I just heard the news that SquareEnix banned 7900 accounts in Final Fantasy XI, and that got me thinking. Most MMORPGs have some form of permaban, and they go through banning waves where many accounts will get hit at once. Every few months a company will ban a bunch of players to combat the illegal use of their game (the FFXI report focuses on currency selling and botting). The real question is why? Why have these huge banning waves instead of just banning people as you discover they are using the game illegally?
In any MMORPG with a tradeable currency system and the ability to get really good and cool stuff with that currency, there will be people trying to sell it outside the game. Also, with any game that has a difficult levelling system (such as World of Warcraft) or something to unlock (like Jedi in classic Star Wars Galaxies) there will be people trying to sell accounts that are max level or unlocked. People will try to use the game to make money in real life, and they will try to take advantage of the players of the MMORPG. No matter how many accounts are banned, currency selling is still a major business in almost every MMORPG, with a few exceptions.
The question remains: Why use banning waves to try and get rid of these activities instead of just shutting them down when you find them? I can't count the number of times I've seen and reported botters and people selling currency in-game. I can count the number of times those accounts were banned: zero. I have a habit of adding the botter to my friends list to see when they get banned, and have yet to see an account go grey for more than a day. Even after massive bans, they usually are still there (and still botting in the same areas). So why release these huge ban waves that don't really even do anything?
Well, the simple answer is PR. If a company does nothing, they are negligent. The player base largely grumbles against currency and account sellers, as well as power levelling services. Developers could go and take very affirmative action against accounts that are suspect, but they don't. Every account is generating money for the company, and if they ban every farming account, it would take a significant chunk out of their pocket. So instead of banning every account, they ban a large number of accounts every 3-6 months. I wonder how many of these accounts actually have subscriptions on them and are playable. The other thing that gets me is that gold farmers seem to know when a ban wave is coming. When poking around for information on this post, I found this which shows a number of times that a gold farmer had a "hunch" about a ban wave.
Why tolerate gold farming at all? Well, the simple fact is that it is a lot of free advertising. Each gold farming website hits high on certain google searches. Having power levellers and gold sellers makes the game easier for those with money, and people who don't have to grind through 70 levels and get a bunch of gold will pick up the game sooner than those worried about a grind. When you think about it, if it weren't for gold farmers, the economies of many servers wouldn't be nearly as developped as they are. Gold farmers go out there and find rare loot and raw materials and sell them to make gold. In turn, those materials would be far costlier and less available without them. Gold farmers have their benefits, I guess.
The best explanation for why MMORPG companies ban in waves seems to be so that they can keep gold farmers in the game spending money and making money, but still seem like they're taking care of their players. The moderators of the game cannot be so inept that they get lucky every few months but otherwise ban nobody. The only way to keep gold farming low is to actively ban those that do it, and not ban in mass waves every few months. They are in a catch-22, they cannot state that gold farming is legal according to the terms and conditions of the game, because that would upset a lot of players, but they cannot ban them all outright because the farmers benefit the developers.
Frankly, I wonder how much of what I've proposed is true. I guess if I get sued by Sony, Blizzard, and every other gaming company I'll know that it was all true.