By introducing real money auctions for virtual items in Diablo III Blizzard has upped its game in the fight against illegal 'gold farmers'.
For online games such as World of Warcraft where it can take months or even years to forge a strong character, time is money.
Forget monthly subscriptions and microtransactions. There are thousands of gamers out there willing to pay hundreds of pounds – illegally – for a fast-track ride to the top.
Right now you can search the web for high-level accounts and receive the most powerful in-game characters, weaponry and items within minutes of making payment (and maybe pick up a computer virus on the way). Don’t want to spend months reaching the level cap in Warcraft? Not a problem. Rubbish at Final Fantasy XI? Doesn’t matter. You can buy your way through the games.
Although these sales aren’t as prolific as they were four or five years ago, they’re still a problem. Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft was heavily plagued by ‘gold farmers’ in its early days – players who use computer-controlled ‘bot’ characters to harvest virtual currency and rare items before selling them on websites in exchange for real money.
Blizzard has stamped down on illegitimate websites and eBay sellers in recent years, but the problem persists. So if Blizzard can’t beat ‘em, why not join ‘em?
The developer-publisher has announced it is introducing an in-game auction house system in upcoming PC online RPG Diablo III. But not any old auctions – ones that allow players to spend real money on virtual goods.
Users will be able to buy, sell and trade digital items such as swords using real-life currency, with sellers taking the majority of the sum and Blizzard taking a small cut for each transaction. Gamers can still opt to trade using virtual currency or simply exchange items for other items.
“The real money auction house provides players with an easy-to-use, Blizzard-sanctioned way to collect money for items they obtain while playing Diablo III,” says a statement on the Diablo III auction house page.
“It also helps protect players from the scams and theft often associated with questionable third-party sites by providing a secure, completely in-game method for purchasing and obtaining the items they want for their characters.”
Although Diablo III is not the first online game to feature such a system – Sony introduced it to EverQuest II players years ago – with Blizzard adopting the payment model it could have massive implications on the illegal virtual item businesses across the globe.
Gold farmers will still get to play and trade items in-game, players won’t be as tempted to surf dodgy third-party websites and Blizzard takes a small cut of every sale made in-game. Everyone’s a winner. Almost.
Blizzard will still face problems battling those who sell accounts online. Because although the real money auctions are a welcome addition, they only apply to items. There will still be a black market for characters with entire accounts going up for sale. Blizzard may own the rights to every character on their servers (with players simply paying to control them), but keeping an eye on 11m users is a huge strain. There will always be a few that break the system.
Blizzard may never stop gold farming and those who use in-game bots to level up characters quickly. But by embracing this business Blizzard has not only retained a tighter grip on the buying decisions of its players, it’s taken one giant step towards blocking out the black market entirely.