Back to the Future

February 11, 2008 at 3:29 am (Musings) (, , )

Once again RMT (Real Money Trading) is in the news. First the various lawsuits against IGE – one from a former director and one class action suit which are putting the squeeze on the world’s biggest RMT operator. Then the news from Sony that they were splitting off their Station Exchange service to Live Gamer and finally the settlement between Blizzard and RMT/powerleveling company Peons4Hire.

Phew!

I am very much anti-RMT in games that aren’t designed specifically around the concept and mostly I think these developments are all positive. Certainly the Blizzard/P4H settlement is a major breakthrough. It’s not a judgement so it sets no legal precedents but it does serve to draw a line in the sand and demonstrate that the major developers are prepared to back up their anti-RMT policies with action. It’s fair to say that Blizzard are very much leading the charge against undesirable ingame activity.

Obviously the settlement only affects one of the many RMT operators active in WoW, but with any luck this is a shot across the bows of the rest of them and further action will be forthcoming from Blizzard’s legal department.

The other WoW lawsuit, the class action suit against IGE is probably going to end less happily. I’m not a lawyer but I don’t see this case getting anywhere. There are too many technicalities and murky waters to navigate. Hopefully though, Blizz themselves may decide to weigh in, emboldened by their success against P4H and point their legal deathrays at IGE. One of the contentious points is that IGE asserts that they are not signatory to the ToS or the EULA. If nothing else comes out of this lawsuit then hopefully this will be clarified and a legal precedent set. However the court decides I think this will be a good thing for game companies. Obviously if the court upholds EULAs then a big sigh of relief willecho around the industry, if the decision goes the other way then the various legal departments involved will have to come up with a robust and enforceable alternative. Either scenario is going to be better than the murky on/off situation we have now.

Staying with IGE, the lawsuit brought by former IGE exec Alan Debonneville against former IGE CEO Brock Pierce also has a lot of potential. Not only is it nice to see jackals turning on themselves, the  allegations that are flying around are serving to demonstrate exactly why these sort of operations harm games. In his depositions so far Debonneville has laid out how companies like IGE ruthlessly exploited bugs and duped gold to sell in the quest for profits.  The only downside to the whole drama is that only one of them can lose.

Finally then we come to the Sony Station Exchange episode. For those who haven’t been paying attention, this was launched a while ago as a way to have specific servers enabled for RMT via a secure interface – essentially players could buy and sell item. The idea was to reduce the support overhead that RMT brings with it by controlling the RMT channels. I commented at the time on the white paper that SOE published on it.

Now it seems that although support overheads have dropped, the basic problems remain unscathed. Strangely the farmers didn’t decide to stay away from the servers where their RMT was sanctioned. Whodathunkit?  So now the service has been ‘transitioned’ over to Live Gamer – an RMT company that has been trying hard to get developers on board to legitimise its activities. The main reasons  given are that it was hard to prevent fraud and also that it didn’t deter farmers. For the first issue, making it someone else’s problem is a bonus for Sony but not really one for the players. Presumably if the fraud issue was a major problem for SOE, then it will also be one for Live Gamer and so the players will still have to jump through some hoops – except this time they will be third party hoops – in order to do business. The second issue is even more puzzling. Embedded in the arrangement with Live Gamer are various clauses preventing them from dealing with known farmers and anyone that SOE tells them not to. I find it hard to see how SOE can keep the same level of oversight in the activities of a third party partner that it does over its own system. Again, this smacks mostly of deniability, now all the problems will be someone else’s fault.

It’s heartening to see that developers are tackling RMT, either aggressively through the courts like Blizzard, or through trying to exert a modicum of control as SOE are doing. I’m not convinced that SOE are doing the right thing but at least they are creating talking points rather than just sweeping it under the carpet. All of this demonstrates admirably that if you’re looking at ways to deal with RMT after your game has launched then you’ve started about 3 years too late.

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