Why spend weeks working to make money in an online video game when you can just buy whatever you want? That seems to be the question more and more gamers are asking as the popularity of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games) continues to climb.
For the uninitiated, MMORPGs are games that take place in a vast online world in which characters start with very little and work to become powerful. Along the way, they can choose a variety of paths, such as their “job” (in a traditional MMO like Everquest or World of Warcraft, this usually dictates whether or not one is a fighter or a magic user), their race, and smaller details, like their armor or clothing. The practice of making one’s character more powerful, known as “leveling” or “grinding,” is often very time-consuming. In Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, it can take anywhere from 60-400 hours of playtime to reach the maximum level, which is 60. In Final Fantasy XI Online, however, reaching the maximum level (75) can take a lot longer.
But leveling is only part of the game. Along the way, players have a chance to deck out their characters; they upgrade armor, weapons, and spells in order to maximize their abilities. Typically, the higher the level and the better the gear, the more expensive it is in the terms of the game’s economy. Taking the time to earn the necessary money often means a break from leveling… and in order to skip this process, some gamers out there are turning to companies like IGE or auctions on eBay to solve their gaming woes. For real money, they can purchase virtual game money — often known as “gold” (or in the case of FFXI, gil, the long-used term for money in the Final Fantasy franchise), which is then used in-game to gear up their characters.
This system of buying virtual goods and/or money with real money is known as Real Money Trade, or RMT — and it is a bannable offense on most MMORPGs. Regular players, who put in the hours out of pure enjoyment, find the situation distasteful and often rally for greater crackdowns from the companies who run the game — or greater personal restraint from those who purchase virtual currency.
“I think there should be some way to regulate it [RMT]… however; sadly, the problem is deeper than that. The market is there because people will buy it. People will do anything to win, including cheat. I guess what really angers me is that it is poor sportsmanship. As a competitor I personally detest people who would do whatever it takes to win, as far as breaking rules go,” says Christian Hildebrand, 30, who plays WoW.
Some just think it’s completely abhorrent, any way you slice it. FFXI veteran, 28 year old Danny Peacock, seethes over the idea of real life wealth determining success in a game. “I feel that the ability for some hoity-toity punk with too much money to visit a website and trade his real money away for pretend money is appalling. This practice gives him no gain whatsoever and detracts so much from the game, not only for him/herself, but for anyone that plays the game as it was meant to be.”
But it’s interesting to look at all perspectives within this situation. In the spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” Sony started the first RMT-approved servers on their MMORPG, Everquest, earlier this year. So far there are only two among the numerous servers for EQII that allow RMT. Sony collects a per-transaction fee for their authorized service, called Station Exchange. For those who complain about the time-consuming aspect of playing an online game (many of whom are parents or other casual players), this seems a good compromise; Sony’s Station Exchange allows people to purchase what they need through a legitimate channel rather than by supporting “farmers,” the people who log in to MMOs solely to make virtual money that they then sell for real money. For those gamers who are not interested in RMT for themselves, but who are not against the idea, a system like Sony’s would probably be acceptable. Alex Farmer, a 17 year old from the UK who used to play FFXI, says, “I don’t agree with buying gil myself but I suppose it’s up to others whether they do it or not. I do believe it undermines a lot of the enjoyment of the game, but if people want to play that way then it’s their choice.”
A server is a sub-world within an MMORPG. Typically, a player will only interact with those on their own server. Some games offer different types of servers, as with the RMT-approved servers mentioned above. WoW also offers servers wherein player-killing, or PVP competition, is allowed. Each server has its own unique economy and population. FFXI offered a cross-server tournament this year for their PVP competition, ballista; it was the first time interaction of any sort was allowed across servers in that game.
Not all RMT is negative; indeed, in the virtual world Second Life, some players (called “residents”) run stores or design firms dedicated to providing goods and services to other residents of that world. Some have even turned it into a career. Second Life (and the similar game There), however, is a world simulation, and thus not competitive in the same fashion as the action-based MMORPGs.
It’s estimated that over two million dollars in real money changes hands monthly in association with Second Life.
The biggest arguments against RMT (besides the notion that it is cheating) are the practices that the “farmers” undergo to gain virtual currency, and the affect such activity has on the in-game economy. “Gold farmers” can be regular players who have found a (legitimate or illegitimate, as with exploits, bots, or hacks) way to make piles of virtual currency, and who then turn around and sell it to a company like IGE, or they can be an employee whose job it is to login every day solely to make money in the game. At first, the stories of gaming sweatshops were written off as myth, but indications are turning up more and more frequently. The Australian featured an article about the cycle of real money and virtual money that included a quote from a 19 year old Romanian who plays all day for Gamersloot, killing monsters for money and items for a mere $200 (in US currency) per month.
Sounds innocent, right? After all, the players are often logging in daily to kill monsters for money and items. But it’s different for the farmers, who work in shifts, so that the same characters are logged in all day, every day, often dominating the same areas.
“[RMT farmers] are online 24/7, which allows them the unfair advantage to monopolize [certain monsters] and gain the desired drops more often then the regular players,” says Victor, a 39 year old who plays FFXI. “They can spend all their time crafting, mining, harvesting, and fishing, which allows them to set the prices for the items and thus control the market and economy.”
And as the prices go up, more and more people turn to RMT to get the virtual money they feel they need to play at a competitive level. Steven Dansby, a 21 year old teacher who plays FFXI, broke down the cycle:
…RMT only works because other players allow it to work. Certain items have been hyped so much that players will now go to extreme lengths to get the “best” gear possible. ‘If you don’t have one of these, these, these, and these then you are gimped and you suck!’ Too many players have heard something like this and listened!
As a monk, my favorite example would be the Ochiudo’s Kote. Before anything else is said, they are a great item. Having them can really make a difference depending upon your race and playing style. However, like all other luxury items, they are just as the name implies, a luxury. They’re wonderful to have, but they will never turn a bad player into a good one or anything along those lines. Yet, so many monks started swearing by them they became one of the essential items for playing the job… Enter the RMT [who dominate items like this].
I watched in horror as over a year ago the Kote began their steady climb from 300,000 gil to over a million on the Sylph server. Today they are at or over 3 million [gil]. Are they worth that much? The answer is undeniably no. Are people willing to pay that much to make a claim that they have the best equipment? Absolutely!
Even if the player goes out and makes that much money on their own, which could take months, they are still buying the item for a huge sum, money that will likely go to the RMT and be sold to someone else; either way the RMT profit [because they’re often the ones selling the big ticket items]. The prices for this and other similar items skyrocket and the rest of the game economy has no choice but to rise as well in a struggle to keep up. The RMT might be the ones abusing the system, but it is the players who are to blame for allowing them to do so.
Not everyone agrees. Farmer says, “A laissez-faire economy such as FFXI is bound to be subject to a large amount of hyper-inflation and I honestly believe the difference would not be that noticeable if RMT didn’t exist.”
But it’s not just about killing monsters, auctioning off items, and selling the profits for real money online. RMT have been known to take on guerilla tactics, including ganging up on players who try to challenge them and engaging in MPK — “monster player kill,” or the practice of bringing an aggressive monster near a player and then manipulating it into killing another player, or teaming up to dominate entire areas in order to edge out legitimate players. Additionally, there are problems with bots, programs designed to kill, craft, and farm without any player interaction whatsoever, for hours on end.
“This got started with Everquest… The macro system and positioning of resources allowed people to program bots that would run autonomously all day farming for wood and resources that never changed position,” says Hildebrand. “[But] newer MMOs have started to use a spawn system in which resources spawn in different cycles all over the map [which makes it harder to bot].”
Additionally, companies have cracked down to some extent on RMT, which is typically against their Terms of Service. Blizzard Entertainment (WoW) and Square Enix (FFXI) together banned thousands of accounts, and Square Enix has instituted several changes to FFXI that make certain RMT-associated activities difficult or even impossible.
But the gamer with too much disposable income can purchase more than just virtual money. Some companies offer “power-leveling” services — the gamer provides their login information, and a company rep takes the character out into the world and levels until a certain milestone is reached. This is, however, exceedingly dangerous. Most MMORPGs require a credit card linked to the account for a monthly service fee. By giving someone your account information, you are not only handing over the reins of your account (with no guarantee that you’ll get it back), but you are also handing over your credit card information. There are also full accounts available to be purchased, complete with higher level characters who often have a variety of skills.
As an interesting aside to this aspect of RMT, the very aggressive farmers of FFXI on the Sylph server, where I play, at one point had a linkshell group (similar to guilds in WoW; a group of people who play together often with a “chat” feature that allows them to communicate regardless of where they are in the online world) named FutureLemon. I never gave the name much thought until someone made the remark that the name was ironic as they were churning out “lemons” — characters that were being leveled purely to be sold. They were “lemons” because these characters were undeniably associated with RMT and would forever carry a bad reputation, a reputation that would transfer to whoever had the misfortune of buying the character.
Some might call that karma.
Alisha Karabinus has been playing video games for over fifteen years. She currently plays Final Fantasy XI Online on the Sylph server as Zavia, a ranger. She runs a linkshell group known as the CheapSkinks.Powered by Sidelines