Saturday, May 22, 2004

I've never understood the appeal of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games). Hundreds of thousands of people get together and reliably medieval or Star Wars characters, all to achieve greater status within the game, to no end. One of my college roommates was obsessed with EverQuest -- spending most of his waking time walking around swamps and killing monsters -- despite the failing grades he received in his real-world classes.

A Wired article describes the achievements of one player:

To reach [grandmaster] level, Stolle spent six months doing nothing but smithing: He clicked on hillsides to mine ore, headed to a forge to click the ore into ingots, clicked again to turn the ingots into weapons and armor, and then headed back to the hills to start all over again, each time raising [his character's] skill level some tiny fraction of a percentage point, inching him closer to the distant goal of 100 points and the illustrious title of Grandmaster Blacksmith.

Take a moment now to pause, step back, and consider just what was going on here: Every day, month after month, a man was coming home from a full day of bone-jarringly repetitive work with hammer and nails to put in a full night of finger-numbingly repetitive work with "hammer" and "anvil" - and paying $9.95 per month for the privilege. Ask Stolle to make sense of this, and he has a ready answer: "Well, it's not work if you enjoy it." Which, of course, begs the question: Why would anyone enjoy it?

But people do...

People do -- these games have millions of subscribers which have started sprawling ebay markets; people are willing to spend hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars to buy virtual in-game goods. These products do not exist in the real word; they are play-money that can be used in the game, and yet they have tangible monetary value (for a hilarious dialogue between a purveyor of intangible goods and a customer service representative, see here)

Interestingly, the virtual economies of these gameworlds provide some interesting insights on the real world. A Walrus Magazine article on the MMORPG phenomenon describes some interesting phenomena:

Within months of Ultima Online's launch, in 1997, the game spiraled into a currency crisis. The developers woke up one morning to discover that the value of their gold currency was plummeting. Why? A handful of sneaky players had discovered a bug in the code that allowed them to artificially duplicate gold pieces (called "duping"). The economy had been hit by a counterfeiting ring. Inflation soared, and for weeks, players would log in each day to find their assets worth less and less.

Ultima programmers soon fixed the bug. But then they had a new problem: How do you drain all the excess gold out of the economy and bring prices back to normal? They hit upon the idea of creating a rare type of red hair dye and offering it for sale in small quantities. It had no real use, but, because it was rare, it became instantly popular and commanded an enormous price — which leached so much gold out of the system that inflation subsided. But the programmers had to meditate for hours on what possible side effects their "fix" might have.

Game designers are, in a sense, the government of their worlds, continually tweaking the system to try and keep it from ruining the lives of their "citizens." In essence, they face the political question that bedevils real-life politicians everywhere: How much should a government meddle in the marketplace?

In Ultima Online, players pick jobs and produce goods: blacksmiths make iron tools; tailors make shirts. In the early days, the players were forced to find other players to buy the stuff. They had to act like entrepreneurs and, as it turned out, few people really wanted to do that; they just wanted to do their jobs and get paid. So the game designers created "shopkeepers," robot characters that would automatically buy whatever goods the players made. This forced the designers to behave like Soviet central planners, micromanaging every aspect of the marketplace with arcane algorithms of supply and demand. How much would a chair be worth, compared to a rabbit skin? If horseshoes were suddenly in low supply, how would that affect the price of magical healing potions? How much inflation is too little, or too much?

Citizens, too, began to complain that the economic system was bafflingly arbitrary. One irate player pointed out that a spool of thread could be bought for two gold pieces, then instantly transformed by a tailor into a shirt worth twenty gold pieces — a profit margin that massively overshot any other activity, for no apparent reason. Eventually the game designers mostly gave up, and built a system in which players could trade more easily among themselves.The Berlin Wall fell, and capitalism rushed in.

The free market made things more fluid, but also more unfair. Soon, rich players drove the price of basic goods so high that poor players became much poorer. Once again, the designers had to step in. They would "drop" objects in places where new players could easily scavenge them, giving them a chance to amass a bit of wealth. The designers also set up programs to buy the otherwise useless items generated by poor players (such as animal skins) to give them a chance to make money. In essence, they created handouts for the disadvantaged. Ultima Online had morphed into a modern welfare state, where a free market coexists uneasily with an activist government. "As a developer, I would love to leave it all as a free market," says Anthony Castoro, one of Ultima Online's first designers. "But people who are new to the game would have nothing, and the big players would have everything."


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