My Time As A World of Warcraft Day-Trader

While I'll likely never do it again, playing WoW as an “Auction House Goblin” (that is, spending most of my time doing trades and making money) in 2017 was a lot of fun while it lasted, and it actually netted me some real-world value (I actually made enough gold to pay for 4 months of subscriptions, the Starcraft Remaster, and Destiny 2).

In no particular order, here are some observations I made about economies, money, and capitalism after playing a day-trader in WoW.

There were basically two ways to make money in the Auction House: be a supplier or be a commodities guy.

A supplier would be the person that used professions (leatherworking, blacksmithing, gathering, fishing, etc) to gather or create valuable items and would then sell them on the AH. Most people start here, and few ever do more than this. Much like workers in real life, these people create all of the economy’s value.

Commodity traders exploited that value to inflate margins and make profit.

As an example, one of the tricks I learned for gold-making was to look for “scoops,” or items that were being sold for significantly less than their mean value. If an item was worth 100g, and someone listed it for 70g, you could purchase it, relist it (or “flip it”) for 99g, and even after AH fees you’d have made about 25g profit for little to no effort. Most people (even non-leftists) feel funny about this situation. It feels like it’s cheating, somehow.

And it basically is.

Commodities trading only works for people with a lot of money. It requires that your total wealth far exceed the value of the lot you purchase, so that you can move around a lot of money without pressure and slowly squeeze out extra profit from margins. So in essence, this is the quintessential “the rich get richer,” for no reason other than they are rich and bored.

Unlike a normal transaction, no value is created here. The price is just inflated.

To make this more complicated, the default UI of WoW’s AH is so bad that it makes basic transactions nearly impossible. You basically need a mod (like Auctionator or TSM) to completely change the interface. These mods add crucial functionality, like hovering tool-tips that give you the average price listing for an item, the ability to post items in batches, and the ability to group items with specific rules for pricing. The base game’s UI gave you none of that.

What’s happening here is that, without intending to, Blizzard has created a system of systemic inequalities that get exploited by the uber-rich. This web of privileges, knowledge gaps, and inequalities create conditions where small groups of people control the vast majority of wealth on a server. These people are then able to leverage their obscene wealth in ways that give them unique perks like free subscriptions, cosmetic items, and gameplay perks.

None of this even touches the topic of being able to use real-world money to buy large quantities of in-game gold, thus creating a true “pay to win” scenario… but even without spending an extra nickel, I was able to become a mid-weight Goblin on my server because I was patient, willing to grind, and willing to exploit the margins. All told I probably made about 2 million gold over the course of the Legion expansion, playing just a couple hours a night on average.

Looking back I feel kind of bad. While I didn’t defraud anyone (I never did any trade chat scams or anything like that), I can’t deny that the way I made my in-game wealth was by squeezing extra value out of other people’s labor. No one starved or went homeless as a result… but still.

Anyway, like most people I ended up hitting a wall eventually. This is probably the most interesting thing for me, as the conditions at the time I think are mirroring the real world in some ways now.

While token prices have basically always gone up (with the exception of a very large crash in 2018), over the course of an expansion the prices of items tends to trend downward. This is because money is literally being “printed” (i.e. created through quests) faster than it is destroyed. It’s basic economic theory with supply and demand. People have more money and also need to buy less things to play the game, so prices go down.

When this happens, the “Goblins,” who are essentially playing a parallel version of the game that involves little actual raiding or fighting, tend to get desperate as their profit margins shrink. With fewer transactions comes less profits for commodities traders. Without quantity they really can’t make any money.

So a lot of them get into “premium” commodities, and start chasing white whales.

There used to be a trading card game for WoW, and there were several promotions that included codes for special mounts within WoW. These items have never been re-released or resold by Blizzard in any way, as Blizzard takes a pretty strong “once it’s gone it’s gone” stance for rare and limited items in their games.

As a result, these items can go for millions of gold each, and you can go months without seeing them. They’re the Yachts of WoW.

For some goblins the mere act of acquiring one or all of these is the ultimate end-game, and they are satisfied with purchasing them. Others, however, try to commoditize these and other high-end items for massive profit margins. They become obsessed with a new type of farming, where they either use third-party services to ping them when the item becomes available for purchase (you can make purchases on the mobile app) or grind obscure enemies for a 0.01% chance of getting a rare item.

While everyone has their own idea of fun, what I can tell you is that, for me, this led to unhealthy levels of obsession where I was chasing an opportunity that would likely never come, and would not satisfy even if I got it. But because the very act of watching numbers grow larger is addictive, it becomes difficult to stop and walk away.

I managed to acquire some premium items through trades and old-fashioned dungeon farming, and I proudly put them on the AH to await my large payout… only for it to never arrive. It turns out that most of these items sell fewer than ONE per month on average, meaning you could literally sit on it for 3-6 months before someone picked it up. Which makes perfect sense. If less than 100 people on a server have the money to afford these niche and optional items, of course it takes forever.

This is the downfall for many “new money” rich people in real life. They get so engrossed with the act of acquiring wealth that they can’t see how completely out of balance their spending is with reality. It’s a personal economic “bubble,” in a way. In real life this can lead to bankruptcy and poverty if no one bails them out. In WoW it… just kind of leads you back to the normal game.

I didn’t lose everything on these purchases, but I did spend over 50% of my liquid cash on these items, and given how low profit margins were at this stage of the expansion it basically meant I wouldn’t be able to get back to where I was until the next expansion… which I would have to buy for myself, since I couldn’t afford to buy tokens to pay for it.

By this point I was pretty burned out on the game anyway, so this ended up being natural walking away point.

We’re actually in a very similar situation in the US today. While a lot of money is being moved around via the stock market (hence all the “healthy economy” headlines in outlets like the Wall Street Journal and NYT), very little value is being exchanged by the average person. Debt is up, discretionary spending (such as on entertainment, premium products, etc) is down, and most people below the age of 40 are unable to participate in “the game.”

And, much like profit margins shrink and affect less wealthy Goblins first, “smaller” wealthy companies like Applebees are complaining that millennials aren’t eating out long before the major players feel the squeeze.

The difference between money in WoW and money in real life, of course, is that money in real life is needed to live. This makes the act of extracting surplus wealth from workers particularly heinous, especially when many of them are struggling to make ends meet.

This is leading for the “players” (those that are not wealthy) to call for sweeping “patches” (changes) to fix the inequality in the “game” (economy). It's also leading to a not insignificant number of people to call for us to quit the game of capitalism altogether and start over with something brand new.

Regardless, I thought of these experiences today and found some of the parallels interesting. I hope you found them equally interesting.