightly, we've exhausted all the alternatives. We've tried countless ways to defeat real-world trading and considered many other options to end this problem. Unbalanced trade is going from RuneScape; if anything gets lost alongside it we can find it again, new and improved, with the help and support of our players." Whatever a player now trades directly in the game has to be traded with an item of similar value.
This is a substantial change, says Tuckwell, and in order to keep the game enjoyable and ensure that trade could still happen, Jagex introduced the 'grade exchange', essentially a stock exchange, for players to sell their items to the highest bidder. "This allowed players to buy and sell items at market rates, while removing the RWT threat," he claims.
Other studios have taken the concept even further. Recently CCP designed and introduced the "Pilot's License Extension" (or PLEX) system to EVE. This allows gamers to turn their game-time codes into two 30-day in-game items (the Pilot's License Extensions). They can then trade or sell these items for in-game currency, ISK.
"This systems allows players to expand the EVE universe by effectively subsidising other players with game time," said CCP's Ned Coker. "Hence, the player experience is not negatively affected by this trade, but the effect is positive since more legit players can now play the game. All you need to play EVE is some ISK."
CCP also introduced EVE time cards (ETC), a means of paying for a subscription through the in-game purchase of the cards using ISK. "This allows more advanced players to generate the needed ISK to pay for their characters without any real money," said Coker. "The ETC sellers are also players and they gain in-game ISK in trade for the purchase and resale of the ETCs."
Similarly, over in EverQuest, SOE has introduced 'Station Exchange', which Wilcox called an "official auction service that provides players a secure method of buying and selling the right to use in-game coin, items and characters in accordance with SOE's license agreement, rules and guidelines." In March 2008, Station Exchange was moved across to Live Gamer and its Live Gamer Exchange service. However, this is only available on two EverQuest II servers right now.
Changes and the Future
Could we one day see MMO developers and gold sellers co-operating and working together? "Benjamin", marketing manager for China's largest gold seller, SwagVault, is not optimistic - yet.
"Personally, I don't think gold sellers can cooperate with online game publishers under the current mode. The most probable trend is that the games become 'free-to-play', and the operators sell gold or other in-game items by themselves. There are a lot of so-called F2P MMOs, and they mainly get revenue from selling in-game items.
"One of the most famous examples is a Chinese online game developer and operator - Giant Interactive Group, they got listed in the NASDAQ by selling in-game items in ZhengTu, a game they developed and published in China. So I don't think the game publishers will be willing to share the cake with the gold sellers.
"However, the RMT market will exist forever. Actually, RMT involves not just in-game currency selling, but also involves power-levelling services, items and accounts trading, and it's impossible that the publishers provide everything the gamers desire. So," he chuckles, 'Where there is demand, there is market!'"
According to Vili Lehdonvirta of the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, an expert on virtual consumerism, real money trading is now well-established outside of the MMO sphere.
"Several Korean online games successfully sell performance-based items to users," he says in his recent report Virtual item sales as a revenue model: identifying attributes that drive purchase decisions. In Kart Rider, he mentions, players can purchase faster vehicles and items that improve their chances of winning by hindering other players.
CCP's Coker suggests that the industry is still young, and very much coming to terms with its fast-evolving user base (us, the players): "It's maturing quickly. Companies will find ways to deal with RMT activity and they will do so in different manners, depending on the initial game design. We do not foresee that CCP will go down the same road as EverQuest, but we will have innovative new ways of dealing with the core of the problem. One such innovative solution is the PLEX system."
For Brad Wilcox at Sony, the problem of 'gold selling' remains far more elemental. "I just want to point out," he says, "that the only reason that this problem exists is that people purchase the gold, items, accounts or services from these [gold selling] companies. If no-one did it they would not be in business. If you purchase an item or service from one of these companies, you are as guilty as those that are 'botting', 'farming' or 'spamming'."
Just as I was finishing writing this story, another friend from a long-established role-playing guild on my realm in World of Warcraft posted another tale of lament. Their guild leader had been hacked - twice. When the players tried to whisper the spammer who'd taken over their beloved leader, all they got in response was: "10k gold". The second response from him was: "DELETEEEEE". Five seconds later, four realms' worth of accounts had been cleared.
It's a sobering experience. And one still all-too-common in the virtual worlds we now so increasingly inhabit.
Nick Ryan is a journalist and producer, author of Homeland: Into a World of Hate (Mainstream).