Tobold's Blog
Monday, December 02, 2013
Does the source of virtual currency matter?

Many players of MMORPGs are against gold farmers and item shops in which you can buy virtual currency directly from the developer. It is argued that when people buy virtual currency for real money, it ruins the in-game economy. And there are good economic reason to believe that additional virtual currency can increase the virtual money supply and cause inflation. Although it would need a good economist to study whether that isn't actually a good thing, given that MMORPG economies are deflationary, with most items generally losing value over time.

But, this being the internet, there is also a lot of rationalization going on: "I'm against selling virtual currency for real money. But when my favorite game does it, their system must be not so bad!". So the same people who will tell you how bad it is to buy gold, will then explain you how a system in which a game time card is first bought for real money and then exchanged for virtual currency is perfectly acceptable. Just because EVE Online does it, and if PLEX can be legally exchanged for ISK, then the system must be all right.

Usually those rationalization arguments are based on something like: "The virtual currency isn't created through the sale, trading for PLEX thus doesn't create inflation.". But exactly the same argument could be said about Chinese gold farmers in World of Warcraft: No gold is duped or created out of nothing, only gold that dropped somewhere in the game is then sold. And if you believe that most of that gold is stolen, well, so is most of the ISK sold in EVE. Where do you think the virtual currency from all those trillion ISK scams ends up?

But economically more important is that MMORPGs do not have central banks that control the amount of virtual currency in circulation. Virtual currency is always created out of thin air, whenever you kill a monster that drops gold for example. A player who farms gold drops is always adding to the inflationary pressure of the game. There is no difference of whether that player is a "regular" player or a "gold farmer", in terms of the in-game economy those are just meaningless labels.

When there is no way to exchange virtual currency for real money, virtual currency gets removed from the economy by it being saved by players. How much virtual currency is there on all those characters you abandoned in various games? If you were economically active, probably a lot. The moment a game company enables players to cash out, this money sink disappears. Before Blizzard raised it, players were trying to hit the gold cap just for fun, just to be able to say they did it. If they had been allowed to then transform that gold into real money, many would probably have done so.

In my opinion a game time card system is at least as harmful to a game economy as gold farmers. Potentially even more so, because such a system can turn many more players into "gold farmers". Making a game time card trading system in order to combat illegal RMT is like legalizing drugs in order to combat illegal drug sales: It works, but rather by increasing sales than by diminishing them. You just create more competition for the professional sellers by allowing everybody to sell.

First order effects: exactly right. In-game, there is no difference between someone who makes generous gold donations to random players and someone who is selling gold.

Second order effects: game companies rarely hack accounts to steal gold. Farming gold takes longer than stealing it, and you the buyer have no way of knowing whether you are buying farmed gold or fencing stolen gold. This is probably the most vitriolic discussion on Kill Ten Rats, because if you know someone whose account was hacked and stripped, you are probably unhappy with the players who funded the goldseller that did it.
Forgot to add: game companies have their own second-order effects from a cash shop too. Once you sell gold, you have an incentive to create more goldsinks. It is the standard cash shop problem, but it affects all cash.
Does the source of real-life currency matter? If the store accepts the $10 note you hand over, does it matter that it's counterfeit? If the PayPal account of the guy who buys your mini-figure collection on EBay is valid does it matter that he funds it with his income from human trafficking?

Are you suggesting that the legality of an action is irrelevant? because that's what it sounds like you are suggesting. If a legal entity like a government decides, using your example, to authorise the sale of drugs in certain circumstances, then assuming they go through the correct legal procedures required by the State in question that is de facto a legal action, whereas selling drugs outside of the framework so instituted will be illegal.

If we start from the premise that games companies do and should have control over the games and services they provide then it's purely a matter of legality. Sales of currency, items and services authorized by the companies are legal; those not authorized are illegal. You appear to be saying that the law is irrelevant. That's not a vision of society I cleave towards.

If you want to debate the legal right of games companies to impose and enforce the rules they have for RMT, that's an entirely different discussion.
@Baghpuss: in what way the game company selling gold compares to your examples?

The "selling VC (virtual currency) inflates the economy" is exactly true. The difference from the normal "VC production" is that VC production is a lot slower and it's more controllable, i.e. there's a maximum flow of generated VC. The game company then adjusts/adds VC sinks (think WoW's Black Market) to limit the impact.
How do you limit the impact if $ can be converted to VC directly? Monthly conversion cap? It would probably work.
But the end result is always that the $:VC conversion ratio can spiral out of control (as it has happened in MMOs with massive gold farming).

The solution adopted by Eve (which is the same as the one adopted by Cryptic in STO/Neverwinter) is to introduce an intermediate currency which is controlled, pegged to the $, leaving free the conversion ration between the VC and the intermediate currency. This is a lot more self-correcting, because even if the ratio spirals out of control, the $ -> stuff you can get in the cash shop conversion stays the same, removing endless headaches for the game company.
It also goes down well with the players, because it allows all those hardcore types (the one who hate other people getting a lot of VC "easily") to freeload on the paying players, and so they complain a lot less....
No one cares about the total gold in circulations. What you care about is gold/capita. PLEX is better than goldselling, because it can only be used for creating more characters, therefore increasing the denominator.

Gold seller does not increase it, he just adds more gold (not by selling, but by farming)
It is true that MMO are highly inflationary.
The three main differences between Gold seller and Money bought from Developer, are :
1) If the game is well done, no virtual money is created by buying from Developer.
2) No real money is given to players when you go through. This reduce the incentive to farm gold - and thus create money.
3) Dev money does not impact account security

But there is still the main question : are gold seller creating inflation ?
Some computation :
- 1/1000th of player are Gold Farmer
- they play 10x more in average
- they earn 10xmore/hour
=< They are creating 1/10th of the inflation : After 1 year of farming, when the price should be 10gold, it is now 11gold...

=> The main problem of Gold farming is NOT inflation but Account security.
Ettisiun, napkin math is bad math. Farmers provide a massive boost during the rise of a game, not at a peak. Farmers also make much, much more than a regular player. There are enough articles about the rate of return to show it. Dailies in Wow were an attempt to fix that problem. It juts made it worse.

Inflation is a massive problem when system design conflicts with playing habits. That you would NEED gold sellers in the first place speaks to a hole in design. It's a problem few have solved.
I not totally agree about your "napkin math is bad math." But I agree than my math was a bit rough.^^

I give 10x more productivity for farmer against normal player, and 10x more played time to farmer.

10x more played time : there is only 24hr a day, thus i used an average of 2H30 everyday for player ;-)

10x more productivity : you mention other articles : I would be happy to update my napkin math with better data ;-)

Would you therefore concede that no-lifers can have just as negative an impact as a "Chinese gold farmer"?

The no lifer farming something 18 hours a day is no different.

Oh yeah, whilst it was Blizzards fault, in Wrath the no lifers and Chinese bots were directly inflationary as they crashed the saronite market so badly that they were vendoring it for 25g a stack iirc. They might just as well have bought gold straight from Blizzard.
"Making a game time card trading system in order to combat illegal RMT is like legalizing drugs in order to combat illegal drug sales: It works, but rather by increasing sales than by diminishing them. You just create more competition for the professional sellers by allowing everybody to sell."

And since that change drives the professional criminals out of business and, thus, the disruptive activity associated with them such as hacking accounts, spamming chat, and even hacking the game client to advertise (remember those corpse ads?), is that not a good thing? All else being equal, as you have declared it, you end up with a reduction in crime, right?

People were going to buy virtual currency anyway, even if they have to go to dubious sources. That has long been proven. You have dismissed inflation as something that was going to happen anyway. You don't, to my knowledge, play either game you reference, but we'll take it as read that the economy would be the same with or without something like PLEX.

So, as far as I can tell, you have argued that it does matter from whence the currency originates and there is a net benefit to companies selling it.

No, if what you are implying, that all big ISK scams are somehow being turned into real world cash... that was what you were implying, right?... then the real question is, does it matter to you personally? As Mord Fiddle asked, if it was all true, would you still play the game?
I support the legalization argument and strategy - any MMO viable enough to stay in business will have gold sellers so at least PLEX gives them competition.

Gevlon's point about PLEX creating characters overlooks that PLEX are consumed just maintaining an existing character.

I agree with the bribe argument - if a game allowed players with more money than time (a/k/a disgusting noob casuals) to spend RL$ to get VC, the forum warriors would really scream P2W. But once they realize that PLEX can save them $180 per annum, cognitive dissonance sets in and this is a good thing and not p2w.

I do get that the PLEX does not add VC into the game they way a developer direct VC for RL$ would.

But many of these issue are just because MMOs are so unsophisticated atm, focusing on combat. There is no reason that the node spawns and prices paid are not dynamic. ( EVE office rental prices were algorithmically adjusted based upon the number of empty offices available. WoW's black market AH extracts a dynamic amount of gold from the economy. ) Instead of just fixed NPC vendor pricing, you could have NPCs buying and selling on the AH. Nobel Laureate Friedman advocated replacing the US Federal Reserve with a computer; MMO developers have much better control.

IMO, massive inflation is a requirement for themepark MMOs- i.e. > 95% of MMO players. Every new expansion makes your gear completely worthless. They can't make your old VC worthless, but if the new failies pay ten times what the old ones did, then your old currency is worth 10% and it is time to get back on the treadmill.

P.P.S. I found hitting the gold cap after Blizzard raised it much easier than before. Inflation and better addons.
the real question is, does it matter to you personally?

Whether it matters to somebody personally is, well, a personal question. Me, I don't play EVE for two main reasons related to this: If I would play a game like EVE it would be to play the economy, so both the illicit nature of parts of that economy AND the fact that I can legally buy huge amounts of ISK for pocket change matter to me personally.

To try an analogy: What if in World of Warcraft Blizzard would allow scams that could end with somebody losing his level-capped, full epic equipped character, and you could buy one of them "legally" for $30? Would you still play the game? I wouldn't.
The drugs comparison is apt.
It's not just a factor of competition affecting the price. When you have an official source, the officials can collect revenue/taxes. There's accountability for safe delivery and quality of product. The game company is unlikely to take your money and run, get your account banned for buying their product, or provide you with funds that were stripped from a stolen account.

Before we started spreading the word to friends and family about the necessity of mobile/physical authenticator keys, our friends-and-family-only guild bank got cleaned out (and restored, thankfully) three times. We liked having the thing completely open for withdrawals so that people could take what they needed without going through a hierarchy, but account hacking was such a problem that we had to create a separate heavily-restricted withdrawal rank for members without authenticators to minimize the risk of loss.

I don’t have a problem with the economic factors.
Those who want to buy gold already are. The number who are being kept away by illegality is either negligible or they’re farming the gold manually, contributing to inflation anyway.

It’s kind of like prostitution in the US. It’s illegal in many (most?) states, but you’d have to be willfully naïve to the point of stupidity to believe that the world’s oldest profession isn’t widespread and healthy. Compare to the hundreds of countries (and even states) which legalize the practice and you don’t exactly notice the rest of the world turning into a cess-pit of lascivious corruption relative to the US.
If there is no difference between a regular player and a gold farmer, then you are all as bad as gold farmers anyway, so who cares?

It all just falls to a cynicism both pure and hypocritical - arguing everythings bad, but only arguing one thing is bad at a time, so as to give the impression there are good things, when actually the speaker just labels everything the same way.
@Tobold, I wonder: How would you compare bitcoin to ingame currencies? What are similarities, what are the differences (apart from the obvious one that bitcoin is not about a game)?

This article is weak. I don'k like EVE too much, but your arguments are really bad this time. Should've let it draft there for a while longer.

Also - You rage out on Eve every once in a while in your passive agressive way. The drug comparison? Yeah, it's easy to use a generally negative connotation to create negative association that supports your thesis. Never suspected to see it on this blog.

The other bad things there you now probably know cause you are really smart.

A store generates unlimited amounts of gold per minute and is an additional source of gold in the economy while gold farming of any kind uses existing (approved by designers) gold sources and allows the devs to limit the max amount of gold spawned per minute by limiting respawn duration. So an in-game RM store is more economy breaking. Period.

And the PLEX induced gold farming is also better then the regular gold farming, as the devs have way better control over parts of RMT in their game, and since the traffic is done by legal means it can still bring income to the publisher. It's the same with alcohol. Prohibit using it, and people will find a way to do it anyway. Legalize it and you are in control of distribution and can profit from it.

A long and unpolished article, really. There are things ok in it, but it's way worse then anything I read here.


This comment is weak. Your arguments are really bad this time. Should've let it draft there for a while longer.

For example you first complain about my legalization argument, and then use exactly the same legalization argument. And then you "school" me on arguments I already in depth discussed in the article.

A long and unpolished comment, really. There are things ok in it, but it's way worse then anything I read from you here.
Sorry to upset you.

In my eyes you used the same arguments to prove a point opposite to mine. Regular gameplay, farming, in-game stores and timecode-induced farming are listed as sources of virtual currency, the latter is then compared to drug dealing.
In an article discussing 'if the sources matter' there's no explanation who should these things matter to. You tend to switch between the publisher and the 'average player' when it fits your thesis, but it doesn't really add up. Overall there's lots of EVE and Timecode criticism which seems only partially backed up by arguments. And sure, I read your blog so I know it's your blog, that opinions are not facts and that what you write here is only your's to be proud or ashamed of. An opinion , that can be argued, but essentially yours to have. Bearing that in mind I say: this article is very much unlike the polished and thought through posts you usually write.

You started writing asking if sources of virtual coin matter to you/players/publisher/developers (?). My guess is you didn't really mean to conclude, that adding timecodes to any game that has no item store will be a change to worse, but that what it says there in the last paragraph that starts with 'In my opinion'.

And I'm not saying I can write as well as you, because I most certainly can't. But I read you for a long time now and this post's inconsistency bugged the hell out of me, so there you have all the whining.
"In my opinion a game time card system is at least as harmful to a game economy as gold farmers. Potentially even more so, because such a system can turn many more players into "gold farmers""

In my opinion, a game time card system fixes the harm caused by gold farmers. It allows the company to profit from gold transactions, and potentially such a system could turn many players who currently "gold farm" to pay for pvp ships/items, to instead just buy gold with RL cash and not have to farm gold.

(Just continuing the FTFY theme we have going on here. There are potential negative and positive effects in terms of how it would affect people 'farming gold', and even that is only looking at the supply side, not the demand side--analyzing both sides is necessary for even a reasonable guesstimate to be made)

Anyway, the crucial point you seem to be missing, is that you can't " transform that gold into real money" with a game time card system, you can only transform it into game time. If you could transform it into real money, I think that could still possibly be good for the company, but it would be an additional potential problem. As it stands, that's not how it works, though.

"the fact that I can legally buy huge amounts of ISK for pocket change matter to me personally."

Personally, I would consider "huge amounts of ISK" to be something on the order of 100+ billion ISK. That's something like 3000$ US dollars. You consider that pocket change? You must have big pockets. That's on the low end of what I think of when I hear "huge amounts of ISK", too, BL recently lost something like 700 billion ISK in one fleet engagement. Your example of buying a fully epiced out max lvl character in WoW for 30$ doesn't make sense either--characters like that often go for thousands of dollars, and a 100m+ skillpoint character in EVE goes for thousands of dollars worth of PLEX all the time.
Sorry to upset you.

If your comment had been so inappropriate that it would have really upset me, I would have deleted it. I was just trying to point out how much of what you wrote was not constructive criticism, and void of any meaning. Basically you just repeated "Your post is bad" several times. How is that likely to motivate me to write better or add constructively to the discussion?

As you guessed, many of my posts aren't meant to be an ex cathedra final answer. I think it is more important to ask an open question, and to state my thoughts on the matter. Your role as a commenter is to provide your point of view, whether it is agreeing, opposing, or expanding on my opinion.

You "reviewing" the quality of my writing is unproductive. There is a strong suspicion that you would rate my writing higher if the opinion I stated agreed with yours, while you're complaining about my writing when it doesn't.

And I am not even claiming to be the world's best writer. Just like everybody else I have good days and bad days, good ideas and bad ideas, and some of my writings are better than others. Who cares? The important thing is whether what I wrote incited you to think about the subject matter. Which in this case it obviously did. I'd consider that more of a success than if you had read my post, considered it well written, nodded your head, and closed your browser.
Personally, I would consider "huge amounts of ISK" to be something on the order of 100+ billion ISK.

Would you agree with the statement that what exactly constitutes a "huge amount of ISK" is a function of how long you have been playing the game? If I started a new account in EVE Online without outside help, how long would it take me to earn as much ISK as I can get for 1 PLEX? A friend of mine recently started playing, and after a few weeks he is still at a fraction of one PLEX worth of ISK.

Of course I very much agree with you that veteran players in large corporations would consider 1 billion ISK to be small change. But if you need $3,000 worth of ISK to get something done, you aren't very likely to pay real money for that virtual currency. If 1 PLEX makes a huge difference to your finances and constitutes weeks of "work", you are more likely to buy one.
I agree with Andrejz that this is a weak article. There's a number of incorrect statements and instances of faulty logic, so we'll tackle em in turn.

First off, mudflation exists, and it's not deflationary. While the value of an individual item may decrease over time, the economy of an MMO as a whole is subject to severe inflation over time. For this reason, there is a strong need for ways to remove currency from the game. In most contemporary fantasy MMOs, this comes in the way of repair costs for gear, in-game taxi services, and materials which can only be purchased from vendors. Currency sinks, if you will. However, generally speaking, excessive currency sinks are highly negative to the playerbase, and as such, fail to truly limit inflation.

As RMT, comparing traditional currency farming and selling to the resale of PLEX is false equivalence, and not logically consistent. On the most basic level, it's because the currency farmers are devoted completely to the most efficient means of manufacturing currency in the game(currency faucets), while limiting the use of currency sinks. With EVE, PLEX isn't generating currency, it's redistributing it from players who have an excess of time and a shortage of live currency; by doing that, you're limiting the amount of excess currency artificially injected into the MMO economy by players not actively participating in the developer's ideal of the game. To put it in WoW terms, it's the difference between players who do a fistfull of dailies for ~20 hours a week and sell time cards for gold to players who craft and farm and accrue in-game wealth from other players, and players who automate play for 22 hours per day on average, killing NPCs for an equivalent amount of gold, and selling it for in-game time cards.

Ultimately, every game needs some level of inflation to succeed; a balanced economy isn't going to get you anywhere, and a truly deflationary economy will only end up with everyone in the game having no in-game currency at all, which is also intractable. However, if you want to see a good example of why bot farming for illicit currency sales is bad, just go look at a post on item prices in FFXI; the short version is that currency sellers such as IGN destroyed the economy to the point where it was nigh-unreasonable to obtain most items in the game.

As for the ability to take an excess of time and trade it for cards in game, I strongly disagree that it's harmful. Yes, there are going to be players who run multiple accounts in order to take advantage of this and accrue wealth, but in general this isn't the worst thing ever, and unless they stray over into the realm of automating play in the manner of a traditional currency farmer, generating massive amounts of income well in excess of the norm, it's hardly going to break the economy either, which is honestly the primary issue with traditional, automated currency farming.

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