[Dave Birch] I’m looking again at the economics of virtual worlds and the Korean situation is once again much in my mind.  An analysis of their virtual economy may contain some useful pointers.  But what are they?  Let’s focus on the cross-border money transfers (cross-border in the sense of "real" world to "virtual" world).  In 2006, these totalled US$830 Million. Around 80 percent of these transactions were mediated and 20 percent direct (player to- player).  Looking at the kinds of games involved and the kinds of transactions…


Game Type Game Items Game Currency Game Accounts
MMORG 18.5% 78.9% 2.6%
Action games 57.3% 41.5% 1.2%
Puzzle/Poker 33.6% 61.4% 0%

Unsurprisingly, money dominates.  And, as a deeper look at some related figures shows, the F/X is to support trade, not speculation.

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Another source of up-to-date numbers is Sony, which has released 2006 figures for real-money trades (RMTs) on the Sony Online Exchange (SOE), which is where people trade Everquest II virtual assets.  The key numbers, according to PlayNoEvil, are that time spent on customer service calls related to virtual asset trading went from 40 percent to 10 percent, which represents substantial savings in one of the areas where a games company has controllable costs and, in itself, is the business case justification for allowing and managing RMTs.  SOE also made around $275,000 in listing fees and commissions).  I found the comment by Edward Castronova (I’ve just finished his book on virtual worlds) interesting.  He said "This is a little disappointing".  This is because he has traditionally opposed virtual asset trading because it goes against the rules of most games. "I was hoping that the other servers would have less (of the trading). But that didn’t happen at all."

I think there fascinating lessons buried in the Sony figures.  Their virtual asset auction site (which, as I’ve mentioned before, make eBay look, like, so last century) generated transactions of $1.87 million during its first year.  Players have paid as much as $2,000 for the right to use a single EverQuest II character and one seller earned $37,435 from 351 auctions.

I won’t rehash all of the results as you can read them for yourself, but I’d like to highlight one or two:

  • The top 15 sellers each took in over $10,000.
  • Characters were by far the most valuable trade category.  The top 20 character auctions were each for over $1,000.
  • The demographics are conclusive.  34-year-olds were the biggest buyers of virtual goods; 22-year-olds were the biggest sellers so it is entirely clear that cash-rich time-poor thirtysomethings are buying goods from time-rich cash-poor twentysomethings (let’s call them "students", for short).
  • Auctions for coin led to a stable, real-money average exchange rate for the year of $7.35 for one piece of platinum.

Just a reminder that we don’t really understand what’s going on here.  The author of the Sony report says that "The sellers who provide armor and weaponry feel they are providing a service to players while elevating themselves to elite status among fellow gamers" and concludes that the vast majority of players who earned money did so through the sale of items they quested or crafted within the games, rather than by buying items at auction and selling them at a higher price.  In other words, their is very little speculative trading.  I’m sure that will change once I show the report to my friend at Goldman Sachs!

If there is a conclusion to the current economic review, it as, as John Smedley (the President of Sony Online Entertainment) said, "there is a significant demand for a secure, sanctioned online marketplace where players can enhance their gaming experience by spending real dollars".

My opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public. [posted with ecto]


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