Last week, Suzina at Kill Ten Rats set off a 100+ comment firestorm with a post admitting that she had purchased gold from a goldseller to to unlock the dual spec feature on her new WoW character.
In the keylogger-infested era that we live in, it is hard to separate the action itself from the social consequences of the illicit RMT trade - consequences that have driven prominent WoW bloggers like Rohan and Big Bear Butt to call for "legalization" of gold sales in the last week.
Setting aside that aspect of the debate, illicit RMT (whether the purchase of gold/items/characters, or services like powerleveling) occurs because of incentive design. Is the increasing rise of illicit RMT - and the outright fraud that makes it possible - really just a sign of a growing market? Or, is there something about the games themselves that is DRIVING the rise of RMT?
Imagine a game in which the only activity is grinding. For the sake of discussion, it doesn't matter if that grinding is solo or group, just chain-pulling mobs or running quests, or even fighting duels against other players, so long as ONLY ONE of the above is supported. Further, assume that the rewards for that one form of grinding, be they random drops, quest rewards, tokens, or whatever, are sufficient for the player to continue to be effective as they advance. What does that environment do to incentives?
In the long run, we can expect that all of the players who continue to pay to play that game are doing so because they like the one form of gameplay. Further, because the activity is self-sufficient - you don't grind for a few hours and then have to go farm gold for repair bills or new gear - all rewards are effectively cosmetic. A sword that does +10% damage is irrelevant if you're able to grind just fine without it. A mount that makes you reach content faster might make the player happier, but they'll ultimately be able to continue their one form of gameplay just fine without it.
In short, this environment makes illicit RMT somewhat pointless. The only thing to be gained by paying a gold farmer or a power leveler is not having to do something that the player enjoys. There would need to be some form of mentoring system to help players catch up with their friends, but other than that the only people who have a reason to want to get an edge are doing so for cosmetic reasons - e.g. "I want to be the top of the damage meter". Players who go that route fit relatively well in the traditional view of "cheating".
Supporting Multiple Playstyles
Of course, the modern MMORPG does not offer merely a single form of gameplay. Instead, major games tend to support all manner of playstyles - solo and group PVE, raiding, PVP, crafting, etc etc. Personally, I think that this is a good thing, because it makes for a richer community and a deeper economy. Unfortunately, the developers making the game get paid based on how much time we spend playing (whether it's by the month, by the hour through some item shop consumable, etc). As a result, they're loathe to allow players to skip anything.
Want to do PVP? You can expect to lose unless you go out and gain dozens of levels in PVE content first. If you want to do arena matches with a pre-made group, you'll then have to farm up the requisite gear in non-premade battlegrounds.
Want to raid with your 25-man guild? Go get those levels first, then break up into five groups and farm single group content for gear and/or literal access quests for content. (Case in point, Ferrel's got a post about how his guild views a certain questline solely as something they must do for access to the zone they actually want.)
Want to craft? Often, this means gaining the levels so you can harvest (if crafting is not outright dependent on adventuring), and then running dungeons for recipes, materials, or both.
In each case, the player is expected to do something that is not what they want to do, as a prerequisite to what they're actually interested in.
In that environment, the portion of the players who have an incentive to cheat is much larger - the thing you'd be paying someone else to do (farm gold, power level your character, farm honor, etc) is something that you actually DO NOT ENJOY doing.
The Prerequisite Timesink Pushes Players Towards RMT
All of which gets us back to the case of Suzina. In modern WoW - post automated group finder - dual talent specialization is no longer a cosmetic upgrade in the manner of excess DPS or non-combat mounts.
Before patch 3.3, the only reason to ever have a low level character specialize in tanking or healing would be if a player was only using that character to run instances with a static group. The cost of not having access to a more solo-friendly DPS spec was simply not worth the low chance of finding a group for dungeons. Everyone just soloed to the current expansion and learned (or attempted to learn) their group roles once they got there.
The random group finder lowered the difficulty of forming groups to the point where it actually makes sense to play as more of a solo/group hybrid. It's actually feasible to swap back and forth on a regular basis now... only the cost of resetting your talents before and after every dungeon run would be prohibitive. Access to dual spec - unless you're all DPS all the time and don't mind the associated lengthy queue times - is actually a prerequisite to the playstyle.
(Aside: A number of commenters at KTR assert that dual spec at 40 is pointless because you have so few talent points at that level. I wonder how many of them would be happy if their PUG healer zoned into the instance in Shadowform and did not have a second spec.)
In the end, buying gold from illicit RMT is still cheating to the extent that the player is refusing to abide by the rules that say you either earn the gold by some "legitimate" method (such as using Auctioneer, which is getting closer and closer to being an unattended AH bot by the day) or you do without. As games add more and more timesinks that serve as prerequisites for things players have to do, however, they shift the motivation for this kind of cheating. Motivation leads to higher demand, and high demand is the reason why this issue is not going away anytime soon.