One thing about a virtual economy is that the quick feedback and response and the immediacy and flux of the economy are very evident. In a span of a day, I have gone from penniless adventurer to moderate wealth as a “clay supplier.”
A bit of background: several weeks ago my son came home from school very excited about trying a game some of his friends were involved with online: Runescape. Runescape is a virtual world, an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). Runescape, as MMORPG’s go, is strictly at the low end. It is a java-based online game offering a fairly cheap and relatively painless entry point for people who want to try the MMOG but don’t want to dive into the more intensive involved Worlds of Warcraft.
Runescape is set in yet another fantasy world peopled with the usual beasts, monsters, quests, and magic — you know the type — with a selection of easy monster and creatures on which to hone your skills, and a selection of progressively more difficult quests that help to build your skill level until you can take on the bigger creatures and beasts. (Note: Avoid the Chaos Elemental. I named it the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal after it defenestrated me in the wild.)
The biggest problem in the virtual world is the same as it is in our real world: RuneScape money. How do you go about earning cash to finance your adventures? It is relatively simple to earn small amounts of gold (chopping wood, mining tin, killing goblins, etc.), but after a time such make-work becomes tedious. Through nosing about, we managed to discover a source of magical runes that we could then sell in one of the towns for 70 gold pieces each.
Aha! Easy RuneScape Money! So we thought. Each trek out to the site involved a laborious and intensive hike into the wilderness, a region rife with player-killers, generally high-ranking. A direct route was out of the question as far too many homicidal maniacs waited by the main road into the wilderness for some cheap kills. Getting to the site involved a very long and meandering route to avoid the many monsters and other players. Once you finally arrived, you had to daringly dart in to collect as many of the runes as possible, wait for them to respawn, and then collect again. In short, it was a JOB — dirty, dangerous and tedious.
Just in case you are wondering, the fatality rate for such expeditions as ours was probably 60%. The return for the survivors was typically about 3000 gold pieces, enough to buy some decent mid-level armor and weapons but not much else.
Enter the Gods of Runescape (i.e. the programmers). They announced two days ago the advent of housing! You can now purchase and build a house, equipping it with elaborate styles, furnishings, and more. This is a great boon for the many higher-level members who, bluntly, have more money then they can spend and like to show off — the only real-world value that seems to exist.
Weirdly enough, Runescape characters can neither sit nor sleep, so the elaborate chairs, beds, and furnishings only serve the purpose of showing off wealth, levels, and accomplishments. The incongruity of spending countless hours earning virtual cash to purchase a virtual house and furniture that is just eye-candy is probably appreciated by most, but they still want to do it.
Building your house takes time and construction skills, so raw materials are required. Wood must be cut, turned into planks, transported, and then nailed into chairs, for example. Clay must be mined for use in fireplaces.
The initial frenzy started with realtors. Once the announcement about the housing update was made, members flocked to purchase houses (placed in a magical portal, so they don’t clutter up the landscape) and then flocked to build. A market sprang up within minutes that catered to those too busy, too intent, or too high-level to bother gathering up resources. Planks, nails, clay, rock, tiles, and more suddenly began to command exceptional prices. Clay went from 10 gold pieces to 1000 gold pieces within minutes (right now it’s hovering between a low of 600 or 700 gold pieces for dry clay to about 1000 gold pieces for wet clay, but the price is fluctuating downwards as the initial demand levels off and more suppliers get in on the action. I expect it will peak again on the weekend as more players become aware of the new function.
The demand appeared, and so did the middlemen who helped supply it. Now I spend my time ferrying between the mining quarry and the portal, lugging clay and hawking it to builders.
In the brief two days the market has existed, the demand from customers has already changed. Initially, customers were fully prepared to buy clay straight from the quarry. Now more canny and experienced buyers look for soft clay — clay treated with water — a process that involves taking the clay to a water source, soaking each individual clay, and then trekking back to the portal to sell it. It is interesting to note the downward trend of the clay prices as more suppliers move into the market and customer demands become more sophisticated.
I suspect that after this week, the demand curve will plateau, the prices will drop, and the demand for luxury items, unique crafted items, and stonework will increase, which means it might be best for me to use my capital to build up my stone-working skills to ride the coming wave to even greater heights as a virtual entrepreneur. That is if I can keep my son from wasting our hard-earned profits on such frivolity as mitheral swords and dragon-skin armor. Get back to the clay pits, boy, and leave adventures to those fools with more blade then brains!