June 2007

As The RMT Turns

It must be a fairly good month for MMO patches, because all the dramabombs lately are about external sites; most of them this past week centered around Affinity’s purchase of Wowhead.

Razorwire posted a couple of days an internal Affinity email that made the rounds of blog samizdat: namely, Brock Pierce resigning as Affinity’s CEO. For those of you without RMT Insider trading cards, Pierce was IGE’s founder, and longtime partner with Jonathan Yantis, who is rumored to currently own IGE. Again. Given Pierce’s apparent fatigue from competing with Chinese gold farming outlets, it’s possible he just simply wanted to retire on his movie star/virtual gold selling millions. Thousands. Whatever.

With the purchase of Wowhead, Affinity’s VP/spokesperson John Maffei has been making the rounds insisting that with IGE’s jettisoning, Affinity and its holdings are 100% above board, uh huh, don’t throw us in with those gold farming scoundrels, we’re just like you gamers. Specifically, when asked about Affinity’s controlling interest in Korean RMT auction sites:

There’s a big focus on content– obviously, the US content business we’re very excited about, I think we’ve made a bunch of statements about that. We have an auction division, with Korea being really the foothold for that. And formerly, we used to have this division called IGE, which we no longer have.

Or, as the Affinity internal email says:

Consumer Auctions and Asset Exchange
Under Paul Kim and his team’s direction, I expect us to become serious players here in the U.S. The team has a mission to not only offer a great service but also to make game publishers into our trusted and valued partners.

This phrase was latched onto by Warcry’s J. R. “Razor” Sutich with the triumphancy of a man who had cracked the DaVinci Code.

Consumer Auctions and Asset Exchange. Hmmm… Sounds like RMT to me. Itemmania. The RMT Strikes Back. I’m pretty certain at this point that if the IGE sale was actually completed , Affinity Media is still up to their eyeballs in secondary markets.

Yet, reading Maffei’s interviews carefully (having experience in Kremlinology helps) reveals the public espousal of their private interests:

And there are legacy things involved in the company in previous times, but we are not involved in any sort of material way in the United States in the C-to-C auction business. However, I will say this. I think if the opportunity arises, where publishers are willing to go and we have the option to go work with publishers– and again, we’re not involved in this division, so I don’t own the business, so I can’t say this 100% for sure, but I think there is an opportunity, absolutely, where I think that there are some publishers who– especially those guys who make free-to-play games– who see a benefit of having a marketplace where consumers can go and exchange assets.

Don’t twist our arms, guys! Of course, Maffei is well aware of (and in facts mentions immediately Sony’s Station Exchange, which is basically proof that if a company can manage the client/server technology behind an MMO, it’s safe to say they can probably throw up an auction site as well. In other words, Maffei and Affinity’s stated goal, as clarified after the WowInsider interview was posted:

Affinity Media as a company is thinking about how we offer US publishers services for those who want to facilitate a secondary market (like Sony has) via a C2C exchange.

So, the translation: They’re not in RMT, but you know, if any company’s feeling kinda rushed or lazy, they’ll put together an auction site for them and take 6% off the top. Or maybe they’ll just do it anyway. Meanwhile, the immediate impact of the Affinity/Wowhead acquisition: lots of flash banner ads on Wowhead. Monetize, monetize, monetize!

This. Isn’t. Sparter.

The collective Slashdot hivemind shoots some questions at Sparter, one of the newer RMT players.

I’m concerned that this platform is devoted to promoting activity that the largest game (WoW) explicitly forbids. How do you plan to handle the fact that the entire premise of your site is one that could get your “customers” banned from the games they play?

Sparter Executives:
Good question. Here’s how we see it: publishers do not have the right to tell gamers that they can’t accept money from someone outside of the game.

You gotta fight! For your right! To parrrrrrrlay!

Most of their answers actually center around Sparter’s conceit that it isn’t really gold farming, but innocent trade between actual game players. A quick browse of the auctions disabuses that notion fairly quickly — in the above link at the time I checked, literally every single listing appeared to be from a gold farming shop. (RMT executives would never lie in interviews, would they?)

This section in particular amused me:

Sparter is trying to be proactive on this issue by requiring that all our users recognize the rights of content originators and the limitations of gamers’ rights. Third, we estimate there are several hundred B2C web sites in operation, most outside of the jurisdiction of US courts. Lawsuits are not going to be effective in shutting down RMT. As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply. So let’s figure out the best way for the demand to be served and take control of the situation for the benefit of gamers and the industry as a whole.

So… Sparter requires that its users recognize the rights of game publishers, but you know, everyone ignores them anyway, so why not just let us make some money off of your work, hm?

If you want the tl;dr version, a comment by a Slashdot reader is +5 insightful/funny:

For those unwilling to read, they essentially said: “We think it’s certain behaviors such as spamming, bot farming, hacking and duping that cause the most concern.” and then, “We think it’s certain behaviors such as spamming, bot farming, hacking and duping that cause the most concern.” and then, “We think it’s certain behaviors such as spamming, bot farming, hacking and duping that cause the most concern.” and then, “We think it’s certain behaviors such as spamming, bot farming, hacking and duping that cause the most concern.” and one more time, “We think it’s certain behaviors such as spamming, bot farming, hacking and duping that cause the most concern.”

This is a common refrain by RMT merchants. “Oh, it’s those other bad people that cause all the misdeeds in games that you see. Not us. Gold sales in and of themselves isn’t bad… it’s just when bad people do it. We’re not bad people, oh no. We’re the good guys. Trust us.” Ironically, that is how IGE got started, as the white knights fighting manfully against those bad people at Yantis Mysupersales. Just before IGE bought Yantis. Now Yantis owns IGE, IGE…er, Affinity doesn’t own IGE, and every observer involved is suitably confused, as befits a completely above board and ethical business.

So what can we learn from all this? Yes, boys and girls, it’s time for a PUNCH LIST.

  • RMT isn’t going away. There is a market for it. Litigation and regulation will shape the market but it will not remove it.
  • RMT-related abuse is one of the largest challenges facing MMO providers; there’s no motivation to lie, cheat and steal quite like cash money. RMT gold farmers, without fail, aggressively use whatever exploits are available: speed hacks, teleport bugs, dupe bugs, scripting, botting. They have to – the more that they sploit, the more money they make. Business is serious business.
  • MMO providers can’t afford to stick their heads in the sand about RMT. Either they need to have aggressive enforcement of their policies (which will send their customer support costs into the stratosphere, as World of Warcraft is discovering) or they need to co-opt the farmers and take the money off the table somehow (see: SOEbay).
  • The future of MMOs is in Korea. This means that going forward MMOs will have what Korean MMO players tend to call “item shops” or “character shops” – things you buy with cash. Usually these are cosmetic items that have little to no impact on actual gameplay – but not always. Many games sell gold, items… everything an RMT provider would.
  • The Western market is not the Korean market. Attempts to simply clone a Korean-style character shop often blow back on their creators. To date successful Western company-run RMT shops simply sell alternate currencies or in some cases the real thing. However, in my opinion, this doesn’t scale well; for larger games this won’t actually solve the gold farming problem, but will actually encourage it as people try to bot farming in-game currency and converting it to out-of-game currency.
  • Why do I keep going on about this? Because it’s the future. Because game companies HAVE to take control of the RMT market, whether through bringing it in house (the “capitalist” approach) or making the game’s economy RMT-resistant (the “socialist” approach). Because if nothing is done, online games will become like email traffic – 99% spam for gold farmers aggressively chasing after ever-shrinking margins. And that, more than anything else, will spell the death of the online game industry.

Affinity/Wowhead Interview

The often irritating Mike Schramm of WoWInsider has an interview up with the leads of Affinity and Wowhead regarding the latter’s recent purchase by the former.

WI: But how long have Affinity and IGE been different businesses?

JM: Springtime. Since the spring.

WI: A few months ago?

JM: I kind of said this, and I’ll say it again, hey it’s a private transaction, and I don’t want to go give a bunch of details, but as a guy who’s running the content business, I’m pretty pleased that we’re no longer running IGE. Because some gamers don’t like that association. It’s only a positive thing.

Backlash To Backlash

Mike Sellers on Terra Nova picks up on the latest in a long series of “Hey, Second Life may not actually be the Second Coming” news stories. The Forbes story itself is pedestrian (and membership firewalled — oh, hi), and Wagner James Au already picks the story apart with points both obvious and pedantic, but Sellers’ own commentary is more interesting.

But what does it mean for virtual worlds in general as operators try to move beyond their “men in tights” roots? As the difficulties of courting both user-generated content and mainstream business (or education and other non-entertainment sectors) as key constituents become clearer, what does this mean for the evolution of virtual worlds? How long will it be before companies stung by this experience like Wells Fargo decide it’s once again time to venture into virtual worlds for business?

Horribly, horribly scarring visuals of myself in tights banished for the moment, I’d argue strongly that the market is speaking fairly loudly in the argument about “men in tights vs. virtual utopia”, and the fancy lads are winning.

Blizzard’s millions are far more mainstream than Linden’s half a million, both in type of game, and in quality of service. Second Life’s client is arcane, to say the least, for even visiting the game world, let alone indulging in the content creation that is the service’s heart. World of Warcraft’s client can be fairly easily mastered by ten year olds. And, speaking of those 10 year olds — Au’s frequent and frequently hilarious protestations to the contrary — by the very nature of user-created content on the Internet, Second Life is not only adults-only, it’s become almost a self-parody, with frequent bickering between Gorean pleasure slaves and furry anthromorphic fox-druids over who can insult those damn ageplayers more. Meanwhile, the most risque content you might find in World of Warcraft are a few double entendres in quest lines and earnest roleplaying elves hiding in Silvermoon tavern rooms.

In fact, I suspect it will be those fancy-lad men in tight games that will actually solve the user created content problem. The reason is simple – powerful financial interest. It’s not possible for many companies to fund a development team to create a world that can compete with World of Warcraft in terms of content creation. One simple solution is to outsource that to the players themselves. No game has really unlocked that puzzle yet, though many are trying.

And not only does that financial motivation for user-driven content exist, said fancy-lad games are already well on their way to solving the other problem with user-driven content, mainly the users driven away by it. The W-Hat griefers of SL are old hat to grizzled MMO veterans who remember fondly when an “azzrape” in UO actually meant something. The lessons learned from those experiences teach budding world developers how to craft tools so that they can’t be used for, well, evil.

Does this mean that future World of Starcraft Hammer Online games will have the wacky user-driven content seen in Second Life? No. And there’s another other secret that the media hasn’t seem to grok yet – most people don’t *want* the chaos of a hundred thousand schools of thought contending. They want entertainment. They want to log in and have an experience – and the somewhat interactive entertainment of MMOs is quite enough deep thought, thank you. That’s not to say that the MOO-style constructive random play of worlds like SL won’t be a vibrant niche – but a niche I suspect is where it will end.

And speaking of ending, the quotes in the Forbes article indicate something that is also ending, I hope – the media’s fascination with virtual worlds as interactive commercials. Amazingly, few people want to journey in the plastic fantastic dreamworld of endless commerce that is Linden’s painted vision of SL. Those people that are members of SL couldn’t care less about a bank’s online “presence”, unless for some reason an overdraft fee motivates them to see if they bothered to disable grief scripting. Virtual worlds just aren’t very efficient for e-commerce — if I want to buy something online, I want to tick off things from a quickly loading web page, not select a purple cow avatar to see if I can find the thingy on the fourth floor of the Virgin Megastore Crystal Virtual Palace — and few are in the market to journey through infomercials.

Is that to say that there’s no way to monetize virtual worlds? Of course not. But there’s smart money, and then there’s stupid money. Understanding the VW market and providing goods and services for the community would count as the former. Making a really big shiny castle full of leaflets you can download… well, probably the latter.

And I wouldn’t expect companies like Wells Fargo to understand that. I’d look more for something akin to a VW version of Google. Something out of left field from very smart people that takes something VW participants do every day, and make it so much more brutally efficient that they own the market by default.

Probably someone like this guy.

Bring Back Jolly Pirate Nicknames, Biyotch

Someone’s not happy with Mythic’s policy on developers posting under their real names.

There is a post there made by Mark Jacobs. Some of you may not know who he is. He’s the guy who used to own Mythic and with the buy-out he turned into a “VP” at EA. He said some things that really bothered me. First off he said

We will always speak directly to the community as ourselves (no aliases, no jolly pirate nicknames, etc.)

Now this has been part of UO culture since it was borne. We are talking… Lord British himself. Everyone who knows anything about UO knows this. But alas! They have taken our dev teams monikers out of the credits. I guess Mark Jacobs finds our dev teams “jolly pirate” nicknames unimportant. Well here’s one UO player who has played long enough to know it’s part of the game itself.

Most of you would think that if the developers posting as “Scott” instead of “Lum” was the worst problem you had with your MMO, you’re doing fairly well. But if you don’t think jolly pirate names are serious business, think again!

This is NOT about Kingdom Reborn. This is about Mythic kidnapping. Really I (and anyone else I talk to about this) feel that Mythic has kidnapped our game and I don’t know if we will be able to get it back. There is no ransom.

In other news, Stratics is still around, I’m not in the DAOC credits any more (under either my real name or my jolly pirate nickname), and UO’s web site has more jolly pirate names than you can shake an EA executive at.

Uh… No.

Daily Telegraph: Second Life ‘could replace real relationships‘.

Baroness Greenfield wondered whether people who inhabited virtual worlds would come to regard real-life sexual relationships with some queasiness.

“Could it be that in the future they will say, ‘A real relationship! Urgh, how horrible,’ ” she said. “The messiness and squalor of the real world, and the real-time element, might be offset by the more sanitised, two-dimensional reality of Second Life.

Clearly, all of you need to get out more.

My Spam Is Getting Weirder, And Apparently From The Seventies

From the thousands or so of comment spam caught daily by these stalwart filters:

Hello, my name is Anna! As you can probably tell, I’m a Christian woman who loves Jesus Christ and cares for all humans, even the wicked. What you probably don’t know is that I’m hot. My picture below isn’t really that good. I want to use my beauty for GOD, and want to encourage Christian women (my sisters in Christ) to do the same, according to the Great Commission.