Arbitrage as a game mechanic
Reading this rather amazing story about cross-border arbitrage, I could not help but think about how it applies to game design.
Here's how the arbitrage math adds up. The ferry costs approximately $275 round trip, and gas is about $8 a gallon in Sweden, which, if we assume our car gets around 30 miles per gallon, gives us $435 in expenses. Throw in food, lodging, and other miscellaneous costs, and the total should come in around $600 or so. Remember, diapers costs more than twice as much in Lithuania as they do in Norway, so we only need to buy that much to break even.
If in the real world it's possible to entice enough entrepreneurial activity from a neighboring country to make the supermarkets of south Norway run out of diapers, imagine how powerful arbitrage opportunities are for game design. It can do everything:
- Increase play frequency, as you need to come often to exploit recurring opportunities
- Drive explorative gameplay, as more and more players search for new kinds of arbitrage
- Incent specialization, because to exploit arbitrage, you need to focus on a particular activity
- Drive expected lifetime up, as leaving the game means leaving value on the table
- Drive lifetime value up, because in a free-to-play game, longer play time means more opportunities to buy
- Drive virality up, because players have incentive to find both supply and demand for their particular arbitrage skill
Many of these factors apply even to a single-player game that simulates market activites. Look no further than the classics of market games, David Braben's Elite (1984) (or Star Trader, which preceded it by a cool 10 years). However, the forces really come to forefront when applied to a social game where the arbitrages don't need even need to be programmed in, as long as the design doesn't eliminate their possibility. Players will probably discover them.
That doesn't mean it's trivial to fully exploit that capability, though. For example, I don't think we ever really explored the arbitrage mechanics fully in Habbo Hotel, even though the system is full of player to player trading, rare items, well-hidden nooks and crannies, and whatnot. The most important feature missing in Habbo Hotel is rich support for specialization. RPG style games bring specialization through character classes and skills, resource management games through directing players to invest their earned resources in a particular type of activity, and so forth. The game mechanic should reward specializing, by making it possible for a player highly capable in a particular section of the gameplay to trade that capability with others for the skills or resources provided by another type of specialization. Don't reward being a generalist, or allow maximizing all stats.