Sunday, December 23, 2007

Real-Money Transactions in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by BLZBUB:
The new Live Gamer site opened Monday into the virtual trading arena and introduced itself "as the premier provider of a publisher-supported, secure platform for real money trading of virtual property."

By introducing a fully transparent, secure, publisher-sanctioned marketplace, Live Gamer helps protect content creators from the distorting impact of illicit trading on their intellectual property and provides a safe alternative for consumers around the world who spend millions of hours in-world every month.
The key phrase in the announcement was "publisher-sanctioned." In other words, Live Gamer apparently won't sell currency or items or characters from a gameworld without the explicit permission of that world's operator to do so. Apparently they're trying to distinguish themselves from the goldsellers of the world, who IMO ought to be sued for misappropriation of property (or whatever the appropriate legal lingo is when someone who doesn't own your property rents it for money to a third party).

(And yes, if I may offer a brief digression, I think the ones and zeros inside a gameworld operator's database are property, even if no game operator has been willing to risk going to court to get that ruling... yet. When you play an online game [and I'm excluding Second Life here; it's not a "game"] and your character acquires some object like a sword, you-the-player don't "own" that sword, which is just ones and zeros, some as artwork on a client and some stored in a database owned by the game's operator. All you're doing when you subscribe to an online game is renting the use of those bits as an entertainment experience. You don't own them any more than you own the seat you're sitting on in a stadium where you're watching a ball game -- you're paying for the use of that seat, not for ownership of the seat itself. OK, back to the main point.)

So, assuming these new Live Gamer guys actually mean what they say, good for them. Their business ethics will be one step above those of the farmers and their goldselling pimps.

But I'm not sure that's saying much. Because it doesn't matter whether RMT is sanctioned by the game's operator or not -- if the game wasn't designed around RMT, then allowing real-world trading in in-game objects is guaranteed to have a "distorting impact" on the gameplay experience.

If inside the gameworld I can flat-out gift you with massive quantities of some valuable object because you gave me real money outside the game, and if the play experience of that game wasn't designed to be balanced for such exchanges, then that transaction cannot possibly be anything other than a profound subversion of the intended gameplay for everyone who plays that game. It's another example of how breaking the "magic circle" of the game screws up the play experience for those who play by the rules.

Of course there will always be counterarguments. Here are some of the most common bad ways that people have attempted to justify RMT where the game's not designed for it:

"It doesn't hurt anybody." This is bogus; it hurts the players who miss out on the play experience as designed even if they don't realize that or believe it.

"It doesn't hurt anybody else." This is also bogus. These are massively multiplayer games; what one person does in the gameworld has some impact on other players... and when a lot of people do it, a lot of honorable players have their play experience fouled up.

"If the game companies didn't like RMT they'd sue the big goldsellers, but they don't so they must be OK with it." This is flawed logic, since there are other reasons for not pursuing legal sanctions against third-party "resellers." Among the most powerful of these reasons is the strong desire to avoid the risk of losing such a case before a clueless judge, thereby setting a highly undesirable precedent concerning who owns the ones and zeros that comprise the objects of a gameworld.

(Note: At this writing there are currently at least two legal situations occurring with regard to IGE, but neither is from a game developer directly. One is Hernandez v. IGE, a class-action lawsuit from a player of WoW, and the other is an investigation by the Florida Attorney General’s Office of Economic Crimes into IGE's business practices. The feud between two of IGE's founders is titillating, but tangential.)

"SOE does it for EverQuest 2 with Station Exchange." This is irrelevant. EQ2 is Sony's game; if they want to let people skip past the gameplay progression they created, that's their business -- it has zero application to any other game whose rules of play are different from those of EQ2.

(Note: Although SOE (which already endorses RMT with its Station Exchange), Funcom, and Acclaim (which is Korean-owned and wants to use microtransactions in its games, such as Dave Perry's upcoming racing game) are participating in the Live Gamer sales system, not all developers/publishers are on board. Specifically, Blizzard has said they do not intend to participate, as they consider RMT to be a violation of their Terms of Service agreement, period.)

"RMT allows people to level up quickly so they can play with their friends." This one always sounds good, but it ignores the fact that if a game's developer wanted people doing this they'd have built it into the game somehow. Going around the game designer's intentions honks up gameplay regardless of why or how much people may want to do so. (For the record, however, I do think game designers ought to find ways to allow people with characters of different levels to play together. I favor dumping "levels" entirely, but that's just me.)


On balance, then, I'm willing to give these "Live Gamer" people half a cheer for at least saying that they won't engage in RMT for some game unless the game's operator gives them permission to do so. But for the rest of it, they get a big-time thumbs-down from me. RMT in a monthly subscription game skunks up the gameplay regardless of any "because I want it" justifications from players. (RMT in a game designed for it is fine, though. If that's the extent of the games these Live Gamer people are going to provide RMT for, OK. But it's hard to see them remaining satisfied with just that small bite of the $1.8B apple.)

I would be marginally happier if MMORPGs were designed with rules that make RMT effectively worthless or impossible to drive the third-party resellers out of business entirely.

More specifically, I'd like to see Star Trek Online designed with such rules so that no one can just dump a bunch of valuable stuff on anyone else.

And more specifically than that, I hope a Star Trek MMORPG would be designed so that there are few things of any value that can be traded between characters in the first place.