Blizzard, Diablo 3 and sweatshops – part two

Believe it or not, I’ve had quite a response to my previous piece on Blizzard’s Diablo 3 announcements, what they mean to gold farming, and what gold farming has to do with sweatshops. I say believe it or not, because the responses have been exclusively conveyed to me on other websites and via social media. Rather than, you know, in the comments thread of the actual article. So, as I think that those debates deserve to be aired in public – it’s clear that people disagree with me, and I don’t want my website to pretend otherwise – I’ve collected some of the arguments I’ve heard, and my responses to said arguments.

  1. But EVE Online has an open market too!
  2. Firstly, just because EVE Online does something doesn’t make it automatically brilliant. If EVE Online told you to jump off a bridge, would you?

    There are two, more significant points coming out of this argument. That I’m not railing against EVE, but I am railing against Blizzard, and that if EVE isn’t awash with gold farming, then we can assume Diablo 3 won’t be either.

    So, why the selective focus? Two reasons. One: because Blizzard are more important. No bones about it. EVE Online is big: as of the end of 2010, it had 357,000 active subscriptions (warning: link is to a pdf). However, compared to the 11,400,000 active subscribers to World of Warcraft (as of March 2011), it’s nothing. As of 2010 there were still 11 million people playing Diablo II and Starcraft online,. That’s the original Starcraft, not Starcraft II. So it seems a fair assumption that Diablo 3 will have a number of players far in excess of EVE’s. Quite simply: what Blizzard does matters an awful lot more than what CCP does. Two: CCP openly ban gold farmers, and penalise people for buying in game currency from them. Blizzard are suddenly vocally supporting the practice. Oh, and CCP have a system in place to try and make gold farming obsolete in place, which you’ll see below.

    As for whether EVE is awash with gold farming… once again, two things. One, EVE Online does have a problem with gold farmers. Two, it was enough of a problem that they went to some lengths to mitigate it – lengths which mark their system as vastly different from the proposed system in Diablo 3: simply, the PLEX system. You can read about it in full over here, but the long and the short of it is that CCP allow players to sell subscription time to other players in exchange for ISK – in game currency. In short, there’s a direct way for people to buy their currency, without having to deal with any middle men, making gold farming all but irrelevant.

    I’m not saying that CCP’s approach is perfect – there’s a reason that so much controversy has surrounded them in recent years. But there are reasons that I’m focussing on Blizzard, and not them.

  3. Blizzard can’t stop gold farming, so why even try?
  4. Once again, two answers (I really like pairs, it seems).

    One: who says they can’t? Companies are very good at lobbying governments, and at threatening individuals, when they feel financially challenged. Funny how those powers seem to dissipate when the problems only affect other people. Of course, it’s possible that, even were Blizzard to throw all its weight at the matter, it wouldn’t be able to deal with the problem entirely. Which brings us to the second issue:

    Two: precedent, and hypocrisy. Specifically, the precedent they have set for themselves to fight piracy and cheats at every level, even though they will never be able to stop piracy or, er, cheats. Their forcing of players to be online at all times for Diablo 3 has received far more coverage than the issue of their auctions, because of what it means for players who want to play on the move, or who have limited or unreliable internet connections. Blizzard’s argument is that it’s the only way to stop people cheating when they do go online. What most have read into it, is that it’s the most effective way they can think of to stop day one piracy, much as Ubisoft have done.* If course, this won’t stop piracy of the game altogether. Indeed, it will actually make pirate copies more desirable to anyone who wanted to play the game offline, as pirate copies will inevitably remove the DRM, allowing players to play the game in their own way. Blizzard are fighting the tide, but because it’s their bottom line at stake, they won’t back down. Gold farming, though? That’s a much less pressing issue. Might as well just roll over and let it happen – and hey, why not profit from it at the same time? It’s that attitude, that perspective, which is the problem.

  5. The introduction of a legitimate trading system might actually minimise gold farming.
  6. This is the one argument I can accept. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s how things will pan out, and more importantly, whether it does or not, it’s not an outcome Blizzard have posited, which makes it seem unlikely to be their intention in the first place, which counts for a lot. But I’ll go over that in a minute; first, two people’s arguments for this trading system leading to less gold farming:

    Person A:

    “Do you really think though that those sweatshops will be able to compete with people playing for free and for fun where there are a lot more of them?
    …I’m pretty sure I can sell my gold for a lot less than a sweatshop probably could manage and still be happy about the return I’d be getting. Not worth doing it as a job of course but then I wouldn’t be playing for that
    … If I played fairly regularly for a week and I wanted to sell off the excess gold I had earned it’s still maybe £5 better than nothing. In 6-8 weeks assuming I’m still playing I’ve paid for the game itself and I’ve not actually put in any more effort than playing for fun. You’re also talking about the market opening up. Currently these sweatshops are the only ones providing the service so they get all the money. If it’s made so easy that anyone can do it though then they suddenly become a small fraction of the suppliers. It doesn’t matter how little money I’m making per gold or item it’s still better than the nothing I was getting before and is in effect purely profit. There’s no way they can compete with that.”

    Person B:

    “ I would have thought it would discourage gold farming as an industry to allow anyone and everyone to sell their virtual currency. When there is no risk involving account bans, everyone’s a seller. With supply being much higher, the value of a commodity that can be so mass produced will likely tumble, if anything obliterating the benefits of ’employing’ a workforce to do such things.
    … I suppose even if adoption rates of this system are low, Diablo will have literally millions of players to choose from though, even if a small number of their rabid fan-base decide to make their entry into this business it should be enough to justify my statement above.

    Basically, these two people are arguing the same thing: that by legitimising the trade of gold and items, Blizzard will encourage normal players to sell their gold and items, thus increasing the supply. Increasing the supply will bring down the price, which will in turn price sweatshop gold-farmers out of the market.

    There are, yet again, two reasons I believe this won’t happen. For one, I think that legitimising the trade of gold and items, Blizzard will also increase the demand for them – knowing not only that they can legally buy such items without repercussion, but that it is an endorsed, in-game action that bears no stigma, will surely lead to larger numbers of players looking to purchase gold and items.

    Secondly, even if that doesn’t prove to be the case, I can’t believe that players will bring the prices down for gold-farmers. Quite the opposite. It’s important to remember just how little income gold farming sweatshops need to generate per head: from The New York Times article I linked to in my previous post, the going rate per worker works out at around 30 cents per hour, with the manager earning just over double that rate, per worker. Without the need to sell to middlemen, those overheads are so low that gold farming sweatshops can undercut everyone except, well, other sweatshops.

    The thing is, while any money earned is ‘free’ money to the average player, any players in richer countries – which is where the sweatshops target – would expect a higher rate of return than 30 cents for an hour of dedicated, undistracted gold generation. Players won’t drive the prices down below the levels that sweatshops can operate at: sweatshops will drag the market value down to their own level, and players will simply go along with it.

    But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my predictions will prove hollow, and this system will actually result in a decidedly gold farmer unfriendly environment. I really hope that’s the case. Unfortunately, whatever happens, that wasn’t Blizzard’s intention. The only mention of gold farmers that Blizzard made in connection to their decisions, was to explicitly support the practice – as quoted already in my first piece, Executive Producer Rob Pardo responded to PC Gamer by saying :

    “What’s the difference between a player that plays the game a lot and a gold farmer? They’re really doing the same activity. If you are doing an activity where all you’re trying to do is generate items for the auction house, you’re not making someone else’s game experience poorer. If anything you’re making the game better, because you’re generating items for the auction house that people want to purchase.”

    Irrespective of the results of their actions, Blizzard have used their announcement to endorse the practice of gold farming, ignoring the links between gold farming and sweatshops, and thus their responsibility to exert an influence on that sphere. And that’s indefensible.

*aside from Ubisoft’s precedent, the clues come from the previous Diablo titles, which lacked the requirement. How did they get around people cheating? By not allowing offline characters to be played online. The reason Blizzard couldn’t have allowed players to create offline-only characters in Diablo 3 should they so wish? Err…

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