Thursday, August 30, 2012

When the game isn't the game.

MMO players are no doubt familiar with spammers running around their game of choice, spewing forth ads offering "g0ld 4 cheep! vizit our dubious website!" Players, often with more money than time, support this business. And the desire is understandable - many online games require tremendous amounts of time which many adults have in short supply. Sadly, when they do buy gold, armor, and other in-game assets, they not only put their credit card and account at risk to theft/fraud, they encourage even more spammers to get into the game since there's a buying market.

One of the movements in modern online games - ranging from EVE Online to Diablo III - is to take trading of in-game assets for money from outside parties into the hands of players. This is all handled via some official, in-game means, regulating the transactions. This turns into a three-way win for everyone involved:

  • Companies reduce their risk of fraud to themselves and players (lowering penalties and charge-backs). This also provides revenue for the company, allowing continued support for the title, enabling free-to-play as a viable revenue model, etc. Moreover, this helps keep the playerbase active, which is good for the players and the company since a game perceived as tepid or dying is hurt by the perception.
  • Players who want to buy something have a safe means to do so, giving them a choice between spending $5 for something rather than spending 5, 10, 15 or more hours to gain it in-game. These players are relatively cash-rich.
  • Players who have a surplus of in-game assets can sell what they have and benefit from it. In turn, this allows them to buy things they couldn't do so normally. Usually, on this side of the equation, the player is relatively time-rich.

There is one other beneficiary, however, that's a little less obvious. Some players enjoy the economics of it all, and view it as a game in and of itself. My brother, among other people, showed me the amazing world of the in-game economics in World of Warcraft. They watched pricing, trends in supply/demand, and a host of other factors. Playing the game itself was secondary to this miniature Wall Street, challenging themselves to figure out this puzzle before them.

With the advent of free to play for Star Trek Online (STO) as well as the launch of Diablo III, I've joined their ranks, albeit in a casual fashion. And, I've got to say its actually a bit of fun. More fun than Solitaire, at least!

In STO I have gotten into the Dilithium Exchange. In-game you can earn an untradable currency in the form of Unrefined Dilithium. You can refine up to 8,000 units of it per day, and use the Refined Dilithium to buy new ships, equipment, and many other things in-game. However, it will not buy anything from STO's cash shop, which has a greater selection of things to choose from plus services like renames, expanding inventory capacity, etc. It uses a currency called Zen, and is bought with real money. You can buy it directly from Perfect World Entertainment, from Steam, or even buy pre-paid cards at 7-11, Gamestop, etc.

The Dilithium Exchange is where players can sell their Dilithium for Zen and vise-versa. The exchange rate between the two is limited between being as low as 1 Zen for 500 Refined Dilithium (great for people selling Zen), to as high as 1 Zen for 25 Refined Dilithium (great for people buying Zen). The Exchange shows the top 5 buying prices and top 5 selling prices, letting you gauge where things are at the moment. Each price has a pool of assets; Zen and Dilithium all selling at that price, and how much of it there is.

I've been playing the game, earning and refining Dilithium. As I accumulate it, I've been putting it up on the Exchange, buying Zen. Starting two days ago, I've actually started keeping track of the pricing via Excel instead of keeping prices in my head. So, when I was buying Zen, it was at a 1:154 exchange rate. Yesterday? I was able to sell all of it at a 1:159 rate, getting a tidy profit in the process. Of course, after looking at the Exchange this morning, I could've sold it for 1:164 instead. But, that's okay, because I know the rates will fluctuate as the days go by.

So far, so good! And, honestly, is a case where I'm actually finding this to be an interesting part of the game, even if its not a game by design.


  1. You *REALLY* need to read Neal Stephenson's REAMDE. It's basically a techno-thriller based around this very concept.

  2. It's an old, but still valid argument. Companies like Blizzard (for example) argue that allowing the selling of virtual currency for real currency causes an unbalance within the in-game economy and possibly even game play itself as players with disposable cash can simply buy the best gear rather than earn it. But, what they seem to fail to realize is, players want what players want and by not allowing the buying of gold, they inadvertently encourage a black market to rise.

    Then again, there is something to be said for a lack of balance being created when the buying of assets with real money is allowed. I remember reading about Battlestar Galactica Online when it first launched and how many casual players began to quit because power gamers with extra cash to spend had done just that and upgraded their ships buy buying them rather than earning them via in game achievements.

    That being said, while I no longer play MMORPG games, I am guilty of covertly obtaining gold for my toon when my efforts in playing the auction house market just weren't fast enough to be able to buy that flying mount I wanted so badly ;-)

  3. Well, time = money, and few people have an abundance of both. In regular MMOs the most efficient players (and learning to be efficient isn't rocket science) already destroy the economy. Most games have a per-server economy to contend with as well. With STO, EVE, City of Heroes, and a few others the economy is for the entire game ay least (no wrong server syndrome).

    To me, it levels the playing field between time rich vs money rich players, creates opportunities for both, and can at least be regulated. Pay money for convenience, or pay time for "free." Its not ideal for dealing with high-grind, but it's better than before.

    According to Ars' review of GW2 they've done a good job dealing with grind as well.