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Why economic gloom could be good for business in virtual worlds

By on May 4, 2012

Zoya Street is soon to finish a master’s thesis on the history of Japanese video games, and works as editorial assistant at Gamesbrief

In my GDC talk, I explained how the fictional economies of Final Fantasy in the 1990s games got young people spending money on gaming when their finances were low, by reflecting the loss of stability of the real world economy while eliminating the possibility of poverty. After the talk, Nicholas asked whether the success of Final Fantasy games during Japan’s lost decade parallels the success of the freemium model during our current recession. In this post I’m going to suggest one reason why fictional economies might be so compelling in a recession – real-world financial gloom makes virtual wealth feel like an epic win.

The fictional economies of Final Fantasy games reflected the real world enough to feel relevant to players’ own lives and identities, but they differed in an important way; consumers were much less likely to end up poor in a Final Fantasy game than in real life. They had more control over their economic success. As long as they kept fighting battles, players would keep on making money. The productivism of capitalism was preserved, while its capricious win-lose dichotomy was eliminated. Final Fantasy games made players feel rich and successful, and on a fundamental emotional level, that feeling is worth spending money on, even in an unstable economy.

Just as the fictional economies of RPGs were appealing to Japanese in the 1990s, so the virtual economies of online games have captured the hearts and wallets of players today. Games with fictional economies provide escapes from economic doom in the real world, but the interesting and surprising thing about this form of escapism is that it closely resembles the very thing players are escaping from.

Virtual currency exchange rates are a great case in point. I am able to buy 20,000 gold pieces in Jetpack Joyride for 69p. Similarly, in the paymium title Infinity Blade II, 69p gets me 25,000 gold pieces. This figure is approximately equal to the average student debt in the UK, although this is set to double with the new tuition fee rates. Could it be that buying 20,000 virtual coins for 69p feels particularly satisfying precisely because so many people have a £20,000 weight on their shoulders?

Shopping and crafting in virtual economies feel like taking control. But it’s a particular kind of control. It’s not just about the control you gain by owning that object. It’s also about the control you have over your economic destiny, being able to exercise consumerism without suffering negative consequences.

The consumerism of virtual items often closely reflects the consumer technology marketing on which video games depend. Revenues are dominated by items that expediate gameplay, and this improved speed or ease of play is often narrativised as being down to superior technology. Using a newly-bought weapon in Infinity Blade gives the same temporary high as using a new smart phone; the thrill of increased speed, the fantasy of improved power, and the sparkle of shiny new material. It feels like control and mastery over technology through consumption. But virtual swords cost much less than iPhones, they break far less frequently, and I’m unlikely to be mugged for my virtual twin blades of Ember.

None of this is to say that successful fictional economies eliminate risk from players. Risk is an extremely important aspect of fun, but risk is much more fun when players feel like they are on a winning streak in spite of difficult odds. Reloaded found that in APB, players are 30% more likely to spend money on the game if they win their first fight (talk is on GDC Vault, 33:10). There has to be some risk present for that confidence boost to occur, but hidden mechanics that subtly increase the real win chance for that first battle without explicitly changing the odds of success have significant consequences for player purchasing behaviour. Success in the face of difficult odds motivates players to spend.

This hints at the power of what Jane McGonigal calls the epic win. Epic wins happen when it looks like the odds are stacked up against you, but you succeeded anyway.

This could be at the heart of the question of fictional economies in hard times. In a time of financial doom, economic wins seem all the more epic.

This could be why fictional economies that mirror the real world economy are effective at encouraging players to spend money. They feel like a continuation of the outside world, in which the risk of failure is very high. The wins feel more significant, and that sense of economic success is, for many players, worth spending money on.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.