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My colleague Alaric wrote an excellent blog entry recently entitled Unfree-to-play. In it, he discussed Turbine’s move in Lord of the Rings Online to a free-to-play model with microtransactions. After giving the subject some thought, I felt moved to comment on a tangential, but related topic. And since I have a blog here, I can get on my own soapbox without stealing from Alaric’s thunder.
First of all, let me say something that might seem like it has absolutely nothing to do with free-to-play microtransactions. I hate businesses that illegally sell gold, leveling, or any other in-game services for MMOs. I loathe their activities. I hate the impact these activities have on MMOs, which range from devaluing in-game currency to causing security risks. I hate their use of chat channels to advertise. I detest the damage to game balance caused by this industry. I am even mystified by my fellow gamers who patronize such services, when they should know that gold-selling services exploit a supply of labor in much the same way that sweatshops exploit workers to make cheap products to be sold in countries such as the USA. I also hate players that level their characters using such services and then try to run end-game content. Not only do they not know how to play their character, they also don’t even know what the story is about. And by the time they learn how their character works, they might as well have just leveled up normally anyway. Gold-selling businesses are an unethical blight upon gaming. (Can you tell I don’t like them?)
At the same time, it is a lucrative business, isn’t it? No matter how many accounts are shut down for violating EULAs, gold sellers continue to thrive, hawking their black-market wares and making money. Much like alcohol during Prohibition, there is a big enough market out there that Turbine, or any other MMO owner, cannot simply legislate away the desire to pay for perks in a game. In fact, I would wonder how much money, in terms of enforcement man-hours and software development man-hours, MMO developers spend combating this problem. They would never tell us, but I would wager that at least 10 percent of LOTRO’s budget, to say nothing of World of Warcraft’s budget, is devoted to directly or indirectly combating this scourge. It is an insurmountable problem, which is only made worse by the fact that people who pay gold sellers money are not even paying the game’s developers to improve upon the game. So, not only does the MMO developer waste money fighting gold sellers, but there is potential revenue they fail to collect. This is a lose-lose situation for everyone, because the gamers who patronize these services screw up the game they are playing, and the owners of the game are wasting resources fixing the problem.
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