World Theory


design: limiting the real money trading cheat

Real money trading (RMT) is a result of users being able to organize themselves on the web and selling their in-world assets for real money. This detracts from the virtual world as a coherent self-sustaining entity and real-world inequalities spill over into the game. So what can you do about it?

There have been many discussions in places like Terranova, Raph's blog and Tobold's blog, but most designers seem to agree that RMT is an evil that cannot be eliminated without harming the game. I don't disgree with this assertion, although I believe it can be controlled.

So what are the most obvious options for a designer wanting to control RMT? The simple answer: To design for it or remove what enables it.

The Trading Card Game

Embrace and extend what is going on in existing games on a relatively limited level by making it the core focus of the game. Design the game from the ground up as a trading card game. By selling random undisclosed assets you get to sell the same useless equipment over and over, forcing players wanting the best stuff to keep spinning the lottery wheel, paying thousands of dollars. As there are no opportunities to gain assets cheaply the RMT market is curbed. The RMT market is further curbed by making cards either consumables or timelimited and having them stick to the character on first use.

The Fading Template Game

This is basically a class-based design in which you don't pay for an account, but purchase the right to play a specific class of characters. You can then provide opportunities for upgrades and multiclassing. Let characters' abilities rise and fade over time, following a predetermined curve, basically forcing the player to purchasing upgrades from the game company at regular intervals. This also curbs the RMT market as there is no way to gain assets cheaply and assets loose value over time. The net advantage is that you can provide the service at multiple pricepoints and that players can switch back and forth between cheap and expensive options depending on their activity level.

The Inflation Game

Forget everything you know about creating a balanced design. Try to get the inflation rate as high as possible. Deflate the value of all assets continuously. Investing in assets become a lot less attractive. The key example of this type of game is a reset based game.

The No Feedback Game

Make sure that there is no way for the player to objectively tell what the capabilities of a character is and no way to tell what the the capabilities or remaining duration of assets are. This curbs the RMT market as there is no way to know whether you get what you pay for. The net advantage is that it doesn't curb gifting.

The Neutral Game

All assets are average, exchangable and easy and fun to obtain. Nothing is special, players have to depend on social relations, knowledge and real skills.

The Social Game

Focus heavily on prestige related to group membership. Each guild is a hierarchy to climb with their own rules about how to climb the hierarchy and how to go about it, and it is supervised by guild representatives. You don’t eliminate RMT, as you can still have a RMT guild, but they would have less prestige. So it matters less.

The bullet list.

Limiting RMT means attacking the foundations which makes RMT attractive.

  • Focus on how, not what. Assets are easier to trade than situastions.
  • Focus on collective achievements. Collective achievements encourage group identity, group prestige and moral and makes hiding RMT-bought assets from your peers more difficult.
  • Focus on lots of tiny assistance (sp?), discourage players from giving big one-shot favours. That makes selling a service tedious and you thus have to rely on real friends to support you.
  • No sex before marriage: Require players to spend time with people they receive major favours from. This doesn't prevent RMT, but ensures that you are tied to the person, thus you have to think twice about who you receive major favours from. It better be someone that you want close ties with.
  • Focus on diversity. Selling assets which the purchaser has no knowledge of is difficult. If all items are different and personalized then the market for each item will be difficult to find.
  • Focus on customization and use-once assets. It doesn't prevent RMT, but limits trades to whole charcters.
  • Focus on transparency. Let players prove that they have gained their trophees themselves, you cannot sell honour.
  • Focus on independent groups. RMT-based groups should not be allowed to rule non-RMT groups.

Label the cheaters and attach fingerprints to creations

The most potent tool for reducing the negative effects of RMT is entirely psychological. Strive for a cohesive culture in which RMT is viewed as non-threatening. RMT is most damaging to the magic circle if it is viewed as the main route to success. If those who object to RMT can choose to view RMT as a failure or non-important then it will trouble them less.

Remember that do-it-yourselfers, roleplayers and artists don’t suffer from RMT. Encourage those activities which involves personal expression. For an artist the template is a failure, breaking away from the template is (partial) success. Everbody in a group can be “an artist” within that group’s culture (a great moderator, a great leader, a great joker etc). Associate prestige with that which have your own personal stamp on it. You cannot purchase your own fingerprints. Having other people appreciate that which is essentially you is an invaluable aspect of virtual worlds.

In essence, make sure that what the users value the most cannot be bought for a high price. Signs of honour have to be authentic.