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The Great Digital Gold-Rush

And how RuneScape reckons it beat it.

It took me endless hours of picking herbs in World of Warcraft before I decided to use real money to buy gold. I spent about fifty quid for an in-game thousand, and bought a purple epic mount. I went back and bought more as time went on; money that helped push our guild into hardcore raiding and splash out on other members. I was greedy with it as well, covering my second character in the very best.

Therein lies the lure of real-world trading, which extends to buying characters and items as well as gold. It's not a new thing, it goes right back to beginning of massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (let's say Ultima Online for argument's sake). However, these days if you search for "buy gold" you are rewarded with endless results. You may have heard of it through Blizzard or Square Enix banning thousands of accounts.

The problem lies in how the money is gathered, which is where "Chinese Gold Farmers" come from. The idea is that a gamer will spend all day working for a company doing boring tasks in a game to earn gold. This can cause repercussions in the persistent world, with companies monopolising resource-rich areas. It also leads to bots; automated characters that do the hard work for you and appear to be zombies to anyone communicating with them. Are you Sarah Connor? Are you Sarah Connor? Are you... [We get the idea - Ed].

Some have tried to legalise this sort of trading, like Sony with its Station Exchange in EverQuest 2. This lets it act like an official auctioneer. And others ban. But RuneScape, a web-based MMORPG with over six million active accounts, has found a new way. So we cornered content chief Imre Jele to hear more, and find out why it is such a big problem in the first place.

Eurogamer So, why is real-world trading such a big problem?
RuneScape: remarkably similar-looking to Ultimate Online.
Imre Jele

Oh, big question. I'm going to approach this from two different perspectives. Illegal real-world trading breaks the game and it breaks the business, to put it simply. As for the game, what happens is there are several types of attack. The first one is that they use automated characters - bots - to play the game and collect the gold. And the presence of those bots in the game is really annoying; characters standing there doing the same thing over and over again.

The second thing is that illegal real world trading is pretty much like cheating. It can be fun to have unlimited health for 10 minutes, but after that the game becomes boring because there is no other challenge. And those people who buy their way through the game are going to experience this. Anyone who is using real-world trading and actually getting money is effectively cheating the game and going to get bored and leave. Anyone not doing that is going to be annoyed by these people because they have an unfair advantage. It breaks the game model pretty effectively.

The other side of this story is the business side. Obviously we can talk about the fact they are effectively stealing money from us because they are using our game environment to make money - that is annoying but not our biggest concern.

The biggest concern about real-world trading is - sorry for this example as I know it is not politically correct - it is a bit like prostitution. It's not necessarily the prostitution which is a problem, although you might have moral problems with [real-world trading]. But the real problem is the organised crime that's built around prostitution; the human trafficking, the drugs, etc. And that's the same with illegal real-world trading. The problem comes in when they start doing other illegal activities. One of the biggest is the use of stolen credit cards. They realise that if they pay GBP 3.20 and become members of RuneScape they can make more gold in-game, therefore make more money in real-world terms. So they realise hey, why would I pay for this if I can use a stolen credit card? It brings a terrible financial burden to us, not to mention the other problems we might have legally or financially around this.

Eurogamer What's a bigger problem, the bots or the money-buying?
Imre Jele

As a player I am more annoyed by walking around and trying to talk to someone who doesn't answer because it's a bot. Obviously if I take it to a higher level as a game designer then I see how people ruin their own game experience by cheating.

Eurogamer What if people spent their own time gathering in-game resources to sell in the real world?
What people buy with their money in World of Warcraft.
Imre Jele

Legal real-world trading is something a lot of companies are playing around with the idea of, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. But you have to design your game with real-world trading in mind from day one, you can't just chuck it on top of the game. In the future we are going to have games, good games, where you're going to have professional players who create an account and sell it for real-world money and manage to make a living by playing. And that's going to be fun. But RuneScape is not designed on that principle. RuneScape is designed so you experience the whole game as an art. For us this illegal real-world trading is breaking the game experience and is not something we want to cater for at the moment.

Eurogamer Are you saying we will have to wait for the next generation of games before we can hope to control this? What about Sony with its Station Exchange service in EverQuest 2?
Imre Jele

Yes, yes. Let me answer it one by one. I think it's very simple. We have more MMOs now that are more and more successful, and MMOs are the perfect ground for illegal real-world trading, therefore we have hundreds of companies. We are talking about a huge amount of money: millions and millions of dollars and pounds are changing hands here, so it's a great business for those people.

Different companies have different approaches. Some companies like Sony with the Station Exchange have tried to legalise it and tried to make some money out of it. But let's not forget, Sony has been very, very careful about what they said; once you have the real-world trading you can never get out [as your account is stuck on those servers]. So they also realised that it breaks the gameplay, but said it's OK if everyone is doing it. And so those servers are a different EverQuest and you can never get out of them.

Another approach is what we are doing. To be honest, I don't understand why other companies don't react to this. It seems to me that the bigger half of the MMO industry puts their heads under the sand and pretends like it's not happening. Most of the companies try to tackle the issue by putting more and more people on it. We were doing it as well. For years we were releasing software updates to tackle bots and hiring more and more people in player support to hunt them down. But every time we put on an extra person they put on two; every time we created a new engine update they coped immediately.

Our new policy is very useful for many of the major MMOs out there. We said we're not going to play around any more, but we are going to put up a fight. And that's what this whole RuneScape real-world trading change is all about, to grab and address the issue at a core level. We changed the game in a way so that real-world trading doesn't make any sense any more.

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Robert Purchese

Associate Editor

Bertie is a synonym for Eurogamer. Writes, podcasts, looks after the Supporter Programme. Talks a lot.