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by Isaac Knowles on 06/06/13 11:38:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


With increasing frequency, developers are restricting what can be traded inside of new games. This is especially true given the rate at which social and mobile games  are being released, but it is a trend that has crept into the more hardcore online games, as well. Many games now make it impossible, or nearly impossible, to engage in any trade whatsoever. Where trade is allowed, the rate at which new, tradeable items are introduced seems also to have diminished.

I suppose this is a reaction of developers (or publishers) to the potential cost of trying to manage a complex system like a virtual economy. It seems to be a reasonable, if risk-averse, business decision: make all your players into a bunch of Robinson Crusoes, and then you don't have to deal with the consequences of economic problems like MUDflation, duping bugs/exploits, and so forth  You also make yourself the monopoly supplier of every good in the game, which seems good for revenue. But virtual economies are more than just headache-inducing game systems; they also generate valuable data about a game and about what players like and dislike about it. Just  as important, developers might be underestimating players' willingness to incur a lot of costs in order to realize the gains from trade. As a consequence, they have shut off their access to a valuable revenue stream.

Let me say first that I get why trade is an uncommon or restricted mechanic in multiplayer and social games. Allowing players to trade means that the company has to manage one or more currencies in a market economy - no easy task in the 200 year history of modern economies, much less in the 15 year history of large online games. There's customer service costs because you have to deal with people trolling or defrauding one another. Then there are the revenue losses. Payments diminish when you allow trade because players can exchange surplus items with one another. A player doesn't need to buy from the company if she can get what she wants from other players.

What do you lose by having no trade? First, you lose information. Prices determined on a market are signals about what is dear to players and what is passé or boring. Prices can help us understand the extent to which a person is killing Goombas because she enjoys it versus the extent to which she's killing them just so she can use the loot to buy more wood for her house. If you have no market, only expensive surveys and speculative data-mining can tell you which is which. Purchasing behavior also allows you to create players segments. Its hard to judge a player's patience, for example, without examining how sensitive they are to the costs of their decisions. A price can be tracked and considered.... or not. You can watch a player's purchase and know that she had access to simple, useful information, and you can know whether or not she made a good decision. That information can help to drive conversion strategies.

The second thing you lose with zero-trade is an important potential source of revenue. Trade itself - the ability to do it - is a treasured commodity. Economic development, at its heart, is a story of how societies developed methods to make trade easier. Stop and consider how complex it would be to execute a trade through time, over distance, or with multiple people, without the following institutions: A reliable currency, attorneys to draw up contracts, courts to enforce contracts, police forces to threaten punishment in case of theft or damage to property, a system of fleshed-out property rights, a postal system, a reliable transportation system, and so on. These systems and institutions are valuable to us not because they directly, materially improve our lives, but because they reduce the costs we must incur in order to materially improve our lives. They reduce transaction costs.

In the real world, we pay huge sums in the form of taxes and fees to keep transaction costs low. So here's my question for developers: How much would your players pay you in exchange for the ability to trade? A $10 flat fee? $5 a month?  $0.10 per trade ($7.50 for 75 trades)? $1.00 per trading partner? And what about all those players who would never pay for a virtual item: Do you think they would never pay to trade with their fellow players?

To anticipate and respond to some objections to "pay-to-trade":

  1. "It's never been done." It's been done before, but more subtly. Witness the sale of robots in GW2 that let you access funds from the Black Lion Trading Company and vendors without being in a city. Players who buy those are just reducing their transaction costs.
  2. "Pay to trade is only valuable when a critical mass of players pay for it." Apply the same rules we always apply in these situations: Free or heavily discounted trials.
  3. "Whales might become less whale-like." Possibly. On the other hand, pay-to-trade spreads around risk.
  4. "Pay-to-trade invites undesirable elements (read: gold-farmers)". True, but gold-farms work on slim margins, and pay-to-trade will make them even slimmer.

Transaction costs, cleverly employed, are vital to providing players with interesting decisions. But when they are effctively infinite - that is, when no though has been put into them at all - they may provide valuable sources of revenue. Simply prohibiting economic play is not the most profitable solution to an unavoidable multiplayer design question: How much should be players be able to trade?

(Cross posted from 

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Mike Engle
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Scope is the reason trade doesn't get implemented. At least, assuming trade makes sense for a game. Creating a real-time Auction House UI and the supporting back-end is not a trivial task.

The other reasons listed are completely secondary to scope, although there are some valid concerns in there. A system certainly has to balance items entering and leaving the system, regardless of whether it's a singleplayer system or a multiplayer economy, but a multiplayer economy does become considerably riskier for a variety of reasons.

Tragically (given the same company did things correctly in another game) Diablo 3 is a poster child for some of the bigger problems which can happen:

A. Items don't leave the economy. A game must have either binding (items are permanently bound to characters once used, and later discarded) or degradation (items eventually wear out and are destroyed) or some similar system in order to maintain a balanced item income vs. "expenditure".

B. Vulnerability to exploit. If a single player finds out how to dupe gold, and buys everything he wants from other players for ridiculous prices, and those players buy items they want, and so on, you have a system where suddenly the average price for everything has inflated dramatically because the supply of currency has dramatically increased.

Paying *to* trade just doesn't seem like it would work very well. The best case scenario would be to lump trade access in with a subscription fee, but even that seems like a much worse way to do things than GW2 (where players can sell soft currency for hard currency, which payers purchase in part to purchase soft currency) or D3 (where all RMAH sales give a cut to Blizzard.)

I suppose part of the problem is expending the significant dev effort (again: scope!) to implement a feature that you gate behind a pay barrier. The value of the feature is actually DIMINISHED when fewer players have access to it. The FIRST PAYER actually receives NOTHING for paying to be able to trade!

Isaac Knowles
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As you say, trade is expensive to implement. Exploit risks, however, can be mitigated, especially in an era of data-streaming. For example, duping was once difficult to detect because we didn't track trade behavior very carefully. What is not observed cannot appear anomalous. Many games now track player behavior quite extensively. In my work, it is a simple matter to create decision rules and run them against the existing back end: "If player income over last 30 minutes is three or more standard deviations above trend, flag for immediate investigation." Most of the major game companies have this capacity, and (hopefully) have such a decision rule already in place.

The question is whether the revenue justifies the cost of the initial development and the expense of balancing the system. Reaching critical mass is important, as I pointed out. On the other hand, like multiplayer games themselves, critical mass also means that access to trade can become very valuable to players, and thus quite lucrative to the publisher. Every person who chooses to trade increases the value of the mechanic. Inducements would need to be provided, yes. For example, limited trade could be afforded to non-paying players (5 free trades per month). As with everything we sell to players, subtlety is required; setting up ham-handed paywalls is never smart.

What you ultimately provide to the player is access to a secondary market for their virtual goods, which both provides access to content and becomes content. People will pay for that.

Mike Engle
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Sure exploit risks can be mitigated against, and I realize it was a bit offtopic to even mention it. Your system is actually *better* protected against exploits, since a pay gate would limit an exploiter's willingness and/or capability to harm the economy.

I suppose Rage of Bahamut already uses a version of what you're proposing. You get 5 free trades a day. When you buy premium card packs, you get more trades (equal to the number of cards in the pack.) They also double-dip in that a premium consumable is the most common item used as currency (since the soft currency is super inflated and not particularly valueable, whereas the energy gained from the consumable is in constant demand.)

Robin Gash
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As a long time player of various MMOs, some points come to mind.

1. Many free to play games already restrict auction house trading. Very few restrict direct trading, normally by level cap to add a barrier to gold farmers' throw away accounts. Auction house systems are always used preferentially over direct trade as they require less input from the player. This means they can be used for lower value items than direct trades. Totally blocking access to auction to free players results in there being no trade of low value items, requiring additional grind for all free players (causing higher MUDflation).

2. The most valuable items are often not tradable (as they represent game progress), or are heavily restricted in how they can be traded. Many are essentially consumables (e.g. Bind on equip). These are what players will be most willing to pay for, and they will be one off trades.

3. What is your currency based on; what services and consumables MUST (i.e. not with real money) be purchased with it? Trade is often it's main use, restricting it will cause the currency to devalue, normal inflation.

4. What are your existing currency sinks? Transaction tax/ auction house fees are often a major counter to MUDflation.

Assuming this is a free to play economy this is MUDflation suicide, it's the free players who make up the majority, the economy must be balanced for them first and foremost. Trade is not an insignificant enough feature to be pay only. If subscription based, an included trade count + ability to top up may work.

A real money fee will set a minimum value for an item to be viable to trade. All games have a real money to ingame money exchange rate, whether you have some form of legitimate RMT or not. Even $0.10 can be a significant amount of in game currency, especially to lower level players, that can be more currency than your wallet will ever hold within the first month of play.

Now as a transaction TAX it may work. A say 0.000001% tax of in game transactions in $ could work. That's on WoWs economy scale, 1 cent per 100 gold, smaller transactions would incur no tax. It needs to be placed at "endgame" levels of currency only, or apply only to true "luxury" items.

Isaac Knowles
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Hi, Robin,

1. This is sort of my point. Players want to trade, but allowing trade is a costly proposition, as Mike discussed above. What I'm arguing against is heavily restricted or totally blocked of trade, and I'm suggesting a way to recoup the expense of relaxing that restriction. A two-tiered system, where everyone can trade but some can trade more than others, makes the system fair(er).

2. Restricting trade will make currency less valuable than if trade were unrestricted, but you have to distinguish between inflation - which is where a currency loses value at a constant rate - and a one-time change in the value of currency. The former is "bad". The latter is just results in a one-off change in the price. Currencies change value by small amounts all the time. Its if they're quickly and constantly changing value in one direction, or if they're all over the place, that it becomes a problem.

3. Again, not inflation. We're talking about differences in the importance of the currency. You either allow trade, or you don't. There's no constant change in prices, so no inflation.

4. Obviously, currency sinks must be identified and managed. Extra cost, yes, but again: the point is to recoup the cost of management.

I like your tax idea! Though I'd make it higher, $.10 is probably too much :). It would be interesting to experiment with ways to set the tax.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Isaac, while short, this is the most sophisticated article on virtual economics that I have ever seen anyone else write. Isaac is being quite generous in putting this into the public space, so if this is an area that interests you, I would read what he puts here very carefully. I may not agree with all his conclusions, but the ideas he presents here are very advanced and sound. As additional reference material, readers may find my Real Money Transfer Classification (on gameful) and The Barrier to Big (here on Gamasutra) articles as going into a bit more depth on areas that Isaac touches on here.

Isaac Knowles
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Thank you for the compliment. I'm partial to the earlier (2005-2008) academic papers and commentary from the likes of Ted Castronova and Robert Bloomfield at and in their working and published papers. Vili Lehdnonvirta's stuff at is also foundational, and you can never go wrong with Richard Bartle. Raph Koster provides insightful looks into the economic design triumphs and failures of SW:G and UO on a regular basis at his blog (e.g. And some seriously hardcore work is creeping out of South Korea too:

Its amazing how much we forget about the lessons learned from the first 25 years of multiplayer game design!

Ramin Shokrizade
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Isaac, what impresses me about your paper is that you are starting to merge virtual economic theory with game design theory, crossing over into what I call "Applied Virtual Economics". Between Castronova, Williams, and Lehdonvirta, I think only the latter crossed that barrier at all, and only very casually. I have not followed the stuff coming out of South Korea, so thank you for the link.

As you allude to here, games were actually much more social in years past, which I attribute to them being "RMT2 Economies". The introduction of RMT3 and RMT1 led to the extinction of RMT2, but here you are following the same path that led to my (private) solutions to that problem. I don't plan to publish them so I will be half elated and half vexed if you end up creating the same models I did :)

Isaac Knowles
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To the contrary, all three have long talked about the economic problems of games and their possible solutions, especially in the middle of the last decade. Just googling something like

site: MUDflation

brings up a host of old conversations on the matter. Most of that talk was before RMT was acceptable, no matter who supplied it, so they don't consider some of the ideas that you and I are now free to consider and suggest. Of course, their most refined ideas are likely subject to the NDAs (as, I guess, are yours).

As I am not (yet) so encumbered, I'm happy to talk about whatever comes to mind. I guess I miss the heady days of unbridled expectations about the future of MMOs and social games, when ideas flowed quite a bit more freely.

Ramin Shokrizade
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In my conversations with Williams, Castronova, and Lehdonvirta it seemed much more like the focus was on measuring virtual economic activity and seeing how it might relate or even correlate to real world economies. When I discussed bringing a rigorous application of economics to game development, they were a bit icy with me as they said the purpose of PhD work was to write academic papers. The suggestion was that if I wanted to influence industry directly that the PhD path was not appropriate. I ended up taking that advice.

If you go into industry after your PhD, that would be great. You are also in a position to teach, which is something that is also sorely needed as there are a lot of people wanting to study quantitative design techniques and the sources for this are still a bit limited. I know there will be a lot of pressure on you to write academic papers for other academics, but I think this might not be the best application of your skills.

Ashkan Saeedi Mazdeh
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Nice read!
I think it can be gamified further and you can for example apply different amount of trading costs to different items and sell trading score to players and don't allow them to by say more than 100 trading score/ability per day so they can not aquire anything they want from trading and have to buy some of them from you if they want it fast.
Then what to buy/sell in trading would become an interesting decision.

Garth Algar
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I'm note entirely sure if people would pay in order to be able to trade. Players like muling their stuff between twinks and trading of items in a guild is seen as a given. The reasons D3's AH works are not because players would pay2trade:

1. RMAH provides YOU with real money, if you can sell something (this is the most important aspect of the D3-AH)
1.1 YOU don't have to pay for starting a transaction, nor for ending it. You just pay for the item.
2. No centralized way to communicate with fellow gamers, other than the Auction House. It provides an organized environment and reduces the effort to sell items significantly. All the while, I'm pretty sure that even D3 has its "stock exchange websites".

If there would be no RMAH but a centralized way to communicate, D3 would have a much larger "alternative trading"-website community (see D2, EVE Online, etc.).

As a side-note (as it is a bit off-topic):
The D3 community would even be able to mend the gold duplication problems themselves, as can be seen in D2, where gold was devaluated in prefrence of Rings of Jordan, because the community itself could choose the currency of the system.

The more you restrict an economic system (in a game!), the more susceptible to exploits it becomes, because that system HAS TO rely on a very small group of well-defined things (e.g. the pre-defined currency) - which will get smaller an smaller the more you restrict it. The smaller the group of things your system HAS TO rely on becomes, the easier it gets to destabilize it (as opposed to a small group of things your system relies on, but isn't BOUND to rely on), as each element of that group gains significane the smaller the group becomes. If that group would consist of only one thing alone, your whole system is going to !totally! collapse as soon as an exploit is found for that one thing alone.

Isaac Knowles
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I guess the thought experiment is this: Suppose the ability to trade anything at all was suddenly removed from GW2 (which I pick because it's just a one-off game purchase). How much less would have to sell the game for in order to have the same number of players? The number would be lower than 49.99, for sure. The difference in price between GW2-with-trade and GW2-without-trade is the amount people would be willing to pay to trade in GW2.

The point is, as gamers, we pay for access to (intertwined) economic systems, leveling systems, battle systems, PvP systems, social systems, etc. all the time. Maybe developers should start asking us to put a value on access to those systems, especially in F2P.

Alan Boody
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What about the fact that the very items being traded are not owned by the player. They're not even real. IT's just data, and even that data is owned by the company. I understand what you're trying to say, but trying to find new ways to milk money from people is -in my view- leading to the destruction of the gaming industry.

Steven Christian
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People prefer to pay once ie. a lump sum, rather than constantly paying for every little thing..
Though optional DLC tends to go against this rule..

I guess people don't mind paying for things that they see as optional, compared to core systems..

Isaac Knowles
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Well, I think rumors of the game industry's demise have been greatly exaggerated. But that is neither here nor there.

In my view, players have always paid (or more recently NOT paid) for access to services, plain and simple. Asking them to throw down a couple bucks to support the development of more/better content is no vice. You are welcome to disagree.

Alan Boody
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Costs as in real-world dollars? As a gamer, I find the idea of attaching real-world money to virtual trade as 'EXTREMELY' appalling. !!! I understand that you like the idea of leeching money from your customers, but your job is to create a game for players to have fun and enjoy, not to leech more money from them. This business concept is just as appalling as pay-to-win.

Ditch the idea of attaching costs to transfers (this isn't Merrill Lynch). In fact, per policy, players DO NOT EVEN OWN these virtual goods they're trading so how can you put a price on data they don't own?

Francois Verret
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There are prices on all kinds of systems in F2P games. In fact, in The Old Republic, there is a small limit to the number of items non-subscribers can put for sale on the galactic network. They can pay to get more slots, so how much more appalling can it be to similarly restrict access to the trade network itself?

Alan Boody
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Who said that isn't right either? When someone plays a game they don't want to run into, "Oh, please insert quarter to continue playing." That was the 80's, 20 plus years ago. When I get home from work I don't want to have to balance my bank account based upon how many trades I made last month in a GAME where I don't even own the data. Basically, you think it's ok to charge people to swap data that they don't even own?

Alan Boody
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Look, there isn't anything wrong with making money on a game. But, there's a difference between making money and leeching/nickel & diming people. I'm sorry, but designing an in-game trade system around real world currency is downright greedy.

What next? You have a limited number of times you can equip/unequip your gear before you have to pay a fee? Wait, let's not stop there. How about we charge a fee per letter typed in chat?

When does it go from game development to money generator? When should we draw the line on greediness?

Isaac Knowles
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Where I disagree with you is in your assumption that you were never paying for those things. In fact, you were. You were paying for a game design. You were paying, as I said to Garth, to access to a set of intertwined systems (in addition to art, story, UI design, official online fora, and many other important features). Where F2P is concerned, unless you pay, you're paying nothing for access to any of those systems. But those systems ARE the game.

And so my response to you is that it probably shouldn't stop anywhere, nor anytime soon. People want unlimited access to enjoyable systems. They paid for them before. Why shouldn't they pay for them now?

Alan Boody
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But, that's the point I'm making here. Before, I'd drop down $15 for a month, then bam, I'm done. No extra balancing of my budget. Why add that layer of stress to someone that's trying to get away from daily stress by enjoying an MMO for an hour or two? Look, I understand seeing the dollar signs with no cap (which a sub fee offers), but it's an illusion and a fad, combined, that is also going to severely damage the gaming industry.

LoL's system is perfect because people don't have to worry about getting nickel & dimed to death for every little action they take in the game. Game developers need to realize that you don't to monetize every single system in a game. And, trust me, people are not going to go for 'FEES' -which this is- on every single trade they do.

Isaac Knowles
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I don't think developers have to monetize every single system in a game, either. But I like game economies, and game economies are an endangered species because they are expensive to create and manage. One way to recoup that cost is to charge for access to it. I'd rather have some economy, and pay for it, than have no economy at all.

Nick Axmaker
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How do you feel about a game like Eve Online then whose economy is completely so controlled by the players without any sort of 'tax' built in to the system? Other than purchasing more currency, there is no real money going into the system.

Mike Engle
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Real money goes into EVE's economy via PLEX though, doesn't it? The supply of PLEX is determined by how much real-world money gets pumped into the game.

Kevin Fishburne
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Every time I see an article about the infinite complexity and difficulty of managing a virtual economy I'm confused, not because of the complexity or difficulty but because of the decisions made by the developers to mitigate the design mistakes which resulted in economic chaos or sterility. If virtual economies are governed by real-world economic principles, why wouldn't the gameplay be designed to simulate the gameplay mechanics, needs and desires of real-world people? Shouldn't one follow the other?

Here's an idea: copy the real world, starting at the bottom. Coin is based on finite natural resources and requires labor to mint. Its only value is that which is perceived by a person, for whatever reason they choose. It can be lost at sea, repurposed or hoarded secretly. Ownership of anything is by consensus and personal possession could be considered a right or a crime. To trade items simply allow people to communicate, drop and pick up items. I could go on and on, but I'll spare you. ;)

Basically nature, including human nature, has a way of taking care of itself and I think game developers could save themselves a lot of pain and hand-wringing by trying to more closely simulate it, especially with respect to the virtual economy. Limited, unrealistic gameplay paired with artificial fourth-wall constructs like real money auction houses (pick your poison) is the cause of these woes; you can't have it both ways.

Ramin Shokrizade
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While I am in agreement with you in principle, I am going to suggest that virtual economies *don't* act like real economies in some very critical ways. Further, I would say that "real" economies don't work either because they don't balance inputs and outputs. They rely on the false assumption that environmental debt is free. Thus all our real models are based on us borrowing from the environment as much as possible.

Even if these two facts did not exist, we probably would not want to spend the time and skill resources it would require to model an economy realistically unless the purpose was for research or if the project was intended to have a very long (10+ years) lifespan.

Isaac Knowles
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What you describe is essentially the system created for Ultima Online. It was brilliant, revolutionary even... and it failed miserably. I recommend Zach Simpson's illuminating GDC talk from back in 2000:

The thing is that, in modern life, people have set up institutions and frameworks or rules that allow them to engage in trade with relative security of property and person. They've given up some level of personal freedom to one or more entities (read: governments), which in turn provide some security from theft and violence. In a game, players usually have no such power to appoint an entity to have the monopoly on violence (nor, I would argue, do many of them even want that power). Any such rules or frameworks that protect virtual items from theft or sudden loss of value must be provided by the developer.

Even the most hardcore game developers must contend with the fact that players want security for their transactions. Witness EVE Online, which - for all its anarcho-capitalistic undercurrents - still provides players with safety of person and property in designated zones.

The point is: Players leave games in droves when developers do not give them some way to secure their virtual stuff. But that security is expensive to provide. So, reason many developers, it is easier to simply not allow people the opportunity to defraud one another or negatively affect the value of another player's stuff. Hence you have restricted trade or zero-trade systems.

Kevin Fishburne
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I agree with your first paragraph, though resource consumption versus replenishment could be simulated and even kept somewhat in check by the devs (tree reproduction and growth rate loosely adjusted by deforestation rate, for example). One of the reasons virtual economies don't work like real economies is because players are not afforded the same gameplay choices that we have in real life. Another is that game worlds are currently very poor at simulating the creation and consumption of natural resources.

We are very much stuck in the mindset that bad things caused by player behavior must not be allowed to happen, but it's exactly that mindset which results in draconian gameplay and systems that, ironically, end up causing bad things to happen.

Basically what I'm suggesting is not that an economy be modeled, but that physical gameplay options be created that could (and of necessity would) result in an economy. Pick up. Put down. Negotiate. Write receipt. Safeguard. Present evidence to higher authority when in disagreement (or take it to the street and reclaim what you believe was taken from you unjustly).

With respect to your second paragraph, I think it is well worth our time to attempt to give players the same options that you and I have in dealing with people on an everyday basis. I think the real trick (other than creating and balancing the systems) is making the gameplay choices feel natural and easily executable.


Love your post. Ultima Online had the right idea. To even try was incredible, but as most initial attempts go they failed. I don't think that's a good enough reason to give up however. They didn't learn from failure but instead felt rebuked by it and IMHO improperly addressed the shortcomings. The abandonment of the "virtual ecology" was a shortsighted mistake, as realistic natural resource management and replenishment is critical to a realistic game world.

Your quote below is extremely insightful and cuts to the core of why devs must create artificial systems to control trade:

"The thing is that, in modern life, people have set up institutions and frameworks or rules that allow them to engage in trade with relative security of property and person. They've given up some level of personal freedom to one or more entities (read: governments), which in turn provide some security from theft and violence. In a game, players usually have no such power to appoint an entity to have the monopoly on violence (nor, I would argue, do many of them even want that power). Any such rules or frameworks that protect virtual items from theft or sudden loss of value must be provided by the developer."

Players should be provided gameplay mechanics allowing the approval or denial of other players to act as their representative in whatever matters are considered important. An example:

Players may produce paper, ink and pen from natural resources. Players decided (through text chat) that their village (also built from natural resources) has become large enough that a police force should be appointed. Players agree to have a meeting next Wednesday and write a note on parchment which they nail to a post in town square stating the time and place of said meeting. On Wednesday the players gather and discuss the behavior of various players who seem trustworthy, asking those among them if they are interested in the job. Wages are discussed. The players discuss and agree on who will be the paymaster to the new police force as well as collection and disbursement schedule. A backup paymaster is appointed should the primary fail their duties.

After all arguments have been heard the final agreement is penned to parchment and copied; one copy stored securely in a building designated as the repository for official village documents, another copy posted inside the home of the player designated as chief of police, and multiple copies left on the doors of players not present at the meeting.

The essential ingredient of this kind of "complex" behavior is that players are allowed to perform the same physical actions, with minimal interface tedium, that you or I could perform in fulfilling our regular duties and needs. Chaos and suffering would be the motivation, much as in real life.

Luke Papaj
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@Kevin Fishburne:
"The essential ingredient of this kind of "complex" behavior is that players are allowed to perform the same physical actions, with minimal interface tedium, that you or I could perform in fulfilling our regular duties and needs. Chaos and suffering would be the motivation, much as in real life. "
Indeed - but that all requires a game that is from ground-up designed as such. There is no motivation to trade if there is no real scarcity. An there could be no scarcity without real hard limit to amount of matter in universe.

In other words: As long as games will be designed around essentially repeatable tasks that generate income flow and essentially equal service providrs - there could be no economy. Take any crafting system that have fixed amount of recipes, and there is only matter of time when crafter would have them all. Same recipe executed by A is precisely the same as B. In real world, we have people with very unique skillsets - and beside "drone/assembly line jobs" - the real artisans - or business tycoons- create unique products. Even assembly-line jobs require a person that would design their operations, and before that - one that would envision the end-product, and gather capital necessary for the endevour. Economy in real world is open ended - which is why every single centrally planned economy failed. You cannot hardcode a system that has 7 bilion input nodes. Even a million- large is too complex.

And it will be unless somebody would create non-hardcoded crafting/services model. A dynamic world. But in dynamic world you cannot encode quests and such. There could be no "infinite sources" and most of the tasks would be one off.

Completly different design.

Kevin Fishburne
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Nice, you've given me something to think about. The "hard limit to [the] amount of matter in the universe" I have covered, but your crafting ideas about artisanal variation and invention are interesting (and possibly extremely difficult to solve for).

I agree any game supporting this model would need to be designed from the ground up to do so. From environmental and AI systems to specific gameplay options, they'd all have to have their eyes on the prize from the beginning for it to work.

You're also right about quests and other hard coded story-related mechanisms. They'd really fly in the face of such a system and only serve to imbalance it. Ideally they'd become unnecessary (and hopefully even scorned in retrospect), as the complexity and richness of the emergent behavior from players would inadvertently create "real" quests. An example would be a player quietly breaking in to someone's home and killing its residents in their sleep, stealing their stuff and slinking away into the night. Town officials offer a reward for the capture of the suspect alive. Lynch mobs are formed and speculation is rampant as to who committed the crime. People are questioned. Merchants are asked to show their inventories in a search for the stolen items. Now -that-'s a quest, no instancing required.