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Worlds of Abundance: Currency and Virtual Worlds
by James Hofmann on 06/09/09 06:15:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Money holds the power to shape the flow of games - from single player games to MMOs. With every game we make, we are designing currency. Sometimes the currency is simply points (or points in a more colorful guise). Other times it is a means of drawing the player towards challenges - collect x widgets and you can continue. In a third case the player collects money to gain power directly or indirectly: Direct mechanisms being things like Mario's 100 coins for extra lives or experience points to earn level-ups, and indirect ones being shopping and bartering.

One thing unifies those examples: The game has absolute control over the money supply. And in many games, it tends towards an initial scarcity that later collapses into an abundance of wealth; the player starts off weak, and has to pick opportunities carefuly, but inevitably progresses in skill or power, or finds loopholes in the system, and legitimately or not, they collect hundreds of extra lives, store thousands of pieces of equipment, boost their character's abilities to god-like ratings.

If we look at this in economic terms, the player starts off with a low productivity, and in games that allow productivity to increase by simply incrementing numbers(the case with experience points and equipment), productivity goes up very quickly, much faster than in the real world, and much faster than a game that is strictly based on player skill. Those games make the ability to become more productive a major part of the mechanic, and relate it to the player's preexisting wealth, rather than isolating it with the player's skill. For those games, unless there are strict caps set, eventually the productivity is so high that the old challenges of the game cease to exist: the game becomes a sandbox of abundant wealth. 

For single-player games, this is not really a problem. Everyone knows the addicitiveness of this artificial rise to greatness, and it makes for a fine capstone to typical game story progressions, albeit in many cases the story's tone will get wildly out-of-sync with the gameplay. "Great hero becomes stronger; faster; wiser" is hard to reconcile with typical dramatic devices.

Short-term multiplayer games like Halo or Mario Kart typically set caps on productivity via preexisting wealth: you can collect a few items, and they provide situational advantages, but you can't hoard them. The goal is fairness and balance, and depending the game style this may mean a model of "scarcity for everyone" with very few advantages given monetarily, or "abundance for everyone," where everything is similarly overpowered, but it's rarely a case of "wealth inequality." Inequality works if your game seeks to be as bitter and dystopian as reality.

MMOs face complex issues with money because a large and unknown number of players engage in the game over a long period of time. In the short-term game it can be assumed that everyone's working to the fullest of their abilities for the duration. But in the long-term game people appear and disappear "at random," and work at vastly different rates.  Thus efforts of the game to manipulate money in the world and give all players a consistent experience are constantly foiled because of player actions, direct or indirect - for example, too many people camping too few monster spawns. Or item markets where pricing is destroyed because people at the top of the productivity chain can give away their goods for next-to-nothing.

For the most part, the biggest problems of money have been resolved in existing MMOs with an array of checks, caps and balances; they can provide an "every player the same" experience with high consistency. However, it would be far more interesting to discuss ways to use money to drive other gameplay, online or offline, rather than to preserve "every player the same," which reeks of artificiality. In particular, I want to point to gift economies.

The economics of the natural world are mostly oriented towards abundance: anyone or anything can take whatever it needs to the best of their ability, and the environment alone limits you. Just like what a game does. And for the humans of past eras that were able to operate like this, it had a major impact on society: It made people, not goods, be the thing that mattered economically. So gifts and reputation held a higher status. This is obviously not the case in our modern society, but in small ways, we have the power to turn back the clock.

What I like about this is that games, as pointed out earlier, tend to converge on abundance and extremely wealthy, productive players; a game with too much scarcity is obviously broken, and it takes conscious design to balance scarcity for the purpose of challenge. But it's fairly easy to make a game with "lots of everything." So the most natural thing to do to a game design would be a focus on the gift economy in some way, shape, or form.  Essentially: Making it so that the world acts as building blocks for people's skill and creativity. This has been done in games many times: sometimes the entire system is built for creative purposes(e.g. art and music programs), sometimes it is a small portion of a game with other currencies(character customization), sometimes we make the world a meta-world(level editing tools). And sometimes we simply inspire reams of fan creations because of a powerful setting, characters or story - we turn literary elements into their own kind of money.

The most exciting aspect of an game (for me) is that it can have effects that change the real world. If not that, it can at least allow a temporary transcendence of reality -  that thing we call immersion. And I think that it is in the money system that the most is done to cause those effects.

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Louis Varilias
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"a game with too much scarcity is obviously broken, and it takes conscious design to balance scarcity for the purpose of challenge."

I disagree with this. When there is no way to deal with scarcity, a game would be broken or imbalanced. Supply and demand is a form of balance in the real world. Nothing is "too scarce". The problem with "game currency" is that it doesn't act like currency. You acquire it, then what? Achievement points on XBox Live are like this.

Bart Stewart
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"...the most natural thing to do to a game design would be a focus on the gift economy in some way, shape, or form. Essentially: Making it so that the world acts as building blocks for people's skill and creativity."

This is a perspective I've been on board with for several years now. (See for example "Creative Crafting vs. Sales Crafting" at
vs-sales-crafting.html , as well as "Competition and Cooperation in MMORPGs" at
operation-in-mmorpgs.html .)

The one great difference, economically speaking, between multiplayer games and real life is that in real life, players can add to the total amount of intellectual capital in the world by imagining and creating new kinds of things and processes. But in a gameworld, the total amount of intellectual capital is fixed. You can only make what the developers allow you to make. You might be able to crank out lots of copies, but there's no creativity involved in that.

This, not surprisingly, tends to lead to a competitive social environment. Players quickly realize that it's a zero-sum world, and that the only way to win in such a world is to make someone else lose.

As gameplay, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Competition can be fun. But when it's the only kind of fun permitted, it gets old.

To challenge that staleness, to encourage the emergence of cooperation in addition to competition, the zero-sum design must be replaced with one in which intellectual capital can be created and added to the gameworld.

There are significant challenges in providing this feature in any virtual world that must also work as broadly enjoyable gameplay. The real problems of inappropriate content (such as "Sporn" and the recreation of copyrighted materials) and economic play balancing have been pointed out by more than one pragmatic game designer. Allowing some resources to remain finite remains an effective way of insuring the efficient allocation of those resources throughout the gameworld.

But the alternative to creative game designers figuring out ways to enable player creativity -- to allowing what economist Julian Simon called "the ultimate resource" of human ingenuity to contribute to the wealth of the gameworld -- is an unending succession of Hobbesian worlds with players little better than roving wolfpacks, preying on each other.

There's room for gameworlds like that. (I should say, there's room for more games like that.)

Isn't there also room for some AAA gameworlds that are structurally designed to allow creative and cooperative play to flourish?

James Hofmann
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Louis: By "too much scarcity" I'm referring to a case of unbalanced challenge where players are unable to face challenges on the merit of their own skills because they are deprived of the necessary means - or to continue with the economic analogy - they are undercapitalized. Not enough bullets, not enough health, etc. Supply and demand is predicated on there being a competitive marketplace, but in a game the designer has the control over all aspects of the market. Designer prefer for the player to win or otherwise feel in control of events, so we rarely end up with a truly competitive situation.

If you go back and look at games from the 1980's(particularly strategy games and RPGs), their difficulty balancing often put the players in a situation of extremely low capital where the strategy to win involves repetitive exploitation of the few mechanics in the game that don't require the player to spend anything.

Bart: I think a lot of the problems we get with current user-generated systems stem from the basic assumptions of what the domains of the developer and the player are - specifically that the world is controlled in top-down fashion and is sold as a controlled and sanitized experience. That model and creativity are at odds with each other almost by definition. It doesn't scale up well, and its enforcement causes backlashes - take the removal of Little Big Planet levels, for example. With current IP law, a company brings risk upon itself if it wants players to get creative. That is a really ugly problem and it looks like the only solution that will satisfy both parties is to move away from protective IP in the real world, which is at conflict with other business interests. (My conclusion on that front is that we need real-world currencies that can acknowledge the nature of ideas as non-scarce goods, but that is quite a huge effort and I don't even know where it would start.)

Ron Newcomb
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Brilliant article.

"The economics of the natural world [being] mostly oriented towards abundance [...] had a major impact on society: it made people, not goods, be the thing that mattered economically, so gifts and reputation held a higher status."

Having read _Guns, Germs & Steel_, I found this particularly profound. And having recently read (and romanticized about) a lot of fiction set in either the Roman or Victorian era, with all their noise made about arranged marriages, appointment to posts, and a man's reputation, I would love a game that immersed me in this. But technically, this requires a lot of AI in the shape of knowledge dissemination, judgement, and plain 'ol reputation-building, instanced across a city's worth of NPCs. I know of no game like this.

Anyway, I find the link you've touched on between social mechanics and economics to be as pertinent to the game designer as, say, biochemistry would be to Victorian scientists who dreamt of consilience.

Max Yankov
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Great article. Too bad that in F2P games with direct $-to-gold transactions things get a lot more complicated...