“Check out the virtual property panel,” someone told me yesterday at the Triangle Game Conference. “The guy giving the presentation is really good.”
He’d have to be good to make something called “Virtual Property – Business and Legal Issues” anything other than a complete snoozefest, I said to myself, and took a moment to look up Greg Boyd in the conference program. Upon reading his description, I discovered that not only was he a lawyer, but one with an MD and an MBA, no less.
Imagine my surprise when Boyd – who I was sure would be about as engaging as a statistics professor on tranquilizers – giggled with glee at how “exciting” it was that you could now go to jail for making certain game design decisions. Wait, what? Jail time? I thought this was going to be about whether or not you owned your patch of land in Lord of the Rings Online, how did we get to prison?
It’s surprisingly easy. Let’s say you want to make your MMOG, Quest of Ultimate Warcraft Online particularly attractive to new players by telling them that they can get back all of the money they spend on in-game swag. Buy a pony, keep it for as long as you play the game, then sell it and get your money back. This is called “cashing out.” If you’ve got two games that are otherwise equal, and one gives you your money back and the other doesn’t, it’s kind of a no brainer which one you’re going to pick, right? Which is all well and good until someone hires a hitman.
Ok, let me back up a bit.
The problem with the “cash out” idea, explained Boyd, is that it makes it easy for nefarious types to use your game to launder money. Let’s say a guy wants to bump off his wife. He could write a check to his hitman of choice, or even just give him a big wad of cash, but both of those transactions leave paper trails that could quite easily lead back to him and land him in the clink. The smart criminal would instead buy something really expensive in Quest of Ultimate Warcraft Online – or even just some of the game’s currency – and then give it to the hitman, who would then sell it and cash out. Money changes hands without really changing hands, and just like that, the wife is dead.
“This stuff has been in law journals for years,” Boyd assured us, apparently concerned that we might mistake him for some sort of criminal mastermind. “I’m not giving away any secrets, here.”
Removing the cash out option, or even just putting limits on how much loot can be exchanged in a day, makes your game a less attractive money laundering tool, said Boyd. Game designers need to be wary of more than just criminals, though; regular citizens can cause headaches just as large.
Ok, you’ve decided that letting players cash out of Quest of Ultimate Warcraft Online (or QUWO, as those in the know call it) is a bad idea, so instead you’re going to let players own their virtual stuff. If they spend the cash on the Sword of Dyn-o-mite, it is theirs to keep! What harm could possibly come of that? Plenty, as it turns out, because ownership of anything – be it a house, a dog, or even a virtual bikini – comes with responsibilities and liabilities dating back nearly as long as law itself. To avoid this particular hassle, the implications of which are enough to make any game designer squint his eyes and pinch the bridge of his nose (go ahead and do it, you’ll see what I mean), the best solution is to license in-game goods to players. In other words, that Sword of Dyn-o-mite they spent five bucks on is theirs so long as they are playing the game, but once they stop, they no longer hold any claim to it.
The issues surrounding virtual property extend past MMOGs – any virtual goods you buy, from clothes for your XBLA avatar to furniture for PlayStation Home to, Boyd argues, tracks and videos you bought on iTunes. The presentation was fascinating because it made me look at the online features of games in a way that I had never considered before. We’ll have video of his talk up for you in just a few days, so be on the lookout for it. (UPDATE: Here’s the video!)
Oh, and that gold I gave to a guy in World of Warcraft? It was, uh, for his birthday.
Susan Arendt would only hire a hitman with a bar code on the back of his head. One must have standards, after all.