Monday, September 15, 2014

Microtransactions and Theft: Here We Go Again

In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor proposes some solutions to the issue of virtual good theft in MMOs.

Disclaimer: The following post does not represent the views of the IGDA, IGDA Game Design SIG, or anyone else except Gabby. Just wanted to get that out of the way.
Some of you might remember my other post about microtransactions from way back in February. It was a bit heated, but it spells out how I feel about them pretty well:  I don’t like them. I think they hurt the industry despite bringing in large amounts of money. Most people do not agree with me on this and have brought up pretty valid points. I love it when that happens. Intellectual debate is great; that’s how minds are opened and horizons are expanded. Then something happens to people like Mike Weatherley and all I can do is less-than-professionally laugh.

For those of you who are unaware, good sir Mike Weatherley has the esteemed position of being chief adviser on intellectual property to David Cameron (yes, Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron). In his off-time, he is also a gamer. Recently, he has experienced something nearly all gamers experience: someone stole his sword in World of Warcraft, one he bought with real-world money. His reaction to it? The political version of whining to his parents. I’m not going to get into how this may or may not be the morally right way to leverage his position, but instead focus on the experience itself.

Usually, microtransactions are used as a way to enhance a game experience. For example, extra lives or power-ups can be purchased in order for someone to have more fun playing while they’re waiting for the bus, rather than miserably grinding away until these advantages are natively available. This works wonders for bringing in money for the publishers and developers, so much so that it’s quite often taken a bit further than it needs to be, or even should be. The downside to this is that theft is fairly universal, and few things sour an experience than spending $5USD on a cuirass, for example, and having it be swiped from your account (along with other items that may or may not have been purchased with real world money). This is compounded when it happens in a subscription-based game, as it’s easy to view the situation as having been doubly robbed. At this point, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel upset and some people even ‘rage quit’ over the larger instances. At this point, the game experience is completely ruined. Not because of gameplay, graphics, technical problems, or really anything to do with the game itself, but rather the greed and selfishness of a group of players and the open door to them that is microtransactions.

I believe that game experiences should be enjoyable for everyone and I bet there are many who would agree with me. In order for this to happen, though, we need to fix how things are done. Mike Weatherley is of the opinion that thefts of digital goods ought to be punished in the same way that thefts of real-world good are. I believe that a proactive solution would do gamers and developers alike a bit more good than knowing someone, somewhere received a fine of some sorts (assuming, of course, they were tracked down, which would require a lot more resources than it’s really worth). My initial idea is to just nix the microtransactions altogether, but I understand publishers and developers are businesses and still need/want to make more money than the game itself will get them. With that in mind, let’s come up with a few ideas:
  • The ability to re-obtain stolen items without spending more money. In order to prevent abuse of this system, the game can keep server-side records of what the account bought, for how much, and by what means did it leave the account’s possession. I suppose this is still open to abuse, since most stolen items are stolen by someone cracking the account’s password and trading the item to the cracker’s actual account (or an alternative account).
  • All microtransaction-obtained items are bound to character or account. This would prevent anyone from cracking in and trading it off, but it does not help if someone wants to buy a gift for someone in game (though maybe a redeem code could be purchased for a gift).
  • Microtransactions can only apply to buying in-game currency, and currency is account-bound (but not character/soul bound). This way, there are no items at stake, and the player still has the flexibility to outfit any of their characters as they see fit. It’s possible this might also bring in extra money, since not everyone would necessarily be interested in an item, but everyone wants money. The downside is this opens up a whole world of ‘pay-to-win’ problems.
Mike Weatherley is not alone in his loss of an item purchased with real world money in an MMO. This is a very widespread problem that should be looked at quite hard by the developers, as it’s their years of hard work at stake here. Theft of items that require lots of time or real world currency can ruin the entire experience, so it should be addressed proactively, not retroactively by lawmakers using methods that just drain everyone of more resources. I’ve tried to come up with a few simple ways of solving the problem that make everyone happy, but I’d like to hear what you think. What ideas do you or your studio have? Do you think it’s worth it to get lawmakers involved? Why or why not?

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky. 


Molly Tunderbreeze said...

The reaction by Weatherley makes absolutely no sense, and mirrors a TV show that renders his story as being contrived. Blizzard is known for quick, and more than equitable resolution regarding issues of virtual theft. There was no reason to bring in legislation other than to develop a legal foothold on internet usage. I find it strikingly odd that Weatherley's story mirrors a 'Big Bang Theory' episode where Sheldon had his WOW sword stolen and calls the FBI and the cops (If you missed this episode, catch it on YouTube because it is hilarious).

There are many reasons, other than internet freedoms being violated, that we do not want legislation involved with the internet. Also, the minute you start putting real world value on virtual stuff, you invite the IRS to estimate the value of that stuff and charge citizens taxes on it, and is only one reason to say no.

I would prefer to see legislation directed at the game makers requiring them to be more responsible regarding thefts, and legislation against scamming styles of programming (some FTP games come to mind on this concern).

Philip Baum said...

For your example to World of Warcraft: Blizzard doesn't offer any virtual ingame products that affects your characters strength. You can only buy aesthetic items like mounts and pets (and subscription time since a while) which are bound to account once used. I don't know the details about Weatherley's problem but I think he got hard scammed by other players which results in his own fault (which is really hard to manage actually).
Besides your example I fully agree with your opinion that lawmakers should be involved in virtual theft. If it's the doing of another player or direct by the company doesn't matter. When real money is involved you should be judged by laws of the given country.

Ps: The Blizzard Customer Support always restore your account in case of a theft. And no, I'm not a Blizzard employee, it just happened to me too.

Gabby Taylor said...

Molly, you bring up a very frightening point with the IRS getting involved since we're putting real-world value on in-game items. I would hate to see the tax forms of someone who puts a lot of time, money, and passion into WoW, but works a relatively low paying job in that instance!

Weatherby was in the wrong here, through and though. This reminds me of the many times players scammed other players by offering to 'trim' their armor. lol

What are some examples of legislation you would like to see, either directed at game makers or in relation to virtual theft?

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