Last week Big Bear Butt issued a call for Blizzard to end Prohibition and start selling gold to players. The theory is that by offering players a safe and legal method of purchasing gold, Blizzard will greatly damage the economic incentive of hackers and goldsellers, reducing the damage that hacked accounts are doing to the game.
I am reluctantly forced to agree with him that gold should be sold through legitimate channels. I have never bought gold. I regard purchasing gold as a form of cheating. But the truth is that there is apparently a significant segment of the audience who is willing to purchase gold. To satisfy that need we have people who hack accounts, secretly install keyloggers, and do much damage to innocent players. If selling gold directly would significantly reduce the number of hacked players, then it would be worthwhile.
There have been two options suggested: players selling gold to players; and Blizzard selling gold to players. Each method has pitfalls, and at the end I will make a suggestion on what I think the best course of action would be.
Solution 1: Players Selling to Players
There are three major problems with Player-To-Player transactions that I see. First, it gives players a significant incentive to defraud other players, especially as the fruits of the fraud result in real money. Imagine a GM or officer making off with the guild bank to sell for real money. Even in day-to-day transactions, the incentive will be to take the most valuable option. In random dungeons, always roll Need on gear so you can sell it. I think that setting the players against each other in this fashion is not good for a casual game like WoW. In a hardcore PvP game like Eve Online, it might be acceptable or even necessary, but it would not be good for WoW.
The second problem I see is that it has the potential to get the IRS and the government involved. I see no good coming from having the IRS interested in my game playing. Anytime something involves real money, the government has an interest and tends to interfere. The academics who think virtual worlds are important might feel validated at the sign of government interest, but I don't want to end up filling out Section A, Subsection B: Income Earned From Virtual Currency Trading on my tax forms.
The third problem is that I believe it is wrong for strong players to get a "free ride" at the expense of weaker players. If players can sell gold to other players, the good players will pay for their subscriptions by selling gold to weaker players. So essentially, the weaker players are paying both subscriptions and are the ones who are actually supporting the game.
In Magic Online, this phenomenon was called "going infinite". Players had to supply packs of cards to enter tournaments, and the prizes were additional packs of cards. A good player would win tournaments, and the prizes would pay her way into the next tournament. The only people who were actually paying for the game were the losers. I don't think this behaviour is healthy for the game in the long run.
Right now, everyone pays an equal amount to access the game, and that is fair and sensible. Creating a division between sellers, who play the game for free, and buyers, who end up paying for everything, will cause nothing but problems.
Solution 2: Blizzard Selling to Players
There are two major issues with Blizzard selling gold directly to players. First, Blizzard can be undercut by the illegal gold sellers. A significant number of players will buy from Blizzard, but there will probably be enough people who go for the cheaper prices. This may or may not be a big problem.
Second, incentives matter. This is just as true for corporations as it is for individuals. If Blizzard sells gold, then selling gold becomes a revenue stream for them, and they have a strong incentive to increase that revenue stream as much as possible. I really don't want to see game design decisions that encourage the player base to buy gold instead of bettering gameplay. For example, the drop rate of Frost Lotus was recently increased, bringing down prices. Would you trust Blizzard to make the same decision if they stood to gain money as people bought gold to compensate for higher prices?
Maybe the Blizzard of old might have made the best decision for the game, but Activision certainly won't. Not if the other path results in increased revenues in the short term.
My Solution: Charity Selling to Players
My solution would be to have Blizzard sell gold to players and donate all money generated to a charity. Not just the profits, but all the revenue. Blizzard can pay for it out of the decreased Customer Support costs.
This would remove any incentive for Blizzard to maximize gold selling revenue at the expense of gameplay. They wouldn't really care if players buy gold or don't buy gold. The charity might care, but it would have no power to do anything.
Secondly, it would provide a powerful incentive for players to purchase from Blizzard instead of illegal gold sellers, even if the illegals undercut Blizzard. On one hand, your money can go to people who hack accounts. On the other hand, your money can go to charity. I think that making the choice starker, and adding extra moral weight to the choice we want people to take, would lead to more people sticking with the official sales.
As well, this would avoid consumers protesting that Blizzard is being excessively greedy. Gold selling would be seen as something completely separate from subscriptions. The divisions between sellers and buyers would not occur.
Of course, this option is extremely unlikely to happen. It's hard to imagine an MMO company allowing its virtual currency to be sold, but giving up all revenue from it, especially if the amounts were non-trivial.