Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 07, 2010
 
Virtual expropriation

A reader asked in yesterday's open Sunday thread: "If all World of Warcraft servers were suddenly unplugged and permanently terminated, with people being unable to ever access their online avatars, would this be considered genocide?" Good question, badly formulated, because everybody immediately realizes that avatars aren't alive, and thus genocide is the completely wrong term here. But replace the term genocide by expropriation, and suddenly the question makes sense.

Now Blizzard is a healthy business and there is no reason to believe that they are going to unplug the World of Warcraft servers in the next years. But of course that is not true for every MMORPG out there. Games *do* get shut down, like Tabula Rasa, Hellgate, Earth & Beyond, or Auto Assault. Others remain online, but undergo significant changes, like Star Wars Galaxies' ill-fated NGE, or the recently announced change of Lord of the Rings Online to a Free2Play game. And even a regular patch or expansion can significantly affect the value of your virtual property: A 6k gearscore character in World of Warcraft is presumably worth a lot now, but will lose most of his value when Cataclysm strikes.

Virtual property rights are a subject which tends to pop up again and again, for the simple reason that what people *think* their rights are, and what their actual rights are, differ by so much. The fundamental gameplay mechanism of MMORPGs is acquiring more power in various forms for your character. That makes players think that they own their characters with all that gear they so painstakingly collected. But at least in North America and Europe that is not at all the case: Players do not have any virtual property rights whatsoever. MMORPG companies not only have the right to shut down their servers, they also have all other possible rights to expropriate you of your virtual possessions, delete them, change them, make them worthless, or even ban you from the game in spite of you having paid a subscription (Which they won't even refund).

The only good news is that in most cases game companies do their utmost to avoid expropriating you. Not because they think players have any rights, but because they are well aware how much players care about their virtual possessions. The one inmutable right players have is to stop subscribing or paying for a game in other ways, and companies want to avoid that happening. If for example some voluntary or involuntary action of the company deleted all characters in a MMORPG, a significant percentage of players would stop playing (See the link in the previous post on the endowment effect for a psychological explanation of why that is so).

But it is important to understand that game companies protect your virtual possessions only out of their own commercial interest in your future business with them. The more profitable a game is, the safer your virtual property in it becomes. Think of that before you complain the next time about some move of the company which you describe as "money grabbing". Grabbing money is the ultimate purpose of any company which isn't a not-for-profit organization. And the better a game company succeeds in that, the higher the chances that your virtual possessions are safe with them.
Comments:
But it is important to understand that game companies protect your virtual possessions only out of their own commercial interest in your future business with them.

This is the best protection I can think of!

On a related note: Over the next decades the judical system will certainly be reformed on that matter.
 
Nils is absolutely correct. The law will change.

I'm not entirely sure it's even true that, as you say, in Europe "players do not have any virtual property rights whatsoever". Virtual items are already attracting interest from taxation authorities

http://news.cnet.com/Are-virtual-assets-taxable/2100-1043_3-6027212.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/oct/14/online-currencies-striking-gold

You'll not from the Guardian piece that "Second Life's European residents pay VAT on some purchases in order to comply with EU tax regulations, and virtual economies could also be subject to further taxation in future."

There will be precedents set in case law in years to come over ownership of virtual assets and there may well be primary legislation. I don't think anyone is ever going to be able to stop a company closing down a game or virtual world that it operates, but they may not be able to do so without providing suitable finacial compensation.
 
@Jesse:
I'd love it!
 
EA is notorious for killing online games off by pulling the plug. Gamers that have experienced losing their online game probably won't get so attached to another since it's just a fact of life. Game companies come and go or get bought out. They usually end up f'd up or squashed.

Some games like SOE's Planetside probably should have probably been revamped to a free2play a long long time ago, rather than be left at its current state.
 
In reponse to Bhagpuss there's a big difference between Second Life and the type of MMO Tobold is talking about.

Second Life is very much a vehicle for participants to own virtual property and virtual intellectual property. It makes a lot of sense to tax a private system of property exchange.

There's some interest in the virtual space in empowering the players. Metaspace incorporated some of Raph Koster's theories on the rights of players into its EULA.

The best protection for most MMO companies is to stick with the basic stance: it's a game, you don't own anything, nothing here was separable value and if you try to sell it on ebay or such you're in breach of the EULA.

This position protects the companies from considerable legal rights that would accrue to people if property rights were transferred.

I've sometimes wondered what would happen if Linden shut the Second Life servers. There's property on those servers which is not theirs. Almost certainly they would face a class action as a result of giving the players too many rights.
 
Everyone who is startled by the thought of his characters getting deleted (whatever the cause: Blizzard going bancrupt, a blizzard taking out the server farms, wife says it's her or the game) should remember that we are paying to have a good time in the game WHILE we play it. The only lasting thing we "produce" is the friendship with the people we play with. And even this friendship will probably fade the minute servers go down.
 
"Second Life's European residents pay VAT on some purchases in order to comply with EU tax regulations, and virtual economies could also be subject to further taxation in future."

That is no proof at all. I also pay VAT on a cinema ticket, without that giving me any rights to the cinema or the movie shown. Monthly subscription fees are subject to VAT too, so Second Life isn't taxed special.
 
Though MMO's don't completely shut down very often.. it's bound to happen eventually in every game. If WoW's servers are still alive in 15 years I'll be shocked.

Everquest is just passing over the 10 year milestone, and on it's way to it's 15 year. My characters would still be there if I logged in, though seriously out-dated.

In most cases players will leave a game well before it shuts down, just due to the natural flow of change and moving on. So it's a non-issue.

In the case where something changes or a game gets taken offline, I do feel like the players get screwed. SWG is a fine example. NGE just kinda plopped down on us and a good majority were heartbroken, myself included.

But what could be done to keep our virtual property? Even if we had the rights to our avatars.. the game is shut down. It'd be the same as having a screenshot of your avatar.

One idea I can think of for a bigger company with many games like Sony would be if they are going to shut down a game, they could convert your valubles to the Station Cash currency. That way you could pickup another game if you chose, and not feel completely like you lost EVERYTHING.
 
That is no proof at all. I also pay VAT on a cinema ticket, without that giving me any rights to the cinema or the movie shown. Monthly subscription fees are subject to VAT too, so Second Life isn't taxed special.

This isn't entirely true Tobold. Purchasing the ticket gives you a property right to the cinema viewing. If you entered, sat down, and the theater manager walked in and said "sorry I don't like this theater anymore, no more movies," you'd be entitled to some form of restitution, depending how far you'd want to push the matter. That's why if you've ever been to a theater where the viewing had to be canceled (like a power outage) the management will usually give you free passes; not just for customer service reasons but also as renumeration.
 
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