Dungeons & Dollars

Dungeons & Dollars
Ain't Goin' Away Ever

Shannon Drake | 11 Apr 2006 08:00
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According to the community, a titanic struggle is underway. The self-appointed Forces of Light man the ramparts, defending the walls as an onrushing, all-consuming tide of gold farmers and virtual property sellers threaten to engulf All That Is Good in the World. Lines are drawn, sides are chosen, and players enforce vigilante justice against suspected gold farmers, ready to pick up torches and pitchforks if an oddly named character kills too many foozles in a suspiciously preset way.

The old way of doing business teeters as the last remnants of the way the world used to be struggle to uphold the status quo. A few years ago, virtual property (VP) sales were shady; someone private messaged you, offered money and leveling for a quick Paypal. Something funny happened along the way. Despite vociferous protests from the hardcore, an army of someones bought gold and items, giving the sellers enough money to go legit. Nowadays, they're all-but-mainstream, competing on price and customer service like any other business. Sure, they get their merchandise from sweatshop legions of Asians, but then, so does Nike, and the mainstream still buys sneakers. Enough money changed hands that the big boys started sniffing around, with Advanced Characters going for $30 on Ultima Online's official site and entire Station Exchange servers in EverQuest 2 devoted to buying and selling items.

Outright assimilation and normalcy loom on the horizon as developers resist and find people buying and selling anyway, or adapt and design their games around the new economic reality. One company pursuing the new way is a U.K. firm called RedBedlam. They've been quietly toiling away (apart from the occasional crucifixion) on Roma Victor. RV is different, an MMOG built not on the picked-over corpse of a dead English linguist turned author, but on the far more mundane field of economics. Those who've spent time with the young Turks in Asia and Eastern Europe will recognize their model. Pay a tidy sum, receive a decent amount of in-game currency and forget about the monthly fees.

I sent the requisite smoke signals, and soon, I was invited to talk to the legendary KFR. The President and Managing Director of RedBedlam is Kerry Fraser-Robinson, a grizzled industry vet with "20-something" years of experience, including time served as an IT consultant, editorial roles with the U.K. versions of CGW and other big-name magazines, and even a stint at Vivendi Universal. His travels in the industry brought him in touch with - here he does a very British little chuckle that's not quite evil, but definitely implies something is afoot - "a bunch of people who sort of suited my needs." Feeling the market was ready for their model, they "kicked off the project and that's how RedBedlam started," built not on a vision of elves-but-better, but on something else.

"The company was founded specifically to do virtual economics," he says, "And the game came after that." So, they started the company based on virtual property and economics and the game came after that? "Precisely. Precisely. And I think that's pretty important."

What inspired KFR and those "who suited his needs" was something far more bland, but far more interesting than another fantasy novel: economics. "I sort of predicted [the virtual property boom], as it were. I remember discussing virtual economics back in the mid-'90s with an economist friend of mine when we were playing Meridian 59. We realized the shillings, or whatever it was in the game, had value, because people wanted them and people would exchange them for stuff. That's value. If you'd said to someone, 'I'll give you 100,000 shillings if you give me five bucks,' they would've, surely. That, to my mind, was the birth of virtual economics, when players all over the world went, 'Hang on, this is real money.' If you [build a game] without that in mind, you've got a problem. [However], if you've designed the game around the concept of virtual economics, then it's a very, very different story. It's a different kettle of fish. You don't have to worry about twinking or inflation. It's a very natural, very organic sort of economy."

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