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.

My crystal ball

Last night as we were tidying up some loose ends for guild achievements, our GM remarked that we only have two more Thursday night fun runs before Legion. I knew this, of course, I mean I know how calendars work and I can count, but that statement really got my attention. Suddenly all my plans for gearing up my DH, for finishing up some profession stuff, for final bank reorganizations, for setting up my Legion leveling transmog outfits (hey, I’m a little vain, ok, don’t judge) — all those things got brutally reduced to a couple of must-do priorities. It was like someone took a chainsaw to my to-do list. It was at once both shocking and liberating.

I think I have mentioned once or twenty times before in this blog that I am by nature and by training an extreme planner. Lists, spreadsheets, and flow charts are my life. (It drives my poor spouse crazy — we are kind of an ant-and-grasshopper couple — but luckily for me he is an easy-going and tolerant type, nods and mutters “Yes, dear” a lot.)

Anyway, my point is that even though I love planning and organizing, what I love more than that is the freedom of knowing there is no longer any time for planning, you got what you got, you are where you are. Your work is done, you know you’ve done all you can, and it’s time to enjoy things. Last night was that point for me, and now I am going to just sit back and enjoy the ride to Legion.

And what a ride it will be. How do I think the first couple of weeks of Legion will unfold? In a word, chaos.

  • The rollout will be terrible — by now it is a tradition with Blizz — technical issues and probable denial of service attacks are almost certain to bring the entire game to a halt, likely several times over the course of a week. Expect to play the game only sporadically during this time, expect to be frustrated, expect things not to work even when you manage to log in. Should it be different, should Blizz anticipate the huge load on servers, should they have already implemented solutions based on their months of stress testing, should they have foreseen the magnification of small problems into massive ones with scaling? Yes, but honestly I think they have made the decision that to do so is too hard and expensive and what the hell everything will normalize in a couple of weeks anyway. I half-suspect that somewhere along the line Ion Hazzikostas has opined in a staff meeting that such chaos is part of the fun™ of a new expansion.
  • Some players will suspiciously be able to produce crafted items and provide vast quantities of gathered mats within 24 hours of launch, and these will be outrageously priced in the auction house. Based on what we have seen in the beta just for some NPC-sold items, do not be shocked if you see AH items priced close to or over a million gold. Expect to see gear routinely priced in the hundreds of thousands. Within the first couple of days, there will also be BoE gear for sale from raid and world drops, and these could easily be some of the items priced in the million-gold range.
    • Unfortunately for the WoW economy, we are likely to see  repercussions from the WoD gold giveaway for quite some time in the game. Blizz opted to try and bribe players to stay active by handing out massive amounts of gold for garrison missions, and that decision will haunt all of us for quite a while. One result will be huge inflation in prices for goods.
    • The other result of the WoD gold giveaway is that there will be a distinct divide between the haves and the have-nots in the game. New players who did not have a chance to amass gold fortunes from WoD — or those not-new players who failed to save much — will be hard put to compete with wealthier players. New players, of course, can take advantage of higher prices to sell gathered mats and make more cash than previous new players could, and Blizz will make a few feeble attempts to remove some gold from the game, but there will be a noticeable division between rich and poor players in the game for a while — with a greater perceived gulf between them than we have seen in previous expansions. Whether this results in an ever-widening gulf as the rich get richer and the poor get comparatively poorer, or whether it eventually all evens out, remains to be seen.
  • Inevitably, a few overachievers will play nonstop until they reach 110, causing normal (and by “normal”, I mean “sane”) players to scratch their heads and wonder either “How?” or “Why?” Trust me when I say this — Legion will last for a minimum of three years, and I would not be surprised to see it go even beyond that by a few months. (In fact, I predict Legion will be the longest expansion in the history of the game.) Doing everything you want to do in the first month or even the first year will not be a winning strategy. This expansion will be a marathon, not a sprint.
  • In spite of comments to the contrary, Blizz will do some significant class and spec “balancing” in the first few months. All of it will be perceived as nerfs to one class or another. There are still just too many outliers for this not to happen.
    • What this means is that no one should make a decision on class or spec based on how it is performing now or even in the first couple of weeks of Legion. My best advice — to myself as much as to everyone else — is just find what you love to play, what you will have fun playing, and stick with it at least until the first major patch.
    • And yes, you might feel you have lost out if ultimately you decide to change and therefore basically have to start from scratch with a new artifact weapon, but in the long run you will be happier for playing what is fun. Look at me, I am sticking with a BM hunter, what could be sillier than that?

So, expect confusion, frustration, and chaos starting August 30. If you are someone who usually likes to take a couple days off work to enjoy a new expansion, think about waiting until Sep 7 or so to do it. Trust me, you will enjoy it more. And remember, Legion will be with us for a long time. Pace yourself. (I am mainly giving this advice to myself — and I hope I listen for a change — but it may give you some perspective as well.)

And on that lecturing note, let the weekend commence.