As stated in my previous article, I think what might be acceptable products for micro-transactions would include xp bonuses, gold, and levels. This is extremely controversial I agree. People will generally think that this creates a game where people who have money in real life gain real power in the game. This isn’t entirely true though.
The problem is, there is already a discrepancy of classes within any particular MMORPG. There are people who have a lot of time (generally younger high school and college age kids), and people who don’t (generally adults with jobs). Interestingly, most of the time because the people with time don’t have jobs don’t have money this already (because they don’t have jobs). This already creates this class warfare within MMOs of rich vs. poor. (The exception of course is those who are independently wealthy and those with alternative streams of income, however I think these people are rare and probably don’t care if you start charging for certain aspects anyway.)
The main thing that you are doing by providing xp, levels and golds is that you are, in some ways, evening the playing field. I mean just because you have levels or gold doesn’t necessarily make you a good player, or even know what to buy with your new found gold. The people who play more are still going to know the game better regardless. This is more a recognition that someone who doesn’t have the time to sink into a game the way that some do, doesn’t mean they don’t want to enjoy the game in much the same way as others do. It is taking time out of the game a little bit which is actually good for your players.
The other aspect of selling gold and levels yourself is that you are fulfilling a market need. As much as we hate to admit it, those gold farmers are there for a reason, because there is a market for them. Banning players who sell gold or level up other players isn’t going to fix the problem, time has proven that. In fact I would say there are far more gold farmers out there now than there was five years ago, and even more than ten. The first few years of MMO success (EQ, AC, UO) there was little to no farming. In fact, the market was mostly made up of players who had invested so much time that they had gold to spare so they started putting up items and money onto eBay in order to essentially pay for their account (I actually did this myself). It wasn’t until the companies themselves started cracking down on the practice that it became more of a formal business with dedicated web sites and chinese workers. You could say that it is because of the companies that it is what it is today. After all, if they allowed players to eBay it themselves, then there might be far more competition than the Chinese would find worth getting into it.
It is in a lot of ways similar to the RIAA trying to sue players for stealing digital music. It largely isn’t happening because people are/were trying to get a free ride. It happened because the RIAA (and now the MPAA) was extremely slow to adapt to the new method of distribution. What iTunes proves is that people will pay if it is given to them in an appropriate manner. (Although the more they charge the less appropriate it gets).
I remember plug-ins in Asheron’s Call were largely thought of as a form of cheating, and indeed because the average player who walked in wouldn’t have known about them they were. Again this was a matter of a need not being fulfilled by the developers. The plug-ins wouldn’t have gotten so prevelant if the functionality that was there wasn’t provided by the devs in the first place (and much of the functionality that people were looking for was a really basic functionality too). Ultima Online had similar issues with Instant Messaging since they didn’t have in-game worldwide messaging at launch.
The point is, any time the developer doesn’t fulfill a need, the market will fulfill it for them whether they like it or not. Gold farming is just another plug-in or instant messenger. What you do as a developer by providing the player with the gold and levels yourself is you undercut the need for the Chinese to do it. Which in a lot of ways is good for your game. One of the main issues with the Chinese gold farmers is that they take server load and they take some of the best farming areas that valid players want to use. This instantly goes away if you just make the gold on your end.
It also gives you some sort of control over how it is instituted. You can limit it, such as my suggestion for people who gain levels to be unable to log in for a certain amount of time. Realistically, they can’t do better than this with the farmers because those people have to log in for the player. And if you are someone who lacks time but not money this isn’t a huge deal to you anyway as you might not be able to afford it anyway.
The downside of course is that you will get a large contingent of old school players who hate even the thought of this suggestion. I understand their worry about it. I don’t know if these players will be able to be convinced to see the light. They generally hate the money grubbing that this can feel like. But I do think they are living in a fantasy world (ironic eh?) if they think that there will ever be a valid way to combat gold farming without giving the players the gold and levels they want.