Although the famed Columbo has retired his sharp mind and that famous wrinkled trench-coat loved by so many, the game of cat and mouse detective lives on in the form of virtual detectives protecting the players of online global games.
A new company has come to the rescue by targeting the vast cosmos of Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOG) like Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.
It all boils down to unwanted advertising in the form of emails and ads for the sale of game-related virtual items such as swords and characters. Workers for these spam companies are cleverly concealed as In-game characters and their function is to collectively and literally ruin the game by suspending its progress and bombarding players with all sorts of unsolicited interruptions.
Although all game publishers have forbidden this type of activity, Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), which oversees games like EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies and Free Realms, has been forced to draw a line in the cyber sand. SOE has created the Norathian Underground Gnome investigation Team (NUGIT), which refers to the fantasy cosmos of Norath in the game, Everquest.
Don’t underestimate the powers of this nine-member team that is intent on crushing in-game fraud. They are detectives in the truest sense of the word although their hunting grounds are in the realm of cyberspace where they police the different game worlds of SOE in search of spammers and their operations.
In the words of John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment:
“People get very frustrated when they see spam. It’s the equivalent of junk mail and you’re getting this in-game and it’s very frustrating. A lot of these companies are offshore. It’s very difficult to stop somebody that’s in another country, particularly one where the laws aren’t friendly to the United States and it can be very challenging.”
Smedley estimates that the gaming industry is losing about $2 billion a year from these third party companies. As a result of NUGIT’s patrols, SOE has closed 295,000 subscription accounts across its MMO games circuit.
Game publishers have long been opposed to third-party companies making money off their game world. It’s no different than rip-off jeans, handbags, perfume or anything else except for the fact that up until now it was harder to track down the offenders. Now the jig is up as virtual detectives have infiltrated the strategy utilized by these spammers.
The problem is that the spammers offer tempting upgrades to lovers of the games at a much quicker rate. They appeal to those seeking better characters or access to more powerful weapons, as players don’t have to play for hours in order to get them. Spam companies hire players to blend in by logging in online, developing characters and accruing virtual items, which are then transported via “mules” to “runners,” who sell the items for cash through these third-party sites.
The beginning of the solution to this process is almost like finding the queen bee by following the drones as they return to the hive. When a spammer is reported to NUGIT, rather than close it down right away, NUGIT follows the account, tracking the other accounts connected with the mules and runners.
In the words of Brad Wilcox, director of customer support at SOE and manager of NUGIT:
“These “farming” organizations are very organized… Rather than closing down one account, we’ll follow the individual and end up banning as many as 100 to 200 accounts based off one tip.”
Monthly subscription fees are the mainstay for game publishers and their goal is to make sure their players enjoy the game. Unfortunately there’s another complex game afoot, and even though Sherlock Holmes and Columbo are no longer in operation, hopefully their days are numbered.