The more I have considered this issue, I think spectacular, arbitrary punishments are the best penalty for gold buyers.
I’m leaning towards “The Roll Back”. The game operator detects a gold buyer. He reviews the account file and makes a notation of where the player was when he bought the gold (or farther back, or at the time he is detected). This state is quietly saved. Then, at some random date in the future – say, 1 to 6 months later, the player is notified that he was busted for gold buying and his account is rolled back. No gains, no experience, no nothing from the time since counts.
This should be done rather publicly on a daily basis… banner headlines – a Player was rolled back from Level 63 to Level 20. He lost X gold, Y experience, the following items….. One of those annoying news tickers (with RSS feed, of course).
This puts risk on the Player… and he doesn’t know when or if he will be caught. And, most importantly, the alleged benefits of gold buying become risks.
Before I launch into this topic, I should first confess that I’m not entirely blameless here, having purchased some items off of eBay on my Asheron’s Call account many years ago (I could probably even use the standard “young and foolish” excuse to justify it.) I should also say that I have pretty much quit playing MMOGs at this point, primarily due to loss of interest in the genre, although I have devoted not insignificant amounts of time to Asheron’s Call and World of Warcraft. That said, I will still occasionally play the part of the armchair developer, and although I favor anything that severely punishes those who exploit the system, there’s one element that seems to be missing here to make the approach truly effective: Paranoia.
Sure, it’s one thing to smack someone with six months of lost progress, but I suspect that a lot of people would either quit or fail to learn their lesson in those circumstances, just grinding their characters back to their prior levels none the wiser. The trick to make something like this work is to make the penalty unpredictable, socially damaging, and costly to remove. This would make it more along the lines of a curse than the cataclysmic rollback suggested. I picture something like the scenario outlined below:
Jack the Rogue has made himself a lot of new friends lately, and ever since he came across an “inheritance” not too long ago, his armor is looking shinier than ever these days. All the cool kids are inviting him out to their raids nowdays, and he’s halfway to getting his tier 3 armor set (note: if I’m incorrect on some of the details, I never got my main character past 54 when I was playing WoW, so I’m not familiar with the high-level game.) Everything seems to be going Jack’s way, but then things start to happen.
In the course of his normal travels, Jack starts to encounter unusually powerful creatures, many of which seem unusually determined to tear him limb from limb. His armor and weapons gradually begin to deteriorate faster than normal, until he’s spending significant sums of money just to keep his equipment from crumbling to dust. Every once in a while, items go missing from his packs (and on rare occasions, even from the bank.) Other items get lost in the mail, and never reach their intended recipient. Loot received from his normal travels seems unusually meager. None of this happens with enough regularity for Jack to figure out what’s going on, but it happens regularly enough that he can’t attribute it to random server issues.
Eventually, these symptoms start occuring on raids, generally making life difficult for everyone. Eventually it gets worse, until it reaches a point where Jack is being hit randomly with severe AoE debuffs affecting significant portions of the group and resulting in wipes. It becomes clear to the group that Jack cannot be trusted to be inlcuded in raid groups, and is shunned by his peers. Eventually, a point is reached where even some of the NPCs (incliding the Griffon masters) will not deal with him. Jack’s money is cursed, and nobody wants it, lest they be afflicted as well Their reputation follows them, and few people want to have anything to do with them.
There is a way out of this, however. To lift the curse, Jack will be required to travel to Pariah’s Cave, where he will have to fight (possibly requiring the assistance of others, as a “retribution” step) his way to a shrine, where he will have to make a large “donation” (the amount determined to have been purchased by the gold farmer, plus “interest” of around 10%) to have the curse lifted from him Depending on the severity, they may be able to pay this in installments, but for repeat offenders, only a lump sum payment in full would be sufficient. If he can do this, he will no longer be cursed, but perhaps he will be wiser for his ordeal, and think twice about purchasing from gold farmers again.
The key to making this work is to take more of a “slow leak” approach to the problem. Eventually a payment in full will be required to rid themselves of the problem, but it will take some time for the problem to reach the point where it becomes necessary. The “spectacular” consequences come at the point where they can start to have an adverse effect on others who he groups with, to the point that he is eventually considered a danger to others, and excluded from raid groups for this reason. In the meantime, the player afflicted with this curse can never be sure that they will be able to travel safely, retain any items they acquire, or even if they’ll be allowed to sell their items in the next town.
To be honest, I’m not sure how well this approach to the problem would work, but I’m not sure if the “spectacular and arbitrary” approach would work either. On the other hand, if that approach came with 16-ton safes dropped on the perpetrators at inconvenient times, I’d probably pay good money to watch it happen…