Many massively multi-player games have substantial parts of the game played and scored locally. The only way to get a sufficiently responsive gaming experience is to have the high speed game to player interactions local. Offloading some of the interactions from the server to the client is also an important way to reduce costs since the players pay for client side hardware and running some decisions locally offloads server and network traffic reducing the game providers costs. Off-loading some interactions to the client works extremely well at maintaining game responsiveness and reducing server-side costs but it does open up opportunity to cheat. If the client program can be modified or otherwise manipulated, a player can get an unfair advantage.
There are now markets for virtual merchandise like special armor, more powerful weapons, etc. These markets charge real money for “ownership” of virtual merchandise. That which another player has earned through playing the game can be transferred for use to another. Essentially there is a market for various forms of virtual merchandise and many of these transactions are conducted using eBay.
When the possibility of cheating by modifying or otherwise manipulating the client side game components is coupled with a financial incentive, cheating is almost assured. That’s exactly what’s happening in many instances. The December issue of IEEE Spectrum includes a story about Richard Thurman who, during his game manipulating days, had a fleet of 30 servers running day and night playing Ultima Online using modified game client software. At peak, Thurman claims he was making $25,000 each month.
Even without cheating, where there is value, there is a potential business model to be found. Companies, often called gold farmers, set up shop in low wage countries where employees play games 12 hours a day. Recent estimates peg the gold farming population in China at over 100,000 farmers. The bounty earned by each farmer is then sold for hard currency to players interested in the virtual asset. Gold farmers play by the same rules as ordinary players and typically use standard clients, but have some advantage in numbers. They can be more organized. Many players can gang up on a single foe that would be ordinarily very difficult to kill and execute the mission, reap the reward for their employer and move on to the next kill.
Clearly there are willing sellers of virtual wares. Some obtain their virtual goods by employing others, some using automata as described above, and some by the old fashioned way, by playing the game for hours at a time. There are also willing purchasers of virtual wares as evidenced by the traffic on eBay. Whenever there are buyers and sellers, there is opportunity to make the market more efficient by bringing together more buyers, more sellers, and helping to match their interests. Several companies have emerged to make markets in virtual goods. The largest example of a virtual to real world broker is IGE based in Hong Kong but there are many such companies out there matching buyers to sellers and taking a slice of each transaction as a fee.
The IEEE Spectrum article is posted at: http://spectrum.ieee.org/dec07/5719.
James Hamilton, Windows Live Platform Services
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