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Introducing the Real-World Traders
Gold sellers are the bane of many MMORPGs. Whether the game's publishers charge users to play or allow users to come in for free, the effect of this real-world trading, as Jagex calls it, is usually negative. Even though any player who uses these services risks losing his account, the gold sellers seem to not suffer from a shortage of customers.
The gold sellers operate the same way in commercial games such as World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Age of Conan that they do in free MMORPGs like Runescape, Fly for Fun, and many of the more popular offerings.
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Methods of Operation
Before developers started cracking down on the gold sellers, many of the real world traders used bots and other programs designed to hack into the system and create gold on the account. The gold would then be sold to customers of the gold sellers and delivered through a middle man. The tactic of using automated programs has fallen out of favor and many of the gold sellers now rely on real people to farm gold and items.
Instead of relying on automated programs to generate the fictional items that get sold to people in the real world, gold sellers operating in most MMORPGs rely on human labor. The workers typically live somewhere far overseas and work long hours in front of a computer. Their wages amount to a few cents an hour in United States dollars. These many workers will collect gold, items that vendors value, and world drops that can then be sold to other players.
When the gold has been collected, items sold to vendors, and world drops sold on the auction house, the gold is pooled and made available for sale. When players submit their order, there are several ways the gold sellers send it to the player who made the purchase.
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Keyloggers and Gold Sellers Operating by Hacking Accounts
Another method is for gold sellers to use keylogging programs and phising attempts to get people's passwords. Most people know not to respond to phishing e-mails, but many new add-ons may contain their own key logging programs. Gold sellers can operate by getting a user's password and waiting for him to cancel his subscription. They can use the password to log into game as the person's character and sell his equipment.
Most developers will restore a person's gear if they fall victim to this type of scam, provided that they can prove that they are the original account owner. The account recovery process usually takes weeks to sort out.
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The most important effect of gold sales is the devaluation of in-game currency. As strange as it may seem, fictional MMORPGs have a very real economy. The more currency available in the game, the less it is worth, and thus the prices of high-quality goods increase. Developers have been combatting this trend since the days of MUDs when a game's graphics were solely in the users' imaginations.
When new equipment and content gets released into the game, older items become trivial and less valuable. The effect becomes most pronounced in the games that have run the longest, such as Everquest and Ultima Online.
Game designers have considered methods for limiting the flow of gold into the game and, the older the game, the more likely it is to have expensive built-in money sinks to remove the excess currency. (The mounts in Everquest and World of Warcraft are perfect examples are perfect examples of this.)
An interesting phenomenon has come about with gold sellers trying to advertise their services. Characters are created that will be deleted after conveying their message which advertises their employer in some highly-trafficked area of the game.
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How MMO Designers Combat the Practice
Game masters in both commercial and free MMORPGs ban gold sellers when they catch them, along with the players using their services to cheat, but the sheer number of gold seller accounts makes this practice difficult. Games with a mail system will sometimes delay time between a message being sent and the time the message reaches its intended recipient in an attempt to discourage gold buying. Gold sinks are another strategy that have become commonplace amongst commercial and free mmorpg designers.
Another method is to create quests or tasks that make the services of these gold sellers unnecessary. Ironically, these quests, missions, or tasks will often be used by the very gold farmers they are designed to combat.