Mücke's Musings on MMORPG Making

"Die Spieler machen das Spiel."

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#30. Advanced: On the Design of (virtual) Money, Part 1

I think I can best explain the difficulties inherent in creating virtual currencies with a closer look at an example of a failed game currency. It is important to notice that the game itself was by no means a failure. There was also a healthy, player driven, economy at the heart of that game. Only the designated currency failed, and players reverted partly to a barter economy, and partly to an unofficial currency that they created and maintained as a community.

That successful game was Diablo II, and that failed currency was ingame gold coins. Diablo II can meaningfully be regarded as a virtual world, despite being very different from today's MMORPGs. But for the purposes of this analysis, the essential thing is a community of players who participate equally in a shared game economy.

In Diablo II, the most valuable wares can only be obtained in very few places of the game world, by very specific activities. Gold, in contrast, can be obtained everywhere, while doing almost anything. This means gold is not linked to the productivity of the game economy. The amount of gold grows disproportionally faster than the amount of valuable wares. This ongoing inflation undermines the functionality of a standard, as prices can never stabilize.

There are ingame vendors which accept gold for goods at fixed prices, but they all sell substandard wares (i.e. effectively worthless stuff), or they offer a tiny gambling chance for an outrageous price. This means purchases are not reliably possible for gold, and so gold does not offer the basic functionality of reliable payment.

Furthermore, Diablo II limits the amount of gold that characters can carry. It is rather easy for players to run into this limit, because gold is so ubiquitous in the game. This means gold cannot function as a storage of value, simply because not enough gold can be stored.

These issues caused players to completely disregard gold, and instead rely on direct exchange of wares. After the game economy matured further, players used a particular magic ring (i.e. some number of identical copies of that ring) as an unofficial currency. Despite the existence of game cheats that could duplicate these rings, their number was strongly linked to the game's overall economy, because valuable items were duplicated as well. Thus the amount of player made money grew proportionally with the amount of wares that were in actual demand (i.e. that had actual value to the players).

So in this particular example, the players were able to compensate for a flaw of the game design. That won't be so easy in the upcoming Diablo III, where real, actual, money (yes, legal tender!) will be incorporated into the game as a currency for transactions between players. That kind of currency is not under the control of either players or game designers, and not linked to the game economy in any direct way. It will be very interesting to see how this turns out.


#29. Opinion: Trying to Keep the Idiots Out

A quick intermission here, about a sentiment that one can often encounter in virtual worlds. I suspect that almost every longer term player of some virtual world has heard a variation of that phrase, or even muttered it to themselves once. That sentiment is: "This game could be so much better, if only we could keep the idiots out!"

I confess that I, too, caught myself thinking something along those lines. That was quite a while ago, in a text based virtual world. Much later, during a dungeon run in World of Warcraft, I was the guy who ruined the evening for four other players. I didn't do it on purpose, and can't blame lack of knowledge either. I simply messed up, became nervous and embarrassed, and things went downhill from there.

I was the idiot. The game for those four strangers would certainly have been better if they hadn't met me in game that evening. I was experiencing the other side of that sentiment first hand. It was terrible.

So I learned the hard way that one cannot "keep the idiots out". Because those idiots are lurking in me, in you, in every player. On one fateful day, they awaken and do their damage. Do I want to be kicked from the game forever, because I messed up once? Do you? How could we ever learn from our mistakes?

In my humble opinion, we should acknowledge our inner idiot. So that we don't run the risk of him messing up for extended periods of time without us noticing.


#28. Basics: On the Nature of (virtual) Money

Don't be alarmed, this will not be a political or ideological posting; by the time I arrive at currency design decisions, money will be a purely virtual thing.

In economics 101, money is being defined in terms of three basic functionalities:

1. Payment
Money acts as a generic medium of exchange, i.e. an abstraction from any concrete wares or services. This enables the conversion of any ware or service into any other (possibly unrelated) ware or service, as long as both can be reliably converted to money and back (i.e. sold and bought).

2. Standard
Money acts as a standard to measure the relative value of wares or services. This differs from function 1 above in that prices can be assessed even when no actual purchase or transaction is being made.

3. Store of Value
Money can be saved, i.e. set aside and piled up over a longer duration of time. This way, money provides a bit of independence from time. As an example, consider a farmer who's production of crops is necessarily seasonal. He cannot easily store his wares for an indefinite amount of time, but he can easily store the money that he made.

In today's age of instant global communication, a fourth basic function of money is beginning to be recognized (this is still controversial among economists, but to me as a virtual philosopher it makes perfect sense):

4. Communication
Money carries information whenever it flows. This is why the forces of supply and demand could be effective even in the distant past when there was no internet, no telephone, no telegraph, no postal service, no reliable long distance communications channel other than the trade routes themselves.

In the real world, money strongly interacts with the production of actual goods, and is thus strictly limited by some realities of the physical world. Nevertheless, the value of real money is an agreement, a collective belief, an accord. Valuable are the things that you buy, not the money itself (perhaps you have heard the old joke about trying to feed on coins and banknotes).

Early currencies did use valuable tokens, like the archetypical coin made of some precious metal. But eventually money turned into paper bills, and then into numbers written down in the books of accountants. Finally nowadays, money is just numbers in a computer. This development was possible only because money has been informational, virtual, all along!

The above realization will seem like mockery if you have ever had to live through a time of poverty. The very real limitations of the physical world are obscuring the virtual nature of money, so please do not feel offended! When I will touch on the problem of designing money in one of the next postings, I will completely disregard the material world. The virtual utopias that I'm going to talk about would never work in reality.


#27½. Detour Addendum: True Names & the Real World

It struck me that there is a much more mundane interpretation of what "true names" are. I mean, seriously, why should I be so fascinated with a primitive old story, with 25 year old ideas that are either obsoleted by now, or old news, or things that after 25 years are still "just around the corner"? Nevertheless I couldn't put the concept of a true name out of my mind.

In fantasy, the true name is a handle that gives you leverage, the key to the secret. In Vernor Vinge's story, the true name is the reality behind the virtual facade. And in the real world, a true name is the knowledge behind the phenomenon, the key to the mystery. The one concept that accurately describes a complicated pattern.

In that sense, the classical sciences can be seen as a very successful dictionary of true names. For example take the concept of energy in physics. Energy is an intangible, abstract concept. But once we understood that concept, we could see energy everywhere in the world around us. It was a master key to the secrets of many phenomena. "Energy" (as terminology in physics) is a true name for a very real thing. Understanding what energy is gives us power over anything that involves energy.

And now, with hindsight, I can say with certainty that this blog here is my attempt at finding true names for a few phenomena that arise when people are visiting virtual worlds. I did not plan to do this. It's just that I stumbled across other people's ideas that rang true and grabbed my attention. The player motivations, the monomyth, aspects of comics, ... the fact that I started this blog with definitions of terminology that seemed relevant to me. Clearly, I have been looking for true names.

Of course, only time will tell if my names are true enough to be useful. You gotta start somewhere. If I haven't seen further, it's because I was lying under the foot of a giant. Face down. :-)


Tracking 02: Holy Plate again

This entry is meant to keep track of a posting on Blizzard's forums, just for convenience.


#27. Detour: True Names & the Cyberspace Frontier

I recently stumbled across another interesting book, a collection of essays and talks surrounding one ground breaking science fiction story. That story is Vernor Vinge's True Names, and the book's title is "True Names and the opening of the cyberspace frontier", edited by James Frenkel.

The story is one of the very first that deals with virtual realities; it is older than both terms "cyberspace" and "virtual world". Oddly enough, the first virtual world is in fact older than this story, but since there was no internet back then, it was confined to a local area network, and largely unknown to the public.

What impressed me most is how eerily accurate Vernor Vinge was in predicting flaws and shortcomings of virtual worlds. I particularly like how he clearly separates between real and virtual power, between real and virtual death.

Most of the other essays in the book are about society as it is being transformed by the magic of information technology. The real world is turning more virtual, and the virtual worlds are becoming more real. They will never converge, but they overlap more and more. In which way is a mobile phone functionally different from magical telepathy or from the /whisper command in a virtual world?

From the perspective of game design, the book contains a little treasure in the form of several post mortem reports by the creators of Habitat, the first commercial virtual world. I was intrigued by how their business model (pay per minute played) shaped their perception of their community. They classified their players by how active they were, and by how much individual players succeeded in generating activity of others.

But even the more obscure texts about very abstract topics are touching on "society design", and might therefore be relevant to games revolving around large communities, such as virtual worlds.


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