SonyBay

Sony Online is announcing today that they are going to establish a player-to-player market for the sale and purchase of virtual assets in Sony Online Entertainment games.

We'll let that sink in for a moment...

Yes, this is for real. It's called "Station Exchange".

The magisterial Daniel Terdiman at Wired News has the story with commentary by assorted Terra Novans. Other commentary has leaked out (thanks to Aaron Kurtz for the headsup), though we're trying hard to abide by the press embargo.

We thought this was such a Terra Nova moment that we all should have a chance to comment, in a kind of virtual roundtable. Here are initial thoughts of as many Terra Novans as we could afford to fly to our hunting blind in the undisclosed location:

Richard Bartle
We're all doomed. I told you so damn firk dink blast.


Ted Castronova
[Eds: Professor Edward "Ted" Castronova was told of Sony's announcement and immediately slipped into some kind of a fugue state. Currently resident in the University of Indiana's Secure Psychiatric Facility, he is officially unable to comment. However the enterprising editorial team at Terra Nova managed to insert an embedded journalist into the facility. This journalist--known only by his nom de joue "Dr Bombay"--managed to convince the orderlies that he was at least as insane as Dr Castronova. He refuses to explain how he managed to infiltrate the facility, but it seems that if you advise the IRS that your main source of income was selling imaginary assets, you will be committed. The following transcript is the text that Dr Bombay was able to extract from Dr Castronova.]

"I think this is a brilliant business move and a good one for games and gamers. SOE will be able to internalize a value stream that they are creating, one that, somehow, they've let slip off into the hands of third parties like IGE. It is smart business. But also, this is a good move for gaming, because right now the magic circle is being torn to shreds, to the detriment of the fantasy. The first step to restoring the fantasy and keeping it sound is for developers to reassert control over the player choices involved. This move does that, and it will change how games are designed. Already, every developer has to design in full consciousness that people can write macros. Now, each developer will have to design knowing that people will use the virtual item market to get around content. As a result, developers will start making more fantasy-secure games, ones that cannot be overrun by gold-farming. I am dying to see the first MMORPG Sony produces under the new system. It may well be the 'closed world' I've been fearing would never appear."


Ren Reynolds
Before we see the system in action it is difficult to know what the consequences are going to be. In the sort term this could be good news for SOE customers (well those that want to trade), if SOE takes responsibility for transaction tracking and customer service. That is, we know that one up-shot of MMOs is a rise of old crimes revolving around new objects. While SOE's move will not help in crimes of virtual passion like we saw in China recently, they might help with the various forms of scamming that we see. Though how exactly they are going to guarantee trades I'm not sure about - maybe there will be an in game contract and the system will act as trusted third party holding both items and funds before things are released to each player, this would eliminate some scamming. However, if implementation is bad or if they SOE take a high % of the trade value then I can see that values will rise and crime will rise.

The knock-on effects are going to be most interesting. Will PayPal be forced to recognise this form of virtual object (as Julian has pointed out, they don't have a problem with other forms of virtual stuff).

Though to pre-empt Richard - is this the end of gaming as we know it? Has SOE just sold the magic circle to the highest bidder? Well probably not. But I can see a separation of VWs. Large commercial ones that eventually are all fully commoditised and capitalism is played out over and over, and small boutique worlds that probably far more interesting. Just like Hollywood and independent cinema I'm sure there is room for both.

Lastly, I wonder this will force a closing of the separation between legal identity and in-world identity.


Dmitri Williams
This is a bad move for gamers because it breaks the social contract inherent in competition. It may be a good short-term move for SOE in that it will rationalize and decriminalize the problem of virtual property distribution, but there's strong potential for the cure to be worse than the disease. A gross-level analogy by way of example: Thor and Biff meet on the PvP field of battle. Both are skilled players and both have the same amount of knowledge. Thor, however, in real life is a 50-year old dentist who makes $85,000 a year. Biff is an undergraduate at Generic State U. with $12,000 and counting in student loans. Thor thus has the +5 Sword of Noggin-nocking, while Biff has the +1 Sword of Thrift. Thor wins. Biff quits, and so do others like him. Thor winds up fighting other Thors, losing his advantage and wondering why he forked out the cash. Eventually, the game stratifies by real-world disposable income rather than by talent or interest.

The underlying problem: There is a social contract in gaming just as there is in sports. This is not a PC reaction to "the way things are supposed to be" so much as it is a warning to short-sighted capitalists that some of their value stems from this contract. Messing with it hurts the product. In sports and games, teams and individuals contest on a level playing field. It is meritocratic, not capitalist, nepotistic, classist or elitist, and it is a central underlying reason for the appeal of sports--Joe six pack and Joe CEO can watch and play as equals. When this ideal is violated, there is a violation of that contract--that meta-game. When the ideal is protected, the product is better and more people partake of it. It's why people hate the Yankees and baseball's economic structure is a joke. In contrast, it's why the NFL is the best-run and most popular league in US sports. It's why people hate IGE. And it's why this practice will ruin a game and send customers to better systems.

Perhaps designers will design with these facts in mind and use their foresight and control over the market to decrease these problems. I am skeptical.


Dan Hunter
I'm not sure what I think about this. If nothing else it puts paid to the old chestnut that Sony was actually responding to player preferences by forbidding trading in virtual assets. It turns out that they're functional equivalent to the RIAA: they want to ban the technology until they have a way to control it and monetize it.

I think the more interesting aspect of this will be the response of the player community. Those who use IGE to trade Sony-related assets will obviously start using the Sony marketplace (more secure, less fraud, will presumably be priced competitively). But what of those who, like Ted, actually seem to care about role playing, and who see asset-trading as an evil foist on the world by the like of Brock Pierce? (I'm assuming that these guys actually exist, and the statements on the webboards to this effect are genuine. A cynic might suggest that this is rhetorical posturing.) What of them? At first they may migrate to games that still ban trading, but my guess is that these games will use the cover of Sony's first move to institute similar marketplaces. The big commercial operators need every penny they can get, and they're unlikely to hold off building their own version if Sony is successful. As Ren suggests, this would seem to provide the ideal opportunity for a smaller game dev to institute a genuine ban on asset trading, in an effort to capture the disaffected role players. This will be interesting because it will be a moderately-controlled experiment in whether players really want to role play at all. My prediction (for what it's worth) is that this non-tradable game will die, because the players who claim role-playing is important actually don't believe this.

Interesting times.


Nate "tra la la" Combs
Is this a subtle new frontier for game world design?

Consider a starter scenario, what if we can now wonder the possibility of fiscal drains for game worlds. What if, for example, developers levied transaction fees, payable in the currency of the world? Wisely crafted, could one build a *world fiscal policy* that is immersion friendly? In-game trades are protected, those lured to jump the grind queue enter a "meta-immersive" (real-world aware) state to execute simple accounting and ledger cultivation, and while they are at it, thank you sir, pay a bit for the betterment of all. Imagine a place with less obtrusive and more flexible faucet-drains for game economic systems than the ones you now know. After all, it is my contention, that the current faucet-drain mechanisms are a rube goldberg invention of convenience and distraction. Consider a hypothetical:

I'm a bard, and proud to be one - I just want to twist and dance all day long, tra la la la. Imagine a place where bards didn't have to bother with reagents, consumables, armor decay, and all those current game design sleights-of-hand to force a player's march, to steal a player's pocket, in the dead of a player's night, another tax, another distraction of sorts. Instead, once in a while I trade, and a bit is scraped off the top, with the amount that is scaped off varied as needed to balance the order of things, for others, less inclined.

What other possibilities? Why not exploit *real-world* linkages as part of virtual world design - then why not start with external trading? Can such real-virtual-world estuaries offer the new flank in virtual world game design?


Julian Dibbell
In answer to Ted and Dmitri:

You've staked out opposite sides of the argument, but I find myself disagreeing with both of you. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you both seem to believe in the possibility -- and the desirability -- of drawing clear ethical and aesthetic lines around MMOs. And generally speaking, I don't.

For instance, Dmitri, is there really "a" social contract binding MMOs? I've always had the impression that there are several, some in direct contradiction with others, and that this is what makes these games more socially complex than, say, sports. The Thor v. Biff example is a case in point, and a classic one. OK, so hapless undergrad Biff adheres to the social contract that says the game is all about leveling to the top by the sweat of your brow (though I have my doubts about that, or why would he quit after a few demoralizing encounters with uber dentists, rather than spending his summer vacation leveling while Thor cleans people's teeth, and then having the last laugh by selling Thor his +7 Cudgel of Blunt Head Injury for $650?) But maybe Thor adheres to a different contract altogether -- the one that says the game is all about high-level PvPing with your guildies, and never mind how you got to the high levels. For that matter, maybe Thor, Biff, and their immediate pals are the only people in the game who feel it's about any sort of direct competition at all, while everybody else is off merrily crafting, PvMing, and role-playing. Why, then, of all the various social contracts in effect here, do we single out Biff's as the legitimate one?

As for the magic circle, Ted, I think it is neither the endangered species you think it is nor the hermetic seal you seem to wish it were. Ebaying is no more or less a threat to the magic of the game than people talking about Britney's baby on guild chat is; and somehow, despite these perennial blights, most people seem to keep on extracting all the magic they need from MMOs.

In short, then, I'm not sure Sony's move is going to make a whole lot of difference one way or the other. Aside from making virtual-item transactions more secure and efficient, I don't think it will do much more for the player experience than the eBay market already does. And as for Sony's implicit acceptance of the pay-for-play/play-for-pay ethos the eBay market represents, what really is new here? OSI announced years ago that eBaying was OK by them, and only the most tendentious of arguments could cast Ultima Online's persistent popularity in subsequent years as an adverse effect of that announcement. The MMO, as a game type, is simply much more tolerant of multiple play paradigms than us beard pullers tend to give it credit for.


Unggi Yoon
This may be a synthetic worlds version of 'Edict of Nantes' decreed by King Henry IV in 1598, France. The history after the Edict of Nantes shows us the Divorce of King (ie the Publsher) and the Pope (ie the Developer), the Secularization of Politics (Playing) compared to the renewal of the Catholic church (traditional Gaming), the emergence of legal person or incorporation (ie the Virtual Commune) in accordance with market & cities growing, and revolutions and civil or people's right (the Glorous revolution, the American revolution, the French revolution, the Russian revolution) that brings spring of the Modern, and the fall of the Middle ages.

With the virtual time machine, we are enterring into the time when John Locke and Benjamin Franklin are still young, and we get a choice whether we just copy or wholly restructuring what the modern is at synthetic worlds.

Before we see how players and developers interact with the system, it is difficult to know what the consequences are going to be.


Richard Bartle (redux)
Julian: Ebaying is no more or less a threat to the magic of the game than people talking about Britney's baby on guild chat is

If someone talks about Britney's baby, there are no tangible effects on their character in the game. If they buy a +5 sword of hitbebabyonemoretime then there is.

If eBaying isn't a problem, why sell objects at all? Why not just give them away to anyone who wants them? If it's so great that people can just hang out with their guildies, why not let them do so without charging them $600 for their equipment? Why not just let them equip with whatever they want? It's probably easier to implement than a full-blown trading system. I'll tell you why not: it's because it SPOILS THE GAME. If there is no game to spoil, as with Second Life, then fine, this is obviously a reasonable idea. If the game isn't about the kind of things that money can buy (as with Achaea) then it's also reasonable. If you can buy victory, though, it's either not a game at all or it's a wider game with different victory conditions.

Let's say there was an effect if people talked about Britney's baby. Let's say her publicity company paid SOE to give +1 hit points every time the word "Britney" was said in conversation. Hey, you don't HAVE to say the word if you don't want - you can get your guild healer buddy to restore you instead. On the other hand, you can slap a macro on a hot key and be instantly healed just by chanting the Britney mantra. Is the game still fine? What if it cost you a cent, would that make it fine?

Dmitri's analysis is good. If other virtual worlds follow suit, in 5 years' time people will be wondering why anyone ever used to think these things were ever fun.


Ted Castronova (redux)
Richard: because it SPOILS THE GAME.
i guess i am holding out hope that if the game gets redesigned the right way, ebaying will either not happen at all or, if it does, not spoil the game.

what i'm missing in the commentary here is some nuance about what players want. to argue that ebaying did not ruin UO overlooks a critical selection effect: it did not ruin UO for the players who remained. true, but it's a tautology: they remained because ebaying did not bother them.

similarly, cory: i'm not saying that gold exchange is now always and everywhere inside the magic circle. i'm saying i can conceive of games designed with the *incentives* to ebay kept firmly in mind, that *will* be in the magic circle.

the point is, there's a distribution of tastes for games, and a distribution of games to suit them. right now, we have no ebay-proof games. with dmitri and richard, i'm worried that commercialization will result in there being no ebay-proof games, ever. i also believe that those ebayed games, while satisfying to those who do play them, will not be satisfying to certain people that i care about a lot. those folks will either not play these games, or, if they do, will encounter experiences not very different from what they experience in the real world. if things develop that way, an opportunity will have been lost, to provide a refuge environment that is truly and completely different and sealed off.

so, against this imagined future of no closed worlds, i am holding out hope for a future with *some* closed worlds. not *all* closed worlds, just *some*. i think having the major design houses come to grips with the incentives that lead to membrane-punching is quite possibly a good step. and it cannot hurt anything, because SOE games are completely ebayed now as it is. so that's why ive chosen to be positive about this. i want developers to work on this problem, in the hopes that they will figure something out.


Dmitri Williams
Excellent insights, Julian, but I think that maybe I wasn't clear about something. When I said social contract, I didn't mean that each player needs to endure the grind (that, after all, is a product of bad game mechanics or design). I was referring to the sense of fun and meritocracy that one gets from participating with others as equals. I love the part in JC Herz's "Joystick Nation" where she's talking about meritocracy in early social arcade gaming:
"It didn't matter what you drove to the arcade. If you sucked at Asteroids, you just sucked." That, for her, was the draw of the arcade. It was a melting pot of class, race and age made possible by the fact that you couldn't buy your way in. That's what I'm getting at when I say "social contract," so maybe I ought to come up with a better term. Social parity? The "cool social stuff you get when everyone is equal and it's all about talent and effort." Yeah, that thing.

I do appreciate the idea that different folks play for different reasons and styles and that there are PvPers and PvErs, crafters, etc., but that's sidestepping the point in part because there will still be subsets within those groups that will face this problem.

A personal anecdote popped into my head when I was thinking about this today:
When I was an undergrad I drove from LA out to Prescott, Arizona to visit a buddy going to school out there, and to go and try paintball with him. He'd been raving about it. So I get to the game site and it's about 40 guys, 20 of whom were Vietnam vets. My buddy and I rented paintball guns, but we quickly noticed that a good chunk of the others had brought their own. Ours were single-shot pump-driven models and these fellows had automatics. Needless to say, we were pummeled. Painfully (literally). I didn't mind the fact that 20 of them were better hunters, stalkers and shots than me. I was fine to learn the ropes. I minded paying the same entrance fee and getting my ass bruised by a stream of bullets from automatic guns while I cowered with a pea shooter.

Is this situation analogous? I mean we could say that the market will correct the situation since I didn't want to go back to that paintball site. The next time I went to play, I went to an indoor arena that had standardized gear. It was a lot more fun. But a friend (relatively wealthy) of mine went ought and bought an automatic so that he could go to the big outdoor games which all permitted the automatics. I didn't join him because I couldn't afford that kind of gun. And eventually I dropped the hobby.

As I was thinking about this case as an analogy, I remembered that a lot of discussion on TN revolves around expanding the player base. And then I thought, hmm, this ain't gonna help.


Greg Lastowka
I agree with Dmitri that, considered purely as a profit strategy, this is high risk and perhaps a market loser. The question is: does a sales tax on the uber gear exchange beat the loss in market share?

Because it seems to me you have to lose some market share by introducing money into the equation. All games appeal to meritocratic principles that aren't immune from money, but never embrace it. E.g., when I played intramural ultimate, some people wore cleats, some didn't. Cleats help you run faster, but they cost a few buck. Still, this didn't ruin the game, because cleats we'ren't tantamount to automatic paintguns.

Even in yacht races, where entry effectively costs $12 million, they don't sell the prize cup to the highest bidder -- you have to earn it. So the question is not whether this undercuts the spirit of the game, it's how much it undercuts the spirit of the game, and whether the players will care.

And the other question, I guess, is whether MMOGs are games at all, or whether they're more akin to a form of social hypertext. After all, no one can win an MMOG. If VWs are not analogous to games, commercialism would seem to have more leeway. Because the fact that wealth = status in RL means we can probably live with that (or not live with it) in non-game virtual worlds too.


Ren Reynolds
To be picky I don't really like the use of the term Social Contract in this context as I feel that that really picks out a particular relationship between an individual and a state. Cyber-exceptionalists and the like might want these connotations but I'm not sure it's what we are getting at here, at the very least it can be a distraction. I've adopted the term ludic-contract because I think that that gets to the heart of things. That heart being, as I commented the other day on Nathan's thread, that which sustains a kind of ultra-minimal ludic state i.e. where two or more people share a common myth and values of the game (the network of bonds of trust that make up and sustain the magic circle is another way of looking at it, especially if one wants to be contractarian in ones ethics). Thing is, as Julian has been saying, in reality what we have are intersecting value sets and when we have something as big as an MMO the values of some players may not intersect in important ways.

The question I guess is whether this is magic circle breaking. It can be. But I do not think that it is necessarily the case.

It might bother me psychologically that player d00d bought their lvl60 where as I played my ass off for mine (OK, I'm only dreaming of a lvl60 in WoW) but it might not. Whether the trade in avatars actually impacts my game play, through camping or other knock on consequences is a contingent matter where we have to look at the particularity of each case, so I don't think it's easy to draw sweeping conclusions - yet.

As I say I feel that this will see shifts and divisions in games. No eBayers (we need a new term here) will find places that will satisfy their needs if eBayers corrupt their spaces. We might see the rise in effectively eBayer zones where they are playing on roughly the same field with their shiny automatic paint guns, boats and football teams in the English league were not a single player actually is English.

I still maintain my opposition to the avatar trade but it's for very different reasons i.e. I don't like the commoditisation of tokens of identity etc etc.


Comments on SonyBay:

Lee Sheldon says:

I hope with Edward that this will lead to other types of paradigms for MMOs; and I share his hope that the developers of the big games will "figure something out." However they have shown no inclination or ability to do so to date. It certainly may force them to try though, even if they aren't up to the task. It is going to seriously solidify the already small range of player types who still enjoy MMOs by narrowing and focusing the gameplay to the core of what they do during a session at the expense of anyone else struggling to insert something approaching high adventure or even immersion into the games. At some point someone may actually recognize how much larger the second market is than the first.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 6:14:54 AM | link

Mister Rabbit says:

Reading the above, I somehow get the feeling that many of you have not actually read the announcement because many of your arguments and technical questions are answered in the announcement. I've read the announcement, and I think it's great. Here's why...

One: by removing stuff from the black market, you remove black market problems. Transactions will be guaranteed: when you put something on the market, it's no longer *yours*, it leaves your inventory. This prevents bait and switch tactics, as well as simple thievery. Furthermore, when there is a problem, it can be addressed, legally. And lastly: eveyone knows that the black market charges too much.

Two: Some servers will be "exchange enabled", some won't. If you're playing on an EE server, you'll know it from the get-go, and there can be no safe assumption on your part that the player you're pvp-ing with isn't cash-twinked (which isn't even an issue, Dmitri, because EQ2 currently has NO PVP). On non-EE servers, outside trading will STILL be against the rules, SOE will STILL be chasing down botters, and any farmers with any brains will simply move to the EE servers rather than risk being busted.

Three: The regular servers will see an exodus of "undesirables". Since one time transfers will be allowed in the beginning, all of the cash-twinks, plat farmers and cash-hungry powergamers will transfer to the EE servers, leaving the regular servers free of such annoyances. And this, I think, should make everyone happy.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 7:06:16 AM | link

Seth Sivak says:

I agree with Richard Bartle and Dimitri Williams. I have always looked at item buying as cheating. People with more money are able to change the balance of a game. The argument that people who buy items is always; "I only buy items because I do not have enough time to play." I find this argument without merit. I think that people who spend more time playing should have the best items for several reasons.

First of all, if you put more time into the VW/Game I believe you EARN the items you receive. If you just buy them you do not. By playing more you get an actual feel for the VW and learn how to play the game. By paying money you do not get any of that experience.

The players selling the items can also easily hurt the VW/Game. People camping a spawn point or farming a certain mob can cause grief and frustration to normal players.

This changes the entire game for me. As soon as items are bought or sold it is no longer a game. The secondary item market is all about people trying to make money. I do not think this belongs in a game.

It is a bad move by Sony to allow this. I think it is as if America were to change stances on Heroin and make it no longer illegal as long as they can control the market. It can take away the scamming and maybe some of the crime that goes along with drug dealing, but in the end it is still going to hurt people.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 7:13:39 AM | link

Mister Rabbit says:

And the other question, I guess, is whether MMOGs are games at all,

MMORPGS are NOT games, they are TOYS. I would have thought this was obvious. Games, by definition have at least two of: win, lose, or draw. MMOs have none of the above and hence, are not truly games, but some other kind of animal dressed up as a game. They are very "gamey" (what with all those rules) and they are certainly "playful", but like Sim City and the Sims, they are not truly games, they are TOYS to experiment and have fun with. They are little microcosms of life, and like life, you cannot win. You can have the coolest stuff and the best house, and the hottest wife, but that doesn't mean you win, and like life, it doesn't mean you'll be happy.

People who rush to end-game levels (60 for WoW, 50 for EQ), in my observation, are the most miserable.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 7:16:25 AM | link

Seth Sivak says:

Mister Rabbit-

I think that you are right on a few points. By having the EE Servers it will cause many of the cash-twinked people to move. The problem I see is that people are still going to use the "black market". Imagine the advantage of getting twinked out on a non-EE Server?

I think this move by Sony tells the community it is ok to use the game to make money. That breaks the game for me.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 7:21:52 AM | link

Mister Rabbit says:

I think it is as if America were to change stances on Heroin and make it no longer illegal as long as they can control the market. It can take away the scamming and maybe some of the crime that goes along with drug dealing, but in the end it is still going to hurt people.

Decriminalization works pretty well in Amsterdam. There are more deaths every year from CAFFEINE and ASPRIRIN overdoses than Heroin. Incidentally, it may be wise to avoid arguments that rely on the supposed efficacy of America's failed drug war.

Also: this is only going to hurt people on the servers in where it's allowed, which again: you don't have to play on if you don't want to. Just like you don't have to play on the PVP or RP servers.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 7:25:14 AM | link

Mister Rabbit says:

Seth:

How is it going to hurt the game any more than this:

EQII EQ2 200 GOLD ALL SERVERS GOOD/EVIL 43.88 X 4

Everquest 2 EQ2 All Server 100 gold (G&E) $22.99 X 6

EQ2-EverQuest2-Lucan Dlere Good/Evil - 500 Gold $95

EQ2/Everquest 2 Account Lvl 26 Wiz, 25 Necro 24 Bruiser $50

It's not like this isn't going on under our noses already. The black market is far worse for the game than having specific servers for it. By legitimzing the market and giving it a valid place to exist, SOE takes the teeth out of it, the number of cash-twinks on a non-EE servers will drastically go down, and people that play on EE servers (just like those thay play on PVP servers) will know what kind of gameplay to expect.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 7:38:32 AM | link

Seth Sivak says:

Mister Rabbit-

I have no doubt it may help the problem. But typically the idea of cash-twinking is to get an advantage. I think the black market will not go away. I do not know how drastic of a change it will make because not many people like the idea of cash-twinking (or at least admit that they approve of it). I do not know many gamers who would actually want to use such a server.

It may be a step in the right direction into seperating out people who play from people who buy but what does it say about Sony? To me it seems like a sellout, they can't figure out a way to beat item sellers so they join them. It tells the community that it is ok. Players who used to think twice about selling items can now look and see that Sony approves. Whether or not they use Sony's method on transfer will be up to the selling price. If IGE is paying more you know where that item will go.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 7:49:36 AM | link

ren reynolds says:

Mr Rabbit > Reading the above, I somehow get the feeling that many of you have not actually read the announcement because many of your arguments and technical questions are answered in the announcement.

For the record, we did not have the details when we started to discuss this, which might explain things.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 8:24:53 AM | link

Mister Rabbit says:

ah, then you have my sincere apologies for snarkiness, Ren.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:04:42 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Mister Rabbit wrote:
MMORPGS are NOT games, they are TOYS. I would have thought this was obvious. Games, by definition have at least two of: win, lose, or draw.

Well, that's one rather restrictive definition. What you describe correspond to what Caillois called "agon," or directly competitive games. But, despite competitor/achiever-types continual assertion that this one type describes all kinds of games, the rest of the world knows better.

Mister Rabbit continues: MMOs ... are little microcosms of life, and like life, you cannot win. ... People who rush to end-game levels (60 for WoW, 50 for EQ), in my observation, are the most miserable.

True. And yet MMOG developers have over and over again set up this trap for people: rush headlong to the top where you'll find... there's nothing there. No resolution, no satisfaction, just more of the same of what you've been doing. This is a fundamental design flaw.

But this is also beside the point for this discussion.

In terms of Sony's announcement, I have to say this is a good thing -- for Sony, for the majority of their players, for attracting new players and keeping existing ones. The only people this might not be good for are the die-hard "I earned this +9 uberplatemail by sitting my butt in this chair and clicking this mouse" crowd. While this crowd has dominated the MMOG player space thus far, I think there is a significant sea change going on here.

Or in other words, Viva la Revolucion!

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:06:31 AM | link

Marshall Astor says:

As long as it's limited to a small number of servers, I have no issue with this kind of service. It would move some (but not all) of this activity away from the general population.

There is no way that this will stop black market sales from affecting other servers. There will always be a out of game market for character sales and l33t items on any server. Right now developers aren't aggressive enough in enforcing their License Agreement, in regards to this issue. If SOE would take the bold step of starting this new service, and at the same time cleaning house on their exisiting servers, then I'd be more impressed.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:08:00 AM | link

Thomas Rice says:

What an exciting development! I'm just surprised it took so long, given how extensive black market trading is going on. Clearly there are people (like me) who are interested in a legitimate avenue for in-game trading, and why not internalize that if you're Sony?

I think creating the EE-enabled and EE-disabled servers is also a wise move, as some players clearly have strong opinions about preferring one over the other.

Hopefully splitting the two will allow those that think in-game trading ruins the game to stick to a server where it isn't ruined for them, and allow others like myself to stick to the trading-friendly servers.

Regarding the merits of item trading itself...

Dmitri wrote:
I love the part in JC Herz's "Joystick Nation" where she's talking about meritocracy in early social arcade gaming:
"It didn't matter what you drove to the arcade. If you sucked at Asteroids, you just sucked."

Well that's all well and good for Asteroids - it's a game you show up and play. MMORPGs (in their current state) involve a huge time commitment. Where's the equality and balance when I can only devote enough time to play 4 hours a week versus student friends who can play 40 hours a week? In Asteroids the time commitment makes little difference to the gameplay you experience - in MMORPGs it makes a world of difference.

Richard Bartle wrote:
If you can buy victory, though, it's either not a game at all or it's a wider game with different victory conditions.

I would say then, that's it not a game. Most MMORPGs (that I know of at least) do not finish with "Congratulations, you have Won - The End". Rather they are ongoing experiences. If I spend money to buy a higher level character, or a new item in-game, this isn't buying victory. It's buying a new experience.

And to those that say "it's unfair because some players have money and others don't", I would say "it's unfair because some players have free time and others don't".

From Sony's perspective, will they lose business as a result? I would hope not. The seperation of servers should keep most people happy, while encouraging players like me to continue playing. My experience has been I've quit out of games like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes when it got to a point that the amount of time to level versus the amount of time I could commit meant I wasn't experiencing new things quickly enough, and the game quickly became dull. Services like this should help alleviate that.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:08:07 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

I copied the following from Sony's site:
"Some players want to experience as many different aspects of the game as possible, but may not have enough time to play multiple character types.

Other players with the time and skills to devote to the game will find new avenues of reward opening to them within the game."

To which I can only respond: Yup. (Or perhaps: Duh!)

Good move, Sony. Among other things, this will:

  • increase the number of people willing and able to play your games
  • create new gameplay for those in your games now
  • increase your revenue
  • diversify your revenue stream
  • reduce your service costs on "external" sales
  • undercut the security risks and external companies now serving this market
  • allow your players to play as they wish without scoffing at your EULA
  • and potentially provide the leverage to move MMOGs out of their current design ruts.

Despite the sturm and drang in parts of the hardcore crowd, I think it's great to see such a positive step forward.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:08:40 AM | link

Tobold says:

"Thor and Biff meet on the PvP field of battle. Both are skilled players and both have the same amount of knowledge. Thor, however, in real life is a 50-year old dentist who makes $85,000 a year. Biff is an undergraduate at Generic State U. with $12,000 and counting in student loans. Thor thus has the +5 Sword of Noggin-nocking, while Biff has the +1 Sword of Thrift. Thor wins. Biff quits, and so do others like him. Thor winds up fighting other Thors, losing his advantage and wondering why he forked out the cash. Eventually, the game stratifies by real-world disposable income rather than by talent or interest."

Can anybody explain me how this would be any different from the current situation, where Thor has the +1 Sword of Timerestriction, and Biff has the +5 Sword of Evercamping? Right now the game is stratified by real-world disposable time. Adding a disposable income component levels the playing field.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:19:40 AM | link

gus andrews says:

I'm with Mr. Rabbit-- these are virtual worlds, and as such they seem more like toys than games to me (how does one win a world?) Those of you who are so intent on preserving the "magic circle" seem to me to want to preserve the kind of play YOU want in these worlds, which seems to me to be a very specific kind of play which won't appeal to everyone. Some of us are just out there to experience the world; we're not really interested in the challenge of the grind. If I have to buy my way to a level in WoW at which I can have my steed, I'll do it -- I'm a grad student, I don't have that much time to play, and for me having animals to work with is the point of any game; it's not going to be fun for me until I get to ride around and cultivate my relationship with an animal. That's the kind of gamer I am.

I think as long as different servers are designated for different kinds of play, we're all going to be OK.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:30:14 AM | link

Jez says:

For reference, I'm a player, not an expert..

Tobold: You're saying that having disposable time leads to less disposable income, and vice versa? May be true in some cases but I'm a student and have neither, and I know many others like me.

I applaud Sony for recognising what has been happening for some time and making efforts to regulate and control it. But as a player who simply cannot afford to spend an extra penny on a game which I already forked out for twice (the physical game and the monthly subscription) it seems deeply unfair that this is now becoming a 'mainstream' way of getting money, items, and effectively advantage. I don't want to lose in a combat situation because I choose in real life to spend my time in academia rather than a better-paid career. Aspects of my real life like that should be left at the door when I log into the MMORPG world, and not paraded around for people to know I can't afford the Epic Mount of Scary Flamingness or whatever. Being able to afford the monthly subscription is hard enough.

Society, and life in general, are entirely ruled by money, but I had hoped game worlds would be different. Oh well, back to World of Warcraft it is then, where raging discussions about the honour system are taking over every forum in sight...

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:30:41 AM | link

Tobold says:

"Tobold: You're saying that having disposable time leads to less disposable income, and vice versa? May be true in some cases but I'm a student and have neither, and I know many others like me."

Of course there are people that have neither, or both. But the argument against SonyBay was that it takes a "fair" game and turns it into an "unfair" game. And I think that the current pre-SonyBay situation is already unfair.

If you see MMORPGs as competitive games (and I agree with Mr. Rabbit that it is perfectly possible to just see them as toys), you could well ask the question *why* Biff with his lots of disposable time should have a competitive advantage over the equally skilled, but time-poor, Thor. In the Asteroids arcade example, why should the one player who camped the machine for the last couple of hours get additional shields against the equally skilled second player who just arrived?

With SonyBay both disposable time and disposable income can be transformed into in-game advantage. That did work reasonably well for Magic the Gathering, which at some time had more players than any existing MMORPG.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:51:48 AM | link

Aaron Kurtz says:

Thanks for the props. I nearly died when I first heard about this on the VN boards. I'm still not sure how this will effect anything (including the "social hypertext" that Greg has mentioned), so I'm taking this move on SOE's part to confine this activity to two servers out of 20-some servers as a petri dish experiment. I think everybody has some great points, but I'm preventing myself from making any sort of predictions until I can actually see how this is going to work in both the short- and long-term. I apologize for being so positivist to the point of being boring.

I'm going to cross-comment from my blog, but edit this to address some of the concerns here:

But I think it is important to frame the discussion the right way, depending on what you want to look at. Personally, I'm not concerned with the effect this will have on the Industry-with-a-capital-I itself, but more so how the social dynamics on these servers will pan out:

The two comments that I'm thinking of are Greg's ("And the other question, I guess, is whether MMOGs are games at all, or whether they're more akin to a form of social hypertext") and Mister Rabbit's ("MMORPGS are NOT games, they are TOYS"). Indeed these games are completely and undeniably a form of social hypertext. My anthropological work in VW's assumes this entirely, and in fact, as an ethnography student, I treat VW's the same way I would treat any social sphere I'm willing to study. So while calling them “toys” is a fun way to explain it, it reduces the pertinence of these worlds as recreations of social space. I'm not demanding that we take on this issue of StationExchange in this way, but at least this is how I will look at it.

Let me explain:

I wonder if there will be a market at all. Those who purchase goods/accounts are doing so because it allows them to participate with the big boys without expending the an equal amount of labor. In other words, to some extent virtual goods are purchased because players desire the status associated with possessing what amount to sacred objects and access to sacred places without having to work for it. Marxian notions of fetish and exchange-value help to explain this element, as do Mauss' notion of money-as-a-medium-for-exchange: the value of an object no longer corresponds to the amount of labor invested into it, therefore the player is comparatively disassociated from the object when place side-by-side with a player who actually has worked for it (Marx). Furthermore, the social value of an object as either a status symbol or an object closely tied to the player (by virtue of either work or in-game exchange) is lost to the player when he uses money to purchase the object instead of "earning" it (Marx/Mauss).

What this amounts to is a player who wants to be big-n'-bad without wanting to expend any labor towards his status. I believe this is what Dmitri's concerns were about Biff v. Thor, except in the usual VG-purchasing scenario, it turns out to be Biff v. Thor v. Napoleon, whereby Napoleon is the player who possesses all of the sacred objects that Thor does, except that he labored for them. My point here, though, is that both Biff and Thor want to be Napoleon, but what they lack in attention span (or, you know, “virtue”) they make up for with capital. The fact that Biff and Thor exercised capital instead of labor, though, doesn't bother them, as they have gained status either way (but, of course, this element of status will be summarily denied if anyone were to find out how they achieved it).

But if SOE allows this kind of behavior and creates two new servers where, it will be assumed by the player base, absolutely every single player has a purchased account, what will become of this element of status? Is status and elitism going to be reduced to who has the most money to spend (again, Dmitri's concerns)? Or will it even exist at all? I'm wondering if, because there is no labor-value associated with a particular object in the context of these two new servers, will there even be a market for this kind of service?

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:55:08 AM | link

Aaron Kurtz says:

Oh and don't hate me for using Marx. He's just so convenient. ;-)

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:57:22 AM | link

Joshua Fairfield says:

My worry is that this is an "embrace and extend" move, the purpose of which is not to enable advantageous and socially beneficial trades, but is to lock out other forums for trades. Why does Sony need to bring this inhouse?

I know their stated purpose is to prevent fraud, but that can be handled more cheaply by sites that provide serious indicia of reliability and build long-term trade relationship. The trade is shady because it's banned. Un-ban it, and upstanding people who are repeat players will dominate, solving the fraud problem.

I suppose Sony could provide some degree of verification, but why would they do that? It's expensive, and they don't want to be liable for deals that fall through.

In short, while I'm a big fan of the sale of virtual property, I see no consumer value and considerable consumer threat in Sony's move.

I'm very much reminded of the Ticketmaster and Bidder's Edge price comparison cases, where copyright was (mis)used to lock eBay-style sites out of publicizing prices. Is there seriously a copyright interest in limiting your prices from being compared to a competitor?

On the other topic -- whether the sales themselves are bad regardless of the forum -- I'm perhaps wrongly unconcerned with the monetization of items already packaged for trade. You can buy them now, with in-world currency.

The negative externalities of permitting someone to buy goods for real money seem equivalent to the negative externalities of locking people with time-consuming jobs out of the top levels of the game.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 10:31:42 AM | link

eric says:

what would be nice--but highly unlikely--is if a system that monetized buying in-game items led to a direct reduction in monthly fees.

it may turn the business on its head, or they may be able to squeeze profit on both ends, but if you lowered (or eliminated) monthly fees while implementing an arena to buy goods and services in actual dollars, the potential at least is that many many more people will flock to the game meaning many many more people might be willing to buy and sell goods on the auction, meaning more revenue for the company.

of course you have overhead like servers, customer support etc., so maybe this isn't economically feasible. but i think if you paid little or nothing to inhabit a game world almost any person would be much less adverse to then spending money on items for the game.

i guess it depends if you want to be google or the WSJ online. Most MMOs go after the WSJ.com model of pay a fee to get content. But maybe you could build a mainstream game using a more google-like of not charging for the service, but for transacting business that is optional to the service.

also, i'd be willing to bet the implementation of this forum is going to be overburdensome to users, kludgy, expensive and annoying. Maybe I'm wrong and Sony will price its fees competitively and engineer a nice system that links up in-game and prevents fraud, but i think they will work too hard to protect what's theres, and alienating people in the end.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 10:52:23 AM | link

Charles Ferguson says:

I’m of two minds on this subject.

Part of me is crying out in outrage and fears its effects. It kills a portion of immersion and encourages farming of items which, in games that doesn’t rely heavily on instances, hurts many players’ experience when they reach the bottom of a dungeon. It will introduce an added pressure on players to have the latest and greatest characters or items since all the cool kids have it. Lastly, since this secondary market is profitable, it might convince publishers and producers to create games that encourages this even more and discourages trying out new aspects of game play.

On the flip side, it also makes me hopeful. It forces developers to find new solutions to reward players and to differentiate them. Recognition and reputation become greater factors and one that cannot be bought since you must have gone through x quests or killed so and so beast to receive the shiny title or have your name on the lips of a bard. It also forces developers to create new systems if they don’t want to participate in the secondary market. The game doesn’t become about the grind, but about the entire experience and making certain that each moment is fun. To fight against this market, items will need to be less essential to the character and levels have less of an impact if not done away with completely. Accessing new content wouldn’t be about having to be level x which requires y amount of grinding, but it would be following the z path which appeals to your personality and is closer to your concept of fun.

I could see some of the big development studios going with the more item based games and the smaller and newer ones going with the new concepts. Eventually players would notice that the other games are better and switch from the big name games to these smaller developers and expanding the MMO concepts. Of course we have to hope that publishers will still pick up newer concepts and that smaller development studios can survive until this time, but as we can see on forums like these, people inside the industry are of many minds.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 10:55:39 AM | link

Stephen Routledge says:

"Where's the equality and balance when I can only devote enough time to play 4 hours a week versus student friends who can play 40 hours a week? In Asteroids the time commitment makes little difference to the gameplay you experience - in MMORPGs it makes a world of difference."

This happens in a lot of games. The guy who puts 40 hours a week into Counter-Strike will amost always triumph over the guy who puts 4 hours a week in. The guy who puts 40 hours a week into Super Mario will see more of the game, unlock new levels and get to use new abilities before the guy who puts in 4 hours a week.

In fact it is true of most sports as well. If you put 40 hours a week into almost anything you will generally triumph over someone who only puts in 4 hours a week and/or you will have a different (better?) experience. I think the point is that people respect investing time to improve at something and consider it acceptable; investing money to improve at something is not respected and is generally considered cheating. Working your way to the top versus buying your way to the top.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 11:09:59 AM | link

Stephen Routledge says:

"Where's the equality and balance when I can only devote enough time to play 4 hours a week versus student friends who can play 40 hours a week? In Asteroids the time commitment makes little difference to the gameplay you experience - in MMORPGs it makes a world of difference."

This happens in a lot of games. The guy who puts 40 hours a week into Counter-Strike will amost always triumph over the guy who puts 4 hours a week in. The guy who puts 40 hours a week into Super Mario will see more of the game, unlock new levels and get to use new abilities before the guy who puts in 4 hours a week.

In fact it is true of most sports as well. If you put 40 hours a week into almost anything you will generally triumph over someone who only puts in 4 hours a week and/or you will have a different (better?) experience. I think the point is that people respect investing time to improve at something and consider it acceptable; investing money to improve at something is not respected and is generally considered cheating. Working your way to the top versus buying your way to the top.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 11:10:33 AM | link

Daniel McMillan says:

A couple years ago, I announced that we would include our own in-game marketplace to buy and sell "hobbyist-style" assets people build and aquire in Frontier 1859. I don't see why this comes as a shock. You cannot stop people from doing this - as I said before - so why should eBay get all the fees? Make it so that the assets remain authentic, the service provides an additional outlet for enjoyment, and the Developers can turn around the fees toward new asset creation. ;)

Posted Apr 20, 2005 11:37:37 AM | link

bruce boston says:

Q: How will this affect me as a player?

A: We will be introducing new Exchange-enabled servers. Over time, we will look at possibly enabling Station Exchange on current servers based on the desires and activities of our communities.

Players who wish to join an Exchange server will be given an opportunity to transfer one or more characters to that server, at no charge for the transfer, when the server goes live.

================================================


If there is a right way to do this, this is it.

-bruce

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:13:18 PM | link

Damion Schubert says:

In fact it is true of most sports as well. If you put 40 hours a week into almost anything you will generally triumph over someone who only puts in 4 hours a week and/or you will have a different (better?) experience. I think the point is that people respect investing time to improve at something and consider it acceptable; investing money to improve at something is not respected and is generally considered cheating. Working your way to the top versus buying your way to the top.

This is ultimately the close-minded thinking that has resulted in games not growing as they could. When only the hardcore can win at a game, you eliminate a massive number of people from even trying the game. One of the successes of games like Soul Caliber is that they always try to put in a couple of 'Button Masher' characters in, simpler characters that are easier to be good with. Why? Because a guy who spends 40 hours playing Soul Caliber consistently beating 9 guys who don't own the game and have only spend 4 hours playing it is ultimately fun for one guy, and not fun for the others.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:13:20 PM | link

Michael Hartman says:

This is an absolutely marvellous first step towards getting rid of the IGE leeches of the world.

What some people need to understand is that items are CONTENT. Everyone who pays for the game should have a means to enjoy the same CONTENT. If they are unable to do so because they cannot play the game for 80 hours a week, having another way to supplement their time is a good thing.

Now, one important thing is to make sure your game is not so heavily gear dependent that "buying gear" completely changes the landscape. It has been my experience that most of the big games have obsessively followed the EQ model of "uber gear" that has to be "farmed" and this gear makes someone many orders of magnitude more powerful. That is a design flaw. Gear should supplmenent the character but not BE the character.

What really needs to happen next is to completely cut out the player as a seller entirely. Once people are more comfortable with "secure trading", then big companies like SOE need to move right into selling things directly. At that point, they should once again ban all trading.

The worst thing about after mark sales is the effect the FARMERS have on the game. They dominate popular areas. They horde content. They are a bad thing.

The company itself should just offer an alternate means of obtaining things (items, heck even characters like the UO advanced character services or whatever it was called). Then the dangerous, harmful middle man is completely eliminated.

The real undercurrent here is that there are a lot of nermals who have completely dominated MMOs and MUDs since their inception and they like it. They like having their place where THEY are dominant. No job? No social life? No problem! These types of folks do not want to see any other means of enjoying content other than pouring in an absurd amount of hours farming mindlessly or churning the same mobs/dungeon over and over again.

These types will kick and scream as loudly and angrily as possible.

They will yell how this breaks/ruins the game.

They will yell how this is unfair (ignoring how unfair it is that certain items are only obtainable by people who can farm the same mob for 10 hours straight).

But in the end, these people are a tiny, tiny minority. In the end, these are the people who will play the games regardless, because they are absolutely in love with/addicted to this type of game which is why they play it for thousands of hours per year.

But the other, more normal folks, will be happy to have a little bit of control over how they can enjoy the content of a game. These are the huge majority that will be happy such options exist.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:19:57 PM | link

Estariel says:

After some reflection, I have begun to look at this as an experiment or market research ploy from SOE. They want to find out....
- what the effect of legitimising item and toon trading is
- whether they can hurt their item trading parasites by doing this
- how many players want it and go there
- how many players hate it and would rather cancel than live with it.
There is an inference in the announcement that each server may get to vote on whether it goes EE or not.

My guess is that the EE servers will be like EQlive Stormhammer/Legends, where more $$$ bought instant uberness. Which is cool for all those time-poor cash-rich dentists. But just how many of these are there?

Like Seth Sivak, I think this move misses the point on why players spend big $$ on items or plat. For this section of the player base, there ARE winners in mmorpgs and the winners are the guys with the best gear and mob-killing CV. The L50+ content is not intrinsically more enjoyable than the L10 content - the ego payoff is around exclusivity: "I killed ubermob99, and you cant". The kudos fails, if people know you could easily have bought your toon or dragon loot on Station Exchange. I dont see these guys wanting to move to an EE server.

Contra Mister Rabbit, I dont see this move having any effect on item-trading on the non-EE servers. The demand from powergamers for an illicit jump up the power ladder will still be there, so the farmers will still be there to supply it.

It will be interesting to see if item prices plumment on the EE servers as hundreds of hopeful item farmers chase the dollars of the handful of eq-playing dentists.

Maybe SOE will use what they learn to build a future farmer-proof game. Alternatively this venture may turn out to be a dead end.

Last thought: fascinating that 40% of CS calls are tagged as related to dodgy item trades. Suggests that item trade fraud is rampant.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:23:18 PM | link

William Huber says:

I'm interested in the cultural changes that will occur. Right now, the "elite" of most virtual worlds - those with the highest levels and best gear - are those with the most disposable time. This often means that the longer one plays and the higher one's own rank gets, the more time you spend with people who have a lot of free time. In practice, this usually means that the top ranks are dominated by the young.

If money joins time as a route of access to these levels, will there be changes in behavior among the more top-ranked players? Will dentists making $85,000 a year who buy their way into higher-level play be as likely to call other players "ghey?" Will legitimizing monetized play lead to other design changes?

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:34:37 PM | link

Barry Kearns says:

Dmitri Williams wrote:

Thor and Biff meet on the PvP field of battle. Both are skilled players and both have the same amount of knowledge. Thor, however, in real life is a 50-year old dentist who makes $85,000 a year. Biff is an undergraduate at Generic State U. with $12,000 and counting in student loans. Thor thus has the +5 Sword of Noggin-nocking, while Biff has the +1 Sword of Thrift. Thor wins. Biff quits, and so do others like him.

Seth Sivak commented:

I have always looked at item buying as cheating. People with more money are able to change the balance of a game. The argument that people who buy items is always; "I only buy items because I do not have enough time to play." I find this argument without merit. I think that people who spend more time playing should have the best items for several reasons.

First of all, if you put more time into the VW/Game I believe you EARN the items you receive. If you just buy them you do not. By playing more you get an actual feel for the VW and learn how to play the game. By paying money you do not get any of that experience.

and later, Stephen Routledge wrote:

I think the point is that people respect investing time to improve at something and consider it acceptable; investing money to improve at something is not respected and is generally considered cheating. Working your way to the top versus buying your way to the top.

Why do we not see the same "cheating" aspect being thrown about when guilds gift money and items to new members (often giving them wealth and power clearly beyond what a typical player would have on their own), who clearly have not "earned" the power and wealth through the same time investment?

Shouldn't low-level guild twinks be treated as bannable cheaters as well, and subject to the same account-forfeiture, harrassment and social exile penalties that commodifiers are?

Isn't the typical MMO achievement landscape often hopelessly counterfeitable by massive levels of guild twinking, even without commodification? Why complain about how "unfair" item purchases make the game, if you're going to ignore the same competitive unfairness that arises when someone with dozens of high-level classmates gets unearned power for free?

How is the typical player supposed to fairly compete with someone who has a massive supplier network for unearned power, that he gets at no cost at all?

In my pre-commodification experience, I often saw firsthand the roles of Thor and Biff reversed, with Biff the student having twenty-plus high level game playing buddies more than willing to "hook him up" with the +5 equipment and powerlevel him to boot, while Thor the dentist, who only knows two other players well (and they are as low-level as he is) ends up with the +1 crap because he has been crawling along through the game at a snail's pace. This happened to a sickening degree in Earth and Beyond, for instance.

Biff is "cheating" the achievement landscape by twinking and powerleveling... when Thor "cheats" in response via commodification, it often levels him back out with someone who had already cheated their way to the top.

Now, that leaves John the non-commodifying casual player out in the cold, but the solution for a level is not to hammer only the second type of cheater while leaving the first in place... instead, make the playing field level for all by eliminating the benefit of transferring unbalancing (and unearned) power between players.

You end up with no twinking, no item/currency commodifying, and acheivement that actually means something, because everyone knows that you earned it.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:42:29 PM | link

Mark Ashton says:

It's a great idea. About time a MMORPG developer stopped fighting reality. They may be the functional equivalent of the RIAA, but I don't think they're the moral equivalent.

From Sony's perspective, is this just a desperation move to recoup some of the losses from the decline in market share from EQ to EQII?

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:42:50 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Fantastic! Way to go Sony! I've been saying for years that it's only a matter of time before the big boys start adopting the buying and selling of virtual items, because it simply makes sense (and can make more money than $15/month, as SOE's executives know. They've seen our internal numbers, for instance.) I'm excited for a few reasons:
1. I may finally get a chance to play an adventuring-oriented MMO and get somewhere in it. I don't have the time that kids without jobs have to play and I won't break contracts I enter in to (EULA/TOS), so I've always been unable to overcome the ridiculous monopoly on in-game success that those without excessive free time have. Now I can level the playing field a bit. Wheee.

2. The more companies selling virtual items, the more accepted it'll become. Obviously, good for me and my company. We've been doing it as our only method of revenue for 8 years now, and it's not always been an easy PR battle with the hardcore "I define my self-worth by my 'achievements' in-game." crowd.

3. F*ck you IGE and the rest of the parasites. You are icky.

Stephen Routledge wrote:

I think the point is that people respect investing time to improve at something and consider it acceptable; investing money to improve at something is not respected and is generally considered cheating. Working your way to the top versus buying your way to the top.

Really? I wasn't aware most people think of, say, Lance Armstrong as a cheater. He spends tons of money to get better. Buying better bikes, buying time at kick-ass training facilities with fancy things like wind tunnels, etc.

--matt

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:43:42 PM | link

Dee Lacey says:

MMO's are swimming pools. You can play a swimming pool wide game of marco-polo, or you can just play in the water with the people you arrived with, or you can bop around meeting new folks and admiring their swim suits, or you can cordon off long narrow sections and swim laps. You can order all kids out for adult swim. You can have family days once a month and the rest of the time it's laps and lessons. The pool can be community oriented or pro athletes, but it's the same pool.

Toy... society... too vague. I like my concrete and water metaphor :)

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:55:58 PM | link

Seth Sivak says:

Matt Mihaly: Really? I wasn't aware most people think of, say, Lance Armstrong as a cheater. He spends tons of money to get better. Buying better bikes, buying time at kick-ass training facilities with fancy things like wind tunnels, etc.

I don't really know where to start here. Lance Armstrong is not a cheater because he isnt paying someone else to do the qualifying races and training for him. He still works his butt off for that. If you were to take your definition and turn it around then someone with a highend PC would be cheating a person with a crappy old desktop. Lance Armstrong has put in years and years of work and effort to become the athlete he is. He didnt just buy an athletic body and enter it into the Tour de France.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 12:58:16 PM | link

Flatfingers says:

Another perspective....

I have to disagree with Jez -- it's not all just about money. This question is one of ethics: Is it right to acquire in-game objects/abilities without having "worked" for them in the game like everyone else?

Ultimately it's about our belief that something like fairness must exist in our worlds, real or virtual. And one of the tenets of fairness is that wealth (in whatever form) must be earned.

In virtual worlds, "to earn" and "to work" are equivalent to how much time you spend in-game. More specifically, in MMORPGs, the time you as a player spend in-game is roughly synonymous with the effort your character exerts. (Note: I think equating effort with grinding is erroneous. Grinding is what players do because bad game design allows and even rewards that behavior, but nothing forces developers to implement game rules that allow players to advance by doing the same things over and over again. Just because people can grind in some games doesn't mean "time = grinding" in all games.)

Let's assume Player A and Player B play at equal levels of intelligence. If Player A expends 100 hours of in-game effort, and Player B expends 2 hours of in-game effort, why should Player B have the same amount of in-game power/wealth/abilities/gear as Player A?

If the game is an RPG, why should your abilities outside the game affect your character's abilities inside the game?

There is a practical realization in RL that when people are given things they haven't earned, things they haven't expended some reasonable amount of effort to acquire, that they tend not to value those things as much as someone who has worked to earn them. This appears to be true from the level of teaching your children to appreciate their belongings to the level of national welfare systems -- giving people stuff they didn't earn leads to broken stuff and people who live unhappy lives because they were allowed to develop an entitlement mentality.

Why should virtual worlds be immune from the consequences of ignoring this effect?

More to the point: Should Sony cooperate with this notion -- that you can buy success in the game that you didn't earn in the game -- by giving it an Official Stamp of Approval in the form of their own external trading system?

I don't know how the results will play out. Maybe it'll bomb because people keep using external trading systems. Maybe it'll be so successful that three years from now every major developer will include its own external trading system.

Either way, we'll still be left with the ethical question: Should out-of-game effort have the same value in the game world as in-game effort?

--Flatfingers

Posted Apr 20, 2005 1:17:23 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Stephen Routledge wrote:

I think the point is that people respect investing time to improve at something and consider it acceptable; investing money to improve at something is not respected and is generally considered cheating. Working your way to the top versus buying your way to the top.

The "people" you're talking about are hardcore gamers: the ones who have dominated almost to exclusivity MUDs and MMOGs thus far.

This small slice of the potential gaming public views seems to have a negative view of buying items with money instead of time (or it may just be the even smaller vocal sub-contigent that frequents blogs and boards like this one). But that doesn't mean that "people" feel this way.

Magic: The Gathering did very well for both WoTC and its players with a "buy your way in" model. I suspect MMOGs will do just fine this way too, and will attract more players as a result.

Of course many of the ultra-hardcore, the ones who have made part-time jobs out of playing MMOGs, won't like this. That goes without saying.

But that doesn't mean that creating games and associated systems (like the SonyExchange) that move beyond this small insular crowd is a bad thing. Not at all. It just means this isn't 1997 anymore.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 1:24:50 PM | link

Steven Davis says:

It seems that this argument is much ado about nothing.

The claim that this "breaks" Everquest in some way is countered by the long-standing, in-game support for trading of some assets. If you don't want trading, don't allow it. Period. Code it that way. If there is a problem, fix the bug. That is a pretty clear design choice.

In this case, Sony is simply making a "black market" a "white market" uniformily accessible and trustable by all... barring implementation issues, of course. If they happen to make some money on this... Gosh, too bad. The main upside may be a much more systematic understanding of the scale of these markets, player acceptance and interest, etc.

Sony has always allowed some exchange of virtual assets as part of its community building agenda as a game developer and operator. There is clearly a game "value" in supporting this.

The oddity here is the continued blind support for leveling. If one levels up stats through hours played/experience and that is to be valued as a game asset it can either be reflected in your relative game performance (through levels, skills, or stats) or simply by putting enough "gold stars" to salve the player's ego (much as some web communities give credit for many postings). This is simply a design feature.

Another valid option is to build a game with deep strategy that rewards extended play simply reflected in game play skill from REAL EXPERIENCE vs. experience points. Many games start off with everyone essentially equal except for the skill they bring to the table... a shocking notion, perhaps to level-grind addicts. This would, of course, require more time being spent on building a good, deep game play systems rather than more graphics and particle effects.

Virtual assets, tradeable characters, gold stars, etc. are simply tools to reward extended play (read revenues, for the perpetually naive). Whether those are in $$$, gold pieces, or enhanced ability to Kick A**... they are all fair options.

Steven B. Davis
CEO
IT GlobalSecure Inc.
http://www.secureplay.com/

Posted Apr 20, 2005 1:40:41 PM | link

Flatfingers says:

Mike> The "people" you're talking about are hardcore gamers: the ones who have dominated almost to exclusivity MUDs and MMOGs thus far.

Er... I'm most definitely not a "hardcore" gamer, but I still have qualms about Sony putting its imprimatur on the idea of buying in-game power with out-of-game effort.

Presumably I'm not unique. So perhaps there are actually good, objective reasons to question Sony's move other than the selfish personal interests of the hardcore gamer.

--Flatfingers

Posted Apr 20, 2005 1:41:53 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Seth Sivak wrote:

I don't really know where to start here. Lance Armstrong is not a cheater because he isnt paying someone else to do the qualifying races and training for him. He still works his butt off for that. If you were to take your definition and turn it around then someone with a highend PC would be cheating a person with a crappy old desktop. Lance Armstrong has put in years and years of work and effort to become the athlete he is. He didnt just buy an athletic body and enter it into the Tour de France.

What Lance does is buy great equipment that assists him in achieving his goal. What Sony does is let you buy great equipment that assists you in achieving your goal. There's no fundamental difference.

Calling it cheating is also a bit silly. Cheating is breaking the rules. If it's not against the rules, it's not cheating, and guess what? The game operator makes the rules or, in the case of Lance, the governing body of his sport. Lance isn't a cheater because he hasn't broken any of their rules. People breaking the EULAs to engage in virtual item commerce are cheaters, I agree. But once they don't have to break the rules, they cease being cheaters.

--matt


Posted Apr 20, 2005 1:42:33 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Flatfingers wrote:

Er... I'm most definitely not a "hardcore" gamer, but I still have qualms about Sony putting its imprimatur on the idea of buying in-game power with out-of-game effort.

If you're reading Terranova, you're so impossibly hardcore about games you're off the scale. That's what I'd assert at least.

--matt

Posted Apr 20, 2005 1:53:30 PM | link

Tess says:

From Sony's FAQ:


"The User Agreement and Software License, to which you agreed when you installed the game and to which you agree every time you launch the game, makes it clear that you have no ownership rights in characters, items and coin -- what you have is the right to use them in accordance with the license agreement, the rules of conduct of the game, and SOE's terms of service. When SOE launches Station Exchange, SOE will permit you to 'sell' and 'buy' that right to use characters, items and coin. In 'lawyerese,' you will be buying and/or selling a limited license right, not an ownership right."

THANK YOU, Sony, for making this crystal clear. Otherwise, I was going to have to cry into my beer.

I feel that I need to object to those who are suggesting that this will cause some kind of renaissance of "ebay-proof" games. First of all, if a company makes good money from this sort of exchange, they have no incentive to design the next title in such a way as to curtail this revenue stream. I think Castranova's briefly fearful, "commercialization will result in there being no ebay-proof games, ever," was right on target (sorry, man). Companies that do not follow this lead will be doing so most likely for ideological reasons, and not financial reasons. Companies like Google have shown that ideology can pay off in the long run, but even their halo gets tarnished on occasion.

Second of all, look at how we've handled such genies in the past. We've known for years now, as a matter of doctrine, that "the client is in the hands of the enemy." And yet where was our renaissance of cheat-proof systems? Oh, yes, we certainly try for this goal, but I still hear about incidents pretty regularly.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 2:08:08 PM | link

Bart Simon says:

I'll tell you what - the bottom just fell out of game studies since we are in danger of losing those wonderfully rich Dibble-esque stories of crime and punishment on the electronic frontier... its all becoming so hum drum white collar. Damn capitalism! Lets hope the players continue to be as creative as ever in the face of the disnification of online gaming.

cheers,
Bart

Posted Apr 20, 2005 2:28:04 PM | link

Tom Hudson says:

A minor difference. Estariel wrote:

The L50+ content is not intrinsically more enjoyable than the L10 content...

In my experience, even in the current crop of class-based straightjacketed game systems, (1) L50 characters have more tactical options, and (2) L50 teams function much better. It's probably much more game-system-dependent, but (3) L50 characters are much less prone to accidental death.

Others have pointed out before that somebody who buys a L50 character without having worked it up there will probably be seriously less competent with it than somebody who worked their way up there. I understand that WoW is pretty level-stratified; in AO (220 levels), player skill & build difference can overcome a 10+ level gap at the high end.

- Tom

Amusing memory: the responses to somebody broadcasting over an OOC channel, "Hey, I just bought this . Can somebody show me how to play?"

Posted Apr 20, 2005 2:32:41 PM | link

Dmitri Williams says:

Flatfingers wrote:
"Either way, we'll still be left with the ethical question: Should out-of-game effort have the same value in the game world as in-game effort?"

This is the heart of the issue. My answer is obviously a "no." One reason is a normative one--I personally like fair play. That's my value system. The other reason is purely business. I think that when you mess with parity, your game loses those very things which lead people to enjoy them and come back--fun, fairness (again, see MLB vs. the NFL).

A lot of folks in this thread have suggested that it's a fair fix to an existing design flaw that values time and grinding. I file this under "two wrongs don't make a right." Is it a nod to reality? Sure, but as others have said, fix the mechanics in the first place.

-Dmitri

PS I apologize to dentists everywhere.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 2:59:55 PM | link

Cory Ondrejka says:

Obviously, I think that this a great move for Sony and generally agree with Mike Sellers' take on the impact. It will be interesting to see data on popularity of shards with and without selling. It's also interesting to consider this as a specific competitive response to WoW, which has officially taken an anti-sales position.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 3:00:15 PM | link

Chip Midnight says:

Flatfingers: "I have to disagree with Jez -- it's not all just about money. This question is one of ethics: Is it right to acquire in-game objects/abilities without having "worked" for them in the game like everyone else?

Ultimately it's about our belief that something like fairness must exist in our worlds, real or virtual. And one of the tenets of fairness is that wealth (in whatever form) must be earned."

Isn't this a bit of a red herring? When Biff and Thor meet on the field of battle does either of them say "wait, before we begin, tell me what your equipment is and how you obtained it!" That seems a bit silly to me. The experience of their battle is the experience of their battle. Neither is aware of how the other got to where they are or how they acquired their kit. It's irrelevant.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 3:05:56 PM | link

William Huber says:

I can't help but feel that there's a certain anxiety about monetarizing games that comes from a sense of the fragility of the "realness" of money itself. There are many parallels between the mythologies of merit, achievement, work, and value in the game, and their analogues in real life. "Grind"-centered design is a shadowy reflection of how many people experience their own working lives: drudgery that is made acceptable by the rewards that occassionally fall out of it. The Protestant work ethic makes hard work meritorious, but not fun in itself.

We've naturalized this alienation of our time so deeply, that we expect to see it in our game worlds, too. Now, in a sense, you could say that allowing one to exchange real-world grind for in-game grind, we don't really solve anything. And, in fact, all the Exchange does is allow one to out-source the grind. The difference becomes that of vacationing at Club Med, where people who are Not Vacationing are doing the work for you, and vacationing at an environmental campsite, where the work is part of the vacation. But I still feel like there's a utopian element about the virtual world at stake here, despite everything: the vagueness surrounding the word "fun" (in the big, vague, collection-of-pleasures/"that was a fun party" sense, not the Kosterian sense) and the elective nature of the activity, really suggests to me a change in attitude towards endeavour itself.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 3:18:29 PM | link

Barry Kearns says:

Flatfingers wrote:

This question is one of ethics: Is it right to acquire in-game objects/abilities without having "worked" for them in the game like everyone else?

Ultimately it's about our belief that something like fairness must exist in our worlds, real or virtual. And one of the tenets of fairness is that wealth (in whatever form) must be earned.

Yet this is precisely the opposite of what we see in almost every major MMO on the market today. Wealth and power clearly do not need to be earned in any game that is built to support damaging levels of twinking without repercussions against the players.

How many major (successful) MMO titles can you name that are available today, which by design eliminate twinking?

Toontown comes to mind, by having no player trading of any kind (as I recall). An approach that draconian hardly seems conducive to most traditional MMO models.

I believe that it's certainly possible to design fun and interesting MMO games, largely similar to today's offerings, but adding in the quality of being twink-proof (and therefore also largely eBay-proof), and that's why I've been working on a proof-of-concept economic and game model... which will hopefully show what I mean.

I believe the answer is in game design, not appeals to ethics and EULAs.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 3:19:11 PM | link

Lee Delarm says:

I don't know how many others will be doing so, but I for one, will be going back to EQII for the sole reason that they offer this service now. It enhances the gameplay for me in all the directions listed above (positive ones) and therefore becomes a game I can levy my time and money into again.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 3:38:13 PM | link

Axecleaver says:

The reality of the situation is that this market for virtual goods exists, and it's going to be serviced by someone. It can be by hundreds of individual ebayers, by IGE, or by the game publisher, regardless of the fact that some game companies forbid it in their EULA. So it's here, whether we like it or not.

Buying goods or characters is trading money for time. If you look at, for example, Dark Age of Camelot, the realm point system has nothing to do with skill at pvp, and everything to do with time invested. The same is true for gold farming and rare item farming in every MMORPG from WoW to EQ.

And while you can buy gold, items, and high realm-point characters, what you can't buy is a reputation. These games have social networks (it's why most of us are playing them), and they know who is an "ebayer" and who isn't. That tag carries a stigma with it -- wholly deserved in my opinion. An ebayer is less skilled, didn't earn his titles, and won't be sought for groups.

So while I agree that buying your way past content spoils the game for the ebayer, I'd also agree with the folks here who say that proper game design makes this mostly irrelevant. I find the practice distasteful, but I don't think it needs to mean the end of the road for an otherwise balanced game.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 3:47:09 PM | link

Bob says:

Why is it ok to place a direct line to Pizza Hut into the game, but assigning real value to virtual items is not? It seems to me that some of you are picking and choosing your battles. The Pizza Hut thread seemed to be full of giggles and laughs - while any thread about virtual selling is akin to the coming of the Antichrist. Logically, both seem to shatter the social contract/magic circle analogies - but only one of the two draw the ire of those "in the know". What is the impetus behind this? Are only the gaming companies allowed to have original thoughts/ventures? The primary goal of the gaming company is to show a profit to their shareholders (and keep the game alive to ensure their own job position). The question is how will Sony now view alternative auctions sites - like ebay and virdaq? Will it only be acceptable to buy and sell on the Sony Exchange - or can you buy and sell other places as well? Will Sony still ban game accounts and vero people selling items on ebay? What kind of legal murkiness does this add to the situation (monopoly anyone)? What will happen when the Sony Exchange suffers their first paypal chargebacks? After all these years - Ultima Online had it right in the first place - it's something the majority of the players want - they vote daily with their dollars on ebay.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 3:52:17 PM | link

Bob says:

Why is it ok to place a direct line to Pizza Hut into the game, but assigning real value to virtual items is not? It seems to me that some of you are picking and choosing your battles. The Pizza Hut thread seemed to be full of giggles and laughs - while any thread about virtual selling is akin to the coming of the Antichrist. Logically, both seem to shatter the social contract/magic circle analogies - but only one of the two draw the ire of those "in the know". What is the impetus behind this? Are only the gaming companies allowed to have original thoughts/ventures? The primary goal of the gaming company is to show a profit to their shareholders (and keep the game alive to ensure their own job position). The question is how will Sony now view alternative auctions sites - like ebay and virdaq? Will it only be acceptable to buy and sell on the Sony Exchange - or can you buy and sell other places as well? Will Sony still ban game accounts and vero people selling items on ebay? What kind of legal murkiness does this add to the situation (monopoly anyone)? What will happen when the Sony Exchange suffers their first paypal chargebacks? After all these years - Ultima Online had it right in the first place - it's something the majority of the players want - they vote daily with their dollars on ebay.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 3:53:31 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:


The Pizza Hut thread seemed to be full of giggles and laughs - while any thread about virtual selling is akin to the coming of the Antichrist.

I think one difference is that the Pizza pop-up is something that you inflict onto yourself, whereas virtual selling is something that can impact the entire "player ecosystem" so to speak.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 4:02:20 PM | link

Kwill says:

One issue that has not been addressed is the ghettoization of the Exchange servers. It's one thing to buy plat, and trade characters; it's another to admit that you do so. Right now, it's considered soft crime: people trade, give away, and buy high level characters all the time. Once these admitted people move to a designated server, however, there is going to be, I am sure, a stigma attached. The same thing has been seen on the Legend$ server -- people paid extra, and they are off on their own for a great degree in the EQ community. There are no harsher critics than the players themselves, and it's one thing to be quiet about obtaining a character or equipment, and quite another to be seen as blatantly buying a character. Social reputation does matter a great deal in EverQuest, and to be seen as a person who didn't level up their character is going to create a social class that I think will not have the respect of those that leveled up "by the sweat of their brow." In fact, my guess is that the producers/sellers will get more respect than the buyers. My other guess is that only very high end characters will be worth any money at all.

At the SOE guild summit last year, this topic specifically came up: should SOE sell items and characters. Frankly, amongst the attendees, who were the top players and guild leaders in the game, reaction was mixed. Many of these "uber" players swap characters and equipment all the time. When real life friends want to play with them, they have to say no, because they don't want to go back and experience low level content and exp grind to level up a friend (or spouse). I have no doubt that raiding guilds would love to purchase an extra cleric or two!

One poster mentioned guild twinking, which is a common practice, and that is very prejudicial to the casual player that doesn't have a guild to give them equipment, power level them, or all the other perks of having level 70 friends with 100K pp at their disposal. The upper level content is a lot more fun, and you can't get there without playing many hours. Better spells and equipment means less down time, as well -- you don't die as much and you can kill things quicker, which in the end is more fun than doing 5 corpse recoveries because you can't handle two skeletons with your level 10 gear.

I do think SOE is trying to increase their bottom line with this move, since the MMORPEG universe has gotten a lot more competitive. In practice, it seems like a very good idea, although if the player base condems it as "cheating" to do it in the open I don't know how many people will be willing to openly participate. However, in my experience, I think that players can be tremendously thick skinned when it comes to satisfying their own needs, and they may ignore the protests of the purists and buy stuff to have fun in the game world.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 4:25:23 PM | link

William Huber says:

Kwill, they would be stigmatized by . . . whom? It's like showing up in the red light district. Everyone else there is also in the red light district, what are they going to say about you? Everyone on an Exchange-enable server has, tacitly, agreed that it's an OK think to be there.

If you mean places like bulletin boards and such, well, I somehow doubt that the people who really build a presence in those places are the ones to whom this is most attractive, anyway. And it is questionable that anyone could link the players with the posters.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 4:31:33 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Flatfingers wrote:

Ultimately it's about our belief that something like fairness must exist in our worlds, real or virtual. And one of the tenets of fairness is that wealth (in whatever form) must be earned.

That is clearly not "our belief". I'm not aware of any major country that taxes estates at 100%, for instance. Virtually every real-world country (every? I don't know) allows people to gain things purely as a function of who their parents are. In no way is that earned, and yet it's permitted in virtually every society. "Fairness" is subjective.

--matt

Posted Apr 20, 2005 4:32:47 PM | link

Dan S says:

I have no idea if I'll use the service, but I am playing EQII at my normal obsessive levels. I have eBayed in other games, but I've traditionally been a seller (or trader), not a buyer.

But I find it interesting that no one has noted that this comes hard on the heels of a radical change in EQII's internal trading mechanisms. A couple months ago vendors had to be present in game in order to sell anything. That was advantageous to the hardcore (not me! no!) with more than one account, but handicapped the single-account player who wanted to hunt, not sit in an apartment as a merchant.

So, we saw the recent change that allowed offline selling (dump stuff in the apartment vault, set it up with a price, and go do whatever you want.) There was an immediate impact on the markets. Prices dropped, supply soared, and gradually things have leveled at a new level.

This new change, allowing out-of-game funds as a mechanism of transfer will be a further move in the direction of more open markets. Now we will be able to sell things apparently without consuming inventory space (though there will no doubt be limits on how many things can be listed at once).

Meanwhile, EQII is also moving to make more items tied (once attuned). So, while it's easier to transfer things through a freeish market, they may only move one time on the whole, and many items will not be transferable at all. I seem to recall some rumbling about quest awards becoming NO TRADE.

This suggests that the real dollar markets will be for status items (not useful in combat), player crafted items, and commodities (resources, mainly).

I find all this very interesting and look forward to seeing how it plays out. I don't either feel it's a sure winner or a sure loser, but it is a significant milestone. It's the push-pull of seemingly (I'm cautious about labeling it truly so) freer markets versus items that are less transferable on a case by case basis. It will allow those with real world purchasing power to turn that into in game purchasing power "legitimately," but it isn't clear that short of buying developed characters that will gain them the great advantages that some seem to think it will. It will gain them significant saving in time in some time-consuming functions (such as gathering resources) and may broaden the markets for crafted goods somewhat.

I appear to have been right about my prediction that a global market would hurt SWG crafting (the serious crafters had developed customer bases and following based on reputations, the universal market made a reputation-driven economy into one of straight comparison shopping, I'm guessing... sales are WAY off for me). I also had concerns that the changes in EQII would drive prices down (making crafting less profitable for serious crafters), and they have, though I do think they will probably recover after some initial disruption.

I predict this change won't have nearly the impact that the change to offline selling had... in game. It will be interesting to see how it affects the meta game, the acceptance of using incremental influxes of cash into the game to change the way it's played. That will at most be evolutionary change. Having multiple accounts has been a long accepted way of doing that. eBaying has been the more controvertial way. This may cool some flames in the forums (one aspect of the meta game), but I see it more as one more business move by SOE than a real change to the game itself.

They've been coming up with a lot of small incremental cash flows (EQPlayers options, combined "play-multiple-games-for-small-incremental-costs" deals, etc.), and I see this as one more move of that sort, which does address a clear player demand, more than an actual design change in the game. They are just recognising reality and experimenting with how best to deal with it. I'm all for that.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 4:33:53 PM | link

Kwill says:

A good point, but people have to move characters on to that server for it to work -- so they are effectively moving to the red light district and isolating themselves from the rest of the server communities. And I think the server communities do know about one another, at least at the highest levels. I am making the mistake of course of comparing EQ to EQ2 here, which perhaps is muddling the issue a bit, but the idea remains that at the top levels people do know across servers what other people are doing.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 4:35:05 PM | link

Kwill says:

One other comment -- Scott Hartsman is directly targeting EQ2 to the casual player base, versus EQLive which is still seen as the "raiding" product. So it made more sense for them to do this in EQ2 than EQLive, as it directly benefits the casual player with more money than time, although it would have probably been more kindly recieved in EQLive in my opinion, since it's more commonplace to see plat sales and character swapping there after six years of operation.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 4:40:28 PM | link

F. Randall farmer says:

Excerpted from: Sony Slides to the Bottom of the Slippery Slope, on Habitat Chronicles:

I guess that's one way to handle an economic design that leads to farming - rather than fix it, 'legitimize' it. :-P Honestly, a system that has a market like this should be designed from the ground-up to mitigate abuse and manage production rates. This feels so much like:

Ready...
Shoot!
Aim...
I can't wait to see the TOS for using that market - this is a very risky play.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 4:47:09 PM | link

Mike Rozak says:

If a 13-year old buys EQII and spends all his spare time building up a character so he can sell it on EQII's exchange servers, what will the child labor laws have to say?

Posted Apr 20, 2005 5:04:41 PM | link

Bob says:

Not much - how many 13 year olds do you know that supplement their allowance selling baseball cards or mowing lawns? What's the difference really?

Posted Apr 20, 2005 5:14:53 PM | link

Julian Dibbell says:

Dmitri Williams on power-upped paintballers:

> I didn't mind the
> fact that 20 of them were better hunters, stalkers and shots than me. I
was
> fine to learn the ropes. I minded paying the same entrance fee and getting
> my ass bruised by a stream of bullets from automatic guns while I cowered
> with a pea shooter.
>
> Is this situation analogous?

Well, I would argue that it's not.

I mean, the analogy is nicely clarifying, and I'm with you on the warmth and
fuzziness of level playing fields (though I frankly doubt there has ever
been a person besides J.C. Herz for whom "the draw of the arcade" was its
meritocratic egalitarianism; for me and my friends it was the addictive
gameplay and, where available, the chili dogs). But see, what's clarifying
about your focus on purchasers of uberness, I think, is its neglect of the
other side of the transaction, the sellers. Buy yourself a high-powered
paintball gun, and you've made some sporting-goods company that much richer.
Buy yourself a +8 Slingshot of Reckoning, and you have made *another player*
richer.

Yea, though you buy from IGE or even straight from a macro farmer, you have
enriched another player. For as ludologists from Huizinga on down have
affirmed, even cheaters are players in that they must enter into the terms
of the game in order to take advantage of it. Only the spoilsport stands
unforgiveably outside the magic circle, having ruptured it by his refusal to
play at all.

But even leaving such niceties aside, the fact is that most sellers are
players who came by their loot honestly. And in this sense the eBay market
assuages the miseries of the grind from both ends -- permitting those who
can't tolerate the grind to skip it while at the same time handsomely
rewarding those who can.

Nor do I believe the grind to be a side issue here -- a design flaw to be
tidied up at some future date. No, it is the core of the problem: Eliminate
the grind and you eliminate eBaying, no doubt. They are two sides of the
same coin. But I predict, and you heard it here first, that you will never
eliminate the grind. Not, at least, without eliminating the genre. As long
as MMOs are with us, the grind will be with us in one form or another,
because all it is is scarcity expressed in game mechanics, and as Ted has
well explained, scarcity turns out to be the decisive attraction of these
games. God knows why, but it is. This is the puzzle of puzzles, says Ted.

So no, maybe embracing the eBay phenomenon is not the way to grow the player
base. But then, maybe it can't be grown at all. Maybe the only way to reach
new players is to start all over with a completely new sort of game. As for
the existing sort of game and its existing player base, I agree with Dan:
Faced with the choice between sticking to principles and accepting the
inevitability of eBay-ish markets, they'll accept the inevitable. Because I
think deep down they already do.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 5:38:51 PM | link

Julian Serini says:

Is this not just "Pimp my Wizard"?

This seems to tap into something a lot of people really want, at least in other games, and other avenues of life, customization.

Personally, the only difference I see to how trading works now, is that you can make real money.

Is it OK to buy "uber" gear from the in-game marketplace, if you've been making gold by selling items in-game?
If you want to pay real money, rather then fake gold, for a nice sword, how does that impact the game in a negative way? Is this really just a question of morality?

Posted Apr 20, 2005 5:45:47 PM | link

Flatfingers says:

Matt> If you're reading Terranova, you're so impossibly hardcore about games you're off the scale.

Hardcore about game *design*? OK, I'll cop to that. (Thanks!)

But hardcore about *playing* games, which is the kind of person Mike Sellers was describing? No.

Matt> I'm not aware of any major country that taxes estates at 100%, for instance. Virtually every real-world country (every? I don't know) allows people to gain things purely as a function of who their parents are. In no way is that earned, and yet it's permitted in virtually every society. "Fairness" is subjective.

The term "trust-fund heir (or heiress)" is still around, and still denotes a lack of respect for people who haven't also done some productive labor of their own.

Just because most nations don't (yet) pauperize those who didn't earn all their own wealth doesn't mean that we admire these individuals. I stand by my opinion: Doing well by jumping out of the system is not highly regarded by most human beings, who play within the rules of the system.

Chip Midnight> Isn't this a bit of a red herring? When Biff and Thor meet on the field of battle does either of them say "wait, before we begin, tell me what your equipment is and how you obtained it!" That seems a bit silly to me. The experience of their battle is the experience of their battle. Neither is aware of how the other got to where they are or how they acquired their kit. It's irrelevant.

Well, it wasn't intended to be a red herring -- just the opposite.

And I don't think your example is representative of what really happens as a result of buying in-game power with out-of-game resources.

What actually happens is more like this:

Players A and B meet in a dark wood and take an immediate disliking to each other. Both are equipped with equivalent high-level weapons and skills.

A: how do u fight
B: ...what? Um, I usually just chop the other guy's head off.
A: LOL no dumass i mean how do u fight with someone
B: /stare
B: Did you just sign up here?
A: yeh.. i wanna fite u!
B: Here, let me show you how this works....
*whackwhackwhack*
corpse of A: this suxxors!!!11

Barry Kearns> Wealth and power clearly do not need to be earned in any game that is built to support damaging levels of twinking without repercussions against the players.

This question of twinking as another form of eBaying needs to be addressed directly. I don't have an answer, but I would like to suggest another perspective.

Namely, twinking isn't as bad as eBaying. Buying in-game abilities through some external means is jumping out of the system; twinking happens completely within the system (the game).

Does that mean I approve of twinking? No. I may be wrong, but at least I'm consistent; I think gear and abilities used by a PC in a game ought to be earned by the player running that character in the game. In the sense that twinking and powerlevelling and eBaying bypass that labor, I don't like any of them.

But having said that, twinking at least takes place fully within the game (because, as you point out, the code permits big-time item transfers). The player who gets twinked or powerlevelled is experiencing the social interaction and travelling and interfacing with game objects himself, albeit at high speed and without danger. He's getting help that other players don't get, but at least he's putting something into it.

Given that MMOGs are social games, why shouldn't there be a reward for social play (as in joining a guild)?

Again -- I don't think twinking/powerlevelling are good for a game. But the social connection in twinking/powerlevelling makes them better than eBaying. Not by much, but somewhat.

(For the record, I don't do any of these myself, and have never benefitted from them. So I'm not speaking from personal interest; I'm just trying to figure out what works, and what's right, and where the intersection of those two goals should be.)

Barry Kearns> How many major (successful) MMO titles can you name that are available today, which by design eliminate twinking?

I don't know of any that eliminate it completely, but I've just gotten into EVE Online and found something very interesting in its design: Skills aren't granted by gaining experience points through doing things, they're gained purely by expending time. Level 5 of some skill might take 3 days (of real time) to learn, but that skill will take *everyone* about 3 days to learn -- there's no way one person can speed up the process for another person; each player has to actually put in the time to earn each skill.

Result: no grinding for skills, and no powerlevelling. Sure, you can still grind for money, but the race to become uber through skills goes away with this approach. (You might be able to buy an EVE character, but now we're not talking about twinking/powerlevelling any more.)

Barry Kearns> I believe that it's certainly possible to design fun and interesting MMO games, largely similar to today's offerings, but adding in the quality of being twink-proof (and therefore also largely eBay-proof), and that's why I've been working on a proof-of-concept economic and game model... which will hopefully show what I mean.

I look forward to hearing more about this. I'd like to think it's possible to have a game that can have both an active player economy and a level playing field for skills and gear... and is still fun to play.

--Flatfingers

Posted Apr 20, 2005 7:00:48 PM | link

Michael Hartman says:

> Flatfingers wrote:
>
> Let's assume Player A and Player B play at
> equal levels of intelligence. If Player A
> expends 100 hours of in-game effort, and Player
> B expends 2 hours of in-game effort, why should
> Player B have the same amount of in-game power/
> wealth/abilities/gear as Player A?

Maybe because this is ENTERTAINMENT and Players A and B are paying the same amount of money (B might even be paying more).

If someone stands in line to see a movie for 2 hours after getting there 4 hours early to park/camp out, should they get a different, longer, better version of the movie than someone else who shows up when the movie starts to watch it? Of course not.

Please, stop thinking about MMORPGs are work. They are not work. You don't *earn* anything. They are entertainment.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 7:52:42 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Flatfingers wrote:

Just because most nations don't (yet) pauperize those who didn't earn all their own wealth doesn't mean that we admire these individuals. I stand by my opinion: Doing well by jumping out of the system is not highly regarded by most human beings, who play within the rules of the system.

Oh, I agree. And when the rules of the system permit it, it soon won't be an issue. You don't see people ostracizing Paris Hilton just because she got where she is entirely by accidents of birth do you? It would be difficult to find a more callow, reprehensible example of "spoiled rich kid" than her and yet she's looked up to as a role model by hundreds of thousands if not millions of kids.

--matt

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:16:45 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

As an addendum to that, Flatfingers, note that people in our games are not ostracized for purchasing things with real money. Why? Because it's not cheating once it's part of the rules.

--matt

Posted Apr 20, 2005 9:17:48 PM | link

Peter S. Jenkins says:

Reminds me of the fall of the Soviet Union - sudden, unexpected and bloodless. What's next - freedom of speech? OMG! The thought of the ousted "magic circle" purists looking around for a new location to implement their ideology is somewhat amusing - they should follow Gorbie's example and realize the jig is up!

Posted Apr 20, 2005 10:30:54 PM | link

Will Leverett says:

The advent of secure trading systems could do as much to draw customers into a game - if not more - than the item buying/selling feature will keep those already in the game.

Prospective players avoid games with the "haven for cheaters/exploiters/all-around-bad-guys" stigma attached like the plague. Those games which have such features suddenly get adjectives like "polished" and "accessible".

That alone could very well raise the bar for everyone else. I fervently hope it becomes industry standard to provide an absolute, fraud-free system in a service.

Posted Apr 20, 2005 10:41:38 PM | link

Ryan Schmid says:

This development is fascinating, but let's not forget that Project Entropia has been using this business plan for years. We can't honestly accept Sony's claim that they are the first to use this concept.

Myself, I have felt for some time that MMO's are fated to head in this direction. Are you reading this Shigeru Miyamoto? Let me be the first to suggest a MMO-Legend of Zelda with a real economy in which rupees represent 1/10 of a cent!

Posted Apr 20, 2005 11:17:26 PM | link

Rumor says:

Flatfingers:

I agree that twinking is a separate issue, and I agree with you that it's undesireable. However, I would like to see a system that mitigates twinking while still allowing (and this is probably pie-in-the-sky pipe dreaming) sharing of items among friends. After all, cooperation is an essential part of the social network of a massmog, and, for me, a lot of the fun.

As an anecdote, I remember my early days in DAoC, as a struggling ranger unable to make enough money to do anything more than replace the arrows I used to kill enemies and gain levels. But I was (and am) a serious roleplayer. One evening, I had a chance encounter with a player of much, much higher level and wealth who was also a serious roleplayer. We went on some larks together and engaged in some seriously heavily rp'ing dialogue for a few hours. It was loads of fun, and in a character sense, and as players, we connected as friends. So, before splitting up at the end of the night, the other character gave my character as a one-time gesture of friendship a single coin. To that player it was a pittance, but to me it was more money than I'd ever had at one time.

That gesture of charity, arising out of a truly fantastic roleplaying experience, is one of my most memorable massmog experiences. Is it twinking? Kinda, it is, yes. The money didn't make me extraordinarily wealthy, it just allowed me to buy a couple things that I wouldn't have been able to buy for 2-3 more levels of serious grinding. But I guess I could've been given a lot more, and would that be clearly twinking then? Even if it was, it was still a legitimate roleplaying experience.

So where does that leave us for solutions? I really don't know. Both the meta-trading issue and twinking issue arise out of the fact that the system allows characters to give each other stuff, and that ability is, I think, necessary to a socially enjoyable gaming experience.

Posted Apr 21, 2005 12:03:44 AM | link

Stephen Routledge says:

Matt Mihaly wrote:

"Really? I wasn't aware most people think of, say, Lance Armstrong as a cheater. He spends tons of money to get better. Buying better bikes, buying time at kick-ass training facilities with fancy things like wind tunnels, etc."

I don't think this is really comparable. For starters there is no way to buy yourself the same athletic ability that someone like Lance Armstrong has (equivalent to buying a high level character I suppose). You have to go out and train hard every day for a couple of years. You could perhaps fork out a lot of money for steroids but those are of course illegal.

Furthermore there is no way that you could take a random person, give them access to all of his facilities and then expect them to win the Tour de France. In the real world people are not defined by their "equipment" to remotely the same degree as they are in many virtual worlds. This is why it is such a grey area. Would people accept Lance Armstrong winning if he had spent millions of dollars on some "gloves of cycling +5"?

I've never been jealous (if that is the right word) of someone who can spend more time playing an MMOG than I can. In the same way I have never been jealous of someone who is good at cycling because they spend so much time doing it. If you constantly compare your achievements to those of other people then you are bound to get upset and start thinking of ways to shortcut the process and catch up with them. Certainly you may end up paying $15 for access to less content in the game but if you have had "$15 worth of fun" that month then does it honestly matter?

When WoW opened everyone was paying $15 for access to the game but it was quite a while before anyone (even the hardcore) got into the higher end content. You didn't hear any complaints from the players putting in 40 hours a week that they couldn't immediately walk into Onyxias lair. It seems to me that people don't want to experience "the whole game" they actually just want a way to catch up with the people they perceive as being ahead of them.

Posted Apr 21, 2005 3:24:44 AM | link

Jim Purbrick says:

Jim Purbrick (in exile)

This is definitely a good thing.

Pragmatically, it was happening anyway and if SOE can make money from it then good luck to them. It should also remove the (possibly imaginary) sweat shop workers who ruin the games for everyone by farming all the phat loot.

Ideologically, I don't think this is a blow to fairness at all. When most of the games primarily reward time stent playing, it was never fair that some people could put in 30 hours a week and others only 3 hours. The argument that adding (or admiting to the addition of) money to the equation will drive away "honest" players who don't ebay is exactly the same as the argument that the immense expenditure in time currently required drives away casual players.

The suggestion that it violates a social contract is dubious as I doubt there can ever be a consensus between the thousands of players who play large scale online games. When 4 people sit down in a room to play monopoly they can agree that no one buys money to gain an advantage, but in many of the tedious monopoly games I've played someone has dropped out because they're bored. People are different and large scale worlds have to let them all in.

We're only really talking about the speed at which players move from group to group and area to area anyway. In a high level group there will be some people who've played for 6 months to get there an others who've paid 60 quid to get there. If the route that players take is important then making time earned items distinguishable from bought items allows the ebayers to flash their bling and everyone else to show how they're keeping it real.

As I said before if earning items rather than buying them is that important then remove player to player trade. It enforces the social contract at the expense of realism, but then respawning monsters, instancing and worlds full of thousands of heroes are unrealistic too.

Cynically, I wonder whether this move is because SOE have taken a kicking from WoW. Blizzard have made it clear that they won't tolerate ebaying, so the players that don't like ebaying go to WoW (if they haven't already). Those that want to ebay or aren't bothered stay with SOE games and SOE make loads more money out of them by taxing the item exchange.

Anyway, it's great to know that SOE read TerraNova and have acted so promptly on my suggestions ;-)

Posted Apr 21, 2005 6:16:58 AM | link

Endie says:

So, money became marginally more useful in character enhancement and time became marginally less so. So what? Are students and stay-at-home moms ethically superior to salaried individuals? Is it ok to buy your character's abilities with excess time but not excess cash?

In any case, the utility of excess time is not diminished: it is just more easily convertible into actual cash.

Posted Apr 21, 2005 6:21:39 AM | link

Tobold says:

The existing situation was an undefendable farce. Transfering virtual money or items to characters who didn't deserve it (twinks, guild mates, friends) was always perfectly legal. The only illegal, and according to some "cheating", part was a transfer of real world money in the reverse direction.

Either you say that characters who didn't work for it should not be allowed to gain possession of the virtual items that other characters earned. Then the devs should just make a game in which items can't be traded at all. Or you say that the transfer of items is okay, and realize that it is impossible to verify if or if not there was a money transfer involved in the real world. Then the devs should facilitate this trade. SOE went for the second option.

Posted Apr 21, 2005 6:43:53 AM | link

Mister Rabbit says:

I think that those of you claiming that EE will destroy the game are blowing things way out of proportion. The worst case scenario for what SOE is doing is that nothing changes: EE is not going to make things worse, and it can make them better, but it could have no effect.

SOE is not introducing a new concept to the game. They have simply decided to profit by legitimizing it in a limited manner. People have been buying and selling characters, gold, and stuff for as long as these games have been around. While it can certainly be argued that this has a detrimental effect on the gameplay of *some* people, the fact that EQ2 boasts 350k users and WoW something like 1.6M worldwide is proof enough that the game has not been destroyed for the majority of players.

In fact, what SOE is doing might improve your experience on the non-EE servers. It's is highly likely that many, maybe even most, of the cash-twink crowd will move to the EE servers, because they have incentives both financial and legal to do so.

Regarding the possibility that cash-twink can ruin *your* game, consider this: if you are a solo player, then a cash twink will have virtually (if not literally) ZERO effect on your game. If you're not grouping with the cash-twink, he has very little opportunity to screw up your game. Odds are, he's going to spend most of this time doing corpse runs, rather than camping your spawn, because he doesn't know how to play.

If you're not a solo player, then all you have to do is /ignore anyone that you think is completely retarded, whether or not they're a cash-twink is irrelevent. If they don't know how to play, then they just don't know how to play. I've seen plenty of people out there and wondered to myself "how the heck did this person survive to level 19?". And I know these people didn't buy their characters, they just suck. If you always grind greens, you *can* get all the way to 50 without any skill, and the retard that bought the account isn't significantly different than the retard that was powerlevelled and guild twinked the whole way.

Posted Apr 21, 2005 7:16:09 AM | link

ren reynolds says:

Mister Rabbit > In fact, what SOE is doing might improve your experience on the non-EE servers. It's is highly likely that many, maybe even most, of the cash-twink crowd will move to the EE servers, because they have incentives both financial and legal to do so.

I’m wondering what the effects will be.
Are SOE going to -really- crack down on non-EE trading?
Are we simply going to see a marked differential in price between EE and non-EE shards, EE things being cheaper due to higher availability and legitimacy?

From some perspectives this argument is like the legalisation of drugs, everyone doing it so we may as well allow it so less people get harmed, or in this case scammed.

Posted Apr 21, 2005 7:34:29 AM | link

ren reynolds says:

Sorry, EE = (i meant) SE = Station Exchange.
mybad

Posted Apr 21, 2005 7:36:30 AM | link

Jedite says:

Just wondering.. Could this give SOE Legal ground to sue IGE? Since SOE will be doing the exact same thing that IGE Claims they do(Broker the deals). IGE wont be able to claim anti competition practices since SOE owns the product ect..

Am I way of. or is this possible?

Posted Apr 21, 2005 9:10:55 AM | link

Jedite says:

Just wondering.. Could this give SOE Legal ground to sue IGE? Since SOE will be doing the exact same thing that IGE Claims they do(Broker the deals). IGE wont be able to claim anti competition practices since SOE owns the product ect..

Am I way of. or is this possible?

Posted Apr 21, 2005 9:11:38 AM | link

magicback says:

Good comments and perspectives.

On the effects, let me put on my forecasting cap of foresight:

Forecast:
1. Based on SOE's current forecast of 2 servers at launch, it is likely the 2 servers will hit peak load during the first few months hold for another few more months and then decline slight each month as the novelty factor wears. The two servers will then be merged within 1-2 years. This will probably be the equilibrium state for a while

2. Off-market trade on the non-enable servers will drop about 38% (betting on http://www.investopedia.com/articles/technical/04/033104.asp>Fibonacci levels) the first year, but reach a higher trading volume after 2 years, probably around 24%

Implication:
1. This new service, like the Legend service, will fill a certain demand. Whatever the outcome, this business project will set the equilibrium demand.

2. The buzz and mindshare over time will increase the overall equilibrium demand on non-enable servers. Whatever the outcome, people who haven’t formed an opinion on this issue will start forming an opinion for or against trade.

3. SOE, as the first mover, will gain the first mover advantage. They are good at doing deals, so deals will be struck.

4. As a martyr or as a Trojan horse, the data observed will help them refine their model for selling of virtual assets via their more mass-market offerings in other divisions. If they profit, great! If they loss, then they write it off and gain the data on how to better take advantage of the trade in virtual goods.

Rationale:
1. I think the demand for a trade-enable server is one server. Just my forecast.

2. I think trade on non-enable servers will reach a higher level of demand as the service will get more people to form opinion for or against this. Whatever is the breakdown, more people will vote yes to this type of activity.

3. People by nature will do whatever they feel necessary to gain an advantage over things. Trading in other servers will continue.


Lastly, I like highlight Unggi Yoon's perspective, which received very little comment.

Do you know what economic text says encourages economic growth?

1. Encourage high savings and high capital investment rates (capital input).
2. Emphasize the development of human capital (labor input)
3. Stabilize the macroeconomic environment (less Mudflation is good)
4. Encourage free trade (let the money flow)
5. Provide an adequate legal system (less leakage & fraud)

Posted Apr 21, 2005 10:14:37 AM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Stephen Routledge wrote:

I don't think this is really comparable. For starters there is no way to buy yourself the same athletic ability that someone like Lance Armstrong has (equivalent to buying a high level character I suppose). You have to go out and train hard every day for a couple of years.

That's right, which is why, frankly, it'd be less acceptable to be able to purchase advantages that go way beyond what your opponents can afford in cycling. It's about the years of hard work. On the other hand, a monkey can level up in an MMO. The amount of skill it takes to get to level 60 (or whatever) tends to be the sort of skill 13 year olds pick up just fine. In cycling, money cheapens actual exceptional achievement. In MMOs, money is cheapening...what? Some guys sitting in front of a monitor for a thousand hours hitting the 'kill monster' key? Is this the root of their self-identify and self-worth? God I hope not.


Furthermore there is no way that you could take a random person, give them access to all of his facilities and then expect them to win the Tour de France. In the real world people are not defined by their "equipment" to remotely the same degree as they are in many virtual worlds.

So then what you're saying is that there's no skill anyway in MMOs, right? So what's the complaint? Does the fact that you sat in front of a monitor hitting 'kill monster' for 1000 hours mean so much to you that you can't imagine someone short-circuiting that? Does having all that free time make you feel better than other people, who have money instead of free time? Because that's the only rationale I can figure out. If it bothers you that other people are short-circuiting the process with money, the implication seems to be that you really feel hitting level 60 is some massive achievement when it's got everything to do with just sitting there putting your time in. Since when is just punching the clock an achievement?

Incidentally, if you want, let's pick a sport where equipment is a much bigger factor. Was Dale Earnheardt(sp?) a cheater because he spent 10s of millions on his equipment? There's still skill in automobile racing, of course, but a 5% drop in performance in his vehicle and he'd be completely out of the competition. Many sports (auto-racing, yachting, motoGP, etc) depend -heavily- on the equipment you're using.

--matt

Posted Apr 21, 2005 11:32:09 AM | link

Flatfingers says:

Matt> If it bothers you that other people are short-circuiting the process with money, the implication seems to be that you really feel hitting level 60 is some massive achievement when it's got everything to do with just sitting there putting your time in. Since when is just punching the clock an achievement?

It's not a massive achievement. But it is an achievement. The guy who shows up at work every day, who can be counted on to put his time in, does more to keep society functioning than the get-rich-quick, I-deserve-it-all-right-now guy ever will.

I'd say there's already enough of that latter kind of thing. That's why I'm concerned about Sony's decision -- I think it normalizes that "you can have it all right now" attitude.

Of course there's a difference. A game isn't work. (Or at least, it shouldn't feel like work!) But the aspect of time invested vs. rewards gained is common to both.

I'm not freaking out about Sony's decision, incidentally. By itself, it's not that important. But do I think it's a small step in the wrong direction? Yes, I think it may be.

--Flatfingers

Posted Apr 21, 2005 12:59:52 PM | link

Plugh says:

Posted by: Michael Hartman | April 20, 2005 07:52 PM

Maybe because this is ENTERTAINMENT and Players A and B are paying the same amount of money (B might even be paying more).

If someone stands in line to see a movie for 2 hours after getting there 4 hours early to park/camp out, should they get a different, longer, better version of the movie than someone else who shows up when the movie starts to watch it? Of course not.

Please, stop thinking about MMORPGs are work. They are not work. You don't *earn* anything. They are entertainment.

--------


MMORPG's may be entertainment, but they are not PASSIVE entertainment such as watching a movie or TV show.

MMORPG's are entertainment driven by ACTIVITY, and the rewards are a direct result of your activies.

In systems for which the rewards are the results of such (in-system) activity, outside influences such as the discussion entail, are a direct bypass of the entire point for which the system exists.

To go back to your movie analogy, standing in line for 4 hours does not get you a better or longer version of a movie, but it does perhaps give you a better choice of seat at which to experience the movie, or that you even get to see the movie at all (oh no the movie sold out after the line's first hour's worth of people got tickets).

Posted Apr 21, 2005 3:00:35 PM | link

Lee Delarm says:

People pay money for non-tangibles all the time to get them sooner. Six-flags has a line pass that allows you to hop right on whatever ride you want to, albeit, at specific times, but who cares since you're continually walking from ride to ride and jumping right on?

Fed-ex ships items to you sooner (works harder to put them through first) for a fee, in fact a variable fee that ships them faster for more and more money.

Aside from all that, this will not stop "blackmarketing", but I'm pretty sure as a buyer and seller that I would much rather play with SECURE rules such as guranteed sell, guranteed buy, instead of crossing my fingers that they guy I just gave $700 to doesn't just up and walk away with the character he was supposed to give me.

Overall, this won't kill anything, it's just a good way to finally get a taste of the profits that the blackmarket has been the sole experiencer of.

Posted Apr 21, 2005 3:08:32 PM | link

Trent "ouch my pancreas" Percy says:

What I don't understand is how so many are worried that this will ruin the game. THIS IS ALREADY HAPPENING ON ANY NUMBER OF SITES. What a great business move by Sony to make money on something that will happen reguardless. And for the purist out there there will be some servers where this isn't allowed so it will be no different then your gaming exerience now.

Posted Apr 21, 2005 4:58:02 PM | link

Julian Dibbell says:

I'm sure I'm missing something really obvious here, but can someone explain to me how this development spells doom for the likes of IGE?

If anything it looks like a net plus for them. Time-consuming delivery and other customer service gets outsourced to Sony, and they get to concentrate on what they do best: Amassing Wal-Mart-size inventories and blowing competitors out of the water.

Sure, SE's built-in security undercuts one of IGE's biggest relative advantages (reliability). But they'll still be able to spam SE with wall-to-wall auctions and grab market share that way, no?

What am I missing?

Posted Apr 21, 2005 5:15:32 PM | link

William Huber says:

Julian, what you're missing is the following:

IGE needs to make a profit off of each transaction. Station Exchange doesn't.

A buyer or seller using IGE is violating the terms of service of the game, and risks deletion of goods or the account itself. Both seller and buyer have no reason for the added risk of an "illegal" transaction if they have the option of a legitimate one.

IGE cannot bring value to this situation.

Posted Apr 21, 2005 5:30:27 PM | link

bruce boston says:

Hi Julian,

Yep, I agree. This isn't necessarily bad news for IGE.

Anyone wanna guess if SOE is gonna support payouts to China? My guess: nope. This means that that most likely IGE could still have suppliers, if not more suppliers than today, willing to wholesale 'right to use' licensees to them that they then sell off via SE.

I think this also all but legitimizes the basic premises of their business. Historically, black markets haven't all been bad. I'm not saying this one is good, but it will be interesting how the history books write this one up.

-bruce

Posted Apr 21, 2005 5:58:13 PM | link

Julian Dibbell says:

William:

I'm not sure I follow. As I understand it, Sony Exchange is not an alternative to IGE; it's an alternative to eBay, basically. IGE already sells via eBay, in addition to the business they do on their own site. Now they will sell via Sony Exchange as well. So how could SE's profit requirements affect IGE one way or the other, except insofar as they result in greater or lesser transaction fees than eBay's?

Or am I completely misunderstanding the business models here?

As for violations of TOS, again I may be misunderstanding, but if Sony has made it legal for me to buy from and sell to all other account holders via Sony Exchange, why is it suddenly illegal for me to buy from and sell to the account holder IGE via Sony Exchange?

And Bruce:

Good point about China. But even assuming worldwide payouts, don't you think the sheer volume of IGE's sales and purchases will still give it some advantages in the marketplace?

Posted Apr 21, 2005 10:40:10 PM | link

Aaron Ruby says:

Yeah, at first blush, the only way I see any real trouble for IGE outside of potentially higher transaction fees is if SoE starts providing its own inventory of virutal goods. As long as it is simply facilitating player to player transactions, it seems to me IGE is golden (no pun intended)--they will simply meld their labor force invisibly into SEs auction scheme.

I think part of William's point is that IGE will lose the part of their business that involves buying virtual assets from players outside their own labor force and marking them up.

On the other hand, this auction now provides a Sony-sanctioned avenue for serious auction house speculation. The big difference being, now you can make real money at it.

If this flies, is the first MMO millionnaire that far off? Will MMOs become the new cyber-casino? ;P

Posted Apr 21, 2005 11:18:36 PM | link

William Huber says:

See, what I fail to see is why anyone actually farming for goods to sell for IGE would want IGE to take a cut. IGE becomes a middleman, and they themselves are already, as we discussed before, an intermediary with already-organized "cottage/workshop/sweatshop" contractors. Those contractors should be smart enough to realize that, with the infrastructure for transactions being hosted by Sony, they have nothing to gain with working with IGE. IGE, like I said, adds no value to their labor in this case: no branding, no commodification.

Posted Apr 22, 2005 1:03:57 AM | link

Julian Dibbell says:

William, those are good points and consistent with my understanding of what's going on here. But I'm still not sure they spell doom for IGE.

Look at the eBay markets -- in principle eBay should have wiped out every conceivable sort of middleman. But middlemen thrive there. I did it myself, buying low and selling high. And I often wondered about my suppliers the same thing you ask about IGE's: What did they have to gain from working with me? Why didn't they just sell their goods at my selling price and keep the margin for themselves?

Well, lots of reasons. Some of which (like my trustworthiness as a buyer and a seller) would have stopped making sense in a Sony Exchange, but most of which might not have. Marketing, for instance: even on eBay, some people are better marketers than others, and generally those people are the ones who sell fulltime. Maybe SE's interface will be so simple as to obviate that advantage as well. But maybe not. And I'm pretty sure there'll still be room for the middleman's principal advantage: patience. People sold low to me because they didn't want to sit around waiting uncertainly for a higher bidder to come along, as I and every other high-volume trader could more comfortably do.

Finally, there's Bruce's point: If people in places like China and Russia can't get paid via SE, then of course their incentive to sell to the likes of IGE only goes up.

Right?

Posted Apr 22, 2005 1:53:14 AM | link

bruce boston says:

"don't you think the sheer volume of IGE's sales and purchases will still give it some advantages in the marketplace?"

I think it's too early to say what their advantage will be, or if they will have an advantage, or even if they will need a clear advantage to thrive in their business. I think it really depends on how the SE is implemented.

I've always assumed that IGE made money on the "BUY". My guess is they don't make much on holding inventory, (not a lot of stuff that goes up in US$ terms in MMORPGs). Typically, in industries where it costs money to hold inventory, market players will buy at a price they know they can sell at 90% of the time. As such, they really are making the bulk of their profit when they buy it, not when they sell it 3 days later.

That said, my guess is that this market is going to blow wide open and companies like IGE are typically better at taking risks and adapting to new demands than companies like SOE.

I also think there are going to be some very fun meta-games that could come out of this. If you thought players enjoyed in-world auctions (ok, so maybe only a few players do {q:wonder who's going to be the first to buyout a whole server}), then buying and selling characters/items/accounts is going to become an art a few are going to master. Like baseball cards, a good set is worth more than the singles are.

I think another area to watch is going to be powerleveling companies. If players think that they can sell their items/charters/accounts for $100s when they are done with them, they are going to be more willing to invest a few $100 along the way.

At the end of the day, if the demand is for high level characters, someone is still going to have to play the characters for 100s of hours, and powerleveling companies can probably do that better than anyone.

-bruce

Posted Apr 22, 2005 3:07:07 AM | link

magicback says:

William and Julian, IGE will still conduct trade on the servers that do not have SE. SE does not remove the advantages of using real money in these servers. Not everyone will migrate to the new SE servers for one reason or another. There are probably more incentive for some traders to remain where they are. Less competition.

Posted Apr 22, 2005 3:12:35 AM | link

FantasyMeister says:

I'm against this move by SOE. I can see why it's a good business move (more money for SOE and circumventing any imminent legal battle over intellectual property/copyright between developers and real money traders) but for gamers like me who like to immerse themselves in virtual worlds everything suddenly becomes devalued.

Taking just one example, in my current virtual world there is a weapon that you can only get by hunting down and killing a tough monster, which doesn't always drop that weapon when you kill it. It's in a pretty tough location too, so you need to be relatively high level to hunt it.

On finally obtaining this weapon, which looks unique and enhances my characters existing attributes, I used to have the right to strut about in a virtual town with this virtual weapon equipped and get virtual admiration for my gaming prowess. Value? Priceless. After Station Exchange? About $5. (In truth it's worth about $5 before Station Exchange because RMT goes on all the time anyway, but there used to be a time when it was priceless, are those times lost forever?)

For me, and a whole bunch of regular gamers out there, our whole experience is about to be devalued.

My other major concern is that now that SOE are effectively legitimising Real Money Trading, people are going to want to make a quick buck. Experience from roughly a decade of online gaming tells me that some people have no scruples whatsoever about developing third party software to enable acquisition of rare items in these types of games. Now that there's legitimate real money involved I believe that the third party software market will proliferate expressly for the purposes of making more money. Experience also shows that these more advanced tools will gradually filter down through the gaming community and be used on all servers to gain an advantage, not just the RMT-enabled servers, thereby affecting all players.

So whereas 40% of SOE's customer service time was previously taken up by complaints about fraudulent transactions, there's a real possibility that 40% of SOE's customer service time will now be taken up having to combat complaints about people using illegal software, dirty tactics, all the usual things that go on when you have a player or group of players competing for something rare in a game.

I look forward to games developed specifically for RMT purposes, but I fail to see any gaming rewards coming from them (only financial ones). They'll basically be day trading marketplaces, except you're dealing in orc bellies instead of pork bellies.

Posted Apr 22, 2005 9:05:36 AM | link

Andy Schwarz says:

I think you guys are missing the fact that the games already have built-in mechanisms to ensure that the time vs. money trade off already favors time. Take EQ1 for an example, as it is the game I know well.

You can walk into Norrath with 10 million plat and not get as well geared as someone who has raided the plane of time (which is now 4 or 5 expansions old) once a week for six months. But a full time raid can take 7 hours and might happen when the Dentist is off doing root canals. So the way to win an MMORPG is to throw time at it, and money is only a partial substitute. Your Thor in that example has a much lower cost of time and, as mentioned, will likely get the best gear and stomp the out-of-practice "bazaar-tastic" dentist.

Moreover, there are plenty of non-skilled ways to make cash in Norrath. The mundane farming of spiderling silk and cat pelts can net players hundreds of thousands of platinum pieces, with which they can now purchase near elemental gear.

So you can buy plat, or you can farm plat, and neither will make you any better at beating content appropriate to your level, and then buy gear that is very very nice. Is the person who threw 100 hours on killing level 1 spiderlings better for the game when he shows up in nifty gear than the person who spent $100 on his plat?

Once you have tradeable gear, you are saying that commerce is good for the game -- that people with comparative advantages farming gear should do that and trade to players with comparative advantages making money/farming plat. You then end up with bad fighters getting good gear from good fighters. I see no difference in paying those good fighter with in-game or out-of-game currency, on any of the fabric of the game issues.

And so the solution is the same as exists now -- make stuff that you don't want Ebayed no-drop (or "No trade" as they just this week changed the flag to read) as they have done, and assume that anything flagged as droppable (well, now tradeable) will get traded to twinks and to the highest bidder. That the currency is different is somewhat orthogonal, I think.

Posted Apr 22, 2005 11:06:32 AM | link