Those who have followed the site over the years know that I have long been an opponent of the sale of in game items and cash for real life money. Thus, I was very troubled when I learned that SOE was going to officially sanction such practices on a new set of servers. Perhaps knowing my position, SOE offered me a chance to put together a set of questions in an e-mail to EQ2 producer Scott Hartsman regarding the Station Exchange. This is the result. Before reading through the interview, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the issue by checking out the official website and also John Smedley's letter announcing the program. Here are the questions I asked and Scott's answers.
Q: What is your role, and what was your team’s role in the development of Station Exchange?
A: I’m Scott Hartsman, the Senior Producer of the EverQuest II team. Since EQ2 is the most recently developed SOE game, we’re the most tightly integrated with all of the internal services common to SOE products.
Therefore, EQ2 was chosen as the first game to integrate with Station Exchange, as it would cause the least amount of impact on the game team, and therefore on the ongoing development of the game itself.
The specific effort involved for EQ2 was one person, two weeks on our side.
The Station Exchange team, which is a separate team outside of our game studios, has been working on this for considerably longer.
Q: As a game developer and game player yourself, what is your opinion of Station Exchange?
A: When I first started writing content for online games, they were MUDs that you paid $3.60 an hour for and dialed up over a 300 or 1200 bps modem to play. (Scepter of Goth on ProtoCall around 1987, for the history buffs.)
The concept of a player causing harm to another player, even though the game’s code supported it, was anathema. When it did happen, it was obviously a typo that was immediately apologized for.
A player continuing to attack, causing the death of another’s character? Not once that I can remember.
A player repeatedly causing the death of another’s character and gesturing rudely over their lifeless corpse…and doing it again, while the victim was still recovering?
It never happened, but I can imagine how we’d have treated it: We’d have been morally repulsed, and the player would have been booted instantly. Further, we’d have shut the game down while we deleted their account.
Eighteen years later, we have a name for that. It’s sometimes called Non-Consensual PvP and other times called ganking. Either way, it’s now accepted as a valid style of play because enough people chose to take part in it.
I still don’t play it myself. I definitely don’t identify with the motives behind the people who enjoy it.
As long as they have their own playgrounds to do it in, with others who all agree that’s how the game’s played, then good deal for them. They’re welcome to play that way with each other.
As a player, I feel the same way about Station Exchange.
I can’t see myself playing it, and I don’t personally understand the attraction, but if enough people enjoy a particular activity that large numbers of your players don’t like, it’s sometimes best to give them a playground of their own.
When we asked the question in EverQuest a couple years ago, there were a larger number of players who preferred the buying and selling of items for real world cash, than those who played on all of the special ruleset servers combined.
To me, it’s about figuring out at what point you call something you might not yourself enjoy, a “playstyle,” and find it a safe place to live.
Q: Let’s get to the burning question. For years SOE has taken a hard line stance – at least publicly – against the exchange of real money for virtual items and characters as being harmful to the game. The game has not changed, but the stance suddenly has. Now you have decided to officially broker these deals. Why the turn around? What changed?
A: As a game developer, I still think that people who buy their way up are missing out on game experiences that I wish they’d partake of and hope they’d enjoy.
It’s the difference between wanting them to and forcing them to.
By “harmful to the game,” there have been two specific objections:
1) “This behavior harms your own experiences. You’re not experiencing the game the way we want you to.”
2) “This behavior stands an excellent chance of getting you ripped off, when the guy you bought your character from calls us and gets his password changed back, and you’re now out $500.” That’s the #1 CS timesink.
If someone isn’t going to play our game because they can’t get themselves an instant level 50 character, argument #1 is moot.
When compared to “not playing at all,” it’s hard to say that “instantly level 50” is a worse game experience.
Given that, Station Exchange is an acceptable answer to concern #2, because we can stop it dead in its tracks.
Q: You’ve given several reasons, but given the projected 200 million dollar a year market for this, isn’t this primarily about profits?
A: From my view on a game team, it’s primarily about broadening the appeal.
The potential attraction is that the more types of players we can serve, the more people end up subscribing, the cooler things we can add to the game.
Take the quest series’ that we just added to all of EQ2’s overland zones and the most recent solo instances. Most of that effort was funded by sales of the first Adventure Pack.
Nobody’s retiring a millionaire as a result of the Bloodline Chronicles, but we were able to bring on a number of apprentices to work with our existing designers, and put some really fun content in the game that everyone can enjoy.
Can that theory be extended to Station Exchange? That’s what we aim to find out.
Q: Why did you decide to broker deals between players instead of simply selling the items directly? The largest complaint many players have against the item sellers is that they monopolize spawn points and keep others from obtaining the good items in order to make the biggest profit. By brokering trades instead of selling the items directly, are you not encouraging even more camping of this sort? Can you explain the reasoning that led to this particular system?
A: Selling items directly wasn’t something that ever came up, at least not within my earshot. :)
IMO, at that point, you don’t really have a game at all. You have an online world in which you sell cool toys to people.
From where I sit, this is about finding a safe place to securely support an existing activity, for people who choose to take part in it.
This also isn’t about institutional item sellers who habitually disrupt others’ play. We’ll continue to ban people who monopolize/dominate/cause disruptions, just like we’ve been doing since launch.
Q: You stated that you ran polls and that the vast majority of the players are in favor of this move, yet the message board threads on this subject on every site I have seen are almost uniformly negative and irate. Can you tell us when the polls you refer to were conducted and what exactly the results were? Can you give us a better idea how you got your initial feedback for this idea? I would love to see some specific numbers.
A: I don’t have specifics on all of the research that’s been done in the company, but SOE has done one public poll that I’m aware of, in which a majority of active EQ subscribers were asked their opinion on buying and selling.
1/3 of the respondents wanted to take part in it, 1/3 of the respondents didn’t care, and 1/3 didn’t like the idea at all. That set the stage for there being a significant demand for it from SOE customers.
From here, we’ll be doing polls in EQ2, starting next week, that will further determine specifics of how many new servers will be started up for this service on EQ2.
Q: You also said that this is a 200 million dollar market. How did you come by that figure? Is that just for SOE games, or for the entire MMORPG market? How much of that market do you realistically think you can penetrate?
A: I’m afraid that this question is a bit out of the realm of my team, but I believe that number refers to the entire estimated secondary market for all games.
Beyond that, I’ll be content if the Exchange servers attract their own audience, and it doesn’t detract in any way from the non-Exchange servers.
Q: Initially, you are starting off with just two EQ2 Real Money Trade (RMT) servers, but John Smedley made it clear in his letter that this could quickly be spread to other servers and other games. First off, if the initial test is successful, do you see this being applied to all of SOE’s games, including Everquest and Star Wars Galaxies? If so, how quickly will that happen?
A: Smed just announced today (via Moorgard) that this would not be impacting existing EQ2 servers – Only new servers created with this ruleset in mind. It won’t be spreading to other servers at all.
In general, I have to imagine that whether future new servers will be Exchange-enabled or not would depend purely on the demand for the service.
I’m afraid that I can’t speak to the impact on other games, other than to say they’d likely be influenced by how this experiment works on EQ2.
Q: It is my understanding that Sony owns a significant share of Square-Enix and is hosting the North American servers and customer support apparatus for Final Fantasy XI. Is there a possibility that should this prove to be very successful, we could see a similar RMT program installed for that game?
A: This one is way out of my purview. :)
Q: As you start expanding the RMT servers into the existing servers, how will it be handled? Will guilds be given a chance to move en mass onto non-RTM servers when their server converts? Will players be able to move some characters and keep others where they are? Will guilds that move keep their existing status?
A: We won’t be expanding Station Exchange onto existing servers. :)
Q: You have said you would not convert a server into a RMT server unless a high enough percentage of the players on that server wanted it to be converted. What percentage do you consider high enough?
A: As of today’s announcement, it’s official that the polls that we’re doing will be aimed at determining how many Exchange Enabled servers to launch.
The polls will not be aimed at converting existing servers. :)
Q: RMT servers are obviously going to be significantly more profitable for you than non-RMT servers. How will this affect your decision on whether to convert over existing servers? And how will this affect the allocation of resources? Will RMT servers get more GM attention and more live quests, along the lines of the legends server?
A: The only difference between an Exchange Enabled server and a standard server is whether or not Station Exchange is available on it. Station Exchange isn’t about Premium Content like the original EQ Legends intent.
The people on our EQ2 Live Events team who make these events develop them such that they can be triggered on all servers simultaneously. Whether we do an event on one server or on all servers is no difference in effort to us. We’re still throwing one switch.
Given that, if we gained more revenue via Exchange servers, and that revenue translated into “more live events,” all servers would see those events.
Q: You have stated that once on a RMT server, a character will not be allowed to move off again? How about transfers from regular servers to RMT ones? Will this be readily allowed? If so, what will prevent a person from farming items on a regular server where presumably competition will not be as keen, transferring them to an alt and then moving the alt to the RMT server to sell them? Or power leveling a character on a regular server and the moving them to an RMT server to sell for cash?
A: The specific method for handling this in EQ2 hasn’t been announced yet, but we’re definitely sensitive to it as a risk that we want to minimize. We’ll hopefully have the details out there in the next week or so.
The non-exchange servers will not become “fertile farmland” for the Exchange Enabled servers. That would negate much of the idea of keeping Exchange on its own ruleset servers.
Q: How will the auction service work? Can you step us through how to buy and sell an item or character from start to finish? What percentage of the final sale will SOE be taking? Will the money be transferred through a third party such as paypal, or will it go through your station account and credit card, or will you be forming a paypal-like in house account where you can deposit money for purchases? Will there be minimum prices to take into account things like your fee and other credit card fees?
A: The latest details on Station Exchange are available at http://www.stationexchange.com. That site should be authoritative, when compared to anything that I have to say on the subject. :)
I’ll hit the parts of this one that I know the answers to…
I can’t step you through it from start to finish, but I do know that in-game, it starts with dropping a character, item, or lot of coin off at a mailbox which removes it from the game. From there, you manipulate/sell/buy on the web, and then the buyer gets it sent back to them in game.
The specific listing fees and commission hasn’t been released yet, but the last that I heard, we were aiming for “reasonable.”
Money will be transferred to sellers via PayPal.
We will not be forming any kind of house accounts.
Q: Are you considering changing the rule sets for RMT servers? On the RMT servers, your profits will be based mostly on the exchange of items. Thus, obviously, it is in your best interests as a business to encourage as many sales as possible. How will that affect the game? For example, since in EQ at least (I admit I am not really that familiar with EQ2), most of the best items are no drop, have you considered removing the no drop tag from the top items to allow them to be bought and sold through the station exchange? Will raid items then become tradable? Might you add charges to items to increase their sale value? Have you considered any other rule changes specific to the RMT servers to help encourage the market?
A: The only thing different about Exchange Enabled servers is that in addition to EQ2, they’ll also offer Station Exchange. We aren’t entertaining any changes beyond that.
I would say that it’s more accurate for us to expect that on the Station Exchange servers, profits will be augmented by the exchange of items, not based mostly on the exchange of items.
In EQ2, like EQ, most of the best items are NODROP (in our case: NOTRADE). They will remain NOTRADE. Our game software doesn’t even have the ability to let us change things like that per-server, and we’re not looking at (nor have we been asked to) make changes of that type.
Rather, the opposite is the case – Very clearly spelled out in the agreement to use Station Exchange is that online games are dynamic. Things change. All the time. The item you bid on may not even be the same item by the time you win the auction.
In that regard, Station Exchange is molded to fit the needs of the online game, not the other way around. The tail is not wagging the dog.
Q: How will this affect your ability to alter the game over time? The very nature of these games is change. As anyone who has played these games can contest, many items that were highly sought out years ago are now virtually useless due to the changes and additions to the game over time. Are you worried that making changes that can significantly affect the value of certain items may lead to lawsuits from those who lost actual money due to the change? Have you considered the possibility of a class action lawsuit when you make a change or addition that lowers the real value of a large number of in game items?
A: Given the terms that people will have to agree to in order to use the service, it shouldn’t affect our ability to alter the game in the least, as I answered above.
Legal issues are definitely not an area that I can speak knowledgeably about. I took a Business Law class once. It was strangely enjoyable, but I only managed a C. No memory for case law….which you really don’t care about, so I’ll just move on.
Q: How about lost items due to game crashes and bugs? If someone loses an item of value due to game mechanics will you reimburse his for the lost items? If so, how will you keep track of that and check for fraud?
A: Reimbursals will occur the same way that they do today. We log and index a few dozen GB of data per day.
That lets us do reimbursement/fraud checks with at a pretty impressive speed. In EQ2, this can be done much faster than in any other of our games to date.
Q: Given that RMT servers and traditional servers over time offer completely different revenue streams and also encourage different types of game play, do you anticipate eventually evolving your games into separate RTM and non-RTM versions?
A: I haven’t heard that proposed or discussed at all, at least not for EQ2, which is the only game I can speak with any authority on. Apologies if that’s not as interesting an answer as it could have been. :)
Q: You have for years been unable to stop the RMT sales of goods on your servers despite having a strict policy against such trades? How will you suddenly now be able to police the traditional servers to keep the secondary trades from happening there as well as on the officially sanctioned ones? Can you explain in more detail how this is suddenly possible? And if it is possible, why haven’t you used it up to now to eliminate the trading that is currently happening through third parties?
A: Thank you for asking this question. The issue of botters and cheaters is near and dear to me.
By way of explanation: Before I was the Senior Producer of EQ2, I was the Tech Director of EQ2. Before that, I was the Tech Director of EQ. Before that, I was a Dev on EQ. Before that, I was a TD or Dev on other stuff.
I like programming. I like it a lot. It’s a lot of fun.
I like catching cheaters. They make the game suck for the players we care about. Getting rid of them is a lot of fun.
Writing programs to catch cheaters is, by inference, therefore a whole lot of fun. :)
With a lot of help from our CS team, reports in game, reports on the boards, devs on our team, and a couple of devs elsewhere in SOE, we came up with a policing mechanism to help us significantly with the problem in EQ2.
So, we have that new policing mechanism. Once it was built, we unleashed it on a whole lot of unsuspecting botters a few weeks ago, netting us 700 or so very unhappy cheaters who can no longer play EQ2, in strikingly little effort.
The 500 bans that we had done previously in EQ2 had taken months of investigation time. The 700 bans that followed in one blast took just a couple hours, and was 99.14% accurate.
Translation: We unbanned six people it caught by mistake. I talked to two of them on the phone over that weekend and apologized for the aggressiveness – They were amazingly nice about it, and we made sure they got a free month for their trouble.
Equally importantly, we learned exactly what it was about their actions that had caused us to make the mistake with all six, and were able to refine the tools to make sure it doesn’t happen to good customers like them again.
Interestingly, that sweep was aimed at botters and cheaters. It had the tangential effect of nearly wiping out the EQ2 gold inventory of two secondary market sales sites.
After we noticed this side effect, we asked Smed to confirm that we’d be able to continue using this new toolset in a future that included Station Exchange.
Smed’s response was: “Are you kidding? Even in that world, we’re not doing this to support cheaters. Make the tool better. And use it more.”
We are. And we will.
Q: Do you realistically believe all traders will just move to the sanctioned servers? What about the situation where a person who likes to buy things continues to stay on a server because the majority of his friends stay there? Won’t that person continue to look at the existing third parties to collect and sell him items? What about person who likes to buy items and gold to get ahead of the pack and thus doesn’t want to be on a server where everyone else will also be doing that? Won’t those people stay on the traditional servers despite their desire to buy items? Doesn’t that imply that there will continue to be a significant market for money and items even on the traditional servers? How will you handle this?
A: I think the majority of this question can be answered by the same answer I gave in the last one.
If people want to buy for real cash and there’s no one selling on their server, they’re not going to be able to be doing a whole lot of buying. (A lofty goal, for sure, but one we still have to hope to reach.)
Buying and selling on outside services isn’t going to suddenly get any safer or less likely to end up with one party or the other getting ripped off.
As such, we’ll continue to police it, thereby also enforcing that people are earning things on the standard servers.
Q: Given the two fold appeal that the RMT servers are going to be significantly more profitable for you and that it seems unlikely to me at least that you will be able to stop the existing set of third party sellers from selling on the traditional servers, which means you will continue to face the same customer services problems on those servers you say led to this, isn’t it likely that over time the pressure will be on you to try to convert more and more servers to the new RMT format? If not, please explain to me why not?
A: I think I got the first two parts of this in the last two answers…
Also as I answered a few questions above that, I don’t think “more profitable” really applies. The math just doesn’t work.
If you open an Exchange Enabled server and 10,000 people come to play on that server, that server is definitely more profitable per-customer when compared to one that does not have Exchange on it.
However, if you take an existing server that has 10,000 people on it who do not wish to play on an Exchange Enabled world, and (hypothetically) 9,900 of them stop subscribing, you have not created a more profitable situation, so I can’t see how there would be a logical cause of pressure to convert servers.
Aside from that, we’ve just officially defined Station Exchange as a thing that applies to newly created worlds only, and a service that people must opt into by creating a character on that server, or transferring an existing character to one.
So, really, the only pressure that could possibly exist would be large numbers of people opting in to the service. If this is going to be done, that’s really the way it should be.
Q: Can you guarantee us that there will always be a significant number of traditional servers to play on and they will continue to get the same level of customer service and care as the other servers?
A: To borrow from the answer to the second question in this interview:
If 18 years from now, 100% of the people who play online games think of this as the preferred style of play, and EQ2 is still running, then I think it’s safe to say at that point the split would be far in the other direction of what we’re considering today. :)
In that light, I don’t think it’s realistic to use the word “guarantee.” There’s a permanence associated with it.
However, it is absolutely our intent to make sure that there are enough servers of each kind to handle the needs of the different audiences. At the moment, we are expecting to roll this out on one or two servers based on demand.
We have many more than that which are not Exchange Enabled.
Separately, I can’t speak authoritatively past the EQ2 dev team, but I have heard no discussions internally of any kind at all that would reflect changes in CS policy that would slant one kind of server in favor of another, and I like to think that’s the kind of thing I’d be made aware of. :)
Q: How do you see this affecting game play on the RMT servers? Given that people can sell the items for real money, do you think that the bazaar and auction house in game will die off due to lack of interest by the sellers? Would you expect more ninja looting or fighting over prime camping sites given that the profits are now tangible rather than virtual? Would you anticipate less cooperation and civility amongst players because real money is now at stake?
A: It’s really difficult to predict exactly what’s going to happen. However, I don’t think that in-house merchants and offline vending in EQ2 will be affected that much.
As I understand it, a person can have many fewer items listed for sale on Station Exchange than they can in game. Five items, the last that I heard. It’s very easy to fill up two boxes to sell 40 items offline in EQ2 for in-game coin.
Given that, I wouldn’t expect Station Exchange to dominate. There are still plenty of commodities and tradeables, and even loot that people will be trading for in-game coin. This is pure conjecture on my part, but I suspect that people will use Station Exchange as an augmentation to their gameplay, and that it won’t take over as the primary style of play on those servers.
Q: Given that the more items and money that exchanges hands on an RMT server, the more of a profit you will make, will you be changing your policies in regards to bots, 24 hour farmers and other methods traditionally used by the third party sellers to maximize the items and gold they can get to sell to other players?
A: Please see the answer I gave about ‘botters a few questions up.
The last that I was told, we had no plans of changing any of these policies. My team and I are being encouraged to continue working with CS in hunting them down even more voraciously than we have in the past.
Q: Isn’t in effect in your best interest to have the sellers monopolize all the best items in the game so that regular players have no other way to get those items than to buy them from the farmers, thus increasing your profits by brokering the sales? I would anticipate that farming guilds will form to sit on the top spawn points and always get the best kills and drops so that they can make the highest profits off the game. Is this something you have anticipated and intend to encourage?
A: Hm. I think this is the same question as the one right above it…
Q: Now that disagreements between players will be over items of true monetary value, how will you GM service on RTM servers be different than on regular servers? If a player defrauds another player of an item of significant value, will you be a guarantor of it? If two farming guilds conflict over a raid, how will it be resolved? Do you expect less civility now that playing the game will become a business for many players? Will criminal charges ever be considered in an in-game fraud situation, since it now involves real money?
A: Players who use Station Exchange, by definition, will be unable to defraud each other, which is the main benefit of the system. The system authenticates the items and performs the trade on behalf of the players, so there’s no cheating possible.
Players who scam someone using in-game means and in-game coin will have their disputes settled exactly the same way on all the servers – We find out what happened, then right the wrong.
As for raids and spawn conflicts, since many of the most desirable raids in EQ2 are instanced, this really won’t be nearly as big problem for us as it would be in other games.
Aside from that, many valuable raid items are NOTRADE, which means they wouldn’t be candidates for Station Exchange in the first place.
Q: What do you have to say to the large number of players who feel that you have let them down and cheapened the games in which they have invested so much time and devotion?
A: I’m truly of two minds on this one.
On the one hand, I absolutely empathize with them. When this was first brought up as something that would be coming to EQ2, I was a bigger skeptic than most people who’ll read these words. When I play EQ2, I pride myself on the fact that I’ve worked damn hard for everything my character has.
However, the commitment we’ve received so far in integrating this into a live game in as sane a manner as possible, and that the rollout from here forward is being determined strictly by the demand for the service instead of being something forced onto live worlds, are both things that are worth taking as extremely encouraging.
If people want to play that way, they can play that way more safely. If people don’t want to play that way, they don’t need to be impacted by it at all.
Logically, when I play our game, my server is where my online persona “lives.” What happens on other servers isn’t even on my radar.
If it works out, maybe it pays to get some more fun content in the game for everyone. Whether it works out or not, we get to continue getting rid of ‘botters and cheaters in EQ2, which is a universal win no matter what server you’re on.
In the greater historical perspective, it’s hard to say. If you would have asked me 18 years ago if non-consensual PvP would someday exist on something called a “ruleset,” I’d have laughed myself to tears. Is this truly analogous? We’ll find out.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t covered up to now?
A: At this point, Jeff, I don’t think that would be possible. :)