Steinhauer’s Opinion: Gold Farming, Part 2

Last time we began to dig into the frustrating MMO disease called gold farming. The problems are it’s highly profitable for those who engage in it and there will always be a market because there will always be lazy and greedy patrons of their services. Furthermore, RMTers have tied their techniques to expected game functions (such as the trade market), meaning that closing them down would cripple the game itself. I finished my previous article by asking if there were any in-game techniques that could be used to hinder the gold farmers without hurting the game. I believe there are many techniques (some more practical than others), though none of them is a silver bullet that will solve the problem totally.

The key is to focus on the major process points of the gold farming industry and introduce measures that make that point less relevant or less practical. The major points are:

  1. Farmer harvests the resources
  2. Farmer passes resources to Trader
  3. Spammer hollers for Buyers
  4. Buyers purchase resources from Trader

Regarding the first step, the key is to make gold irrelevant. Frankly, I’m surprised LOTRO has as much problems with gold farming as they do because there are so few things gold can buy. The only time a player needs large quantities of gold is to buy a horse or buy a house (which ironically is much cheaper than a horse). Aside from that, everything a person needs can be gained by questing or by crafting. The armor and weapons available for purchase from merchants are garbage in comparison and most gear is bound to the player when it is acquired (and thus not for sale). But LotRO’s shortfall comes with the auction houses (trade market). The only way a player can peddle goods is through the use of in-game money. Back a few years ago, I was an avid player of Asheron’s Call, a game that thrived on player designed macros. One of the most popular macros was the “trade bot” which became so pervasive that Turbine actually created trade halls for the bots to setup shop. In that trade system, it was almost never cash that changed hands, but rather commodities of some particular value (Pyreal motes, Greater Shadow Armor components, Singularity Keys, etc). I think they were on to something.

A full barter economy won’t stop gold farmers, but it will make their job more difficult, especially if the commodities can be kept diversified (something AC failed to do). Then it becomes not a matter of simply harvesting cash, but of netting resources, completing quests, and so on. Looking at this from the flip angle makes sense, too. A dishonest player who wants to get a lot of capital can’t simply go to an RMT and buy loads of universally useful cash, they have to purchase resources which may or may not be useful to them and may even become obsolete. It makes sense as a genre too. Most MMOs are founded on the fantasy model with the Middle-Ages as the base point of inspiration. Only in the latter years of the medieval era was money used at all. Prior to that it was all barter, be it chicken’s eggs for cow’s milk or lordly protection for feudal service. A barter economy doesn’t hurt game play or the trade market; instead, it makes both more interesting.

I’m going to skip to the third step next: the trade spammers. This problem can be attacked through accounts and through communication. First, these guys are usually using throw away accounts that they don’t expect to last long. In LotRO, my ongoing example, I expect nearly all of them are using “free trial accounts” so there is no real loss when they get shut down. A level one newbie hollers in town while the high level farmer account safely makes the cash. The obvious answer to limiting the spammer is to not allow free trials, but capitalism steps in. Free trials are good for honest players to see if they like the game or not. So, instead of pulling free trials, make them limited in capacity. LotRO has done this in my initial example by prohibiting free trial account holders to send ‘tells.’ They can only speak out loud, in fellowships, guilds, or on public channels. That is a good step, but all it does is isolate what channels the spammers will use. One idea would be to have a “free trial server” where all trial players must play. If they decide to buy the game, they can then go to a regular server. But the bigger problem in attacking spammers is that, while they are the most visible node of RMT, they are also the most expendable.

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The root of the problem, stopping the farmers and the buyers, can really only be approached through the second and fourth steps: the shipment from farmer to trader and from trader to buyer. This, I believe, is where the most ground can be made. Unlike spammers, farmers are not expendable since they have to be high enough level to actually survive to farm resources. Banning such an account is a serious blow to an RMTer. Likewise, penalizing the buyer by pulling in-game gold from their accounts is terribly debilitating and makes it much more risky for unscrupulous players to consider buying gold. Unfortunately, however, attacking RMT at these steps is likely also the most expensive for game companies.

The key to finding the farmers and buyers is by tracking trade. Game companies could monitor for large quantities of gold changes hands, especially if it is either in exchange for nothing or items of small value. Once such a trade is identified, the company could monitor the trade to see if there are repeat occurrences, monitor for where the gold is coming from (to find the farmers) and where it is going to (to find the buyers). Obviously, game companies would need to be careful because they wouldn’t want to penalize legitimate trades by honest players, but repetitive trends would point to farmers. Another quicker (but more expensive) method would be to actually purchase gold from a trader, then backtrack the gold’s trade route to find both the trader and farmer. But, as I said before, this attack on RMTers, would likely be both expensive in programming hours and in the time it took to monitor and track such trades.

The ways to hinder gold farming are numerous, just like the workarounds that gold farmers will use to circumvent them. It’s an ongoing battle with no realistic expectation of total victory, but that doesn’t mean efforts shouldn’t be made. Hindering RMT goes a long way toward making games enjoyable for the real consumer, the honest player. The above ideas are but a handful of possibilities and, I expect, none of them are completely fool proof. Each step that hinders farming without hurting the game is a good one, but ultimately gaming is bound by the rules all companies face: simple economics. The good news is that measures can be taken at all levels, from game publishers to game designers to the every day player.

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