I remember the first time I loaded up Lineage, my first massively multiplayer online game. It was one of the turning points in my gaming career, and to this date I can still see the shadowed, two-dimensional character-creation screen, empty and waiting for my input. I can hear the music, foreboding and repetitive. I can see the font, bright and blocky.
Here I was given the chance to transform and to shine. This program, this game was allowing me to spread my wings. It was teaching me more about myself and what kind of person I wanted to be than school or parents or any other force that was supposed to be guiding me through my teenage years. In Lineage, I could be the type of person I wanted to be, without fear. I could be confident and cocky, I could be a leader.
Or so I thought.
I remember coming across a CNN.com article entitled "Where Does Fantasy End?" published in June of 2001. This article spotlighted Paek Jung Yul, a "shy, skinny 16-year-old" who, when in the game world, transformed into the ruthless leader of a feared and renowned bloodpledge, the Lineage equivalent of guilds. I envied and admired Paek Jung Yul and his ability to become such a different person when he stepped online. I wanted to be like him someday.
This has always been one of the strengths of the gaming industry: No matter who you are, when you step into the loading screen of your game, you are instantly transformed into the fearsome warrior, or infamous mage, or sly thief. Today, though, something else separates the men from the boys in the gaming world. Those shy, skinny 16-year-olds can still conquer the beefy football players and 30-something executives ... but only if they have the real-world cash to back their characters.
With the rise of online currency sales, the real-world "survival of the richest" is seeping into the online world. How can the kid who saves up his lunch money to buy game time cards stand a chance against his richer classmate who can purchase powerleveling and gear? Who attracts more followers, the shady rich man or the honest pauper?
In Lineage's sequel, Lineage II, the world is led by buyers and sellers. In a competitive atmosphere where resources are limited, honest players stand no chance against buyers who can put down a billion adena (L2's currency) at the auction house, or against the currency farmers who dominate all raid encounters. Bloodpledge leaders attract players with promises of "A-grade" gear. Prices are driven higher and higher by competing buyers.
MMOGs are, in essence, simple worlds contained in their own pocket universes. When one starts a new game, it is starting a life in a new world. Trading "real-world" currency for virtual currency is not the same as converting dollars to euros; it is an intrusion into another universe's privacy. Professional sellers are not sinking their funds back into the economy, as the designers planned. They don't buy new, flashy armor for their characters - they farm money to pass on to other players. There is a careful balance of progression in videogames, between character development and wealth and storyline and location. The secondary market topples that.
Already, we have seen developers trying to find solutions to this. The popular MMOG World of Warcraft employs a system of "soulbinding" items. Once an item is soulbound, it can not be sold or traded to another player, only to NPC stores (which pay very little). Items are either bound on pickup or bound when equipped; many of the better items are bound on pickup.
While this helps curb the secondary market, currency trade in WoW is still a big moneymaker for companies like IGE, which makes hundreds of millions of dollars on currency trading every year. And, unfortunately, "bind on equip" items often punish players more than the buyers - no seller is going to equip his new powerful weapon when he could sell it for cold, hard cash.