In the last two weeks, Nick Ryan's four-part weekly feature series on gold trading - the grey market for in-game currencies, services and items in MMOs - has introduced us to this shady business, and investigated the lives and motivations of the gold farmers and sellers themselves.
Next week's final feature will gather the responses of the biggest and most influential MMO operators - some of whom condemn real-money trading, some of whom are working to build it into their games. But this week, Ryan talks to the people at the business end of the market - for better or worse - the players. Who are the players that use gold sellers? And do as many of us hate the thought of buying gold as we claim?
"When the gold rush comes to town, then you know about it. Like a plague of human locusts suddenly everything is consumed and then when the gold is gone, they vanish..."
The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, 1925)
There you are, in the pantomime that is your favourite MMORPG and up pops your best friend. Wait a minute ... he doesn't respond to 'tells', he's switching alts faster than you can type "Hang on" and within minutes the guild bank is cleared out, and Jonnie is sitting chatting in Mandarin to some elven floozie when you could swear he was from Wisconsin.
When he gets his account back (eventually), Jonnie swears he ran all the latest virus checkers and definitely doesn't download dodgy videos from the internet. So just where did the scammer get his details - and is this the typical face of gold sellers in MMOs today?
We could all name stereotypes when it comes to players who've used gold sellers and farmers to boost their characters. But as Professor Richard Heeks of Manchester University, an expert on real money trading (RMT) puts it rather clearly:
"The supply-demand economics of gold farming are very simple. Some people in the world have more money than time. Other people in the world have more time than money. The former demand finds the latter supply via various physical and virtual channels."
Most players, though, still tend to voice the negative when it comes to the gold-selling world. Take just a vox pop of players I've spoken to in World of Warcraft and other MMOs such as EverQuest and EVE Online recently:
"I'm very much against gold-selling and power-levelling services in WOW," claims Tod, a British WOW player in his early 40s. "Quite apart from any potential unbalancing effects on the in-game economy, to me it's cheating for any player to buy gold or get someone else to level up their character.
"I also get irritated at the gold sellers advertising their services by yelling in Orgrimmar, or whispering people and advertising their services if they get a reply. Either way, it's another reduction in the immersiveness of the game experience.
"But I don't really blame the gold farmers or power levellers," he adds. "I blame the people who set up these businesses and probably make most of the money."
Hungarian WOW player Konrád puts it a lot more bluntly: "It's a system of keyloggers. The account goes to a hacker; who then steals your gold or uses your account as a farm character, or both; and then sells your own gold back for real money if you do use this service. Now this is pretty f***ed up as everyone can see, besides it kills the fun in a game designed to interact with other people online and explore fantasy worlds and not to hear from level 1 characters whispering: 'Are you there?'"
Stieg, a 20-something player from Sweden, has tasted the gold selling experience from both ends of the spectrum.
"Except for having my account stolen from me once, and both emptied of gold and used to create one of those annoying gold-seller alts, I have little experience with gold sellers in WOW," he says.
"I can admit that I once bought gold in another MMO, though. I used to play Lineage II before I started with WOW. 'L2' has a cruel system of punishments when you die, and a very imbalanced economy. I died once, and dropped my sword. When I came back to the place where I fell, someone else had already picked it up.
"A new sword would cost 2 million adena [game currency], when a mob appropriate for my level dropped about 200 adena... And I couldn't kill them anyway, since I had no sword. As I saw it, I had either the option of buying a level 1 sword or similar, and spending months and months farming to perhaps be able to buy a sword closer to my level, or buy the gold I needed to be able to keep playing.
"I wouldn't do it in WOW though. I have a better understanding of how the gold sellers mess up server economy now, and WOW has a much kinder and more forgiving game system, so you won't find yourself locked in a situation such as had happened to me."
Others have a more nuanced understanding of the problem.
"My perspective on gold sellers really depends on where they get the gold from. Sure, the endless spam is annoying but not really the main problem," says Kerry, another British player in her early 20s.
"As long as the gold comes from grinding and selling resources, from playing the game or working the auction house economy, I'm perfectly happy for them to do so. It's their time, their effort and I can't see a real reason to be unhappy about it. The majority of the gold farmers, as far as I know, are time-rich and money-poor, but many of the paying players are time-poor and money-rich. If a player has a full-time job and simply does not have time to grind for hours to get gold to buy gear or a mount or whatever, they either can never have the item or can buy the gold. It's their money and their gaming experience, and it's their problem if they buy gold and make it too easy.
"If the gold is coming from hacked accounts, from activities that directly hurt players and waste peoples' time, then I'm very strongly against it. Could I accept my Tundra Traveller's Mammoth if I knew the gold to buy it came from three hacked and destroyed accounts? Probably not. I don't want to ruin the game for myself in that way regardless, but I'd feel guilty if I did not know for certain that the gold had come from a reasonably legitimate source.
"In my opinion," Kerry continues, "the best solution to this problem has already been tried and tested by CCP with EVE Online: In-game money can be bought in exchange for gametime card codes. Because of this there is no method to get real world money out of the exchange, as the card to buy the gold still returns money to the owning company. This creates a form of free market, and player competition for a sale/purchase dictates the rates and creates a game-legal means of obtaining gold, thereby removing the need to buy gold on a site and risk a ban. It may not kill the gold selling outright, but I would certainly predict a notable decrease."
"I buy gold," admits Martin, with something of a shrug. "I have in the whole of my playing time spent somewhere in the region of GBP 500 on WOW gold. I probably spend GBP 50 to 100 a month at the moment, but that's dropping over time. There's only a finite amount of things you can buy, so the need for large amounts of gold are top-loaded with new content, and we've just had a massive content patch, so the cost is large."
For Martin, buying game gold allows him to secure slots in raids he wouldn't otherwise get. Gold itself didn't necessarily give him the epic items - but it could mean he was there on raids from more organised guilds and was there to collect, by pre-arrangement, an item when it dropped.
"Buying gold is relatively simple, actually," he says. "You go to any of the millions of gold-selling sites, tell them your character name and server and your phone number. You pay by PayPal. They call you to check you are who you say you are, then usually within 48 hours you'll have your gold, depending on the amount you want."
Martin says he never replies to spammers and always sticks with the same RMT company; he is, in effect, the classic loyal and regular customer of both Blizzard Entertainment and this unnamed third party.
For him, the equation is simple. "There's a philosophy at Blizzard that it doesn't matter who you are in 'Real Life' - all are equal in WOW. Except they're not, as I have a job and a girlfriend and some money and no time, whereas some people have no job, no girlfriend, no money but a lot of time. I see the gold selling market as fulfilling Blizzard's philosophy in a way that the game itself can never do."
Whilst he knows that some gold sellers got their money by hacking and robbing characters and entire guilds (ironically, he said this had just happened to his own guild via another player "who doesn't buy gold and I do"), his view is not going to change.
"Gold is relatively expensive. A significant item will cost between 2000 and 15,000 gold, with an average of around 4 to 5000. Gold costs around GBP 10 per thousand, so it's not something many people are likely to do very much.
"By comparison, making 1000 gold in-game would take around 6 to 10 hours game time and would be most efficiently done over a few days. I earn quite a bit more than one pound an hour and I have little spare time outside of raids and girlfriend and work, so it makes more sense for me to buy gold than it does to grind it out. So I do, and often."
Over again to 'Extreme Gamer', who runs the WoW Gold Facts review site. During our conversations he revealed that he, too, had been scammed by a Chinese gold-selling site ("the common denominator of these losers is that they're based in China"), and that led to his desire to review and recommend the 'best' sellers in the industry.
"For the record, I believe that RMT is actually good for online games. It's great to be able to get real-world value out of all of the effort and time I put into online games. It's great knowing that my virtual stuff has actual, real value. It increases my emotional commitment to my character and that is good for the publisher because it makes me more likely to keep paying them every month to maintain my account.
"I've been told by contacts in the industry that most virtual items purchased using RMT are items with which other players cannot interact ... like trade-skill resources, mounts and housing," he says.
He thinks there might be a correlation between online games that succeed, and strong links to RMT.
"Look at the lack of success of games that went out of their way to 'design RMT out', like Guild Wars and Warhammer Online. They are less fun to play and they never achieved the kind of subscriber-base seen by games with big RMT connections like EverQuest, WOW, and others. I suspect that the real reason game publishers forbid RMT and claim total ownership of everything has to do with their concerns about potential liability.
"Imagine if a court someday decides that subscribers have certain rights in the content they help to create in online environments, whether it's World of Warcraft or MySpace. Imagine if a court one day gives virtual items some of the legal characteristics of real-world property. There is no way the publishers want to open that can of worms, where they may be held responsible for losses that could occur.
"Which is one way of saying: it's really about the money, more than anything else."
Nick Ryan is a journalist and producer, author of Homeland: Into a World of Hate (Mainstream).