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The Lawbringer: Fighting the gold fight -- the world as it is

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Running parallel to the games we love and enjoy is a world full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

The Lawbringer has in the past been used as a personal launching pad for some of the more out-there or esoteric ideas that I have in regards to the World of Warcraft and virtual currency in general. You guys seem to love it, and there's always plenty of great discussion about these ideas. For the next two weeks, I want to introduce you to my thoughts on how Blizzard should be attacking gold sellers and, at the same time, working to remove some of the content gates that gold has erected in the MMO we all love. This week, we will set up the story and the history of it all, and next week, we will talk about hard conclusions.

Gold selling isn't going away as long as fungible and liquid currency exists in MMOs. Gold is "fungible" because it can be exchanged for something exactly like it, at a 1:1 ratio -- gold is gold. Gold is also liquid, as it can be used and exchanged for other goods or services. Short of Blizzard's getting rid of this type of currency altogether or selling its own currency for a cheaper price than gold sellers can furnish it, people will sell gold and items that can be traded.

Blizzard has shown that it has the guts to go after gold selling as an industry but has so far failed in scope to bring down the snake that slowly poisons everything it has worked to build. As sellers become hackers, and as hacking chips away at the good will, reputation, and stability of the game we love to play and the company we love to patronize, there has never been a more urgent time to fight the gold fight. The strategy needs to change from focusing on the people who sell gold to a combination of those that sell and the gold itself.

Gold selling has become gold hacking

At one time in the history of MMOs, gold and item selling was a quaint notion. We had not yet been introduced to a world of horse armor and new mission DLC. This was a young world, a world that was still putting out its feelers about what was good and acceptable and what was dangerous and asking too much of people. A monthly fee was a new concept to a video game, at least to the average player, and the idea that you could pay real money for advancement in a persistent world was even more foreign.

Gold selling in World of Warcraft began as quaintly as it could have. Farmers would grind and fight, taking over the best spots in places like Tyr's Hand or those elves in Azshara and making money the old-fashioned way, the same way we players did. That gold was then sold to players on what seemed to be an open market. It was shady but shallow, only running as deep as the farmers, the gold they made, and the company that hired them.

Over time, however, the unfortunate drawback to Blizzard's rightful actions against gold sellers had turned this seemingly cut-and-dry industry into one of consequences, theft, and illegality. When Blizzard began to ban thousands of accounts for gold selling, these sellers bought more accounts and hid, still completing their transactions. When Blizzard hunted them down, they moved inwards to dungeons and instances, making tweaks to the WoW client to fool the server into thinking they were in another position, easily hacking chests in said dungeons. When Blizzard removed chests from dungeons, the gold sellers began to troll the auction houses of the servers, playing a gold game unlike anything anyone had seen before. Before long, it became more profitable to steal gold than to farm it, from the very players who bought it.

Gold selling has become gold hacking in World of Warcraft. Many other MMOs do not have this problem because they either sell their own items and currency, making it just plain not profitable to sell gold, or they don't have the issues of scale that WoW does. Either way, WoW's gold selling issue is a problem of a scale never before seen in a virtual world before, and something -- nay, everything -- needs to change. Blizzard's reputation, as well as the safety of its consumers, is at stake.

A fight that needs to be fought

Many people think that gold selling is fairly harmless, but they're wrong. Sure, the number of people getting hacked by gold farmers and sellers is not a majority of the playerbase, but there are better and more pressing reasons to fight the gold fight.

Gold sellers and hacking hurts the Blizzard and the World of Warcraft brand, as well as the brands that will eventually come from Blizzard. Account hacking is more prevalent than ever, and there are security concerns to the point of free keyfob authenticators being offered to victims after their accounts are compromised. The problem is also not always in the users' control, either. Keyloggers find their way onto our systems in every way possible, and even the best spyware tools can only detect and remove so much.

World of Warcraft is a game that prides itself on opening its doors to one of the most diverse groups of video game players in the world. There is a beautiful pride in being so accommodating. However, with such a wide range of players comes a wide range of knowledge, and many people still do not understand the value of safe internet browsing or the relatively intricate knowledge needed to protect oneself online. Many of us may think that those practices are simple, but we are definitely not the full audience.

Continuing to allow gold selling and hacking to happen into perpetuity could impact the good reputation and foundation Blizzard has built up over the years and even the success of the next MMO. How are we supposed to fall in love with Titan if the first thing that springs to mind about Blizzard MMOs is how many security hoops I will have to jump through to log in? Constant hacking attempts only weakens the Warden's purpose, and the race to be in front of the hackers will only cause mistakes along the way. Gold sellers have nothing to lose. This is a fight that needs to be fought and won.

A new strategy

So far, Blizzard's attempts to stop the hacking and gold selling have been effective, but not effective enough. The recent shot fired with PayPal, one of the most used payment services for gold on the internet, was a good step in one of the right directions. However, we are quickly figuring out that at its very heart, gold selling exists anywhere you have some sort of fungible currency. Short of Blizzard selling its own gold currency to players, something has to be done to remove the reliance on gold inside the game world.

Blizzard's strategy is all about containment and parrying. When gold sellers make a move, it parries with fast and easy access for players back into the game and flagging accounts. Compromised accounts are back relatively quickly, but it is not a sustainable system. Gold hacking will ruin enough people's days at some point in the future that the customer service system will be hit.

The strategy needs to change. The only way Blizzard can fix the gray market that has sprouted up underneath and around it like grass in the sidewalk is to combat the problem head on with a new and innovative strategy. This includes the vital task of looking to the root of the problem -- gold.

What is gold, anyway? In WoW, gold acts as a content gate, a decision-making tool, and a cost-benefit analysis medium. As a content gate, gold in WoW pays for repair bills and consumables for raiding, items from vendors, and bag space for our inventories. WoW gold is spent in game on heirlooms from guild vendors, flight paths for travel, and a million other purchases in the game world that funnels money from our purses out into the virtual ether.

As a decision-making tool, gold represents some kind of in-game wealth that gives players opportunities based on the amount they have accumulated or can potentially accumulate. Rewards like epic flying or the Vial of the Sands are all about choice and decisions, figuring out for yourself what aspect of the game makes you happy and you wish to have access to.

Cost-benefit analysis is so ingrained in our base nature that gold is just an extension of it. In game, we make decisions based on the risk involved and how much the potential consequences of our choices will cost us. Gold is that medium, and we must make the judgment call to run the heroic instance with the not-so-great tank, hoping that we will get through the ordeal with more gold or gear than we came in with. We make thousands of these decisions every day, from getting up in the morning to soloing an group quest.

Why do people buy gold?

People buy gold because it negates the three theories above. Buying gold brings you closer to the rewards of an artificial content gate more quickly. Bypassing the gate completely, it removes the decision-making element by letting you make all of the decisions, and the cost-benefit analysis is skewed in the "benefit" direction since cost is not an issue anymore. People buy gold for convenience's sake, wanting instant gratification for many of WoW's bonuses or because they just don't have the time to commit.

What could change tomorrow?

The new strategy should be to focus on removing the reliance on gold. Gold is here to stay, and in WoW's case, I am not recommending getting rid of gold entirely. But there are things that could be done tomorrow that could reduce the player's dependency on gold and turn the currency into just another way to get to the most expensive or most desired content. At the same time, reducing the player's reliance on gold lowers the amount of gold bought and sold, slowing phasing out the hacking and security compromises that exist today.

Here's the problem: Right now, too much gold that comes in to an average player's "purse" is removed by game mechanics. The average WoW player logs in, does some dailies, quests, and runs a dungeon or two, incurring repair costs, gear costs from vendors, and a daunting auction house. Looking at something like epic flying as something to save for is not fun to people who want the instant satisfaction that accompanies gold buying -- completely understandable. With disposable income, people are willing to shell out for instant gratification. You may find it stupid, but I find it utterly understandable.

Next week, we will look at hard solutions that can change the gold selling landscape for the better, giving players more options when it comes to in-game perks and removing the game's reliance on gold as a means of content gating.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Economy, The Lawbringer

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