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I think the actual sense of unfairness emanates from a much more fundamental issue: the gameplay associated with progression in most MMORPGs isn't fun. It's tedious, it's repetitive, and it's time-consuming. The "leveling" part of most MMORPGs can best be described as an extremely long tutorial you're obliged to complete before you're allowed to start playing the real game. As long as no one can skip it, it's fair because everyone suffers equally, but if there were a way to pay and skip the level grind, it would feel unfair primarily because of how unpleasant the leveling experience really is.
The big concern is that, if these games did start directly selling max level characters, they would also unfairly elongate the leveling process to encourage more people to pay their way to the top. Players have developed a strong sense of unjust game development due to free-to-play game designers who produce barbaric "games" in the hopes that players will pay to avoid having to play them. If Blizzard were to roll out a paid service for instant max level characters without shortening their leveling experience to less than a few hours, players would be waving their pitchforks in the air and faces would roll.
These fears are also based on a large number of Asian free-to-play games with extremely harsh "free" environments and a heavy emphasis on forcing players to buy power and progression from item stores. "Free-to-play", perhaps, but definitely "pay-to-win".
But it's important to note that the crucial difference between these systems and what I was previously describing is the difference between paying for an advantage that cannot be obtained without buying it from the item store and paying for progression that can be obtained by taking the time to do it yourself. Pay-to-win is not the same as pay-to-progress.
En Masse Entertainment is uniquely positioned to comment on the notions of fairness in Eastern and Western MMORPGs. It is currently in the process of bringing a Korean MMORPG, TERA, to Western markets; not merely translating the game, but also "Westernizing" it to make it more appealing to Western audiences.
"As the game stands right now, there are very few items that cannot be traded or sold -- which is different than what players are used to in the West," explains Brian Knox, senior producer at En Masse. "The biggest economy change for the West is that we are evaluating which items in the game will be tradable and which items will bind when you pick them up. This has a huge impact on players' morale and sense of accomplishment: did you really earn this weapon, or did you just spend money and buy your way up?"
When Blizzard introduced "tiers" of raiding content in World of Warcraft, especially in the Burning Crusade expansion, it dramatically changed the meaning of "gear" in MMORPGs. Weapons and armor used to be more than tokens compiled into a gear score; they used to embody the tales and accomplishments that went into obtaining them.
Everyone I know that played pre-WoW MMOs -- games like Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, EverQuest, and Dark Age of Camelot -- could spin a grand yarn of adventure about at least one piece of equipment they had. Many of those pieces of equipment weren't even the "best" of their type, but the rarity and surprise of getting anything special added a great deal of magic to that style of game.
With its refinement to raiding tiers, WoW introduced the concept of gear progression. Progression through raid content was heavily dependent on acquiring the previous tier's gear. You had to get everyone in Tier 1 gear to do Tier 2 raids, and then get everyone into Tier 2 gear to do Tier 3 raids, and so on and so forth. Gearing up became as trivial as leveling up. And, just like XP, all of this gear had to be obtained first-hand. It was all bind-on-pickup.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the same "Chinese gold farmers" who were selling leveling services quickly began to offer raiding services: they would take your character through a raid and get you all the raid gear. Once gearing up became mere progression, it became a time sink… or, optionally, a money sink.
What's ironic is that the whole reason the gear was bind-on-pickup was to ensure a sense of fairness to enforce those accomplishments. You had this epic gear because you raided, not because you bought it from someone else who raided. That sense of accomplishment was part of the rules and circumventing that accomplishment by paying someone to get you the gear was cheating.
The player outcry against "raid farming," however, was dwarfed by outcry against Blizzard's own actions.