Last week, we kicked off our four-part weekly feature series on gold trading - the grey market for in-game currencies, services and items in MMOs - with an introduction to a shady business that's outwardly condemned by players whilst being supported by 30 per cent of them.
Future instalments will look at real-money trading from the perspectives of MMO players and developers, but this week, Nick Ryan talks to the the farmers, spammers and website entrepreneurs who fuel this trade. Are they evil hackers and credit card fraudsters, downtrodden workers, or neither? And what do they have to say for themselves?
What do "gold sellers" actually do? Sit in a den somewhere, plotting crimes and flogging victims' credit card details, in order to fund their drugs and prostitution empires ... or is the picture of the hard-pressed Chinese worker on the edge of starvation wages more accurate? The truth is, probably, a mixture of both, with many "legitimate" gold farming and selling businesses keen to distance themselves from the criminal element in the industry. No-one knows for sure, because that industry is so fragmented and located in distant cultures like China.
Gold sellers, or real money traders (RMT), make their cash in three main ways:
One: selling in-game currency. This is similar to buying foreign currency in the "real world". You buy via a gold seller's website at a clearly stated real-to-virtual currency exchange rate, with payment typically made via PayPal or credit card. You sometimes get the cash sent via in-game mail, but since MMO companies tightened up their procedures you often get a message and are told to meet one of the gold farmers in-game. The money is then delivered. According to just one estimate, in mid-2008, you could buy five million RuneScape gold for around USD 20.
Two: power-levelling. Payment is again made via a web site but this time you give the gold-farming firm your username and password. Their staff then play your character, levelling it up. Once the character has reached the agreed level, it is handed back. This is where many MMO firms contend that hacking comes into play: you're trusting a virtual stranger with all your details.
Three: selling accounts. "Want to play an MMO but don't want to start at Level 1?" says 'Extreme Gamer', who runs the WoW Gold Facts review site. "You can purchase MMO accounts that have characters at high levels, with coveted items, mounts and what-have-you. Alternatively, if you want to sell your account to another player, the RMT site can act as your middle man. Price will depend on what level the character is plus the items and gold in its inventory. I'd say the range could be anywhere from USD 100 for a so-so account to USD 1500 for the cream of the crop."
Amidst a crop of hackers, cheats and scammers, are there any which are running a reputable business? E.G. claims that "they're usually the old-timers of the industry like IGE and MySuperSales. I reviewed both sites in the past for my site and both did not fail. They weren't perfect, but they delivered, and I didn't have to go through the agony of following up and threatening a chargeback. As for the nature of the business being illegal or not, I am not aware of any ruling by any court that states that it is illegal. We're talking about corporate EULAs [End User Licence Agreements]. In my opinion, their current terms and conditions makes the publishers look greedy."
Gold farming versus gold selling
Gold farming companies are what you might call the sweatshops of the MMO world. Farmers don't sell direct - they run their high-level accounts and grind long shifts to acquire gold, currency, items, etc.
The gold-farming firm (workshop) which employs the gold farmers has a relationship to a gold seller (the broker), usually the website that the player ends up dealing with. Gold selling companies are borderline legit, or sometimes borderline criminal, depending on your definitions and their actions (and geographical locations and laws in those countries).
They buy the gold from the farming companies, put on a markup (see table, end) and they are the ones you see spamming in-game. A game account to them is far less valuable than to a farmer, who needs a high-end character in order to farm most efficiently. Gold farmers very much fit the profile suggested in this recent Guardian article.