After three years of running its own system to let some players of EverQuest II conduct trades of in-game assets for real money, Sony Online Entertainment is turning it over to a new partner, Live Gamer.
In 2005, SOE, the publisher of the groundbreaking online game, EverQuest, as well as EverQuest II, Star Wars Galaxies, and other titles, decided to try an experiment that took its industry's traditional approach to players buying and selling in-game assets for real money and turned it on its ears.
Previously, the industry standard was to scream loudly that such activity was illegitimate and prohibited and that players caught doing so would be banned. Of course, thousands of players ignored the warnings and conducted such trades on sites like eBay, IGE.com, and elsewhere, usually with little or no repercussions.
But with the launch of its Station Exchange service that year, SOE decided to embrace the so-called "real money trade," at least provisionally, and see where it might lead. The company allowed such trades to take place on two EverQuest II servers, and gave players the choice of being on those servers or not.
Over the first year of the service, SOE said it made about $250,000--with almost no costs--and reduced the kinds of customer service complaints that it said came regularly from players claiming they'd been defrauded in under-the-table transactions outside the company's auspices.
Since then, Station Exchange has hummed along, neither making big waves nor disappearing. And for the most part, the online game industry has stayed away. No other big publisher of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) has gotten onboard, though Linden Lab's Second Life--a very different kind of virtual world from, say, EverQuest II--has long allowed real-money trades.
Now, SOE is turning the operation of Station Exchange over to Live Gamer, a start-up that launched in 2007. The move is expected to be complete by the end of March and should mean that the resulting service, to be called Live Gamer Exchange, will be entirely Web-based.
What this means for players is unclear. It also doesn't appear that the move means SOE is abandoning the experiment, though it does mean the company will not have to expend as many resources on Station Exchange going forward.
What isn't clear is where the revenue generated by commissions on trades will go. But one can assume that by taking over the service, Live Gamer will probably be getting a big piece of the pie.
Is this a good thing? A bad thing? I'd say neither. I'd say it's an interesting move on SOE's part. It's probably about them deciding they don't need to run it anymore, but that they liked the experiment enough to continue allowing their players to engage in real-money trading.
As before, the big question is whether any other publishers, most notably Blizzard Entertainment, which makes World of Warcraft, will ever follow suit. And so it will be interesting to see how Live Gamer runs with this. It may set a precedent that would be hard to avoid following.