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 Rift 's Hartsman: The Hidden Costs Of Gold Farming Hurt MMOs
Rift's Hartsman: The Hidden Costs Of Gold Farming Hurt MMOs
July 21, 2011 | By Staff

July 21, 2011 | By Staff
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

As part of Gamasutra's latest feature, an in-depth examination of how MMO economies really function, Trion Worlds studio general manager Scott Hartsman explains exactly how gold farmers hurt developers and players.

"If you're talking about what different kinds of fraud exist in the world, the ones that for us as a developer and a publisher, the kinds of fraud that concern us the most, are the actual credit card frauds," Hartsman tells Gamasutra.

The problem is that unscrupulous gold farmers turn around and perpetrate fraud on the same players take make use of their services, says Hartsman.

"Where you go buy gold from a disreputable gold site, and they say 'thank you' and deliver your gold, and sell your credit card number, or start registering accounts with your credit card.

"It's those kinds of things where people laugh and go, 'Oh, that never happens.' No. It happens. It happens a shitload. To the point where, over the last three or four years, I would dare anybody to ask an exec at a gaming company how much they've had to pay in Master Card and Visa fines, because of fraud. It happens a lot."

Unfortunately, he says, the effects of this on games are palpable: "Those fines are money that should be going into making games better, and instead they're going into fighting the fact that people are jerks in the world."

The full feature, an in-depth look into how the gold economy functions in MMOs, features quotes from developers and analysis from MMO economy expert Simon Ludgate, and is live now on Gamasutra.

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Martain Chandler
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"...Where you go buy gold from a disreputable gold site..." So there are reputable gold sites? Do tell.

Kelson Kugler
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I always thought gold farming businesses were fairly legit. Is the problem as bad as Hartsman says it is?

Kim Pittman
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Gold farming is far far from legit. First off, if they actually "farm" anything anymore, it's with bots, using hacks that put them below the ground so they don't have to worry about mobs.

Second, if someone is foolish enough to use their power leveling services, they find themselves hacked but a short time later, and stripped of all their valuables.

Third, if you buy gold, well, now, they know where they can get a ton of gold very quickly. They also have your contact information, which is likely the same for your WoW account. A bit of time on the phone with Blizz, and bam, now they have access to your account. (Of course, I feel these people deserve it.)

Fourth, if you get hacked/keylogged and are a member of a guild that can access the guild bank, they will strip it.

As far as I can tell over the last two years or so it has gone from farming gold to stealing gold. I doubt they have any problem with ripping off credit card numbers.

Franklin Brown
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I miss the days of honest Asian sweatshop gold farming.

Erin Hoffman
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I don't really follow the logic here.

There is a ton of credit card fraud on goldfarming sites *because* they are illicit, the same way buying drugs is dangerous because if you get ripped off the cops aren't going to take your case. It's a wild west.

But it's a wild west BECAUSE of the development attitude toward virtual currency, prior to the microtransaction wave that has catapulted entire new markets of online games into legitimacy. Clearly not only are there classes of players that want to be able to pay for their entertainment in smaller increments, these audiences exist within subscription MMOs, and a subgroup of those players are willing to risk credit card fraud -- which is equally if not more dangerous to the individual than to the developer -- in order to achieve it. If a credit card were stolen by a goldfarming site, the developer would likely never find out about it. Mechanically I don't even see how it would be possible.

This doesn't mean that subscription games that want to keep 'earning' based economies (the discussion of what constitutes earning is a separate congealed wicket) should go to microtransaction, or don't have the right to delegitimize goldfarming and try to stamp it out whenever they find it. But to say that goldfarming costs the developer in credit card fraud is bizarre. Goldfarming that results in credit card fraud does so toward the player, not toward the developer.

Controlling goldfarming is expensive, but it's a security expense that the developer opts into by essentially outsourcing the purchasing of gold to grey or black markets. Generating mechanics that prohibit gold selling are extremely difficult, so the response generally is to create overlay monitoring systems that target accounts suspected of engaging in goldfarming (which itself has an inherent cost in false positives, i.e. innocent players who get targeted and banned).

Separately, there is a credit card fraud cost in any business, especially an online business, that can be prohibitive, which is why there are so many virtual currency businesses like Vindicia and LiveGamer who know how to bridge relations with credit agencies. There is a ton of black market activity in online markets of all kinds, and certainly games; this is a serious issue but only very tangentially related to goldfarming. It is "real" crime that impacts both players and developers.

These issues are completely separate. I don't know if these were conflated by the editing process of getting his quotes in here, or if they're actually what he thinks, but in either case it's incorrect and clouds the problems around goldfarming, player rights, and economy design by saying "wah! goldfarming costs us money in credit card fraud!". The question is: what are your game mechanics going to do about it? You do control the vertical.