A Philosopher's Blog

Gold Farming

Posted in Business, Ethics, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2010

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The rise of games like World of Warcraft has led to a new economic niche, that of the professional gold farmer. 

Since I am most familiar with World of Warcraft, I will discuss farming in this context. However, there are other games in which farming takes place. 

A professional Warcraft gold farmer earns his living by playing the game and accumulating game gold.  These farmers typically work for a company that then sells the gold to players.  The players who buy the gold then use it in the game, typically to buy expensive items like epic gear or the highest level of flying skill. Not surprisingly, such farmers have to work long hours (known as “grinding”) in order to accumulate enough gold. Also not surprisingly, many of the gold farmers live in China and are paid very little. However, the pay is relatively good-at least compared to the usual pay scale in China. 

It is, of course, somewhat ironic that a gold farmer’s work is what so many people do for fun, namely playing Warcraft. Apparently the farmers find their job to be both fun and boring. 

In addition to the farmers who grind to sell gold, there are also people who steal Warcraft accounts and use this to make money. This is not, of course, the same thing as farming. However, it is suspected that some farmers do use stolen accounts so as to avoid having to pay the monthly fee for playing. Gold selling is also supposed to often be a cover for credit card theft-people use their credit cards to try to buy gold only to have their credit card number stolen. Obviously enough, such thefts are uniformly condemned. While the ethics of theft can be debated, it seems reasonable to accept that this sort of stealing is wrong. 

As far as the practice of farming itself, most players profess to hate it. There are, however, presumably enough players who buy the gold to make the practice worth the effort. As far as the ethics of the matter, there are two main arguments against farming/buying. 

The first is that it violates the TOS for the game. If it is assumed that people should stick with their agreements, then the practice of buying and selling gold would thus be wrong. Naturally enough, there is the question of whether such a limit should be in the TOS. Interestingly, one of my friends contends that Blizzard actually drives the buying and selling of gold by making things rather expensive in the game. As such, players who do not have the time to grind for countless hours might be very tempted to buy gold so they can get their fast flying skill or buy that epic gear at the auction house. 

The second is that gold buying is cheating and that selling the gold is enabling cheating. If it is assumed that cheating is wrong, then clearly buying and selling gold would be wrong. In this case, it is cheating because the player did not earn the gold within the game and is thus gaining an advantage due to a factor outside the game. This could be compared to using steroids in sports (although it is obviously far less extreme). 

Of course, players can get gold from their friends and this would also seem to be on par with buying gold. After all, having friends who grind for gold would confer an advantage over players who lack such friends. But, perhaps it is the fact that the gold is purchased with money that somehow makes it unacceptable.

However, purchasing advantages in sports seems to be perfectly fine. For example, an athelete who can afford to buy a top of the line racing bike has an edge over someone who cannot. Yet, this is not generally regarded as wrong. Likewise, it would seem that a person could buy gold in WoW and be acting like the person who buys the expensive bike.  

In my own case, I do not buy gold. In addition to the reasonable worry that my credit card would be stolen, I also prefer to play games within the game rules. Also, buying gold would, at least for me, tend to damage the suspension of disbelief that I enjoy when playing a game.

A final point about the farmers is the concern that they are being exploited. This is no doubt true (just as all workers tend to be exploited). However, playing WoW for a living seems to be far better than many jobs.

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Twinking in WoW

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2009

In sports, athletes often seek things that will give them an advantage over their competition. Provided that this is done within the rules of the sport and ethics, this is not cheating. In role playing games (both classic paper versions and online versions), people have long sought to create characters within the game rules to maximize their effectiveness. In classic role playing games, this is often called “tweaking”,  “minmaxing” or being a super nerd. In online games like WoW, there is a special sort of tweaking known as “twinking.”

While all sensible players try to make their characters effective, twinkers are folks who get a character (or characters) to a specific level, stop there, and then do their best to maximize their character’s capabilities in various ways within the game system. In WoW people tend to twink at levels 19 and 29. The reason is that the PvP (players fighting other players rather than computer controlled monsters) battles are divided up into brackets of 10-19, 20-29 and so on. As such, a character at the top of the bracket has a considerable advantage over the lower level characters. In WoW, a level 29 character will have 9 more talent points, better attributes, as well as better and more abilities than a level 20 character. As such, they will demolish lower level characters. Also, despite Blizzard’s best efforts to balance the classes, certain classes (such as Hunters) tend to really dominate these levels because of how the class abilities match up.

Serious twinks go beyond merely stopping at level x9 (such as 19 or 29) and twink their character all the way. This involves getting the help of other higher level characters (or using a high level alternative character) to get gear, gold, enchants and other items for the twink. For example, a level 19 twink can be run through instances (dungeons) that would normally slaughter a character of that level and get the best gear for that level (Blizzard sets level restrictions on gear, so a level 19 character can only use gear for level 19 characters or lower). There is considerable difference between the “crap” that typically drops from monsters and what can be acquired in the right instances (either as drops or quest rewards). Also, a twinker can use gold to buy items in the auction house (where players can sell stuff to each other). Not surprisingly, level 19 and 29 top of the line items sell for small fortunes. While this means that other players can make gold by selling such items, it also means that most normal players can never afford the really good stuff for their level.

Twinking certainly works. I play in the battlegrounds regularly and can see how hard core twinks will tear other characters apart. While some of this is due to the skill acquired by experience, much of it is due to the better gear. In WoW, characters of the same race and class have the exact same attributes and base skills. While a player can customize his character with talent points, the real power differences comes from the gear.

While I really like PvP combat, I do not twink my characters. I’ll continue to level up through normal play. In fact, I try to get my characters past level 29 as quickly as I can. Fighting twinked out level 19 and 29 characters is rather annoying.

As far as why I don’t twink, the main reason is that it seems like it would be a bit boring playing the same unchanging character over and over again. Part of the fun of a RPG is leveling your character, doing new things and facing new challenges.

I also don’t twink because doing so would feel a bit like intentionally staying back in school so you could compete (and beat on) younger and weaker kids in sports. Imagine a 20 year old who stays in high school to compete and is backed up with professional level support (coaching, training and so on). Sure, he’ll do great against the kids, but that seems a bit silly and more like bullying than competiting.

While I do love to win (and have piles of sports trophies to prove it), what I love more is competition. Some of my best races have been ones in which I did not win or even place, but I ran as hard as I could and did my best. Likewise, when I compete in the battlegrounds, it would bore me to have a character that is twinked up so much that I can sweep through others.

In the latest major patch for WoW, characters now gain XP for achieving goals in PvP. As such, even if a twink just does PvP, he will eventually gain levels and thus find himself a twink no more. However, Blizzard has added an option for players who want to stay twinking: for a modest payment of gold, a character can be set so that he does not get XP at all. This can, for another modest payment in game gold, be removed. Interestingly, the folks who have the XP switch turned off will only be fighting each other in the battlegrounds. As such, the serious twinks will be twinking against other twinks only and everyone else will be fighting non-twinks.  This will no doubt change the PvP dynamics quite a bit.

I suspect Blizzard took this option so as to still allow the twinks to twink while also allowing “normal” players to enjoy PvP more. After all, numerous people have told me they tried PvP but gave up because of the twinks. I do think that twinkers will enjoy their twinking less now. After all, they will battling other twinks rather than “normal” players with average gear.

Some folks see twinking as cheating, but it isn’t. After all, the twinkers are staying within the rules of the game and are not doing anything that anyone else could not do if they wished to spend the time to do it. If they were hacking the game, then they would be cheating. Sure, twinks are annoying-but they are playing the game within the same limits as everyone else.

I can see how some people really enjoy twinking their characters-trying to get all the best gear and making their character into a killing (or healing) machine. If that is what someone really enjoys, then that is fine with me. After all, the point of the game is to have fun. If twinking is your thing, twink away, twinkmeister. But, I am glad that I won’t be seeing you on the battlefield ever again.

Hand Reckoning

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on January 24, 2009

In the most recent patch, Blizzard added the Hand of Reckoning spell to the Paladin. This ability is a taunt that finally enables a Paladin to engage in ranged pulling. Prior to this, Paladin Pulling meant closing with the enemy and getting their attention in that manner. There were some obvious disadvantages with this. For example, since Paladins could not pull a monster (yeah,I know they are called “mobs”, but I’m marked by years of D&D…a mob is a crowd, a monster is a monster) from a distance, they ran a greater risk of accidentally pulling unwanted monsters. The standard WoW pull is like a classic mugging-you lure a monster away from its friends and gang up on it. Now Paladins can enjoy what other classes have long enjoyed.

The ability works well, although it does only one point of damage.  When I first saw that, I thought “one point of damage? Seriously?” Of course, its intent is to pull so damage is not really critical. Also, giving the Paladin an effective  general opening ranged attack would be a rather radical change to the class (and one that might create balance problems). I’ve found that it changes my play dynamic quite a bit, especially in groups. Since my Paladin, Xathon,  is Protection specialized, it helps me start the fight with the aggro. In my normal group, my main job is to stay alive while everyone else pours on the DPS-so this makes my job much easier.

The Hand of Reckoning can critical-I’ve seen that mighty “2” damage pop up over monsters. That is a bit funny. It will also kill most critters instantly (I had to try). So, you can use the power of the light to blow up squirrels from a distance-just as the light intended.

The name is a bit odd, though. All the other Paladin Hands are beneficial spells applied to the Paladin or other characters. For example, the Hand of Freedom frees the target from snares. “Reckoning” is also an odd term as well. In my group, we jokingly call it the Religious Pamphlet-I imagine my character is throwing a rock with a religious pamphlet attached to it.

Xathon: “Okay, I’ll pull the troll to the left.”
Goldstein: “Y’all do that. I’ll start shooting him when he gets close.”
Xanu: “I’ll loot him when he dies.”
Xathon: “Pulling now.”
Troll: “What the hell? Did that Paladin just hit me in the head with a rock? What’s this tied to it? Is that a religious pamphlet? No, I don’t need to be saved by the Light…Hey, this says I’m a filthy infidel! You son of a…I’ll kill you!”
Goldstein: “Here he comes! I’m shooting him in the face!”
Xanu: “Hack! Stab! Hack!”
Troll: “Arrgh, my spleen…save me Evil God of the Bad Trolls!”
Xathon: “The Light will save you. Specifically, the Judgment of Light I’m dropping on you…then my hammer.”
Troll: “Hey, stop looting me…I’m not dead yet.”
Xanu: “Sorry. Stab. Hack. Execute!”
Troll: “Blooorp…”
Xathon: “By the blessings of the Light…yadda…yadda…I’ll roll greed on that Blue.”

The Brilliance of Warcraft

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on December 15, 2008

Although friends of mine had already been seduced back into the World of Warcraft, I held out until shortly after the release of the Wrath of the Lich King. Although I have two level 60 characters, I ended up starting a new character-that was “the plan” I agreed to with my friends Dave and Ron.

When I first started playing WoW a few years ago, I approached it like an online version of D&D: I tried to get immersed in the story, I sought the toughest challenges and brought my loot back to the vendors to sell. As such, I tended to miss out on the true brilliance of the game.

This brilliance is not the story, the setting or the game system. The story is standard fantasy with some sci-fi elements thrown in. The setting is quite familiar-a fantasy world with plenty of things to kill and loot. The game system is based on the usual class and level system (plus all sorts of hidden math that would, no doubt, boggle my mind).  The brilliance of the game is in its power to suck people in to play, play and play some more. To do this, the folks at Blizzard have made brilliant use of the classic mechanics of seduction and addiction. As such, WoW can bee seen as akin to Las Vegas, only with elves, loot, and instances instead of hookers, gambling, and fancy hotels. Oh, and throw in some eBay/QVC in there as well.

I could write volumes about the psychological mechanics Blizzard has used in the game, but I’ll just briefly hit on three.

First, there is the frustration/reward system. This is a classic mechanism in which the frustration of a task is finely balanced against a reward. The challenge is to make the task frustrating enough so that there is a feeling that the reward is earned but not so frustrating that most people just give up. This is the same sort of approach used in those county/state fair games of “skill” in which you play dozens of times in order to win a crappy $2 toy. Dating also involves the same sort of thing. In WoW, you have to grind through kill after kill to get decent treasure or to finish many quests. For example, you might need to get 8 gnoll paws from gnolls. But it turns out that the gnoll tribe you have been sent to decimate is mostly made of pawless freaks: you kill and kill, but they have no paws to loot. Just as you are about to give up, you find a paw. So, you keep on going until you are just about sick of it, then another paw drops. The whole game is full of this sort of stuff and this keeps people playing and paying.

Second, there is the auction house. When I first started playing, I didn’t visit the auction house. It seemed a bit weird to my classic D&D mindset and I also did not find the idea of playing eBay very appealing. But, my friends were sucked into it-they spend hours buying and selling fake items for fake gold in the auction house. This no doubt provides the same charge people get from buying and selling on eBay.  So, people will spend hours gathering up things to auction off to other players and then use the gold to buy things that other players are selling.

Blizzard has brilliantly designed the game so that most people will not find what they need while playing. For example, I worked my night elf druid to level 60 and found only fairly weak items in the course of adventuring. Put crudely, my equipment and weapons were crap. Meanwhile, my friends were buying top of the line gear at the auction house. The genius of this system is that some players play for countless hours to get the very rare good items. They then auction them off to other players who have less luck or less time. To buy the good items, you need lots of fake gold, so the other players need to do other time consuming things to get the gold they need to buy the stuff they want.  So, everyone is playing and paying for a long time.

Third, the game has various professions such as the mundane ones like, mining, fishing and cooking (really) to more esoteric ones like enchanting and alchemy. Some of the professions involve gathering-you go around mining or picking flowers to gather ore or herbs, for example.  Some of the professions involve creating items and these require every rarer raw materials. So, you need to get all the stuff you need to make things and then spend time making them. This creates a virtual economy in which people spend hours working at gathering fake resources and making fake items. Pure brilliance on the part of Blizzard. In real life, you have to pay people to do that sort of stuff. In WoW, people pay to do it.

Of course, Blizzard did not come up with the system overnight. The previous games of Diablo, Diablo II and the Warcraft series gave them perfect test beds for the various systems. For example, Diablo II showed that people would play countless hours hoping that good treasure would pop out of a dead monster.

Yeah, I do play WoW. But, I do my best to avoid getting caught up in the stuff that merely eats my time without being really fun. What I do enjoy is adventuring in a group and being able to play a game without being the one who writes up the adventures and runs the game.

Returning to World of Warcraft

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 26, 2008

I played World of Warcraft for a bit over a year before losing interest. But, the release of the Wrath of the Lich King and the return of some friends to the game has restored my interest.

While I still have my original WoW disks, I did not have the Burning Crusade (which is needed to use the Lich King expansion). Fortunately, the World of Warcraft Battle Chest can be had fairly cheaply. It is a fairly good deal-you get the WoW DVD, the Burning Crusade DVD and the two strategy guides for the game and expansion. I got mine for $25 on Amazon, which was well worth it.

Installing everything is fairly straightforward, but I have the following advice.This assumes that you are doing what I did-doing a new install of WoW, BC and WLK.

Begin by installing the original WoW software. Once it is installed, start getting the updates via the Blizzard updater. You do not need to have a paid account to do this. However, you will (obviously) need to create an account in order to be able to play. You’ll probably see numerous error messages popping up that actually do not cause any problems-I saw them and so have some other folks. If the install is going fine, don’t worry about them. The first few updates will be fairly quick and the updater will even begin to download the newer updates in the background. Naturally, each update changes the program-so you will need to manage any firewall or other defensive software you have going. Otherwise, the download will be stopped.

After a few “small” updates, you will soon hit a huge update (more than 2 GB). I started the download and went to sleep-it was supposed to take several hours. If you do this, be sure that your computer is not set to sleep, hibernate or otherwise cease activity (use the power management control panel in Windows). A friend of mine found that after he had left his PC downloading, it had gone to sleep and the download stopped after about 300 MB.

Once the big download is done, you’ll have several more updates to go through, but these will be fairly quick. Interestingly, when I put in my Burning Crusade DVD, the only option was to play BC rather than install it. I infer that the BC files were already installed. Check to make sure that the same is true in your case before moving on to the Lich King.

Before you install the Lich King software, be sure to update your account to the Burning Crusade (if you have not already done so). Go to account management and chose the upgrade option. You’ll need to upgrade again to the Lich King by putting in your Lich King activation code (located on the disk sleeve). You can do this even if your account is still not active (paid).

Put the Lich King DVD in and select the install option. It will install away. Then go through the upgrade process again-this will be fairly quick.

If you are not interested in the Burning Crusade or the Lich King, you can simply play without installing them or upgrading your account. However, you will not have access to the “premium” content (new races, new areas, etc.). Also, the monthly fees are the same whether you stick with just the basic WoW or have both expansion sets installed. You do need both WoW and BC installed to install the Lich King, however.

Once you give Blizzard your money, you’ll be ready to play.

Back to Warcraft

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 17, 2008

It has been one of those long days and I have no profound thoughts left. So I’ll ramble a bit about Warcraft.

I played Warcraft I, II and III and when World of Warcraft came out, I started playing that. Like most people, I became a bit addicted to the game. However, after getting an Alliance and a Horde character to level 60, I started to get tired of doing the same quests over and over again. The Burning Crusade was supposed to come out at some point, but it did not arrive soon enough and I stopped giving Blizzard $15 a month to play in their world.

When the Burning Crusade came out, I was not even tempted. I was Warcrafted out. When I heard about the Lich King expansion, my interest increased slightly. This was mainly due to two words: “Death Knight.” I’ve been fond of Death Knights since they first appeared in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Fiend Folio, 1980). The original Death Knights were fallen Paladins transformed into lich like beings by one of the demon princes (probably Demogorgon). They proved to be a popular monster and have been copied often in various games. Although I’ve run Death Knights as a Dungeon Master, I’ve never played one as a character. Having the chance to do so is rather appealing.

Of course, World of Warcraft is a major time pit. Since Blizzard makes more money the longer you stay in the game paying the monthly fee, things take a lot of time. They have brilliantly found the balance between being so slow that most people leave and so quick that people are done before being properly shorn of as much cash as possible. My friend Dave claims that the game has been improved in this regard. That is probably true, but it would still be a major time commitment.

I did order the Lich King. Yeah, looks like I’ll be back in it again-if only to play a Death Knight for a while.   Christmas Break is coming up and what better way to get in that holiday spirit?