Recession-proof business models for online games

Coory Doctorow’s latest Guardian column looks at the ways in which MMO game designers are trying to make their virtual worlds immune to recessions and other external economic pressures. In a nutshell, it’s all about creating a partly isolated arbitrage economy that leverages the meatspace disparity between the cash-rich and the time-rich:

Seen through this lens, a “game” is just a bunch of applied psychology that makes kids work long hours to earn virtual gewgaws that adults are trained to desire. In this “Free to play, pay for stuff” world, kids are alienated from the product of their leisure by a marketplace where the game-company skims a piece off of every transaction.

The psychology of this is fascinating, since it all only works to the extent that the game remains “fun”. One key element is that skilled players (eg, kids) must not feel like the rich players are able to buy their way into positions of power. Game devs are advised to sell defensive items – shields, armour, dodging spells, but not offensive ones. A skilled player will still be able to clobber a heavily armoured rich player, given enough time (and skilled players have nothing but time, by definition), but may quit in disgust at the thought that some rich wanker is able to equip himself with a mega-powerful sword or blaster that gives him ultimate killing power. No one wants to play in a game where one player has an “I win” button.

(Just as a side note, I find it quite endearing that Cory has taken so naturally to British slang like “wanker” and “can’t be arsed”.)

While we’re on the subject of MMO economies, though, I might just mention EVE Online again. Not only is it unique in the connection between its in-game currency and the economy of its ‘home’ nation of Iceland, but in the staggeringly huge degree of obsession that its most powerful players can develop.

… consider that the game has both legal and illegal channels for real world income to bleed into the game. You can spend your hard-earned money on an in-game item called a ‘PLEX’ which can be used to add two months of in-game subscription time to a character, and then sell these PLEXes on the in-game market for in-game currency (isk). If you’re rich in-game and poor in reality, you can play EVE for free by simply purchasing PLEXes; if you’re rich in reality and don’t have time to make spaceship money, you can sell some PLEXes and buy as many spaceships as you feel like. Of course, many players go outside of the established CCP-sanctioned system and buy and sell both currency and characters on the black market of eBay; a substantial sum of hard currency can be earned by a diligent eBayer, and it is an accepted belief among many EVE players that some people are making a day-to-day living off selling isk.

And that’s nothing – read the rest of that report for stories of players spending literally thousands of dollars of real-world money on EVE campaigns, planning to sabotage the power lines to the real-world houses of other players in order to weaken their factions at the crucial moment, and more. No matter how many new worlds we build, we take our weird human flaws and foibles with us.