Why am I still getting gold-farmer spam in 2014?

Over the last week, I’ve logged into The Elder Scrolls Online on five consecutive days, and everytime, there was mail waiting for me, offering me gold-farming services.

It’s not an uncommon problem in MMORPGs. In fact, it would be odd to play one without some level of spam plaguing your game, whether you’re receiving a private whisper or seeing it being shouted out across public channels.

Yet it seems that, despite all the good things The Elder Scrolls Online has managed to accomplish, the game is absolutely littered with this trash. Sadly, in a world that could thrive and flourish with true immersion and benefit from genuine roleplaying experiences, more often than not, you’re instantly greeted with ‘ BUY ME NOW. 48 HOURS BEFORE GOLD IS DEPOSITED IN YOUR BANK. CHEAP RATES. TELL ME FOR MORE INFO’

And it makes me wonder. How did gold-farming get so big and why is it still such a lucrative business? But perhaps more to the point, why must we put up with this continued harrassment, especially when many of us are paying a subscription charge to play the game through naturally?

 

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To be fair to ZeniMax and Bethesda, they have released a string of patches since the beginning of the month to help combat this problem, but they’re clearly missing the underlying issue. Since 1.5, I’m actually in sight of more gold-farming spam than when I first played the game at launch. Some form of exploit has obviously been uncovered and the system has been sabotaged and is continuously being abused. And while we can block a lot of it ourselves, the truth is, more needs to be done to protect the consumer from the continued badgering. It shouldn’t be up to us to protect ourselves from a world we’re paying into and trying to enjoy.

It’s no secret that developers abhore the gold-farming industry and not only expressly prohibit people from working the trade, but also strongly advise against people using the services. Effectively, it’s a business model that allows players to purchase in-game currency for real-world money. But despite how actively against the trade the big publishers and developers are and how long it has plagued MMORPGs and F2P titles, the industry continues to thrive. In fact, many people in China and other developing nations hold the position as a full-time occupation.

Of course, they don’t get paid well to do it, thus bringing about the term ‘sweatshop’ but the fact is their job is to sit in front of a game all day, grind gold, give it to purchasing players to help them get ahead in their game, then clock out, go home, make tea and come back tomorrow.

Will they see even a quarter of the profits made? Not a chance…

 

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A typical gold-farming organisation at work

So why does Gold-farming do so well? Earning money in-game takes a considerable amount of time, and some people simply don’t have that time – or the patience – to wait and buy shiny things. They want them now, and because some developers don’t offer a microtransaction model in their games that will enable you to buy gold legally and outright, people feel they have no choice but to resort to the ‘black-market’.

Perhaps more legitimate micro-transaction models are the only way to combat gold-farming. The industry is certainly not afraid to implement them into their games, except that, with Auction Houses and other money exchanging services playing such a major role in progress and development, the in-game economy could, effectively, collapse or suffer for inflation. Ultimately, it’s not a viable, long-term solution and it’s one that could do developers and publishers more harm than actual good.

The gold-farming industry isn’t a new idea. In fact, its legacy can be dated way back to the late 90’s when eBay and PayPal were used to sell items and gold in games like Ultima Online and Lineage. Back then, the concept was considered a bit of an urban myth, yet the business quietly continued to grow. The industry’s roots can mostly be traced back to South Korea where farmers used cybercafes to help maintain some form of anonymity while cheating the system. But when operations got bigger and more profitable, eventually, cybercafes were converted into major gold-farming operations. Initially, gold-farming remained semi-local as South Korean farmers mainly worked for Korean and Western Players, but as demand grew, so work was outsourced to China, and operations became more internationally focused.

The business has now expanded exponentially and even offers other services, such as power-levelling, botting and entire account-selling.

According to the New York Times, by 2005, there were over 100,000 full-time gold farmers in China alone. And while it’s never clear how much the industry earns, in 2006, it was believed the sales of virtual goods were thought to be somewhere between $200 and $900 million. It’s safe to assume these figures have now ballooned.

 

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Do we want real immersion in these fantasy realms or are we happy to accept the spam?

This is a multi-million dollar industry – perhaps even a multi-billion dollar industry – yet in the terms of service of many games, the practice breaches numerous regulations. In fact, many companies, such as Zynga and Jagex, have filed lawsuits in order to stop their in-game currency from being abused. Many of these cases, however, have never made it to trial.

In 2010, the South Korean Government ruled that the exchanging of virtual currency for real money was legal, though subject to taxation. Meanwhile the Chinese government banned using virtual currency to buy real-world items in 2009, but not the reverse. These Governments are doing their best to protect the industry as they recognise the level of income it brings into their country, but in doing so, they’re also breaching ethical laws. In 2011, the Guardian uncovered a snippet that suggested that actual prisoners in Chinese labor camps were forced to gold-farm for the benefit of prison authorities and paid no wage for it.

It seems a hopeless cause. Despite the effort other countries have put in, doing their part to try to outlaw these practices, the industry seems to go from strength to strength.

TESO has barely been out a month and I’ve already encountered several botters and experienced plenty of gold-spam during the game’s first sixteen levels. It’s concerning that the game has already been violated so horrendously, even if it is encouraging to see the developers already working hard to try and stop this. The point is, gold-farming is not new and not, technically, legal, yet it is playing as big of a part in the modern day MMO as it did during the original set. Even though gold-farming violates countless rules in a game’s term of reference, it remains out of control and almost leaves publishers powerless to stop it, even though they’re the ones who, supposedly, hold all the power. No matter what practises are put in place in their games, it seems that there is always a way for the system to be abused.

It’s quite clear that this a problem that isn’t going away, and it’s an industry that seems certain to keep growing, especially with the rise of MMORPGs on consoles between TESO and Final Fantasy XIV.

Frankly, it is one of the true enigmas in the videogame world. How is it allowed to keep flourishing? But more to the point, how can it truly be stopped? And if it can’t ever be truly stopped, how long are we willing to keep paying for a subscription service that features such high-levels of harassment?

Have you ever purchased in-game gold for real-world money, or taken advantage of a power-levelling or botting service?

If so, tell us why? We’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

About the author

Ray Willmott

Ray is the founder and editor of Expansive. He is also a former Community Manager for Steel Media, and has written for a variety of gaming websites over the years. His work can be seen on Pocket Gamer, PG.biz, Gfinity, and the Red Bull Gaming Column. He has also written for VG247, Videogamer, GamesTM, PLAY, and MyM Magazine,