Lights Going Out in the Anti-RMT Bunker

For years I've argued that fantasy in virtual worlds is a special human joy and that everyone (courts, legislatures, players, devs, pundits) ought to do their best to prevent anything that breaks immersion. A chief culprit has been RMT, that practice of using dollars during games that some of us play in order to take refuge from the world of dollars.

This position of mine has gradually eroded and recently has taken some severe hits. The roof is cracking and the lights are dimming. It might be time to get out of here before it caves. Below the fold, the hits and what they mean for the future of living fantasy. There are also some implications for social theory.

First, the Truth.

Dmitri's paper on role-players, which I've known about for a year or so, shows pretty clearly that players who desire strong refuge from reality, the sincere role-players, are a distinct minority. My arguments were delivered with a background assumption that very large numbers of people were scrambling over themselves to get out of the real world. Not so. That doesn't make the arguments wrong, it just indicates that any plea for the right to live in a deep fantasy is less socially resonant than I thought. In this, I am an oddball, a goofy RPer like the ones so deftly maligned in popular media. I'm an advocate for a minority, a somewhat disturbed one at that according to Williams, Kennedy, and Moore.

This morning I read through Joshua Fairfield's paper on the Magic Circle. It is a brilliant piece arguing that the magic circle is not useful if we take it to define the border between real and virtual. Indeed most of us don't agree that there is any useful distinction there at all; we just keep using those words because the audience understands this to be a meaningful border. But in fact everything is real, and reality just trades in things that are represented by various kinds of costumes, skins, symbols, and pictures. Given this, Fairfield argues that the most useful distinction that a term like "magic circle" might denote is that between communities of consent or (my interpretative extension) cultures. In a poker game, you can freely defraud someone by lying but not by hiding some of the chips you have bet. The difference is that the player community has consented to one kind of fraud but not the other. While this is a very useful way to think about the Magic Circle, and I advocate it, it does have an implication that depresses me: Living fantasies, as refuges from the real world, can only happen by consent of the community. And since RPers are a minority, their norms can never dominate an open-access world that has any entertainment value whatsoever. People merely seeking entertainment will inevitably enter such a world and bring their money and their trash-talk about the Yankees. Pfeh.

Third, I note with approval the creativity of game companies in their approaches to monetizing social network gameplay. Trade in virtual goods is taking off and with it our ability to pop in a credit card number in order to get a few extra coins, some magic beans, and a better cow. In Dragon Age, I go to my party's camp and find a quest-giver waiting there...but he won't send me on a mission unless I pony up some real world money (albeit masked by an in-game "points" system). Well, alright; this makes good sense from a business perspective. But, but: I was hoping to get away, to live an alternative life, to drop myself into a new world and lose all awareness of the times of trouble that have been.

Next, the Consequences.

As Fairfield notes, it is becoming weird now to insist on an RMT-free gaming experience. I freely trade money for time all day, every day. The community here in Bloomington finds this utterly normal and so does the most of the community in Azeroth. As devs will argue, they don't make all this stuff for free; they have to get paid somehow, and given the general disinterest of their players in pure refuge, there is quite a lot of give along the immersion / cash spectrum. How can I oppose RMT?

LARPers and MUDders will say, why not join us? Their communities have been pure forever. True. But my personal hope was for a large population and a huge fantasy world in which I could be largely anonymous. Honestly, knowing everything there is to know about your character's backstory, at some point, becomes immersion-breaking for me unless you are a truly fine actress. And most LARPers and MUDders are about as good at playing another person as I am, which is to say, not very good. My hope was for an environment that was so strongly suggestive of otherness that all society was more or less unconsciously transported to another place and time. I was hoping for a world in which 'thou' came naturally to everyone.

Of course, that did not happen. On the contrary, The Barrens became a high school cafeteria, a locality whose social features, even when now recalled 30 years later, once again make my face break out and my hair, what little is left of it, stand on end. Horrible.

But these events are worth noting from a social theory perspective: Even such strongly framed alternative environments have had little effect on the way people act. The fact that people do NOT role-play, that they do NOT treat dragons as monsters, the fact that they do NOT treat evil as Evil and good as Good, nor kings as Kings nor quests as Quests, the fact that if they change at all it is only to revert to strategies of mooning the whole world just for the adolescent joy of it (which, I respectfully and lovingly submit, turned out to be a special devotion of my gameplaying colleagues in academia), seems to reject social construction theories. Drop a society of 20th century people into World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, and you get a masked ball, only: A thoroughly unremarkable 20th-century society playing around with high-fantasy costumes. You cannot remake a people by changing the world in which they live.

Very well, such was the course of events. I had a feeling. In Right to Play, I argued that if Middle Earth and the High School Cafeteria ever came to war - and I felt indeed that the conflict was inevitable - Middle Earth would lose. There's just too much money and fun in the Cafeteria model.

It seems that RMT has won and the hope of grand social fantasy is lost. While I personally would prefer an anti-RMT environment, I no longer expect players to keep their money in their pockets. While I still think EULAs are important and those who violate them should be banned (simply because you should do what you agree to do), I no longer expect devs to make RMT-free worlds or set up RP servers or anything of the like. I agree that player consent, player cultures, and player norms should have a very strong voice in what happens in virtual worlds, and that the best contract is not the EULA but a social contract among players. I recognize that any such social contract will not generally ban RMT, ganking, or talking about the Yankees (which really ought to be banned in RL, but, hey, one windmill at a time). However, I wish for the day when Roleplayers become self-aware enough that they not only get their designated server but also get the power to boot people who don't play by strict RP rules set down in a social contract of their own. Until such things happen, and I don't expect them to happen soon, if ever, when I crave virtual world immersion, I will assume it must be a solo activity, with General chat set immediately and permanently to "off." Whatever my hopes, it seems no less true today than in 2004 or 1004 that the only fantasy world you can inhabit on a persistent basis is the one in your own mind. 


Comments on Lights Going Out in the Anti-RMT Bunker:

Andy Havens says:

I must agree. Though I hold out hope for a new generation of real-world RPing through augmented reality aps. It may be that when you agree to play a character, but don't get to hide behind a toon, you actually can roleplay more. Maybe not...

It may also be that the current generation of MMOs are, essentially, high-tech checkers as opposed to real roleplaying games. My backstory choices in WoW had no effect on the game. My name had no effect. My parents, social class, physical (visual) traits, gender, age, etc. had not effect. Races and classes only messed with stats. When playing D&D or GURPS, the GM could give you more HP for behaviors that fell within your character's story; for good roleplaying as well as good dice rolling. Aside from the ability to (possibly) attract group or guild members, nothing I say/do about my character's character in WoW will change his destiny.

In other games, you are--once in awhile--offered a choice between the "good" vs the "evil" choice for your character. Which often means that you then kill your enemies with blue fire instead of red, or are clean shaven instead of growing a beard. Again... not character development.

Good RPing in real life is hard. You need a GM who is a writer, storyteller, actor, coach, boss and ref. You need players who are willing to give up some of what they, as players, might want to do in order change their characters in an important way. I've played several RLrpg games where betrayal figured in prominently; the player doing the betrayal was rewarded for bad behavior; it was part of the scene. That's hard to do in a computer sim. If I'm really evil, might I not stand back and *not* heal a party member so that I can loot a "friend's" backpack? Sure... but that character is just going to re-rez in 2 minutes. Betrayal is no fun if your foe pulls a guaranteed Phoenix on you every time.

I'm still waiting for an online system that will allow for virtual, human-led RPing. D&D online tried it, but there was too much of a learning curve and not enough ways to build much more than a simple crawl.

I had an idea that you could layer an RPG on top of Second Life. Admit that the whole of SL is what it is; a virtual world "inhabited" by avies being played by humans. The magic circle = reality. But then set up a situation where your players agree to pretend to be some kind of spirit trapped in SL. Dead people? Maybe. People being punished by a malevolent wizard? Whatever. But create a series of quests, levels, relationships built on an accepted framework that explicitly allows contact with non-players, while providing an environment for play. Maybe you have guilds based on actual SL skills; primming, animation, scripting, texture work, etc. You advance by actually (virtually, actually, of course) doing SL stuff that has on-platform value. Design a new tattoo? 1xp. Create a better animation for the guild's salute? 10xp. At higher levels, your character gets access to shared items created by higher level players, or to places in SL that are off-limits to lower level players.

If you are found to have violated RP, you are cast out, because you've clearly been coopted by whatever evil power cast your spirit and those of your bretheren into this strange world.

In SL, SL actions have SL consequences that aren't dictated by NPCs. That might be a venue for some kind of true RPing.

Posted Feb 16, 2010 9:59:17 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Ted, excellent post. A few comments:

Dmitri's paper on role-players, which I've known about for a year or so, shows pretty clearly that players who desire strong refuge from reality, the sincere role-players, are a distinct minority...
Good to know that he's put (quantitative?) meat on the bones of Koster's Law (that came out of an online discussion more than a decade ago):
"The quality of roleplaying is inversely proportional to the number of people playing."
Hyrup's Counter-observation is also useful here: "The higher the fee, the better the roleplayers. (And of course, the smaller the playerbase.)" This leads to the possibly paradoxical but likely accurate assertion that if you want a truly immersive world, you should charge a lot for it, not nothing. A possible safe harbor for real role-playing, but at the expense of no-RMT.
Fairfield argues that the most useful distinction that a term like "magic circle" might denote is that between communities of consent
I agree with you; this is a brilliant and cogent reformulation of the otherwise tired concept of the "magic circle." I think this has wide application in games as well as many other social contexts (consider the 'circles' we draw around riding in an elevator, a business meeting, a day at the beach, going to church, etc., all by mutual if typically tacit consent). This strikes me as a concept worth further exploration.
Drop a society of 20th century people into World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, and you get a masked ball, only: A thoroughly unremarkable 20th-century society playing around with high-fantasy costumes. You cannot remake a people by changing the world in which they live.
Here I am not so sure. Yes, there's ample evidence to support this, including Dmitri's paper. But consider: thus far all we have given 20th-century people is a costume ball: in existing games player characters are nothing more than elaborate papier-mache costumes through which we look out, much as we did as kids on Halloween. We have not as yet gotten below the surface in terms of players' motivations, emotions, or world-view. The Barrens devolves to Chuck Norris jokes or worse because it's only a socially empty (if elaborate) set.

This is an old argument on my part, but one I'm not yet satisfied is incorrect or incomplete. We have still given players nothing but static backdrops for worlds. We haven't enabled them to align their motivations with in-world motivations, or to create social structures beyond the very blunt instruments of "guilds" (okay, there have been a few abortive attempts, but nothing successful as yet).

We have not, in other words, given players any ability to create their own "communities of consent" in any meaningful way -- putting up an RP server and saying, "go forth and role-play" with the same old costumes and sets does little to actually promote this sort of community formation. I don't believe this means it can't be done, only that within the confines of MMOGs as we've conceived them (and conceded them -- 4-role-based battle-and-quest grinds of "kill monster, get gold"), we haven't had the tools or the perceived need to create them.

I wish for the day when Roleplayers become self-aware enough that they not only get their designated server but also get the power to boot people who don't play by strict RP rules set down in a social contract of their own.
I would argue that the ability to boot someone is important but is also the nuclear option here. The more important part is the ability to construct a meaningful social contract, a community of consent, in the first place. We are nowhere near being able to do that in MMOGs or VWs now.
Whatever my hopes, it seems no less true today than in 2004 or 1004 that the only fantasy world you can inhabit on a persistent basis is the one in your own mind.
Actally I disagree: online games are something of an aberration, holding out great but ultimately empty promises (so far). Consider some counter-examples: for example, any religion for which you don't share the beliefs. Any congregation of such a religion is clearly jointly inhabiting a strongly persistent fantasy world from your POV -- and doing so to good effect from their POV (meaning no disrespect to any religion, even my own). Or consider poker, as you mentioned, or bridge. Or dog fanciers or fishermen or day-sailors or RVers or even academics, economists, and social theorticians.

Each of these are communities of consent; each has drawn its own magic circle and has its own social structure and contract. And each can be entirely immersive. Now, none of these are high-fantasy communities, and even LARPers and SCAers take time out to live in the modern world. But overall, I think it is far too soon to dismiss or despair of the possibility of creating communities with sufficient meaningfulness that when you find one that fits you, you cannot help but be immersed in it. It won't happen just by wearing costumes -- inside any magic circle, the almost-inevitable costumes are tokens of an internal reality, not drivers of it. Such communities happen only when there is sufficient shared motivation and meaning, and the ability to define social structures, areas in which current MMOGs are all but completely impoverished.

But if we can crack that nut of enabling meaningful communities of shared context to emerge, then questions of how much real money is involved will quickly fade into the background. We all pay eagerly for those things which to us carry meaning. The rub, IMO, isn't in the RMT, it's in the poverty of meaning currently underneath it.

Posted Feb 16, 2010 10:59:31 AM | link

Jesper Juul says:

Interesting. I think I see the question of the magic circle as being distinct from the question of real/virtual. You can have magic circle situations (a concrete magic circle in a game for example) without a virtual world, and you can have virtual worlds (Second Life?) without a magic circle.

Posted Feb 16, 2010 12:33:27 PM | link

greglas says:

Personally, I don't think there's been much movement in this, though to the extent that US developers are latching onto the micropayments model (e.g. Free Realms, Farmville), this certainly leads players to become used to the idea that, yes, you can buy your way to "win."

But at the same time, it seems that:

1) many MMORPGs do offer RP servers (whether they are so much different is questionable, but they are *somewhat* different, I would say)

2) even in microtransaction games, there are still efforts to keep the playing field level. To the extent any social game is a "game," it need to be rule bound (this is what the magic circle is all about, imho) and if a game is rule-bound, competitive (in some sense), and is intended to be enjoyable, it is a design flaw to let money buy *too much* advantage. Think of fancy golf clubs, e.g. -- you get something from that, but not all you need to win.

3) all out RMT is probably going to be bad for business. See Richard's paper on the Pitfalls of Virtual Property. Even if you discount the importance of immersion (and I'm not sure it's all or nothing on that front), there are still good reasons for developers to be leery of allowing players to trade virtual stuff with each other for money.

Still, though I'm not really on board with the thesis, great post and great comments!

Posted Feb 16, 2010 12:37:45 PM | link

Shava Nerad/Shava Suntzu in SL says:

Guilds can RP. Servers do not. I think that's represented in a lot of recent reports.

The fight against money involved in games is tough. I wrote this week about the rage people have about f2p -- which I think relates to the RMT question as well as a sense of fairness in the game, which is probably overdue for revision:

Apples to MMOranges - why F2P to subscription is the wrong comparison
http://www.memesplice.com/?p=72

The basic thesis is, compare f2p to collectible card games, not to subscription MMOs. Money gives advantage, and it's just part of the game. But a good deal more is ruminated.

I feel your sadness though. I solo a lot more than I used to. Because if the roleplay goes down as the number of people goes up...

Well, I do pretty well on my own! :)

Posted Feb 16, 2010 1:24:52 PM | link

greglas says:

Just one more thought:

Recall that when we started TN back in 2003, EQ was tops with about 300K subs. Now we've got many VWs with millions of players, (at least) 100 times the player population that we had in 2003.

So to the extent that 5% of players RP, we've got 5 times as many RP'rs now than we did when you wrote "Right to Play," right? There may be tons more non-RP'rs, but if we've got a diversity of virtual worlds, I don't see why a "hard core" RP demographic of millions of players won't be served by the marketplace.

Posted Feb 16, 2010 1:29:22 PM | link

Raph says:

Yay, I didn't have to post "that was on MUD-Dev in 1997" -- Mike did it for me. :)

I think I have always thought of the magic circle in the Fairfield terms. Hmm. Now I am wondering how others thought of it if it WASN'T that way?

Posted Feb 16, 2010 4:05:43 PM | link

Raph says:

Greg... have you checked out the roleplay forums on sites like Gaia and DeviantArt?

Posted Feb 16, 2010 4:06:47 PM | link

greglas says:

Raph --

No, I know DeviantArt pretty well, but I haven't really checked out the forums.

I'll let Josh explain what he means, but I agree that "consent" is a pretty helpful way to think about the magic circle as Huizinga described it. An alternative, though, is to see how social relationships are shaped by certain contexts/frames that are established as cultural institutions. E.g., the spheres of family, school, work, religion, politics, etc. I'm not sure that I actually "consent" to submit to the different rules that apply in settings of family, work, school, or church, but my presence at those places allows others to presume that I know how they are entitled to interact of me and how I am expected to interact with them. This isn't "consent" in the liberal contractual sense, but it is "consent" in the sense that a reasonable person would have become familiar with the separate rules.

Posted Feb 16, 2010 6:26:10 PM | link

Hiro Pendragon says:

I think you're equating role-play to anti-RMT. While the two go hand-in-hand, they are not the same. The distinction is important because the overall conclusions are skewed.
1. I agree with Shava; MMOG servers have never been terribly good with keeping to role-play. Many MMOGs offer role-play servers, and as I understand, that helps a lot. But why do we play MMOGs in the first place? All of the MMOGamers I know play to play with friends and colleagues. Sure, there's chants of "For the horde!" but that seems to be the extent of role-play that I hear about.
2. Free-2-Pay is not RMT. There's also two completely different types of F2P. There's the type you mention - like paying for quests. This is essentially the same as buying an expansion pack for your game, with an advertisement for it build in-game. Then there's the other type of F2P - the Zynga model. Which leads me to my third point.
3. Pure F2P has not caught on in MMOGs, only casual games like Farm Wars Town Ville. To use F2P as an example of why the lights are going on on the anti-F2P cause, let alone the anti-RMT cause, is both premature and unfounded. I don't see any major MMOGs (Everquest 2, World of Warcraft, etc) that use this model. But for casual games, the stakes are so much lower; do people care that they get to level 512 in Mafia Wars like they get to level 80 in WoW? Of course not. Do people grind away 10 hours a day at Mafia Wars like they do at WoW? No. These are two completely different animals.
4. If RMT is to include subscription and F2P in its definition (which I disagree), then it needs to be distinguished from player RMT. These are completely different animals, as well. You don't distinguish them at all in this article. Player RMT is completely differnet, because it's not "printing money" in the same way that F2P RMT is. Sure, monsters respawn in MMOGs and there's essentially an unlimited amount of gold (minus money sinks like armor repairs, food, etc), but there's still a finite amount of monsters that can respawn and servers usually have a finite amount of players. (1000 - 10,000 depending on the MMOG) These are two enormous constraints, compared to F2P RMT, which just prints money on demand - lots of money, at that. At least player RMT works in a somewhat controlled economy.
5. Finally, player RMT isn't that popular. In my years of experiences playing various MMOGs, people who ebay are held in pretty sharp disdain. I understand that's not the case everywhere, and there's clearly enough ebayers who constitute a different way of play. The trick is to separate the two groups.

The solution: different servers of the same game with different rules. Everquest 2 already does this. If you want to RMT, you play on the server where it's legal. This is, of course, the same solution as the roleplay question.

In the end it's a pretty straightforward and obvious solution. RMT and Roleplay are rules; you have different rule-sets for different servers, and let people choose what ruleset they want to play by. The problem with RMT isn't that it happens; it's that it's essentially people have different expectations of rules. RMTrs and non-RMTrs simply expect different things from their games. Neither is a problem in and of itself; the problem is when they mix. So separate them.

There's no lights going out. There's just choice.

Posted Feb 17, 2010 10:07:55 AM | link

Jan says:

Dear Mr Castronova,

do not despair. There is hope:

http://virtual-economy.org/blog/resolving_goldfarming_through_

Posted Feb 17, 2010 12:08:53 PM | link

Hiro Pendragon says:

@Jan:

Your solution doesn't solve the fundamental problem; it just hides it. The problem is that RMT on games where RMT is banned is cheating. It means that people play the game and then other people come along and devalue the time and effort put into the game by buying their way forward. Concealing transactions doesn't solve this problem, in fact, I believe it would only exacerbate it by making it easier.

The solution is utterly simple - like role-play or PVP, you allow it on some servers, and disallow it on other servers. Then you let people vote with their feet on what they prefer.

Posted Feb 17, 2010 10:16:41 PM | link

Jan says:

@Hiro Pendragon:

Please provide some more information on how you think players would be able to "buy their way forward" with the suggested model by any other means than good play performance within the virtual world. Thanks.

Posted Feb 18, 2010 7:21:39 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

This thread has uplifted my spirits quite a bit. I have always hoped that there are creative solutions, whether those be in the form of advanced NPC AI (Sellers) or more deft design of auction systems (Jan). We just await their deployment.

As middleware advances, who knows what amazing things students and Indies will create? If you are in that space, I say only: Onwards!

Posted Feb 18, 2010 3:00:36 PM | link

Hiro Pendragon says:

@Jan:

What I mean by "it just hides it" is that your system makes people think that it's safer for gold farming, while really it can still take place pretty easily.

Player A Posts info on 3rd party site.
Player B Makes agreement to purchase.
Player A Pays offline.
Player B Logs in and hands over the gold / item in-world.

Unless ... are you saying completely ban all direct transfers? How would you give a gift to anyone? How would transferable items from raids that go into guild banks be handled? I suppose one could build guild exceptions, but that still seems restrictive.

I like the concept of the idea behind NPC vendors paying better prices, but I'm skeptical that it couldn't be gamed somehow.

In any event, I admire your attempt to solve this issue with code, but the basic premise is: As long as one player can gift something to another, this will be possible. And to remove gifting seems like killing a pretty useful feature to the game.

Posted Feb 18, 2010 5:41:00 PM | link

Hiro Pendragon says:

@Jan:

What I mean by "it just hides it" is that your system makes people think that it's safer for gold farming, while really it can still take place pretty easily.

Player A Posts info on 3rd party site.
Player B Makes agreement to purchase.
Player A Pays offline.
Player B Logs in and hands over the gold / item in-world.

Unless ... are you saying completely ban all direct transfers? How would you give a gift to anyone? How would transferable items from raids that go into guild banks be handled? I suppose one could build guild exceptions, but that still seems restrictive.

I like the concept of the idea behind NPC vendors paying better prices, but I'm skeptical that it couldn't be gamed somehow.

In any event, I admire your attempt to solve this issue with code, but the basic premise is: As long as one player can gift something to another, this will be possible. And to remove gifting seems like killing a pretty useful feature to the game.

Posted Feb 18, 2010 5:41:02 PM | link

Vili Lehdonvirta says:

Ted, I understand your pain, although I am not sure the implications for social theory are as far reaching. MMORPGs may not kindle roleplaying of the kind where you address fellow players with archaic pronouns (a kind which I, too, know and like). But MMORPGs do change the way people think and act. Something called "epic loot" becomes extremely desirable, and being the first to clear a "raid" is cause for celebration and possibly the high point of one's year (or even life?). Guildmates give comfort and provide an anchoring point for one's social identity in a world where many other social structures are disintegrating. Those who find themselves in the roles of guild leaders and raid commanders suddenly acquire qualities of responsibility and leadership, or domination and pomposity (c.f. Stanford prison experiment).

So I think the MMORPG environment does lead people to adapt their behaviour, and together with social and cultural forces acting in the player base, establishes a social world distinct from e.g. school or home. That this social world is not one of archaic language, chivalrous deeds, honour and humility, or whatever ideals you had in mind, should not be a surprise: did the MMORPG enviroments ever do anything to try to promote such values and behaviours? To treat kings as Kings and quests as Quests? Or did they teach that a king is a vending machine for quests, and quests are a means of earning points and money?

As many people noted, it seems to be easier to find a small group of people that share your fantasy than a larger one. I remember an effort to build an MMORPG with the honour-and-chivarly set of values. The client was an Ultima Online client and the server was a pirate UO server being modified by a group of hobbyists. The group disintegrated before they could finish the server.

But how about these truly big games, like gardening or United States -- how did they manage to come into being, and never disintegrate? :) Or to what extent is that integrity just imaginary, and the fantasy everyone's own, as claimed by Benedict Anderson?

Posted Feb 18, 2010 11:49:37 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

What you're basically saying here is that all the awful things we've been predicting would happen for years are finally happening and they're awful.

This doesn't have to be the end, though - far from it. We've only got to this because the current vagaries of the virtual world implementation process mean we have unitary, inflexible worlds that need to try to be as many things to as many people as they can be if they're to recover their development costs.

Your problem isn't that there are too few people alongside whom you want to play. Your problem is that you can't find them easily, and when you do your experience is disrupted by all the other people around who don't play like you want to play. They're basically playing a different game in the same virtual world.

So, the solution is pretty obvious: you and your like-minded friends create (or rent) your own virtual world and play that. You police it so that anyone who comes along and plays a different, incompatible game, is kicked out. Your game will be small in terms of numbers of users, but hey, it's not as if you play with 12,000,000 people in WoW anyway - your path crosses that of maybe a couple of thousand players at most (except in the new random dailies, where for half an hour every day you encounter 4 people that you're never, ever going to see again).

If the effort involved in developing an MMO dropped to that involved in making a text MUD (ie. roughly on a par with writing a novel) then you could make your own. This is what Metaplace was attempting until whatever distraction distracted it (I've no idea what that was, by the way; I may be on the advisory board but they never told me anything). If you could build your own MMO as a hobbyist, you could charge whatever you liked for people to play, you could obliterate the accounts of miscreants on a whim, you could change the physics of the world to reflect your preferred playing style - in short, you could do what the MUD community has been doing for decades. Does it really matter that only 1,000 people are ever going to see it, if it's fun for you?

That's a more long-term view, though. In the medium term, how about letting individuals or groups of people rent a server? There are a thousand private WoW servers listed here, all of which violate Blizzard's EULA and for none of which Blizzard receives money. They have various bespoke modifications, some of which are in code and some of which are in the way they're run. Unlike Blizzard's RP servers, the private ones (like this one) can be as ruthless as they choose to be in dealing with people who don't adhere to their strict standards of what is or is not acceptable behaviour; they're not going to damage their stock price with mass bannings. Even if they want an all-male or all-female or otherwise discriminatory server, they can do just that.

Imagine a kinder future in which there is a core of servers run by the developers of an MMO, plus as many private servers as there are people who want to run them, all of which are hosted by the developer and covered by the single subscription fee. You wouldn't be able to play them all - some may have entrance criteria you don't satisfy. They may also have an additional subscription, so you can pay for the GMs to police your RP server, say. That's fine; the developer can do the billing for you.

In this future, there would be a minimal cost to rent a server (so there aren't as many servers as there are players), but it wouldn't have to be high - $100 a month ought to be sufficient. The developer would be in a position to take down servers that violated real-world laws ("about this Gentiles-only server you're advertising..."), but other than that people could do what they wanted. They wouldn't have the freedom to write actual code for their server, so there would still be a reason for people to run illegitimate private servers. Nevertheless, instead of having a small number of server types that inevitably reduce to a common denominator, you would have a wide variety of servers that address particular individual needs.

So yes, things aren't looking great right now, but I see it as just a stage that MMOs have to go through. 20 years ago, if you wanted to be online you had to go through a service provider such as CompuServe or Delphi or Prodigy. Now, you don't.

So cheer up, it's not the end of the virtual world!

Richard

Posted Feb 19, 2010 5:29:15 AM | link

Bart Simon says:

There's also the distinct possibility that RMT is a kind of magic circle in the making (I daresay, a hyper-magic circle).

I mean... I am not convinced that "real" money and the "real" consequences implicit have any less Huizenga-like play value than consequence-less money in RP worlds. Stock markets, futures trading and all that... folks get really immersed.

Of course only the RMT gamers lose their shirts, and houses, and stuff when it all comes crumbling down but RPers tend to suffer real social if not material consequences for their play preference as well...

In an odd way people who really play in the RMT game are no less freakish than die hard RPers who make us say "thus" and "thou" all the time.

Long live the magic circle!

Posted Feb 19, 2010 1:01:53 PM | link

Hiro Pendragon says:

@Richard:

I really like your ideas about MMOs renting out servers. It's no different than people running their own servers for First Person Shooter games and customizing the rules, other than the scale of the number of players playing on the server.

Some questions, to get a better picture of your idea:
1. You mention the minimal server cost. I'm assuming players still pay the subscription fee to the MMO?
2. Is your thought that people will just vote with their feet to counter-balance any possible draconian or oppressive third-party server managers?
3. Would these servers have to be one-way, just to preserve the more controlled economies of the primary servers? In other words, I could rent a server and customize it in a way that lets me grab lots of virtual gold / xp / etc quickly, bring it to another server for profit. There'd need to be some sort of safeguard against this.

Regards,

Ron / Hiro

Posted Feb 19, 2010 3:08:50 PM | link

Stabs says:

In an interesting development one games company has just got very greedy.

Yesterday gPotato published revised cash shop prices for Allods that had fans up in arms. All prices were increased tenfold, there's a rune that costs $6,890.

To add to the fun many fans have bought store points in advance.

Keen's post from yesterday calling for a player boycott has 111 comments at the time of writing (that's about 15 hours) plus a number of other comments that have clearly been pruned.
http://www.keenandgraev.com/?p=3569

Now this means 2010 will be a very interesting year for MMOs.

If Allods bombs then there will be a certain timidity about extracting the $$$ from your punters.

On the other hand if it succeeds we may well see a break-up of games within the genre. Instead of games aimed at everyone for $15/month we'll see games aimed at budget gamers and games aimed at rich gamers. This fragmentation may encourage some of the elements of Richard's vision to manifest ahead of schedule.

Posted Feb 20, 2010 5:32:08 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Hiro Pendragon>You mention the minimal server cost. I'm assuming players still pay the subscription fee to the MMO?

That's the way I'd do it, but it's not the only way. A different approach would be to take a cut of whatever the server owners made, but that would be problematic if they charged nothing.

>Is your thought that people will just vote with their feet to counter-balance any possible draconian or oppressive third-party server managers?

Yes. If you don't mind a bit of oppression so long as it keeps out your definition of riff-raff, OK, you'd stay; if you don't like the way things are run, you try a different server or play on the core servers.

>Would these servers have to be one-way, just to preserve the more controlled economies of the primary servers?

Yes. Whether a server accepts character transfers from another server would be up to the importing server. Whether the character is copied or moved (ie. whether it's deleted from the exporting server) would be up to the exporting server. My guess is that the core servers would be best served if they had a zero import from non-core servers and allowed move-style exports to all servers (assuming those servers accepted them as imports). It would depend on what the developers wanted, though.

Richard

Posted Feb 20, 2010 3:02:21 PM | link

SusanC says:

I don't see role-playing and RMT as being in conflict.

RMT does conflict with a certain "achiever" style of play where success is measured by the amount of loot you have--if you buy the loot on the RMT market rather than winning it through play, that's cheating at the game.

But for me, role-playing is about telling an interesting story, and if the story needs some kind of special item, I don't mind too much if people get it on the RMT market.

Let me try a different angle. With RMT, the amount of loot you have in the game depends on how rich you are in real life; so if there's a lot of RMT in the game, people never play a different social-economic status from their position in real life. Sure you can be a wizard or whatever, but RMT means that you play a rich wizard only if you're rich in RL.

@Richard: Yes, shame about Metaplace. Even though they didn't get everything right, they got enough of it right to convince me that a build-your-own-MMO kit ought to be possible.

Posted Feb 20, 2010 4:11:39 PM | link

Vili Lehdonvirta says:

@Richard: Great point about the hire servers. Neverwinter Nights is close to this, isn't it? I guess it's still the lack of scale that Ted is lamenting.

@SusanC: I agree about role-playing and RMT not necessarily being in conflict. Unless I am mistaken, the heavily RP-oriented private WoW server that Richard linked is a case in point: it allows people to level up and equip their characters with a few simple commands, no need for grinding. If you choose to roleplay an uber killing machine with all the best gear, then go ahead, but don't be surprised if others think that you are a poor roleplayer and eject you from the group.

From this perspective, RMT may even be beneficial to roleplaying: to quote myself, "role-playing requires props, and the easier they are to obtain the easier it is to devise intricate role-playing scenarios and environments".

But if no-one is in charge of maintaining the big picture, it seems that propping up may degenerate into an arms race.

Posted Feb 21, 2010 12:35:45 AM | link

Jurie Horneman says:

"gameplaying colleagues in academia" - you're talking about Lee Sheldon, aren't you?

I was reading through the GDC 2010 program yesterday, and noticed one lecture description that started with:

"Real money trade has been a problem in massively multiplayer games for at least two decades."

And it felt very quaint somehow.

I'm somewhere in the middle: I don't RP all out, but I do want to immerse myself. Ignoring most other players works well. And the Barrens chat problem is easily solved by rolling Alliance, in my experience at least.

Posted Feb 21, 2010 5:42:04 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Vili Lehdonvirta>Neverwinter Nights is close to this, isn't it?

Yes, it is. I wasn't claiming that this was a new idea, just one that would rescue the future for Ted (and give all those people who write about games and government another two papers each).

>From this perspective, RMT may even be beneficial to roleplaying: to quote myself, "role-playing requires props, and the easier they are to obtain the easier it is to devise intricate role-playing scenarios and environments".

Why bother with RMT? If you want it, and it's OK with the other players that you have it, why would you have to buy it? It can be produced out of thin air at the click of a button. If other people didn't want you to have it, well yes, that's when you'd have to buy it (on the black market). The only reason to make you pay for something no-one minds your having is if they want to use you as an income source.

Richard

Posted Feb 21, 2010 11:33:17 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Jurie Horneman>the Barrens chat problem is easily solved by rolling Alliance, in my experience at least.

It's now Trade chat. If you just install a filter to get rid of everything that doesn't include LFM, LFG, LFW etc. then you're generally spared it.

Richard

Posted Feb 21, 2010 11:40:24 AM | link

Michael Chui says:

The presence of RMT at Renaissance Faires has never seemed to be much of an issue.

Posted Feb 21, 2010 5:57:48 PM | link

Michael Hartman says:

First, I think there is a big of talking past each other because some people equate RMT with microtransaction business models. Traditionally, the term RMT has referred to players buying and selling items amongst themselves. Microtransactions, cash shops, credit systems, etc. (especially on F2P games) are a different animal.

I think one of the reasons why F2P w/ microtransactions continues to take hold is the simple fact that as more people play more MMOs, they want to play multiple games but they don't want to spend $100 a month on subscriptions. Cash shops allow them to buy credits, spend them when they are actively playing a particular game, and not worry about it the rest of the time.

That is the real power behind cash shop games.

Posted Feb 21, 2010 9:36:36 PM | link

faustusnotes says:

This post seems to argue from a rather strong assumption that only the "role-players" are playing these games for escapism, which seems a stretch to me. All entertainment - computer games, novels, movies - are escapism. Role-players just do it with a slightly different style.

If you pay money on a monthly basis to play an elf, you're engaging in escapism no matter your playing style, whether it's straight out grinding or hardcore role-play. Other claims about RMT might be fair, but the link between RMT and "games that some of us play in order to take refuge from the world of dollars" seems again to assume that only some people who play the game are doing so from an escapist perspective, and links a distinct politico-economic motive to a type of escapism you don't seem to think that the majority of players are doing.

I don't think any of these conclusions necessarily follow. You might personally undertake your gaming to "escape from the world of dollars" but you shouldn't assume the rest of the gaming world aren't. They're just doing so with a slightly less pretentious style than the role-players.

Posted Feb 22, 2010 3:23:36 AM | link

Jan says:

@Hiro: sorry for my late answer. Here it is:

Yes, I DO want to COMPLETELY ban ALL direct transfers (via technical means).

Q: How would you give a gift to anyone then?
A: I would help him to get it through actual ingame collaboration / playing together.

Q: How would transferable items from raids that go into guild banks be handled?
A: No guild banks, collective ownership instead. The guild community has achieved a goal and acquired a reward beneficial to the guild community. That said, the guild then decides who may use that common good. When that player leaves the guild, the common good is deleted from his inventory and provided back to the guild's belongings.

Of course this would be restrictive on an INDIVIDUAL level. The overall mechanic would, however, as I'd say, actually improve the overall experience of the users within the online world. MMORPGs / online worlds are vitalized through their communities, their unique sub-societies. The model proposed could actually enhance and encourage social structures of and for shared constructive experiences.

I'm looking forward to hearing / reading your thoughts you'd like to share on that.

Posted Feb 24, 2010 4:55:37 AM | link

robusticus says:

Just saw this, been a while since I cruised through these parts.

Most players are anti-RMT. Like a huge majority of them, even (especially) the ones that participate.

The difference is most people understand how to hate the game not the players. They don't go around spewing about doing what we said we'd do when we clicked through a EULA we can't read and can't understand. They don't go around whining about how most who play this fantasy game have never read a fantasy novel. I do understand tanks can't read either (tank being a word that breaks the magic circle), but they're not even a fan of something like the Highlander movie.

Yet they play Orcs vs Humans. Because they derive pleasure (dopamine) from The Vision (tm).

I don't understand why the angst wasn't towards that Vision (tm) which accidently turned out this huge cash cow industry. An industry that the people who get their paychecks from NEVER WANT TO RISK CHANGING.

But no, better to provide paid (in real money) expert BS testimony that won't ever be decently recanted.

I mean, I get the whole these-are-not-my-people motif. But you come at it from an RP, fantasy, gamer, polytheistic perspective and the blatant money grubbing by the operator just reeks. All of those grubby game mechanics they built and copied break the magic circle. The people who circumvent the broken system are just acting naturally... never quite understood how you or anyone could hate on them with such vitriol but am glad you all are finally coming around.

And yeah, the whole private server thing, a serious violation of the DMCA, for real? You think the grubbers are going to go for that? You mean I can just type a command for that 20 million kinah atk speed dagger instead of having to get up every day at 5am for a chance to roll the dice? Yeah, that'll happen. Even the indie houses wouldn't go there.

The only solution is to find something that is palatable and grubs them even more money. A tall order, obviously, but as you can see people are still thinking about it, at least.

Posted Mar 17, 2010 9:48:07 PM | link