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All that glitters: A gold farming report

For millions of MMO players, there was no love lost. In fact, last July’s widespread report, that the Chinese government had banned gold farming, was met with giddy rapture.

For years, gold farmers had been the worker ants in games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest, trading virtual loot for real-world profit. Gamers harrumphed, publishers shook their fists, but where there is demand there is always supply and gold farmers continued to sell MMO swag for profit. An estimated 85% of these entrepreneurs operate in China. So, upon hearing the news, many MMO denizens breathed a sigh of relief. Gold farming was dead. Or was it?


Above: Hard at work

Not at all, says the University of Manchester’s Professor Richard Heeks, an expert on virtual economies. “The reason the Chinese government hasn’t banned gold farming is because it doesn’t want to ban gold farming. It wanted to clamp down on the use of online payment systems as alternative currencies to the Yuan. We have to wait and see if its policy statements become policy reality. But gold farming continues.”

Gold farming remains an economic phenomenon. Around a million farmers work in China alone, generating $1 billion every year. Across the Far East, workers hunch over PCs, repeating tasks to win items or loot, then sell their spoils to customers. An AT-RT in Star Wars Galaxies, for example, nets a gold farmer around $10/£6. In RuneScape, 5 million gold shifts for $20/£12. Other gold farmers power-level characters for customers: in WoW, you can pay $50/£30 to have a level 40 character dinged to 60.


Above: The Shopping Channel’s new presenter is a real charmer

For his upcoming documentary, Play Money, Anthony Gilmore visited gold farming operations across China. One business, located in Changsha, has more than 300 employees and plans to increase its workforce to 500. Gilmore also visited a power-leveling firm in Nanjing and a smaller family run studio in Beijing. According to myth, gold farmers work in sweatshops: the kind of hellholes where Third World toddlers knit Gucci handbags. This is not really the case.

“As this industry has grown over the years, the working conditions have improved,” says Gilmore. “For the most part, comparative to similar service industry jobs, the workshops offer decent salaries, often with bonuses, and the work is safe. There is no need to worry about getting a hand caught in a sewing machine. Smaller workshops generally house workers on the premises. Some may also offer between one and three meals per day. The larger the company the more standard work conditions you find.

“Many gold farmers are pleased with their work because of job security, good salary, and friendly environment. The majority of power-levelers love their work because they get paid to play videogames. These workers are gamers first and foremost, just like the customers they support.”


Above: Beijing power-levelers on a break from MMO work

Gold farming isn’t just an Eastern business. In its heyday, IGE (Internet Gaming Entertainment) made millions from trading virtual swag, and it still shifts gold from MMOs like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online. Alongside offices in China, IGE operates out of Los Angeles and Miami. “IGE’s employees and service providers earn above average pay, work in clean, air-conditioned facilities, and receive benefits including gym sponsorships, transportation and other allowances, medical plans, annual bonuses, to deliver high employee morale and productivity,” says IGE’s Raoul Blautzik.

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13 comments

  • dirty1996 - November 30, 2009 2:02 a.m.

    I see no reasoin why gold farming should be illegal. At the point WoW is at, it is no longer a game to most. it is a life unto itself. So it is only natural people will try to make money off it. it is a totally legit strat.
  • IIIIIACEIIIII - November 30, 2009 12:23 a.m.

    I remember when I broke a hunter farm-bot...I killed his pet and danced with him, thinking he was a real player, then went questing. Later I came across that same spot and he was still there, doing nothing but whistling for his pet every 5 seconds to no avail. T'was funny.
  • Frexerik - November 29, 2009 10:50 p.m.

    i admit i have bought gold online a few times when i played mmo's because i HATE grinding.. ppl say that buying gold takes all the fun out of the game i beg to differ, buying gold just removes the stupid limits set by it, when i had lots of gold in f.eks lotro i could concentrate on questing for fun, and not just running around in the same place grinding for gold...
  • jackthemenace - November 29, 2009 9:46 a.m.

    i'm not technically FOR RWT, but i don't understand what's wrong with it...? it just seems like a good way to make money and if people want to spend their money getting people to take all the fun out of the game for them, let them. although i don't play MMO's, so i don't have a clue :)
  • Link555 - November 28, 2009 8:54 p.m.

    Maybe these game companies can use these to their own advantage.
  • darkmagshin - November 28, 2009 4:52 a.m.

    ironically, jagex kinda stopped the gold farming thing altogether, inadvertently crushing all of the fun the game had to offer. i'm not saying that anyone was having fun with the gold farming, just that the restrictions they put up on trading, along with the obnoxious randoms to stop autoers, make the game almost unplayable. the reason for this being: runescape was always about community. when my friends and i would play runescape, we would always be loaning/giving each other money and items, as well as staking large amounts of money/items on duels. jagex ruined both of these by imposing a (aprox, it changes bast on QP or something) 15-30k limit on duels and trades. and on top of that, all of their updates cater to noobs (and by that i mean new players, lower level, usually new P2P guys) and not experienced players... ugh, i feel like i gushed about rs way to much for a single comment...
  • speno93 - November 28, 2009 3:27 a.m.

    part of the problem is that most MMO's take a massive amount of time before your character gets any decent equipment or stuff and that is where the demand for GF's comes in. Developers should try to improve the levelling up of characters so it doesn't become so tedious that they use GF's to get cool stuff quicker
  • crumbdunky - November 27, 2009 10:03 p.m.

    Decent read GR. Thing is I concur with Red and heavytank here-the games themselves allow for this boring and self degradingly dull work by the players WANTING their services. Until hat stops GF's will prosper at some level. Also Red is right there's a rude majority(it often seems anyway)among MMORPDers that ruin it especially when you're starting out. I've tried a trial on WoW and a couple of others a few times and every single time it was assholes(and not always towards myself)that made me think it just wasn't worth it. Unlike griefers ina FPS(and they can be bad enough) in an MMO where you invest more time inot the character griefing becomes more personal, imo, and therefore just ruder in general. Seriously, I've been ridiculed like mad for just asking what a particular bit of slang meant and life's too short-maybe if you're in at the start of one it's more matey-or maybe when they land in a real way on consoles we'll see a more tolerant crowd(though judging from some of the rudeness I've come avcross on Live , esp, I doubt that somehow!). Whatever, it's been the MMO layers themselves that have put me off rather than anything like GFs!
  • killerwhalen - November 27, 2009 9:14 p.m.

    Neat little article you got here. I love whenever GR does an interesting game related feature like this, or the recent one about Ahkibara. The top sevens are great and all, but a little variety like this is great.
  • Red - November 27, 2009 8:18 p.m.

    Gold farmers are a bad thing for sure, but what really nails the coffin shut on my love for MMO's is the actual players. Anyone that is worth talking to online has already long since figured out that it's better to just turn on mute and ignore everyone else. I don't mean to rant really, but gold farmers are small potatoes compared to the majority of players that "grief" in my opinion.
  • HeavyTank - November 27, 2009 7:12 p.m.

    Very nice article...I don't know if I should hate or feel sorry for them, because their job is boring as ^#%@ and they aren't having any fun at all since their main goal is to get money, not to complete quests/level up/etc.. They only way gold farming is going to die is when these lazy-ass players stop paying for virtual money (which, I think, is pathetic).. reCAPTCHA: tons headwind
  • erreip199 - November 27, 2009 6:25 p.m.

    the best way i see of them disapearing is the game company itself selling items or services, but that would extremely hurt gameplay =/... sigh
  • cigero - November 27, 2009 6:22 p.m.

    Hell, I would love to get paid to play video games as a profesion! I'm visiting china soon so I might want to stop by one those beijing power levelers place. (To bad I hate mmorpg games lol)

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