Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why I dislike RMT and in-game currency farmers

I apologize for disallowing comments on this one. I don't want to start any hoopla about it. Real-Money-Trading and in-game currency farmers are probably one of the top 5 hot button subjects for MMO players. Just go over to Tobold's and do a search for RMT related articles (BTW, Tobold's is a great blog and was one of the primary inspirations to start my own). In the end, this post is merely me venting my opinions for people to read if they want.

I've been steadily playing MMOs for approximately 4 years now. I had played them prior to this, but at the time I was in the Army, and was unable to get good long-term internet access (I would end up playing EQ for a couple months at a time before I would stop playing due to moving or going on a field exercise or something). Shortly after I left the Army, Final Fantasy XI was released, and thanks to the prompting of the artists of the webcomics MacHall and Real Life, I started playing and joined their Linkshell, Shirtninjas.

Prior to this time, RMT was a minor problem. Most of it was done via services like eBay, and the like, done from person to person. Approximately a year or a little more prior to the U.S. release of FFXI, IGE came into existence. I would imagine a few other companies of a similar nature also appeared along with it, but IGE is the big name on the block. The result of IGE and other RMT companies effects on MMOs is already very well known. The market for hiring and employing (even if only by "Contract" which many RMT companies use to get around direct legal action for "employing" those who break the EULA) in-game currency farmers (ICF). Here's where my first issue lies:

1) ICFs will monopolize single high-value targets or reduce the availability of targets high-value farming areas: The impact of this one has gone down greatly since WoW and the Burning Crusade was released, but it's still there.

First I'll touch on the second portion, since that applies to WoW much more than the other. Let's use the Elemental Plateau as an example. Most folks at 70 know of the Elemental Plateau in Nagrand. It's a place where Elementals of the four prime elements appear, and is intended to be a good place to hunt motes of the appropriate element. The problem is that each of the Elementals appear in fairly limited quantities and their spawn rate is intentionally limited (as opposed to a dynamic spawn rate, which I will detail later). I would be willing to bet that on every server at least one person up on the Elemental Plateau is an ICF. For every ICF up there, that means one less "real person" is able use the Plateau to farm.

One thing that Blizzard added in The Burning Crusade that lowered the impact of ICFs upon farming is Dynamic Spawning. Dynamic Spawning works as such: The more players in a given area, killing mobs will increase the spawn rate for those mobs. This is limited in who it works on, but for the mobs that are effected by it, it strongly decreases the impact that ICFs have upon player farming.

The other point is one that, essentially, does not exist in WoW, but does exist in previous MMOs. There were things called "Named Monsters" or NMs. The WoW equivalent are Rare monsters. The primary difference is that the rewards from NMs were easily much better than equal level gear, and in some later cases the best available anywhere. This was fine as a design not taking into account ICFs, but with their introduction they were, in many cases, able to claim a virtual monopoly on NMs, forcing players from either using them to make money themselves or farm the items directly, thus bypassing the need to save up large amounts of money to buy the item.

Either way, ICFs make life a lot harder for people who honestly are trying to make money.

Now, onto the second point. This was not obvious at first. In fact, it didn't really become obvious until the first "Christmas sale" by companies like IGE. As I mentioned in the previous post, at winter vacation time there is usually a surplus of people getting money and RMT companies lowering prices. This leads to a flood of money going from RMT bank characters who hold onto huge amounts of money to the economies on the servers they are on.

I'm no economist, but I'm able to figure out what that means. Let's say at Christmas, 5,000,000g enters the economy of each server. This is not so far fetched, since (doing a bit of searching) shows that current gold prices are around $250-500 for 5,000g. After the holiday price drop, we can estimate the max cost for 5,000g at $300 (and probably less), and I could easily see someone purchasing one or two of those with Holiday gift money. While a portion of this will be siphoned out through the act of buying an epic flyer, anyone who does the Netherwing faction quests will negate this loss by at least two-fifths, meaning that still a large amount of money is suddenly entering the economy.

So what's does it matter if a lot of money is entering the economy over a short period of time? Well, I'll use a Wikipedia article to sum it up, "Mainstream economists overwhelmingly agree that high rates of inflation are caused by high rates of growth of the money supply." Simply put, it will likely cause strong inflation. The average price on things bought from the AH will rise by a noticeable amount, and those who do not RMT will suffer because of it. So here's the core problem:

2) RMT companies do not consider what impact their selling of in-game currency will have on the economies of the game servers. When someone buys their money, they expect it promptly, and RMTs usually deliver it as such. While I would imagine that, generally, business remains predictable, during key periods such as Christmas, the demand for RMT goes up, and the response has a noticable impact.

Money floods the economy as hundreds and possibly thousands of people per server order and are given money. This impacts their buying habits at the AH (much more willing to pay whatever it takes to get what they need since they have money to burn), and as a consequence impacts how other people price what they sell and how much they are willing to pay for stuff (also willing to pay more).

In a simplified way of saying it, a sharp increase in the total value of money in the economy will cause temporary inflation. Over the course of a year, RMTs will use IMFs to siphon small amounts of money out of the economy. Since more money is entering the economy as this happens (and probably more money is entering it than leaving it), it doesn't have a noticeable impact on the server's overall economy. Then at the end of the year, much in-game currency is bought at once, causing the hoarded money to flood into the economy, raising general prices on the AH. While over time this inflation spreads money out amongst everyone (higher prices at the AH mean eventually everyone gets more money), the more immediate effect is newbie players on older servers are essentially cut off from buying things they cannot produce, either for wearing or for crafting (e.g. leather needed for crafting guns for engineering).

Now, this problem has been somewhat mitigated on WoW, due to the prevalence of Auctioneer. Since Auctioneer tracks previous sales, it won't cause a single person selling very high to skew it's numbers. On the other hand in other games that don't have things like Auctioneer, such as FFXI, it has a strong impact. I've seen many times, right after Christmas, the prices soar very noticeably.

Final point:
3) RMTs don't care how the money they acquire is gotten.

The way I've phrased this is fairly innocent sounding. As I mentioned back in December, it seemed like there had been a recent flood of WoW account hacking, along with the FFXI site hacking (inserting a trojan virus onto a few major FFXI sites which then downloaded itself onto anyone's computer that went to the site, leading to hacked accounts). While I can't back up with facts that these hacked accounts were used to fund RMT companies, the strong increase during this period (including at least 4 people in my guild) paints that picture to me.

But this point stands on it's own, even without the theory of RMTs using account hacking to acquire funds. The point is simply that I doubt companies like IGE don't ask where the money comes from. Even if they were to ask, there's no guarantee that it is "legit" (as much as that can be). They need to get the currency to their clientèle, so they make sure enough is available to meet the demand.

Again, I have no hard evidence of it, I firmly believe that many RMT companies use ill-gotten funds (ignoring the illegality of any RMT in games with EULA that ban it) to supply their customers.

Games like Second Life are less impacted, due to there being a legal method for transferring real money to in-game money and the other way around. For games like this, they were designed with RMTing in mind, thus they are not overly adversely impacted by them.

Sony also did something similar to this with the introduction of the Station Exchange servers, which allowed players to create or transfer characters to specific servers that "allowed" RMTing. And by "allow" I mean that SOE created their own RMT group and supplied all the funds and gear you could normally buy, but did it in-house and on servers separate from everyone else, again minimizing it's effect on the rest of the game.

While I dislike RMTs, games or servers designed with RMTing built in are perfectly acceptable (I won't play them, but that's beside the point). In the three ways I mentioned above, RMTs and ICFs have a profound impact on games that are not designed with RMTs in mind. While for a percent of the gaming population (I do not pretend to know how much) benefits from it, it comes at the expense of other's enjoyment. None of what we do in MMOs are on a "need" basis, so doing things that harm others enjoyment of the game in a way not part of the experience is not even close to acceptable to me.