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.
Guild Wars has a similar customization system, but offers players more freedom. Players can choose whether they wish to soulbind their weapons before equipping them. (Soulbinding gives the player a 20 percent boost in weapon efficiency.) Armor, on the other hand, is soulbound from purchase, though players can trade various enhancement runes.
City of Heroes and City of Villains have made the economy very low priority, placing emphasis on guild prestige, which is no-trade and can only be earned by supergroup (guild) members in “Supergroup Mode” (dressed in preset colors while playing with members of their supergroup). Currency is extremely easy to earn, and there is only one thing to buy with it: Enhancements for skills. Once these Enhancements have been used, there is no way to remove them and trade them to other people; in effect, City of Heroes/Villains does not have an economy.
Some MMOGs have tried to adapt to the secondary market with varying degrees of success. SOE’s Station Exchange, available in EverQuest II, is seen by many players as a failure. Sony tacked an official and sanctioned secondary market onto a game not prepared for it. While a secondary market would no doubt exist in the game with or without the publisher’s approval, many players view the Exchange to be Sony’s surrender.
Puzzle Pirates‘ doubloon servers have an additional currency (doubloons), as well as the game’s standard pieces of eight. Players can earn pieces of eight and trade them for doubloons, or purchase doubloons via the official game site. In the comparatively noncompetitive environment of Puzzle Pirates, this has much less negative impact than the Sony Exchange in EverQuest II.
And then, there are games like Second Life, which have embraced and prepared for the secondary market. Second Life‘s secondary market does not squelch opportunity, it creates it; just as Lineage initially allowed me the chance to shine and show my potential, Second Life allows creative minds to flourish. And yet, Second Life‘s secondary market is largely different from other games: You don’t buy virtual property or virtual items or time; you buy ideas and concepts and art.
And yet, these partial solutions are imperfect, and, while they may work for some, they require key parts of the MMOG experience to be removed from games. Economies are a huge part of many MMOGs, with rare equipment and spells earning players bragging rights as well as powerful advantages over others. Many of the new methods being used to combat the secondary market result in more casual and less complex gameplay.
So does this leave players who are seeking worlds free of outside influence out of luck? While honest players can still find ways to earn large amounts of in-game money and compete with those who buy their virtual currency, the secondary market always affects everyone. Money is constantly changing hands in these virtual worlds, and it is impossible to completely avoid tainted money without avoiding trading altogether. The economy is warped, with prices on upper-level gear hugely inflated. No one wants to be “second best,” and as such, the demand for mid-level gear is often extremely low. In Lineage II, very few people run around in middle-of-the-road, “C-grade” gear; they have the best armor and weapons that their character can wear. In City of Villains, having the best Enhancements possible is a given.
In games not built with expectations of secondary market interference, this creates huge problems for most players. Videogames have yet to go the way of “everybody’s it” tag; there is competition, there are limited and contested resources, and only a select few can be at the top of the top. Buyers drive prices up with ridiculous amounts of virtual money, forcing non-buyers out of the market. For example, there is limited guild housing in Lineage II, and as soon as a house goes to auction, one guild or another will immediately put the maximum bid of 1 billion adena down on the house. And no, they didn’t earn that killing bugbears.
This is not to say that honest players can’t afford the best, but being rich – whether by luck or smart trading or real-world credit cards – immediately puts you under suspicion as a buyer. Everyone’s a liar and a buyer. Everyone’s a suspect.
Would that we could solve this with a simple division of servers – “you buyers go over there, and those of us against the secondary market will stay here.” But victory in an MMOG is not necessarily earning the best; rather, it’s having the best. What happens at IGE.com stays at IGE.com – no one’s going to know how you got that fancy new sword. Honest non-buyers have become as much of a myth as gamer girls used to be.
So, is it hopeless? Can Paek Jung Yuls still rise to leadership without the aid of Visa or Mastercard? This is not an impossible task, but something has to change. Ignoring the secondary market is not the solution, because it is not going away. Nor should we be forced to sacrifice complex economies or gameplay to negate the need for currency competition. Instead, we need to find ways to legitimately beat the secondary market, to use a game’s systems, as intended, better than they can.
Developers should not simplify games to combat IGE and eBay, but instead find more complex systems that users can experiment with and discover new rewards. Developers need to be rewarding smart gameplay, be it hunting, farming or crafting.
Over the last two weeks, since the EverQuest Progression Servers opened, I have seen first-hand the effect that smart players can have on a complex economy. While the average smith lost money buying expensive ores from NPCs, the smart smith broke down rusty weapons and re-smelted their own materials. While the average trader insisted customers meet them at common locations, the smart one used shared bank slots to freight inventory back and forth.
Instead of removing flexible economies, why not add to them? Why not add more non-trade rewards, such as faction in EverQuest or prestige in City of Heroes? Currency and equipment is, in most games, easily transferred. Non-transferable character progression demands that players legitimately access gameplay and encourages further immersion into a gameworld.
Yet, all of these suggestions are improbable hopes based on an assumption that the community will take a step and fight back. Korean Lineage II players have no qualms about banding together and pushing farmers out of their territories, but the Western world has a problem with reproducing this accomplishment. We are unwilling to work together to uproot the sellers. And we are unwilling to stop buying.
In Lineage II, I’m not a guild leader; I’m a follower. I am guilty not of buying, but of accepting. I know that the majority of my clan buys adena, and I hate it, and that’s a large part of why I haven’t logged in for nearly a month.
I will never buy. I have no fear of making that statement, that promise to myself. My fear is that I will remain complacent and accepting of the current status and not make any efforts to fix the situation, before virtual worlds become a mirror of the real world, and the ability to shine regardless of finances, status or ethnicity is lost.
The greatest evil is the indifference of good people.
Laura Genender is a Staff Writer for MMORPG.com, and is also an Editor for Prima Strategy Guides.