Friday, November 17, 2006

MTV's Gold Farming Coverage

Ah, gold farming... like a parasitic tapeworm, it annoys, persists, and thrives in the most unlikely of places (gold farming location of choice: massively multiplayer online games [MMOGs]). Unlike a tapeworm, it's garnering billions of dollars per year, and has developed into an underground industry of controversial proportions.

I'll only briefly touch on this piece MTV relased for its Gamer's Week 2.0 (apologies for the horrendous web interface) since I plan on releasing a full article regarding gold farming in MMOGs later this month. The content comes from a documentary in the works by Ge Jin, and proves to be quite enlightening on the human side of the situation.

What was once a relatively minute problem- a few people selling virtual items and money for real profit, a.k.a. gold farming- has surged out of control with blockbuster games such as Everquest (way back in the '90s) and the more recent World of Warcraft. As MTV's video shows, the gold farming industry has thrived on these immensely popular games, turning into a $9 billion dollar industry in, essentially, a decade.

MTV's clip documents the process: Poor, lower- to middle-class Chinese workers (largely young males) sit in front of PCs for 12-hour shifts pouring over a game. They kill stuff. They kill some more. When their break comes, they take a nap, then continue killing. Seems like your typical high school teenager in America, huh? Well, almost.

These guys aren't just making a pretty penny. They're taking entire game economies and injecting tons of money, goods, and gear that would be unavailable in such quantities under normal circumstances. This drives up in-game inflation, and with increased prices, players need more gold. Wait a second... We've just found the loophole farmers exploit to profitable ends.

Prices increase, and so does the average gamer's desire for money. It's a wonderful infinite loop, at least for the farmers. But what do we end up with? A botched market, artificial supply increases, and never-ending game inflation.

In the real world, there are many alternative products (substitutes), and money doesn't simply drop off everything you kill (unless you go on a homicidal rampage through the richer parts of the country). America's inflation effectively curbs itself thanks to the infinite amount of variables in day-to-day life (two of which being the facts just listed).

Within games, substituting items is feasible so far as the developers allow- the rest is exploitable by gold farmers. People (and farmers) who obtain a sought-after item can ask for any price they want, without fear something can be easily substituted for it.
It creates a devilishly complex situation for the average gamer- the guy who can't commit job-like hours to the game. In-game gold is abundant, dropping off anything and everything (albeit in small amounts).

The reason artificially injected gold is so damaging is simple: like reality, if someone prints dollar bills and tosses them into the streets, you'll end up with relatively worthless currency. Like Germany during its post-war hyperinflation, your once-sufficient 200 gold just turned into present-value 200 copper. You're paying normal amounts one day, and astronomical amounts the next, all because someone wrenched open the fire hydrant of in-game gold.

Yes, this gold requires real money to be disbursed, and the damage grows exponentially from there. Remeber the "tossing money into the streets" analogy? Well, imagine those running to the curb and scooping up money as those who spend their real-life earnings on virtual gold. Imagine people tied to chairs, unable to move being those who don't- or can't- pay. You suddenly have a false economy. Those who are rich are prosperous for reasons detached from their deserving of such money. People who refuse to partake in such activies, or simply can't due to real financial situations, now watch helplessly as the game economy inflates into a blimp.

But inflation and markets aside, who's the winner in this situation?

It's not the refusers or the non-payers. They got screwed from the get-go. They sit at the bottom tiers of the game economy, scraping together pennies when the world progresses in thousand-dollar bills.

It's not the gold buyers. Eventually, there will be people who pay more- and thus receive greater quantities of gold- who end up shutting gold buyers out. Alternatively, once their Earth-tied bank account dries up, gold purchasers end up in the same situation as the non-payers.

It's not the gold farmers. They might be better off than the refusers, non-payers, and payers alike, but only by a bit. See, they're one of the few making money from this trade, even if it's mere pennies on the dollar compared to what their employer is truly earning. They're getting $65 a month on average. And I don't think there's so many individual gold farmers that $9 billion got split into $65 per head.

You probably guessed it- the jackpot winners are the gold farming companies and gold brokers. These guys manage the industry- they oversee the employees, posting of products, profits, and direction of the industry as a whole. The gold farming companies manage the workers (as well as the 'facilities' they work in), and the gold brokers present the services and products in a consumer-friendly fashion. It's evil synergy at its finest.

While the companies are too numerous (and/or hidden) to mention, the brokers are quite easy to find. For instance, here's America-based IGE, also mentioned in MTV's report. Be sure to give them your love in the worst way possible.

Anyway, although this 'brief touch' turned into an article all its own, I hope you enjoyed MTV's (and my own) look into this complex underground market. There's tons more to learn, so I hope you join me for the all-encompassing coverage to come. More links and sources abound, to be sure.

Check out MTV's Gamer's Week 2.0 for further game-exclusive coverage, and whatever you do, don't fall into the gold-farming trap.

No comments: