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This official Development Diary is copyrighted by Jagex. It is a direct quote from the RuneScape website.
The diary dates to 10 December 2007.
RuneScape vs. Real-world Trading

A number of updates have been released in 2007 – Assist System, LootShare, Duel Arena changes; read the 'Trade and Drop Changes' news post on the front page to see them all – specifically targeted at ending real-world trading within RuneScape. The majority of you are aware of the problems that real-world trading causes and every player is negatively affected by it in some way – even if it's simply that we've had to spend time combatting this rather than creating the content you want. We're sure you're all aware of bots (also known as autoers or gold-farmers). You may not, however, be fully aware of just how serious an issue it is for RuneScape, its players and the massively multiplayer online gaming (MMOG) industry as a whole.

The RWT of all evil

Real-world trading (RWT) is the term we apply to the sale of RuneScape gold and items for real money (be that $US, £GBP, €euros or ¥yen). Some players choose to buy RuneScape gold as they do not wish to spend the time or effort earning it themselves, for whatever reason – the gold-sellers do all of the work for them.

Of course, gold-sellers have to earn this RuneScape gold somehow. They overcrowd in-game resources with their bots, exploit bugs and scam legitimate players out of items and their accounts. They are the cause of the majority of rule-breaking in RuneScape, and they must be stopped. RuneScape's creator, Andrew Gower, sums it up perfectly: "There has been a significant increase in the amount of real-world trading this year. If we don't find a solution to RWT now, it will ruin RuneScape."'

Real-world trading leads to all sorts of problems. We see the negatives falling into two categories: those that affect the game and those that affect our business. On the game side, the legitimate players who don't buy gold feel their efforts are going to waste - why take the time to level skills the proper way if you can just buy some gold? It cheapens the game. Also, the players who do buy gold find it becomes so easy for them to get ahead, they get bored and leave. Mod Hobagoly, Head of RuneScape Content, says, "That's the case with all cheating, whether it's buying gold or cheating your way through a console game - it's fun for a while, but the challenge goes and things quickly get boring."

On the business side, real-world trading is just part of an even bigger problem. Mod Hobagoly says, "Real-world traders believe they are running legitimate businesses. In some cases, though, it's essentially organised crime." There is a whole industry built up around it exploiting cheap labour and involving illegal activities. The majority of bots that we ban from members have been paid for with stolen credit card numbers.

Such accounts don't earn us money, they cost us money in bank refund charges - money that could be better spent on creating new content for our players; money that could help us increase the level of support our players receive. Also, in the longer-term, if we had continued to experience these problems with account fraud, then it could have led to us no longer being able to accept credit card payments from legitimate players.

The α bot

Real-world trading is a problem for every MMOG. "The first bots in RuneScape were identified by us within a few months of the game's release," says Andrew. "We dealt with them the best way we could at that time: by changing the game so they were no longer able to function." The game engine, its code, has been altered many times to break macro programs. In game, the first Random Event – we call them anti-macro events (AME) – was added to the game one month after the March 2004 release of RuneScape 2.

Basekit
The majority of bots use the default character look to save time when creating new accounts - not everyone who looks like this is a bot, however.

As the game has grown, the demand for gold has grown with it, so it is worth gold-sellers' time to make smarter bots. "We keep developing technologies to combat bots, but it's like an arms race – we stop bots, they improve their macros, we stop them, they improve again," says Andrew. The longer we keep doing this, the harder it's going to be to keep stopping bots. "If we don't break that vicious cycle now, it would just keep getting worse and worse. It could reach a point where macro software becomes undetectable."

Who ya gonna call?

We have various Customer Support units set up to deal with the problem. Two of these are the Snapshot and Ban Appeal Team (SBAT), which investigates player-submitted Abuse Reports, and the Community Management team. Community Management's Jagex Moderators regularly root out and instantly ban as many bots as they can find - we call this bot-busting. The Player Moderators and Forum Moderators help us to identify bots in game and on the Forums, respectively.

Another is the Investigations into the Community Unit (ICU), which looks into account theft, macros, bugs and exploits, takes down gold-selling websites and more. ICU's Mod Chris81 says, "All Customer Support teams combined, we're banning tens of thousands of accounts each week that belong to real-world traders. Most of these are bots, but we also secure many accounts that real-world traders have stolen, and return them to their rightful owners." Every plausible idea mentioned on our Forums on how to remove bots, we have considered, tried or already use – for instance, we do ban IPs. We've also involved our lawyers and even talked to certain governments!

During 2006, we banned bot and real-world trader accounts carrying RuneScape gold and items worth over 200 billion gp. During 2007, so far, we've banned over 525 billion, which has a real-world value of over $2.6 million US - that's an increase of over 250%. At that rate of growth, we'd be looking at banning over 8 trillion gp in 2010 - that's 8,000 billion gp - which has a real-world value of over $40 million US. It's an almost unbelievably high number, but it hammers home the sheer size of the problem we are facing and why we have to take action against it.

Finish the fight

Community Management's Mod Paul M says, "For a long time, players have thought we're not doing anything, as they don't see everything we do. We've been working on this problem every single day." Bot-busting is our most visible method, but not the most effective. If we ban one bot, it's easy to create a new account to take its place. It's better to take the time to track that account and find every other account it's linked to, then ban all of them at once. Mod Rob, Customer Support Operations Manager, adds, "We still regularly go bot-busting, though, so players can see we are doing something."

Mod Rob continues: "We have automatic and manual systems in place to identify bots, but limited resources to deal with them. It isn't possible to find and ban every single one." Mod Paul M follows with, "The Player and Forum Moderators, and other legitimate players, have put in a lot of effort and deserve recognition. They see more than we ever could, so we follow up on as many Abuse Reports as possible."

Unfortunately, these methods are reactive – find a problem then solve it – and if we just react, we'll always be chipping away at a larger problem. Even if we spent every penny we earn on staff and systems to ban bots – which would mean no game updates – gold-sellers would still massively outnumber us. Mod Hobagoly says, "Every time we double our efforts, gold-sellers quadruple theirs. We can't continue only using our current methods, throwing more and more resources at it." The only way we can win is to be proactive and take the fight to them.

Removing unbalanced trade

Taking into account how serious this issue is and knowing that reactive methods could never completely stop real-world trading, what are the proactive solutions? Well, considering how much money is involved, one solution would have been to allow real-world trading. Why not just let players sell their RuneScape gold and items and take a small cut of the profits ourselves? "We've seen other MMOGs take that route and it works, but only to a limited extent. Some players would sell gold through their own website to avoid paying the developer a cut. Worse than that, the demand for gold was still mostly being met by players using bots and scams, ruining the experience for legitimate players," says Mod Chris81.

Mod Hobagoly says, "It would be very difficult to find a way of allowing players to buy RuneScape items for real money that doesn't cheapen the game." There might be some way of doing this, and without all the negatives, but it wasn't the right solution for ridding RuneScape of real-world traders and bots. Andrew follows with, "We looked at any number of different possible solutions. We've read independent studies and spoken with other people in the MMOG industry. Ultimately, the consensus is that the only way to remove the real-world trading market is to develop your game so you cannot make unbalanced trades."

An unbalanced trade is where one player trades something of value to another player, but does not receive something back of roughly equal value. Real-world traders have used this method to trade millions of gold pieces in exchange for nothing in game, as they will already have been paid in real money. Removing unbalanced trade will mean real-world traders can't do this, so there is no way for them to deliver gold to buyers - and if you can't sell gold, why bother farming it in the first place?

These gold-sellers are businessmen. They're in it for the money and are going to be looking at the bottom line: their profits. Mod Mark says, "The key phrase is 'not profitable'. We're changing our game in a way that doesn't negatively affect its gameplay, but which makes real-world trading not worth the effort." It's a bold move to make, and one that no other MMO developer has attempted. We are fully aware of how the RuneScape community will react to such a change, which is why we have been working hard to find the best way to implement it.

Lost and found

Mod Hobagoly says, "Deciding to remove unbalanced trade was not an overnight decision – we started working on it in 2006." The difficult part was not the removal of unbalanced trade, but the creation of new content to replace what would be lost. Andrew says, "I could have removed unbalanced trade at any time, it's just a few lines of code."

Clanwars lineup
Will your clan be victorious in the new Clan Wars minigame?

Mod Mark says, "The easy thing would have been to say: 'Right, let's leave the Wilderness as it is, you just can't pick up other players' drops.' Instead of just removing things, we've looked to replace them with something equivalent or, indeed, better." For instance, with the way the Wilderness used to be, there was no way we could implement a reliable scoreboard – we've been able to now, with Bounty Hunter. Mod Mark continues: "I think Bounty Hunter and Clan Wars are actually going to be enjoyed by more players."

Mod Hobagoly agrees, saying, "We've felt for a long time that some of this content needed changing anyway – especially the Wilderness – so this was a good opportunity for us to make it work better, more fun for our players and closer to our original intentions." We are also planning additional new content to replace and improve upon anything that is lost along with unbalanced trade.

Our ability to update RuneScape so regularly puts us in a unique position within the MMOG industry: we're able to respond to our players' feedback very quickly. We always welcome constructive feedback from our players and the Forums are the ideal place for this. We will be watching them, as always, for valid suggestions on how we can tweak things or iron out any kinks, as we did with the Assist System. We can't always respond to Forum threads, as we're busy working on the game, but we are reading them.

We realise removing unbalanced trade is a big deal, but we want to assure you that this change has not been taken lightly, that we've exhausted all the alternatives. We've tried countless ways to defeat real-world trading and considered many other options to end this problem – this change was the only definite way to do so. Unbalanced trade is going from RuneScape; if anything gets lost alongside it we can find it again, new and improved, with the help and support of our players. Mod Hobagoly says, "We know it's going to be a bumpy ride, but RuneScape is going to be better for it."

The future starts now

There will always be a handful of people who feel it's worth their time harassing our legitimate players to make real money, but the presence of such players in RuneScape will be significantly lessened, along with their associated rule-breaking. With the systems we've developed to deal with real-world traders, combined with the vigilance of our players, this handful will not pose a threat to RuneScape's future.

Removing unbalanced trade will lead to a massive reduction in trade scams and account theft, meaning our Customer Support teams can spend more time on helping our players than dealing with Abuse Reports. Also, our development teams can expend more energy on creating new game content – new skills, expanding on existing skills, continuing quest storylines - rather than developing content to stop bots.

Concept2008
Some character concept art for a piece of content we're aiming to release in 2008.

"Above all, we're a games company. We don't want to spend all our time and energy fighting gold-sellers and bots, we want to get on with making the game," says Andrew. Despite having to make this change, 2007 has seen some awesome updates – Impetuous Impulses, dark bow, dragonfire shield, God Wars Dungeon, Clan Chat, Grand Exchange – but now we're able to focus more on new content, 2008 is shaping up to be our best year yet! We're not waiting long to kick it all off, either, with the release of the Summoning skill in January. And wait until you see some of the other things we've got planned – it's far too early to reveal anything, but we're very, very excited about them.


RuneScape Wiki note: The links no longer work.

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