['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column rants about the SOE White Paper, RMT, and the future of real money in virtual worlds.]

World of Warcraft Auction HouseAt the end of last month, eBay confirmed that they intend to pull every auction for 'virtual artifacts' from their site. From WoW gold to Neopoints, Real Money Transfer (RMT) fans will have to look elsewhere for their goodies. While initially I found this a fascinating move, after having it pointed out to me that eBay has threatened this before (many times before, in fact) I had to re-evaluate. Worldwide, RMT is a multimillion (billion?) dollar business now. The success of World of Warcraft has made companies like IGE buckets of profit, while outfits like Second Life and Entropia are drawing the attention of non-gamers to the possibilities of virtual currency. The last time eBay threatened this, there hadn't been serious discussions of taxing your virtual property put forward by the U.S. government, and Sony Online wasn't running its own virtual sales service. With new information on SOE's business now out in the open, it's easy to see that the very few auctions processed by Ebay are chump change compared to organized, RMT-specific services.

So what? Well, the success of IGE and the Station Exchange will mean big changes for Massive games in the future. Like it or not RMT is so phenomenally profitable that increasingly, companies will be unable to ignore it as a component in their game design. Whether this results in designers intentionally making games dull or relying on RMT to make games grippy, things are going to have to change. Today I'll be mulling over the data from the Station Exchange white paper and theorizing on some ways the monetizing of play will change the next generation of Massive games.

RMT It's Easy As ABC 123

If you haven't had the chance to read the entire paper yet, I suggest you do so. It's relatively short and chock full of data. Of course, if you don't like Real Money Transfer (RMT) you're going to find it horrifying. In its pages the worst fears of RMT-haters are confirmed in black and white datamining. If the information SOE has unearthed can be applied to RMT trading in general (no certain thing), MMOG purists have a rocky future to look forward to. On the Station Exchange servers some 25% of the user base participated in RMT. One can assume the percentage is lower on servers and services where RMT is discouraged. Just the same, the willingness is obviously there. If players have the option to circumvent playtime, they will. All these hours of lovingly crafted content are, through the eyes of around a quarter of the playerbase, obstacles to get around. Both Damion and Raph, two guys who should know what they are talking about if anyone does, specifically phrase RMT as 'a means of skipping the boring parts.'

SOE ExchangeThis is disconcerting, to say the least. I know a lot of folks are rushing through Burning Crusade to get to 70 ... but aren't these games supposed to be about having fun? Isn't the time and hard work of these developers something to be enjoyed rather than circumvented? That was my understanding, anyway. For more serious gamers, too, the popularity of RMT would seem to negate their advantage as well. If a player can pay cash for something it took a dedicated raider hours to earn, where is the incentive for the hardcore to stay hardcore?

This speaks, in general, to a disquieting problem with the genre of Massive games as a whole. When EverQuest and UO were first released, they were built on the backs of MUDs; text-based realms that served as homes-away-from-home for their players and administrators. Community is a hell of a lot easier when you're talking about a few tens or hundreds people, and every well-developed MUD I've played has made community and interaction one of the primary components of the 'game'. Initially, I think EQ was aimed in the same direction ... but if that was true once it certainly isn't now. EQ, SWG, DAoC, and all the other mishmashed acronyms represent huge time investments that are just not conducive to enjoying yourself with your friends. City of Heroes, a severely under-appreciated game if there ever was one, is actually criticized by some gamers for letting you play with the people you care about regardless of your 'level'. They see this as some sort of egalitarian nonsense; when did actually having fun become nonsense?

Servers split friends away from each other, levels divide the 'have times' from the 'too busys', and the lesson we're being taught from these companies (tacitly and in some cases directly) is that you can have all the fun you want ... if you are willing to pay. Money greases the wheels for server transfers, to get you back together with your friends. Money greases the wheels for buying gold, or even having your character power-leveled by another player (the ultimate in vicarious 'fun'). What's wrong with this genre, with our gaming culture, that paying people to have fun for you has become not only an accepted element but a lucrative business?

The Dark Future

The element of the paper I found most disconcerting was the inclusion of this statement all the way at the end: "Since the income generated from auctions is predictable, and can be controlled, it may offer new ways to monetize game play. It is already clear that the possibility exists of creating an MMO in which the virtual economy is a core component. This would not work for all game types. But in the cases where it does work, would provide a powerful way to keep subscribers glued to the game." Mr. Smedley responded to my objections over this statement with the following: "Hmm.. well, I would disagree that it is a bad thing ... To me the idea that an out-of-game economy can exist and people can make money by participating in a game they love is amazing. However, I have to emphasize that I think it's important we design with this in mind. ... The key is to design games in such a way that "farming" just isn't possible or beneficial. Make it about creativity. Make that the source of rarity. Then I think we're on to something huge." As Abalieno points out, that sounds an awful lot like Google ads on a blog; like a 'game' meeting up with capitalism and making out in a back room.

A ChartI wholeheartedly agree: subscriptions are a bad way to do things. We need to move to a new way of doing things, games need to change with the times. But this? This is a sickness in the genre. This is a pox on the face of future Massive gaming. How are parents going to feel safe letting their kids play a game when they know junior could wrack up a massive credit card bill just buying armor? What has always been a relatively reasonably priced way of getting a month's worth of entertainment could become a serious financial wrestling match for less financially solvent gamers. For the price of one movie ticket gamers have always had free and unlimited access to their game world, a game world where they could hang up their hats and forget (for a short while) the problems and frustrations of modern life. Forcing a college student to decide between bread and a piece of content, giving a MMOG addict a direct shortcut to financial ruin; these are very much the trappings of the modern world, and they have no place in Massive gaming.

To my mind, opening our arms to Real Money Transfer is the wrong direction down a slippery slope. Why not reexamine your games, developers, and figure out why it is people are paying perfectly good money to avoid all your hard work? Last night while playing EQ2 I rapid-fire clicked through some quest text, and commented to my party members how I was invalidating the career choice of some designer as I did so. It's an overstatement, of course, but if a designer spent half an hour designing that quest and most players breeze through it to get done, that was half an hour wasted. This is now an industry where players are spending their paychecks to skip through the entire contents of a game. If RMT is the future, why not develop a game where players can just pay to be popped to max level with some decent gear? Cut out the middle man, reduce customer service, and improve on the bottom-line all at the same time?

While I find the data in the white paper fascinating, I find its conclusions chilling. Gaming is a hobby. I take it very seriously, as do a number of other people, but gaming is a big part of my job. For most players, for the average player, gaming is supposed to be about having fun. How is a player supposed to have fun if the same have/have-not bull that makes 'real life' so challenging intrudes on the game world? How will a casual player feel if he knows 'all he needs to do' is drop 50 bucks and he can be playing with his friends again? These kinds of questions are precisely why a lot of people play Massive games in the first place. Force real-world economics on most Massive players, and I think they'll respond by just leaving. Why would anyone want to play a title where real-world economics are something you have to consider when starting the client? Console games, traditional CRPGs, casual games ... Yahtzee ... there are lots of ways to have fun without having an inferiority complex or a bill handed to you. I think most gamers are smart enough not to stand for it, and developers should beware the urge to test the limits of a player's dedication to the Massive genre. After all, there's always another game.

Aside: I do want to point out that I'm not targeting these comments specifically at SOE, Blizzard, the Station Exchange, WoW, EQ2, or John Smedley. I think this is something the whole of the genre has to deal with, and Sony's white paper just provoked a lot of thoughts along these ends. Take with a grain of salt, as always. Thanks.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]