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Virtual Goods and Real Money Trade: Paving the paths March 13, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in business models, digital goods, facebook, friendster, games, games 2.0, gaming, myspace, social networks, virtual goods.
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As I read the coverage about the real money trade in MMOs panel at GDC, I was reminded of danah boyd’s thoughts on why MySpace took off and Friendster did not, which notes in part:

Friendster killed off anyone who didn’t conform to their standards, most notably Fakesters and those with more creative non-photorealistic profiles. When MySpace users didn’t conform, they were supported and recognized for their contributions to evolving the system.

A good analogy to both situations is what to do when faced with a nice green lawn on a college campus. Some students will always cut across the grass, leaving worn paths. There are three solutions to this problem:

(i) Erect a fence around the lawn and put up some “keep off the grass” signs. This keeps the grass green and pristine, exactly as the landscape architect imagined it, but forces unhappy students to go the long way around to their classes.

(ii) Do nothing, let students cut across the grass and tramp mud into classrooms.

(iii) Pave the paths. Students take the shortest paths, no mud in classrooms, and the rest of the lawn stays green.

Friendster put up “keep off the grass” signs. Myspace paved the paths.

Now if you ask students as to what should be done about the muddy paths, they’ll probably suggest option number one. But its those same students that created the paths in the first place! It is more important to watch what users do than what they say. Facebook is facing a similar dilemma with its apps right now.

Games companies have the same issue with virtual goods. The abundance of real money trading markets for virtual goods tell us what users want to do (despite their vociferous claims to the contrary). If game developers don’t pave these paths, they risk muddy classrooms or unhappy students.

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