Last week’s Game Developer’s Conference put the limelight on the rapidly growing game industry, but it also highlighted a significant pain point - virtual good sales create very real accounting issues for successful virtual worlds and MMORPGs.

The video game industry has been way ahead of the game when it comes to implementing a variety of business models and accepting a variety of billing methods. In this case, necessity has been the mother of invention since many of the industry’s young consumers don’t have access to credit cards. Sulake, the makers of Habbo Hotel, have been particularly innovative in this space. The company accepts 186 different payment methods in 31 countries including credit card, SMS payments, money orders, and prepaid game cards available through major retailers such as Target and Walmart.

Sulake even manages to pass some of the transaction costs to consumers by varying the exchange rate between cash and coins, Habbo’s in-world currency, based on the billing method used and amount of currency purchased. Consumers get as little as 5 coins per dollar for high transaction cost billing methods such as prepaid cards and as much as 6 coins per dollar for low transaction cost methods such as credit cards or ongoing subscriptions.

Now that the industry has figured out how to get money into the system, it’s now faced with the challenge of keeping it there. The industry faces a number of challenges:

  • Lack of Parental Consent. If a child fails to get the consent of his or her parent before making a purchase, that parent can have the charge reversed. Although there may not always be sound grounds for reversal, credit card companies often side with parents regardless of circumstances. This not only results in customer service overhead for the virtual world or online game operator, it can result in lost revenue from the sale of limited edition or exhaustible items which cannot be reclaimed.
  • Outright Fraud. In many of the major virtual worlds and online games there have been cases of fraud where a user converts cash into in-world credits, uses those credits to purchase a rare item, sells that item for real currency on a sanctioned or unsanctioned aftermarket, and then cancels their original credit card payment. As a result, the user commits a form of “cybertheft” by profiting from virtual goods that the user never paid for. In some cases, the operator can recover the payment, but the credit card dispute process is time-consuming and often biased to the cardholder.
  • Stored Value Accounting. For years, airlines have had to keep significant liabilities on their books related to the accumulation of frequent flyer miles. The industry faces a similar problem. Should operators recognize revenue when cash is converted into in-world currency? Should the accumulated balance of all in-world credits by accounted as a liability on the balance sheet? What happens if a user abandons their balance? Should users have the right to claim a cash credit for their account balance at any point in the future? The answers aren’t clear.

As Joshua Jaffe mentions in his article, there is no turnkey payment solution that addresses the unique needs of the video game and virtual world industries. Certainly, with the emergence of economic platforms like PlaySpan and TwoFish, we’ll start to see industry-wide platforms and best practices related to payment collection, chargeback risk mitigation, and fraud deterrence.