Friday, April 21, 2006
Banning as publicity stunt
The announcement was a masterpiece of marketing spin. The people that were banned were those that used bots, automated programs that played the game for them. But by putting phrases like "Please note that selling World of Warcraft content, such as gold, items, and characters, can result in a permanent ban of the involved accounts from World of Warcraft." into the announcement, Blizzard made it look as if the banned players had been the widely hated gold sellers. Now certainly it is very likely that a large number of the people that were banned for using bots to farm gold are also selling that gold for dollars. But they weren't banned for selling, they were banned for botting. The difference is that botting can be detected, while selling gold is impossible to detect.
The problem is that one character sending another character 100 or 1000 gold is perfectly allowed within the terms of service, and Blizzard can't ban either the sender nor the receiver for that transaction. The bannable offence is the other transaction taking place in the other direction, of the buyer sending dollars to the seller via Paypal or similar means. Blizzard has no way of seeing that part of the transaction. A 1000 gold transfer looks suspicious, but if the sender and the receiver claim to be real life friends, with the one helping the other out, there is nothing that Blizzard can possibly do.
The famous (or fabled) chinese sweat shop where 3 guys play 8 hours each on one account and farm gold 24/7 using cheap labor instead of cheating with a bot program is not affected at all by this banning action. They are not doing anything forbidden in the game, and the forbidden stuff they do outside the game is invisible to Blizzard.
If Blizzard wanted really to stop the real money trade (RMT), where some people farm gold and sell it to others for cash, they would need to other things. For example a Google search for "WoW gold" gives nearly 3 million hits, and 11 sponsored links. If Blizzard would just visit the 11 sponsored links and sue these 11 companies, that would already stop 90% of the WoW gold trade.
But as their legal position in this is questionable, Blizzard prefers the publicity stunt way. Instead of banning people when caught, they wait until they have a large number of them together, and then ban 5,400 players at the same time, with a big press release. 5,400 players is less than 0.1% of the current subscribers, and most of them will just make a new account with a different credit card and carry on cheating, so Blizzard doesn't lose much money. And while this is totally ineffectual to stop RMT, it looks good in the press, and gets a lot of positive news coverage.
Even if they could, Blizzard would never ban all the buyers and sellers of gold. There are many thousands of sellers accounts, and for each seller there has by economic necessity to be several buyers. I wouldn't be surprised if there are several hundred thousands, or even a million people out there who already bought WoW gold. Banning them all wouldn't be economically viable for Blizzard. Banning the 0.1% of botters a few times per year is enough to keep their image clean and cash register ringing.