As I said in my recent post Buying Things in Games, there is a brisk trade in online games that typically operates outside the official rules of the game. This trade continues even though various companies make an effort to stop it. A few make it “legal” and provide infrastructure for it.
Many game companies, especially Blizzard, seem to be run by purists. A purist (my contextual definition) is someone that thinks that the game is the game is the game and nothing should interfere, in particular that there should be no “special privleges” or any bias. IE: you cannot buy gold, you cannot cut any corners. This is fine in many games, but MMORPGs have various characteristics which make this point-of-view suck.
I’ll generalize them into one bucket: The Grind. Anyone that has played an MMORPG is familiar with the grind. You grind for money. You grind for experience points (to level). You grind for honor. You grind to get items (repeat the same dungeon over and over and over until your eyes bleed to get that one item you need). Sometimes the grind is fun. Most of the time it sucks, but you do it because you are addicted, your friends need your help, you just have to have that item, you want to keep up with your friends, etc.
Sometimes though, you have real life. Real life interferes with the grind. Wouldn’t it be great if somehow you could skip the grind? Especially when it sucks. Well thanks to eBay, the web, and money, you can in many cases. You can buy gold, you can pay someone to play your character, etc. But some people view this as cheating. (And lazy, which, well that’s probably true.)
I have a different view. We’ll call it the Prince and the Pauper.
In real life, some people have rich parents and/or trust funds. Others don’t. The second group has to do everything the hard way. The first group gets through all the hard, boring, mundane crap with ease not due to skill or hard work, but due to the chance circumstances of their birth.
The same thing is true in most fantasy novels. (I use fantasy novels because that is the genre of many MMORPGs and everyone is familiar with at least some fantasy novels even if in many cases it is Harry Potter.) In virtually every fantasy novel one of the characters has some great advantage due to their birth – they were blessed by the gods, they have some special magical abilities, etc. Harry Potter is an obvious example. Somehow we love those characters even though they are not necessarily successful because of hard work and effort but because of luck (of their lineage).
So, how does this apply to games?
In games, the circumstance of your “birth” is really who the character’s player/owner is. Many characters in MMORPGs are played by high school and college kids. They have lots of free time and not lots of money. To get the things they want, they just play a lot and work really hard at the game. To them, the grind is ok. It doesn’t have a natural trade-off.
If you have a job, you might not be the prince, but you are further up the scale. You probably have some disposable income and you have at least one big time sink (your job). So you can’t play as much as you might like and you also don’t want to be playing a game that feels like a job (the grind often feels like a job). So you think, rather than doing something that I don’t want to do for 20-30 hours (roughly the time it would take to accumulate enough gold to acquire your level 60 mount in WoW) you might decide that spending $150 is better. On the other hand, you might think throwing that much money into a virtual item is a waste and instead grind out gold for 20-30 hours. The answer to this is pretty much determined by how you value your time. If you have a ton of money and not a lot of time it is an easy choice, the reverse is also true. In the middle it is fuzzy.
Getting to the point: this is not cheating or bad or evil. It is just like reality and fantasy (novels). Some characters/people are blessed with a lucky birth. Others are not. Some view it as unfair, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t reality.
This type of reality is certainly the case in social environments like Second Life. If I want to go spend a million dollars buying virtual real estate or anything else I want, that’s great. Other people might make a million dollars starting from virtually nothing by developing premium properties (which has already happened: you can read about Anshe Chung becoming a virtual millionaire.) I point this out only as a contrast to the generally held POV of this activity in games. I think game companies should remove that stigma and embrace it. Some are starting to do that, but not all of them yet.