The End of the Smurfs? Written by: Bruce Rolston Published:

It's easy to forget how much of our fun as gamers is due to volunteers. Unpaid labor is used to run discussion boards, to beta-test software, to design mods: no matter what the game, volunteers are at the heart of any genre's community of diehards. But the ripples from a New York lawsuit by some disgruntled online volunteers is threatening to shake the foundations of every such community that relies on free labour.

No one is more reliant on volunteer labour than the massively multiplayer online games. The three largest online fantasy role-playing titles, EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Asheron's Call, use them as their first line of customer service. But maybe not for long: on Monday, representatives of Ultima Online's makers, Origin Systems Inc. (OSI), announced the termination of free game account privileges for hundreds of community volunteers. In a letter to the community, external support coordinator Matt Gutierrez wrote: "Due to changes in the industry regarding volunteers, effective Sept. 30, 2000, OSI will no longer provide free player accounts or other added value to members of all [Ultima Online] Volunteer Programs."

While company representatives have not said so outright, it appears the move to eliminate what amounted to a $10 a month gratuity for volunteers is related to a recent New York class action lawsuit, brought by former volunteers at America Online (AOL). The plaintiffs are claiming that AOL's practice of relying on what it calls "community leaders" to produce, maintain and moderate online content was tantamount to employment, and hence covered by American minimum-wage laws. (Origin's parent company, Electronic Arts, has exclusive rights to AOL game content.)

AOL is claiming that its community leaders entered into service of their own free will, and could leave at any time. If the plaintiffs win out, and the courts ultimately rule that using volunteers to help run a for-profit online enterprise is illegal, the company could be facing tens of millions of dollars in damages. But if that happens, the effects won't only be felt at AOL, but throughout the Internet world. Origin is just the first game company to move to protect itself legally, by removing any perqs that could be seen as differentiating its volunteers from all the other players. The major subscription-based role-playing services may soon follow suit. While the short-term effects may be limited (some volunteers may quit, but could be replaced), the long-term future of volunteer work on online releases seems doubtful all of a sudden.

The three big fantasy role-playing services use different terms for their volunteers, but the idea is the same. Verant Interactive's EverQuest has what are called "Guides." In Turbine Entertainment's Asheron's Call, they're called "Advocates," and share customer service with the paid "Sentinels." In Origin's Ultima Online, they're "Counselors," although to the Ultima players whose virtual lives they regulate, they're often just the "smurfs."

The smurfs and their kin settle disputes between players, report glitches, develop story lines. Their gameworld avatars often have powers denied other players - invisibility, teleportation, the ability to remove characters' posessions, change their attributes, or even resurrect them. From the point of view of the other players' virtual characters, a counselor is often cop, magistrate, caliph, all rolled into one, able to mete out justice, and commune with the developer "gods." Their numbers aren't large - Ultima has several hundred for its 200,000 active subscribers - but they include in their ranks many of the most experienced and dedicated players a game can have.

For acting in the role of local superhero in their computer-generated realities, volunteers often have to abide by numerous strict rules. They have to be present for a certain number of hours, and log those hours for the company. They have to guard their identity closely, refraining from revealing it in the game or outside. They have to, at all times, be polite in their dealings with the company's paying customers. Their rewards? The pleasure of making people happy for some, the cachet of being in an inner circle, the enjoyment of an occasional feeling of omnipotence... and a free game account for their own, non-smurf character, so they can continue to play their game, as well as regulate it.

Volunteering this way is, by all accounts, not an easy task. EverQuest players are chortling this week over the rant web-posted by one guide, "Tweety," who couldn't resist telling her most annoying petitioners what she really thought of them any longer. "Get a clue, pissants," it reads in part. "Neither I, nor anyone else breathing actually gives a shit about how so-and-so stole your orc."

The dollar cost for the companies, on the other hand, is minimal: around $120 a year for the free account, in return for over 300 hours of first-line customer service. Whatever the hours worked, there's no doubt it's less than hiring minimum wage workers would have cost.

But it's more than that. The role of the volunteer, at the interface between company and game player, is central to the very idea of massive role-playing products. Both in their world and above their world, volunteers in these virtual worlds play part of the role that was once reserved in role-playing for the dungeon master: a human who can actually fix things, a god who will listen. To replace that with only paid workers would seem... bizarre. Traditional models of customer service just wouldn't seem right. One can't imagine playing Dungeons and Dragons if all rules debates had to be settled by a company representative. It's equally unimaginable for Ultima players who've been victim of a cheater or whose virtual home has inexplicably disappeared to be left with no recourse but the company's toll-free phone line.

Having volunteer intermediaries has long been key to the idea of developing online communities, says game designer and writer Greg Costikyan. "It's far too costly to have full-time people on staff to provide the necessary customer support in an environment where more customers have issues like 'I can't find my corpse' rather than 'you billed my credit card improperly,' says Costikyan, currently the chief designer for Unplugged Games. "Volunteers are essential to providing a good experience for players, and nurturing the sense of community that brings people back again and again."

'They're essentially telling volunteers
they don't mean anything.'

It's this idea of developing communities, communities whose members will pay membership fees month after month, that differentiates these games from the other, smaller-scope computer titles, which only offer online play as a freebie, to boost retail sales. For many publishers, "persistent universes," fully-fledged alternate realities, have long seemed the way of the future for PC games, freeing them finally from the "what have you done lately" tyranny of the retail sales market. Possibly, it was thought, it could even give the PC a niche where they can continue to compete in a world where consoles are coming on stronger than ever. Certainly the revenues generated by the big three fantasy RPGs so far are impressive: not only did EverQuest sell 400,000 copies in the stores, but well over 200,000 people are still forking over the $10 every month for the experience.

But continuing to make those kinds of figures requires a customer service model far more sophisticated than any cable or phone company has, says Costikyan, and that may not be sinking in.

"Multiplayer gaming is about community. If all you want is a game, you can play a solo game on your PC. People put up with long load times and Internet latency and the occasional drop precisely because they get to play with other people, and establish online relationships...There are people who have been playing Air Warrior [a multiplayer flight sim] since 1984. There are Air Warrior players who list themselves as 'so-and-so, Retd.'-meaning they no longer play the game, but continue to pay a monthly charge so they can hang out with their buddies in the chat rooms."

All the major game companies talk constantly about community-building, says Costikyan, but often their actions belie their words. "Both Origin and Verant have enforced policies that are, frankly, customer-hostile. They define behavior that they don't like as 'cheating;' they prohibit the sale of in-game items on eBay--while failing to provide any in-game facility for auctions--and they reward players who find clever ways to use the game by nerfing the techniques they discover."

From Costikyan's point of view, Origin's latest move, which is guaranteed to alienate several hundred of its game's most dedicated fans (many of whom have one or more paid accounts in addition to their free one, for alternate identies that they play) is short-sighted, at best.

It is difficult to gauge how Origin's counselors are reacting, or how many may resign, as their job requires their anonymity. But longtime player Janice Lebarge says the prospects are grim:

"They're essentially telling the counselors that they're expendable and don't mean anything. Most counselors didn't volunteer because of the free account - but that free account was often the only way that they knew their hard work was appreciated by the company. Many counselors will probably leave because of the principle of the thing. I'm sure [Origin will] eventually build their numbers back up, but in the meantime the players will suffer from increased wait times and the remaining counselors will start to burn out under the increased workload."

It seems Ultima's volunteer program may continue for now, with new staff lured solely by the enjoyment of a counselor's role, but without any company compensation whatever. Working hard to shore up support among the smurfs who chose to remain, external support coordinator Jack "Kal El" Wood tried to console them Monday in an open letter. "The Counselor program has come such a long way since its inception and that is entirely due to the dedication and efforts of all of you. From the very beginning this program has prided itself on a group of people who simply loved talking to and helping others find their way in a sometimes-overwhelming environment."

"This is a program unlike any other in the world," said Wood, "and it always will be. It consists of the most caring and devoted people of all backgrounds. It opens its arms to college students, doctors, accountants, policemen and women, wives, husbands, and yes, even lawyers, who all have a love for Britannia [the Ultima gameworld] and a strong desire to make someone else's life just a little bit better."

'This can't help but have
a chilling effect on new titles.'

Be that as it may, but many players are more concerned about what seems an inevitable decline in their customer service will mean for Ultima, and online roleplaying in general. "In the short run, this is going to be bad for everyone," says player Dave Rickey. "It's bad for the companies, because they're looking at higher customer service expenses. It's bad for customers, because they will probably see a big drop in quality of service... not that the industry is a paragon of customer service now. And if a class-action is pursued against the game companies and wins 'back pay,' the total is likely to be more than these games have ever generated in revenue... That can't help but have a major chilling effect on potential investment in new titles."

It's difficult, though, for Rickey to imagine a game without some kind of volunteer customer help. "Without the volunteer staff, players will be thrown almost entirely onto their own devices, with little to no recourse when a chip flips a bit and eats their character."

This apparent backlash from the AOL lawsuit could be a major setback for online developers, agrees designer Scott Hartsman. He says the company's move is just the first spin-off of an unfortunate court case. "I don't blame them. They don't want to be sued."

"Volunteers are extremely valuable in supporting any online community, says Hartsman, who developed the Gemstone series of games. "They are the real gold mine, and need to be treated as such. These are people who care enough about your service to devote their own time to making it a better 'place.' However, they may not get the chance anymore. By taking this nonsensical bit of revenge into the court system, the [AOL] complainants risk hurting the entire industry."

The lawyer who is taking that case into the court system, Manhattan's Leon Greenberg, says he's no more surprised than Hartsman at Origin's decision, but for different reasons. For him this is a clear case of a company growing rich on less-than-minimum wage work, and any other company that does the same should be wary.

"That [Origin's move] doesn't surprise me too much at all. Their legal counsel probably told them they were facing serious legal liabilities if they continued."

Greenberg is the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case known as Hallissey and William v. American Online Inc. and America Online Communities Inc. Currently in the process of legal discovery, the class-action case is due to come before a New York federal court judge this spring. Greenberg says over 14,000 "community leaders" (or CLs) are eligible to join Kelly Hallissey and Brian Williams, his original plaintiffs. Their complaint states that the conditions of their service, "while being denominated as 'volunteer' programs by the defendants, created... an employer and employee relationship which obligated the defendants to pay to the individual plaintiffs... minimum wages pursuant to the respective New York State and Federal laws."

Hallissey and Williams, like other CLs, had hosted chats, moderated message boards, and so on. In return, they got $22-a-month AOL accounts for free. But they were so disillusioned by their experience with AOL, they left and founded, an AOL watchdog site. Their claims that AOL was exploiting its volunteer labour for profit have not gone unnoticed: the federal Department of Labour has announced it is also investigating the company's labour practices. Five weeks ago, AOL let go 350 of its teenaged CLs, a move that was seen as partly in response to the growing pressure.

"If the company is making money," says Hallissey now, "can someone tell me why they can't pay those that helped create that revenue?"

Hallissey's lawyer Greenberg, who has publicly called AOL a "cyber-sweatshop," says volunteers were crucial to the early growth of what is now a monster media conglomerate. Damages, if the case is won, could be large: assuming $10,000 per volunteer, as much as $140 million could be at stake. And Greenberg says AOL, or any other online user of volunteers, has no legal ground to stand on if it tries to claim volunteers enter into such arrangements under their own free will. A lawyer with considerable experience with cases involving real sweatshops, he says the federal Fair Labour Standards Act is quite clear that employee consent is not an excuse.

"The concept of voluntarism only applies in the charitable sector. AOL is a for-profit business, so the concept doesn't apply. Any agreement by a worker to work for less than the minimum wage is automatically void."

'Who loses? Simple. Every online
community that has volunteers.'

Greenberg says his main concern right now is to alert as many potential plaintiffs as possible, before the law's three-year statute of limitations runs out. Every day, thousands of current and former AOL employees are losing money they could be claiming, he says. "I fully expect that the plaintiffs will prevail," he says. "But AOL is very happy to let the clock run out."

But if AOL loses the suit, it could have a profound impact on the still unrealized potential of online gaming, warns Hartsman. "Who loses? Simple. Every online community that has volunteers, as well as every contented volunteer on the net.

"Internet communities, taken as a whole, are not a gold mine. On the vast, vast majority of them, there's no large sum of cash sitting behind a curtain somewhere. If every volunteer had to be paid as an employee, not even AOL could afford to have a volunteer program. No volunteer programs, equals no volunteers, equals a lot of people with a lot they want to offer, who can't."

For those massive multiplayer games that rely on volunteers now, the risks are significant, even if they follow Origin's lead and withdraw all special privileges, believes longtime online game fan Michael Maurice.

"Origin would have been asking for a lawsuit if they didn't take some kind of action. This way, Origin can argue that as soon as they were aware of the legal implications stemming from the AOL lawsuit, they did what could be done to rectify the situation.

"This does not get Origin off the hook, however," Maurice adds. "It only lets them say, 'We don't do this anymore.' The fundamental problem here is that a for-profit company should not be using volunteers. Origin has not yet addressed this... I can't picture any other such game taking the risk of using volunteers [as extensively] again. I predict we are seeing the beginning of the end of volunteer programs."

The end of the smurfs? Possibly. Regardless of the AOL suit's effect on the Internet as a whole, it does seem that game enterprises that use volunteers to perform key service functions, like keeping customers happy, are going to have to modify their ways (at least those that are profitable enough to be worth suing.) It is certainly going to be a challenge for the next generation of massively online game developers to face, one that may once again delay the long-awaited emergence of subscription-based play as the dominant force in computer gaming its proponents long expected it would be. The service and community-building strategies that future games use will likely be significantly different from what current players have come to expect.

For some companies (and the volunteers and game players who patronize them) it's unfortunate this is happening right this moment. But it remains likely this would have happened sooner rather than later. The internet has long been in an economic greenhouse, walled away from the laws and restrictions other businesses must follow (sales taxes, minimum wage laws, etc.) But as the net has become profitable (in AOL's case, practically buying out Time-Warner earlier this year), it's become harder and harder to justify continued insulation: as the internet integrates itself more and more into daily life and business, those walls are beginning to come down.

It's possible gamers are seeing just one more manifestation of the end of these Gold Rush years, as the internet economy comes of age. And yes, the immense free talent and creativity that made online gaming what it is isn't likely to go anywhere, fast: it will still manifest itself, somewhere, somehow. But in the meantime, it appears some of those who've had some success harnessing it may have to look at paying the piper.

Related Links:

Origin Systems (makers of Ultima Online)
Turbine Entertainment (makers of Asheron's Call)
Verant Interactive (makers of EverQuest) (home of the AOL volunteers' lawsuit)