Thursday, January 20, 2011

Exploring Anno1777

Online gaming has become a huge business. By and large, however, the money has tended to flow in one way: from the players to the game administrators. There's nothing wrong with that -- people should be rewarded for their creative work -- but you also can't blame gamers for dreaming of a chance to make money with their hobby. At this point, it's still not easy to make money playing games though a few options do exist. I feel like this sector is going to really take off in the future, especially the concept of the "real cash economy" (RCE) game. In the latter type of game, game money is easily interchangeable with real money -- there is a direct link between the game's virtual economy and the real world economy, and it's a two-way street. The RCE concept is still pretty green, but there's already a fascinating example of the genre available for play right now: Anno1777!

I've been playing Anno1777 for several months now and, while I still think it is very much a work in progress, I also think it has tremendous potential. It's essentially an economic simulation game which provides numerous possibilities for players to make their in-game (and out of game) fortunes. You can fight other players (making them your "slaves" which means you are entitled to a share of their earnings), start businesses, trade shares, trade currencies, work at jobs, etc. Your earnings in many game activities are based on your wellness which increases with consumption -- you can buy a wide range of goods, including food, wine, and clothes, in order to improve your wellness. When you first join the game, you are assigned a country based on your real life location, and you initially earn money in your national currency (for instance, US dollars if you are from the US) which is really an in-game currency. To earn real money, you need to use your national currency to buy gold and then use your gold to buy euros. This may seem a bit more convoluted than would be ideal, but gold is actually a necessary international in-game currency -- for instance, you can buy shares or slaves in a foreign country using gold. You can also deposit money into the game to give yourself a head start (highly recommended if you are planning on starting your own business).

While Anno is a fun game even as it currently exists, I do have some concerns about it. In the past, it's been apparent to all that rabid cheating -- especially the creation of multiple accounts or clones as they are called in the game world -- has been taking place for a long time. Unfortunately, cheating seems to have become ingrained in the culture of the game, and it's going to be difficult to root out completely even though there are occasional purges of cheaters. Another concern I have is with the gameplay. Right now, you can play the game without investing a whole lot of time -- for instance, working takes just a click and it means you can't fight or travel for eight hours. This is good in the sense that it enables players with little time to enjoy the game, but I also worry that the way the game works currently doesn't create enough player engagement. For a real cash economy game to work in the long-term, I think there has to be a set of players who are playing just because they love the game and don't really intend to cash out. There are players like that playing Anno1777 now, but I think the game may need to increase engagement to attract more such players. Another concern I have is that the game may be too difficult for new players. It currently takes a good deal of patience to succeed as a new player because wages and fight bonuses are low. I wonder how many new players will be willing to fight and work for multiple days just so they can buy one bottle of wine. It becomes easier as you expand, but starting out is slow going! You may be able to make real money relatively quickly in the game if you choose to invest, but it will take you a very long time to cash out if you start from scratch and work your way up.

One final concern I have with the game has nothing to do with the game mechanics or rules but rather its graphics. Anno is largely a text-based game, but it does feature some artwork intended to hearken back to the game's nominal setting, 1777. Since the game does incorporate the idea of slavery (in a rather benign way), it's perhaps not surprising that some of the game's artwork depicts slavery too. Still, I continue to find the artwork featuring bound African slaves unsettling -- in the game of Anno, EVERYONE is a "slave" and gives some of their earnngs to their "masters." Yet you're still free to do what you choose how to make money, where to travel to, etc like any free person would. The game isn't a realistic depiction of slavery as it once existed so why should the artwork be so realistic? Some players have declared the artwork to be racist, but I don't think that's exactly right...I would rather describe it as inaccurate based on the nature of the game (where everyone, not only members of a particular group, is a slave) and unnecessary because it makes some players feel uncomfortable. Alas, other players have complained about it without any result so it seems the graphics are here to stay. The effect the artwork can have is something to keep in mind if you plan on promoting the game.