Economies of Fun
We [*] manage [virtual] economies in order to maximize player draw... Imaginary worlds with millions of players don't quite obey the same economic rules as the real world — or I guess they obey them differently, because rather than running on money, games run on fun...(Stross has the prologue and first three chapters up at his blog, if you want a more extended taste.)
[Y]ou can't tax [players] or make money decay, because that would be No Fun, and if the game stops being Fun, why play? That's the difference between in-game economics and the National Bank — the bank doesn't have to worry about whether we're enjoying ourselves.
Following the discussion that arose from Slag's Second Life post, I've occasionally kept up with Warren Ellis's SL blog; a recent dispatch says that discussion in Ellis's virtual salon revolves around
Second Life Sketches [Ellis's blog title], frightening places they’ve found, and current system failures…Maybe Linden Lab needs to work on the "fun" part? Stross drops SL as a contemporary reference point for his 2017 online world, which is a bigger risk to Halting State's future intelligibility [**] than somewhat more extensive references to Teh Google. SL has been suffering a 'growth recession' of sorts, ostensibly as SL's developer tries to digest the surge of new users from last year's hype.
In an "I can't believe someone hasn't patented this" move [***], Stross solves a class of SL problems — sims bog down when they're not empty — for 2017's online games via distributed computing: players hand over CPU cycles to the games when they sign up, hence no server upgrade lags. (Similar to Vernor Vinge's Hugo-winning Rainbows End, complications ensue when the cryptographic systems that maintain causality and prevent cheating are unexpectedly compromised.)
If there is an Iron Law of computer games, it's not only that they have to be Fun, but also that somewhat novel fun be regularly introduced into the proceedings, hence game sequelitis. (Not that I'm necessarily complaining, as long as someone deigns to bring the Beyond the Sword expansion pack for Civ IV to the Mac.) Even the best designers may be fallible — take Civ IV's aerial and naval bombardment models, please! — and most games may suck, but the best of them are quite successful at separating us from real time and money. [****]
Beyond the time-honored appeal of virtual sex of every imaginable form, even if your imagination has been formed in the Downbelow of Babylon 5 fan fiction [*****], SL purports to harness the forces of the unrestrained free market. The interesting question is whether that's efficient or even effective at supplying Fun. Some of the cross-life business opportunities, like virtual parties thrown to market real-world products, seem to be No Fun with a thin veneer of Fun applied, as long as corporate image preservation means no launch orgies for the virtual Acura RDX. And some of Ellis's dispatches suggest that blowing away millennia of social conventions and replacing them with the Rules of Whatever Asshole Happens To Be Occupying This Patch of Virtual Land highlights the potential conflict between Someone's Idea of Fun and Mass Fun. Maybe to rephrase Slag's question, do people really want a 'metaverse,' or just RPGs?
[*] A fictional economic consultancy in the novel.
[**] Depends on how well Google preserves the mountain of Web content through eras of blog deletions, server database corruptions, Wikipedia editing wars, etc.
[***] Maybe they have, but I don't have time for a patent search.
[****] Arguably the best feature of Civ IV is including a clock in full-screen mode, which has offered me non-trivial assistance in preventing the game from taking over First Life.
[*****] Now I have to shake off the thought of "hot Shadow-on-Vorlon action."