The Weekly Raid: Can Virtual Worlds Stay Separate From The Real One?

Another week, another Albion Online controversy. The fantasy sandbox MMORPG had a very successful launch last month but has had several major controversies surrounding it already.

The first involved changes to in-game ganking mechanics and was a perfectly normal issue that players could fall on either side of. This week's issue is far more complicated. In a reddit post with the hyperbolic title 'Albion Online is dead' a screenshot of an official forum post goes into the details of why a major guild, the Iron Bank, is quitting Albion Online.

The post claims Albion Online's sandbox economy is being used by Chinese gangsters to launder money and enrich criminals. The accusation goes something like this: Legit players/guilds cannot compete with the high silver bids for in-game plots of land that the gangsters are placing. The gangsters take part in a variety of shady activities including credit card fraud, gold selling, power leveling, and so on. The whole post is worth a read for the juicy details, but only serves as a piece of the puzzle for the questions I have.

The other big story regarding gold selling and virtual economies this week is The Washington Post's expose on Steve Bannon, Trump's Chief Strategist, and his ties to the now defunct king of gold sellers, IGE.

While gold selling and RMT have been with MMORPGs since the very beginning, they were often amateur operations largely run out of the basement of enthusiastic gamers themselves. The growth of the internet to the point where it is now part of every day life for nearly all of humanity has considerably blurred the lines between the real and virtual worlds. Many major MMORPG companies have given up trying to keep the two separate and now offer official real-world-to-virtual-world currency exchanges. Think World of Warcraft tokens and EVE Online PLEX. Other games like Black Desert Online have tried to stop the blurring in other ways, by restricting player trading and setting auction house prices for items.

There's no easy answer here. Personally, I don't think its possible to keep RMT out of MMORPGs in this day and age. But building RMT features into your game invites a host of other issues, as Albion Online is learning the hard way. There can never be a 'fair' sandbox if real-world syndicates (criminal or otherwise) are free to pour unlimited real-world dollars into the fight. Are we doomed to settle for pay-to-win business models like those found in mobile "strategy" games like Clash of Clans, or should studios try harder to come up with ways to wall-off their virtual worlds from real-world influences? Share your thoughts below!

Lifelong gamer always looking for the next virtual adventure. I'm still waiting for the next big MMORPG. Until then, you can find me hopping between multiple games.

  • ivan_

    if they're doing "criminal activities" outside of the game, can't do much. But if players really cared they could easily take them out. Put some game-wide bounties on these guilds, see any player from this guild on PvP = everyone teams up to fight them. Would make some fun guild hunting parties.

    The fun of faction/tax systems in MMOs for me is the possibility of revolt. Outside of game is a different issue altogether.

  • I'd love for MMORPGs / Virtual worlds to remain pure and give no advantages to rich people / people willing to blow thousands of dollars, but that's idealistic and impossible today. MMORPGs should be meritocracies and feel "fair", but as with real life, money is power. Even if game publishers don't allow RMT, it's been a part of the industry since forever. Nothing will stop buying accounts/powerleveling/etc.

  • EazyMakaveli

    its impossible to avoid RMT, but it is possible to design a game that is little affected by it.

    Albion's problem is that silver is everything. They could add some sort of Honor system in which the players have to PvP in order to be eligible to do certain things. Or even a rating system where the guild with the highest pvp score gets to have the best plot of land in the game and have diminishing returns for killing the same players over and over. There i fixed ur RMT problem.

    There always have to be a limit on what you can do with game currency and have other systems that involves the players actually playing the game.

  • I hate gold sellers just as much as the next guy. But, I do also think that the problem with using real world money in order to buy in game currency and power, generally speaking will not go away due to it making too much money for the devs. I don't think they want it in the game, but it's just too good to resist. Perhaps it'll take an indie dev with a heart of gold (haha, pun) in order to make a game that doesn't have this. Having said that, I do personally still derive enjoyment from working my way up through an mmorpg even when others are doing it in ways I don't agree with because I can sort of feel a sense of pride through it - I can tell stories about how I got to this point, I can talk about the grind and the fun parts of the journey, I can get that sense of satisfaction for getting this far and I know for a fact the people who got there through other means don't have any of that. And in a way, that feeling is satisfying in itself.