RIFT:  Sanctum under threat
Recently, Trion Worlds CCO and RIFT Executive Producer Scott Hartsman talked to Gamasutra about how gold farming is a much bigger threat than we assume, particularly because of the large amount of credit card fraud. Those who played RIFT at launch probably recall the large wave of hacked accounts early on. According to Hartsman, the hacking attempts were so quick and so intense that the game could have been "denial-of-serviced off the internet" when it launched.

As I was browsing the Auctioneer the other day, I was reminded of Scott's statement because gold farming has sucked a lot of the fun out of in-game economies in virtual worlds. Markets early on were lively, unpredictable, exciting, and full of freedom but very vulnerable because of the growing illegal trade of in-game currency for real money. In an effort to combat the rising real-life value of gold, games like RIFT have moved away from gold toward a system of non-tradeable tokens. But while these tokens have helped to curb the value of gold and reduce the demand for third-party RMTs, they've also removed a lot of the freedom from players. After the cut, we'll take a closer look at how exactly that's happened and why it hurts the economy.

Early games used to have one central currency, usually called gold, and it was tradeable, along with most other items in game. The advantage of having one currency is that everyone earned the same type, regardless of his playstyle, and he had unlimited freedom to spend it however he chose. A highly skilled crafter who made rare potions but might not be an adventurer could still earn some nice gear that normally dropped in dungeons or raids. Likewise, a high-end raider could purchase unique crafted items without having to spend time skilling up on her own. Even certain spells were tradeable as services -- a Cleric or an Enchanter in EverQuest who had spent the time leveling up could sell a buff to those who were not of that class or particular level.

There was another benefit to having a tradeable currency, and that was to help newer players get a bit of a leg up as they started out on the path to leveling. To a high-level player, giving a gold coin to a newbie was an insignificant hit to your pocketbook, but in return, you were giving him the ability to get a leg up on his peers and probably earning his undying devotion (or at least a "thx!").

What you were really giving that other player was time. Your gold coin helped him buy gear, weapons, potions, buffs, etc., stuff that normally would have taken him hours or perhaps even days to acquire on his own. On top of that, he was now able to level up faster because he had an in-game advantage. And that's really the crux of the problem: In MMOs, time was basically a commodity, traded in-game as gold coin.

But because MMOs often required large, arguably excessive, amounts of time to play in order to master them, the ability to trade time ended up becoming a very valuable commodity. As a result, players saw the rise of beggars, thieves, con-artists, and the notorious gold farmers, as they all used the game either to shortcut their way past the time hurdle or to profit from enabling others to shorten their path.

RIFT:  The moon over Stillmoor
And this brings me to the auctioneer in RIFT, although again, this could apply to any major MMO title. As I looked over the items for sale, there was just nothing I wanted to buy. I'm not a crafter, so I'm not interested in purchasing all of the harvested materials or the common gear for crafting skillups. I like shinies and wouldn't mind finishing off a couple of collections, but not enough to really get excited about spending coin on them. And while there are some nice mounts for sale at the stable NPC, I'm actually happy with my two-headed turtle at the moment because it gets rarer and cooler with each passing day. Other than dyes, there's not much to buy. Sure, I can buy gear and weapons, but as everyone knows, the best stuff isn't sold for coin; it's purchased with tokens or crafted by someone with the required skill (although the end-product is bound to the recipient). At best, we've moved toward an economy that combines bartering and token-collecting, like RIFT's planarite or plaques.

The problem with tokens is that they're the equivalent of in-game price controls. Everyone can get great gear if he puts in the time needed to accrue the required tokens. On the upside, you can't shortcut your way around it with real money. But at the same time, it means every single person has to pay the same price (in time) in order to purchase the gear he wants. Sure, there's a bit of variety in the exact amount of time, but overall there's no alternative path to earning tokens. So a crafter who is at the top of her skill still has to go back and work through the content to level up if she wants raid gear, and a hardcore raider can't jump into the market and buy decent PvP gear with his plaques. Furthermore, a new player can't shorten the path to catch up to his friends, which can be frustrating for both parties involved. There are even different types of currency within a certain playstyle. A rift-hunter, for example, collects different named rare tokens each tier but is limited in what's available for sale from the planar vendor because of that. In essence, tokens have taken away economic freedom in MMOs. Not only is there less to buy overall, but there are too many different currencies needed to buy what you want.

The bottom line is that while the token system is an effective system for dealing with gold farmers and third-party RMTs, it's taken a lot of the fun out of in-game economies in virtual worlds. If we look to our own history, having a common, tradeable currency is what allowed for specialized jobs in the first place. It allowed the blacksmith to be the blacksmith and the baker to be the baker. In MMOs, it gave players the freedom to earn things through a variety of playstyles. And it also made the game much more social. There are other ways to counter gold farming and third-party RMTs, and RIFT has done a good job so far with coin-locking, authenticators, and spam filters. But until game companies can completely remove the threat of real-life money tangling with in-game currency, chances are they'll continue to create market systems that are safer but sadly less free.

Whether they're keeping the vigil or defying the gods, Karen Bryan and Justin Olivetti save Telara on a weekly basis. Covering all aspects of life in RIFT, from solo play to guild raids, their column is dedicated to backhanding multidimensional tears so hard that they go crying to their mommas. Email Karen and Justin for questions, comments, and adulation.

This article was originally published on Massively.