Of greed and morality

A few days ago the Washington Post published an investigative piece about World of Warcraft. Well, it wasn’t exactly about that — it was about Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE) and that company’s involvement in what we can most charitably call the gray market of internet gaming — gold farming, maxed-avatar selling, gear selling, etc. And of some interest, but I fear not surprise, the current chief advisor to the President of the United States, Steve Bannon — odious enabler of American Nazism and white supremacy — was one of the company’s executives.

Bannon saw so much opportunity in the prospect of game cheating that he persuaded Goldman Sachs and a consortium of Wall Street investment firms to invest $30 million in the company. Thirty. Million. Dollars. Eventually, IGE went out of business (I think — it is hard to track corporate restructuring and acquisitions and such), but in their heyday they did up to 8-10 million dollars of business per month.

The Post article was actually old news — similar shorter pieces have been appearing in online gaming news sources and blogs for a few months now — but it had some new details and gave a good picture of the seamier side of internet gaming. If you have some time, I recommend you give it a read.

At any rate, my point today is not that the President of the United States places faith and trust in a sleazy cheater, nor even that American economic policy is now being controlled by former employees of firms eager to invest in exploitation of game cheating. Rather, I would like to examine the notion of morality in the current world of internet gaming, using the IGE saga as a vehicle and Blizzard as one of the principal protagonists.

First, who were the winners and losers in the IGE morality play? Clearly, IGE was ultimately the loser — they went down in rather ignominious fashion, not with a bang but an impoverished, debt-ridden whimper. At their profit zenith, they had tried to buy off Blizzard and other game companies by offering them a share in the profits if the companies would legitimize IGE’s activities. As WoW represented a huge share of IGE’s business, Blizzard’s decision here was key and likely the deciding factor in IGE’s final demise. Blizzard said no, and in my eyes that makes them — and WoW players — the winner.

I don’t actually know why they refused, but I am giving them the benefit of the doubt and attributing it to a sort of foundational morality, a gut instinct that selling advantages in a game is just wrong. The real answer, of course, is more complicated, I suspect. A lot of factors persuaded Blizz to go after IGE with a vengeance rather than be co-opted.

One factor may have been that Blizz touted the game as one of merit not money, and they set up the subscription model to support this. Gaming companies need to make a profit, and selling subscriptions rather than virtual gear or gold was a good way to make money, especially in the early days of the game before spinoffs and endorsements and T-shirts and the like bring in much. To allow players to buy their way into max levels or high gear — without experiencing the game as intended — was contrary to everything Blizz had advertised about WoW.

A second factor was that the WoW player base was overwhelmingly against “pay to play”. Almost certainly, had Blizzard opted to throw in with IGE, they would have lost millions of players. Such a decision might have actually resulted in the destruction of the game. There is no doubt that this kind of strategic assessment played a part in Blizz’s final decision. They might have increased profits in the short term, but in the long run there was a good chance they would have caused the death of the game.

Other factors were subsidiary to the two I have just mentioned. For example, a sudden and significant influx of easy gold would likely have caused rampant inflation in the virtual economy of the game. Similarly, gear that players had to be proficient and persistent to obtain would lose its value if anyone could plunk down $20 and get the same stuff. Back when IGE was active, it was more rare to have a max level character than it is today, and the notion that anyone could purchase a max level with real money would have cheapened the accomplishment.

So I give Blizz props for turning IGE down, and for working to eradicate gold sellers and the like from the game. I don’t care what their reasons were, they did the right thing. And they continue to do the right thing today when they go after bots or when they punish players for selling services for real money. Yes, you can still cheat in WoW — the cheat sites are out there — but Blizz is continually refining its detection methods and imposing punishments, such that players really have to think twice about whether or not it is worth it in the end.

Now, of course one of the ways Blizz used to defeat gold sellers was to institute the WoW token — basically legitimizing the practice. I am still not sure if this was a good move, but it was undeniably smart business. Making it two-sided (turn real money into WoW gold and turn WoW gold into playing time) was genius and addressed two player markets — those who had time but not money and those who had money but not time. Additionally, Blizz controls the availability and price, so they can put brakes on undesirable results such as rampant inflation. As an added bonus, every player using gold to get play time has garnered a $20 per month subscription for Blizz rather than the standard $15 one. Genius. But I still think it was a minor backing off from one of the game’s founding principles.

The last thought I have on the whole IGE story is this. Internet gaming, even though it has been around for years, is still in its profit infancy. How the industry — players and spectators as well as developers and investors — deal with cheating will set the standard for the rest of its existence. Thus far Blizz has acted responsibly, I think, although they have been a bit easy on high-profile cheaters. Still, I believe they are on the right path. But the industry could go either way — it could go the route of professional wrestling or it could go the route of the NFL. There is big money in both, but one at least strives to be honest and competitive, and the other — not so much.

I am not so naive as to think greed is not a business motivator, but I am still naive enough to hope there is room for morality, too. For knowing and doing the right thing.

Cheats and chiselers and lines not to be crossed

Blizzard just announced that they had “taken action” against some players who were accepting real world currency for in-game assistance, such as carrying players for raid clears. You can read the Blue Post here, courtesy of MMO-C.

This is absolutely reasonable action from Blizz. The activities were clear violations of the Terms of Service agreement, and some forum posters claimed it was getting out of hand — blatant advertisements abounded. I wouldn’t know about that, I tend to be quite naive about these matters. Still, there is a line between the in-game economy and the real world one, at least as far as players are concerned. Blizz went to some pains to point out that raid carries for gold, for example, are perfectly legitimate. It is just when actual rent-spendable money enters in that it becomes illegitimate.

In-game gold versus real-world money is a line most of us can understand, but I wonder if Blizz itself has not blurred that distinction a bit with their introduction of the token. By becoming their own gold seller, they have legitimized a direct connection between real world money and in-game gold. If you have the money, you can pretty much amass as much gold as you want in the game. Yes, you have limits placed on you in terms of how many tokens you can buy over a period of time, but if someone is patient and well-off, they can easily max out gold on every character on every account.

Not that having millions and millions of gold gets you much in the game nowadays, beyond a certain Scrooge McDuck feeling of wallowing in wealth. The reason Blizz’s gold selling has not become pay-for-play is that they have severely curtailed the number of game-enhancing buyable items available. In WoD, for example, you could buy competitive high-level crafted gear, but you were limited to equipping just three such items, thereby ensuring players with a lot of gold could not immediately outfit themselves with raid-level gear. In Legion, Blizz allows unlimited pieces of crafted gear to be equipped, but they prohibit selling (thus, buying) such gear above level 815. It can only be upgraded if it is soulbound — again, prohibiting wealthy players from easily (if expensively) outfitting themselves with high level gear.

Another thing the token has done is give everyone a quantitative way to value in-game items and activities. In the U.S., one token currently buys you approximately 90k gold, and it costs $20. Thus, if for example a guild is selling Nighthold clears for 200k gold (I have no clue if this is the going rate or not), a player contemplating buying the service can know that this means the true cost to them is $30-$40. (If the player is an in-game buyer of tokens as a way to pay for their subscription, then the cost is approximately $30, or two months’ play time. If the player is an in-game seller of tokens for gold, then the cost is $40, or about two game store token purchases.)

Similarly, if a piece of BoE gear is priced at 100k gold, a player can evaluate whether or not it is worth one month’s play time ($15), or $20 of their hard-earned cash from the other perspective.

Still, even if the real world versus game world line has become a bit blurrier, it is still there, and it certainly does not justify crossing it.

Which leads me to the other aspect of Blizz’s announcement that gave me pause. Of note, they indicated some of the presumably-banned players were members of world-first guilds. This is troubling, for basically the same reason I discussed in a previous post: that is, it indicates a lack of high standards of integrity in these guilds. Let’s be honest — there is no way guild management could have been unaware of the money-grubbing actions of the members engaging in this illicit business. But for whatever reason, the guilds these players belong to chose to do nothing about it — the best you can say is they gave tacit approval, and the worst is that they may have shared in the profits.

I know I will get hate mail for this, but given the apparent high profile of some of the guilty ones, I think in this case a bit of naming and shaming might have been in order. If not the actual players involved, then maybe the guilds they belonged to. “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.” Maybe a little guild embarrassment would be good incentive to police their own members in future.

How much better it would have been if, when the guilds suspected some of their members were doing it, they issued explicit instructions to knock that shit off or face expulsion. At the very least, they might have taken a page from professional sports and benched the offending players for some amount of time or levied a fine of some sort. Any guild sanction would have demonstrated these professional guilds are serious about policing their own, serious about upholding high standards of behavior. Sadly, insofar as any of us knows, they did not.

I am certain I could play this game forever and not give a flying fig about world first achievements or the inner workings of the professional guilds. I do not care about the pseudo-celebrity players in them. But I do care that some of the players and guilds I encounter in the game seek to emulate those semi-pro players and their guilds. If their role models are cheats and chiselers, then that attitude may well spread down through the game, and it will take away from my enjoyment of it.

In a perfect world — or even an above-average one — guilds would be incensed if their members cheated, and they would take drastic and public action to ensure everyone knew such behavior was unacceptable, to uphold the rules of the game they play, indeed the game they are leaders in. But sadly this is not the case, and we are left with some guilds that get while the getting is good, knowing they need take no responsibility because Blizz will step in and police their players for them. Well, good for you, Blizz. And shame on you, all you who know who you are.