The novel features a fictional virtual world called T'Rain - a subscription MMO with a currency that is fully exchangeable into real money, with professional gold farmers/sellers as a core demographic. Players can subscribe with a credit card, in which case the money from any purchases or sales of gold are settled directly to the card. There is also an option for "self-sustaining" accounts to pay their subscription fee in gold. The details aren't fully fleshed out - this is a novel, not a design document. Still, there are some interesting ideas to be found here.
The Exchange Rate
The game's lore presents the act of selling gold for real world money as the character sacrificing that gold to a local deity in the hopes of receiving good fortune, while the magical appearance of gold when the player invokes their credit card is similarly presented in-game as divine intervention. That said, I'm assuming that under the hood is a functioning currency exchange in which every purchase represents a swap of gold and cash between two customers for several reasons:
- The book spends a lot of time discussing how, rather than having infinitely respawning mobs appear in the world with cash on hand, T'Rain was modeled by geologists. Gold must be mined by player-owned miners. (Presumably, monsters obtain gold by killing NPC merchants players pay for stuff?) This entire discussion becomes moot if the amount of gold in the world isn't constant.
- If you can both pay your subscription in gold and have the company pay you money for your excess gold, it's possible to have customers that are an actual net loss of money. While there are theoretical situations in which this might be okay - perhaps if a dozen players subscribe THINKING they can be that one guy who turns a profit, or because they enjoy trying to kill that person in game - the whole quagmire is easy to avoid if the company doesn't gamble its own money.
- From the company's perspective, it makes more sense to require players to convert their gold into a constant amount of dollars to pay the subscription fee, as compared to accepting a constant amount of gold and attempting to sell said gold (or generate new gold) to other players.
|Star Trek Online's Currency Exchange - as of the time of the screenshot, anyone looking to sell much more than $1000 worth of Cryptic points is going to begin shifting the exchange rate downwards.|
Effects of Gold Farming on the Currency Market
It's explicitly stated that a character parked in a "home zone", such as a mine, will be safe and will automatically perform certain "bot-haviors", such as mining gold. It's also stated that literal Chinese Gold Farmers will have large number of these fully legal bots, all paying their subscriptions with gold naturally, and operating at a net profit.
Less clear is how much effort/risk this requires on the part of the player. The implication is that more remote home zone sites are likely to be more profitable mining locations. The player must somehow safely transport the gold to a money changer to collect their profits, and it is stated that the amount of gold you can purchase for $73 is a lot of money in T'Rain terms.
The question becomes crucial because of the time - and to a lesser extent risk - curve. If any player can maintain one or more characters at a net profit (in gold or real money) for limited time and low risk, this will have obvious negative effects on the value of gold (at least until players have picked the world of T'Rain clean of its geologically modeled mineral reserves). The theory is that with lower cost of living/per capita income, you might have parts of the world where even a small net positive cash flow in dollars would be enough for a gold farmer to live on. Putting this into practice is a very delicate balance of having it be easy enough for someone to rely on the profession for their real world income but hard enough that the potential purchasers of gold don't just roll up another mining bot of their own instead.
Subscription Fee As Incentive
The other interesting tidbit is that T'rain's subscription fees are charged on a per-character basis, and are based on character class. No specific numbers are given, but it is stated that someone intending to play a powerful Warrior-mage is paying much more than it costs for a literal Chinese Gold Farmer to run a character as a mining-bot. This in turn creates some unintended social trends, as players with less real-world money run around as cheaper horse-archers or other more basic classes.
Metaphorically, one could argue that we have similar systems in non-subscription games today, where the conventional wisdom is that the overwhelming majority of players pay nothing and the stereotypical minority overspends to provide most of the revenue.
As far as the class balance question, I suppose lower subscription fees are amongst the few things we have NOT yet seen anyone try to get people to play less popular roles like tanks or healers. Perhaps turning the system on its head and just charging people more to be DPS is a good solution. Or, perhaps it's shortsighted - do you really want players choosing based on price, disliking the game experience, and quitting outright?
The Fictional Virtual World
At the end of the day, the actual experience of playing T'rain sounds not unlike the notorious space free-for-all of Eve Online. You have the potential for full looting in PVP, players betraying their factions, skill training based on real world time, and others - my guess is Stephenson drew some inspiration from that world. Overall, though, I can't give the book any more than a mixed review because of how little time the characters spend in the virtual world that's supposedly the book's focus.