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Is gold farming here to stay?

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Published as part of our sister-site' widely-read weekly newsletter, the Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer a day after it goes out to newsletter subscribers.

Antonio Hernandez is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it any more. As a long-time player of the world's most popular massively multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft, he's spent the last two years watching the in-game economy being utterly devalued by the actions of companies selling virtual currency to players for real money.

They're called "gold farmers", a piece of net slang which refers to groups of people in low-income countries who are employed purely to play games like World of Warcraft. They attain large stocks of virtual cash and sell it on at a dollar premium.

Explained in simple terms like that, it sounds utterly ridiculous - people paying real money to acquire in-game currency? Chinese "sweatshops" filled with low-wage workers playing orcs, dwarves and elves? Depending on which angle you look at it from, gold farming either sounds like an outlandish idea from a cyberpunk novel, or a sad reflection on first-world society. Or both.

However, the reality of the situation is that gold farming represents a very real problem for companies who operate MMOG games - and for the players of those games, who see the balance of resources in their games being destroyed by an influx of players whose sole objective is to make gold and sell it to others.

Which brings us back to Antonio Hernandez. Like many World of Warcraft players, he hates gold farmers - but he has decided to take the matter into his own hands. This week, he instigated a class-action lawsuit against IGE, the biggest gold-farming company in the world, alleging that they have profited from deliberate interference in the enjoyment WoW's subscribers.

It's tough to see Hernandez winning this case, but even if he does, it's eminently unlikely that it will have much impact on the inexorable rise of the gold farmers. What the case will do, however, is draw further attention to IGE - the leading company in this field, and perhaps the firm which has done most to legitimise gold farming as part of the videogaming ecosystem.

Although IGE's biggest business comes from World of Warcraft, the firm provides in-game currency for 14 different MMOGs - everything from EverQuest through to recent arrival Lord of the Rings Online.

Its highly professional website is covered in logos attesting to the firm's reputation as an online retailer, and is translated into French, German, Japanese and Korean. Buying in-game currency from the firm is a highly automated, well-implemented process, with good communication, order tracking and prices set based on availability and demand.

What's more, IGE has firmly lodged itself within the MMOG ecosystem - and has made impressive moves towards establishing its credibility with MMO players. Last year, the company acquired popular MMO website Allakhazam, which includes vast databases of statistics, information and guides for popular massively multiplayer titles. Other database sites routinely used by MMO players, such as World of Warcraft's Thottbot, also belong to IGE.

Keenly aware of the hatred some players hold for gold farmers, IGE has resisted the temptation to brand those sites, or to advertise on them; but nevertheless, the connection exists. It's a foot in the door for IGE and its ilk - but the gold farmers' courtship of respectability doesn't stop there. Gamers will take a long time to change their minds about gold-selling practices, but the multi-billion dollar industry behind MMOs could move a lot faster.