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!