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Why Blizzard can't (and won't) sell gold

Allison Robert

In any discussion concerning botting, farming, hacking, or gold-buying, someone inevitably makes the argument that Blizzard should cut out the middlemen and sell gold to players themselves. I wanted to use this article to explain why this would not necessarily be a good idea. We don't need to get into the legal situation, or examine why assigning a real-world price to in-game currency edges us closer to a world where in-game property can be taxed. All I have to do is tell you a story from the not-too-distant past that involves:

  1. Prices that would make Zimbabwe look like a model of inflationary restraint, and:
  2. What happens when money -- in this case, gold -- loses meaning.

On the Wrath of the Lich King beta servers, one of the largest differences between them and their live counterparts was the astronomical price of almost everything on the auction house. You could expect to pay 600-800 gold for a single blue-quality gem, and equally inflated prices for enchanting materials, flasks, and other raid consumables. Were you planning on gearing a character to raid at 80? Here's hoping you had 30-50K gold at your disposal, or the sympathy of a craftsman who could provide enchants or consumables at far below "market price."

So what happened?

If you've never transferred a character to a beta or PTR server before, this is what happens; copying a character takes a snapshot of what the character has in its bags, bank, and gold reserves when you click the transfer button. Experienced players typically send all of their banker's gold and valuable items to a character they're planning to transfer, so that the "snapshot" taken is of a character with all of your account's gold and marketable items. Because you can usually copy multiple characters, it's possible to reproduce an incredibly valuable character several times over. Do you have 25,000 gold on your main when you transfer it to the PTR? And you've got three character copies total, and you copied your main three times?

Congratulations; you now have 75,000 gold on the PTR as a result of the 5-minute time investment it takes to copy the toon three times.

To some extent the PTR economies are always a bit weird as a result of this practice -- people want to test things on the PTR without having to worry about gold -- but things were even weirder on the beta servers. A lot of guilds planned to learn tier 7 raid content there, and they didn't ever want to deal with gold as an issue. As such, many of them loaded transfer characters with as much gold as they could carry from the guild bank (after transferring, the player in question could simply re-deposit the gold back in the bank on the live servers), reproducing a guild's savings dozens of times over on the beta.

Imagine a server with guilds that could literally "make money" by just reproducing a toon with a lot of stuff on it.

That would be beta -- and, as a result, the enormous inflation on the beta auction house, because gold simply ceased to have much meaning.

Any economist could tell you that this was the inevitable result of:

  • Players who could increase their gold reserves with no effort, cost, or consequences, and:
  • Players didn't care how much gold they were spending because it had no impact on their "real" character -- just its disposable PTR/beta counterpart.
When individual gold reserves skyrocket on a server-wide basis, prices inevitably rise when people are: a) able to afford more expensive goods, and b) willing to pay for them. That's OK if your characters are already wealthy, but it's a pretty raw deal for new players or anyone who's rerolled on the server in question; there won't be anything on the auction house that they'd realistically be able to afford, particularly if the person in question is a brand new player who's unfamiliar with the game's economic system. It's like asking someone on food stamps to find low-cost housing in downtown San Francisco -- it ain't gonna happen.

If you've ever wondered why there are so many "gold sinks" around, why repair bills remain in the game, why crafting professions tend to be expensive, and why equipping and raiding on a high-level character requires so much gold, that's why; it's part of Blizzard's effort to keep players paying for things, thus curbing (somewhat) the inevitable trend towards inflation.

The general idea behind Blizzard caving to player requests and selling gold on an official basis is that they'd be able to put the gold-sellers -- and through them, an entire network of hackers and phishers -- out of business. To be frank, I think it's a bit optimistic to assume this, if for no other reason than the price war over gold that would likely result, and the fact that Blizzard is at a competitive disadvantage.

If Blizzard:
  • Sells gold at a higher price than existing gold-sellers: Then people who already buy gold against the terms of use will continue to do so from gold-sellers, because the only selling point to "Blizzard gold" would be that it's legal -- and that's not a sufficient incentive for people already comfortable with ignoring the rules. Moreover, for newer players it would have the unfortunate effect of making it seem like Blizzard condones buying gold if they sell it themselves.
  • Sells gold at a lower price than existing gold-sellers: It runs the risk of encouraging hyper-inflation on servers. Gold is already pretty cheap, consequence (I suspect) of hackers' increasingly sophisticated means of parting players from their accounts. Blizzard running the prices down to drive gold-sellers out of business would be the definition of a Pyrrhic victory. The more inexpensive that gold gets, the more that buying it becomes a rational choice over spending the time to farm it in-game or taking the risk of playing the auction house -- and the closer we edge to the situation on the beta servers.
The bottom line is that selling gold would not be a panacea to present monetary ills, even aside from the advantages it would afford players with greater disposable IRL income. Blizzard cares about what happens if WoW's in-game economy goes to hell. Gold-sellers do not, and -- perversely -- their "product" becomes more attractive as server inflation rises.

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