November 1, 2014



Playing Eve has really made me think about the financials of online gaming with regards to digital goods. Like most online games, Eve bans real money trading (RMT). That is, buy or selling of in-game items for real-world money is forbidden. The exception being that it is ok to buy PLEX (game time vouchers that can be used in-game) from Eve or approved affiliates. A non-approved reseller, Somer, was recently shutdown.

This intrigues me. It seems to me that real-world trading would make players more engaged in a game. Second Life made a virtue of RMT and didn’t seem to suffer ill affects from the policy (their problems seem to originate in being over-hyped). So why do nearly all MMOs ban the practice? Is it because the companies want to control the market for selling these goods themselves? Maybe partially, but having a resale value only increases the possible primary sale price and increases demand. I’m not sure this is the main reason. Perhaps there are legal issues? I’m no lawyer, so this is possible. An online investigation discovered another possible reason – avoiding professionals.

If it is possible to earn money from playing the game (through RMT), then some people may find that that playing intensively results in enough money to live (or thrive). This is definitely possible, even although the activity is banned, gold farming in many games is profitable enough to make a living. The now closed Diablo 3 auction house suffered a similar problem. Some players acquired huge amount of loot and then sold it so cheaply that other players without the same interest in grinding would just buy it from them.

The problem seems to originate in the standard mechanics of such games. In-game rewards come from endlessly repeatable activities – usually as loot. Why get rewards for killing creatures? Why do those creatures respawn over and over again? Why do the creatures have all this great stuff on them (instead of leaving it at home) and why don’t they use it? In some games, why can players carry so much? It is because these loot-based rewards promote people playing – perform an action, get a reward. Companies that produce these games want to discourage professionalism so other players have a chance to partake in this gamification. Introducing scarcity by limiting the spawning of enemies would make the situation worse as this would make the resulting rewards even more valuable.

To have RMT and reduce professionalism, these games would need to stop repetition of gameplay as the basis for rewards – like Minecraft. Or, stop repetition of the core gameplay, by perhaps time-limiting players (but then a pro might have many characters or a whole team). Or, co-opt the professionals’ activities into creating content for other players. This last options seems the best, but is it possible or even desirable? Eve manages it a little with its null sec sovereignity and corporations, but at the expense of large-scale player-vs-player gameplay (which brings its own problems). I suspect the far easier option is to just ban RMT.

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