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Why we can't have nice things.

85-90% of my email is spam. It started being a problem some years ago. It escalated, more and more. It’s a problem for everyone now. Most experts agree that around 80% of all email traffic on the Internet is spam. Most of it is for things no sane human would actually purchase – things like aphrodisiac and sexual enhancement pills, pornography, and the like. I look at my junk mail filter, and weep for humanity. It’s eaten the Internet, and it can’t be stopped, because it’s virtually free for the spammers.My referral logs are now spam. It started being a problem about six months ago. It escalated, more and more. Now there’s really no reason for me to check any more, as any link to a forum or something that might be discussing something I’ve posted is swamped in endless stupid links for online poker and porn sites. It’s ridiculous to think that this is accomplishing anything for anyone, but it’s virtually free for the spammers, so they do it.

Most of my paper mail is junk mail now. I check the mail every day and throw 90% of it out before I even get past the mailbox. Advertising circulars, political pleas for money from some magazine that saw fit to sell my name as ‘possibly literate’, requests to attend the local Methodist church, whatever. I have to check my mail daily, because I have a tiny mailbox, and the mailman will just keep cramming crap in there until it’s full. I can’t imagine what this is accomplishing, but there’s an entire industry built around printing crap on paper and shoving it in my tiny mailbox. Meanwhile I haven’t gotten half of my bills for this month yet, probably because there was no room with all the junk mail in there.

We just can’t have nice things.

Meanwhile we’re seeing the start of something else no one wants. The online gaming farmer. No one admits to buying things from farmers. No gaming company tolerates them. No ‘reputable’ secondary market dealer admits to supporting them. Yet there they are, and no game has yet found a way to deal with them. Is this the next surrender, the next sacrifice to the banal gods of marketing and the event horizon of spam performance? Will online games eventually become 80-85% farmers, and ordinary players left wondering where the hell the game actually went?

This is why Dave Rickey’s article on the subject bothered me so much. He says, in so many words, there’s nothing we can do about it. I say to hell with that. He says, in so many words, that saying otherwise is sticking your head in the sand. I say to hell with that. I’m sick of things that I love corrupting themselves in a rusted ash of crap and obscene pandering salespeople trying to cram Viagra or the DNC down my throat.

I want this battle fought.

I want this battle won.

So I’m crazy. This should be news to absolutely no one who’s actually met me, but there you go. And because I’m crazy, I’ve been thinking about precisely how to frame this problem, since that’s the first step in devising solutions. And because I think this can be solved where spam email and spam snail mail and spam everything else can’t? Well, refer back to the part about me being crazy.

The problem is that they’re spam. Spam is cheap. Spam is easy. Spam is ridiculously cost-effective. Spam costs nothing to anyone save the people unwittingly footing the bill – the victims. Spam is a virus that eats away at the core infrastructure of the systems that it attacks, using the open structure of its carrying network to deliver its payload.

Farmers are cheap (most of them being sweatshops in China and other third world countries with low wage expectations). Farming is easy – sit there, hit a key, and wait for the shiny to fall out. Farming is ridiculously cost-effective – I don’t believe IGE’s figures of an $800 million market, but at the same time it’s not insignificant, either. And farming costs very little – the price of an MMO account, assuming they’re not piggybacking off of a free demo account. That $10/mo. is generating cash 24/7/356, after all. And it is a virus that eats away at the core infrastructure of the games they attack, using the mercantile nature of its players to deliver its payload of profit to its profiteering owners.

So how is this cycle changed? There’s no easy answers, but there are answers.

First – game designers need to understand that lazy game design will exacerbate this problem. As long as a player can stand in one place with little risk collecting shinies, a farmer will do so. Farmers will seek out and monopolize any area in your game where the risk-reward ratio is out of whack. In this sense, they’re beta testers. You have to do aggressive data mining, and understand where the wealth in your game is generated, to whom it is going, what are the trends, and where those trends are falling down and exploding. And when you fix them, your players will hate you, and accuse you of hating your players, and nerfing them out of spite because they know the game better than you. They’re right about the last part. No one said running an online game was easy.

Second – enforcement is the first, and impossible, line of defense. You cannot rely solely on enforcement to solve the problem. Sheer mathematics is working against you – there are more farmers than you have support staff, assuming your support staff ignores the rest of the game and does nothing but police work. But at the same time, the longer a known farmer is sitting on a server being mocked by the player base, the longer the broken window corrupts its environment. At the same time, an aggressive assault on farmers will hit the innocent as well -because farmers, after all, are nothing but players who have honed discovering the risk-reward breakdown to its razor’s edge. And every one you remove from the game will be replaced by four more. Thus why it is impossible. And necessary. No one said running an online game was easy.

Third – games with mature, working economies would not suffer this, in theory. I say in theory, because to date no online game has a working, mature economy. But assuming such a mythical beast existed, it would have the means within the game for players to exchange goods in such a transparent, meaningful, and valuable manner that there is no logical reason to seek out-of-game exchange unless the player had nothing in-game to offer. And a player having nothing in-game to offer is a design flaw. Whether the design flaw is in the game or the player is a subject of some debate.

Fourth – maintain a dialogue with your players. What is happening in their game world? (I use the possessive tense I do intentionally.) Is out of game sales something they demand, or support? If so, why? If not, why not?

I’m not religiously opposed to the sale of accounts, or even to a degree items out of game. But it has to be done with a sense of the community impact. If the community believes that this is something that would benefit the game, then by all means pursue it – many games do. But do so with an awareness that this Rubicon cannot be uncrossed (one interesting experiment would be to enable such sales only on one server or set of servers). And by no means does this mean that you can abdicate responsibility for the policing of your game world.

Note that I’m not advocating some of the more radical solutions to this problem, such as instancing everything, or making every item in your game ‘no drop’ or ‘bind on pickup’ or whatever, or making your game one where items themselves have no meaning. Your game design presumably has merit beyond how well it fits into a police state. While you should think about the support impact of design decisions, at the same time, letting that impact drive the design is something akin to the FCC writing television shows. I’m not sure they’d be that good at it.

Well, I think I’ve thrown enough hand grenades tonight. I should also point out that I’m pontificating from the lofty heights of a database analyst and armchair/backseat designer, so don’t start developing the delusion that any of this is more than the ramblings of an old curmudgeon who dislikes the way some discussions he read on the web are going.

Thoughts?