We the Avatars

Mark Wallace | 20 Sep 2005 12:04
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Assuming the skinning tweak was a gameplay issue and not just an evil attempt by the company to make more money, an interesting thing has happened: The gameplay of a virtual world has had an impact on your real-life bank account. It works in reverse as well: You can cancel your World of Warcraft account if you need the extra fifteen bucks a month, but in a game like Roma Victor, you never have to cancel, you can just stop buying sesterces. If you're poor in real life, your toon is poor in the virtual world. If you're rich, your toon is rich. That's an environment we haven't really seen before: Even if you never visit eBay, your real-world bank account is affecting your life in the virtual world.

A Roma Victor-style economic model will make your wallet act more like a faucet, regulating the flow of cash back and forth between the real world and the virtual one. The marginal effect will only amount to a trickle, at first. But where do you draw the line? The hypothetical patch above raised your effective monthly fee from $15 to $17. Would you have signed up for a $17-a-month MMOG? An $18 one? $20?

And what if the armor you were making was selling like there was no tomorrow? You might decide to crank the faucet open and see just how much money you can make - and you might be surprised to find it's quite a bit. But then a patch comes along that doesn't tweak skin drops, but instead requires more leather for each piece of armor that you make. Now your little virtual business is losing money - real money - like a leaky sieve. And all in the name of gameplay. The patch not only changed your experience of the world, it affected the contents of your wallet.

Now we're on tricky ground. Game companies can make such tweaks to their worlds because we tell them they can: It's in the Terms of Service (ToS). But in a world where patches have a financial impact not just on gold farmers but on all players, that document takes on new meaning.

Game companies are careful to note that everything in a virtual world is owned by them, and that none of it has a real-world value. But as games economist Edward Castronova of the University of Indiana has pointed out, the mere fact that companies feel they have to stipulate their ownership implies that there's something of value at play here. If plat was really worthless, they wouldn't care. The Roma Victor model of MMOG economics moves game economy one step closer to the real-world economy, by setting up an explicit economic relationship between the two that's governed by a legally binding document (the ToS).

It seems likely that, sooner or later, someone's going to point out this relationship to a court. Courts in other countries have already begun to question the contentions of the ToS, and it's only a matter of time before it happens here. Whether a game currency comes to be seen as a separate product that's being bought (and owned) or as an investment in a market, the Terms of Service will soon be insufficient as a governing document, and real-world laws will have to get involved.

It's players who are going to make this happen.

You can see the beginnings of it already, in the protests that take place from time to time in MMOGs. In January 2005 a group of unhappy warriors captured the attention of World of Warcraft's Argent Dawn server (as well as a few Blizzard GMs), protesting for fixes they demanded be made in their chosen class's powers. They didn't get much for their trouble other than suspended accounts, but they were following in some not so ineffective footsteps.

A similar protest had been planned in EverQuest in November 2003. The warriors were mad as hell (this time over nerfing), and they weren't going to take it anymore. A protest was announced, and remarkably, the mere mention of it had some effect. A week after the announcement (but before the protest had taken place), an EQ Community Manager announced a major overhaul of combat mechanics. In the end, it wasn't as major an overhaul as many warriors would have liked, but their voices had been heard. The people, in the form of their avatars, had spoken.

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