Saturday, March 8, 2008

Interview with a Gold Seller

Another short interruption of my holidays, for an unusual post: Instead of writing just my opinions or news copied from elsewhere, this is actual original news, an interview, and thus the closest I ever got to "journalism". I frequently receive offers by e-mail to advertise in exchange for money various companies selling virtual currency. I always tell them that I don't do any advertising on my blog, and especially not for gold sellers, and usually I never hear from them again. But in this one case I got a polite reply, which developed into a discussion about the reputation of the real-money trade (RMT) industry. The discussion of the issue on MMO blogs is heavily lopsided against RMT, because the people who sell gold usually don't participate in that discussion. So I thought it would be a good idea to give somebody from the industry the opportunity to express his point of view. Chris Bottomley, the Marketing Director of MOGS agreed to be interviewed by me.

Tobold: As introduction, could you tell us your view of what MOGS is doing, and what your role is in the company?

Chris: First off, thanks a lot for arranging this interview Tobold; we appreciate the chance to put over a perspective of RMT that's seldom visible between the forum flame wars and Chenglish press releases.

Whilst not trying to use too much marketing-speak, MOGS provides MMORPG gamers with virtual currencies and services using an approach that's secure and geared toward ingame needs. I mention our approach not as a mean of shameless self-promotion, but rather to differentiate ourselves from shady (Chinese) service providers out there.

We also work closely with gamers and suppliers in the USA and Europe to buy-in currencies on a variety of games. We've developed a network of trust among Western suppliers so that we don't need to rely on workrooms in China.

My role within the company is to communicate our unique position to gamers, make them aware that they can deal with a reputable American company without paying a premium. Many of our new customers are under the illusion that Chinese RMTs, though a risk to deal with, are significantly cheaper than companies like ourselves – they're pleasantly surprised when they discover that's not the case.

Tobold: In our e-mail exchange you mentioned Chinese competitors destroying the reputation of your industry. How does your company differ from other RMT companies?

Chris: Like night and day. MOGS has been born out of a passion for gaming, all our staff are MMORPG gamers themselves and thus have a deep-rooted understanding of gamer needs. In contrast, the companies in China are almost all established on the back of venture capital, so they've no need to understand or respect the needs of gamers or the standards we have in the West. I don't make this judgement based on ignorance or prejudice; prior to working with MOGS I spent 12 months with a large Chinese RMT company, so I'm very familiar with how the RMT business is treated in South East Asia.

MOGS is completely independent and registered in the US, so we have to be accountable. Operating in a way that's legitimate and sensitive to the needs of our customers is the only way we can operate. If we were to indulge in the practices of our Chinese counterparts (stealing accounts, not delivering currency and then lying about it, using leveling accounts to farm Gold etc) then, as an American company, we would be liable to be sued for malpractice. Have you ever tried suing a Chinese company? It's virtually impossible, and the Chinese RMTs know and take advantage of this on a regular basis. This is what has given the industry the reputation it currently suffers from and it hurts more than just the practitioners of these ill deeds. In my view, this lack of accountability is the core reason for gamers mistrusting RMTs and who could blame them?

The problem is amplified when you bring in venture capitalists as a factor. By pouring money into these illegitimate operations, they are enabling them to spread misleading information to millions of gamers in the hope that they can gain their trust long enough to take their money. Due to their lack of service quality these companies cannot grow organically; they can't retain customers and so must spend to bring in new ones. Conversely MOGS is independent, free from outsider investment and unable to match the advertising budget of the likes of IGE and THSale. We've gotten to where we are today through delighting customers, having them come back again and again, and ultimately growing the company through word-of-mouth.

Tobold: Virtual items paid for via PayPal are not protected, the buyer can't charge back the money if he doesn't receive the virtual items or currency he paid for. But gold sellers demand payment in advance, so there is an obvious danger of being scammed when buying virtual currency. How can legit RMT companies build trust? I'd guess it would be hard to get references even from satisfied customers, because few people would admit buying gold.

Chris: This is an issue that works two ways and we would love to see PayPal deal with both. If you're making a purchase with your account balance, then a dispute will almost certainly go the way of the illegit RMT. However, if you use a credit card you can reverse the payment with the credit card company directly, and there's literally nothing the RMT can do about it. Obviously this is a much safer option for the gamer but it also leads to large amounts of fraud with cyber-criminals purchasing currency, reversing the payment with their credit card provider and then re-selling the currency to the same company. PayPal need to recognise both issues and put in place measures that protect legitimate buyers and sellers against the undesirables out there.

Tobold: What drives your business? Why do you think that players are buying virtual currency for real money?

Chris: I don't think there is one single reason. Buyer motivations range from not having sufficient time to go through the grind and enjoy other aspects of the game, to simply wanting a competitive advantage over friends or rivals.

We've established ourselves and continue to operate on the basis of enhancing gaming experience. Some players don't agree with these "enhancements" and believe it goes against the spirit of the game, which we completely respect. We're not in the business of making everyone agree with us or enforcing ourselves onto gamers (which is why we don't conduct ingame advertising or mass-mail spamming); if a player does not approve of our services then they have the choice not to deal with us.

Tobold: Blizzard recently won an injuntion against RMT company Peons4Hire, but interestingly was sueing them for spamming, and not for gold selling. Do you feel at risk from possible lawsuits from game companies? Do you think that the legal argument of game companies that all virtual currency is part of their intellectual property and thus can't be sold would hold up in a court of law?

Chris: The legal issues faced by RMT companies is certainly an ever-present risk and should encourage RMTs to operate in as fair and legitimate manner as possible. The Peons4Hire injunction was completely just and I'm glad Blizzard are taking measures to minimize ingame spamming. There needs to be more action of this type in games such as Guild Wars, where there is often more spam than legitimate chat.

Where does the intellectual property line lie? I'd feel uneasy answering that one not being of legal background. For years gamers have debated over whether developers will take legal action against RMTs and whether or not virtual trade is legitimate. Personally, I don't believe Blizzard would ever take action because it simply does not make business sense for them. MOGS doesn't force customers to buy virtual services; we're not holding your family with a list of demands. The fact is that gamers, for whatever reason, feel they would benefit from these services and Blizzard recognizes that RMTs keeping World of Warcraft gamers happy and continuing with their monthly subscriptions makes sense for them.

After posing this perspective I'm often asked, "So why do Blizzard ban RMT accounts then?", and the answer is always the same. To open a WoW account requires both a CD Key and subscription, but as Chinese credit cards are not accepted this become a 60-day pre-paid game card. A Chinese workroom would pay around $35 for both these resources, the majority of which goes right into Blizzard's pockets. As a rough estimate based on experience within Chinese workrooms, I would say 200,000 workroom accounts were banned in 2007, 99.5% of which would have been replaced by a new account (with a new CD key and pre-paid card) right away. Based on these numbers, the banning of Chinese "Gold Farmer" accounts was worth approximately $7,000,000 last year alone. Now you can better understand why RMT continues to exist and why legal action against RMT is extremely selective.

Tobold: One of the main tools of game companies in fighting RMT is banning the accounts of the sellers. Is that just a cost of doing business for you? Interestingly there is very little known evidence of gold buyers getting their account banned. Do you think your customers are safe, or do they risk losing their account when they buy gold from you?

Chris: Second question first; we have NEVER had a customer lose their account on World of Warcraft, or even incur a suspension, due to purchasing Gold. Going back to the points above, the last thing Blizzard wants to do is alienate gamers who feel they need the support of RMT to better enjoy their gaming.

Accounts being banned is a factor for the majority of the industry, though I'm happy to say we've not had a WoW account banned since April 2007. Blizzard has introduced a lot of processes to identify Gold farmers and sellers, including advances in Warden and a metrics-based system, but mainly it comes down to an IP sweep. They know that Chinese workrooms will continue to buy accounts regardless of how often they're banned and that they are the most likely to engage in undesirable practices, so this tried and tested method claims most RMT accounts.

Tobold: Recent changes to World of Warcraft delay the arrival of gold by mail, whether sent directly or via the auction house. Does the future of gold selling in WoW involve meeting in dark alleys of Ironforge or Orgrimmar?

Chris: The mail delay was brought in shortly after the introduction of metrics testing; looking at character behaviour as a means of identifying farmers/traders. As far as we can see this is a buffer period in which Blizzard can further inspect who you are and whether you're legit. Gold can still be sent via mail securely, but extra measures must be taken in order to ensure this. Rather than give up on mail, we've developed a system that allows us to continue to utilize it and guarantee it is not deleted in the inbox.

This is another measure, however, that whilst hindering illegit RMTs in one sense, benefits them in another. It seems that many Chinese RMTs are using "it must have been deleted in your inbox" as an excuse for incomplete Gold orders. If you request Gold to be resent you will either be ignored or schooled in the fine art of Chinese RMT logic e.g. "We sent it, you didn't get it – it's not our fault!".

The mail delay is another half-baked measure put in place by Blizzard to create the perception that they're fighting RMT, when they're really counting the profits from all those banned accounts!

Disclaimer: I have not bought any gold from MOGS and thus cannot vouch for their claims. No currency, real or virtual, changed hands in exchange for me posting this. This post is an honest journalistic attempt of showing a subject from a different angle, not an endorsement of RMT.

So here you have it, the other side of the story. I do find the concept of there being "white hat" gold sellers interesting, as most of the complaints I hear about RMT are about things like bots or gold spam, and not so much about the selling of gold itself. Earlier claims that RMT will bring the WoW economy to a crash haven't come true, after over three years the WoW economy actually appears more stable than the real world economy, in spite of a multi-million dollar RMT industry all selling WoW gold. If it was really possible to separate RMT from it's secondary negative effects like scams and spam, the only remaining objection is that buying gold is cheating. Which it certainly is. How serious a crime you consider cheating in a video game to be, I'll leave for your personal ponderation. I'll just give you to consider that the answer very much depends on whether you consider MMORPGs to be competitive or cooperative games.

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