Monday, June 07, 2010
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.