Since he raised the issue, and since it's the talk of the industry of late, we had to ask. Virtual property: Good, bad or ugly? Richard fielded that one with an unexpected answer, saying, "Well, I think first of all, it's inevitable," taking a moment to comment on the legal ramifications before getting back to that "inevitable."

"What I mean by inevitable, I think the definition of value has something to do with the amount of human labor that goes into the creation of something. Gold is hard to find, therefore it's more expensive. Aluminum is pretty easy to mine, so it's pretty cheap. People invest a lot of time in getting gold or things of high value in a virtual world. It makes sense that that has real world value. Therefore, of course, secondary markets will exist to allow people to shortcut that work and reward cycle," he says, showing a remarkable grip of economics and human nature without the high dudgeon so common among game designers on this issue.

"I buy virtual gold all the time," he says, adding, "I have no problem with it. I'm a supporter. I understand that my position on this is different from our sole corporate perspective. But anyway, I participate in it."

With the accompanying PR rep in need of medical assistance, he shifts his perspective back to that of a publisher and developer, saying, "That being said, as a developer and as a publisher, there is a real big legal problem associated with the sale of virtual property. As long as what we're selling for our subscription fee is access to our service, and all we're warranting is that, oh, you'll be able to play, whatever that means. It doesn't matter what rules we change about how you play." He uses a simple example, saying, "It doesn't matter if somebody comes up to you and says, 'Hey, I'll give you two gold for that incredibly valuable sword that I'll convince you is valueless,' and you sell it to them, and then find out tomorrow that, in fact, it was worth a gazillion gold pieces. None of those things matter, because what we're selling is entertainment opportunity.

"As soon as we are involved at all in the sale of a sword," he begins, sounding like this is a scenario they've gone over a time or two. "Suddenly, if its value changes because we change the rules, suddenly if it gets lost because of a technical glitch, if you get bilked out of it by some other character in the game, all those things suddenly mean that our company is exposed legally to that transaction, like it would be in the real world with a real sword. If you sell somebody a rusty sword that disappears, you're in trouble. If you sell a sword and charge ten times what it's really worth, you're in trouble.

"There's a line there that I think, once a game developer has chosen to go across, you just have to prepare your content to expect that. That is not what the current designs are designed for," he says, echoing RedBedlam's Kerry Fraser-Robinson. "Anytime you're selling items, you expect a certain amount of data integrity in backing that up. You go to an airline, for example, and you buy even a $50 ticket on Southwest. You show up at the airlines and they say, 'Hmm, looks like we lost your ticket; guess you're going to have to buy it again.' You're going, 'Wait, that's not fair. You can't just lose my ticket.'"

Disclaimers aside, though, Lord British says he's "very interested in creating games that have virtual items that are sold just outright for real money, and skip the front end. As an enthusiast, I think it makes a great deal of sense, but it has to be backed up with all the rest of the banking backdrop, which most of the people doing these early ones are not [doing]. The only people I think are going to succeed these days, out of the few companies that are selling items and stuff, tend to be small companies who are not worried about losing their portfolio, or they're in Hong Kong or China, where you can't sue them anyway, or they work through other people and just sort of connect people. They're trying to protect themselves from being able to be sued. I'm really interested in seeing how the Sony [Exchange] works out, because they are obviously a major company and they're backing it up. I don't know that they've had any real problems, but probabilistically, they are going to when they lose something substantial, and how they back that up, I'm really wondering."

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