There are people who make money by selling things that don’t exist—even when the buyer knows the thing doesn’t exist. Out of curiosity about how this works, I picked up Julian Dibbell’s Play Money, which is a personal account of his experiences working the Ultima Online gold farming scene back in 2004. I use the term grey market throughout this post because selling in game goods is not exactly illegal, just a violation of the EULA with a company. You risk getting banned and losing your accounts, which can be expensive but not dangerous in the traditional sense. In economic terms, each MMO is probably best viewed as its own independent economy. No two are precisely alike in terms of how you get rich off them. Yet there are still a couple of basic principles that are universal, and I’ve tried to extract those from the book for this post.
It is not really all that big a leap for someone to start treating in game items as having real world value. A coin or bill is not actually worth something in the sense that you can eat it or use it for shelter. It’s a promise from your government to recognize and back up the amount that the item is worth so that people can exchange it for goods and services with confidence. Dibbell argues, “Money, arguably a virtual reality to begin with, cut its last ties to tangible value three decades ago when the world’s currencies went off the gold standard for good. Other financial instruments—commodity futures, mortgages—have billowed up into complex derivatives many layers of abstraction removed from the material goods they represent” (22). To give an example of this in action, the basic hourly income of someone playing Everquest was $ 3.42 an hour. Your character, the crap you’re collecting, and the gold that you’re accumulating all increase in value at a steady rate based on the game’s economy because everyone playing values it. The trick to that statement is turning all those virtual goods into value in the real world.
Normally I subscribe to the Richard Bartle idea of why people play MMOs. However, if you’re in the gold farming business, you’re better off viewing motivation from a more cynical angle. Dibbell recounts the experience of being killed and looted by an upper level player and the stinging shame of the whole experience. The moment proved insightful because it let him grasp the basic social mechanics that an MMO is replicating. He writes that it’s the same thing which, “kept most of us going to our jobs each day, or going to school. It was a desire not to fall to the bottom of the social food chain, a desire to rise through the ranks, to achieve and acquire as a way of marking our status within the massive monkey troop that is human civilization” (7), Which is why, outside of the usual diehards who always type the loudest on forums, most MMO players are ambivalent about grey market transactions. You can get the “Magic Knife of Awesome” through long hours of work, or you can buy it from someone in the real world who then gives it to you. Either way, you’ve made a sacrifice, so what’s the difference? (15). All that really matters is that you sustain the hierarchy and scarcity of goods so that there is always a distinct social ladder to climb. In the early days of online games, the experimental titles that let you do anything and started you out with everything in the game were always unpopular. People actually prefer being constrained and will pay money to be in an artificially scarce environment over ones where the world just hands everything to you (41). So, the first step into turning virtual goods into real money is understanding that there is a time and place for the exchange. An MMO cannot be 100% monetized or you destroy the fantasy, but monetization can find a balance with that system.
There are a couple of different techniques for exchanging virtual goods for cash. The first is to play the gold exchange rates off the in game items. Bob Kiblinger, a friend and advisor to Dibbell throughout the book explains, “Buy a million gold on E-bay for $18. Buy a spined runic kit in-game for 1 million. Sell the spined runic kit on E-bay for $30. Rinse. Repeat. You can buy things with gold, and then sell the item for more than the gold is worth in most cases.” (138) Like any “buy low—sell high” approach, you eventually want to start moving high end equipment if you want to make a real profit. Ultima Online was similar to EVE Online in that you could actually buy real estate and build yourself a house somewhere. A tower or developed account is worth $1,500 to $2,000 if you know the right places to unload it and how to nail the deal. The average player is selling it for $500 because it would take too much time and energy to unload it properly (45). This concept even extended to in game money. Ultima Online let people set up NPC shops that they collected cash from, so there was always that player who had a huge gold income and would be willing to get rid of it for cheap. Guilds are also ripe for selling excess gear because once they don’t need an item it’s just sitting there. You make some friends, you get them paid, and they call you back when they start to trust you (179).
The easiest resource to accrue with the least amount of time is money via bots that play the game on autopilot. A player with a trained eye will troubleshoot an MMO’s economy until they find a redundant, riskless activity that requires no complex thinking but produces a steady income of gold. In Ultima Online, it was everything from boiling chickens to producing bandages out of cloth. Raw chicken got you maybe one gold coin. If you boiled it the value went up, and you could sell it for two. Then you just hook an AI up to it, set up multiple computers to have multiple accounts performing this activity, and then go make yourself a sandwich while the money rolls in. Dibbell calculated that one of the more sophisticated set ups was drawing in $3,500 worth of gold per day doing this. The problem with this system is that it produces way, way more gold than the game’s economy can sustain. One of the caveats about an MMO is that just because goods are dropping in value does not mean players are going to stop accumulating them. Players will just keep going because they’re training skills to level up or just having fun. In theory, a developer dealing with a flooded market should just lower the pay out that monsters provide or introduce more gold sinks to burn money, but that screws over new players and pisses off current ones. So the prices must always be static when buying from NPCs and that means excess gold farming and selling can break the game (206). This is a problem because it won’t matter if you have a billion gold pieces if it isn’t worth anything in the game. Dibbell writes, “the value of gold, in dollars, slides ever downward while the price, in gold, of the game’s scarcest items rises as steadily as a hot air balloon” (89). As much as a gold farmer can be accused of breaking a game, they are also the most aware of how much damage that they can do before they have to quit and sustain profits. For that reason, the average gold farmer is often sitting on billions of gold coins spread over multiple accounts, but they have to pace themselves when selling it.
Developers combat this decay in a couple of ways. They can just release an expansion and introduce a tech bubble to the equation. This is a band aid solution to the problem because it introduces new goods and areas to exploit. In most MMOs, the developers will ban bots caught in the game and destroy such accounts. Some companies get around this by creating sweatshops in third world countries with Dibbell citing $19 a day being the pay rate of one that he planned to visit in Mexico. They usually rely on the same exploits that bots do but many of them farm dungeons for rare items as well. The most obvious solution then is to just fix or “nerf” the exploit that the gold farmer is using.
Whenever a patch breaks an exploit, there’s a scramble to find a new one. When an exploit is relatively unknown is when you’re going to be able to slam out the most gold. Eventually two things are going to happen: the GMs will notice you, or worse, the competition notices you. At that point, people will start copying the method (increasing the odds of getting noticed) or blackmail you into explaining how the exploit works by threatening to snitch. A rival gold farmer might also have a more sophisticated AI that is harder to detect or better connections depending on the servers that they operate out of. Obviously, a cartel of gold farmers that regulated the sale of gold and services could manage prices effectively and maximize profits, but these fall apart the same way that any organized conspiracy does. Someone gets busted, something goes wrong, people talk, and everyone just goes back to fighting (121). Dibbell narrates one incident where a cartel tried to blackmail another into giving up their exploit or else be turned in. The farmers sucked as much gold as possible out of the system, moved it into safe accounts, and turned the exploit over to the GMs just to spite the rival group (242).
Latter portions of the book are just Dibbell reposting stuff from his blog, which is a bit whiny and slowly shifts to talking about very personal problems. Dibbell had a rough year in 2004, and he ties all of this into his existential musings while discussing the business of Gold Farmer. The book concludes with his project failing to meet profit goals (255), If you have any fantasies about gold farming full time, Play Money is a reminder that it is a very, very tough business. Ultimately, Dibbell comes across as more writer than entrepreneur, and it shows during the long existential rambles about “What is real?” and whether or not the IRS is going to care about all of this. In that sense, the book is entertaining because you learn along with him how to be competitive in an MMO grey market while questioning the morality of such a thing. To be honest, if you’ve read one existential diatribe about how we’re supposed to feel about virtual goods, you’ve read them all. People will cough up real money for this stuff, and that’s more than enough explanation for most people.