Saturday, August 15, 2009

An Academic Look at EQ2's Economy - Q1 to Q2 2006

Over at Kill Ten Rats Zubon has a post about the first economics paper that has emerged that used the data Sony Online Entertainment made available to the academic community. One of the authors of the paper, Dmitri Williams from the University of Southern California, posted an article about the paper, complete with a link, at Terra Nova.

While the researchers may have come up with some interesting results either proving or disproving certain theories, I found some interesting things of my own. For one thing, the period studied was from January to May 2006. I understand why that period was selected; the researchers wanted to view a new server's economy compared to a mature server's. But one of their hypothesis may have been slightly off:

"In a sense, a new server launch is a new draw from the population of all possible servers, in Monte Carlo style, but done with thousands of real people flowing into an unreal world. For the analysis here, the Antonia Bayle server had been operating since the launch of EQ2 in February 2004 and so represents the baseline condition. The Nagafen server opened in February 2006 and players were given the opportunity to transfer their characters there to alleviate population pressures elsewhere. Therefore, the test of the research question was whether the new population of Nagafen – presumably made up of no different kinds of people than that of Antonia Bayle – would generate the same GDP and price levels as Antonia Bayle. An affirmative answer to the research question would require the Nagafen GDP and price level to start at zero, but then approach and eventually match Antonia Bayle’s." (emphasis mine)

Actually, the Nagafen server was not opened up to alleviate population pressures on other servers. Nagafen was one of the six new player verses player (PvP) servers opened up on February 21, 2006 in conjunction with the release of the Kingdom of Sky expansion. As such, a specific type of player moved from all the other servers onto Nagafen. Most players experienced with MMORPGs would consider the players on a server with a role-play (RP) rules set (Antonia Bayle) to be different from those on a server with a PvP rules set. I'm not sure this affected any of the results, but I found the assumption amusing.

The major thing I found interesting was the description of the economy from January to May.

"Second, the indicators of aggregate production and prices followed directly from the item categories. It was possible to calculate GDP and price levels and track their change through time. These changes suggested that while GDP did not go to zero or completely explode, there were fairly abrupt and unusual changes in this figure across time. The fluctuations were more dramatic than are seen normally in a real economy. In the real world, it is not typical for nominal GDP to rise by more than 50 percent in a month, as happened on Antonia Bayle from February to March. Specifically, the data showed that much of this jump in nominal GDP was caused by a rapid inflation of prices. On this server, in just five months there was a 50 percent increase in the price level: that is, 50 percent inflation. What appeared to be a dramatic increase in the amount of real goods that EQ2 players were producing turned out to be mostly an increase in the prices that these goods were commanding in the marketplace. This is an unusual pattern, if not unheard of (Paarlberg, 1992), but monetary economists do not characterize it as a ‘normal’ economic situation."

Remember when I mentioned the Kingdom of Sky expansion earlier? That expansion raised the level cap from 60 to 70. Along with the raise in the level cap came a brand new tier of products that players began crafting and selling to each other in all the product categories the researchers looked at. In short, what the researchers were looking at was a quantum leap in the level of technology combined with the discovery of new raw materials introduced into the world of EverQuest 2 compressed into a single day (February 21). The prices in the individual categories rose as a result.

Now, please don't think I am disparaging the researchers for not knowing what was happening in the game at the time. Maybe I would if I knew the article (Paarlberg, 1992) the researchers were referencing, but the next paragraph in the paper shows that maybe they figured out SOE did something to the virtual world they were examining.

"Taken altogether, this is evidence that virtual economies are not perfect analogs of real economies at the aggregate level. They seem to be less stable. This conclusion is tempered by a number of factors which can be explored in future research. The rapid changes in GDP may not be a function of the fact that the economy is virtual, but because it is being managed in a certain way. Certainly, evidence of rapid changes in the money supply from Figure 5 points out the source of the fluctuations. Thus, the practical application for mapping from virtual to real (or vice versa) might be most useful when comparing the virtual to volatile real-world conditions. After all, the implicit real-world benchmark in this study has been a developed post-industrial economy. Perhaps virtual economies are very precise analog for other kinds of real-world economies, such as frontier, developing or black market economies." (emphasis mine)

The last item I found interesting was the look the researchers took at the number of active accounts on Antonia Bayle during the period of the study. The researchers found the population on the Antonia Bayle server rose in February, fell greatly in March, fell a bit more in April and stayed constant in May. But since the server logs don't show the number of active accounts, the researchers had to come up with a way of measuring population.

"It was assumed that an active character either had to earn at least one experience point, or to conduct at least one economic activity. In other words, a character had to have at least one record in the experience log or the economy log in order to be considered ‘active’. Following this logic, the number of unique active characters was counted for each month for each server, providing a population count."

The problem for the researchers was the introduction of the expansion. From my experience, I would say that the rise in characters in February was not only a result of players returning to experience the new content but new players being drawn into the game because of a new expansion. The March drop-off in number of characters (avatars) played could be explained by a lot of people not playing alts (alternate characters) while they level up their main characters to the new level cap. The sustained lower numbers of characters played probably indicates that the new content was extensive enough that players were still playing their main characters and not playing their alts.

Now, if I'm right and the numbers don't indicate a mass exodus of players from EQ2 (which is possible), then I wonder what that does to the calculations and conclusions in the paper. Still, an interesting read and I'd urge everyone to go over and read the paper. I didn't link directly to it because the link is to a pdf file so I'll let everyone go to Terra Nova to read it.

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