... And The Ugly

And to wrap up this line, let's first look at some aspects the game that are best avoided altogether.

Gold Farmers & Power Levelers

Any group with millions of members or more will be shadowed by another group trying to figure out how they can make money off of the first group. It's inevitable. In WoW, the in-game currency is gold. A number of enterprising individuals realized that they could use cheap foreign labor and/or automated scriptable characters (called "bots," which is short for "robots") to play WoW constantly and explicitly for the sake of getting gold or collecting items to sell on the auction house for gold. They then sell the in-game gold for real money. Such players are disparagingly called "gold farmers." Many of these accounts originate from China or other Asian countries, so the terms "Chinese gold farmer" or "Asian gold farmer" are synonymous with "gold farmer." Try a Google search for the term World of Warcraft gold and look at the results to see the extent of the problem. When in the game, there are sometimes characters with obviously randomly generated names yelling the name of their gold-selling web site in the general and trade chats of major cities as a way of advertising. These characters are permanently banned quickly, but since they are using trial and start up accounts in the first place, they often come back. The problem is bad enough that Blizzard has made their opinion known on the official WoW site.

The problem with gold farming might not be immediately apparent. When I first started, I knew I personally would never pay real money for in-game gold. If others didn't have the time or knowhow to get their own gold and instead chose to buy it, so what? They didn't hurt me, and I learned to ignore the gold farmers. However, there are problems on two fronts: the first is the way the gold is farmed and the second is the effect it has on the game itself. Let's start with the second. In any economy - even a virtual one - any time the money supply is greater than it should be, inflation starts to occur. Gold farmers generate gold "from thin air" and then sell it to customers who pump it into their local server's economy. Over time, this causes inflation, which in turn causes it hard to get started as a new player with little gold and a poor ability to generate it (unless of course they too buy gold). Inflation caused by gold farmers does affect my (and others) ability to play the game.

By far, the worst aspect of gold farming is how the gold-selling companies get their gold. Typically, they employ underpaid and often underage workers for 10-12 hour shifts. While the working conditions are better than those found in the unnamed-famous-sportswear shoe company, that's only because the dozens of computers crammed into the one room requires decent cooling. To understand the seedier side of gold farming, read this article at the New York Times and this site dedicated to documenting the Chinese gold farming industry. Another method of farming gold is to use scripted or automated characters or "bots," which is short for robots. Often, these bots use hacks or exploits to do their work, which has occasionally caused servers to become unstable and crash or require unscheduled restarts.

Blizzard actively investigates and bans the accounts of those who are running human-controlled or scripted characters for the purposes of farming gold. The number of accounts banned for farming was in the thousands when I was playing. Interestingly, the longer I played the less of a problem it seemed to be. Pursuing the gold farmers continues as does the problem of players buying gold, but Blizzard also attacked the problem from the other end. High-end players that are in guilds actively doing end game content used to find it hard to get enough time to earn gold for items needed for raiding (such as potions) and repairs to their equipment. Gold was easier to buy than farm, so they bought gold. To alleviate this problem, Blizzard added fairly short, daily quests that make it easy to generate a reasonable amount of gold that can be used for such things as repairing equipment and buying supplies for raiding. They also increased the amount of gold awarded from finishing quests. Interestingly, Blizzard has to be cautious on how easy and how much gold can be made this way lest they create their own inflation problem.

Other than gold farming, another "service" players can hire is one where they pay to have someone else play their character to advance it to the highest level (or at least to a fairly high level). This is called "power leveling." It is similar to gold farming in that the actual person doing the leveling is an underpaid person working long hours. This service was very popular among players starting a second, third, etc. character. Some of these players didn't want to repeat the lower-level quests with their new character. There are also part-time services for those just wanting have their character continue to level when they aren't playing it themselves. Early leveling service entrepreneurs realized they could combine their gold farming and characters-leveling services by using the characters they were power leveling to do gold farming. At the time of this writing, the cost of having a character power-leveled from 1 to 90 in WoW cost from $100 for just reaching the level to $500 for reaching the top level with most or all of the best gear and abilities for that class. Recently, WoW has offered their version of power leveling called Level 100 Character Boost for $60 per character, which as the name implies boosts a character to level 90 (and includes a reasonable set of gear for the level). The World of Warcraft: Legion expansion includes one Character Boost for free. The player must still get from level 100 to level 110.

For players that just want to get a character quickly without any effort, it is also possible just to "buy" a character outright. In this case, the characters have been leveled to the highest level and depending on what the buyer is willing to pay, already have part or even all of the top-level armor and weapons in the game. Ebay used to allow individual account holders to sell their WoW and other MMO accounts in their auctions. However, Blizzard and other game makers threatened to pursue legal action causing Ebay to ban the sale of all game accounts and items in early 2007. There are still sites, however, that buy and sell characters for most of the top MMO games including WoW. At the time of this writing, the cost for a level 90 WoW character with a most or all of the highest-level armor set and other top-level items ranged from $800 to $1100.

Other than the questionable conditions under which these characters are obtained, the main problem with players who purchase their characters is that they play them very badly. "You bought your character, didn't you?" was a popular jeer used on any player that played their class poorly when in a group. I occasionally found myself in an instance in a pick-up group ("PUG") where that was the only reasonable explanation for how poorly some players played. It was either that or the player's password was found and used by their eight-year-old sibling. That or a poorly-trained monkee. Any player that started and leveled a character from level one to the top level on their own would have had to learn how to play it better than what I saw just to reach the top level.