I’ve been playing Evony, a massively multiplayer online real-time strategy game, much in the spirit of Age of Empires and Civilization. Late middle ages, pikes and bows against knights. Catapults and trebuchets. Massively as in 100 planets with 100,000 players each.
In other online games, such as World of Warcraft, a black market arose where people in low-wage countries played the game, accumulated resources, and sold the resources to other players on eBay. Evony co-opts the black market by making it part of the game. You can buy game resources directly from Evony with real money using a credit card.
This raises some interesting strategic questions (it’s a strategy game, after all). The game is “free” in that you can play without spending real money. It’s also clear that spending real money gives a player a significant advantage. Would I pay $30 to win the game? Yes, of course! Would I pay $30 to lose to someone who spent $60? Not so much. And of course I have no idea how many people are paying for advantages because presumably they wouldn’t advertise the fact.