He confirms that "gold farming" has become a huge, almost-invisible industry in China. "Besides the North American and the European markets, there are also a lot of gaming workshops supplying in-game currency to the Japanese and Koreans, too. The yearly turnover for all these enterprises combined is estimated at over 10 billion US dollars. World of Warcraft players make up 70 per cent of this RMT activity. So Blizzard really creates a miracle! I really can't believe that a game can generate such a large market."
Sophia dismisses any notion that what SwagVault is doing is in any way immoral, or linked to hacking and credit card fraud.
"SwagVault will strictly adhere to any recognised ethic moral criterions and related laws," she replies. "And our staff who provide these services are all professional online players with much gaming expertise, instead of hackers and villains. Our objective is to help those players who can not maximise their gaming experiences due to time shortage or other situations. We assure all our customers that we will not use any hack or other illegal actions in-game to break the gaming environment.
"Our products are virtual but our customers are real and we have no excuse to do illegal business with them. We have our own corporate culture," she claims, calling it "IPEC" (Integrity, Practicability, Efficiency and Creativity).
Whilst some smaller firms might try to scam their customers, Benjamin maintains the majority are doing their best to attract new customers and maintain their old ones. "To get a new customer, usually, they have to spend 30-50 US dollars on Google Adwords. Sometimes even higher. So the smaller sites can't afford the advertising cost, so they just spam in-game."
The much-publicised banning sprees from Mythic, or Blizzard, have only served to push gold sellers towards illegality, he suggests.
"Each time Blizzard massively bans the farming accounts and trading accounts, the gold sellers and farmers suffer great losses. They have paid for the Classic CD-Key, the Burnfing Crusade CD-Key, Wrath of the Lich King CD-key and 60 days Time Cards. The total cost is over 100 USD. In addition, they have to level up their farming accounts; they spend a lot of time farming gold; and time is money! I estimate that Blizzard itself has got millions of US dollars from the farmers. And to save the cost, some farmers might use stolen accounts or bots to farm gold, which is illegal and causes great harm to the game."
Sophia then adds that SwagVault is not your typical image of a gold farming workshop. "I want to confirm you that our staff are all mature and work eight hours every day, five days a week as well as enjoy all kinds of pensions, insurance or bonus that the labour law prescribes. Their salaries are no less than the labour provision. We are a legally-registered corporation, our site is a e-commerce platform. Except for some specific teams which serve customers directly and are professional gamers, most of the rest of the staff are talented in e-commerce."
Benjamin goes into further detail about the core workers. "Most of the [gold] farmers themselves are young people from rural areas ... they have no opportunity to receive university education or professional training. Currently, they can get a relatively decent salary compared to those who work in factories or construction sites. This salary consists of basic payment, plus bonus for each gold they farm. So the skillful farmers can get more money, ranging from USD 250 to USD 400 per month."
He estimates that there are over one million gold farmers in China today, all farming on North American and European online game servers. There are over 60,000 registered suppliers in what he calls "Chinese Purchase Platforms" [the brokers selling you the gold].
"The smaller farming workshops maybe only have five to ten staff, while the large ones employ more than 1,000 farmers. They work in shifts, 12 hours per day. Frankly, it's very tiring and boring to sit down before the computer to kill the monsters and grind gold day after day. But anyway, gold farming allows young people a job and able to afford the basic expenses for their family. Many farmers start their own farming workshop," he adds, "after accumulating a certain amount of funds and experience."
Most of these "staff" live in China, whilst some are in other developing countries. The biggest hurdle seems to be the account bans that are regularly handed out - thus causing customers "financial pain" if they had paid for gold via PayPal, and not then received it - but Sophia also mentions something quite curious, too.
"We have the same viewpoint as game operators like Blizzard, NCsoft etc: what we are doing is trying to establish a fair and equal gaming environment, instead of spoiling it." Was she affirming what Mr Li, above, had said: that there might be a different approach to gold selling on some realms [of WOW] than others? And that the MMO companies might one day shift their position on real money trading?
Sophia was circumspect: "Any market is based on need at first. As long as gamers or players demand virtual currency or other game value-added services, we will develop along with that. In my opinion, there is the possibility that the MMORPG operators will cooperate with RMT companies in future."
For now, business remains highly competitive. "Currently, the RMT industry is still in its babyhood. Since the threshold of inception is very low, as a result, the number of practitioners in this line is huge, and the competition is cut-throat."
Nick Ryan is a journalist and producer, author of Homeland: Into a World of Hate (Mainstream).