Monday, June 6, 2011

The Sins of Buying Gold

I've got ninety thousand pounds in my pajamas. I've got forty thousand French francs in
my fridge. I've got lots of lovely lira, now the Deutschmark's getting dearer. And my dollar
bills could buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

There was a news item printed recently that guards at Chinese work camps forced prisoners to farm gold in World of Warcraft which were then sold to players all over the world.

Here, I attempt to be as objective as I possibly can in pointing out a few things:

The Guardian newspaper of Britain reported on the story told by exactly one former prisoner in China.  Let's be honest and acknowledge lousy journalism when we see it. There is a cardinal rule in journalism, that it's not news until you have two sources confirming the same story. This doesn't mean that the events did not take place, it just means that the Guardian sloppily ran out an unconfirmed story because it's "astonishing."

There are human rights violations alleged by the name-changed subject of the Guardian article. I don't mean to lessen the importance of these things, but, they do not influence the conditions of gold-selling in WoW. Human Rights' abuse is to be deplored, but they should not cloud our view of how this relates to our game. Better organizations than the Guardian (or this blog) are already hard at work on this.

The story states that the "forced gold farming" took place between 2004-2007. In game terms, this is a lifetime ago. Blizzard has changed the dynamics of gold acquisition to such an extent that the majority of purchased gold now comes from hacked accounts.  Gold-farming, while probably still existent, is largely defunct. Old stories like the Guardian's report have little sway on the current dynamics of the problem.

Finally, it should be pointed out that labor camps, the making of products, and the exporting of said products are all quite legal in China, so ostensibly, I don't see that putting prisoners to work in this manner is all that surprising or unusual. (And it might make us stop to consider who exactly made all that other "made in China" crap we already have.)  Many states in the U.S. have variations on this same policy as well. So, let's not cast stones about that.

So, that said, I'm not impressed with the Guardian's report. You'll note that I haven't linked back to it, because that's mostly what the Guardian wants me to do, and I don't play that game. In general, I'm extremely skeptical of most reports about MMOs that have surfaced in mainstream news media, but that's a topic for another day.

All that said, gold-selling and gold-buying are for losers. Plain and simple.

I have a couple of quick reasons for thinking so:
  1. It destroys the game's economy.
  2. It throws off Blizzard's design in terms of time necessary to participate
  3. It's not something I think I can can point to cause and effect on, but people who buy gold have a strong corollary with being people who are douchebags.

An economy is a terribly difficult thing to manage. Witness the almost daily trials and problems with our own real-world national economies and how close they come to falling apart. Fundamental to the stability of an economy is the "value" of its currency. The American dollar falls in value (as it has since 2008) and it creates huge whorls of effect, in terms of unemployment, deflation in some places, and inflation in others.

And the same is basically true within a game like World of Warcraft.  Blizzard has to create a "value" for gold on which to base most other aspects of the game. When some external source is essentially pumping gold into the game, devaluing the currency set by the makers, they have lost one of their primary controls for regulating how the game is managed on many many levels.

Let me explain this out much more carefully: Blizzard basically intends for player to collect and then spend X amount of gold on their primary activities. They then give us the means to accrue (X+Y) amount of gold relatively easily. We'll spend X gold on our routine activities and save Y gold for special stuff like fast-flying skills or a Mekgineer's Chopper.

That "special stuff" (sometimes called "gold sinks") however, is priced just "so." So that Blizzard can say relatively comfortably that it will take around 18 days (or whatever) to save up the gold to purchase such an item. Some people will get it faster, and some a little slower. But fundamentally, that's how long it will take.  This is how play time becomes a function of the gold earned.

Now, if a player is basically earning their (X+Y) amount of gold and then they go and buy Z amount of gold in addition to that, all the math that Blizzard has worked so hard to set up goes out the window. Obtaining a gold sink is meant to keep one busy for a certain amount of time really. If that is time bypassed with purchased gold, it's a little bit like skipping content.

This brings us to the Auction House.  The AH follows one principle rule that is the basis of all modern capitalism: The sellers will charge whatever the market will pay. If I want to charge 150g for one Volatile Life, and buyers will actually shell out for that, then 150g is going to become the standard price for volatile life.

The thing is, nobody should ever be paying 150g for volatile life. When Blizzard did all their computations on the cost of "special stuff," much of which requires some volatile life in its construction, this price was not in the plan. Your average player is going to have to spend (X+3Y) gold to afford just to do his X activities and is going to become increasingly frustrated about doing that. The only players who can really pay that rate are the ones who have (X+Y+Z) gold.

And then there are rare BoE items like a pair of  Phase-Twister Leggings, for example. In an imaginary server that has no one buying gold, if some mook posts those for 21,000 gold, nobody is going to be able to purchase them. Buyers will snicker at him, and after a few days the leggings will get returned to him in the mail, minus his deposit fee.  On a server where much gold is being bought, somebody will snap them up at 21k and before you know it, everybody is charging that price.

Blizzard always intended for these leggings to be bought at a substantial price, but it would be sometime like (18Y) gold, and not 54k gold like what I have seen these leggings listed at on my server's AH. Nobody should ever pay 54k gold for a pair of pants. Ever. The game is designed that they will not be affordable at that price. The only player this makes any sense to is  the player buying Z amount of gold.

There are a lot of different reasons cited for why it's OK to buy gold, the most prevalent being that "I don't have time to farm materials or my own gold for raiding, etc."

"I don't have time..."  That's an attitude we can find a lot in game these days-- usually the GOGOGO people you want to strangle in your random PuGs. Or from the people who get seriously aggro when a group is not doing what they want. I really like my epics when I get them because they are usually dearly bought, but I figure anybody who just picked them up by giving $20 to a hacker probably doesn't appreciate his items the same way.

Honestly, there is nothing I can find to show a relationship between those people and the gold-buyers, but doesn't it make sense that the somebody who is so impatient as to bypass the gold standard would be impatient with almost everything else they encounter in the game?


  1. Hmm - I think you're getting a couple of points crossed here.

    First - the buying of gold. Now, forget everything you 'know' about the gold, and just look at it as something electronic. I'm not concerned about where it's coming from, as that's an entirely different topic, but just the principle of buying gold.

    Let's assume for a moment that all the gold you're buying actually comes from your server. This money already exists in the economy, as someone had to farm it out. It could be AH players, someone soloing old content, who knows. The point is, the gold exists. There's an infinite supply of it in the game, you just have to go out and get it.

    So who does this hurt? If I don't have time to run 25 daily quests on 4 toons (plus my main), and I pay some guy to do that for me on his toons? The money is already in the economy, I'm just compensating someone else for getting it for me.

    Now - the real issue is where is the gold coming from? If it's coming from hacked accounts, well that's a different matter, since you're buying stolen goods. But it's the hacking that is bad, not the buying of gold.

    Another issue that I don't think you covered is that gold CAN equate to a real benefit in the game, and therein lies the problem. Now someone who has deep pockets can buy their way to the top (after a fashion). I mean, even Gevlon bought his way into raiding back in Wrath. I think it would take a lot of people buying a lot of gold to have an impact that is large enough to really have any ramifications on the game though.

    In the end I do wish that gold selling wasn't happening, but mostly because people who just might not know any better get hurt in the hacking game. If someone really wants to make 2$ an hour grinding out gold, I say let them.

  2. Some great comments here! Thanks so much, Adgamorix.

    One thing I think you're suggesting however, is that the gold on a server is essentially a zero-sum system, in which there is a fixed amount of gold created on a server and never any more than that. One person has some and gives it to another person, but the sum of available gold doesn't change. But that's not the case. You said it: hacked accounts. The account is hacked, gold is taken. And sooner or later, the gold is replaced by Blizzard to keep their customer happy. The stolen gold remains in the economy, as does the replacement gold. Thus more and more gold is pumped into the server's economy devaluing the stuff and causing inflation like what we have seen in the past 2-3 years.

    I think the farming of materials might have a more complicated effect. Blizzard does not design around teams of farmers pumping the mats system for all its worth (at least not on a large scale), so again, the Chinese farmers are injecting more into a system than was intended. On the other hand, if they really were farming up gobs and gobs of materials, that would lead to lower prices for that stuff. But, I think that's all irrelevant since again, Blizzard states fairly certainly that most sold gold is stolen from hacked accounts these days, and not farmed.

    "It's the hacking that is bad, not the buying of gold." Most real-world analogies would not agree with that logic. In most any case where the buyer is aware that the source of goods came from illicit sources, the buyer is accountable for that as well. This is why one doesn't openly display paintings stolen from museums, and even buying cigarettes from somebody not licensed to sell under the tax discretion of the state is illegal. At the very least, it is against the terms of service, a contract agreed to by all players, which prohibits the buying of gold.

    Ultimately, I believe that if there were no players buying gold, the gold sellers/hackers would dry up fairly quickly because they lacked anybody to sell to.

    I do love your comments on the benefit to the player with a ton of gold, but that would be something I'd want to discuss in greater detail another time!

  3. I just think you have to take the hacking aspect out of the equation. You're associating one bad act with another innocuous act, and tying them together. For example, buying antiques is not illegal - buying stolen antiques is.

    Now Blizzard has stated time and time again that account security is your responsibility, and there have not been any documented cases where an account was hacked if someone had an authenticator. So, let's look at it another way.

    Say I buy games from a Pawn Shop. Now, depending on the credibility of the shop, there's probably a good chance those games were stolen. Now, buy purchasing them, am I promoting theft? Am I responsible for the fact that someone had their goods stolen? Granted it's different if I 'know' I'm buying stolen goods (i.e. if you're buying diamonds from the back of someone's car in a dark alley), but I don't know.

    Yes, using sites like is probably the same as buying from a dark car in an alley, but again I'll say that paying the neighbor kid 20 bucks to farm gold for me on Saturday isn't morally wrong. Against the TOS? Sure. But there's no difference in him sitting around farming say, Primal Fires like we used to do in BC, or in him farming mobs for leather (or treasure boxes nomnomnom).

    In the end I do agree that the ability to purchase gold harms the game, and I certainly hope that Blizzard never sells gold, as unlike a sparkle pony, that has a real impact on the game. I wish all hackers would suffer some kind of violent reprocussions, but I also don't have any sympathy for someone who doesn't have an authenticator and gets their account hacked (or if they share info with someone).

    In the end, I think we're really spinning our wheels though. People who want to buy gold will, and there's really nothing you can do to stop them. It's virtually impossible to mark the difference between me giving some random lvl 10 player my 50k bank when I quit the game, from someone who bought the gold.

    I personally just take the moral high ground, know that I haven't done it - won't do it - and don't associate with (and will report those I suspect) those that do it - because it's against the TOS, and in the end that is the only reason buying gold is really 'bad'.

  4. I'm not sure how you take "the hacking aspect out of the equation" Adgamorix, considering that the vast majority of Gold Sellers acquire their gold through this method, Hence the need for Blizzard to bring out systems like the Authenticator. While Blizzard would never admit to it, it's barely shy of fact. Mainly because Hacking for the sake of resale of toons is near impossible on an active account.

    The Morality of it is a different aspect all together I agree... But any breach of the TOS is basically ignoring a rule/law in essence. Just because the RL value of Virtual Currency is much less than the Numerical value means little. you refereed to the purchase of Stolen Goods without knowledge of it's origins as almost 'not your problem' but RL Law sees this much differently, you still lose said goods, your clean record and possibly much much more, irrespective of "your" knowledge of said items.

    I think all in all we agree that the Purchase of Gold isn't good for the game, and a "fool is born every minute". But we can't really deny the effect it has on the In Game economy and the sooner Blizzard make it compulsory to have some form of Authenticator to access the game, the better