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15 Minutes of Fame: Cory Doctorow on gold farming, part 2


15 Minutes of Fame
: We probably ought to talk about virtual ownership. Should the game companies actually own the items and the gold that the players are working so hard to get?

Cory Doctorow: Well as practical matter, I think that you can't not. Think of it this way: If the game company says, "All right, you own all your gold, but we still reserve the right to disconnect you from our server at any time or if you drop our subscription. And we have the right to revalue or devalue items; we can nerf your sword down to a toothpick any time we want just by changing the physics of the game, the rules of the game, the balance of power in the game ..." How can you be said to own anything? At best, it's a provisional license to use it, even when they tell you it's your property. Second Life has a Linden-to-dollar exchange market, but the real value in Second Life isn't the cash; it's the capital. If you spend thousands of hours building some elaborate Second Life island and then they terminate you because they don't like your relationship to their terms of service, the fact that you were able to export your Lindens doesn't actually mean that you get to own your property. That thing that you built -- you may have some files on your hard drive, but you can't do anything with them anymore.

Well it's pretty commonly assumed today, in World of Warcraft at least, that gold farmers are using stolen accounts and stolen goods. And that pretty much cuts off at the knees any discussion of gold farming becoming a legitimate activity that fulfills the needs and desires of legitimate customers. Is this inevitable for gold farming? Is there a way that it can become legitimate in the future?

Well I think in terms of security economics, that's also a pretty predictable outcome. If you make it hard for people to use bots, they'll use humans. And if you make it hard for people to use humans, they'll use account stealing. Remember that the issue here is not a supply-side issue; it's a buy-side issue. The real gold farming market is not created by people farming gold. It's created by people buying farmed gold.

There are lots of things you can do in a video game that you can offer to sell people that they won't buy. You could say, "Well, I'm going to go into business in this game painstakingly dragging the corpses of animals into geometric shapes." And you could advertise your animals and geometric shape corpse-viewing rights where you could give people coordinates in the game where they could find it and so on, and you could buy Google ads for it. You wouldn't get a market for it – or I don't think you would, anyway.

But there's a demand side for gold, for epic items, for leveling, and that emerges again I would say almost inevitably from the rules and the physics of the game. When you build a game around grinding, which is to say, when you build a game where part of the satisfaction derives from no longer having to do something unpleasant, there will always be a market for any mechanism that anyone can find to stop doing unpleasant things.

There's also an inherent inflationary character to games, where the longer the game has been around, the more level 80s there are -- which means the likelier it is that there'll be someone out there whose wealth outstrips yours by some enormous factor who could twink you just by dropping a couple of gold on you, that you would otherwise have to play for hundreds of hours at your level, that they can earn in five minutes. And you can go and use that to buy all kinds of awesome junk.

And then there's the problem that also emerges over the long-term popularity of a game, which is that Alice plays WoW for a year and gets up to level 80 and is really kicking ass. She convinces me that I should come in and play with her, but she doesn't want to play with my level 1 character. And so powerleveling up to something that's worth going out with her -- 50, say, so that we can play together -- makes good sense, right? It's actually, in that sense, in Blizzard's interest, because the only reason I want to play is because I can play with my wife. And if it's no fun for her to play with me because I've got a fresh account, then it makes total sense that Blizzard might consider a mechanism to allow people to buy their way up levels.

But all of this stuff is a lot more complicated than the traditional gamer analysis of gold farming, which from what I can tell, goes like this: Chinese people are evil and greedy and they cheat. (dead silence)

So you would be all for your example of buying a leveled-up character, so that you could play with Alice or a friend? You would be all for that?

Ahhh, I don't know that I would or not. Let me phrase this slightly differently. I would say not that I'm for it or against it but that this is an inevitable source of irreconcilable tension in MMO design. So there's no answer to it that's correct. There are a whole bunch of answers that, depending on the time and place, are more or less correct than the alternative. But there's no such thing as a correct answer to "Should you allow people to buy higher-level characters or rent higher-level characters or whatever?"

But so long as MMOs look the way they do now, where there's that leveling path, and so long as the ways MMOs incentive players to go on playing after a long time is by creating lots of new levels they can ascend to, and so long as ascending to new levels gives you exponentially more access to power, wealth and sort of enjoyment than you would have had otherwise, then that market will exist. And there will be demand for it. And people will want it. And you will lose some customers if you don't provide it or if you don't allow the black market to provide it.

But that doesn't mean it's the best thing for the game. I don't even know what we would call the best thing for the game. Is the best thing for the game the thing that makes the most players play? I mean, if that's true, then FarmVille's got it. Is the best thing for the game the thing where you assign some value to happiness and some other value to number, and you try to maximize the largest number of happy players? I don't know what that is. Is it the thing that returns the largest amount to shareholders? I don't quite know.

Let's keep talking about what Blizzard is doing. It recently launched the real money purchase of the Celestial Steed, the vanity mount. Now you can also subscribe to an iPhone app that allows you to conduct your auction house business while you're offline. And then of course other games like Lord of the Rings Online have recently announced that they're going free-to-play. So we've obviously got more and more things coming up for purchase in games. Where does this trend fit into the mix?

Well you know, this was all the buzz at GDC in 2008 when I went there when I was researching the book. RMT and free-to-play games were on everyone's minds because they really represent a way to sell cash-poor, time-rich children to time-poor, cash-rich adults. You just create a whole bunch of non-play-advantaging epic items that you can only get through a lot of tedious grinding, and then you turn the teenagers loose to grind with all their discretionary time, and then you have the adults buy those epic items on your sanctioned marketplace and you take the commission out of it. That's how you earn all your money as a games company. And you get to serve two different audiences, and you also get to create this story about how teenagers can rich in these RMT games (which, you know, by and large they won't, because if they could, then you'd get hyperinflation). All of a sudden, the epic items wouldn't be worth anything because teenagers could get them too easily. They need to be hard to get. And if they're hard to get, you won't earn that much per hour; you'll earn a lot less than minimum wage. It's very hard to get rich earning a lot less than minimum wage.

The received wisdom about this is you can only do it with non-play-advantage items. As soon as you do it with an item that gives you better play, your players will revolt. They'll see it as cheating, and so on. But I think that as long as there is that prohibition on play-advantaging items that there will be an underground market for them. Yes, you can convince people to buy purple armor at some giant premium by convincing them that it's worth something because it's scarce, but you know, economists understand this. They call these positional goods. They're goods whose value is derived from the fact that owning one indicates that you had to spend a lot to get it. Literally the only thing that makes it valuable is it's valuable.

The games industry has really figured out positional goods, and they're brute-forcing that problem space and exploring every conceivable way of monetizing positional goods. But there are utility goods, too. Markets for utility goods are substantial and vibrant and they go on even if there isn't an official one; you get a black market for them.

Why the dungeon finder is like Wikipedia

Let's talk about the online communities of gamers. You talk about that so much in the book, about the online community of gamers as a whole, the online community of gold farmers, of hackers, all these internet-based citizenries. At the same time, here in World of Warcraft, we have the dungeon finder system that some people say may be actually helping to break down some of the server communities and relationships that exist in the game. This seems diametrically opposed to what you've been talking about in the sense of gaming as a community, as a whole. Where is all this going? We have what looks like two different directions.

Actually, I would say just the reverse. What we're seeing here is a substantial reduction in the cost of doing things as a group. That all those systems that you've just described, those things that help casual players, what you can think of them as is the embodiment of the same phenomenon that made it possible for people to casually write an encyclopedia together. And it's the best and most exciting thing about the internet, and it's at the heart of pretty much everything I write: the idea that we can collaborate together with less overhead, with less and less necessity to get to know each other.

It's great that we can get together and form communities and all the rest of it, but ideally, you want to be able to figure out when you send an email and say, "I've just taken a couple of codeine tablets on my doctor's advice but I'm having hives; what should I do?" Ideally, you'd want to be able to figure out who to trust without having to form a community with those people. You want to be able to do things as a group with a minimum of overhead.

So you're thinking that from this point, then, what we need are more ways to connect with the people we do find to be useful and helpful within those contexts? If these automated systems are allowing us to come together more easily, then perhaps what we're looking for are systems, communities, ways of winnowing out the right people that we've met to make something more lasting?

Yeah! Well, exactly. And I think that if you wanted to find a way to incrementally improve a dungeon finder, it would be a thing that would let you very easily tag someone who you had a good time with as someone you'd like to go a raid with in the future, and have the system gradually nudge you together if you both show that you're compatible over a period of several games. From a commercial perspective, it's in the interest of the people who run the game to try and nudge you from being a casual player into a more committed one. And one way to do that is to get you involved in a guild and all that other stuff. Once people are emotionally invested in the game and once they have their community in the game as well, paying that $15 a month makes even more sense.

Be sure to catch the companion of this exclusive interview with Cory Doctorow at our sister publication,, as we discuss gaming culture and his recent fiction projects

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players from all walks of life, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to Olympic medalist Megan Jendrick ... from a quadriplegic player to a player who's racked up every achievement in the game.

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