A Menagerie of Outspoken Opinions on Science, World Politics, and Geek Culture

Thursday, April 28, 2005

On Ethics and EverQuest

There is a new trend developing in the online gaming world: The sanctioned buying and selling of in-game items for real-world money. It was perhaps initiated by Microsoft’s announcement that “microtransactions” will soon be available for the XBox2; gamers can upgrade the gear they use in XBox2 games via the purchasing power of their credit cards. Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) – creator of my beloved EverQuest II – has recently decided to follow suit, albeit only on a few select EQ II servers.

Riding a Griffon By the Qeynos Aquaduct Posted by Hello

Now, let’s be perfectly clear: There has always been a “black market” for EQII coin, items, and characters. There’s an entire company called IGE that is based around acquiring and then selling this in-game loot, and there are hundreds of private individuals who sell virtual gold pieces or high-level characters on eBay. But SOE has always opposed this practice, even going so far as to ban the accounts of players found participating in this “secondary market”. Over 700 of the very worst offenders were banned from EQ II just a couple weeks ago, in fact.

So why the sudden about-face?

Well, in SOE’s defense, they are facing a nearly impossible task trying to stop the sale of virtual goods for real cash. As an enthusiastic player of the game I can tell you first hand that it is very, very difficult to track the movements of in-game coin and items, and harder yet to prove that an illegal sale has taken place when such things are transferred between characters (people give each other items and money in-game all the time, and most of it is perfectly legitimate). But by setting up servers where this kind of play is legal, SOE hopes to control it: Those who want to buy and sell virtual coin, items, and characters will find it cheaper and easier to simply play on one of the Station Exchange servers rather than make illegal transactions with IGE or an eBayer on a regular server. Or that’s how the theory works, anyway.

I remain unconvinced it’s a good idea.

A Quest NPC in Nektulos Forest Posted by Hello

My problem with it isn’t that SOE wants a new revenue source, or that they are trying to beat IGE at their own game. I’m fine with both of those things. It’s the ethical aspect of all this that bothers me. On the EQ II forums discussion about all this has been, shall we say, spirited, and one poster asked what were the exact objections (both ethical and practical). I answered thusly:

Purchasing in-game items, coin, and characters with out-of-game money lowers the value of those things. A 50th level character is no longer someone who spent months mastering his class and learning about the world of Norrath; now he is just as likely to be someone who knows little or nothing about the game but had an extra $500 in his wallet. People who do not have that kind of money to spend - college students, those on disability, people supporting a family, whatever - can't compete. The game stops being about who devotes time and energy to it. It stops being about who is skilled and dedicated. It stops being about community and adventure and fun.

It instead becomes about who has the most RL cash to spend. It becomes about the things one has instead of the adventures and fun one had getting them.

As the game is now, when I see a 45th level Warden with the "Lore Seeker" title I know there's a serious, dedicated player on the other end of that character. Someone I might go to for advice, someone who I respect for their ability to play well and advance. But if characters and equipment and money can be purchased, that's no longer true. I'd be just as likely to be looking at an ignorant newbie who happens to have a high-limit credit card.

Those are the concrete reasons. The abstract ones are a little harder to explain - especially to someone who doesn't seem to see them at all - but I'll try:

Sportsmanship matters. What would football be like if anyone off the street could buy magic pads and cleats that made them run and hit better than Tyrell Owens? What would chess be like if you could purchase skill on eBay to surpass Bobby Fischer's? What would baseball be like if starting as pitcher for the Yankees was a matter of cash-on-hand instead of talent and dedication? Would any of those games even be the same? Would they be exciting to play or entertaining to watch? Not for me they wouldn't, and not for millions of others.

Tyrell Owens is amazing because of what he can do, and because his ability is the result of superb talent and long years of hard work. 1000 carbon copies of Tyrell Owens who simply purchased their skills would be far less impressive. They would, in fact, totally cheapen something that had been pretty awesome.

I'm not sure if this kind of thing can be taught. By early adulthood, one has either developed a sense sportsmanship, a love of the game, a sense of fair play, and a desire for honorable competition or one has not; if you don't see acquiring in-game advantages with out-of-game money as cheating then I doubt all the explanations in the world will sway your opinion. You're not a gamer, you're just someone who likes blowing shit up on your computer screen.

I think that purchasing coin and items and characters is flat-out cheating, and if it ever expands beyond the specified cheating-allowed servers I'll leave. Instantly and without looking back. I have no desire at all to play in a world where wealth trumps dedication and talent and hard-won skill (and for the record, I myself have plenty of money with which I could purchase characters or items). It's just not any fun that way, and the kind of people such gaming would attract are not the type I want to play with.

The ethics here are pretty simple; if you have difficulty grasping them I'm fairly certain the problem is with your ability to understand and not our ability to explain.

As it stands now, SOE is going to limit Station Exchange to one or two new servers that will be going online in June. As long as it stays there I have no complaints; if others want to buy their way through the game (essentially paying someone else to play part or most of the game for them) they’re welcome to do so as long as they do it over there. It’s none of my business what people choose to do in the privacy of their own homes … or their own servers.

A Minotaur in the Crypt of Betrayal Posted by Hello

If it starts to spread to existing servers, however, I’ll find a new game to play. EverQuest II has some serious competition coming out in the next couple years from Vanguard and Dungeons & Dragons Online. I love EQ II and would loathe having to leave, but if it becomes a choice between personal ethics and my favorite game, ethics will win out.

I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Note: I had originally stated that microtransactions were coming for the PS2; that was in error. They will be a feature of the Xbox2.


(All screen shots courtesy of guild Britannic Lore, Oggok server)