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'One of the worst decisions in the history of gaming'

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Sony's trading platform could change character of gaming

A number of people have written into Faultline, pointing out the level of anger and frustration that has accompanied Sony's decision to open an asset exchange website for items that improve players' standing in its EverQuest massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG).

Simply put, most players would prefer the idea that rather than promoting the idea of buying advanced characters, weapons and in-game treasure, Sony instead used its technology to block the practice.

Many are accusing Sony of betraying the community, and using the exchange to simply make more money out of the players.

At the moment there are many existing - some might say shady - trading exchanges that buy and sell characters without the permission of the game operator. These include IGE and Yantis.

It must be understood that MMORPGs are not the same as Playstation platform games based on Sony hardware. Although they can now be played on PS2s, originally a PC was required to play EverQuest, along with a host of other, similar games. Players pay anything up to $20 a month and have to earn points by reaching certain levels and collecting items as they go.

Most Far Eastern sites are thought to employ cheap labor working in concert to reach large amounts of treasure swiftly, working in their chosen roles, ganging up on loners and ruining the game for lots of other players. The more successful this is, the fewer places gamers can find to play genuinely among themselves.

Already this trading practice has drawn estimated sales of $100m-$800m annually.

These trades are in breach of most online games' End User License Agreements, but the servers are not set up with sufficient security to stop players registering, building up a character and handing it over to someone else.

In the words of one astute gamer, "It really is disheartening to see 20 macro'd bots harvesting everything in an entire zone, dominating crafting resources on the server in order to manipulate the prices of items and always getting in the way of the rest of us."

Effectively Sony is admitting that it can see now way out, except that by managing the sale of characters, it can ensure that no-one is subject to credit card or other fraud. Right now Sony is saying that it will not artificially create any characters for resale, but they have raised the suspicions of many players that they won't be able to tell if a character has been created by Sony or built up by a player, and that the purity of the game is altered by novices coming in at such an advanced and powerful state of play.

From the business point of view anything that is learned in the highly critical area of MMORPGs can be transferred to the more generic world of Playstation games, and to a certain extent Sony uses one as an experimentation area for the other. Roleplaying games are not particularly popular with PS2 players, but the concept of acquiring strength and weapons throughout a game is more or less universal.

A number of game producing executives have gone on file this week saying that this is one of the worst decisions in the history of gaming, describing it as the entertainment version of day trading. But then again none of them have made any suggestions about just how to block the activity.

So far the Sony service is only for EverQuest 2 itself, when played on the PC, and it is a trial running on only some of the EverQuest servers, not all.

Also last week we gave the impression that Sony might offer this service on games it doesn't own. By that we meant that if it does shift the concept from MMORPG to Playstation, on this platform it has virtual control of all the publishers that offer services on Playstation. We didn't mean that Sony would offer exchanges services to other MMORPG games without an agreement with the publisher. More likely it will share its results with other publishers in the hope that it might offer such a service with their approval. It would need to be integrated into their servers and that might only be achieved on a profit sharing basis with the game owner, which is pretty unlikely given the fact that they are Sony rivals.

Insiders tell us that the real reason for Sony offering this service is to cut down on the 40 per cent plus of customer service calls that take up most of the helpdesk time on the subject of "scammed" character sales, where someone has pretended to sell a character and has just taken the money and not delivered or delivered less than was promised.

The truth is that on the new exchange Sony won't even be able to set the prices on these characters, so the top-end $500 sales will still be there, and with the semi-official sanction placed on it by Sony, it may mean that many times more players come to think that the activity is OK.

If Sony accompanies this move with a technical attack on the pirate exchanges (it is in its interest to do so) then perhaps the mercenary black market companies may disappear, which is the only blessing that players themselves can see right now.

Copyright © 2005, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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