Purity is Overrated

There was a bit of back and forth and back and forth recently between Tobold and Raph on the old RMT debate. What it comes down to, for me, is whether real-money trading is ultimately the worst of all possible evils.

Such a question would have seemed absurd to me not so long ago. I have been of the opinion that RMT is a disgraceful de-heroification of the noble MMO, in which achievement should be measured by personal and group effort.

The reality, of course, is far less romantic.

To say that RMT is due to bad design is an oversimplification. RMT is the result of a certain style of design mixed with a successful subscriber base and human nature. That is to say, when advancement is measured by the accumulation of items, levels, or money, a demand for those status symbols is created. And if there are means to exchange those forms of advancement for other things of value (which is typically done through systems intended to encourage socialization and cooperation), you have player-to-player trade, and eventually RMT.

As much as the gaming purist in me wants to join Tobold in giving a middle finger to the old fogeys of game design, I agree with Raph that the desire to eradicate RMT is not worth the hit to the social aspects of the game. His conclusion:

Fix the game design. Trading isn’t broken, your incentive structure is.

I think Raph’s phrasing is deliberately vague for good reason: there are many ways to address this issue. The majority of MMO players, though, probably think along a well-worn line. Find new ways to control trading, or impose other economic restrictions, or take a more active role in banning those who break the spirit of the rules.

None of that is radical enough.

A better solution is to think completely outside the box. You don’t have to take a hammer to the good parts of player trading in order to knock out the bad guys. You need to create a totally different type of incentive that transcends levels or gear or gold.

This can be done while still encouraging the accumulation of all three of those things, as well as a myriad of other MMO staples. But those need to be trumped by something even bigger… something not gated by RMT bait.

Of course you’re not going to completely stomp out the existence of RMT with such a system, but you will achieve the larger goal of rendering such transactions far less meaningful.

We can apply all the game-isms we want, but ultimately RMT exists because MMOs are not just games; they’re hobbies, and people enjoy spending money on their hobbies. That’s true whether you’re a train collector, a golfer, a cooking enthusiast, or an MMO player.

I have been a fairly die hard toy collector, and I’ve been frustrated at how unfair it was that professional toy dealers constantly beat me to the stores to find all the rare figures. The fact that I wanted them for personal enjoyment while they were just trying to make money disgusted me. Of course, they only made money because other people who had the same hobby I did were willing to pay money for someone else to do the legwork for them.

That’s what RMT is: consumers paying someone else to do the legwork for them so that they can enjoy their hobby. Is it “pure”? Who gives a shit? It’s human nature, and you aren’t likely to change it.

Instead, MMOs need to give players something unique to aspire to and enjoy that RMT can’t touch. This is what has to change about game design instead of trying to crush behaviors that encouraged the growth of MMOs in the first place. Let’s not trash the good parts of this burgeoning hobby just because some elements of it can be twisted into something unsavory.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

7 thoughts on “Purity is Overrated”

  1. “Instead, MMOs need to give players something unique to aspire to and enjoy that RMT can’t touch.”

    Excellent post and well said.

    RMT exists as a counter to the inherent problems in the current MMO design – MMOs reward time, not skill.

    It’s easy to see why so many people use RMT (and I’d guess it’s a staggering large proportion of players) when companies come up with game concepts like ‘harvesting’…

    RMT is incredibly admirable as it’s the human reaction and evolution to problems which exist in MMOs.

  2. “ultimately RMT exists because MMOs are not just games; they’re hobbies, and people enjoy spending money on their hobbies.”

    Great insight.

    For me at least, once I started playing MMO’s, almost all other computer gaming went out the window. The time commitment is intense, to say nothing of adding “that blogging thing” on top.

  3. I hearby claim my $1 dollar royalty payment for the hobby comment. Hope your having a good Christmas!

  4. All an MMO really needs to do is make sure farmers can’t trample regular players. I don’t really care if someone buys gold or items, what I hate is if the farmers selling that gold or those items blocked me from killing the mobs I want by monopolizing them. If they can’t do that to me, why should I really care?

  5. Imagine a game where the real status came from quested rewards which couldn’t be traded, which were based upon basic item templates which could be.

    In some of the more fun dinner table RPG’s I used to run, the items weren’t the real prize at the end of a given session – but rather the experience/legend/character points were. In many of the fantasy games I GM’d, I could hand you a magical sword and it wouldn’t matter how amazing that item was, you couldn’t get more of a bonus out of it than you could with a rusty spoon.

    The item itself wasn’t the end reward, but rather a beginning to an end.

    In many/most MMO’s today, there’s too much dropped loot to begin with. Players spend all time “farming” dropped loot to sell on the broker/auction house to other players just so they can later afford to buy a different piece of loot (which itself was placed on the broker/auction house by yet another player).

    In most of those old dinner table games I ran, making money was a big deal to players because they could afford more affluent lifestyles – not because they could buy better gear. Gear was secondary to skills or spells, and the best items could only be acquired through adventuring in dangerous areas anyway (you weren’t going to find a magical item up for sale in my games, because magical items were usually so prized).

    In many ways, I look back on this with some of my old players and we jokingly refer to it as the Stradivarius situation. I can take a top end Stradivarius violin (which can sell for millions of dollars) and hand it to a high school student who started playing the violin just a few years earlier and the quality of that instrument is completely lost. I may as well hit up a pawn shop and grab the first violin I can find, because the limitation on the musical quality is not with the instrument at that point, but with the student who isn’t able to fully appreciate it.

    So why do magical items in the big MMO’s suddenly enhance the abilities of players? Are the items the true equalizer…or is it the character? In World of Warcraft, buying gold is attractive because so much of the strength of a character (perceived or otherwise) comes from the items the character is wearing. The character’s level certainly factors into the equation, (which is why we see characters up for sale as well).

    The world view right now is that gear = improvement. Questing, adventuring, dungeon crawling, raiding are all simply means to a gear prioritized end.

    Shift the paradigm. Change the world view.

    Gear should be a starting point, not an end unto itself. The best gear should require ability to even use (in the form of earned player strengths/abilities/points) that have to be “spent”.

    Stop treating experience merely as an hourglass that measures when a specific line on the ruler has been passed and start treating it as the non-tradable currency upon which a player built economy is based. Because if you can’t read, what good will a book do for you personally?

    Create a situation where the real backbone of the game is based – not around the status items – but around the character’s own inherent skills. Items become powerful when used by powerful characters, not the other way around.

    You wouldn’t let a priest sell off his healing ability to another character, so why do we allow so much damage potential to be passed from one character to the next. Why is the sword the primary function by which damage is created, and not the character’s skill in using swords?

    Shift the paradigm. Change the world view.

  6. I agree but at the same time I think there may be only so much you can do. With so much $$ in this industry now, you’re always going to have tons of people and businesses constantly trying to figure out how they can make a buck off it.

    In a way it’s like tax loopholes (stick with me here). Corporations save billions from them, and every once in a while the govt. tries to shut some of them down. So the govt. shuts the loophole and the corporations hire the best lawyers and accountants money can buy to figure out a “legal” way around the new tax law. The tax savings they realize are 100x more that what they spend on the lawyers/accountants, so they do it.

    Then later the govt. tries to close the new loopholes, and round & round we go. Plus there’s so much money in it that some of the highest paying jobs for lawyers and accountants are at firms where you spend your day working on this stuff. That means most of the top graduates set their sights on getting those jobs. So the govt. is up against an army of some of the best legal/financial minds that this country produces. (Maybe an argument for the flat tax, but I digress.)

    Anyway, with mmo’s, especially warcraft (for now), there’s a huge financial incentive for professional players to figure out how to advance regular players through the game faster b/c tons of regular players will pay for that. So you’ll always have this army of professionals out there looking how to create the latest mmo loophole in response to the developers attempts to close them. None of this is news to any of you guys, I’m sure.

    Well I got my kids Guitar Hero III for xmas and just completed the easy stage. Then I jumped to expert and quickly realized I had no business being there. It wasn’t any fun b/c I couldn’t play at that level. Just can’t make my fingers work that fast (yet) and within about 2 minutes it sucked so I stopped and went to medium. Kendricke, I think you’re saying that this concept should be applied to mmo’s.

    It might be hard to apply that concept to mmo’s across the board, though, b/c with guitar hero, the entire game centers around finger speed, rhythm and hand/ear coordination, but mmo’s are more complex, and other factors come into play.

    For example, think of it purely from a business strategy point of view. Is tying success solely to player ability a business strategy that will generate the most $$ for an mmo? In a way, enabling people to purchase success in a game can have the effect of retaining casual players for longer, and that’s where the big numbers are, both in terms of number of players and dollars. But it can also be unfair to the truly skilled players who spent their own time developing skills, and it could end up chasing them out of the game, but again their numbers are smaller.

    So an mmo development company would likely try to strike a balance between attracting and retaining the maximum number of players (by letting people purchase success) while also trying to be fair to those who did it on their own. That’s a hard balance to strike.

    I don’t know, maybe we’re all saying the same thing, in which case we must all be geniuses. :p

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