Last week saw the launch of public beta testing for Red Dead Online, the multiplayer version of Red Dead Redemption 2. Problems with the game’s digital economy dominated early reactions—and a deeper look at those problems provides some important insight into how blockchain technology can make shared virtual worlds more realistic, more fair, and more fun.
RDR2, released in October, is a single-player game set in the last days of the wild west. It has received a glowing critical reception, and its $725 million in release weekend sales made it the second-fastest-selling game ever. Red Dead Online is a separate experience, using the setting and many systems from the single-player game, but putting players into a shared world where they can fight each other or work together to rob trains and battle rival desperadoes. With all that glorious mayhem in store, it must have taken game developer Rockstar by surprise when the single biggest gripe about the beta was about the price of a can of virtual beans.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but not much. In Red Dead Online, players make money by selling things like animal pelts and stolen pocket watches. Prices when the beta opened were so unbalanced that selling a gold ring to a shopkeeper netted $1.15—not enough to buy a $1.50 can of beans. That was especially frustrating for players because it takes food and other resources to keep both your character and your horse alive. One player told USA Today that playing Red Dead Online “literally feels like work.”
Rockstar, to its credit, reacted fast. By the end of last week, it had lowered the offending bean prices and increased the amount of in-game cash players earned from activities like quests. Red Dead Online is currently in beta, so rebalancing systems this way is par for the course.
But you might have noticed something more deeply amiss in all of this: despite the language used by games journalists, Red Dead Online doesn’t actually have an economy. An economy is the system of production and consumption of goods, and in the modern world that also includes a system of prices set largely by supply and demand. But the price of everything in Red Dead Online, from beans to guns to hair pomade, is set by the game’s creators, and there’s no option for buying and selling between players. What’s left is a facade—stores whose goods appear out of nowhere, with prices set arbitrarily.
This eliminates an entire potentially rich element from the game. Semi-realistic in-game economies produce more immersive player interaction, from the thriving urban commerce in World of Warcraft’s big cities to player-orchestrated banking fraud in EVE Online. Games like Second Life have virtual real estate with real-world value, and even shooters like Team Fortress 2 have a real-world trade in in-game items so robust that a former Greek finance minister called studying them “an economist’s dream-come-true.” It’s easy to pooh-pooh that richness as a mere replacement for real life, but it can also lead to real growth for players—my brother, for instance, developed data-processing skills in EVE that later helped him advance in a very serious day job.
Red Dead Online has much of the infrastructure to create that kind of dynamic social environment. The game allows players to do a lot of what looks like economically productive work, such as hunting, breaking wild horses, and, um, murdering train passengers for their valuables. Because the core game itself is brilliant, those are all incredibly fun activities. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, an emergent cottage industry of players collecting and selling wild food in response to unreasonably high bean prices.
But Red Dead Online shuts down all of those possibilities. You can’t keep wild horses you tame (or horses stolen from other players). You can’t craft anything from pelts you skin. Most crucially, you can’t trade or sell anything directly with other players—you have to sell all of your loot to non-player shopkeepers. The “economy” is little more than a a digital Potemkin village.
A mis-priced can of beans is just a symptom of this neutered experience, and there’s a very simple explanation for it: greed. Rockstar’s other huge franchise, Grand Theft Auto, has also made the transition from rich single-player game to collective online experience, and the sale of in-game currency for real cash has helped make it one of the highest-grossing video games of all time, with a reported $6 billion in revenue since 2013. A huge portion of that comes from players buying guns, hideouts, and cars for online play. That’s right—in a game called Grand Theft Auto, you are forced to buy certain types of cars.
As in Red Dead Online, players in GTA Online can’t trade items with one another, and even giving money to a friend requires bizarre workarounds. In the course of maximizing its revenue, Rockstar has also added items—including a literal orbital cannon—that give players with lots of real-world cash an unfair advantage and degrade the experience for others. Players seeking those advantages, particularly through so-called “loot box” systems, may in turn be risking gambling addiction.
Meanwhile, in games with more robust economies like World of Warcraft, administrators have a tendency to delete players’ accounts, and their digital possessions, for trading real money for online items; “exploitation of the economy” is a frequent citation against suspended accounts.
So what does any of this have to do with blockchain? The introduction of blockchain-backed online games like Ember Sword, Plague Hunters, and Chainbreakers (all still in development) point toward a third model. Building on innovative digital collectibles like Cryptokitties and Cryptopunks, the games connect items like swords to blockchain tokens, giving players some semblance of real-world ownership over their in-game accomplishments.
That means the game’s makers can’t restrict trading of the items between players, or their sale for real money. These experiences won’t be perfect, especially if real money becomes a necessity for satisfying game play—Chainbreakers, unfortunately, seems to be setting a bad precedent by pre-selling items at frankly indefensible prices.
But with even a modicum of restraint, blockchain-backed online gaming would represent a huge improvement over the nakedly exploitative GTA Online model. Items would be persistent in their virtual world, allowing for players to sell what they didn’t need anymore and recoup some initial costs. Capitalists-in-training could learn the art of arbitrage, buying low and selling high in a low-stakes virtual marketplace. Other players could devote themselves to creating or finding items while playing, in a more legitimate and reliable version of the gold farming that has been a vexing issue for MMOs.
It’s not hard to imagine a future in which blockchain-based virtual economies become a serious selling point for mainstream games, appealing to players who want to engage with the subtleties of real trading, or the possibility of earning real money while playing. Certainly, it’s a more enticing proposition than grinding away for centrally-planned virtual beans.