RMT, professional powerlevelling and so forth

February 9, 2007 at 11:32 pm (Musings, Rants) (, )

Recently Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) published a white paper on their Station Exchange service. As can be expected this kicked off a fresh round of debate over real money trading in MMOs and also an interesting discussion on Raph Koster’s blog on the related topic of powerlevelling companies. I inserted my tuppence there but it’s not my home so I didn’t want to climb on the table and declaim too much. Here though, the furniture is less safe.

Let’s firstly call it what it is. Cheating. Any other way to obtain a game reward without playing the game would normally be considered cheating by most CS departments. Whether you’re earning the reward directly by playing through the content that provides the reward or earning it through other means (such as farming gold to buy the reward ingame, or even building the social networks to be given the item for free), you’re still engaged in legitimate play. Once you step outside of that then we are in murky waters indeed. There probably is a line in there to be drawn but I’d hate to have to draw it. The argument that it’s a victimless exploit is disingenuous and not entirely true. For a start, many exploits are victimless but players still expect that we as games providers will keep the game fiar by punishing those who cheat. Secondly, people do suffer. Not directly of course, there’s no actual, physical pain involved when you buy your Sword of Greater Pwnage however there is an effect on the community as a whole.

Gamasutra interviews John Smedley, the CEO of SOE about the white paper and, not surprisingly, he backs up the conclusions that it draws. Those conclusions are, briefly, as follows:

    Hardly anyone is making a living out of RMT.
    In general the value of items on Station Exchange mirrors the price of the same items on unsanctioned 3rd party sites.
    The economies on Exchange enabled servers are not wildly different to those on regular servers.
    The actual amount of money involved is non-trivial but quite small in the grand scheme of things.
    People prefer to buy coin and use that to obtain items ingame rather than buying the items directly from the Exchange.

I would suggest that the conclusions that are drawn are only valid for the Station Exchange servers and can’t be applied to the wider issue of RMT on other servers or in other games. In my view the biggest reason for the apparent low-impact of the Station Exchange is that the service is limited to US residents. SOE’s own metrics state that the majority of sellers on the Exchange are between the ages of 18 and 22. These people generally have a lower earnings potential and so it can be worth their while to sit and farm gold all day for $7 a plat. In the developed West however there’s a limit to the number of people who can’t earn more than that doing something else. The same is not true of places like Korea, China and Eastern Europe where goldfarms are normally located. If the Station Exchange was open to international customers, I would put money on the system becoming swamped by goldfarming sweatshops and all the conclusions of the white paper becoming invalid as a result. I would expect the ingame economy on Station Exchange servers to very quickly go out of whack in that case and for goldfarmers to be very much in control of the server community.

Mr Smedley talks about people putting themselves through college by farming gold on EQ2 but frankly I’d be astonished if the power sellers have a future that involves college. If they are playing enough EQ2 at age 18 to earn $35k a year then I strongly suspect they aren’t attending many classes. It may be comfortable for him to think of goldfarmers as poor kids trying to scrape college money together but the rest of us have no such illusions about the international trade in virtual items.

The real value of the RMT market is hard to pin down, there can be no doubt however that it is very big business. In my game I have deleted virtual assets amounting to millions of dollars that were being held by gold trading companies. One company I investigated had over $800k worth of assets on just three servers. In some cases it’s still been worthwhile for companies that have suffered tens of thousands of dollars in lost assets to start up again on the same servers.

As long as it continues I will continue to oppose it. It’s inherently unfair, unjust and, at the end of the day, cheating. Nobody cheats on my watch.

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