A great poet of our age once said: “It’s like the mo’ money we come across/The mo’ problems we see.” Blizzard has certainly been in this position recently, with their 2004 blockbuster multiplayer online game World of Warcraft reaching over 6.5 million subscribers and gaining more than 50 percent market share in less than two years.
With this unprecedented success have come headaches, from persistent server outages, to virtual plagues, and even allegations of sexual harassment. However, one of the major issues for Blizzard has been the problem of gold farming, the practice of paying workers in poor countries to spend all day gathering virtual gold and then selling it to anyone with a credit card.
In their latest battle against the farmers, Blizzard recently issued this press release:
Doing the math, that works out to only 1,000 gold per banned account. This is a fair chunk of virtual change for players at low levels, but it isn’t that much for a higher-level player—an epic mount costs nearly that much all by itself, for example. This seems to indicate that the gold farmers don’t have any magical method of extracting gold from the game, but are stuck doing the same repetitive tasks as the rest of us chumps (although perhaps with the assistance of extra tools to help automate this process). Had the banned accounts contained orders of magnitude more gold, it would have been indicative of a much more serious exploit of the game.
So how serious is the problem of gold farming, and does it really represent a threat to the game and its players? Most of the concerns involve runaway inflation, which has historically been a devastating problem in real-world human societies. However, in the world of Azeroth, nonplayer character merchants are completely oblivious to the problem, and will never raise their prices no matter what the human players do. Prices for items sold between players on the Auction House will inevitably rise, of course, but buying items in this manner is not necessary for completing the game. If anything, it helps the regular gamers, who can get more money selling shiny items they find on monsters in the game world, and save up for their epic mount that much faster. Still, it is annoying for people who enjoy player-versus-player combat to see hordes of newbies decked out in ridiculously expensive and powerful armor that they didn’t have to “earn” in the traditional manner.
Not all online gaming companies have dealt with the problem the same way Blizzard has. Sony, for example, recently opened up its own virtual marketplace for EverQuest, letting players sell virtual items and gold for real money, all with the blessing of the parent company (who presumably gets a small cut of the proceeds). Richard “Lord British” Garriott, famed developer of the Ultima series of games, recently came out in favor of allowing these transactions, saying that they are “inevitable” and that he personally buys virtual gold “all the time.” As virtual communities continue to grow, the question of paying real money for virtual items will have to be resolved one way or another. In the meantime, I have some trolls to kill.