They’re not playing games

It was obvious a few years ago that not only were virtual worlds going to be big business, but that they would have an impact on the payments market. I used put things like World of Warcraft into product and service roadmap discussions for our clients in the financial services space, and I’m sure that they thought I was doing it just for fun, just to get some discussion going. But having played around in the space, I could see it would lead to some new thinking. When you’re sending World of Warcraft gold pieces to a friend in Asia via an elven intermediary (quicker and cheaper than banks, by the way) you can’t help but wonder at the “real world” instruments to hand. This from three years ago…

Well it wouldn’t surprise anyone then, that most of our partners report they have a completion rate of 0.5-1% when they present a credit card payment page to their users for virtual goods…Mobile on the other hand… takes 15 seconds, and off goes the user to his virtual good or points that will enhance his game or app experience immediately without ever leaving the environment of the app.

[From Virtual Goods / Currency and Mobile Payments: the business model for Social Apps]

Note that figure: one in a hundred transactions complete. People playing at being virtual farmers want to buy some virtual cows, so they click to buy, but when they see a credit card payment screen, they can’t be bothered. So there was a demand for a new kind of payment instrument that was not being met by the banks. Look how much things have changed since then, with the incredible boom in app store and in-game payments. There’s no doubt that the retail payments roadmap is indeed being affected by the world of games.

Now I’m not implying that it’s only payments will be impacted, because in the longer run it will be many kinds of financial service, including banking.

The publisher of the online science-fiction game “Entropia Universe,” set on the planet Calypso, received a banking license from the Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority last week and plans to open a real bank within a year, albeit one without physical, walk-in branches.

Players of “Entropia” already exchange real money for a virtual currency that is used for their expenses on Calypso. And virtual money they make in the game, through hunting, mining, trading or other activities, can be cashed out into real money. The virtual currency, Project Entropia Dollars, has a fixed 10-to-1 exchange rate to the U.S. dollar.

By setting up a real-world bank, Sweden-based publisher MindArk PE AB gains the protection of the Swedish government’s deposit insurance for these accounts, up to about $60,000 for each customer.

[From The Associated Press: Online game gets real-world banking license]

A healthy development! My younger son spends a lot of time online with his friends at the moment, hanging out not at the mall but at the WoW auction house (this is where he learns about economics, I’m happy to say). That’s where our clients’ next generation of customers are learning about money, payments and financial services. This from two years ago…

Today, Facebook application developers monetize their games and other applications by accepting payment directly using PayPal, Google, Amazon FPS, or SocialGold. Or developers may opt to receive direct payment via mobile phone via Zong, Boku, or another mobile payment provider… game developers in particular, often accept payment via a prepaid card sold in retail establishments, such as the Ultimate Game Card. The social and gaming web is exploding with virtual currency offerings, yet thus far no one model or payment brand dominates.

[From Purchasing Facebook Credits with Zong Mobile Payments — Payments Views from Glenbrook Partners]

Now, forward-looking organisations could see what was going on and began to target R&D appropriately.

Google is developing a micropayment platform that will be “available to both Google and non-Google properties within the next year,”… The system, an extension of Google Checkout, would be a new and unexpected option for the news industry as it considers how to charge for content online.

[From Google developing a micropayment platform and pitching newspapers: “‘Open’ need not mean free” » Nieman Journalism Lab]

The idea was then that micropayments would be a payment vehicle available to both Google and non-Google properties within the year. The idea was to allow viable payments of a penny to several dollars by aggregating purchases across merchants and over time. Google planned to mitigate the risk of non-payment by assigning credit limits based on past purchasing behavior and having credit card instruments on file for those with higher credit limits and using proprietary risk engines to track abuse or fraud. Merchant integration through Checkout would be extremely simple. Google, in fact, subsequently decided to purchase an in-game payments company rather than build it themselves.

Facebook and Google are poised to challenge the banking industry in online payments.

[From Facebook and Google Encroach on Banks Turf – US Banker Article]

Is this really true? I think the answer is yes and no, in the sense that I can’t see any reason why Facebook or Google would want to be a bank, unless it’s to get some sort of government handout, but I can see why they might want to get involved in payments in order to make money (not from the payments, where margins are thin, but from new products and services that have payments integral to them). This is why the news that Facebook had also begun experimenting with a payment system was hardly unexpected, but was notable nonetheless. There was an expectation that the existence of a secure and convenient micropayment scheme for Facebook users (of which there now more than 600 million) would stimulate the development of a new marketplace within Facebook’s “barbed wire”. This seemed plausible to me — if it had been up to me, I would have added a spurious green element to the proposition somehow (getting merchants and other organisations to give out Facebook credits to reward environmentally desirable behaviour) — and I was sure it would do well. I wondered in a number of forums as to who else might enter this more competitive currency market?

In the coming months, facebook users will be able to obtain facebook Credits using MOL points purchased through MOL’s network of more than 500,000 outlets, which are mainly in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, India, Australia and New Zealand. In addition to outlets such as 7-Eleven stores and cybercafes, customers will be able to purchase Credits through MOL’s network of online banks in these countries.

[From Finextra: Facebook moves virtual currency offline]

I gave a talk last year when I mentioned that I thought that Facebook credits would become the biggest virtual currency in the world fairly quickly. Unusually for my glib and sweeping predictions from the conference platform, this one appears to have come true, and even more quickly than I had imagined.

By the end of the year, Facebook expects that Credits will be used to buy the vast majority of virtual goods sold on Facebook. The fast-growing market is expected to reach $835 million on Facebook this year, according to the Inside Network… Through Credits, Facebook will take a 30 percent cut… To bolster that market, Facebook began selling Credits gift cards at Target stores across the country this month.

[From Facebook Promotes Its Credits as Path to Dollars – NYTimes.com]

Now this will one day become a standard business school case study. Talking of which, a few years ago, as part of a course I was teaching at Visa’s Bank Card Business School, a colleague and I mocked up a future Visa card that drew on a World of Warcraft account rather than a fiat currency account. This was photoshopped up to make a point, and at the time it was supposed to be a totally out-of-the-box crazy picture of the future. About two weeks after we made it up, I read that a US bank was issuing a Visa card with cashback in World of Warcraft gold. Oh well. It did help to make one of the points that I was trying to get across, which is that the future of payments will extend beyond the “traditional” bank, consumer, merchant and acquirer for 4-party model.

Vegetable company Green Giant is offering an unlikely reward for purchasing their products: virtual currency in Zynga’s hit social game FarmVille.

[From Wacky: Zynga Gives Away Free FarmVille Cash With Purchases Of Real Life Vegetables]

That was bad timing, coming just as Zynga (the people behind Farmville) caved in to Facebook and agreed to replace Farmville cash with Facebook credits, but it was an interesting development nonetheless, showing that virtual money is just as valuable as “real” money. Facebook’s tactics show they undoubtedly have a strategy in this field.

First Facebook turned off notifications for applications, taking away the primary mechanism for social games to go viral. Now if a company wants a massive audience for a new game, they almost certainly have to buy it through Facebook advertising.

Now Facebook is rolling out Credits as the preferred method of payment for games on their Platform, and taking a 30 per cent cut of the transactions. That’s a much larger percentage than the social games companies were handing over to the small payment companies that had sprung up to fill this niche, and higher than the fees charged by PayPal and credit card companies.

[From Zynga says it’s not leaving Facebook | Tech Blog | FT.com]

Now there’s something to be said for the creation of a single currency area as a way to encourage trade and therefore prosperity.

Besides leading the creation of a more people-centric web, it could also end up having the dominant virtual currency, according to an early adopter of Facebook Credits. PopCap Games has been using the service, which is still in the beta testing phase, as the sole payment method for Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.

The game is free to play and attracts 11m monthly players, 3m of them playing it daily. PopCap sells extra power-ups, which boost players’ capabilities, and is moving onto sales of virtual items. It has decided to ignore offering other virtual currency options and only accepts Facebook Credits. Users can buy them with credit cards, Paypal or through their mobile phones in $5, $10 and $20 increments for 50, 100 or 200 Credits.

[From Facebook’s Credits Bank of the Web | Tech Blog | FT.com]

These are all useful case studies, showing how a new currency can develop and evolve.

Facebook has certainly tried to guide the development of its online economy, almost in the way that governments seek to influence economic activity in the real world, through fiscal and monetary policy. Earlier this year the firm said it wanted applications running on its platform to accept its virtual currency, known as Facebook Credits. It argued that this was in the interests of Facebook users, who would no longer have to use different online currencies for different applications.

[From Social networks and statehood | The future is another country | Economist.com]

I think I’ve seen the playbook before.

That means all Facebook game developers will be able to start using Credits as their payment system for virtual goods — in fact, Facebook is requiring them to make the switch by July

[From All Facebook Games Will Have To Use Facebook Credits Starting In July]

This comes from the Great Khan’s playbook for monetary and fiscal policy. Not Genghis Khan. His fiscal policy was confused: when he took control of China in 1215, his pacification plan was to kill everyone in China, no small undertaking since China was then, as now, the world’s most populous country. Fortunately, one of his advisors, a man who ought to be the patron saint of Finance Ministers everywhere, Yeliu Ch’uts’ai, pointed out (presumably via a primitive Treasury model of some sort) that dead peasants paid considerably less tax than live ones, and the plan was halted. In 1260, Genghis’ grandson Kublai Khan became Emporer of China. He decided, much as Mark Zuckerberg has, that it was a burden to commerce and taxation to have all sorts of currencies in use, ranging from copper “cash” to iron bars, to pearls to salt to specie, so he decided to implement a paper currency.

Here’s what Marco Polo had to say about it…

[From Digital Money: Lucky, for me anyway]

His monetary policy was refreshingly straightforward and more robust, even, than Mr. Zukerberg’s: if you didn’t accept his money, he would kill you. Naturally, in a short time, the new single currency was established and paper money began to circulate instead of gold, jewels, copper coins and metal bars. If you think talking about a new currency is crazy, take a look at Facebook Deals. According to Facebook, at launch, you will not be able to buy physical goods with Facebook Credits. Rather you will be able to get things like vouchers that you can redeem at events: now this is, frankly, a paper-thin distinction. I can’t use Facebook Credits to pay for, say, a Coke at a pop concert but I can use them to pay for a voucher for a Coke at a pop concert. I am not an economist, but…

When beloved national retailers start offering goods and lower prices to customers who pay with a new, virtual currency – that’s when said virtual currency becomes a force to reckon with. Somebody call Congress and the Federal Reserve – it’s time to start having some serious conversations.

[From Facebook Deals Launches Tonight & Groupon Doesn’t Stand a Chance (Updated)]

There’s a warning from history here! Unfortunately, the Khan’s paper money ended in disaster because the money supply was not managed: it collapsed in hyperinflation, because in the days after Yeliu Ch’uts’ai, the temptation to print money was just too great for the monetary authorities too resist. Let’s hope that the Emperor of Facebook finds an advisor of the calibre of Yeliu Ch’uts’ai.

One possible future might be that, just as China turned in on itself and stagnated, leaving technological and commercial progress to other people, Facebook will become an inward-looking economy while others take up the torch! Perhaps competition in currency, not only in payment methods, is need to keep an economic space vital.

The new program, announced today at SXSW, is called RewardVille, which will give players zPoints and zCoins in CityVille, FrontierVille, FarmVille, Mafia Wars, Zynga Poker, Café World, Treasure Isle, YoVille, PetVille and Vampire Wars.

[From Zynga Rolls Out New Virtual Currency in Addition to Facebook Credits | Tricia Duryee | eMoney | AllThingsD]

Competition. This is the American way, not going complaining to Senator Durbin.

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

Waiting for ages

A few years ago, I was thinking about how to relate the changing technology of money to changes in money, and I thought it would be useful to have some rough categorisation to organise thoughts. At the time, I wrote this:

The era of Money 3.0 is just beginning. Its central dynamic is no longer connectivity (since everything is connected to everything else) but community.

[From Digital Money: Money 3.0]

After a while, I realised that my initial categorisation was insufficiently granular to organise all of the thoughts I had on the topic and all of the information I had gathered on the topic. (I’m thinking of writing a book about it, which is why I have been gathering a lot of material on the specific topic of the technology of money.) A little while ago I posted a more sophisticated idea for a categorisation of the ages of money, or money eras. This extended the framework from three to five “eras”.

Our current era, Money 4.0, can be dated in retrospect to 1971 when Richard Nixon finally ended the gold standard and Visa introduced the Base 1 network for authenticating card payments based on the magnetic stripe. Money 4.0 is bits about bits, but we still apply the wrong mental model, and imagine it to be bits about atoms.

[From Digital Money: Another go at categorising money technologies]

This led me to describe the future as a new age of money, Money 5.0 I suppose, where the abstraction becomes complete and there are wholly new kinds of money that are not based on debt (or, indeed, anything else ultimately tangible) or secured in some conventional way but on relationships. Having had a bit of feedback on this, I think it serves its purpose. Obviously, some aspects are a little arbitrary — starting the information revolution in 1871 — but I think I can support the dating of the communications revolution to 1971, since this is roughly when company size peaked in the UK (actually it was in 1973), and anyway it fits nicely with the narrative of the 100 year interlude that I contend still constrains our mental models of what money is and how it works.

Money Eras

This categorisation leads me to think that we should be looking for Money 5.0 where we see private bits, not bits about anything, becoming a means of exchange. Why private bits? Well, at this year’s Digital Money Forum, we had a wonderful session on private currency, chaired by the economist Diane Coyle.

This morning I had the privilege of chairing a fascinating session at the Digital Money Forum run each year by Dave Birch of Consult Hyperion. The speakers were Professor George Selgin of the University of Georgia, and James Turk of the Gold Money Foundation. Both were arguing, from different perspectives, for private money as a competitor to government money.

[From The Enlightened Economist :: Good money, digital or analogue]

George gave a superb talk on the way in which the industrial revolution in England was hampered by a lack of circulating means of exchange, so private companies stepped in to develop new forms of industrial means of exchange (copper tokens) that help commerce and trade to grow to the great benefit of the nation. It strikes me that we are now in a similar position: we have had the post-industrial revolution but we are still using industrial money and it is holding us back. This is why the virtual empires, such as Facebook, have gone on to produce wholly private currencies — everything from the Everquest Platinum Pieces of old to the Facebook Credits of today — just as the giants of the industrial revolution (eg, Boulton’s Factory) did 200 years ago. If you think that sounds fanciful, remember that the wholly virtual economy — that has no industrial analogue — is already of significant size and growing strongly.

more than 100,000 people in countries such as China and India earn a living by performing ‘micro-tasks’ in the virtual economy. Jobs include categorising products in online shops, moderating content posted to social media sites, or even playing online games on behalf of wealthier players who are too busy to tend to their characters themselves.

[From Finextra: Three billion dollar virtual economy to fuel developed world – World Bank]

As the World Bank report notes, this economy is already worth several billion dollars. With better money, it could be worth several billion more.

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

Paleo-crypto

In some of the workshops that I’ve been running, I’ve mentioned that I think that transparency will be one of the key elements of new propositions in the world of electronic transactions and that clients looking to develop new businesses in that space might want to consider the opportunities for sustained advantage. Why not let me look inside my bank and see where my money is, so to speak? If I log in to my credit card issuer I can see that I spent £43 on books at Amazon: if I log in to Amazon I can that I spent £43 but I can also see what books I bought, recommendations, reviews and so on. They have the data, so they let me look at it. If I want to buy a carpet from a carpet company, how do I know whether they will go bankrupt or not before they deliver? Can I have a look at their order book?
Transparency increases confidence and trust. I often use a story from the August 1931 edition of Popular Mechanics to illustrate this point. The article concerns the relationship between transparency and behaviour in the specific case of depression-era extra-judicial unlicensed wealth redistribution…

BANK hold-ups may soon become things of the past if the common-sense but revolutionary ideas of Francis Keally, New York architect, are put into effect. He suggests that banks be constructed with glass walls and that office partitions within the building likewise be transparent, so that a clear view of everything that is happening inside the bank will be afforded from all angles at all times.

[From Glass Banks Will Foil Hold-Ups]

I urge you to clink on the link, by the way, to see the lovely drawing that goes with the article. The point is well made though: you can’t rob a glass bank. No walls, no Bernie Madoff. But you can see the problem: some of the information in the bank is confidential: my personal details, for example. Thus, it would be great if I could look through the list of bank deposits to check that the bank really has the money it says it has, but I shouldn’t be able to see who those depositors are (although I will want third-party verification that they exist!).

Why am I talking about this? Well, I read recently that Bank of America has called in management consultants to help them manage the fallout from an as-yet-nonexistent leak of corporate secrets, although why these secrets be prove embarrassing is not clear. In fact, no-one knows whether the leak will happen, or whether it will impact BofA, although Wikileaks’ Julian Assange had previously mentioned having a BofA hard disk in his possession, so the market drew its own conclusions.

Bank of America shares fell 3 percent in trading the day after Mr. Assange made his threat against a nameless bank

[From Facing WikiLeaks Threat, Bank of America Plays Defense – NYTimes.com]

Serious money. Anyway, I’m interested in what this means for the future rather than what it means now: irrespective of what Bank of America’s secrets actually are because

when WikiLeaks, a whistle-blowing website, promised to publish five gigabytes of files from an unnamed financial institution early next year, bankers everywhere started quaking in their hand-made shoes. And businesses were struck by an alarming thought: even if this threat proves empty, commercial secrets are no longer safe.

[From Business and WikiLeaks: Be afraid | The Economist]

Does technology provide any comfort here at all? I think it does. Many years ago, I had the pleasant experience of having dinner with Nicholas Negroponte, John Barlow and Eric Hughes, author of the cypherpunk manifesto, at a seminar in Palm Springs. This was in, I think, 1995. I can remember Eric talking about “encrypted open books”, a topic that now seems fantastically prescient. His idea was to develop cryptographic techniques so that you could perform certain kinds of operations on encrypted data: in other words, you could build glass organisations where anyone could run some software to check your books without actually being able to read your books. Nick Szabo later referred back to the same concepts when talking about the specific issue of auditing.

Knowing that mutually confidential auditing can be accomplished in principle may lead us to practical solutions. Eric Hughes’ “encrypted open books” was one attempt.

[From Szabo]

Things like this seem impossible when you think of books in terms of paper and index cards: how can you show me your books without giving away commercial data? But when we think in terms of bits, and cryptography, and “blinding” it is all perfectly sensible. This technology seems to me to open up a new model, where corporate data is encrypted but open to all so that no-one cares whether it is copied or distributed in any way. Instead of individuals being given the keys to the database, they will be given keys to decrypt only the data that they are allowed to see and since these keys can easily be stored in tamper-resistant hardware (whereas databases can’t) the implementation becomes cost-effective. While I was thinking about this, Bob Hettinga reminded me about Peter Wayner’s “translucent databases“, that build on the Eric’s concepts.

Wayner really does end up where a lot of us think databases will be someday, particularly in finance: repositories of data accessible only by digital bearer tokens using various blind signature protocols… and, oddly enough, not because someone or other wants to strike a blow against the empire, but simply because it’s safer — and cheaper — to do that way.

[From Book Review: Peter Wayner’s “Translucent Databases”]

There are other kinds of corporate data that it may at first seem need to be secret, but on reflection could be translucent (I’ll switch to Peter’s word here because it’s a much better description of practical implementations). An example might be salaries. Have the payroll encrypted but open, so anyone can access a company’s salary data and see what salaries are earned. Publish the key to decrypt the salaries, but not any other data. Now anyone who needs access to salary data (eg, the taxman, pressure groups, potential employees, customers etc) can see it and the relevant company data is transparent to them. One particular category of people who might need access to this data is staff! So, let’s say I’m working on a particular project and need access to our salary data because I need to work out the costs of a proposed new business unit. All I need to know is the distribution of salaries: I don’t need to know who they belong to. If our payroll data is open, I can get on and use it without having to have CDs of personal data sent through the post, of whatever.

I can see that for many organisations this kind of controlled transparency (ie, translucency) will be a competitive advantage: as an investor, as customer, as a citizen, I would trust these organsations far more than “closed” ones. Why wait for quarterly filings to see how a public company is doing when you could go on the web at any time to see their sales ledger? Why rely on management assurances of cost control when you can see how their purchase ledger is looking (without necessarily seeing what they’re buying or who they are buying it from) when you can see it on their web page? Why not check staffing levels and qualifications by accessing the personnel database? Is this any crazier than Blippy?

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

Put your game face on

[Dave Birch] Who are you? That’s an easy question to answer in cyberspace, because no-one knows you’re a dog, so you can be anyone you want to be. This means that you can do bad things, doesn’t it? Surely it would be better to make people disclose their “real” identities online.

Virtual, like dollars

[Dave Birch] I keep coming back to the topic of virtual worlds, because I’m convinced that they contain some pointers about the future of our “real” economy, even thought the real/virtual boundary is getting rather blurred. Why are US Dollars called “real” when they are backed by nothing, whereas World of Warcraft gold pieces are called “virtual” because they are backed by nothing?

Recognising the problem

[Dave Birch] An interesting series of talks at Biometrics 2010 reminded me how quickly face recognition software is improving. The current state of the art can be illustrated with some of the examples given by NIST in their presentation on testing.

  • A 1:1.6m search on 16-core 192Gb blade (about $40k machine) takes less than one second, and the speed of search continues to improve. So if you have a database of a million people, and you’re checking a picture against that database, you can do it in less than second.
  • The false non-match rate (in other words, what proportion of searches return the wrong picture) best performance is accelerating: in 2002 it was 20%, by 2006 it was 3% and by 2010 it had fallen to 0.3%. This is an order of magnitude fall every four years and there’s no reason to suspect that it will not continue.
  • The results seem to degrade by the log of population size (so that a 10 times bigger database delivers only twice the miss rate). Rather fascinatingly, no-one seems to know why, but I suppose it must be some inherent property of the algorithms used.

We’re still some way from Hollywood-style biometrics where the FBI security camera can spot the assassin in the Superbowl crowd.

What is often overlooked is that biometric systems used to regulate access of one form or another do not provide binary yes/no answers like conventional data systems. Instead, by their very nature, they generate results that are “probabilistic”. That is what makes them inherently fallible. The chance of producing an error can be made small but never eliminated. Therefore, confidence in the results has to be tempered by a proper appreciation of the uncertainties in the system.

[From Biometrics: The Difference Engine: Dubious security | The Economist]

So when you put all of this together, you can see that we are heading into some new territory. Even consumer software such as iPhoto has this stuff built in to it.

face-rec

It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. Consumers (and suppliers) do, though, have an unrealistic idea about what biometrics can do as components of a bigger system.

But Microsoft’s new gaming weapon uses “facial and biometric recognition” that creates a 3D model of a player. “It recognises a 3D model that has walked into the room and automatically logs that player in,” Mr Hinton said… “It knows when they are sneakily trying to log into their older brother’s account and trying to cheat the system… You can’t do it. Your face is the ultimate detection for the device.”

[From Game console ‘rejects’ under-age players | Herald Sun]

This sounds sort of fun. Why doesn’t my bank build this into its branches so that when I walk in?


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