Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
NYTimes on The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer

The New York Times has a long, well-written article by Julian Dibbell on the life of the Chinese gold farmer. Julian Dibbell, in case you didn't know, literally wrote the book on gold farming, called "Play Money", based on his experience of making $3,917 a month in Ultima Online with RMT.

The only part of the article that is really bad is a comment from the guy who is the most clueless about RMT in the industry. Quote: "As Mark Jacobs, vice president at Electronic Arts and creator of the classic M.M.O. Dark Age of Camelot, put it: “Are you going to get more sympathy from busting 50,000 Chinese farmers or from busting 10,000 Americans that are buying? It’s not a racial thing at all. If you bust the buyers, you’re busting the guys who are paying to play your game, who you want to keep as customers and who will then go on the forums and say really nasty things about your company and your game.”"

Apart from well-explained racism still being racism, Mark unfortunately totally got his numbers wrong. Let's do the the math, based on the other numbers given in the article. The title "hero" of the article, Li Qiwen, is said to earn $1.25 per 100 gold, "earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less", which suggests he makes about 25 gold per hour. As he is working "twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three nights off per month", he makes 300 gold per day, and nearly 10,000 gold per month. Yes Mark Jacobs seems to think that 50,000 Chinese farmers supply the gold for only 10,000 American buyers. Which would mean that each American buyer would need to consume 50,000 gold per month.

Apart from that being prohibitively expensive, there is simply no way that you could spend 50,000 gold per month in World of Warcraft. The biggest possible money sink is the epic flying mount for 5,200 gold. Pick any two tradeskills of your choice and level them up to maximum using only material bought from the auction house won't cost you more than another 5,000 gold. And 10,000 gold should be more than sufficient to completely equip you with the best epics money can buy, plus enchantments, potions and other consumables. At which point you still have 30,000 gold in your pocket with nothing you could possibly spend it on, except for throwing it away. And that's just what the fictive American buyer is supposed to spend in one month.

Obviously it is impossible to get hard data on this, but a far more realistic estimate would be the average American WoW gold buyer buying not more than 1,000 gold per month. Which means that 1 Chinese farmer supplies 10 American buyers. So the companies choices isn't between banning 50,000 Chinese or 10,000 Americans. It is between banning 50,000 Chinese and 500,000 Americans! (Let's assume the other 50,000 Chinese of the 100,000 estimated total Chinese WoW gold farmers work for the Europeans). Now consider that of the often cited 8.5 million WoW players only 3 million are Americans and Europeans. And consider the 1,000 gold per month per buyer is just an average estimate, with some people probably just buying smaller amounts once or twice in their gaming life. Then you realize that probably more than half of all the American and European players bought World of Warcraft gold at least once in their life. This isn't about Blizzard fearing banning buyers "who will then go on the forums and say really nasty things about your company and your game". This is about Blizzard not wanting to ban half of their customers, which would destroy half of their income!
It's not racism. Makes no difference what nationality the sellers/buyers are, it's simply a better idea to bust the group that is not your paying customer. The number's don't really affect that main point although it makes you wonder why he chose those ones...
Farmers are paying customers, it's just that banned farmers buy new accounts and come back. Banned player don't.
I normally really like your blog Tobold but I think you've misunderstood the point that Mark Jacobs was making.

First off, it isn't racist to point out that someone is of Chinese descent if it is true. Your own example was of a Chinese farmer.

Second, his point was that no one sympathises with a farmer when their account is banned because they have broken the EULA (and IMO ruin MMOs). Does anyone feel sorry when a drug dealer is caught?

Third, he never said that 50,000 farmers were SUPPLYING 10,000 players. He was using an exaggerated example to prove just how little anyone cared for farmers.

Fourth, he alluded to the fact that a company wouldn't bust its paying customers, it doesn't make financial sense.

"If you bust the buyers, you’re busting the guys who are paying to play your game..."

Fifth, it's almost always easier and makes far more sense to close down the supply than the demand.

Other than that, keep up the good posts!
Don't forget most players (and almost certainly gold buyers) have more than one character, and I would suspect alts are levelled more often than mains by gold purchases.
it doesn't make sense to ban the sellers. ban the buyers is far more efficient. when there is no market there are no sellers.

however, it is hard to prove people are buying gold. pharming bots are more easy to catch.
"Are you going to get more sympathy from busting 50,000 Chinese farmers or from busting 10,000 Americans that are buying?"

That is at the very least dubiously formulated. If this is just about farmers and buyers, then why ask the question with "Chinese" and "American" put in there?

Whether the numbers are supposed to represent sellers and buyers numbers or not, I still don't believe that who gets banned is about "getting sympathy". If anything the number of gold farmers mentioned in the article are too low, as the article mentioned 50,000 bannings, and the most recent Blizzard banning was over 100,000 farmers. There must be more than a million buyers out there. Nobody could afford to ban them.

however, it is hard to prove people are buying gold. pharming bots are more easy to catch.

Which makes me wonder how they catch the farmers from the sweat shopts, as long as they actually "play" manually and don't use bots. Will they ban people for farming Timbermaw for 12 hours straight?
I also don't think Mark Jacobs was making a mathematically correct statement, just throwing out large numbers.

I know that you favor RMT Tobold, however, it is against the game rules when it is interesting to talk about, which makes it unethical, regardless of how the law directly supports it, at least in my opinion.

If folks want to sell gold, then they should be playing a game that supports it.

For slux, farmers share accounts, so banning a farmer account also results in banning players who aren't paying.

That also plays into the number game Tobold is describing.
I know that you favor RMT Tobold

I can live both with RMT-supporting games and games that prohibit RMT. The only thing that riles me is that games that prohibit RMT enforce this rule in a selective and uneven way. I would want games that don't want RMT to be programmed in a way which makes asymmetrical money transfers impossible, thus shutting down all RMT for both buyers and sellers. What I dislike is the hypocrisy of companies like Blizzard, who do publicity stunts banning thousands of sellers, while knowing exactly that they will be back in a few days.

In the end it is game design that is responsible for most RMT. How many million dollars did gold farmers make just because the of cost of epic mounts in WoW?
"...a far more realistic estimate would be the average American WoW gold buyer buying not more than 1,000 gold per month."

Zounds! That still sounds really high. Why would the average buyer need even this much every month? That's an additional $70 or so on top of the monthly cost. (On top of the cost of internet service.)

Level 1 to endgame 70 - what true expenses does one have? None. Okay, if they wanted to pamper themselves? Two, maybe three. All involving mounts. 100g at 40, a 1000g at 60, and another 1000g at 70. And all along They're earning money from looting vendor trash, auctioning drops, selling crafts/services.

And training spells and such. I suppose. If they had to max everything at the moment they could get something, I'd guess they'd pretty much have to buy gold. (My first character wasn't mounted until level 43. Paid for by vendoring leather pants made from gorilla leather.)

Maybe I'm incredibly naive, but I can't picture 1,000 gold a month as average. 100 gold, maybe. (And yet, still, why?)

But then I'm not a successful raider making world firsts and making WoWInsider headlines. (And they're still far from average, no?)

And to Anonymous above: I imagine the first/main character would be the one you'd buy gold for, not the alts, and only if you really needed that mount at 40 and were a failure at raising cash. He'd then be in the position to fund the alts, no?

But then I've never twinked a level 19 character with enchants I wouldn't/couldn't spend money on for my level 60 main.

That would really make for one interesting fact though: What is the average gold purchase per month for an American WoW Player. And for a European Player. Other data that would help color the picture would be if they're raiding, pvpers, not yet 70, etc.

The game's broken if it's forced people into RMT. Or, worse perhaps, it allows/rewards it. It does sometimes seem the endgame is designed around gold buying raiders. The recent nerfing of Elixir/Flask stacking would indicate they've recognized they overstepped a line.

And, as you mention, the costs for an epic mount. Crazy. From the example of the farmer's earning rate it'd take six hours a day, every single day for a month. And folks did it. Quicker than that. Hmmm.

Every shiney that Blizzard adds is just more money for the gold farmers to earn.
I'm one of those people who got to level 70 in a week, and bought their epic flying mount a week later. I was prepared (no pun intended) with some raw ores which I sold on day 1 and I did have to grind for a while in Legion Hold.. But most of the 6k gold I needed I got from quests. I just did every single TBC quest I could find.

IMO, the most lucrative customer base for gold sellers is bleeding edge PvE raiders. The alchemy revamp tuned consumable requirements down significantly, but 1000 gold per month is still a very conservative estimate for a hardcore raider. A single progress raid can cost more than 100g in consumables. With five raids a week you'll hit 1000 gold in two weeks.

However.. making money is also much easier in TBC than in vanilla WoW. 25 gold per hour is very easy to farm yourself. For a DPS class, 50-100 gold per hour (assuming that you find no valuable world drops) is more realistic. If you do the daily quests as well you can get even more. When I ended my Netherwing questline I had about 2000 extra gold.

To me, the main rationalization of RMT (trading money for time) simply doesn't add up.
I don't think that many people buy gold in reality. I think there's a very small minority that buys awful lots of it. Yes, the cost of epic mounts has something to do with it but I think by far the biggest contributor to RMT in games like WoW is end-game raiding.

Most people in WoW are able to get an epic flying mount a few days or weeks after reaching level 70 if they've been a bit careful with their money, didn't buy too many blue items off the AH etc. As long as they make sure to do all the quests in the game 5000 gold isn't really that much. The new daily quests are also a very good source of income.

At a certain point in time you will have all the money you need, the only real costs then are for repairs and consumables. Normal activity (quests, grinding, instances) gives enough money to fund these, the exception being raids. The vast amounts of money required for wipenights are a key driving force between RMT. This is repeat business after all, you don't need 100 gold once to pay for a night of hardcore raiding, you need 100 gold each day for 5 or 6 nights a week, months at a time, especially if you're on the bleeding edge where you're really a bit undergeared for the instance you're attempting.

Only once an instance is on farmstatus will raids start giving money back and it's unlikely that this will ever be a good way to make money.
Blizzard kind of enhanced this in BC, Onyxia, a lvl 60 raidboss drops about 200 gold. BC bosses drop nowhere near this amount. I couldn't find any numbers online (must start recording this) but it's not much compared to the much higher costs of repairs now.

5k gold for an epic flyer is not the problem, neither is the odd 100 gold for a blue worlddrop.

I also agree wholehartedly with what HappinessSam said so I'll quote it for justice:
"Farmers are paying customers, it's just that banned farmers buy new accounts and come back. Banned player don't."
I used to tell myself back in the EQ days "Not that many people buy gold" but then I started to notice that several folks in my more recent WoW guilds made subtle comments alluding to the fact that they did. I tend to agree with Tobold that I think it's more prevalent that most folks are willing to believe. Not saying we're at a "Everyone does it" stage but I think we're starting to get there. Doesn't help that you need a flying mount to progress in PvE content.

And while, yes, it's not that hard to aquire, it's not like you get handed 1000 gold upon reaching 70 either.
There's another very simple reason that MMO companies will never ban gold buyers for, which no one seems to be mentioning. It would be easy enough to do this of course, the company could just buy some gold themselves, see which character it comes from, then track that characters transactions for a week or two, identify everyone who was the final recipient of gold from that character, and ban them all.

The reason they'll never do this is there's no way to verify who actually buys the gold. It would just give players the ability, for a small fee, to ban someone. Imagine Tobold is in my UBRS group and ninja's felstriker off Rend...I'm so pissed at him that I go to IGE or wherever, and spend 10 bucks buying gold, mailed to him. Its kind of sad to admit, but having been an officer in a raiding guild for 2 years, I can think of a couple people I'd have happily plunked down 10 bucks to watch them get banned...hell a couple of people who dicked us over enough could probably get a guild collection going, everyone puts in .50 cents or something to contribute to it.

I don't understand who would still be buying gold though...a level 70 in WoW can make ridiculous amounts of money nowadays, I spend 30 minutes everyday running a circuit of daily quests and make 80 gold/day solely doing those 6 quests with little/no combat...I've never bought gold, and just from those daily's I have more than I know what to do with. If I do that 7 days a week, 30 mins a day, that's 460 gold/week...
Typing 'buy wow gold' into Google got me 7.75 million hits.
1,000 gold per month.

Zounds! That still sounds really high. Why would the average buyer need even this much every month?

I don't think that many people buy gold in reality. I think there's a very small minority that buys awful lots of it.

I think there is both a small minority that buys 1,000+ gold per month, for example for raiding, and a large majority that bought gold once or twice in their lives in much smaller quantities, for example just to pay for a mount.

But which ever way we turn it, the numbers must add up at the end. We can't say we believe Blizzard just banned over 100,000 gold farmers, we believe that you can easily make 25 gold per hour, thus 10,000 gold per month, and then not come up with an explanation where those 100,000 times 10,000 equals 1,000,000,000 (in words: one billion) gold pieces per month go to. It is easier to believe that 1 million players buy 1,000 gold each than believing that there are only 10,000 gold buyers buying 100,000 gold with. What would they do with that much?
To be honest the numbers don't sound right. A gold farmer should be able to make more than 300g a day, as I'm guessing they spend at least 8 or 12 hours there a day and that you can make about 150 gold easily in about 4 hours if you sell everything you get. I did that last night and wasn't even paying attention to the game (was watching TV).

As for the cost of the regular flying mount, the money you get from quests while leveling to 70 covers it, and then you still have the money from the quests you didn't do until then, that will give you gold instead of XP. The 'flying mount problem' doesn't really exist unless you're completely inept to save gold, since you don't need anything but the regular mount to do all you need to do.

(just to clear up that on my previous comment, the 'regular mount' I speak of is the regular flying mount)

I'd like to see a study of how much gold players in WoW really have. I've always been pretty good with cash, and always had plenty for mounts, the occasional blue BoE, training skills, etc. But my rl friends who played always seemed to have less than 1/2 what I did. They levelled up with me. What were they doing with their gold? I have no idea. Maybe they didn't sell vendor trash or focused too much on production crafts. Maybe they just couldn't make up their minds with talent builds. Who knows?

Anyway, this very limited sample makes me suspect that there are a lot of players with not so much gold, who would be willing to "take the edge off", so to speak, by buying gold. Much less time consuming than getting all one's gold in game. I'm also willing to believe that the largest repeat customers are raiders, but I wouldn't underestimate the number of players in general who do buy.

BTW, regarding racism and "Chinese gold farmers": to my thinking once you attribute anything in game that you don't like to them, for example, someone monopolizing a certain area, or charging high prices at the AH, that is racism. It's pretty obvious that you can't tell what someone's nationality is in the game just from observing their behavior. Sure, according to the media coverage, gold farming is a business dominated by Asians. But I also think it's important to remember the time sink nature of MMOG's, which in essence make all of us gold farmers to a pretty significant extent. Grinding faction, grinding gathering, grinding quests for mount gold. We just might not use what we make in game to make a rl profit.
If I have to buy gold, then the mechanics of the game clearly are not working properly. This is why I never have and never will spend real life cash for in game items.

The amount of gold buying in WoW is a symptom of flawed game design.

= # # =
In the math se must also distinguish between gold farmers and accounts related to them.

As a single group of farmers could own multiple accounts and rotate them. Not to mention accounts that are trash accounts. Like the ones used to spam advertise.

Anyway for the matter RMT...
I don't mind gold sellers until they start to advertise disrupting my gameplay. And until last patch, it was getting very bad in wow. As you were getting at least 4-5 messages with those ads.
The labels "Chinese" for the farmers and "Americans" and "Europeans" for the buyers are not racial (or racist), they are national and economic. You can certainly have an American with 100% Chinese ancestry buying gold, does this make him a Chinese buyer subject to additional scorn due to epicanthic folds and whatnot? Sure, quite a bit of the loathing against farmers out there is racist, but I don't see that in Mr. Jacobs' statements.

Furthermore, the unspoken truth is that a farmer who gets banned will buy another copy of the game and go right back to paying the monthly fee and farming gold. Blizzard doesn't lose one single month of fees, and gets the occasional bump in income from selling yet more boxes (and with TBC, every banned farmer account sells a WoW and a TBC box). A banned buyer, on the other hand, will more likely than not quit the game and move on.

If Blizzard thought the buyers who got banned would buy a new copy and start new toons on a new account, like the farmers do, they would be banning the whole bloody population every few months.

The bottom line is that the banning of farmer accounts is part of Blizzard's business model, and they will never make it so difficult to farm and sell gold that farming disappears. They will solve the more egregious practices like the in-game spam and teleport hacks, which are obvious and must be dealt with to maintain the illusion of an anti-farmer policy. They will make sure the gold trade doesn't occur in mainstream locations like Ebay, to keep it out of the public eye as much as possible.
I see posts on boards regularly that claim Blizzard banned their account for buying gold. Certainly Blizzard is not banning a high percentage of the buyers but likely is banning some. I don’t recall the exact wording that Blizzard uses when banning. Do they break it down to how many were actually banned for gold farming? If not then any claim of 100,000 bans likely includes a lot of other reasons for the ban so that is one reason you can’t just multiply buy 25 gold per hour. Another would be that some of the gold sellers that get banned are likely not “professionals” working 12 hours a day. Some are likely just a normal American player selling off excess or selling off gold before quitting the game.
Tobold, you're making numbers up just like Mark Jacobs did. What makes your estimate "far more realistic"?

I'll admit that the unrealistic liberal bias you've been bringing to posts lately is annoying but honestly, just because you pulled numbers from your backside doesn't make them correct.
Which makes me wonder how they catch the farmers from the sweat shopts, as long as they actually "play" manually and don't use bots. Will they ban people for farming Timbermaw for 12 hours straight?

Probably not, but if they are online for 24 hours per day for 3 weeks straight there's a pretty good chance they aren't a player, especially if they've then traded all the gold they've earned to another account which has also received very large quantities of gold from other accounts that are online for 24 hours a day for 3 weeks straight.

Regarding the low amount of gold earned (and the fact that the farmer is farming Timbermaw instead of somewhere in Outland) I am pretty sure it says in the article that the time in China took place in September.
Tobold, you're making numbers up just like Mark Jacobs did. What makes your estimate "far more realistic"?

Never played "The Price is Right"? I'm not saying my number is right, I'm only saying that 1,000 gold bought per month is more realistic than 50,000 gold bought per month. Just like I can say that it is far more likely that you earn 1,000 dollar per week, and not 50,000 dollar per week, without knowing anything about you than a general economic context.

All the other numbers (100,000 gold farmers, 25 gold per hour, working 12 hours per day nearly 30 days per month) are from the New York Times article. That doesn't make them necessarily correct, but I don't take responsability for that. I'm just taking these given numbers, add them up to 1 billion gold pieces per month, and ask where that gold is going to if gold buying isn't far more common that you think.
admit that the unrealistic liberal bias you've been bringing to posts lately is annoying

hahaha, wtf?
I've bought gold. I left WoW for 18 months; when I came back to my main, a level 50 hunter, she had about 50gp to her name. She needed to pay to train her pet (added since I stopped playing), and the economy had suffered inflation, so what she used to make money on no longer did. I bought 1000gp, a first and one-time purchase.

I expect to parlay that into enough to fund her and my alts going forward (I enjoy playing the AH) as I continue to level them. If Blizzard banned me for gold buying I wouldn't return -- I have other games to play; much more cost-effective for them to ban the farmer. Like Tobold, I suspect I am not in the minority.
Whenever a game has levels where you can have a time/effort advantage by using RMT, RMT will take place in that game.

WoW is one of those games where your time and effort can greatly be eased by using RMT.

My thoughts are that I dont mind RMT in the game, however I do mind when the game is competitive and everyone has a mandatory $14.95 monthly subscription cost to get the basic gameplay from it. There is a fine line that gets crossed when your competition wins because of their purse in game ontop of their own time/effort put into a char. How ethical is it to win the olympics by throwing the most money at the scorekeepers?
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