Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Dollars to Donuts: A Quick Look at RMT

How much is a donut worth to you? Sixty cents, or perhaps upwards of a dollar or two for a rather extravagant one? Yeah? How about a virtual gold coin? Why does it seem immoral or wrong to pay for one to be made for you, but not the other?

Both are products that can be purchased with cash, and both are produced through a service provided. You can make your own donuts, and you can make your own gold coins. While most players do make indeed make their own in-game currency, most folks who enjoy delicious donuts do not make them themselves.

Now, before I get lynched, allow me to say that I am intrinsically opposed to RMT from a design perspective. However, as a player, I will gladly shell out a ten spot here or there for a few million gold and hours saved in an online game I’m enjoying. As a player, the value of the exchange is abundantly obvious to me. The original exchange between the developer and the player can be reduced to its basest functions- an agreement between the developer and the player is that the player offers Money for World, and the developer offers Achievement for Time. Lets quantify these abstracts a bit-

  • Money – Cash, of the cold and hard variety.

  • World – The actual game itself. Systems, features, and content. The ability to exist within the persistent state world.

  • Time – An invested amount of hours playing the game.

  • Achievement – Rewards, wealth, power and status within the game.
There are notable exceptions to this exchange, but it is fundamental in the majority of MMOs. What RMT does is circumvent the typical exchange of Time for Achievement. Instead, it allows the player to increase the amount of Money expended to obtain Achievement through a third-party, saving what they may value more in terms of Time.

At its core, this is not an issue. The old adage of “Time is money, friend!” is appropriate here, and not just for its MMO connotations in relation to the Steamwheedle Cartel. Many of the opponents of RMT are quick to jump at taking the moral high ground, stating that it is an unfair practice to employ third-world players in an RMT firm, and the stigma of the “Chinese Gold Farmer” is well known. Ironically, the bulk of RMT critics are certainly at ease shopping at their local department store. How is it somehow unacceptable that Chan the 16 year-old computer-savvy Chinese kid should be hording mooncloth for backpack creation as opposed to earning thirty-cents a day sewing t-shirts for a retail giant to sell at $10.00 a pop?

One of the often overlooked issues with RMT is the player objecting to being beholden to the “money is power” undocumented feature of real-life. The guy with the most money gets to do the most the quickest in a game where RMT is easy, as often he’ll have the most houses, the most gold, the best characters. Suddenly the fantasy game where every player enters on equal footing starts to resemble the unfairness of real life. In Ultima Online, the whole of Ice Island on my old play shard was owned in total by one very rich doctor. The bitterness of his rampant exploitation of RMT was, and still is felt by many.

The biggest issue where RMT is concerned comes not from the practices of the infamous IGE or rampant Chinese gold-farmers camping a spot 24 hours a day. Rather it comes from inherent design flaws that developers build into the game. It would seem from a cursory glance that designers haven’t quite gotten the knack of balancing virtual economies where the amount of resources collected is not limited by supply, but rather by the quantity of player time invested. Unlimited supply means that inflation must be controlled through the clever employment of sinks, unlimited black holes into which players are constantly throwing currency. If inflation is out of control, RMT will exacerbate the problem until the economy is so destroyed that the currency is devalued.

One of the best tactics is to first scale Achievement based on level of Time invested. This translates as specifying strict requirements for items and exceptional equipment based on level or skill. Binding an item to a player helps by limiting the number of transactions a segment of the virtual economy (the item itself) can experience. Durability is always a great standby as a gold sink, keeping the penalty for player death or item use in place while logically presenting a form of economic entropy posed against the unlimited accrual of currency.

Restricting the dependency of players on the value of currency can also aid in reducing the effective reach of RMT. A player is less likely to go out and buy a horse for 700 gold if he knows at Level 48 he will get one for free. A strong system-featured barter economy with emphasis on player-created items and services would go a long way to decentralizing the machinations of RMT. Let’s look into the beneficial and destructive effects of Real-Money Transfer a bit.

MMO Grandpa Ultima Online, still chugging along 'lo these nine years, has had RMT kicking around since shortly after its origin (pun intended). In the beginning, player death and a much harsher game world functioned as a great force of keeping the unlimited resources of the game from proliferating and being horded by players. Possession of one million gold probably meant that you were one of the richest people on the shard. If you were able to find someone selling a million gold for cash in those early days, you’d probably look to pay an upwards of several hundred dollars for it, if not more. Resources remained unlimited, and even then the gold sink was not large enough to completely prevent the gradual inflation that took the game into the advent of Trammel. With Trammel, the housing market that had remained stagnant for years had suddenly doubled, and with it came the elimination of player-killing. The in-game economy boomed, the currency fell dramatically in value while simultaneously eBay sales of virtual UO property and gold increased.

At current, a savvy buyer can find Ultima gold going at about $1.00 US per 1,000,000 gold coins. Is that a bad thing? Well, not necessarily. RMT took and inflated the prices of higher end items and virtual real estate while simultaneously devaluing the in-game currency. It was destructive in the sense that a large portion of high-end exchanges now occur external to the game. The aggressive real estate and rares market bolstered as a result of the RMT distended the curve in favor of the veteran horder making it difficult for the totally new player to compete for economic status.

However, in the same light, the valuation of in-game assets made the aging population of UO players reluctant to relinquish their holdings. Whereas a player can quit World of Warcraft at level 60 after partaking in the remaining consumable content and leave little mark on the game world, a Castle Owner in Ultima Online has a parcel of real estate worth a good $600 to encourage her to keep paying her monthly subscription. The boost to player retention and longevity may be a tradeoff developers are certainly willing to make.

Reduced to its base forms, RMT isn’t something to be feared like a boogeyman that hides under the bed of MMO Designers, but rather a very logical result of player demand to circumvent an exchange they find unsatisfactory or inefficient. Design the game’s economic systems with RMT firmly in mind as something to work either for or against. Acknowledge its presence and effects in the iterative process, and the results will be beneficial to both the health of the virtual economy and the community that grows up around it.