Okay, I'm about to go off the nerd deep end and rant about RMT (Real Money Trading). But even the Discovery channel has recently discussed this space, so maybe it's not too niche. I'd even argue that this topic extends beyond gaming. Increasingly our world is being defined by goods that are easily cloneable and have to be controlled by Intellectual Property laws and the like. With the music industry scrambling to figure out how it fits in anymore, it's valuable to look at the virtual economies happening in online video games. I'm sure there's a great discussion to be had there, but as I said, this is a rant...
Okay, so there's this growing presence in the MMO genre of Real Money Trading. RMT is the idea of exchanging real-world currency for in-game currency or services. And as a gamer, I consider this a Bad Thing. The entire draw of an RPG is character advancement; the more time and skill you dedicate to the game, the more powerful and refined your character becomes. RMT means that someone can plop down some money and instantly get the same prestige and abilities as someone who worked for them. If these were only aesthetic, or if MMORPGs weren't inherently collaborative/competitive, it wouldn't be such a big deal. But when real money gives someone an unfair gameplay advantage over other real people, it's cheating.
Raph Koster, am esteemed MMO game developer (who's blog I subscribe to), has decided to defend RMT as an unavoidable outcome. When posed with an anti-RMT solution of limiting trading possibilities, he counters by claiming that exchange of objects and services is the same, and thus the only way to prevent RMT is to remove all collaborative gameplay. I recognize that both of these are exploitable, but I definitely do not agree that they are equivalent. Yes, you could spend real money to hire someone to escort you and ease your game experience, but that still involves a time commitment on your part. You could hand over your account to a power leveling service, but that also compromises your account's security. Neither of these options compare at all to the instant gratification of items and currency purchased with real cash.
I'll concede that some amount of RMT is always going to happen. But I'm pretty sure that restrictions can be imposed to make it inconvenient and not as generally viable. Yes, you're probably going to limit some positive trade on the other side of the coin. But with the anonymity of the internet I'm far more worried about rampant exploitation than blocking the rare unsolicited act of kindness. I certainly don't share Raph's romanticizing of item gifting. You have something that you don't need anymore (either because you outgrew it or because you never had use for it at all) and give it to someone else who can use it. Big whoop. Isn't the real problem here that the item has no value to you? What's the point of the game handing you items that you have no need for, or allowing something that previously had value to become worthless? Trading is just as hollow when the items are arbitrarily worthless as when they are arbitrarily valuable.
I like Raph's blog. I like that he's willing to question assumed gameplay devices like levels and gold. But as a gamer I really can't follow him on this journey. You can certainly question the inequality incentive of the MMORPG genre, but as long as you're bought into that structure you have to admit that RMT is an anathema to honest players.
Truthfully I consider the economies of MMOs to be more annoying than appealing. I get all this loot which I have to hang on to because I recognize that junking it to a vendor might not generate as much profit as selling it to another player. But of course I generally have no idea what the value of an item is. If I'm lucky I can find the same item up for auction and use that as a reference price, but such an immediate snapshot doesn't give me any real sense of longer-term demand and value. I really need to research some sort of "blue book" value, compare that to current server demand, and be prepared to spend lots of time babysitting an auction (or soliciting a direct sale) in order to get the optimal return. And of course the game itself never gives me adequate tools to carry any of this out, so I'm fighting the system the whole time. It's in no way fun, so I generally just price my auctions to sell quickly so that I can spend less time economizing and more time having fun.
But you say there is some entertainment to be had here, right? It's great to get some drop that you realize is going to fetch a pretty penny. But of course that's really just money for you to spend on some other item that another player can't use, so why the need for a middleman? Couldn't you have just got a drop that was relevant to your character in the first place? Player crafting adds something to the trading equation, but more often than not it's just a really expensive minigame whose outputs are obsolete (nerfed out of fear of rampant RMT, of course). So is it really so bad if trading in MMOs is severely restricted or eliminated altogether? You could still collaborate on that whole gameplay part, but as far as permanent character advancement goes you'd be on your own, in an exploit-free bubble.