I last visited World of Warcraft about a year ago, and the cities were still flooded with hacked accounts spewing gold farming services into trade spam. This is despite a years-long battle on the part of Blizzard. If they can’t beat this problem, can anyone?
“I need 100 gold to get my mount. Hm. But getting that 100g will take a lot of questing. And that questing would go faster if I had my mount while I was doing it! Can’t I just… get the gold now?”
“I won’t be able to afford this novelty pet until I’m at the end game. But I want the pet with me while I’m adventuring and leveling! It’s part of my character concept / costume / joke. I won’t be able to get it until I’m done with the character. Isn’t there some way to, you know, get it early?”
If you put goals in the distance, players are going to want to get them early. You can argue that paying for a reward defeats the purpose of having a reward. You can also tell people not to eat greasy food or get large, fad-driven tattoos on obvious parts of their body. You can decry something as a bad idea all you like, but people are going to do it anyway so you might as well put on your engineer hat and work out a system that can tolerate it.
Note: All screenshots here are from Guild Wars 2.
If the game itself doesn’t sell gold, then a black market of goldfarming will rise up and create problems with spam, hacked accounts, bot usage, and fraud. To add insult to injury, a black market of gold means that players are paying money for game content, but the developer isn’t getting any of it. You’re basically running into the prohibition problem: The public wants X, the system forbids it, and so a black market arises that hurts everyone, whether they partake of X or not. The cure in this case is worse than the disease, so why not just make it legal?
HOWEVER. If you, the developer, are going to sell gold, then the first question you need to answer is, How much should it cost? This is an impossible question to answer because these games usually hand out money on an exponential scale. If you sell a World of Warcraft gold piece for $10, that transaction will look very different depending on which end of the game you’re on. For a new player, that single gold piece will buy them everything they could possibly need for the first few days of play. For the level 85 character, you’re asking him to pay ten dollars for something he could earn in about two minutes.
As the game ages, more and more money enters the economy, making gold worth less.
As you release new expansions, people gain greater earning power through higher levels, which makes gold worth less.
As people hit the end game they run out of things they want or need to buy, which makes gold worth less.
As the average level of the player base goes up, people become willing to buy crafting materials on the auction house, effectively hiring newcomers to do their gathering for them. This means that even low level players have more cash than they should at lower levels. This makes gold worth a lot less.
Worst of all, the more gold you sell, the less gold is worth.
The less gold is worth, the less people are willing to pay for it. That $10 might look like a good deal near launch, but by the end of six months it’s really pricy and by year two it’s an insult. At such high prices for such little value, you’ve effectively banned it, and you’re back to the black market problem.
Even more difficult: How do you handle foreign markets? People in Elbonia have less disposable income than people in the United States. You can sell the same expansion pack for different prices in different markets because you know where users are from. But money is inherently fungible. If you make gold cheaper in Elbonia than in the USA then you’ll just end up with a different sort of black market where Elbonians sell gold to Americans.
It’s a mess, is what I’m saying. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that we’re tying to conduct commerce in a system that produces goods from thin air, prints money at will, and exists in a system where people “die out” if they become too rich: They get bored and quit.
I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of everything that’s wrong. I’m 600 words into this. Let us agree that a full catalog of economic brokenness would be flogging a dead starter mount. Moving on…
The Guild Wars 2 approach is really interesting. They sell gems on the gem store. Right now, it’s $10 for 800 gems. These gems can be used to buy novelty and cosmetic items. A chef’s outfit. Boxing gloves. Sunglasses. Non-combat pets. You can also buy boosters to help you earn extra XP, open chests of loot, or have a better chance at finding magic items while playing.
They do not directly sell power, which is good since selling power is generally considered to be a big no-no. Selling power – particularly in a game with PvP content, is sleazy and self-destructive. Players feel strongly that the win should go to the side with the better strategy or skill, not to those who spend the most money.
Gems are not an in-game currency. You can’t spend them in-game, only at the item store. So you can’t buy gold directly. No, if you want to buy gold then you need to trade your gems to other players. This is done through a completely hands-off market. The price of gems and gold can change relative to one another. As of this writing, it’s 1.52 gold for $10 worth of gems. Right now, the vast majority of the population is in the early and mid levels, and starved for coin. Right now, the item store is a little under-stocked. As the population levels, they will have more money. As ArenaNet makes new armors and knicknacks to buy with gems, the value of gems will go up.
I wanted to unlock a character slot, which normally costs $10. But instead of paying real money I just gave up a gold and a half for the gems I needed. Note that ArenaNet didn’t set this price. Somewhere out there was someone who wanted gold so badly they were willing to give up $10 worth of gems for it. That’s really interesting to me. This free exchange between gems and gold means that the price should automatically adjust to reflect what players are willing to pay, without ArneaNet needing to constantly guess at the right values and defend themselves against charges of being “greedy”.
This trade system is streamlined, fair, instant, and secure. With a system like this in place, who would go out of their way to muck about paying a goldfarmer? I’m not saying it won’t happen, but the goldfarmers would have to really undercut the going rate to make it worth the extra hassle and risk. And if they do, then a smart person will come along, buy their gold for cheap, and re-sell it on the open market for a profit.
Unlike the in-game gold, which is poofed into existence when the player gets a quest reward and destroyed when players spend it in-game, gems have a more grounded lifespan. Every gem in the system was, at some point, bought with real money. That gem will eventually exit the system when it’s used to buy a good or service. ArenaNet gets the money from selling gold, without all the complex hassles that come from trying to sell it directly.
Does it work?
Not completely, apparently. To be fair, this is only the second time I’ve seen chat spam in the game. Also, they’re selling leveling service, not gold, which is a slightly different problem. I can’t imagine why anyone would pay to have their character leveled. I mean, if you want to play PvP the game will auto-level you to 80 and deck you out in proper gear. The only reason to level in this game is because you want to. Paying someone to play this game for you is like paying someone to watch a movie or eat ice cream for you. What are you getting out of this?
It will be interesting to see how well this works, long-term.
EDIT: In the comments, some people have said that the gems market isn’t as hands-off as it may seem. I don’t see any way to know how much they control the prices. The only clear thing is that they skim a bit from each transaction, so that if you buy gems and then sell them right away you’ll still take a significant loss.
In any case, I’ve grabbed some gems fr myself, in the hopes that someday they’ll have something on the gem store that I want.
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