The Dilemma of Gold Farmers in MMOs

Usually the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the term “gold farmer,” they immediately think about a despicable and low-brow market. The typical view point in MMOs is that the measure of success is dependent on how much time you put in to achieve such success. This is why rules were set up by MMO companies to proactively ban gold farmers and players who would use their services. Someone, somewhere, heard about how Bob the Noob had bought his “uber-leet” gear, and everyone who had spent copious amounts of their time (and money) in achieving said gear Bob the Noob had just bought for a cool $15. Thus the age of hate stepped into light for these people who were willing to work for little money to provide RMTs to players of an MMO.

Of course, this is not new news. A lot of us already know how the RMT (real money transaction) market works and how the stereotype is applied that it only happens in China (which isn’t completely true–the majority of the market, yes, but they do frequent other locations). We also know about the poor wadges and conditions most of these sweatshops operate under (hence the word “farmer,” as, traditionally, farmers would be recruited on a large scale to work for small wadges). The question, however, is if it is possible to remove the gold farmer market from MMOs.


The Method to the Madness

A lot of people wonder why their fellow players would be willing to buy virtual dollars using real ones when they can spend their time questing and leveling to achieve the same end. The keyword here is “time.” The reality to MMOs is that older people are starting to fill up more and more of the space in the game–people with jobs and who can afford a $15 fee to buy copious amounts of gold that could otherwise take a casual player weeks to attain. Like people with jobs, time is probably short, which means “getting to the good stuff” after a hard day’s work should be fun and not a chore.

Herein lies the problem with the vast majority of MMOs. A lot of content in MMOs involves grinding, or spending set amounts of time repeating the same actions over and over again to achieve a goal. These are, most of the time, even incorporated within the game, whether they are quests or are involved in the system of crafting within the game. The irony to grinding is that it’s a lot like a day job–you do the same thing over and over again for a set amount of time to achieve a goal or a reward that you want to gain. The difference between the daily grind at the job and the daily grind in an MMO is that, in one instance, you are getting paid to grind, while in the other you are paying someone else to grind.

With this considered, it’s not hard to see why gold farmers or power levelers are so common in today’s MMOs. While there may be a majority of players buzzing about how gold farming is the cyborg combination of the devil, Hitler, and Megatron, others are giving the RMT market a second thought, becoming bored in spending too much time just trying to achieve a goal. How many times have you heard (or told) someone say that you need to play a certain amount of time or achieve a certain level in an MMO to start having fun? Now, how many of you actually thought about the concept of a video game when you heard (or said) that?


The Irony of it all

The history of MMOs started with MUDs, or a text-based game that could be played with other people online. Interesting of note is this is where the concept of RMT started as well (however, not on the scale that we know of it as today). MMOs eventually evolved into the games that we love to play today. The RMT market also did not discriminate; RMTs can be best remembered in Everquest when the flurry of eBay auctions for in-game items were put up for bid. The virtual economy for RMTs in Everquest was so widespread that the GDP per capita ranked as the 77th richest in the world based off of RMTs.

That should have been the eye opener for MMO companies in 2002. In essence, it was, at least, for the Asian market, which started to produce MMOs with a legal RMT market. Instead of gold farmers illegally providing services players could be banned for, these developers killed such an attempt at a market by providing players with the option to buy their money and gear through their own in-game market–at the price of the real-world currency. This formula proved to be a hit success for the Asian market and is continuously practiced among most new Asian MMOs.

The American market, however, did not catch on. American developers were still much more rooted in the idea of fairness–that those that had copious amounts of time to spend on the game should be much better rewarded than those that didn’t. Enter the age of raiding, which used to be synonymous with hardcore play styles. Horror stories used to scare the noobies away would be spread across forums about how large groups of players would spend consecutive hours at the computer raiding only to be wiped out at the very end. This is where the equation of “challenge = entertainment” entered the American video game market.

However, it is interesting to note that the American MMO developers are some of the most outspoken against gold farmers. Co-founder of Mythic Entertainment Mark Jobs epitomizes this stereotype with a simple quote: “I HATE GOLD SELLERS WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING.” Some American MMO developers even go as far as to publicly post statistics of banned gold farmers as well. One has to wonder whether this is aimed at good intentions or as a marketing ploy; after all, would you want to play the MMO that has gold spammers or the one that doesn’t (never mind that nonsense about content and fun)?

Ironically, despite how outspoken American MMO developers are about gold farmers or how every American MMO without a legal RMT market bans the selling of in-game currency with real currency, the majority of gold selling that goes on happens within such MMOs. And what did we previously establish as to why gold farming happens in the first place? It’s not hard to see why LotRO had a very serious problem with gold spamming some months ago–for one, they had free trials, so there were always gold sellers working around the clock creating trial accounts just to spam adverts in chat channels. Second, LotRO offers so many incentives for people to buy gold. It’s quite common to find every day nearly every hour someone in the chat channel saying, “…So how do I go about getting 4g 220s for a horse? Because I’m poor.”

Essentially, if American MMO developers would like to stop seeing gold farmers and power levelers entering their community, then they should try a different approach; shall we say, hm, make the game’s focal point of fun not revolve needing rediculous amounts of money or god-like gear? Which does not make it surprising to see why the gold market is such a problem in WoW; again, there is the issue of population, but on the other hand there is risks vs rewards, where the risk is losing your real-world social life or possibly skipping up real-world decisions that could influence your life down the road.


Devil’s Advocate

If you’ve survived the article by now and you hate gold farmers, you’re probably setting up an Internet petition to have my head stuck on a spear and paraded around the streets. But before you profess how much you love me, keep in mind that I do not favor or advocate the idea of buying gold–in fact, I frown upon it. I too think that all players should gain their success on their own without too much help from others. However, I cannot blame someone if they choose to buy gold either. There’s a serious problem when a player brings their complaints about how they do not have the time to counter the legitimate process of achieving in-game currency.

At one time I was on the opposite spectrum, proclaiming that if people didn’t have time to play MMOs, then perhaps they shouldn’t. If you think about it MMOs are not games that were traditionally marketed to those that didn’t have much time at all; the stereotype behind people who play MMOs is usually that they have no life, which is what enables them to play the game. However, considering the number of people who play MMOs and the age of some of them, that stereotype is starting to be down-played. The idea of casual MMOs is being born and with them comes the dilemma of RMTs.

So this is where we come to today, where the RMT market is starting to enter American MMOs more prominently. Star Wars: The Old Republic, is to have a legal RMT market, Turbine recently brought on board an RMT manager, and Diablo III will have RMTs as well. And even though Diablo III is not an MMO, it is a milestone that will bring in a rediculous amounts of people to play. The idea of legal RMTs in MMOs is beginning to be such a common concept that various governments around the world are making their way to taxing RMTs.

And while you may be still sitting there shaking your head furiously, think about the alternative; the alternative that still plagues your favorite MMO, that camps the “good” spots, that spikes the auction house market prices–you obviously hate it, but you’d be willing to keep it if the opportunity to trade a controlled RMT market presented itself? Keep in mind that you will never be able to root out every gold farmer. As long as people keep buying, they’ll still be in business, and as long as there is an incentive to buy, people will keep buying.


The Future

As it is common with any society, many people are fearful of the future. They are fearful of what it brings or the changes that may come or of the year 2012. However, I’m willing to predict that in our immediate future we will see RMTs becoming legal and developer-controlled. We may all be holding onto the ideas that developers may be people that enjoy video games, but they also have jobs too, and their marketing department is probably just sitting there licking their lips thinking about all the opportunities to make extra dollars off of people who are already paying a monthly subscription to their game. Will the game still be fair? Now that’s a totally different question altogether. One can only hope so, but given the likelihood that such developers have screwed up in the past, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a total disaster. Hey, it’s happened before.

Originally written: January 2009

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About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

One Response to The Dilemma of Gold Farmers in MMOs

  1. Pingback: The quest stands on the edge of a knife: LotRo goes F2P « Agamemnon's Domain

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