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Real Money For Virtual Goods in Online Games?

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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.

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About Alisha Karabinus

  • Thank you for an awesome article! I knew most of the information featured in it already, but there were some new tidbits – not to mention the good presentation of it.

    I play Mithra BLM on Remora and have recently become exasperated at the skyrocketing prices, inability to camp certain Notorious Monsters and worse – many of my in-game friends’ quiet acceptance and joining in on the buing of gil. As one player commented: “I work all day in my real job and only have a couple of hours to play. Why shouldn’t I be able to let someone else do the farming?”

    The worst part is, that I am in a similar situation; my job takes the chief bulk of my day, but I so adore the world of FFXI that I haven’t given up on my Mithra, regardless of the fact that I’ve played for over a year and my main job is only at level 51.

    So, fine, I’ve levelled a few other jobs up to the 20s and 30s, but my point is, that without either huge dollops of extra time, OR purchased gil, I’m going to have a long, long stretch ahead if I am ever to hit the endgame activities.

    The cynic in me sometimes ponders, whether the crazy ingame economy is all a ploy by Square Enix to squeeze out as much in membership fees as possible.

  • This is so 1995…


  • Yeah, because it was a multi-million dollar industry in 1995, that RMT. Dave, go dislike something else unless you have something to add.

    Nukapai, I feel your pain — I’ve played for nearly two years and haven’t hit 75 myself, but it doesn’t bother me so much. I have a great group to play with and if I’m not on that often… well, neither are some of them. We’ve all got other things to do. I’ll keep paying SE because I love the game, not because I’m trying to rush rush rush to what, sky? To bitching about HNMs? Nah. Because I like to hang out with dancing Tarutaru. 🙂

  • Hehehehe. Hehe. I love dancing Tarutaru. They inspired me to do a Mithra Boogie. Everyone does find it quite funny when they first see it. 😀 The Mithra /panic motion is pretty useful in all kinds of macros. But anyway, detail, detail. If I would have known about the extent of RMT in this game, I am not sure if I would have started playing it, but now that I’m involved in the game, that’s not going to make me stop playing either – not unless the game becomes completely unplayable due to it.

    I run my own LS too, and it’s definitely the heart and soul of the game for me. 🙂

  • Wow. Finally got a chance to actually read this instead of skim it. It’s better than most of the crap gaming mags pump out on a monthly basis.

  • Bennett

    I don’t know much about these games, but I found the article a fascinating look behind the scenes nonetheless. Great job Alisha!

  • Thanks for the compliments, fellas. It warms a girl’s heart to know that not only was I clear (hurray!), but that the text is appreciated. Matt, you made me blush.

    Not that I think much of the gaming magazines, but even so. 🙂

    Nukapai, I find that the gilfarmers are pretty easy to avoid, and as the prices go up for the big ticket items, they go up for the things I craft and farm as well. It’s only a little extra effort to keep up, in the end. But it IS a major pain when you try to camp something only to find a group of people in shoddy gear surrounding the spot, and worse when they start sending you /tells… or when you see bots. It sets the teeth on edge. But it could be worse.

  • This entire RMT begs the question: how much fun is a MMO when you have to buy, with real money, to be on a level playing field as the other players.

    Now I have two reasons not to touch an MMO: the monthly fees are outrageously high, and to top that off, competition has its own price tag.

    That and I spend enough time gaming as it is without a MMO 😛

  • You absolutely do NOT have to spend money to buy MMO money to be on a level playing field!

    Some people just don’t want to play the game. That’s all it is. Sometimes I hate leveling up in a single player RPG, but I’m not going to hire someone to do it for me… then what’s the damned point?

  • Exactly, Alisha. I always wonder what the motivation can possibly be to get someone else to do the work for you when the work IS the game… surely they are then playing the wrong game?

    But then I realise how many hormone-fuelled overly competitive teenage boys are involved and realise what’s going on… 😉

    They want to prance around in the “l33t” gear and feel powerful; strut their stuff to each other.

  • It’s alllll about the e-peens.

  • e-peens? That’s something I haven’t heard before. 😀

  • Ive bought gil before, and I agree it is contributing to the problem. Also though, as you said buying the item itself contributes to the problem. The RMT market will always be there, regardless of what we do. Yeah we support it by buying gil, but its not like WE can fight it. What do we do, stop buying items and spending in game money? Stop playing the game we pay for? Yeah we could eliminate the buying of gil, but we could never omit the buying of items.

    Reason for buying gil? I make 10 dollars an hour at work, whilst going to college. Not only do I not have time to farm for gil, but I hate farming, its tedious and not a fun part of the game. I work an hour a day, i earn 10 dollars. I farm an hour a day, I earn about 100-200k. For working two hours, 20 bucks can get you roughly 3 million gil.. whereas working in game for 2 hrs on farming returns about 400k. Which is more productive to my time and my interests?

    I get to play the game effectively and get the items I want to be the character I want. There is no competition in being the best. The only reason I seek money is to improve my character to be effective during missions, quests and events. Those have the most social interaction and allow me to have fun with friends. As for the occasional 20 bucks i spend? Who cares? Twenty dollars is a triple to the movies, or a trip to the diner with some friends. So when I spend 20 dollars on gil, it is effectively just going towards having some fun.

  • sal m

    pc gamer and a few other gaming magazines have made their policy clear that they will not take any advertising from firms involved in RMT.

    i just started playing ffxi a few weeks ago and have played other MMO’s over the years as well as all kinds of games…it doesn’t surprise me that people misplace their priorities with regards to any game and do silly things as a result..

  • Nukapai, I find that the gilfarmers are pretty easy to avoid, and as the prices go up for the big ticket items, they go up for the things I craft and farm as well. It’s only a little extra effort to keep up, in the end.

  • i just started playing ffxi a few weeks ago and have played other MMO’s over the years as well as all kinds of games…it doesn’t surprise me that people misplace their priorities with regards to any game and do silly things as a result..