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Blizzard's battle in South Korea over the real money auction house

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.

Diablo III is one of Blizzard's most ambitious (if not the single most ambitious) launch of a game in the history of video gaming. Blizzard intends on a worldwide mega-event to launch Diablo III simultaneously in every country, with a massive localization undertaking. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into this product. Countless man-hours have been spent toiling behind computer screens and long nights and painful testing. This is the forge where artifacts are made.

And as the mighty hype machine churns and the release date comes closer and closer until the game is announced, the best-laid plans of men and Blizzard begin to feel the sting of friction. Chaos exists amongst the order. Back in September, we learned that South Korea had denied a rating to Diablo III because of concerns over the real money auction house, a new, hotly debated feature coming to the game. More specifically, the South Korean raters felt that the ability to "cash out" on real-money auctions skirted too close to the gambling line.

This was bad. This was really bad. How could a core feature of one of the most hotly debated and fought-over moves in microtransactions to this day be the cause of release hardships? People frantically checked their backlogs of notes. It didn't make sense. South Korea wasn't an issue, they assured themselves. There was no way.

South Korea's effective ban on Diablo III is most likely at an end now. I'm sorry to cut the story so short without any kind of lingering, omniscient looming like Glider almost achieved. No, Mike Morhaime went to South Korea in September and tried to talk it out. I can only imagine Morhaime, standing tall against the backdrop of the Blizzard flag at the Blizzard South Korean Consulate building, a stadium alight with StarCraft II TvT off in the distance. The meeting of minds takes place. Ultimately, the ability to cash out after making a real money sale on the real money action house will be removed from the South Korean version of the game, most likely. We are still waiting for a release date.

An obvious fear

The potential backlash to the real money auction house in Diablo III had and still has the potential to be a polarizing issue, despite the often-overlooked fact that participation in the auction house is entirely optional. Players don't want to feel forced to spend real money in a game they have already paid for, and companies want to provide a fun and reliable service. How could the real money auction house even be conceived without a worst-case scenario list? It's out there, and I wish that I had it.

No, it is a very real fear that the RMAH would cause some problems. I predicted last week that the Diablo III auction house will be the target of some far-flung, made-up issue that permeates the news cycle for all of 20 minutes before dispersing into a gentle night sky. If the solution to the problem is to flip the switch for your country and you don't get the cash out feature, is all that a country has to do to block Diablo at this point and get the upper hand on Blizzard to make a fuss about cashing out? It's a big product with a lot of wealthy people throwing around a lot of money to make it work.

What we've learned

What I've learned from this whole ordeal is that you can never underestimate the chaos. Diablo III will eventually get a release date, go on to sell millions upon millions of copies, and delight the world with demon-killing antics. There is no doubt about it at this point -- it's a very real product that I have installed on my computer in beta release. All of these things will happen, but not without the bumps along the way.

What does this mean for the real money auction house? Not much, unless you're playing Diablo III in South Korea. What does this mean for the eventual controversy over the real money auction house in the United States and potentially in Europe? Hey, there's always no more cashing out, right?

On Jan. 4, Jay Wilson tweeted that Asia was not what was holding up the Diablo III launch, assuring players that the real money auction house feature and potential issues around the world with gambling concerns and other unforeseen situations would not hold up the launch. Jay Wilson is Diablo III's lead designer, so I'm sure he has some insight into the release of this game. This isn't a column ragging on Blizzard for not releasing its game or my own impatience. I am simply looking at this whole thing from the standpoint of the everyday gamer who will happily tear open the metaphorical package on Diablo III on Day One. Did we really not see the whole gambling issue coming, or was South Korea just thought to be an issue?

Edit: As of Friday morning, South Korea has rated Diablo III 18-and-up, removing any South Korean roadblocks. The issue was over the auction house.

From the Mailbag: Selling game time?
Mat,

On my server, I see a lot of trade channel advertisement offering to sell prepaid game card for gold. Is this go against the Term of Service? Even if it's doesn't go against the ToS, trustworthiness issue will stop reasonable people from buying these through trade channel. So, do you think Blizzard will issue an official support for this type of transaction? We know they offer the Guardian Cub to counter gold buying problems, but imagine if players can buy prepaid time card then securely sell them in-game (via Auction House). I'd imagine this would be more vastly successful than the Guardian Cub and Blizzard might actually stop losing subscribers if people can paid for their subscription via gold.

-J.A.
Thanks for the email, J.A. If you cannot trade in game for the item, you cannot sell it for in-game currency, period. Since game time is not currently a tradeable item in game, you cannot sell game time to players for gold, put them up on the Auction house, etc. This may change in the future. Blizzard may look at the success of the Winged Guardian pet that is tradeable in game but purchased with real money as a sign that game time should also be made to work in a similar way.

See you guys next week.

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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