As the MMO grey market profits pass into the billions and the populations of the games themselves now exceed several small nations, the question of whether or not we should take synthetic worlds seriously has ceased to be relevant. More important questions about how these places work, what kinds of culture arise there, and what they imply for the future are all being explored. One of the most important books on the topic of synthetic world economies is Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds. Based principally on his experiences with Everquest, the book outlines the basic set up that a synthetic world needs to induce trade and create an artificial economy.
The thing that you’ve got to grasp about a synthetic economy is that the money in the game “is just a convenience for recording choices and their effects. The economy is the choices, not the money by which I register choices and their effects” (174). So saying something like, “one gold piece equals 100 silver pieces and that’s the economic system” is missing the point. The economy is instead grounded on a series of structured institutions like market-making, monetary policy, transportation, and banking to just name a few. To have an economy, the game must have trade. To facilitate trade, you need specialization. One person can get resource X but not Y, another person is in the opposite position. To make sure that these two folks get to talking, you make sure that the design imposes a lot of needs on the player. These needs must be resolvable by consumables more than durables. A consumable would be a good that is used up after one use like a health potion. A durable is something like armor that you can use repeatedly but degrades over time. Any MMO should avoid permables or items that never degrade because there’s not much point in them existing. You always want people to need something to keep the economy going. (184) Eventually once a large enough group of people all think the same things are valuable, then they become valuable. There doesn’t have to be anything more to it. Money is valuable because we think it is, not because it does anything by itself. (102)