[10 April 2008]
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)
He wants justice in the mystical world of Azeroth, protecting warriors, warlocks and rogues from what he calls a conspiracy threatening their way of life.
Antonio Hernandez plays “World of Warcraft.” It’s the most popular online role-playing game in the world, with more than 10 million subscribers paying to create characters who go on quests, kill monsters and earn “virtual gold” in fantastical realms. The world—a direct descendant of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”—even has its own carefully calibrated economy. But an outside force threatens the game’s integrity, Hernandez says. He has called on his fellow adventurers to join him as he takes a stand. The battle won’t be fought with wands or swords.
It will be waged in the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse. The former assistant manager at an Orlando-area video game store is suing a company he says sells “virtual gold” from the “World of Warcraft” for real money. He wants IGE U.S. banned from selling gold—a practice commonly called “gold farming” or “real money trading”—because it hurts the game’s economy and ruins the entertainment experience, according to the lawsuit. Virtual gold, earned within the game, can be used for such things as buying and repairing equipment or learning new skills.
The case is thought to be the first of its kind—a lawsuit filed by a player seeking to ban “real money trading” within a virtual world. Hernandez wants a judge to certify the case as a class-action lawsuit, another potential first when it comes to lawsuits involving online role-playing games.
The legal fight is being closely watched by the fledgling field of “virtual law” and passionate “World of Warcraft” players.
“The real significance of this case is, `What are the rights of the (virtual world) community members when they go online?’” said C. Richard Newsome, Hernandez’s attorney.
Devout “World of Warcraft” players argue that people who buy gold are akin to baseball players who take steroids. Gold should be earned by each player by doing such things as completing quests and slaying monsters, not with a checkbook or credit card, they argue.
Attorneys for IGE U.S. have argued in court papers that Hernandez and other players have no standing to sue because they have no ownership or property rights within “World of Warcraft.” Hernandez’s lawsuit fails to show how he suffered actual damages, according to legal filings by IGE U.S.
In addition, IGE U.S. is no longer involved in the virtual gold business, said Miami attorney James M. Miller, who is representing the company. He declined to elaborate further.
“The stakes are high and our intention is to address (the lawsuit) in court,” Miller said.
In addition to the lawsuit, the Florida Attorney General’s Office has opened a consumer protection investigation into IGE U.S. The state sent a subpoena to the company in December, demanding documents detailing “the sale of World of Warcraft gold to consumers in the state of Florida.” IGE U.S. is fighting the subpoena.
IGE U.S. had a Boca Raton office, but it is no longer open, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
Newsome argues that when players subscribe to “World of Warcraft,” they are bound by an agreement that specifically states they “may not sell items for `real’ money or otherwise exchange items for value outside of the (virtual world).”
Gold farmers damage the game’s economy, making it harder for the typical subscribers, who pay $14.99 a month, to earn gold through regular play, Newsome said. That means they have to spend more time on the game gathering gold to compete, he argues.
“This loss of time, conservatively, amounts to hundreds of thousands of hours of subscriber time and causes the irreparable harm of driving subscribers away from World of Warcraft,” according to Hernandez’s lawsuit. “The economic harm incurred by this loss of time is in the millions of dollars.”
And many players can’t afford to buy gold, Newsome said. In at least one instance, the cost of buying 80,000 gold coins was $2,399.94.
Newsome said Hernandez is unavailable for comment while the litigation is pending.
Hernandez does have at least one high-profile supporter of his lawsuit—the company that produces “World of Warcraft,” Blizzard Entertainment.
“We believe that shutting down gold farming and real-money transfer is in the interest of all `World of Warcraft’ players and that a victory in this case would have a positive long-term effect on the online gaming industry as a whole,” said Paul Sams, Blizzard Entertainment’s chief operating officer.
Greg Lastowka, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Law who is writing a book on virtual law, said there have been instances where game manufacturers and “real money trading” companies have gone to court, but this marks the first time a player has launched such a legal attack.
“This (lawsuit) has more of a feel of a community trying to enforce its rules rather than a game company trying to enforce its power over the participants,” said Lastowka, who has done consulting work for Newsome.
Since the lawsuit was filed in May, Newsome said he has received a deluge of e-mails from the “World of Warcraft” community offering support.
It’s not uncommon for serious “World of Warcraft” players to spend 20 to 30 hours a week in the online world, Lastowka said. One such player was Nelson Izquierdo, who at his peak was playing the game 40 hours a week.
Izquierdo, a 22-year-old student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, said he can spot gold farmers because they often stay in a specific area, killing the same monsters over and over again. In addition, it’s not hard to spot players who have spent money to buy gold and weapons from online companies, said Izquierdo, who in “World of Warcraft” was a Level 70 warrior named Swisher. He is not involved with the lawsuit.
“They show that they have no skill,” Izquierdo said. “The guy who has spent time on his character will come out on top. ... You feel more worthy of your gear and your character when you put the time into your character.”
The people who buy gold typically are professionals who have disposable income but don’t have the time to invest in the game, said Craig Kelly, an Art Institute instructor who teaches video game design.
And the people collecting gold for real-money trading companies are largely from overseas, working in “gold farm” rooms filled with other “World of Warcraft” players. There have been estimates that there are more than 10,000 gold farms in China alone, said Ge Jin, a University of California San Diego graduate student who is making a documentary on gold farming.
Many gold farmers in China play the game 10 to 12 hours a day in an atmosphere Jin describes as “a mixture of boredom, exhaustion and fun.”
“Most of the time it’s just a job for them ... killing certain monsters in certain areas repetitiously,” Jin said.
Kelly said that despite the lawsuit, he believes real money trading will remain a “fact of life” for online games.
“It’s supply and demand. As long as people are willing to pay for fake money, there are going to be people who (sell) fake money.”
THE WORLD OF WARCRAFT
“World of Warcraft” is an online fantasy game in the mold of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “Dungeons & Dragons.” Players go on quests across mystical lands, slaying monsters. Since its Nov. 23, 2004 release, it has become a phenomenon.
It is the most popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) in the world with more than 10 million subscribers. Available in seven languages, there are more than 2.5 million subscribers in North America, two million in Europe and more than five million in Asia.
It’s getting harder for nonplayers to ignore. It was featured last year in an episode of the comedy “South Park” and in a commercial for the Toyota Tacoma. In addition, there are TV commercials for the game featuring William Shatner, Mr. T and Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer.
U.S. subscribers pay $14.99 to play “World of Warcraft” after installing the game on their PCs. An expansion of the game—“World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade”—sold 2.4 million copies within 24 hours of its Jan. 16, 2007 release.
HOW GOLD FARMING WORKS
Virtual gold: “World of Warcraft” players are paying real money to buy “virtual gold” that can be used in the game. It’s a practice called “real money trading” or “gold farming.” Here’s how it works:
Gold farmers: First, there are gold farmers—people playing the game with the intent to gather as much “virtual gold” as possible. “Virtual gold” is commonly collected by completing quests and slaying monsters. Gold farmers often live in developing countries, playing the game for up to 12 hours a day. They are logged onto the game through accounts controlled by a real money trading company.
Online market: The real money trading company advertises the “virtual gold” on its Web site. Customers select how much gold they want and usually can pay with a credit card or through PayPal. The customer also gives the name of their character—also known as an avatar.
Special delivery: The company sends the virtual gold to the buyer’s avatar through “World of Warcraft’s” in-game mail system.
Shopping spree: The gold can be used to upgrade an avatar’s equipment or skills.
Real-life legal issues arise from online virtual worlds. Along with the lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale federal court, these and other cases have been filed.
Pennsylvania attorney Marc Bragg filed a lawsuit in October 2006 against Linden Research, the maker of the virtual world Second Life. In Second Life, people can buy and sell their own virtual property, even virtual real estate, for real dollars.
Bragg alleged that Linden Research wrongfully kicked him out of the game, confiscated his virtual land and prevented him from accessing the $2,000 in real money he had in his Second Life account.
Bragg, who went by the name “Marc Woebegone,” reached a confidential settlement with Linden Research in October with his Second Life account being restored.
A Tampa Bay-area company that creates scripts for virtual sex encounters in Second Life sued a Texas man the company accused of stealing its design for virtual sex toys and selling copies. The virtual sex toys allow Second Life users to have their avatars perform sex acts with other avatars within the virtual world.
Eros LLC reached a settlement in March with the man, who agreed not to copy or distribute any items sold by the company.
Blizzard Entertainment is locked in litigation in Arizona federal court with MDY Industries, a Phoenix company accused of selling software that automates game-play for “World of Warcraft.” The software allows players to increase their experience levels and accumulate gold without being at their keyboards.
Blizzard Entertainment is arguing the software violates the terms that all “World of Warcraft” players agree to when they subscribe to the virtual world.