Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

Steinhauer’s Opinion: Gold Farming, Part 1


Colgalas hobbled slowly down the dusty road using his spear as a walking stick. The battered chain hauberk hanging from his shoulders was rusting and his right leather boot had a hole in it at the heel. The coat of arms painted onto his shield was hardly recognizable beneath the dents of a hundred warded blows. Yet despite his weariness and rag-tag appearance, Colgalas felt good. He’d saved the village of Torogaes from trolls and was on his way home. His house wasn’t much beyond four plain walls and a roof, but it was a place to hang his helm and get some rest before going to the local tavern to boast of his deeds. The people of Torogaes had been poor, but they’d paid him as best they could and, if he shopped wisely, he knew he’d be able to fix or replace enough of his gear to go out adventuring again.

Rounding a turn in the road, Colgalas stopped and gaped. An enormous new castle had been built where only forest had stood a week ago. Its white chiseled granite walls were capped by lofty towers soaring a hundred feet into the air where long crimson pennants fluttered in the afternoon sun. Before the castle gates, a chair carved from polished cherry wood had been placed. The man sitting on the chair held Colgalas’ attention. He wore a tunic of the finest silks and a bear fur coat hung from his back. A parasol had been set above him, blocking the sun’s rays, while an immaculate suit of plate mail rested at his feet. Colgalas’ eyes widened as it gleamed in the afternoon like silver. It was smithed from pure mithril, enough to purchase half an empire!

“Hey ho, my fellow adventurer!” the man shouted after quaffing from his pint of ale. “Back from gallant questing I’ll wager. I’ve been meaning to do that myself some day.”

For those of you who don’t know what it is, Gold Farming is the collection of resources in game (often, but not always, money) to sell to players for real world cash. The common acronym for this transaction is RMT (Real Money Trading). Farming is generally done one of two ways: (1) farmers camp a particular spot in the game (hence the term farming) and kill high yield, low risk monsters repeatedly for their resources; or (2) they manipulate some form of exploit to duplicate (dupe) high amounts of ingame cash with minimal effort. Though there is a population of gold farmers in the United States, they tend to be easier to catch and prosecute locally. The greater population of gold farmers are found overseas, and they are particularly famous (or infamous) in China.

The purpose of this article is neither to discuss the moralities of gold farming, nor to debate whether RMT is, in fact, beneficial to ingame economies. Concerning the latter, I’m not an economist and am hardly qualified to render an informed opinion. As to the former, there is no issue. Gold Farming and RMT are in violation of the End User Legal Agreements (EULA) of just about every MMO in existence and, therefore, are illegal. Enough said.

So lets move on to a topic that is debatable: what to do about it.

I was strolling through the town of Bree (the largest city in LOTRO for you non-Tolkien fans) the other day and I overheard an interesting discussion. With its most recent patch, Turbine upped its efforts at making life difficult for gold hawkers. The previous problem had been spammers sending repeated ‘tells’ to every the player they could find before they were reported and their account was banned. So Turbine provided a setting that allows players to automatically ignore incoming ‘tells’ from everyone but those in their own guild and on their friends list. Very clever. Unfortunately, farmers are clever too. They’ve simply started spamming the OOC, Advice, LFF, and any other general channel that takes their fancy. Their account lifespans, no doubt, are significantly diminished, but they are now annoying en masse instead of one-on-one.

So in Bree, one such hawker was spamming his automated message every couple seconds and a frustrated gamer suggested that all transactions of money be prohibited except within a player’s personal account and within guilds. Not a bad sounding idea on the surface, but the work around is even simpler than the recent ‘tell’ fix. For example, another player observed that the hawkers would simply shift to the trade market and would have the gold buyer ‘sell’ the gold farmer some useless piece of ingame junk, thereby allowing the farmer to get the gold to the buyer. The first player responded that they should just shut down the entire trade market then. Of course, trading is one major appeal to many MMO players and removing the market would be a major blow to the game itself. Not really a good option, but what can be done?

Well, the short answer is probably not as much as we’d like. As long as laziness and greed exist, there will be a market for gold farmers. They are far from fools, too. They’ve managed to meld their activities into the basic functioning of MMOs so any action that makes farming outright impossible is an amputation of sorts to the game itself (such as the market example above). But just because there isn’t a cure (to continue my medical analogy), doesn’t mean the battle against this virus isn’t worth fighting. This is being done on all fronts.

On the gaming publishers’ end, most companies are proactive about banning gold farmer accounts that they locate. Of course the hawkers are much easier to find than the actual farmers, and RMTers are clever enough to keep these separate. In some cases, such as on EVE Online, companies are removing illegally gotten gold from buyers’ accounts, resulting in actual deficit balances. Also, as in the ‘tell’ example above, many designers are trying to find ways to make life difficult for the farmers and enhancing honest players gaming experience. The OOC spasm on LOTRO are still annoying, but at least they are less common that the ‘tells’ used to be.

On the gamers’ end, players are actively reporting spammers and getting hawkers’ accounts banned. At an even bigger level, the players of World of Warcraft even filed a class-action lawsuit against IGE, one of the biggest US RMT companies.

All of these actions are great, though most of us probably wish there were more. Realistically, game designers are ultimately bound by the rules of capitalism and therefore must make cost-benefit analyses on all actions they take to see if it will be worth the effort. But is there anything more ingame they can do? Maybe more actions like the ‘tell’ limitation that Turbine instituted? Or perhaps the gamer mentioned above was on to something (albeit not entirely) and there are ways to modify trading that will inhibit gold farmers but not crash the market itself?

What do you think? I’ll let you know my thoughts next time.

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