WoW’s 99% Feels the Hurt Too

A study of the economy of the world’s most popular MMO, World of Warcraft, reveals income inequality in the virtual world.

I used to play wow. A lot. When college ended and it was time to move on to “real life”, I managed to sell my virtual character for real money, to the tune of $2,500. Which I promptly blew on buying even more electronic entertainment gadgets, turned out that “real life” still had some room for a bit of Xbox live.

Any serious WoW player will tell you that there is money in that game, viruses have been distributed over the web to steal accounts, there are dozens of MMO specific auction websites, and there are the Asian gold farmers. All these outside influences destabilize the virtual economy of the game, so much so that a recent study concluded that if Azeroth was a real country it would have the second worst economy on Earth in respect to income inequality. The 99% of elves, orks, gnomes, and so on are somehow getting more screwed than the 99% of real people, but at least Azeroth has better health care.

The study, conducted by Xsinthis, revealed some interesting things about the game’s economy.

  • The bottom 75% owns 14.41% of the wealth (the bottom 25% and 50% owns 0.88% and 4.37% respectively)
  • The first quartile was 12,000 gold while the third quartile was 108,198 gold, and as previously mentioned the median was 35,000 gold
  • “The 99%” owns only 75.75% of the wealth, leaving 24.25% to the top 1% of players
  • 19% of the subjects had under 10,000 gold
  • 72% had under 100,000 gold
  • 82% of players were under the reported sample average
  • 96% were under 1 million gold

But a line from his conclusion brings it all back to reality.

“With such a large percentage of players below the mean wealth level, the whole ingame economic system is an extremely top-heavy one, leaving large sums of gold sitting idle in the top players pockets kept isolated from contributing to the economy, which is especially detrimental if one considers that a server economy is the simple flow of gold and materials.”

(Source: Kotaku, Xsinthis)


  1. Nomen Nescio says

    MMO economics are weird, though. i don’t play WoW so i’m not entirely sure what the study means by “gold”, but typically, in-game coin might as well grow on trees. (as indeed it does, in second life.) plus what with there typically being no costs of living, poverty isn’t the same in-game as IRL either, of course. most games have horrendous inflation problems; people hoarding coin is actually good, if it takes some ever-devaluing coin out of the already glutted circulation.

    the game i play, there’s only two ways to get rich; spend real life money on the cash shop, and merchant. if WoW allows merchanting, i’d expect its 1% to be dominated by obsessive-compulsive merchants who might not have much actual in-game “accomplishments” to their avatars’ names at all. unless being the richest bugger in the game is your reason for playing, they can be largely ignored; their impact on other gamers is noticeable, but not nearly so disruptive as the RL 1%ers’ impact on actual life.

  2. Nomen Nescio says

    …hm. maybe we should be asking ourselves, how do we make the RL 1%ers have as little deleterious impact on society as the MMORPG 1%ers do on their games?

    the only thing that comes immediately to my mind is, try to reduce the overhead costs of living. no way to get it down to zero, like it is in a game, but a livable minimum wage and socialized health care would be a good start. minimizing unemployment might be a better strategy for the central banks than minimizing inflation, too. hyperinflation is undesirable, yes, but there’s a fair bit of space between that and deflation and i’m not convinced that paranoiac inflation-phobia is all that justified.

  3. fastlane says

    Also, take that with a grain of salt. Depending on how they did their study, I would suspect a lot of the characters with the most money also had a few with the least.

    from my days of MMO (DAOC), all my money would go to one or two characters to buy the best gear for PvP, but if each character kept the money they earned, my gold farmer and my armorer characters would have been the wealthiest. The fact that one can have multiple characters/account and intentionally concentrate the wealth probably skews that study significantly compared to RL.

  4. Paddy says

    Yeah, I have 15 “toons” in WoW. Some I rarely or never play with. All my gold is on my “bank” toon, who’s only purpose is to hold gold and materials.

    But it doesn’t surprise me that the wealth is concentrated that way. As with any game or system, there are always the most addicted/obsessed who will find all the best methodsof working the game economy.

    Regular/casual players don’t have the time or the inclination.

  5. Nomen Nescio says

    i just assumed they’d been adding together their various toons’ wealth and given a per-player answer instead of a per-toon or per-account number. nothing else would really make sense, to me anyway.

  6. RealityHack says

    Was this controlled for character level and account age?
    Did they study per account or per character?

    You would expect a huge disparity in gold/money/equipment in any RPG. Lots of low level characters running around with almost nothing (predictable and just fine in the game world) far fewer players who dedicate thousands of hours to amassing large amounts of stuff.

    This just doesn’t translate to real life.

  7. karmakin says

    The scary thing is that it does translate to real life.

    What do the rich do with that money? It’s not always the case, but it’s usually the case.

    Buy out lower priced goods and resell them immediately for higher prices. (There’s a difference between medium-term speculation..say buying a bunch of a crafting material because you think the price is going to go up in a week, and immediate speculation where you look to flip it right away)

    When the competition gets too much for a given item, sell way below actual value to drive competition out of the market, then crank prices back up.

    Those are the main things that AH players use. And yes, they reflect things that happen in the real world.

  8. Raptor says

    I wonder if they took into account things like achievements that have a gold cost to them. For example, there is a mount worth 20,000 gold. Among others. The insanity title, for example, probably cost me in excess of 10k gold when I went about doing it. Or other things like having 100 mounts. Meaning you had to buy a lot of them.

    I mean, wouldn’t that be part of your wealth? Or patterns from crafting? Some people just sit on gold in WoW. While others actively spend it on stuff. To be fair, across 10 toons, I’m sitting on 70k gold.

    Still… There are those who do screw over everyone else. I recall this one person who would commonly put together groups to run lower level raids. After putting it together, he would announce.. all drops go to him, but! if you wanted it, you could bid for it against others in the group, and he would get the gold.

    So… he was rich, because he was screwing over everyone else by profiting from the group’s work. But, I could choose not to run these groups with him and in fact, I didn’t after seeing it first hand

    Sad thing is, no one would bail on him after he announced this. Though I often wonder if it was because they were afraid of it.

    He’s stopped doing it, though. I don’t think he’s made any friends and no one will run current raids with him. Which, here in WoW, has real consequences. If you’re listed as a ninja or a jerk, it can get you into a lot of trouble in WoW unlike real life by being excluded from activities. Sure, you can make yourself 10 friends and all of you profit together.. but that’s all you’ll be able to do.

    I don’t think gold in WoW is a real life comparison. It’s waaayyy too easy to get. Like an above poster said, you can make a ton of gold off playing Auction House. And in wow, if you really want something, you always have the choice to farm gold for it. Again, unlike real life where you can’t just go.. hu..I want that 5k flying, so I’m going to go farm herbs for awhile and sell them on AH. And tada.. its yours (eventually). There are no money sinks other than the ones you choose to buy. So any effort you make toward making gold will always net you a reward.

    I think, the difference between these groups can be explained by hard core and casual players (removing the gold farmers from this – who Blizzard has said they know who they are, what they are doing, and will shut them down once they find an effective way to do so)…. Hard core players who put time into playing, will by default have more gold. Those who only log on just enough to run an instance a week, won’t.

    There is even a contest this guy hosts every year to earn as much gold as possible. You make a level 1 toon, and in 30 days, have to earn as much gold as you can, however you can. It’s done by playing AH. Last year’s top winners had something like 300,000 gold by the time it was over.

    So.. making gold in wow all depends on your priorities.

  9. Steve says

    Also consider that scarcity is not really an issue in WoW. For example, if I accept the daily cooking quest, it’s not at the exclusion of everyone else: anyone can get the quest. In life, if I take a job, that is a job someone else won’t get.

  10. Brandon says

    One thing that’s important to note is that more than a couple hundred thousand gold in WoW doesn’t really do anything at all for a player. The diminishing returns on income hit much, much quicker in WoW than they do in real life. People with a million or more gold are basically playing the economy as a metagame, not because they actually intend to purchase anything with that gold.

    For someone who’s just trying to meet the reasonably “necessary” things in the game like gems, enchants, flying mounts and such, there’s really not much use for having more than ~20K. As such, we can reasonably expect a very, very large chunk of the player base to have a low motivation for making gold. As a primarily PvP player there’s just not really anything I can do with gold. I’ve got perhaps 60K or something in that vicinity and absolutely no motivation to make more.

    Who’s the most analogous to real life circumstances in WoW economics? It’s not the “rich” guy in WoW, since he doesn’t really gain much from his gold. It’s the poor guy who really has absolutely no idea how to make gold and spends hours of real life time flying around picking flowers for a measly 1K/hour or so.

  11. Sajanas says

    I quit WoW towards the end of the Burning Crusade, and I’d have to say that the elitist, obnoxious, 1%-ers were *not* the people with the most gold. They were the people with the high end raiding/pvp items. And those people were actually the ones with the highest expenses too… a normal person out doing quests and a few instances spends money on repairs, a few potions, and occasionally some big ticket items. But people doing raiding have constant wear and tear on their weapons, buy tons of potions, need the best possible enhancements.

    They’re also the ones most likely to spend real money for in game currency, so they can spend more of their time fighting monsters or each other without having to resupply themselves. And lets not forget that gold selling was (and probably still is) an actual industry staffed by people in other countries making gold in shifts to sell. I’d imagine a fair number of the wealthiest warcraft people were actually gold sellers.

  12. Raptor says

    Sajanas. It’s gotten easier to keep up with the hard core raiders now. Having a good, supportive guild helps a ton (I know, I know, good luck finding that. Thankfully, I’ve been lucky and found an all adult guild).

    My guild is casual, raids once a week for a few hours.. and we’re in the most current raid working on bosses. Yeah. we’re not in hard mode or anything like some groups, but we could be.

    It’s gotten a ton easier to keep up with the hard core guys. Gearing up alts is a ton easier… Badges have been streamlined… getting high end enchanting mats is a ton easier thanks to a DE button when you run instances. The list goes on.

    Much to the dislike of the hard core raiders, it has become a game more accessible to more people. Casual gamers aren’t left in the dust like back in BC.. where my guild could only do Kara all the way up until LK came out because we weren’t hard core enough and didn’t have the needed gear to get into the other raids. Now, we only lag slightly behind the hard core guys.

    And yes, I agree with your assessment. I bet most of the gold is in the hands of sellers (and hackers). And Blizzard does work to get rid of them.

  13. says

    Those MMO losers need to get off their lazy slacker asses and PILLAGE MORE CASTLES! That’s a neat, simple solution you don’t have in the real world. Seriously, that’s pretty much all you did in DnD, so why shouldn’t the same be true of WoW? That’s why people play such games in the first place: to do all the plundering and conquering they couldn’t enjoyably do in the real world.

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