Sony Online is announcing today that they are going to establish a player-to-player market for the sale and purchase of virtual assets in Sony Online Entertainment games.
We'll let that sink in for a moment...
Yes, this is for real. It's called "Station Exchange".
The magisterial Daniel Terdiman at Wired News has the story with commentary by assorted Terra Novans. Other commentary has leaked out (thanks to Aaron Kurtz for the headsup), though we're trying hard to abide by the press embargo.
We thought this was such a Terra Nova moment that we all should have a chance to comment, in a kind of virtual roundtable. Here are initial thoughts of as many Terra Novans as we could afford to fly to our hunting blind in the undisclosed location:
We're all doomed. I told you so damn firk dink blast.
[Eds: Professor Edward "Ted" Castronova was told of Sony's announcement and immediately slipped into some kind of a fugue state. Currently resident in the University of Indiana's Secure Psychiatric Facility, he is officially unable to comment. However the enterprising editorial team at Terra Nova managed to insert an embedded journalist into the facility. This journalist--known only by his nom de joue "Dr Bombay"--managed to convince the orderlies that he was at least as insane as Dr Castronova. He refuses to explain how he managed to infiltrate the facility, but it seems that if you advise the IRS that your main source of income was selling imaginary assets, you will be committed. The following transcript is the text that Dr Bombay was able to extract from Dr Castronova.]
"I think this is a brilliant business move and a good one for games and gamers. SOE will be able to internalize a value stream that they are creating, one that, somehow, they've let slip off into the hands of third parties like IGE. It is smart business. But also, this is a good move for gaming, because right now the magic circle is being torn to shreds, to the detriment of the fantasy. The first step to restoring the fantasy and keeping it sound is for developers to reassert control over the player choices involved. This move does that, and it will change how games are designed. Already, every developer has to design in full consciousness that people can write macros. Now, each developer will have to design knowing that people will use the virtual item market to get around content. As a result, developers will start making more fantasy-secure games, ones that cannot be overrun by gold-farming. I am dying to see the first MMORPG Sony produces under the new system. It may well be the 'closed world' I've been fearing would never appear."
Before we see the system in action it is difficult to know what the consequences are going to be. In the sort term this could be good news for SOE customers (well those that want to trade), if SOE takes responsibility for transaction tracking and customer service. That is, we know that one up-shot of MMOs is a rise of old crimes revolving around new objects. While SOE's move will not help in crimes of virtual passion like we saw in China recently, they might help with the various forms of scamming that we see. Though how exactly they are going to guarantee trades I'm not sure about - maybe there will be an in game contract and the system will act as trusted third party holding both items and funds before things are released to each player, this would eliminate some scamming. However, if implementation is bad or if they SOE take a high % of the trade value then I can see that values will rise and crime will rise.
The knock-on effects are going to be most interesting. Will PayPal be forced to recognise this form of virtual object (as Julian has pointed out, they don't have a problem with other forms of virtual stuff).
Though to pre-empt Richard - is this the end of gaming as we know it? Has SOE just sold the magic circle to the highest bidder? Well probably not. But I can see a separation of VWs. Large commercial ones that eventually are all fully commoditised and capitalism is played out over and over, and small boutique worlds that probably far more interesting. Just like Hollywood and independent cinema I'm sure there is room for both.
Lastly, I wonder this will force a closing of the separation between legal identity and in-world identity.
This is a bad move for gamers because it breaks the social contract inherent in competition. It may be a good short-term move for SOE in that it will rationalize and decriminalize the problem of virtual property distribution, but there's strong potential for the cure to be worse than the disease. A gross-level analogy by way of example: Thor and Biff meet on the PvP field of battle. Both are skilled players and both have the same amount of knowledge. Thor, however, in real life is a 50-year old dentist who makes $85,000 a year. Biff is an undergraduate at Generic State U. with $12,000 and counting in student loans. Thor thus has the +5 Sword of Noggin-nocking, while Biff has the +1 Sword of Thrift. Thor wins. Biff quits, and so do others like him. Thor winds up fighting other Thors, losing his advantage and wondering why he forked out the cash. Eventually, the game stratifies by real-world disposable income rather than by talent or interest.
The underlying problem: There is a social contract in gaming just as there is in sports. This is not a PC reaction to "the way things are supposed to be" so much as it is a warning to short-sighted capitalists that some of their value stems from this contract. Messing with it hurts the product. In sports and games, teams and individuals contest on a level playing field. It is meritocratic, not capitalist, nepotistic, classist or elitist, and it is a central underlying reason for the appeal of sports--Joe six pack and Joe CEO can watch and play as equals. When this ideal is violated, there is a violation of that contract--that meta-game. When the ideal is protected, the product is better and more people partake of it. It's why people hate the Yankees and baseball's economic structure is a joke. In contrast, it's why the NFL is the best-run and most popular league in US sports. It's why people hate IGE. And it's why this practice will ruin a game and send customers to better systems.
Perhaps designers will design with these facts in mind and use their foresight and control over the market to decrease these problems. I am skeptical.
I'm not sure what I think about this. If nothing else it puts paid to the old chestnut that Sony was actually responding to player preferences by forbidding trading in virtual assets. It turns out that they're functional equivalent to the RIAA: they want to ban the technology until they have a way to control it and monetize it.
I think the more interesting aspect of this will be the response of the player community. Those who use IGE to trade Sony-related assets will obviously start using the Sony marketplace (more secure, less fraud, will presumably be priced competitively). But what of those who, like Ted, actually seem to care about role playing, and who see asset-trading as an evil foist on the world by the like of Brock Pierce? (I'm assuming that these guys actually exist, and the statements on the webboards to this effect are genuine. A cynic might suggest that this is rhetorical posturing.) What of them? At first they may migrate to games that still ban trading, but my guess is that these games will use the cover of Sony's first move to institute similar marketplaces. The big commercial operators need every penny they can get, and they're unlikely to hold off building their own version if Sony is successful. As Ren suggests, this would seem to provide the ideal opportunity for a smaller game dev to institute a genuine ban on asset trading, in an effort to capture the disaffected role players. This will be interesting because it will be a moderately-controlled experiment in whether players really want to role play at all. My prediction (for what it's worth) is that this non-tradable game will die, because the players who claim role-playing is important actually don't believe this.
Nate "tra la la" Combs
Is this a subtle new frontier for game world design?
Consider a starter scenario, what if we can now wonder the possibility of fiscal drains for game worlds. What if, for example, developers levied transaction fees, payable in the currency of the world? Wisely crafted, could one build a *world fiscal policy* that is immersion friendly? In-game trades are protected, those lured to jump the grind queue enter a "meta-immersive" (real-world aware) state to execute simple accounting and ledger cultivation, and while they are at it, thank you sir, pay a bit for the betterment of all. Imagine a place with less obtrusive and more flexible faucet-drains for game economic systems than the ones you now know. After all, it is my contention, that the current faucet-drain mechanisms are a rube goldberg invention of convenience and distraction. Consider a hypothetical:
I'm a bard, and proud to be one - I just want to twist and dance all day long, tra la la la. Imagine a place where bards didn't have to bother with reagents, consumables, armor decay, and all those current game design sleights-of-hand to force a player's march, to steal a player's pocket, in the dead of a player's night, another tax, another distraction of sorts. Instead, once in a while I trade, and a bit is scraped off the top, with the amount that is scaped off varied as needed to balance the order of things, for others, less inclined.
What other possibilities? Why not exploit *real-world* linkages as part of virtual world design - then why not start with external trading? Can such real-virtual-world estuaries offer the new flank in virtual world game design?
In answer to Ted and Dmitri:
You've staked out opposite sides of the argument, but I find myself disagreeing with both of you. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you both seem to believe in the possibility -- and the desirability -- of drawing clear ethical and aesthetic lines around MMOs. And generally speaking, I don't.
For instance, Dmitri, is there really "a" social contract binding MMOs? I've always had the impression that there are several, some in direct contradiction with others, and that this is what makes these games more socially complex than, say, sports. The Thor v. Biff example is a case in point, and a classic one. OK, so hapless undergrad Biff adheres to the social contract that says the game is all about leveling to the top by the sweat of your brow (though I have my doubts about that, or why would he quit after a few demoralizing encounters with uber dentists, rather than spending his summer vacation leveling while Thor cleans people's teeth, and then having the last laugh by selling Thor his +7 Cudgel of Blunt Head Injury for $650?) But maybe Thor adheres to a different contract altogether -- the one that says the game is all about high-level PvPing with your guildies, and never mind how you got to the high levels. For that matter, maybe Thor, Biff, and their immediate pals are the only people in the game who feel it's about any sort of direct competition at all, while everybody else is off merrily crafting, PvMing, and role-playing. Why, then, of all the various social contracts in effect here, do we single out Biff's as the legitimate one?
As for the magic circle, Ted, I think it is neither the endangered species you think it is nor the hermetic seal you seem to wish it were. Ebaying is no more or less a threat to the magic of the game than people talking about Britney's baby on guild chat is; and somehow, despite these perennial blights, most people seem to keep on extracting all the magic they need from MMOs.
In short, then, I'm not sure Sony's move is going to make a whole lot of difference one way or the other. Aside from making virtual-item transactions more secure and efficient, I don't think it will do much more for the player experience than the eBay market already does. And as for Sony's implicit acceptance of the pay-for-play/play-for-pay ethos the eBay market represents, what really is new here? OSI announced years ago that eBaying was OK by them, and only the most tendentious of arguments could cast Ultima Online's persistent popularity in subsequent years as an adverse effect of that announcement. The MMO, as a game type, is simply much more tolerant of multiple play paradigms than us beard pullers tend to give it credit for.
This may be a synthetic worlds version of 'Edict of Nantes' decreed by King Henry IV in 1598, France. The history after the Edict of Nantes shows us the Divorce of King (ie the Publsher) and the Pope (ie the Developer), the Secularization of Politics (Playing) compared to the renewal of the Catholic church (traditional Gaming), the emergence of legal person or incorporation (ie the Virtual Commune) in accordance with market & cities growing, and revolutions and civil or people's right (the Glorous revolution, the American revolution, the French revolution, the Russian revolution) that brings spring of the Modern, and the fall of the Middle ages.
With the virtual time machine, we are enterring into the time when John Locke and Benjamin Franklin are still young, and we get a choice whether we just copy or wholly restructuring what the modern is at synthetic worlds.
Before we see how players and developers interact with the system, it is difficult to know what the consequences are going to be.
Richard Bartle (redux)
Julian: Ebaying is no more or less a threat to the magic of the game than people talking about Britney's baby on guild chat is
If someone talks about Britney's baby, there are no tangible effects on their character in the game. If they buy a +5 sword of hitbebabyonemoretime then there is.
If eBaying isn't a problem, why sell objects at all? Why not just give them away to anyone who wants them? If it's so great that people can just hang out with their guildies, why not let them do so without charging them $600 for their equipment? Why not just let them equip with whatever they want? It's probably easier to implement than a full-blown trading system. I'll tell you why not: it's because it SPOILS THE GAME. If there is no game to spoil, as with Second Life, then fine, this is obviously a reasonable idea. If the game isn't about the kind of things that money can buy (as with Achaea) then it's also reasonable. If you can buy victory, though, it's either not a game at all or it's a wider game with different victory conditions.
Let's say there was an effect if people talked about Britney's baby. Let's say her publicity company paid SOE to give +1 hit points every time the word "Britney" was said in conversation. Hey, you don't HAVE to say the word if you don't want - you can get your guild healer buddy to restore you instead. On the other hand, you can slap a macro on a hot key and be instantly healed just by chanting the Britney mantra. Is the game still fine? What if it cost you a cent, would that make it fine?
Dmitri's analysis is good. If other virtual worlds follow suit, in 5 years' time people will be wondering why anyone ever used to think these things were ever fun.
Ted Castronova (redux)
Richard: because it SPOILS THE GAME.
i guess i am holding out hope that if the game gets redesigned the right way, ebaying will either not happen at all or, if it does, not spoil the game.
what i'm missing in the commentary here is some nuance about what players want. to argue that ebaying did not ruin UO overlooks a critical selection effect: it did not ruin UO for the players who remained. true, but it's a tautology: they remained because ebaying did not bother them.
similarly, cory: i'm not saying that gold exchange is now always and everywhere inside the magic circle. i'm saying i can conceive of games designed with the *incentives* to ebay kept firmly in mind, that *will* be in the magic circle.
the point is, there's a distribution of tastes for games, and a distribution of games to suit them. right now, we have no ebay-proof games. with dmitri and richard, i'm worried that commercialization will result in there being no ebay-proof games, ever. i also believe that those ebayed games, while satisfying to those who do play them, will not be satisfying to certain people that i care about a lot. those folks will either not play these games, or, if they do, will encounter experiences not very different from what they experience in the real world. if things develop that way, an opportunity will have been lost, to provide a refuge environment that is truly and completely different and sealed off.
so, against this imagined future of no closed worlds, i am holding out hope for a future with *some* closed worlds. not *all* closed worlds, just *some*. i think having the major design houses come to grips with the incentives that lead to membrane-punching is quite possibly a good step. and it cannot hurt anything, because SOE games are completely ebayed now as it is. so that's why ive chosen to be positive about this. i want developers to work on this problem, in the hopes that they will figure something out.
Excellent insights, Julian, but I think that maybe I wasn't clear about something. When I said social contract, I didn't mean that each player needs to endure the grind (that, after all, is a product of bad game mechanics or design). I was referring to the sense of fun and meritocracy that one gets from participating with others as equals. I love the part in JC Herz's "Joystick Nation" where she's talking about meritocracy in early social arcade gaming:
"It didn't matter what you drove to the arcade. If you sucked at Asteroids, you just sucked." That, for her, was the draw of the arcade. It was a melting pot of class, race and age made possible by the fact that you couldn't buy your way in. That's what I'm getting at when I say "social contract," so maybe I ought to come up with a better term. Social parity? The "cool social stuff you get when everyone is equal and it's all about talent and effort." Yeah, that thing.
I do appreciate the idea that different folks play for different reasons and styles and that there are PvPers and PvErs, crafters, etc., but that's sidestepping the point in part because there will still be subsets within those groups that will face this problem.
A personal anecdote popped into my head when I was thinking about this today:
When I was an undergrad I drove from LA out to Prescott, Arizona to visit a buddy going to school out there, and to go and try paintball with him. He'd been raving about it. So I get to the game site and it's about 40 guys, 20 of whom were Vietnam vets. My buddy and I rented paintball guns, but we quickly noticed that a good chunk of the others had brought their own. Ours were single-shot pump-driven models and these fellows had automatics. Needless to say, we were pummeled. Painfully (literally). I didn't mind the fact that 20 of them were better hunters, stalkers and shots than me. I was fine to learn the ropes. I minded paying the same entrance fee and getting my ass bruised by a stream of bullets from automatic guns while I cowered with a pea shooter.
Is this situation analogous? I mean we could say that the market will correct the situation since I didn't want to go back to that paintball site. The next time I went to play, I went to an indoor arena that had standardized gear. It was a lot more fun. But a friend (relatively wealthy) of mine went ought and bought an automatic so that he could go to the big outdoor games which all permitted the automatics. I didn't join him because I couldn't afford that kind of gun. And eventually I dropped the hobby.
As I was thinking about this case as an analogy, I remembered that a lot of discussion on TN revolves around expanding the player base. And then I thought, hmm, this ain't gonna help.
I agree with Dmitri that, considered purely as a profit strategy, this is high risk and perhaps a market loser. The question is: does a sales tax on the uber gear exchange beat the loss in market share?
Because it seems to me you have to lose some market share by introducing money into the equation. All games appeal to meritocratic principles that aren't immune from money, but never embrace it. E.g., when I played intramural ultimate, some people wore cleats, some didn't. Cleats help you run faster, but they cost a few buck. Still, this didn't ruin the game, because cleats we'ren't tantamount to automatic paintguns.
Even in yacht races, where entry effectively costs $12 million, they don't sell the prize cup to the highest bidder -- you have to earn it. So the question is not whether this undercuts the spirit of the game, it's how much it undercuts the spirit of the game, and whether the players will care.
And the other question, I guess, is whether MMOGs are games at all, or whether they're more akin to a form of social hypertext. After all, no one can win an MMOG. If VWs are not analogous to games, commercialism would seem to have more leeway. Because the fact that wealth = status in RL means we can probably live with that (or not live with it) in non-game virtual worlds too.
To be picky I don't really like the use of the term Social Contract in this context as I feel that that really picks out a particular relationship between an individual and a state. Cyber-exceptionalists and the like might want these connotations but I'm not sure it's what we are getting at here, at the very least it can be a distraction. I've adopted the term ludic-contract because I think that that gets to the heart of things. That heart being, as I commented the other day on Nathan's thread, that which sustains a kind of ultra-minimal ludic state i.e. where two or more people share a common myth and values of the game (the network of bonds of trust that make up and sustain the magic circle is another way of looking at it, especially if one wants to be contractarian in ones ethics). Thing is, as Julian has been saying, in reality what we have are intersecting value sets and when we have something as big as an MMO the values of some players may not intersect in important ways.
The question I guess is whether this is magic circle breaking. It can be. But I do not think that it is necessarily the case.
It might bother me psychologically that player d00d bought their lvl60 where as I played my ass off for mine (OK, I'm only dreaming of a lvl60 in WoW) but it might not. Whether the trade in avatars actually impacts my game play, through camping or other knock on consequences is a contingent matter where we have to look at the particularity of each case, so I don't think it's easy to draw sweeping conclusions - yet.
As I say I feel that this will see shifts and divisions in games. No eBayers (we need a new term here) will find places that will satisfy their needs if eBayers corrupt their spaces. We might see the rise in effectively eBayer zones where they are playing on roughly the same field with their shiny automatic paint guns, boats and football teams in the English league were not a single player actually is English.
I still maintain my opposition to the avatar trade but it's for very different reasons i.e. I don't like the commoditisation of tokens of identity etc etc.