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I was a Warcraft millionaire (But it's probably too late for you)

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Blizzard introduced new functionality to allow people to buy game-subscription tokens that they can sell to other players for in-game currency in the most recent patch to World of Warcraft. The price will start at 30,000 gold, and will fluctuate based on market conditions.

A few years ago, when I played World of Warcraft, I was able to earn thousands of gold a day on the Auction House, and had so much extra currency that I was able to spend millions of gold on rare cosmetic items.

Since a lot of players are now wondering whether they’re going to be able to pay for their subscriptions with gold, it might be a good time for a discussion of Azeroth’s economy, and how it has evolved over the last decade.

I’ve resubscribed to the game to see how things are today, which is kind of like smoking just a little bit of crack to remember the flavor. Ready?

Farming for Gold

There has never been anything truly scarce in World of Warcraft; nothing in the game is really finite except the time players put into it. Killing enemies who drop useful items or gathering natural resources causes them to respawn, so the limit on these goods is equivalent to the amount of time people spend harvesting them.

Unlike a real-world currency, there is no set amount of gold, either. This isn’t a zero-sum game where you can hoard a resource to bring up the value.

Gold in World of Warcraft is spontaneously created when you kill an enemy and loot coins from it, when you sell items to a vendor and when you complete a quest that rewards you with some currency. When you pay gold to purchase something from an NPC vendor or when you pay to repair your equipped gear, that gold ceases to exist.

Otherwise, gold passes between players in exchange for various in-game goods.

It took about 100,000 gold a year to keep your gear fully gemmed, enchanted and otherwise raid or arena-ready. That’s all most players bothered to earn, either by dabbling in crafting or just grinding daily quests. Since most gear in Warcraft either drops in raids and is bound to the player who loots it or is bought from vendors for special currencies like arena points, crafted enhancements are really all players need to buy.

wow mount

The community creates more gold than players spend at vendors, even when Blizzard creates "gold sinks" to remove gold from the economy, such as vendors that sell special, expensive vanity mounts. The currency builds up in the economy, and, as with real money, it tends to flow toward a small percentage of players.

The reason for this is simple: gold is difficult to acquire in large quantities. Finishing quests or farming ore and herbs has never earned you more than a couple hundred gold an hour, so it would take you thousands of hours of grinding to hit the gold cap.

Because of that, players who have been able to learn what other players need regularly, and master the game’s crafting systems, have historically been able to earn thousands of gold each day, and could accumulate millions of gold.

I was one of those players.

The Ore Shuffle

The most common way of getting rich in World of Warcraft from around Burning Crusade through Mists of Pandaria was "shuffling" ore. This involved buying a lot of ore from other players and prospecting it all using the Jewelcrafting profession.

Gems were great to sell, because everyone needed a lot of them, but the profession created a lot of waste. When you prospected ore, you could get gems of two qualities — uncommon and rare. The rare ones gave you more stats when socketed into your gear, but around 80 percent of the gems you got from ore would be uncommons that nobody wanted to use.

Gems also came in six colors which corresponded to different kinds of stats they could give you. Stats were color-coded for red, yellow and blue, while green, orange and purple were a mix of two color-coded stats. The sockets could also be red, yellow or blue and when the color of the socket matched the color of the gem, it awarded bonus stats.

Red gems conferred primary stats, which were generally worth more than secondary stats, so red gems were the best for most players, and those players either gemmed only reds or used orange and purple to get their blue and yellow socket bonuses. So, red gems were very valuable, orange and purple gems were somewhat valuable, and yellow, green and blue gems were a lot less desirable.

The key to the shuffle was using other professions to get value out of the uncommon gems and the rare yellow, green and blue gems.

wow pet

Alchemists could transmute uncommon quality gems into rare quality gems, and they could also transmute a bunch of regular rare gems into special meta-gems which fit special meta-sockets on helmets. So, in addition to jewelcrafting, you needed to have max-level alchemy, so you could turn your extra uncommon red gems into rare-quality red gems, and make meta gems out of some of those unsellable blues, yellows and greens.

You could make uncommon-quality jewelry out of most of the rest of your excess gems. This gear wasn’t very useful or desirable, but an enchanter could shatter those items to create enchanting dust.

So, a player with max-leveled jewelcrafting, alchemy and enchanting could take most of the waste products of prospecting and turn them into other valuable commodities, while players who did not have all three of these professions could not yield nearly as much value from their ore.

In WoW, anything worth doing is a several-hundred hour commitment, so of course there were also significant barriers to entry into the jewelcrafting and enchanting markets.  The different gem cut patterns and enchanting recipes required you to do daily quests or use cooldowns to acquire, and it took months to get them all.

Leveling up the professions required either a lot of farming or tens of thousands of gold in start-up funding, especially if you were starting from scratch rather than the previous expansion’s profession cap.  And since characters can only have two professions, you needed at least two high-level characters to have alchemy, jewelcrafting and enchanting.

On top of that, the default Auction House UI has never been up to the task of managing a large number of auctions, so players had to learn how to use add-ons to remedy that problem.  And even with the add-ons, prospecting ore and auction management took at least a few hours a week, and to be really successful, you needed to check on your auctions at least a few times a night and re-list everything if someone was undercutting your prices.

Even after I stopped raiding and cut my PvP down to one or two nights per week, I was still logging onto the game every night, just to do Auction House business.

Mastering the shuffle could make you rich, but since players didn’t have much use for gold beyond the cost of their needs, only a few people bothered with this.  Among those who did, most were doing it to fund the purchase of rare cosmetic items, were supporting other players in their guilds with the proceeds of their auction business, or were the kinds of people who just liked seeing a big number on the currency indicators in their bags.

On many medium or low-population servers, there were only a couple of shufflers looking to satisfy the entire community’s demand for gems and enchantments, which meant there was often little competition, and therefore high margins.

During Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria, shuffling ore routinely earned me more than 10,000 gold a day selling cut gems and enchantments on the auction house.

Azeroth’s Underbelly

But there was a dark side to WoW’s economy: illicit gold-selling. Players who just wanted to raid or PvP without worrying about doing quests or farming would often just pay third parties cash for in-game gold, and the way gold-sellers obtained the gold they were selling was extremely toxic to the game.

Farming for raw materials like all that ore I was shuffling is one the simplest tasks in World of Warcraft. You fly around on your mount, and the nodes appear on your map as yellow dots.  You land, you click on the node, and you collect your ore. If a monster attacks you, you have to kill it before you can mount again, but the enemies in the leveling zones are no challenge to a max-level character.

Because it was so simple, gathering could be automated by running a third-party program that moves a character in a loop around a zone known to be rich with nodes and collects the ore and herbs. Allowing one of these "bot" programs to play your character is a serious breach of World of Warcraft rules that can result in a permanent ban from the game, but the gold sellers didn’t care about the consequences; they were botting on stolen accounts.

If you play any Blizzard game, you’ve likely been encouraged to secure your accounts with the Blizzard Authenticator, an app you download to your phone that generates a random eight-digit code every sixty seconds, which you must enter in order to access your games from any unfamiliar device.

This is because organized criminals who sold World of Warcraft gold for cash were stealing as many accounts as they could. Gold sellers used phishing scams and try to trick people into installing trojan horse programs that steal passwords to get access to these accounts, because Blizzard was identifying their bot characters and banning them routinely. Of course, they also stole or sold everything of value on all the characters on any account they got access to, and if the account had access to something like a stocked guild-bank, they’d clean that out as well.

During Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria, any time I saw an unfamiliar name selling a large quantity of ore on the Auction House, I’d buy it all and then report the seller for botting, because it was almost always a stolen account selling bot-farmed ore to support illicit gold selling.

...criminals who sold World of Warcraft gold for cash were stealing as many accounts as they could

If you were trying to farm ore legitimately to fund your own in-game expenses, this kind of activity was pretty harmful, because these guys placed very little value on the time spent gathering ore. They weren’t actually spending any time farming it, and they had to sell everything they farmed as quickly as possible because Blizzard was constantly banning their accounts. This activity placed huge downward pressure on ore prices.

However, ore shufflers like me were really beneficiaries of all this crime, at least on smaller servers like the one I played on. We could absorb most of the ore these accounts were spewing onto the market, we could keep gems and enchantments priced high, even while these guys cratered the cost of raw materials. I often had hundreds or even thousands of stacks of ore from the auction house in my mailbox and a bank-alt full of extra gems, just to keep the flood of cheap ore from destabilizing the markets for my gems. But the ore was so cheap, and there were so few people shuffling on my server that gems were still highly profitable.

Meanwhile, the account-thieves were stealing accounts to bot the ore to sell to me, so that they could sell my gold to players who needed it to buy my gems and enchantments on the Auction House.

It was a bad time for people who wanted to sell raw materials and people who left their accounts unsecured, but it was a pretty good time to be shuffling ore.

What’s Changed in Warlords of Draenor

Blizzard’s release of game-time tokens that can be sold on the Auction House is the latest step in a series of changes that have destabilized the market for gold-sellers.

After years of attempting to police gold-sellers and account thieves with account bans, Blizzard seems to have recently decided to destroy this pernicious business by blowing up the game economy on which it has historically been premised.

As of Warlords of Draenor, herbalism and mining are essentially dead. While nodes still appear out in the world, the player garrison has an herb garden and a mine that supply huge amounts of raw materials, and can be harvested without any investment in a gathering profession.

Garrisons supply more raw materials than most players will ever need, especially if they have multiple characters, and the rest of that supply spills onto the auction house.

The volume of materials that the garrisons are pumping into the economy hugely exceeds the crafting needs of the community, so if somebody wanted to bot for ore now, the proceeds would likely be trivial. Botting once erased the time-cost of collecting ore for people who botted, but now the garrison has erased it for everyone.

In addition to completely flooding the economy for raw materials, Blizzard has severely crimped the demand for consumable crafted goods by reducing the amount of enhancements that players need.

In Mists of Pandaria, in order to fully augment a set of gear you needed:

  • a colored gem and a metagem in your helm
  • two or three gems and an enchantment on your chestpiece
  • a gem and a stat-boosting inscription crafted by a scribe on your shoulderplates
  • an enchantment and a gem in your gloves
  • an enchantment and sometimes a gem in your bracer
  • a belt-buckle crafted by blacksmith and a gem for your belt
  • two or three gems and a spellthread crafted by a tailor or an armor patch crafted by a leatherworker for your pants
  • an enchantment for your boots
  • an enchantment for your cape
  • an enchantment for your weapon
  • if you used an offhand weapon, an offhand caster held-item or a shield, an enchantment for that

Whew!

Now, the inscriptions, the buckles and the threads are gone, and enchantments are only used on rings, necklaces, capes and weapons, even though non-enchanters can now destroy unwanted gear to create enchanting materials, which has dramatically increased the supply of dust and shards. Gem sockets are pretty much gone; one can occasionally appear on a piece of gear as a sort of bonus, but the community doesn’t require enough gems to create a steady or profitable market.

Since the cost of raw materials is basically zero in the garrison, it’s impossible to say today’s goods sell for a loss. If your jewelcrafter uses his daily jewelcrafting cooldown and has a jewelcrafting building in their garrison, the profession will probably generate goods you can sell for a few thousand gold per week.

But even though the cost of raw materials is now very low, the price of crafted goods is often even lower than the Auction House price of the raw materials required to make them. There are currently a lot more gems on the for sale Auction House than there are sockets. Prospecting is also gone, so there is nothing like the old shuffle.

Can you earn enough to play for free?

As it is in the real world, the best way to get rich in World of Warcraft is to already be rich.  The glory days of lucrative professions seem to be over.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve tried to break into several different markets on my server cluster. I looked at gems, alchemy flasks, enchantments and darkmoon trinkets, and in every case the supply of crafted goods on the market seems to tremendously exceed the demand for the goods in the community.

The 6.1 patch included new vendors who offer recipes to turn raw materials into unlimited quantities of special crafting materials that were previously gated by cooldowns, but garrisons are producing so many resources that these new mechanics can’t absorb them all. Prices are better than they were before 6.1 when resources in excess of what you required for daily cooldowns and work orders were largely useless, but prices are still very low, and there’s still a lot of excess resources.

It looks like the best way to make gold is now the garrison. There are a number of follower missions that award gold, and some followers have a trait that multiplies the gold reward, and you can get items that re-roll your followers’ traits to get more followers who can do this

Some garrison buildings, like the jewelcrafting building, also have daily quests that pay several hundred gold.

wow mount 2

If you have four or five max-level characters with garrisons full of epic followers running the most lucrative missions, it’s likely that you could easily clear more than 25,000 gold per week on follower missions alone.  But at this point you’d be playing a whole lot of Warcraft, and a substantial percentage of your time spent playing would need to be devoted to managing all those garrisons.  Getting Warcraft-rich this way will likely require more work than professions ever did.

As is usually the case with changes to a game like WoW, reviews are mixed.  While some people love the garrison and love not having to worry about augmenting gear, a lot of players miss being able to use all those augmentations to skew their builds toward the most desirable stats; it’s now harder, for example, to focus on mastery at the expense of crit than it used to be.

And while a lot of players love having a personalized space in the game, some players preferred seeing a crowded hub city and dislike the Farmville-influenced maintenance duties of managing follower missions and work orders.

And it’s hard to say what will happen with the WoW token.  I consider myself pretty well-versed in the intricacies of the Warcraft economy, and I have no idea how popular these will be or how much they will end up costing on the Auction House.

Warlords of Draenor has reduced the need for gold at the same time it has made gold more difficult to earn in large quantities.

I’m not sure how many people are still willing to pay cash for in-game currency, and I am not sure how many players are still rich enough to pay for their subscriptions with gold, at a cost that will likely exceed the starting price of 30,000 gold per month.