Wednesday, July 01, 2009
Preventing asymmetric trade
For years I have been accusing all major MMORPG companies of hypocrisy: The all lament the practice of gold selling, but are not using the means at their disposal to actually stop it. Especially Blizzard is famous for using gold farmer bannings as a publicity stunt, doing nothing for months, and then banning them all at once with a big press release [a technique I copied for banning trolls from my blog :)]. But if gold selling becomes actually illegal, governments might come down like a ton of bricks on game companies, and tell them that putting a paragraph in the EULA and banning a few gold farmers twice a year is not sufficient. So lets explore the other options game companies have to stop gold selling.
The principal problem with stopping gold selling is that half of the transaction happens outside of the game, beyond the control of anyone. Not even a government could know whether player A gave player B $50 in cash in a dark alley, in return for player B giving player A 5,000 gold for an epic mount in World of Warcraft. (Sorry if the exchange rate is horribly off, I have no idea of the current price of WoW gold, and no desire to visit a gold selling site to find out). The only thing which is visible, and easily controlled is the transfer of gold in game. The reason why game companies do nothing about gold selling is that they want to allow player B giving player A 5,000 gold for free, for example if the two players are friends or relatives. They just don't want to allow player A giving $50 to player B. Thus the illegal half of the transaction is the one that is invisible. That policy can't possibly work.
Thus if the game companies were pushed to actually get serious about stopping gold selling, what they would have to do is to prevent asymmetric trades. That includes not only player B opening a trade window to player A and giving him 5,000 gold, but also player B sending the gold by mail, or player B "buying" one piece of copper ore from player A for 5,000 gold. It also includes removing any other means of transfer of wealth, like shared guild bank accounts.
As I said in the post about the Chinese government banning virtual currency trades, it is certainly feasible to simply remove all these features from a game like World of Warcraft. WoW would be a very different game without mailbox, auction house, trade windows, and guild banks, but it would still be completely playable.
But there are less drastic options than to remove all forms of trade. It would be sufficient to remove only the asymmetric trades between strangers. You could be allowed to exchange goods between alts, and even between different accounts from family members, as long as they are linked to the same credit card or other means of identification. Note that Blizzard is already allowing character transfers between accounts based on such a rule. All your linked accounts could for example have a shared bank, thus enabling you to give e.g. heirloom items to your alts, or exchange trade goods.
Between strangers it would still be possible to allow symmetric trades. Instead of players being able to put up an item for any price they want on an auction house, players could sell that item to an NPC merchant. But unlike with a current WoW vendor the item wouldn't simply disappear, but would be stocked by the NPC merchant, for resale to other players at a slightly higher price. The more of any item the NPC merchant has in stock, the less he will pay for it, but the cheaper he will also sell it. So it would still be possible for some players to farm items and sell them, and other players to buy those goods and craft something from them, reselling the product. But as all the transfers are indirect via an NPC merchant, asymmetric trades are prevented.
Designing a MMORPG with a player-run economy, but no asymmetric trades, and no gold selling, is completely feasible. But I'm afraid that unless there is government intervention, it will not happen. Despite all what they say publicly, game companies obviously aren't all that interested in stopping RMT. Developers are absolute gods over their virtual worlds, and have far more power over their creations than any government has over their citizens. Claims that they hate RMT and are just unable to stop it are simply bogus.