When the virtual gets real

As anyone reading this blog knows, I have pushed virtual goods in MMORPGs and Action RPGs for 12 years and counting. I have duped, traded, bartered, boted, muled and bargained. I have been scammed but I have never scammed. I have been threatened with lawsuits but I have never been sued. I have had hosting accounts terminated and I have had domains held hostage. I have laughed all the way to the bank and cried all the way back home. I have been there and I have done that. So what I have learned from my nighttime journey through the borderlands between reality and virtuality?

I have learned that cheaper is not better, that there is no such thing as a safe PayPal payment, that responding to threats is the worst thing you can do, that operating as a company is the best privacy protection, and that DMCA is a law that helps the big guy bully the small guy.

Let me start from the beginning. After 3 years of eBaying and freelancing I jumped onboard the RPGStash.com webship in 2004.

Initially it was all about Diablo 2 microtransactions and Blizzard never did us any harm outside of the game. They gave items id numbers to combat duping, they deleted bugged items, muted spam bots, banned cd keys, and eventually they expired characters and occassionally deleted accounts that were not regularly played. The biggest measure they took on battle.net was their battle.net wide dupe deletion script – known as Rust Storm – that almost brought the servers to a halt. It was discontinued for that reason and they settled for the passive version of the Rust Storm, namely the minor measure of tagging dupes for deletion only when being online at same time. But this is all in the past and none of it very dramatic.

The closest it ever came to a real confrontation with Blizzard was in 2006 when one of our customers managed to escalate his support ticket to the very president of Vivendi Games (who owned Blizzard Entertainment at the time). The customer was an angry father acting on behalf of his son whose Diablo 2 character had expired. We had power leveled this character for him after which he had refrained from playing it which is why it expired. The father blamed us of course, blowing his horn about how we had sold a bum deal. The father was in touch with all parties and copied in all responses in the growing email correspondence. Luckily, the president stopped the father in his tracks by declaring that he was the escalation point of everything concerning the game and that the power leveling of the character had nothing to do with its expiry which was completely in accordance with Blizzard’s terms of use. He was also quick to point out that I was wrong in claiming that the validity of real world trading had been established in court. It had never been established. He was probably right, but it matters not. A business does not need validation in court to be legal. It needs invalidation in court to be illegal. How the father ever managed to get his ticket escalated to the president of Vivendi games is beyond me. This father was a special father and we could all learn something from him when it comes to dealing with customer service representatives.

So Diablo 2 never stirred up much trouble. Runescape, on the other hand, was a whole different ball game. Initally we only got our gold carrying characters banned and only if they were fresh out of the beginner’s tutorial. However, things soon took a turn for the worse in 2006. First we got evicted from our host due to pressure from Jagex. It was a small hosting company and the owner did not think twice before throwing us out. He did not want no trouble and when the big guys came knocking on the door he gave in like the coward he was. He did let us pack our things and leave in good order though which is more than our next host let us do.

We moved to aplus.net and this was a very bad move. Jagex had set their eyes upon us, sank their teeth into our flesh, and were not about to let go. They quickly convinced aplus.net that our business was illegal. Aplus.net bowed their heads and held our website hostage until we had verbally agreed to cease activity. Without ever consulting us of course. Just like that. Assholes. We also had some problems with a domain at godaddy. We used domains by proxy service and Jagex demanded to see account owner registration details. Every time someone demands this the domain owner is fined a significant amount of money. A completely ridiculous service. Domains by proxy that is.

After that we changed registrar to easydns.com and hosting to rackspace.com which were two good moves. We never had any domain problems after that and the only remaining problem was the DMCA which Jagex resorted to after we moved to rackspace. To work around it we just removed all images of the Runescape items we were selling and changed the official Runescape logo to a custom one. Completely ridiculous. The services in themselves broke no law so they caught us on a technicality instead.

Annother issue we experienced during this time was massive credit card and PayPal account fraud. 95% of it was kids using their parents’ or relatives’ credit cards or bank accounts. Most of it was managable. However, we did receive a massive setback with a total reversal of 26K dollars from a single customer 9 months after the first transaction. We had asked customer to verify his PayPal seeing as this method had served us well in Diablo 2. However, Runecape was no Diablo 2. The player population was very young and a strong scammer mentality flourished among the players. After that reversal we decided to call all customers and make sure we were speaking to an adult before delivering anything.

At some point during all of this Jagex had sent us a cease and desist email and I was foolish enough to respond. This was probably the reason why they did not let go. I know for a fact that another Runescape gold site that never responded to the cease and desist letter never got any more trouble from Jagex. If my memory serves me right this cease and desist email was sent by the UK based lawfirm Adlex Solicitors acting on behalf of Jagex. Anyhow, we kept up our business running and did really well. We did very well in fact. We had a method of staying undetected in the game by masquerading our trades and doing duels for big transfers so we had not been banned for 5 months. But it was the calm before the storm.

In late August 2007 some Jagex employee placed an order with us to detect our delivery character. Then with he help of their 30 day trade log, they banned not only us and our suppliers, they also banned every single customer that had received delivery from us in the last 30 days. And as if this was not enough, they also sent us a spoof law suit via mail which arrived just after all customers had been banned. Clearly a coordinated attack and as far as I know completely unique. Neither Jagex, nor any other game company has ever done this to anyone else. Never before and never after that dreadful time. In any event, the lawsuit was just a bunch of printed conversations between us and Jagex, stamped by a New York based lawfirm. I guess they thought that a US based lawfirm would be the best way to go, seeing as our company was registered in the US. Nevermind that the documents they sent us could just as well have been blank considering their irrelevance. And nevermind that lawsuits actually have to be delivered in person. Not via mail forwarding.

We recovered from this massive blow dealt to our customers and us, and by December 2007 business was better than ever. Then Jagex decided to fundamentally change the game to prevent real world trading. They introduced balanced trades, the Grand Exchange, they stopped free looting in wilderness and free staking in the duel arena. Basically they turned their free capitalistic game into a highly restricted communistic game. Our business declined naturally. Especially since Grand Exchange reduced the need for our item aquisition services. So their measures definitely had an impact. However, people still found ways to circumvent them by gold farming directly on customers’ account but this was never really a big thing like the old fashioned trade delivery method.

Then in 2011 Jagex brought back free trade, free loot, and free stakes. The reason for this was a shift in leadership within the company and a user instigated poll where 97% out of 1 million players voted for the return of free trade. Ironic that after spending so much time and money and implementing so many game changes to stop real world trading, the game ended up right where it began. Though probably too late. In the end, a game is not a cut-off ideal world with untouchable developer gods, it is a business that needs to make money. Runescape was not popular because of its graphics or single player content. Runescape was popular because it was massively multiplayer online, free market, and cut-throat all the way.

We decided to relaunch our Runescape services as soon as free trade made it back into the game. This time around we were not gonna let them have cheap shots at us so we decided for a hosting in Netherlands which is outside of the DMCA zone. And so far we have not had any problems from Jagex at all other than the usual in-game gold balance resets.

The only thing we have received since then is a futile DMCA complaint from CCP Games, the company behind EVE Online. CCP Games and Jagex are probably the two most zealous game companies in the history of the world. CCP Games have not threatened with law suits yet but their effort against real world trading in the game is massive. They go so far as linking together real world trading accounts based on hardware profiles which is frankly quite hilarious. And although they generally don’t ban customers, they frequently reverse the trades and reset the ISK balance. Detected suppliers and vendors are all banned of course. No questions asked.

But such is the path of a real world trader. Full of setbacks.

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