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The Lawbringer: WoW's immune system and the gold selling virus

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Mathew McCurley takes you through the world running parallel to the games we love and enjoy, 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?

Security is a lot like the human immune system -- the longer you are exposed to the dangers of security intrusion and attacks against you, the easier it is to learn how to defend against new attacks. The video game industry has been the target of hackers of all types since its inception, with hacks and leaks dotting the gaming landscape. Gold farmers and gold hackers are the relatively new kids on the block, but have been fighting a long battle with Blizzard as both sides push and pull to achieve their goals. Blizzard is in a unique position where they have the knowledge of years of attacks behind them. What happens when the new guy enters the genre and has no such immunity or experience behind them, despite hackers knowing exactly what to do?

Have you ever read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel? No? Well, it's a pretty darn good read, and you already like to read (as evidenced by your eyes' sliding back and forth across the screen at this very moment), so pick up this Pulitzer Prize-winning look at the ascension of western civilization. The very basic (and I mean, extremely distilled version) thesis of the book is that western civilization achieved dominance over the world through serendipitous geographic factors and weaponry, diseases to which many were not immune, and central, powerful organization. I'm concerned with the germs part of the equation.

What does any of this have to do with the massively multiplayer genre and WoW in particular? Well, a lot, in fact.

World of Warcraft has been actively defending itself and taking steps to protect itself and its players from viruses and disease for over six years, including gold farmers, hackers, gold hackers, modders, botters, client crashers, server crashers, exploiters and everything in between. Over time, the machine that controls the security, made up of people and computers alike, grows as we understand the threats and learn how to deal with them, much like the human immune system. WoW has the benefit of being in a world where gold selling is rampant but with an immunity built up. Hackers try and fail or try and succeed, but Blizzard always bounces back. When a botter tries a new approach, Blizzard eventually finds, bans, and adapts.

But what if you are a brand new MMO entering into the marketplace that Blizzard's success has escalated into unimaginable heights? The MMO genre has never been more popular and populated, with Blizzard leading the way in terms of numbers and amount riding on the genre. Being the biggest dude on the block means more security and more attempts at breaking your stuff, so Blizzard has to be prepared. If you're the new guy on the block, however, you're entering into a world already populated by smart hackers, botters, and the rest who have tried and testing methods to break games against the big dog already, and your new game has no immune system built up.

The world as it is

Imagine you are Star Wars: The Old Republic. You are destined to be an early hit; your business model is the standard subscription fare, and your game and systems design feels rooted in the traditional MMO world, meaning you have an in-game currency with which players purchase their items and power. Last week, I made mention of one of the issues with one in-game currency that doubles as both the way to earn power and convenience. Players want to have the ability and will spend their own real currency to get both power and convenience, and gold buys you both. The Old Republic will have gold sellers.

So here you are, new kid on the block, and your fancy game gets great reviews and launches to the world. Immediately, you notice that there's something wrong. The hackers, the gold sellers, and the people looking to make the easy virtual currency buck are already there, with the infrastructure built and ready to sell. They've already been doing this for years, growing and maturing through WoW's success to become masters of the gold selling domain. If the MMO genre were a petri dish, it would look an awful lot like strep throat.

New games and new developers only have so much immunity to the disease and viruses that creep around the MMO world. Case in point: Aion. Aion launched with a lot of promises and prestige, having a good beta run and beta events surrounding a hyped-up launch. Things were going fairly well for NCsoft. The gold sellers and hackers and botters came shortly thereafter, en masse, and made things extremely hectic. Servers went down, people were quick-trigger banned for joking about gold selling, and the game's economy took a crazy nosedive. NCsoft was not prepared to deal with the world as it was, because so much of what Aion was protecting itself against was rudimentary and did not consider the honed skills of the veteran currency hawkers who cut their teeth on WoW and other MMOs before.

Future releases need vaccinations

Remember how Batman actually escalated crime in Gotham City because he was a crazy masked dude who ran around putting an end to criminals' free rein in the city? And to counter Batman, criminals started being crazy and dressing up all goofy? The same concept is at work here. The MMO genre needs its Arkham.

How do we allow these diseases to spread and exist in an ecosystem where the success of your MMO relies on stability and fairness, with player experience in direct competition with the might of the gold seller? The baseline vaccination is the authenticator, a system of player security that Blizzard made a popular item in the genre. The authenticator, for the six of you who don't know yet, is either a keyfob with a serial number or a smartphone app that spits out a code for you to enter on login, to play the game, or to change account details. The code changes frequently and is hooked up via algorithm to the servers that let you pass based on the code you input. It's a simple solution to the hacking problem, for the most part.

Vaccinations against gold selling itself is the tough nut to crack. You want to discourage selling currency in game, but you've built your game around earning currency and spending it to make your character better. In The Old Republic, will I be able to give my credits to someone else? The liquidity of the game's currency already spells problems from the outset -- if I can trade it, I'm going to want to have more of it, and I will want to buy it, or people will want to farm it and sell it.

The problem doesn't even lie with the players at this point. Since gold selling and currency farming has become a hugely popular and profitable business, hackers and botters will jump into the market en masse anyway, even if there is no demand just yet, because of the fact that currency can be farmed and traded and sold. The money on the table concept is in full effect.

A virus-ridden planet

How do we get back to a world where the MMO genre is a safe place to launch in again and do so with relative ease, without all the worry about hacking subsystems and 10 layers of security? I don't think we really can get back to those days, until gold farming is not a profitable business anymore. If I'm Bioware and EA and I'm looking at the world as it is, I am worried that my game is so popular in preorders because that already sets the stage for gold farmers and hackers to enter my game and disrupt my service in pursuit of the quick buck.

Look at what Blizzard has done and has tried to contend with. The solutions lie in the little things, the authentication and the rules in place. With over six years of exposure to the nastiest of the nasty, player excuse after player excuse, and hundreds of thousands of calls from customers who need their stuff restored, Blizzard has forged its own vaccination and immunity to many of the smaller problems that gold sellers bring when they log in to your game. And they will.

Unlike how the world was changed by diseases and viruses to create the ascension of a people just because they were lucky enough to have the right immunity to a deadly natural phenonemon, the MMO genre is a world we can utterly control. The games are the starting point, and security for players and their accounts has become a baseline concern in the industry and a new, heavy cost of doing business. Building MMOs from the ground up with the understanding that currency will be bought and sold is now mandatory -- if currency is tradeable, of course -- and the only immunity at this point is to build defenses early. Blizzard has been sitting in the cesspool for a good long while now and has yet to fall to the gold seller's influence. How will new competition fare in a marketplace that is way, way ahead of their game?

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, The Lawbringer

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