Lawful Neutral: A look back at the MMO industry’s law dramas of 2019


It’s hard to believe that 2019 is almost over. Not necessarily unwelcome, but hard to believe. 2019 has been a year in more ways than any of us wants to consider. It feels like we are approaching 2020 the same sense of inevitable trepidation when we notice too late we are about to step a huge patch of ice.

Despite all the year-iness 2019 brought, it was also the start of one of my favorite things: writing for MassivelyOP. Penning Lawful Neutral has been hands down one of the best things of the year for me, and I’m so grateful for Bree and Company giving me the opportunity.

In almost new year style, let’s take a moment to reflect on a few of the notable Lawful Neutral articles from year that was, then we’ll round up all of MOP’s legal articles from the entire year.

The most well-received post from the 2019 was definitely the City of Heroes rogue server article. I had just started the research for a different column when the City of Heroes insanity exploded. I was reading the comments section and noticed a few questions comes up again and again about the legality of playing on rogue servers. The day before my column went live, I decided to pivot to rogue servers. It was a whirlwind of research and editing to get everything out in time, but it was well worth the effort.

Each article I write takes hours of research before I start putting proverbial pen to paper, and by far the most research intensive article was the Marvel vs. NCsoft article. The case originally happened back in 2004, so digging through 15 years of internet history to find the complaints and responses was a lot of work. I navigated through the land of broken links and make copious use of the Wayback Machine as I researched my source materials and cross-referenced articles. That article in particular took some doing!

It was also one of those cases that had a totally unsatisfying outcome. Marvel had its work cut out for it, NCsoft was sitting pretty but the case could have really gone either way. Instead of putting up a really interesting trial that could have had far reaching impacts to copyright and trademark law, they settled behind closed doors, so we have no idea what the terms of the settlement were.

The most gratifying article I wrote was What’s China really worth to the Western gaming industry, arising in the midst of Blizzard’s “hold my beer” moment around Blitzchung. I found it particularly gratifying looking at numbers in a vacuum, since otherwise it’s easy to say “oh of course western gaming companies are going after China! All the lootz!” But fitting that in with the socio-political climate and the fact that the overwhelming majority of that money goes to Chinese companies producing games for Chinese audiences changes the story. It makes companies like Blizzard look willfully ignorant about the actual, human situations that surround their attempts to garner ever greater amounts of money.

It also really reaffirmed for me how easy it is to tell a fabricated story by only looking numbers outside of context. I made comments during the Blitzchung international incident about Blizzard kowtowing to China, but after writing this article and understanding more of the situation – not the whole thing, mind you, just more – the term “kowtowing” might have been too soft for the stance Blizzard and other western game companies have adopted.

Like everyone else, I have a favorite article. We always say we can’t possible have a favorite, that we love all our articles equally. But no, I have a favorite. In fact, it was actually two pieces because I started writing the research and had to divide it up because I had too much content. I really loved researching and writing the articles on currency in online games and the money laundering and micro-laundering in the MMO industry.

In those two pieces, I learned so much about how the business of gaming works, both legitimate and illegitimate. Delving into confusing world of currency was a lot of fun. Confusing, but fun. I really enjoyed learning how game companies manipulate the system to avoid being classified as a currency, while still getting most of the benefits of being currency.

Following that up with a detailed investigation into how exactly baddies use that same currency and mechanics in games to launder money, I started to see how the system worked from to nuts to soup – not to mention the examples of how people laundered money in games weren’t even ways I had considered. It was such an eye-opening experience, and that’s why they were my favorite pieces. It’s also really fun to note two months after I wrote that article, Valve admitted that almost all CS:GO key purchases on the marketplace were money laundering purchases and was changing how they worked to prevent that laundering. Coincidence? Yeah, but I can still pretend!

These are just a few of my most notable articles for Lawful Neutral. I know that I can’t wait to see what next year brings in the legal and business shenanigans that game companies get into in their neverending quest to get moar.

Of course, MOP covered so many more legal shenanigans this year that the column couldn’t hope to touch, from the Pinkertons’ RDR2 suit and multiple Activision investor suits to the Crytek v Star Citizen mess and the Riot Games discrimination and harassment suits. We’ve rounded up everything here for your perusal. May 2020 be half as interesting!

Every other week, Andy McAdams braves the swarms of buzzwords and esoteric legalese of the genre to bring you Massively OP’s Lawful Neutral column, an in-depth analysis of the legal and business issues facing MMOs. Have a topic you want to see covered? Shoot him an email!
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