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.