The internal economics of a popular Minecraft server are an object lesson in everything great and terrible about markets


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2017/12/29/alice-maz.html


#2

Great read, thanks Cory.


#3

That was fun, but I think if you’ve never played Minecraft, it might just sound like so much rhubarb.

I got sickly rich on a different site, just by buying low and selling high, and noticing places where the market was irrational. And then the owners deliberately destroyed the economy.

The native currency, gold, became buyable with real-world cash. Then they inflated the rate, bit by bit, over a factor of about one billion. Anybody who held gold was bankrupted, although they could always buy more (wringing hands in evil glee.) I had a ludicrous amount of items, so inflation was my friend. Nevertheless, seeing prices with nine and ten digits spoiled it for me. I lost interest, and my account with its vast stores of items, sits there staring into the distance.


#4

Economy is to ecology what astrology is to astronomy. To a ratio-nal civilization who aren’t cumming in their pants over manipulating symbols to pretend at getting something for nothing, ecology is the only wealth that matters.


#5

The abrupt shift from gleeful exercise of power to crushing ennui makes me think that EVE Online’s support for PvP war is effective for different reasons than I had previously suspected.

By the standards of spaceship sims it is widely reputed to be mediocre at best; but it does have the advantage of periodically(and somewhat unpredictably, since it takes political shifts to trigger high intensity violence at scale) wiping substantial amounts of accumulated capital off the board and sometimes reshuffling territory as well.

In the context of Minecraft’s vast and mostly underutilized(because the procedural landscape is just so much larger than any activity that can’t be fully automated) and(at least on this server; and more generally in terms of a comparatively low cap on ‘best’ offensive/defensive equipment), once you realize that you are sufficiently better at grinding the deltas that you are now better and in possession of substantial market power that makes a game you were already winning nontrivially easier for you to continue winning indefinitely there just isn’t anywhere left to go; and the admins’ attempts to tax the problem away contributed more to Minecraft’s labor-related underutilization than to actually solving the problem.

The parts of the story that the author actually sounded like she was enjoying were the bits following the introduction of various novelties(version bumps, initial introduction of duped resources, shakeup of colored wool market dynamics); with the world ultimately proving too small to offer more once economic dominance was achieved.

In the grimdark Keynesian future of EVE the outlet of a round of downright theatrical intrigue followed by some solid and expensive bloodletting is always at least visible as a goal to be planned for(or stockpiled against, depending on whether you think you’ll be on offense or defense), when not in action.


#6

This was a fascinating read. Much like how it works in the “real” world, this type of gameplay ruins things for people who aren’t trying to “win” in this manner. One is forced to adapt their own gameplay to the gameplay of a small number of wealth obsessed meta-gamers. You can’t compete with them without doing the same thing yourself. If that’s not how you want to play the game, then too bad.

It seems like the big problem in the minecraft economy is the “buy” chests. Being able to buy things automatically from another player is too easy, conversely, being able to sell raw materials automatically to another player is too easy.

I’ve experienced these type of shenanigans playing Ultima Online servers, and it gets pretty bad(for example, the game has several stables, which are needed to store unmounted “pets”, which may be extremely powerful, hard to obtain creatures, as they will go wild when you leave the world, and/or disappear when the server resets. On the last server I was on, people were buying cheap pets, like rats or chickens, and filling up the finite amount of stable slots with them, and attempting to sell stable slots to people. If you had a creature stabled, you then needed to have another creature on hand to put in the stable to make sure you had a slot when you needed one. A huge, unnecessary hassle. Buying a stable slot was pretty stupid as you could easily lose it to another player in the moment between taking a creature out and putting a creature in. A completely unintended, and unnecessary, aspect of gameplay).

Anyway, while one could sell their wares to players automatically, there wasn’t any central market, and there was no way to automate the acquisition of raw materials like in minecraft, either by purchase or automation of your toon(you could automate, but that was considered a crime). And all materials were renewable if you tried hard enough(but there were items that were rare, and successful attempts from other players to block acquisition to areas where certain things could be gathered with enough skill. As well as dedicated player killers in key areas. Giant boat blockades, etc). There were NPC markets for common materials, and you could buy a limited amount and sell a limited amount to them, but you could only get rich from selling to players and/or farming high level mobs. Players would manipulate the shops and try to create artificial scarcity(there was one resource, “regs”, for making potions, scrolls and casting spells, that could not be gathered efficiently, and were constantly being used up) so you would have to purchase from them, but they couldn’t break the economy. It took a tremendous amount of effort to perform the exploits that they did.

While I find this stuff fascinating intellectually, I really don’t want these type of people there at all, and neither does almost everyone else.


#7

Just in case people checking out the comments who aren’t familiar with Minecraft don’t realize, NONE of this is required to play online with others.

I’ve never played on a server with an actual economy beyond marking some chests as free for others to take from with a wooden sign and making your valuable stuff that you’ll want for yourself a bit harder to find. It’s courtesy not to take from people’s chests unless they’ve indicated it’s free for all.


#8

Oh man, this guy gets it. Stalk Ms. Maz’s Twitter a little and she’s simultaneously talking about how gripping the ancient Chinese palace intrigue chronicles are. These things fit together like a dowel-jointed music box. The thing that is glaringly absent from the blog is there’s never any betrayal, everyone generally cooperates in the broad scope (even while screwing each other daily in the arbitrage game), and everyone generally emerges with an unstabbed back. This microcosm is utterly unnatural for including zero intrigue among the “diamond cartel”, and I tend to agree that this is the seed of the vibrant economy ultimately feeling aimless even to its titans. We’ve solved for this IRL in the same way EVE has - nothing goes up in smoke like extremely expensive ordnance, and “our dads had a disagreement once” is easily spun into all the jingoistic justification needed to explode trillions of dollars of the stuff. EVE is smart for being one of the few games to realize that even intergalactic thermonuclear war is often remarkably petty (but it’s also always economic), and provide a framework to express that. When was the last time a video game had actual stakes that were larger than the quarter you just slotted in?

It may be intellectual masturbation at this point, but I rather want to corner someone like Alice Maz and unbundle my entire science-based-dragons ultimate MMO pitch that is grounded in all these all-too-obvious lessons the game industry steadfastly refuses to learn. Basically, Minecraft’s voxelly automation with the first goddamned thought given to how all that might be abused in a multiplayer context; Black Desert Online’s meaningful PvP and worker subsystems without the painfully Korean gamble-grind; Shadowbane’s open-world GvG conquest system with some actual rewards and governance structure available to the victors; Portal Knight’s feeling of infinite frontier (only, y’know, actually infinite); and my beloved Fantasy Earth Zero’s sense of national honor (and frequent internecine conflict) standing in for EVE’s inferior form of it. Also, it’s (mostly) intended to be played in VR, massive AI underpins everything, and maybe it also has a cryptocurrency tied to the in-game economy, because, hey, why stop at imagining something that would only take a few hundred million dollars to build, right?

I’ll stop there, because I’m quite sure most people would laugh at the idea for being an unworkable pile of overscoped autism, a few people would agree it’s going to destroy more lives than alcohol and World of Warcraft combined when someone finally builds something like it, and at least one asshole would offer the infuriating refrain of “Well, just go download Unity and start building it, then!” /wrists


#9

What an excellent long read! The same mechanics underpin real economies too but damn if I’ve seen a more engaging account of them. The diamond reflation story towards the end was a near perfect allegory of central banks in the financial crisis.

Alice’s other writing is fascinating too (“a priesthood of programmers”), I wish there were more.


#10

Diamonds make terrible pie. I really like rhubarb pie, though.


#11

This reminded me of a job I had many years ago where the office NAS drive ran out of space. Being the media department we were using the greatest portion, so my boss told me to delete some old files to free up the capacity.

Within a day the drive was full again and I couldn’t use the space I’d freed up, so the next time I deleted more old files I created a 100MB dummy file and duplicated it until the drive was full again. Whenever I needed a bit of room I’d delete the corresponding amount of dummies then immediately save into the free space. As everyone else saw zero space remaining I essentially “owned” the NAS until it got upgraded with a much bigger hard drive.

It never occurred to me to take the next step and sell drive capacity to other departments, but since they didn’t need it as much as we did they probably wouldn’t have offered a price high enough to justify losing the resource. That sounds like some kind of economic theory thing, but I don’t know what it’s called.


#12

Yeah, the most interesting thing about the article is the questions she doesn’t ask. It doesn’t surprise me that most of the money keeps reverting to the handful of players who think the goal of Minecraft is to collect money. But the goal is to have fun, which for most people is a very different thing. Can money help normal players have fun, and if so, do speculators make it work better, or are they just a specialised type of griefer?

But the much more interesting question is: how is speculation even possible in a world where every item has a fixed, objective relative value? Any player can get any item by doing X minutes of tedious clickwork per block, and the different types of grinding (digging, chasing, farming etc) are not significantly different in funness or required skills. So if diamond takes 7 minutes per block, and coal takes 1 minute, how can diamond ever cost anything other than seven times what coal costs? In the real world prices are a vexed question, because you can’t directly compare an hour of welding with a square foot of real estate, but in Minecraft there’s an intrinsic standard for whether a price is right or wrong. It cannot be worth 10 minutes of mining coal to pay for 1 block of diamond, when you can just mine the diamond in 7 minutes instead.

And a follow-on question to that is, why are people (other than speculators) playing on this server, when it’s demonstrably exploiting them in the real world? Because for every hour of tedious grinding, they’re necessarily getting paid less – in terms of fun – than they would on a stock Minecraft server, and much less than the plutocrats. How does that work?


#13

Yeah I don’t know the names of these things either, but I’m sure it’s covered in game theory. You recognized a strategy for preserving hard drive space before everyone else(maybe, perhaps other people were doing that as well, that’s why there was no space.) :slight_smile: This gave you an advantage, which you could utilize because others were not aware of the technique, and because you utilized it first, you had the biggest portion of this finite resource before anyone could do anything about it, the longer it’s undiscovered the more space you could grab.

As soon as you started selling it the cat would be out of the bag though, as people would be able to figure out that you were taking up space you weren’t really using. Some people might pay, but others would start using the same strategy, either to make money themselves or just out of utility, which is the reason you were doing it, and you might start losing your space to people camping on the hard drive waiting for space to open up. Which might not really happen in an office, but will most certainly happen in an online game.

Much like with this minecraft server, the big advantage is that most people aren’t paying attention closely. If everyone on the server was as vigilant as this small group, only smaller gains would be possible. I feel like this story shows the fine line between being entrepreneurial(like breeding horses and selling saddles in anticipation of demand), and criminality(bringing about financial ruin of a competitor, and the whole economy, by exploiting unrecognized strategies).

The UO server I was talking about was especially lawless, so everyone there was vigilant to one degree or another, but people were still coming up with new ways to exploit the existing system. It’s surprising, in retrospect, that no one came up with the stable strategy before, the stables were especially important to one character type. It was such a simple idea.


#14

I think the best analogy is maybe playing poker. Everyone has the access to the exact same resources in poker, and there is no way(without cheating of course) to control the hand that you’ve been dealt. Yet, some people are really, really good at it. There’s more to it than who happens to have the highest value cards in a particular game.

So, a player is trying to raise some quick money so they can buy a diamond pickaxe that will allow them to mine faster. Alice will buy every last bit of clay that you can mine, she might not be offering what it’s actually worth, but you can get the money quickly and easily. The player doesn’t know that Alice is trying to gather all the clay she can to enact some sort of larger scheme that will screw them over in the future, they just want a pickaxe, or a horse, or whatever. She appears to be performing a helpful service, the ability to easily turn your raw materials into cash, and it may make sense, in the short term, for the player to make an unequal exchange(which in the case of resource gathering, time for money), especially if wealth acquisition is not really their goal at all.

I think that the ability to turn things quickly into money is probably the appeal of this server, and also why it is so easily exploited. It’s a system that works pretty good for everyone until someone ruins it. It’s really on the server’s creators to come up with a better mechanics for the economy. Those “buy” chests and how they function is just crazy.


#15

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