The sound of one drive dying

Ultima Online develops Soviet economics

A while back, an economist named Edward Castronova did an economic study of the online game Everquest. He examined the sale of online avatars and Everquest goods on Ebay, calculated their real-dollar worth, and realized that the Everquest economy was — on a per-capita basis — richer than Russia, Bulgaria, and every single developing country in the world.

Castronova’s research contained a brilliant epiphany: Virtual worlds provide us with an unusual test-bed for experimental economics. Because people are willing to pay to buy a virtual life (i.e. a character that has immense strength and power, or a castle that took months build), it’s possible to put a value on human experience — something that is very difficult to do in the real world. In everyday life, you can’t just decide to start fresh, or buy your way into a brand spanking-new identity. But in online games, using the black market of Ebay, you could — which created some damn interesting economic markers. It becomes possible to put an economic per-hour value on online experience and all those countless days you spend in Everquest … because when you slowly build a valuable character, that value can be expressed in real-life greenbacks.

Which is why Ultima Online has thrown all this for a loop. Last week, it announced last week that the company itself would jump into the arena — by selling “advanced characters” for $29.95.

This is bound to completely rearrange the economics of virtual worlds. After all, the whole reason a Napa +25 stat scroll might be worth $300 on Ebay is that it takes months and months of play-time to get it. But what Ultima Online is doing, essentially, is declaring that work worth only $30 — making it rather null and void. Why bother to spend all that work if you can buy it for the price of a night out? In a way, it’s like a classic governmental wage-and-price control: A top-down authority declaring the definitive value of a product, instead of letting it loose on the free market.

Castronova argued that the economic activity in Ebay was actually germane and central to the fun of the game — not just an ancillary activity. If that’s true, I’ll be interested to see how players react.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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