Yet another recurring discussion about the economics of virtual worlds that spans the era from the earliest MUDs to contemporary MMOGs has been percolating in the Terra Nova comment threads. Deep down in the discussion of Randy Farmer's upcoming State of Play paper, Dmitry Nozhnin complains about the one-to-one relationship between time investment and economic payoff in massively-multiplayer worlds. Richard Bartle replies, "If you don't like it, don't play it". This seems to me to sum up the state of this particular long-running discussion, and yet, I can't help but feel that here, as so often, people are talking past each other.
For me, the question comes down to this: is there any way, either plausibly implementable now, or possibly implementable in the future, to allow players to compete in a virtual economy with strategies of invention, innovation and novelty which have a game-mechanical tangibility to them?
Nozhnin's complain is one I broadly endorse, and I feel that to some extent, posing time investment as only major and wholly linear way to measure and reward achievement continues to be one of the design cul-de-sacs that MMOGs are stuck within.
We all know that players can devise strikingly efficient heuristics to achieve economic or pseudo-economic (such as accumulating experience) ends within virtual worlds. Sometimes individuals or small cartels can keep these strategies secret for a time, but sooner or later, improved risk/reward ratios with shorter times to the achievement of economic gains will spread to most of the playerbase. If the strategy in question involves something that is viewed by developers as an exploit (say, finding a space in the gameworld's geography that allows the player to attack enemies without danger of retribution), it will probably be eliminated. Even if it is not an exploit, developers will have to decide whether a systemic change in the rate of overall economic accumulation is desirable, and make changes if necessary.
This is about as close as players can come to achieving economic rewards which meaningfully correspond with the achievement hierarchy that most capitalist societies, particularly the United States, celebrate or ostensibly seek.
There are many routes to becoming rich in the U.S. One is to inherit money or property. This isn't particularly celebrated, partially because it (usually) is not a path one can voluntarily choose to pursue, but also because of a century's worth of efforts in most capitalist societies to slow the accumulation of wealth through inheritance.
Another is through perserverance and hard work, and there is certainly a goodly amount of cultural capital invested in that idea. But by and large, this is an image that is associated with working-class or middle-American forms of status and virtue.
Americans also tend to valorize the role of serendipity, accident and luck, particularly in relationship to wealth achieved through celebrity.
But perhaps the most lauded mode to wealth and success in the United States and to a lesser extent Western Europe is that of the entrepreneur who has a better idea, invents a new gadget, comes up with a novel approach, creatively reorganizes an existing business, and so on.
MMOGs have a kind of wealth-through-inheritance: twinking. Most developers do their best to check its influence. They do not, for the most part, have serendipitious wealth: a player may gain an unexpected windfall through a random drop (an economic mechanism that Everquest 2 in its current form apparently depends upon heavily) but this is essentially still tremendously subject to a labor-time relation. The more you play, the more random drops you will receive. There are no singular serendipities that permanently and disproportionately alter your economic status within the gameworld, the way that being discovered by a Hollywood producer while sitting in a drugstore might.
But above all, almost no MMOG has an economic equivalent to building the better mousetrap, no way to become wealthy by having a better or more creative idea, no way to be an achiever by taking the raw ingredients of the gameworld and reorganizing them into a novel form which is owned or controlled by the innovator. Even a player who discovers an unexpected use of a power or ability, or who discovers a new procedure for extracting wealth that shortens labor-time investment, exerts no ownership over that discovery, and accumulates nothing for it except for whatever they are able to accumulate before the new procedure is widely reproduced.
Is there any way to actually allow players to "build the better mousetrap" and receive concretized rewards as a formal part of the game mechanics of a MMOG? Could a game like SWG allow players to invent a new weapon or item, or a new spell, and receive royalties from all other players? As far as I know, Second Life is the only virtual world that has anything like this. Could the more "game-like" MMOGs imitate or reproduce aspects of Second Life's design? If they could, I submit that the exchange between Dmitry Nozhnin and Richard Bartle would instantly lose much of its pointedness: if labor-time was not the only pathway to wealth, if cleverness or innovation also reliably produced economic rewards that were formally recognized within a MMOG design rather than "off-book" and outside its game-mechanics, then much of the perennial complaining about the labor time = gameworld wealth equation would evaporate.