“I never stole gold,” says Stibs. “I took the gold out of the treasury of the company I co-owned at the time.”
Stibs has had his reputation tarnished. As a consul in wilderness MMO New World, he was one of the players responsible for handling money in his company, a group of players who band together to face the wilds. One day he took 15,000 gold coins from the shared pot, left the company, and signed up with another faction. He had his reasons.
He’s not the only one taking company cash. In the midst of a creaking economy, the aristocracy of New World are looking at the coin piled in their treasuries with an increasingly glittering eye. For some, the temptation proves too much. This game is set in a lush landscape of forest and fern, designed to be exploited by colonizing player conglomerates. But it’s also a hard place to earn a living, which has led to a trend. Embezzlement.
It’s been happening from the earliest days of the game. In some cases, a trusted consul pilfers the pot and escapes to a new server with his ill-gotten riches. In others, the governor himself (the head of the company) takes the cash, then kicks everyone out of the company and switches sides to fight for a different faction altogether.
For Crociata, a fighter in an 80+ company of warmongers, it happened unexpectedly. The consul of his company (traditionally the person who is second-in-command) took all the cash and disappeared.
“What makes the whole thing worse is we funded the first war on this server,” he says. “That [money] was what we had gathered back up.”
Crociata’s company had finally scraped together a fresh war chest of gold from member donations and taxes following a war. That’s about the time the game’s developers, Amazon Games, added a much-desired new feature: server transfers. To many, this was a chance to hop servers and finally play with friends. To others, it was the perfect escape hatch. Crociata’s consul took 35,000 in coin from the treasury and was never seen again.
Escapades like this are common in games like EVE Online, where lawlessness has reigned for years, and such acts of sabotage are celebrated as player-made “content”. In the same way, some wilderness explorers welcome such ruthlessness as part of New World’s learning curve.
“I think it’s scummy for sure,” says Wing Wow, a player with a Gandalf-looking hairstyle in a group called Solaires Disciples. “But if they join [a company] solely with the intention of working up the ranks only to steal all your stuff, whatever…”
“They are scum,” he says, “but they are indeed a good spy.”
Others are annoyed that such skullduggery can be possible in a more traditional MMO. Crociata and his fellow warriors reported the consul that betrayed them. What happened to that thief in the end is a mystery.
“I got no clue,” he says.
New World’s complicated economics
But why steal gold in the first place? Well, in the woodlands and frontier farms of this grind ’em up, gold is getting harder to earn. It involves some complicated economics, but basically a lot of graphs are going down. Income from quests is too low, some complain, and the cost of owning an in-game house is too high. This coupled with other problems means the economy is suffering from the rare disease of deflation. The short version? Wood is infinite, but coin is rare.
In the absence of a trusted currency, barter has become an alternative method of trade, with players swapping ore or animal hide, rather than part with their gold. Some players are using iron ingots as a metric for value. On one server, people report trading Starmetal tools (high-tier wood axes or skinning knives) for 40 iron bars. On another server, 20 eggs can earn you hundreds of iron ingots (a good egg is reportedly hard to find).
Barter has not entirely replaced the market, of course. Some servers are less affected than others. But in the market stalls of Brightwatch and Monarch’s Bluff, everything is bottoming out. Many player-made items currently sell for one penny. Ultimately, this means a squeeze on players. Even governors, the feudal lords of New World’s companies, are feeling the pinch.
“I try to [barter] when able,” says AlphaTekk, a governor of one well-traveled province. “I had to spend the rest of my gold this morning for my housing tax and city tax.”
Has he ever felt the urge to dip his hand in the company coffers?
“It wouldn’t make any sense to,” he says. “I put all of my money into the company anyways. I only touch it if I need to get something to help out others in the company.”
Most governors share that attitude. Whether the long-term plans of a spy or the act of an opportunistic thief, cases of embezzlement are still infrequent. There have been four instances of “sudden liquidation” on the server I’m playing on. The trouble is, some players may not even know they’re being conned.
This is because the in-game ledgers used by governors and officers to run the affairs of a company lack the basic information to keep an eye on your cash flow. There’s no record of donor names, for example, and no record of who withdraws cash. Imagine if all your accounting was done by Dory from Finding Nemo. Imagine if your bank statement arrived and it just said: “lol i dunno”.
This makes it easy for governors and consuls to drain accounts as slowly or rapidly as they like. Many companies have resorted to using external spreadsheets and Discord channels, tracking donations and withdrawals with the shrewd eye of a public administrator. Others embrace the chaos of an anarchic pot, and simply leave things to trust without major incident.
“The lack of transparency and limits for the governors and consuls is very scary,” says Milvan, the former governor of a company called Gryphons. “Any governor or any consul can withdraw any amount of gold they want any time and there isn’t even a treasury log to keep track of that.”
Milvan is a level 60 axeman, a proud berserker who fights in PvP battles from the front. As governor of the Gryphons, he saw paranoia and mistrust spreading through his company after the members learned just how much gold was being stockpiled in the treasury. When they realized how little control or knowledge they had over its use, attitudes began to boil. Milvan’s solution was simple.
He would take the money before anybody else did.
“As a governor I did what was necessary to keep my people united,” he says. “Was it very convenient for me? Yes, it was, and the game gave me powers to do it, so why not embrace this social experiment to see what could happen?”
He took 450,000 gold from the company treasury and left. The Gryphons were a large band of Marauders — so big they needed to set up a secondary company just to hold all the recruits joining. They had saved an obscene amount of money. As you can imagine, many people were upset.
“There were people that raged and harassed me on my social [media]; there were people that just laughed and joked about it; and there were people that were really supportive for what I did,” he says.
He reasons that by stealing the gold, he gave his former warmates a reason to stick together. He dispelled their bickering with a unified figure of hate: himself.
“Mostly guild leaders run and hide after they ‘steal’ company gold but since I actually stood up for my position it drew a lot of attention.”
Naturally, many didn’t see it his way. He was mass reported by his former guildmates, leading to a ban on two separate occasions following the heist. But these bans were “instantly reverted by moderation” when he appealed, he says. That suggests Amazon Games are happy to let this sort of mischief occur. There’s nothing in the rules of the game to prevent higher-ups emptying their shared kitties (aside from social disgrace).
“Is it a feature?” he asks, rhetorically. “I mean does Amazon create this game theory-ish model because it wants to watch the world burn? I really don’t know.”
Amazon Games Studios calls it “a social risk that is built into the game.”
“Ideally players will behave and be good fellow humans,” says creative director David Verfaillie. “But with the power to affect change comes some risk. We believe this risk is worth the dynamic, ever-changing world it creates…
“The intention is to create a world where players can have an impact and to give them the tools to make their own decisions…. where players feel like their actions have consequences and weight.”
In other words, it is a feature. For his part, Milvan says all the cash he stole was gathered from taxes (from players who owned a house in his region of Everfall, for example). If money had been directly deposited by players into that treasury as donations, it would’ve been another story.
“This is a line I wouldn’t cross and it actually has some real-life consequences because gold in New World isn’t really easy to earn.”
Crisis? What crisis?
As controversial as Milvan’s actions are, most players will agree with his last point. Gold is slow to earn. Some have suggested the MMO is in the midst of a full-blown currency crisis. Amazon Games meanwhile have acknowledged the complaints and say they’re keeping an eye on the problem. However, they don’t seem half as worried as the players. Recently, they coolly acknowledged the coinage problem with a graph showing that gold flow is “within acceptable levels”. Crisis? What crisis?
That graph does show a downward trend, however. Even Amazon admits that the means of earning a buck dry up as you reach the endgame. To a high-level player, an unguarded casket of coin could start to look very inviting.
“I never stole gold and changed faction, if that’s what you’re talking about,” says Stibs.
Stibs has had his reputation tarnished.
“Yes, a lot of people think I stole gold.”
Drama in MMO guilds is not new, and the flames of animosity that spread through Stibs’ server led to a lot of players wanting to change allegiance from his purple-colored faction, the Syndicate, to another faction, the green Marauders or the yellow Covenant.
“I thought it was mutual that we were going yellow,” he says.
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It would prove an untidy schism. He took the gold and left, assuming his guildmates would follow. But many of his former company mates were not so eager to jump ship. When they saw an empty bank account, they got annoyed. In the end, Stibs did what made sense to him. He handed all the money back.
“When I found out they didn’t wanna change, I gave the gold back… It was probably 25% mine. But I didn’t even keep some gold… I gave all 15k back.”
At least this tale of embezzlement has some closure. When the dust settled, a bunch of his former clansfolk followed Stibs out the door after all, and founded a new company.
“Everyone is pretty tight now,” he says.
That tightness is something you need in a place like Aeternum, where accountancy doesn’t exist. When in-fighting is more plentiful than coin, the only real currency is trust. If you can’t guarantee that, well, there’s always Microsoft Excel.
Brendan Caldwell is a freelance contributor at IGN