Virtual currencies are undergoing something of a renaissance, thanks in large part to the attention focused on Bitcoin, which has risen significantly in value over the past few years. (Although as Forbes writer Kashmir Hill can attest, buying real-world goods and services with Bitcoin can present a few logistical difficulties.)
But virtual currencies come with their own issues. Case in point is the Auction House for Diablo III, a massively multiplayer game in which players can pay for items in either in-game gold or real-world dollars. Thanks to a bug in the game’s latest patch, players could generate massive amounts of virtual gold with little effort, which threatened to throw the in-game economy seriously out of whack. Diablo series publisher Blizzard took corrective steps, but the bug has already attracted a fair share of buzz on gaming and tech-news forums.
“We’re still in the process of auditing Auction House and gold trade transactions,” read Blizzard’s note on the Battle.net forums. “We realize this is an inconvenience for many of our players, and we sincerely apologize for the interruption of the service. We hope to have everything back up as soon as possible.”
Blizzard was unable to offer an ETA for when the Auction House would come back. “We’ll continue to provide updates in this thread as they become available.”
In theory, Bitcoin is a bit more immune from bugs or outright hacking, thanks to the setup of the Bitcoin mining system (Wikipedia offers a lengthy explanation for how that works). As with all currencies, it’s that faith in Bitcoin’s fundamentals that’s led a growing number of organizations to accept it as legitimate payment: first there was WikiLeaks and the Internet Archive, followed by WordPress and Reddit; nowadays there’s even an investment fund that traffics in Bitcoin.
But the Diablo III issue—just the latest snafu for gaming and virtual currencies—hints at some of the potential pitfalls that await as virtual currencies gain in prominence and legitimacy. Even if Bitcoin is ironclad, what if a popular successor contains a bug that unexpectedly crashes a market?
(And lest anyone think “real world” markets are immune from bugs and algorithmic weirdness, look no further than the periodic “flash crashes” that occur when computers run amok on Wall Street.)
Image: Blizzard Entertainment