Why a War on Virtual Gold Sellers Makes No Sense

Call me a radical, but when launching a big-budget online game, it doesn’t strike me as a very good idea to risk alienating nearly a quarter of your user base right out the gate. That, however, is likely to be the consequence of an extreme anti-gold selling policy at Mythic Entertainment, the studio that developed Electronic Arts’ new MMORPG Warhammer Online, which is widely seen as World of Warcraft’s best competitor.

As part of the launch, co-founder Mark Jacobs said Mythic had unleashed a “strike team” against gold sellers, individuals and companies who sell an MMORPG’s virtual currency to other players for real money — in fact, they’ve already banned some 400 of them. “I HATE GOLD SELLERS WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING,” he wrote (caps his) in a post outlining the new strategy — and many share that sentiment, especially against sellers who spam “gold for sale” advertisements in the game’s chat channel.

But much as gamers claim to hate gold sellers, almost one in four patronize them, which is why I think the vehement zero tolerance/no mercy policy is a bad idea.

In a study by Nick Yee, a PARC research scientist whose Daedalus Project is perhaps the most respected study of MMORPG player behavior, 22 percent of players surveyed reported purchasing game gold, with those ages 35 and over most likely to do so. Their motivation is easy to understand: More virtual gold buys players better equipment and opportunities, which helps them accomplish game challenges faster, and with less effort. And let’s face it: If you have kids and a mortgage, you only have so many hours a week left over to play games.

So if Mythic succeeds in driving away gold sellers, it seems inevitable that it will succeed in hurting Warhammer Online’s retention, too. For surely players who like to buy their way out of difficult quests but no longer can are likely to get frustrated and leave for another game.

PARC’s Yee concurred. “Players who want to buy gold and who don’t see a particular MMO as truly unique would just switch games,” he said in email.

The problem is, the moment you make an online world with artificially scarce valuable items, you inevitably create a market for buying and selling them. Some game companies turn a blind eye to this; Yee recommends transparency in currency transactions coupled with social pressure against gold selling. Most savvy, in my view, is embracing the phenomenon with a tightly regulated market that’s part of the game, and turning it into another company revenue stream. Indeed, startup Live Gamer raised $24 million for providing just that solution.

Then again, maybe the draconian approach is the way to go; maybe it’ll inspire fierce customer loyalty among hardcore Warhammer fans. But I personally suspect an all-out attack on suppliers won’t do anything to decrease the demand they’re trying to serve — wherever there are potential buyers, there will be someone looking to sell to them.

Image credit: www.warhammeronline.com.