5 Apr 2010

The Flow of Gold

Gold is something that we pretty much take for granted. We get rewarded when we turn in quests, we loot it from our fallen enemies. We spend it when we want to buy something from the auction house or when we want to get our equipment repaired. It’s all automatic – a few mouse clicks and we’ve either earned or spent thousands of coins. But do you ever think about where the gold you have comes from, or where it goes to?

I started writing this as a response to Tarinae’s Shared Topic, about how Blizzard is pushing account security and how it seems to be matched by the efforts of gold sellers. But in order to explain why gold selling is wrong, it’s worth explaining the problems it causes in the first place. Before getting into the meat of the topic, there’s a few things you should consider:

  • If you are a Guild Master or Officer, you owe it to your guild to ensure that you have an authenticator registered to your account. You should also ensure that anyone with access to anything of value in the guild bank also has an authenticator. If there is anyone in these positions that does not, you should revoke their guild bank access immediately.
  • You should ensure you practice good computer hygiene. Ensure that you have a virus checker installed on your computer and make sure you keep it up to date. If you use FireFox, install the NoScript addon. If you do click on a dodgy link by mistake, NoScript will make sure that the site cannot install anything onto your computer.
  • If you are a Guild Master or Officer and see one of your members get repeatedly hacked, question their computer hygiene practices. If they don’t do anything about it, you may want to consider suspending them. Do your best to help them, but ensure that they take responsibility for their situation.
  • If you use an email address for your World of Warcraft account, don’t use the same one when posting on blogs, registering on Warcraft-related/Guild forums signing up for other game betas and so on. Hackers harvest these sites for addresses to send scam emails to. Keep your Warcraft email address to as small a number of people as possible.
  • Get an authenticator. Seriously. Either get the key-ring, the free iPhone app or the cheap mobile phone app.

In almost any MMO there are two economies working in parallel. The server economy is designed to regulate the flow of gold into and out of the game. Gold enters the game when you vendor an item, when you loot gold from a creature or when you get rewarded for completing a quest. It also exits the system in much the same way, in repair bills, food/water purchases and so on. By contrast the player economy is based on the trade of gathered materials and finished items, either via the auction house or a fee/tip for crafting. The theory is that the server economy should provide a steady inward trickle of gold, while the player economy should ensure a constant circulation of gold in exchange for goods and services.

The theory is that the two economies work at an even pace to keep the player economy relatively constant. The price of materials stays relatively static from one day to the next, meaning that the price of crafted items is fairly easy to predict. Although the price of goods would tend to decline as demand gradually dries up, the constant of influx of gold from the server economy provides a steady rate of price inflation.

All well and good you might think, but what happens when you start to disrupt the economy by introducing gold farmers and hackers? It’s worth splitting out the two here, as they have a subtly different effect on the economy.

A gold farmer is interested in maximising the amount of gold they accumulate while spending as little as possible on armour repairs and consumables. Although this might mean that they don’t consume much (if anything) from the player economy, they do want to make sure that their auctions sell for the best possible price. They’re unlikely to severely undercut existing server prices, instead making sure that their materials are competitive. Of course if gold farming gets out of control then it heavily deflates prices, meaning that players can’t compete against the gold farmers.

It may also mean that players struggle to gather materials themselves as they’re forced to compete with gold farmers. As resources are limited, a high number of gold farmers means that there are fewer resources available for players to harvest. It can become so problematic that players are forced to buy materials from the gold farmers at the auction house purely because they are unable to gather them themselves.

A hacker by contrast wants to sell everything as quickly as possible before the account owner regains control. Anything that they sell at auction will be priced up to shift quickly, and can often crash a market. Think of the times when you’ve seen titanium ore or eternal elements being sold at a very low price – chances are they were being offered by a hacker. On a server where hacking is a regular occurrence the market can be continually flooded by “fire sale” items.

You might think that this isn’t really a big deal. You probably play the game in a specific way – you might be a pure-bred raider or a determined PvP’er. You barely touch the economy – only picking up the occasional flask or uncut gem from the auction house. But by the same token, you want to be able to make sure that the cost of what you’re doing stays roughly the same. It’s great to know that 50g this week will buy the same number of flasks as 50g next week, or that the gem you need for your latest gear upgrade will cost roughly the same. If you need a quick bit of cash you’d like to know that your spare herbs or ores will sell for roughly the same amount, week in and week-out.

Why do the gold sellers bother to hack at all? Surely they know that they’re damaging their own reputations and annoying the very people that they hope to sell their services to? It’s true that some gold sellers do take their reputations seriously, but not all of them. Eurogamer recently ran a series of articles on gold trading, explaining how the industry was structured.

A hacker or gold farmer will sell accumulated gold to a Collector. The gold collector might employ farmers or hackers directly, or they might subcontract or freelance it, paying the agent a fixed value for the gold they provide. The collector then passes the gold on to the Seller, again at a fixed value. Once the seller has the gold, they then offer it to the player by running a website through which gold can be bought, as well as customer support. As a result the person you see spamming trade chat might work for a completely different company to the gold farmer or hacker.

The increase of account hacking guides on the internet means that the person stealing your account could come from San Francisco instead of Shanghai. Either way the effect on the economy of an account hack is the same – freefall prices, guild disruption and loss of an account for several days. The gold might not end up being sent to a gold seller, but might just as easily end up in the coffers of a rival guild on another server.

Finally, hacking a computer is a crime. In the UK the Computer Misuse Act covers everything from unlawful access to obtaining information. From there it becomes a grey area – the gold you buy from a seller may have been partly obtained through illegal channels. There’s the potential of being in receipt of stolen goods, or of complacency or conspiracy to commit a crime. It’s not been tested in court, but in these litigation-happy times it probably won’t be long until we see the first account-hack related lawsuit arrive. By buying gold, you run the risk of leaving yourself open to being sued later down the line. Regardless of the legal risks, it also perpetuates and endorses the damage to the economy, degrading the game experience for both yourself and other players.

So there you have it: why gold selling damages the game, why hacking increases the problem and why buying gold is legally dubious. I’ve also covered what you can do to ensure than your guild and it’s members are protected, and what you should do to maintain their trust in you.

Still feel the shortcut is worth it?

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