The Soapbox: On gold-farming and the grind

Chest of gold
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

You're no doubt aware of a certain sci-fi MMORPG that's launching this week. As is the case each time a new major title releases, I'm curious to see how (or if) the developers will deal with the inevitable real-money trade.

BioWare has been fairly quiet about gold-farming and the steps it may take to combat it, which isn't too surprising given the unglamorous and often controversial subject matter. Few game devs mention their anti-RMT plans prior to launch, but plenty of dev teams complain about RMT after their game has been released. And yet, the usual solutions to black market currency trading are continuously ineffective at stopping it.

Smaug's treasure pile
Attitudes toward gold-farming

Why do developers (and some players) get so up in arms about gold farming? Well, for the former, it's pretty simple. When a person buys gold in an MMORPG, he is effectively saying that the game isn't fun enough for him to play the way it was designed. This is a fairly direct indictment of developers and their ability to make an enjoyable product, to say nothing of the fact that black market transactions benefit third parties rather than gamemakers.

Player animosity toward gold-buying and selling is a bit harder to understand. Ultimately, I think it boils down to the fact that some people like to meddle.

If you've ever been to a homeowner association meeting, you probably know the type of personality I'm talking about. They're the folks who are forever suggesting ways that your home can conform to the bylaws or asking if you've gotten approval for the improvements you're making to your own property. In short, these folks enjoy minding other people's business, regardless of whether it actually affects them or not.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating gold-buying or selling. If it's against the terms of service, players shouldn't be doing it. That said, it's debatable how negative the effects of RMT really are on gamers, particularly now that many MMORPG economies have been reduced to exercises in player self-sufficiency.

Chain gang grindingGrinding leads to gold-farming

Massively's Karen Bryan wrote about developer attempts to control gold-farming last summer, and the ultimate take-away for me was that heavy-handed solutions like non-tradeable alternative currencies hurt the rule-followers more than they hurt the outlaws. MMO economies are now a shell of the complex beasts (and alternative gameplay opportunities) that they were 10 years ago, in no small part because of the unwinnable war on gold-farming.

This leads in to why players buy gold in the first place, and while I can only speculate, I suspect the answer is simply that many people find MMORPG gameplay quite awful (yet for whatever reason they may still like the idea of an MMORPG).

Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott recently took a break from social gaming evangelism and articulated what I believe is the main reason players buy gold. "In almost all RPGs these days, that grind mechanic has been repeated in every facet of your virtual life to the point of, for at least me, distress," he told Gamasutra earlier this year. "Slice the game any place you want and you'll find that exact same game mechanic used over and over again. What you're really doing is having people spend time. You're making them waste time in order to level up."

Most current-gen MMORPGs are focused entirely on repetitive carrot-chasing, and players are constantly in a rush to get to endgame because endgame has been made out to be the promised land (even though the opposite is often true).

The lack of time and/or patience for arbitrary obstacles to fun is in fact the foundation on which the freemium business model is built. Don't have time to play a progression MMO but still want to make progress? Buy it from the cash shop.

But, but... MMOs are all about the grind, aren't they? Well, to some people they are. Others take a longer view and see virtual spaces that should amount to something more than Progress Quest or the equivalent of vegging out in front of the TV.

Father timeWith the MMO industry currently hurtling down the casual slope and every dev bending over backwards to make things accessible for folks who don't have the time to play games, does it make a lot of sense for these same devs to continually design titles with huge time-sinks and grinderific mechanics?

The answer to that question may well be yes, it does make sense, because there's money to be made by filling your game full of fun barriers while making anti-barrier items available in the cash shop.

You really want to reduce gold-farming?

Look, let's assume that gold-buying and selling is in fact a blight on MMORPGs and should be eliminated at all costs for the well-being of both players and developers. The way to reduce it is by making MMO gameplay more interesting. If players feel compelled to buy gold, it's because somewhere along the line, the design has failed at being fun.

If you really want to combat gold-farming, give your players something interesting to do that doesn't require gold (or tokens). You know, something other than combat, or a grind to be competitive in combat. Maybe try developing some new and interesting gameplay rather than recycling progression crap that was boring in 1999. Try making a meaningful crafting system and a real economy, give your players housing, social classes, storytelling tools, and the list goes on and on. There's no need to grind (or buy) gold to enjoy any of that stuff.

The reason gold-farming is such a huge business, and a concern even for sure-fire hits like The Old Republic, is that most of what passes for fun in an MMO only shows up after months of busywork. If you truly want to stop (or at least reduce) gold-farming, start making virtual worlds again. Stop focusing exclusively on competition and make room for creativity and cooperation. Gold-farming will continue as long as progression-based gameplay dominates because progression-based gameplay is an artificial fun barrier, and it's ultimately a waste of our most precious resource: time.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

This article was originally published on Massively.