I've been doing a lot of thinking about this article, ever since it made the rounds of the various gaming blogs and websites: Cao Yunwu (tr Joel Martinsen?), "The System," Southern Weekly, date unknown. (Translation appeared on danwei.org on 12/26/07 under the name "Gamble Your Life Away in ZT Online.") The article is very soap-opera-like in tone, and takes its time getting to the point, so let me summarize the issues for you first:
ZT Online is a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, based on medieval Chinese martial arts legends, only open in China; despite this, it's one of the biggest in the world. ZT Online's claims to fame are that it supports great PvP, including city versus city diplomacy and siege warfare, that it charges no monthly fee, and that it skips all of the boring "grinding" required for almost every other MMO on the market. But taking those claims in order: the PvP is not consensual, and intentionally not balanced; you can be insta-gibbed by people far above you in level, and when your clan leader needs warm bodies to throw at invaders, you get summoned to the battlefield without your permission. It charges no monthly fee, but it charges cash for equipment. In theory, you can earn money to pay for your equipment, actual Chinese renmibi (RMB), by doing missions in game, but they never pay quite enough to pay for the equipment you out-level every five levels. And it skips the grind in no small part by offering to flat-out sell you the experience points you need to be any level you want.
The viewpoint character of the article got summoned to a battlefield for her side, and more or less accidentally got in the last shot that killed a rival side's king, thereby gaining credit, fame throughout the game ... and a long list of game-generated player character enemies, who took to insta-gibbing her to avenge the honor of their fallen king, as the game required them to do. She found out that she could buy her way up to level 145 (of 170), counting equipment, for about $150, and that'd be enough to more or less hold her own in 1-on-1 PvP. If you think about it, that's about 10 months' worth of ordinary game fees in most other MMOs, so she figured it was worth it. But that, combined with her fame, got her into clan politics with an ally who'd (presumably) also spent about what she had spent, which got her even bigger enemies. It ended up costing her $1500 over a scant few months just to keep up. Finally the game automatically recruited an even larger army to defeat her side, including a force lead by half a dozen level 170 characters. We're not told what they spent, but it's not unreasonable to assume (based on the progression to her level, and what we're told in the article about how equipment costs go up as you go up) that they'd spent closer to $15,000. Each. The article then goes on to deal with her unsuccessful attempt to find a way, within the game, to work around this "victory goes to the highest cash bidder" designed-in feature, and how the company's representatives cheated within the game to stop her before she quit for good over it.
And I've talked this over with a bunch of other gamers, as a pure hypothetical, leaving the China connection (with its own prejudices, because of a decade or more of bad blood between Chinese and American gamers in MMOs over language issues and, even more, over conflicting play-style issues) out of it, to avoid knee-jerk anti-Chinese bigotry. Think about how long it takes, in the MMO of your choice, to grind up a character to the level where they can count on holding their own in unlimited PvP on your server. Now imagine that the game company made it possible to just pay for it in cash up front, instead of paying months' worth of server fees and spending whatever time it was going to take you. How much would you pay for a minimally ready PvP-capable character? Surely not $15,000, people tell me, or even $1,500. Probably not $150. Most would very cheerfully pay $15. Some were willing to go $50 to $100. But no, the sticking point for every player I talked to is, they wouldn't even consider playing a game where you could buy levels and equipment for cash unless everybody who paid got a character of similar power-level. The idea that a person who's richer can flat-out buy victory over you by outbidding you generated a 100% unanimous response: who'd play that game? Sure, rich people might, but who'd volunteer to be beaten on, without any chance of winning, by people whose only "skill" was being able and willing to charge more on their credit cards that you can or will? How does ZT Online attract the million or so "peasants" that get slaughtered over and over again by the handful of rich people who paid for the highest level characters on the server?
But before you answer, consider this riposte, that showed up in the comments on danwei.org, one that I suspect came from one of the company's sales reps. In almost every game out there, the higher level character with the better equipment wins pretty nearly every fight anyway. In those games, the highest level character with the best equipment goes to the person with (a) the most free time and (b) the highest boredom threshold for repeating the same tasks over and over again. In other words, in those other games, victory goes automatically to the person who, in real life, is almost certainly the most worthless loser on the server. What's wrong with having a game where people who are actually successful in real life are also the ones who are successful in the game? Shouldn't the game reward real-life success, as yet another motivator for people who play the game to go out and get good-paying jobs?
(Postscript: And this is on the list of reasons why I stick with City of Heroes and City of Villains. Upon entering any PvP area, everybody gets raised or lowered to the same level. The person with the highest level character and the best equipment might have as much as a 5% or 10% edge, before skill and luck factor in, and it's never so much of an edge that a halfway-awake player who'd rather not stay and fight doesn't have at least a 75% chance of getting away if they try. Oh, and unlike in ZT Online or in half of the games out there, the player who defeats you doesn't actually hurt your character in any way, all they get is some in-game PvP reputation points and the satisfaction of winning a game; all you lose is the 60 seconds it takes to travel back from the hospital. But still, that's not how most of these games work, and it's not how most people seem to want them to work. But in a game where you gamble the fruits of real work you did on leveling your character in every fight, seriously, who volunteers to lose automatically to rich people? Or on the other hand, who volunteers to lose automatically to basement-dwelling unemployed teenagers with no job and no life?)