Trading Spaces

There certainly seems to be a lot of discussion lately over IGE and out-of-game market transactions – whether sparked by IGE\’e2\’80\’99s ongoing quest for respectability or amateur sleuths detecting their assorted below-covers transactions is a matter of very tiny debate. But reading the fallout on various and sundry sites, I thought it might be helpful to just state clearly and plainly why I personally think out-of-game marketeering (whatever you call it) is a bad idea.

These worlds, see, they\’e2\’80\’99re games.

That one sentence sums up, oh, so many posts. But basically, it is the itinerant game designer\’e2\’80\’99s job to provide a fun experience. Everything else devolves from that core concept.

One of the things that provides fun is the balancing of risk and reward. If I take this risk, I should get this reward. If I run the possibility of virtual death, then by god, I should get something shiny. Understand this equation? Good, because that\’e2\’80\’99s what drives 99% of current MMORPG design.

Now. If you have something shiny, it has value. This is a constant. If I win a swirly cloak that most people don\’e2\’80\’99t have, I have something that other people want. I may well seek to sell it. Or give it away. Most games have means to expedite this, and the further along they are, the more detailed they are, from Ultima Online\’e2\’80\’99s vendors to the ever more byzantine resale systems of current MMOs.

But say I have something of value to the player outside the game. Say, a nice shiny twenty dollar bill. That has a core value to everyone, because as our Homer that art in Heaven has taught us, one dollar buys many peanuts. Maybe that person with a cloak shinier than mine will take that twenty dollar bill and give me the cloak?

It\’e2\’80\’99s a natural transaction, and an extension of the in-game experience. It even validates the in-game experience, because it attaches a real world value to that transaction. It also just destroyed the game\’e2\’80\’99s enjoyment. Here\’e2\’80\’99s why.

The value of the in-game items (swirly red cloak) are clear to most people within the game.

The value of the out-of-game items (shiny $20 bill) are clear to most people outside the game.

The value of the in-game items are not clear to most people outside the game. And this is the core of why \’e2\’80\’9ccrossing the streams\’e2\’80\’9d breaks things down. You introduce an element that values the in-game items solely for their out-of-game value. Basically, you\’e2\’80\’99ve commodified your game.

So, the worst elements of this are pretty ever-present in most games today. People who have constructed automatic hunter/killer bots that sweep the landscape trying to eke out as much virtual shekels as possible in the least amount of time, bypassing any actual gameplay. People who squat on the point of mathematical convergence of the game\’e2\’80\’99s risk and reward, bypassing any in-game reputation systems that may have organically grown up, because they don\’e2\’80\’99t really care what people think of them in-game. They just want that shiny dollah.

This is because the game has become a commodity. Commodities are traded. This is inevitable, actually, and really the only way to short-circuit it is through two avenues, enforcement and design. Both of these are far from foolproof, as again pretty much every MMO player can attest. Designing your game on the front end to have radical solutions to this problem usually involve things like emasculating player trading (the \’e2\’80\’9cno-drop solution\’e2\’80\’9d), just saying from the get-go that you are encapsulating the real world\’e2\’80\’99s currency anyway (Second Life\’e2\’80\’99s solution, and really only viable there because any \’e2\’80\’9cgameplay\’e2\’80\’9d rules are very much player-driven) or instancing your game to the extent that it is almost wholly a single-player game anyway, so it doesn\’e2\’80\’99t matter what the farmers are cultivating.

There aren\’e2\’80\’99t any good answers here. But hopefully, by this point, the question is now understood.