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The Lawbringer: Real money transactions and some eBay history


Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Running parallel to the games we love and enjoy is a world full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

eBay and massively multiplayer online role playing games have a deep, rich and occasionally sordid past. As social beings, we've been bartering, trading and selling our time and goods for the entirety of human history. The internet just made things even easier. Hell, buying some gold or an item off of eBay isn't the first time you've probably spent money for a work-around in a game. Ever heard of Game Genie? We paid money for that at one point in our lives.

This week, The Lawbringer delves into the past, remembering the good ol' days when the internet came in three varieties: 28.8k, 33.6k and 56k v.90. Also, 14.4k, but only losers had such weak baud. Please don't make me go back further in time. You're probably making modem sounds right now, pretending to go ksshhhh ksshhhh bee doo be dooo wha wha wha wha wha wha wha beeboobeeboobeebeeboobeep, so we should probably start this up.

These were the days when you could browse eBay for a Silver Sword of Vanquishing for Ultima Online or buy plat in EverQuest. These were the homesteading, Wild West days. Eventually, companies either went the EverQuest route and sold stuff themselves or the Star Wars Galaxies path of banning accounts up for sale.

So who buys?

Not everyone buys, but more people than you think take part in purchasing in-game items and currencies. Virtual goods are hot right now -- do you think Farmville would be on 7-11 cups if it didn't bring people into the store? People think that buying virtual goods is a new phenomenon, when in actuality, we've been doing it for a long, long time.

Do you remember MUDs? I do. MUDs, or multi-user dungeons, are the genesis of the massively multiplayer. These online virtual worlds were the proto-MMOs, where people existed alongside others, fought dragons, explored worlds, and, through the power of text, lived virtual lives.

One of my professors once told us an amazing story in which he spent a good amount of money on an item in a MUD. He sent a decent amount of cash to the administrator of the game in the Netherlands. The class laughed. I didn't. I empathized with my professor -- the time, energy and devotion to get items in these games when the opportunities just don't present themselves for one reason or another seems utterly worth it sometimes. My heart almost broke.

eBay makes it easy

Over time, the mob-like, back-alley transactions became events of the past, as eBay and other auction sites opened shop online providing an easy repository of virtual goods for the common player. Ultima Online rares and silver weapons flooded the virtual markets. EverQuest platinum potentially made people wealthy. For a while, Origin, original creators of Ultima Online, didn't really seem to mind. In-game real estate like large towers and castles were selling for thousands of dollars. Sony asked eBay to stop listing auctions for in-game Everquest items in 2001, curbing most of the real money transactions going on. If you've learned anything from the last few Lawbringer columns, you know that once money gets involved, there's trouble. And, really, you don't even own this stuff, so how are you selling it?

Time is money, friend

eBay virtual goods peddlers sold accounts, items, real estate and everything in between. The practice of selling something you don't own is tantamount to fraud in a lot of places, considering that a.) you don't own the thing you are selling, and b.) you don't have any rights to the thing you are selling. Terms of Use were in effect, acknowledging that players had no claim or right to the virtual items or currency that they amassed in game. How could people get around it?

Sellers erected what they had believed to be the iron wall of defenses, a disclaimer to end all disclaimers, one disclaimer to rule them all. The idea was that the buyer of an item was not actually paying for the goods or the item itself. Rather, the seller was being compensated for his time farming, questing or playing to get said item. Flawless, right? To the untrained eye, it's bulletproof. What people didn't realize was that it doesn't matter what disclaimers you throw at the bottom of an eBay auction. If it looks like a duck, smells like a duck, walks like a duck and is sold on an online auction website like a duck, companies are going to treat it like a duck.

No dice. Over time, game companies wised up to the shenanigans going on through eBay. MMOs were really picking up steam now, and the money started to pour in. A million people were playing EverQuest. The world was the MMO's oyster. SOE's Star Wars Galaxies began to close accounts that were found to be on sale, ruining sellers' potential profits by making those accounts inactive. You can't buy a house in Ultima Online anymore on eBay. Searching "World of Warcraft account" on eBay brings up a host of guides to level, but nothing substantial. There was more to lose now.

Blizzard's rule and the "grand scam" of things

What's the status of buying and selling accounts in World of Warcraft? Don't. Aeus, a Blizzard poster, made it very clear in 2007:

Re: is buying/selling accounts on eBay "illeg
It's not allowed according to the agreements you agree to when you play WoW. If and when we find out an account was bought, it gets closed down, permanently, no appeal.
Do you really want to put time and effort into something you might lose over night?

Blizzard's stance is unforgiving, and for good reason. Have you heard about the "grand scam"?

The grand scam is the end all, be all of account-selling scams. Here's how things go down. The account seller sets up an auction with whatever back-alley website he chooses. Buyer comes along and pays real money to the seller. Buyer has changed all the passwords. Here's the rub -- the user cannot change the first or last name on the account. How is this buyer ever going to prove this account is his? It doesn't even matter. One day, the buyer can't log in. The password has been reset. Seller has called up Blizzard tech support, claimed his account was stolen and reset the information. Buyer has no recourse, seller has his "goods" back and Blizzard has little way of knowing if the seller was ever telling the truth.

What is the buyer going to do? Call up Blizzard and say his Terms of Use-violating purchased account was stolen back by the already rule-breaking seller? If anything, the account will just get closed -- mutually assured destruction. The only thing these two people have done is completely waste Blizzard's time, effort and energy. There is no recourse -- and rightfully so, when dealing with goods that simply aren't yours to sell.

Paving a way?

Accounts, items, currencies and a whole lot more have been sold, bartered and traded throughout the history of MMOs. eBay was instrumental in the early days of real money transactions and virtual goods. I'd even go as far as saying that these types of transactions on eBay paved the way for the original generation of microtransactions and virtual goods outside of South Korea, China and Japan. People need to be OK with buying things that have no tangible, real-life counterpart, and early eBay provided the world with just that.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at

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