Questions From a Student

A truly fun part about being a Game Economist is that 3-4 times a year, you’ll get the odd Linkedin message from students wanting to do the same.

I did get back to him!

It’s incredibly gratifying to help set people on the right track, given I was asking for the same help years ago. There’s so little on game economics it forces aspiring Economists to cold-call people with the title on Linkedin. This blog’s mission is to grow the conversation and those participating in it.

Along these lines, a student interviewed a fellow Game Economist for their master’s thesis. They shared the questions with me, and they were a lot of fun, so I’m reposting them here with permission.

What would you say is the biggest difference between the virtual economy in MMOs and the real economy?

Let me talk about virtual economies more broadly. In some sense, there’s no invisible hand in virtual economies. A virtual economy does not exist without a central institution that creates it. A designer needs to craft each inch of a virtual economy and how it functions.

In the real world, the environment is exogenous – a given, with each agent optimizing around his or her utility preferences. An agent is still optimizing around their utility preferences in a virtual world, something we have ample empirical evidence for (thank you, Edward Castronova!).

If game designers were to design the real world, they could alleviate things like hunger instantly. But a game-developed world wouldn’t mean a lack of pain or difficulty. On the other hand, we observe optimal flow state comes from overcoming challenges.

If we were to think about MMOs versus other virtual economies specifically, it’s the prevalence of player-to-player trade-in MMOs. This gives rise to floating prices facilitated via auction houses and provides a whole new dimension of engagement.  

Why do you think players value virtual goods more than real ones?

I can’t entirely agree with the premise of the question. The same Magic the Gathering card will command a higher price in physical than digital form. This will shift as Wizards of the Coast brings more events online than offline (i.e., the Pro Tour) and expands their online offering (Cube Draft! Commander!).

What type of goods is the most desired in MMOs and why? (Functional, hedonic, social)

Done correctly, whichever goods the institution incentivizes players to desire the most. A game where I could not see other players’ cosmetics would probably sell fewer cosmetics than a story-based DLC model, ala Destiny. Empirically, when I observe most MMOs, vertical progression or gameplay affecting items are desired the most—progression gates content that arranges a social hierarchy.

How is a competition created in games like WoW, FFXIV, or Lost Ark?

There’s the meta-layer of progression mentioned above, which adds a competitive element to the social hierarchy. Progression provides straightforward UX to “move ahead”; it’s incredibly meritocratic or at least “time-o-cratic” in many ways. It’s unclear how Lindsey Lohan moves up the social ladder at her high school in Mean Girls. In MMOs, the answer is clear: spend more time grinding!

Some MMOs have dipped into real-time combat-based elements like Alteric Valley in WoW or arena’s in Lost Ark. This re-arranges the social hierarchy to not depend on time but on “twitch skill” with a decent helping of planning. What equipment and skills players enter the Valley or arena with are dependent not only on time spent grinding but also on the planning players undertake on skill tree choice and gear equipment.

Why do you think some players rather spend money on buying an already leveled-up account instead of playing the game themselves?

Sometimes the Wikipedia article is better than the actual movie. Buying high-level characters let spenders jump straight to the top of the hierarchy. They may be missing out on the “experience,” but everyone has a soft spot for shortcuts. 

Would you say that high-level players play a role in making new players buy the virtual currency in games?

It depends, again, on the institutions the designer has created and what that institution incentivizes. The more social matters, the more high-level players probably play a role in monetization. But a game like Candy Crush has much less social. If you were to remove Facebook Connect from Candy Crush, I don’t like revenue would change much in an A/B test. I love Gardenscapes, but some players on level 1,000 do not change my propensity to spend as a new player.

How can someone create a fun virtual economy for players when economics is one of the most boring studies?

I could not disagree more! Economics is the most riveting social science out there. Economists commonly refer to “the set of glasses” the discipline grants after careful and dedicated study. The economic model helps me organize and think systemically about my world. There’s a satisfaction in the ability to take a random observation and build a model of understanding around it. Something that was chaos becomes order.

The best Game Economist is someone who brings to bear the tools of economics on games. It’s what Gary Becker does for crime or Richard Posner for law.

What game has the best economy, in your opinion? 

I think of the best economies as ones that maximize the net present value of the game. Economies here don’t refer only to how many currencies a game has or the price of items. Economies also refer to things like the supply of content in a game. I have a couple of nominations: 

Valve’s Steam Marketplace

Valve deserves a lot of credit for bringing player-to-player trade to a broad scale. The auction house and UGC design have given huge revenue and engagements tails to the games that have adopted it. Valve’s titles continue to have strong engagement, including TF2, a 15-year-old game that survives on community rather than first-party content. 

Clash of Clans / 4x titles (Game of War)

Selling vertical and horizontal progression is expensive since creating supply is costly (i.e., new level cap, new MOBA character). Clash of Clans (CoC) monetizes based on timers for creating troops. CoC treats a given troop as consumable; a single troop has only one attack use before it must be re-generated. The hard currency players can spend on reducing the generation time for new troops is a nearly infinite depth sink. 4X games use a similar loop while adding on consumables like peace shields. The result is LTV in the seven figures. The lack of consumables and expensive card creation in Clash Royale has significantly harmed its long-term prospects.

Match-3s

Perhaps an odd choice here, but match-3 economies are well understood and tuned. Match-3 developers understand the “meta” of the genre: how do I optimize level difficulty against the speed at which I can create new levels? There’s beauty in the rigorous optimization problem, and it seems to be going well. Match-3 grabs 21% of U.S. iOS spend, with players approaching decade-long relationships with a single title. Candy Crush recently celebrated its 10,000th level.

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