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8:09am on Monday, 22nd May, 2006:

Screwy Factor


Just now, I had an idea for a way that a developer could subvert real-money trading on virtual worlds. Normally, I'd post it to Terra Nova, but there's such a turnover on there right now that I've been waiting over a month for a lull so I can write something about guilds and government. Besides, the idea would never work.

Here it is anyway...

In the big virtual worlds, you usually have a currency (let's call it "gold"). You obtain this from a number of sources (mainly quests and kills), and you use it to buy and sell stuff. All prices are quoted in gold. If I have 30G in my pocket and I buy something for 20G, I'll have 10G left. Now suppose that whenever the virtual world displayed a price, it multiplied it by an arbitrary number — the screwy factor — which changed every day. When I log today, in, I may find that I apparently have 210G and the object I want costs 140G; tomorrow, I may have 60G or 270G and the object would cost 40G or 180G. Your wealth would remain the same the whole time, it's just that the way it was displayed would change. If you need 1,000G for some epic piece of kit, it will take you just as long to get it whether it's displayed as 1,000G, 10,000G or 222,000G. Yes, it makes forward planning a little confusing, but with the right price-tracking tools it should be easy enough. If you have that special dagger tagged, you just look at the tag and it tells you that today it'll cost you 450G; tomorrow, it might say 400G.

Why would this affect RMT?

Well, the thing is, although the virtual world is able to display all prices and conduct all transactions by performing a simple multiplication or division, eBay isn't. If you see an advertisement for 1,000G on eBay, what are you actually getting? 1,000 relative gold or 1,000 absolute gold? And if the latter, how do you know it is 1,000G absolute? You'd have to look at a constant price every day for an extended period and calculate the common factor. This would seriously undermine RMT operating in open marketplaces. It sounds good (if you're against RMT).

It's not worth it, though. Other than the cultural objections that players would have to this, which kill it anyway, it wouldn't work for two practical reasons. Firstly, RMT-specialist sites would scale their prices for the day's screwy factor, as they could pick it up in an automated fashion by periodically checking the amount held by a reference account (700G today, 600G yesterday, 1,100G the day before, ...). Secondly, if it did its job and stopped people from buying gold, they'd just buy something valuable that wasn't scaled, eg. important reagents. It would be more hit-and-miss, but if you're looking to cheat, you're not going to care.

Money that wears out when it's not spent; that's what we want.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).