When examining the current global economic crisis, it is tempting to take the easy road and simply look at statistics and trends, thereby avoiding a hard and unsettling look at the individuals who have been impacted. The mainstream media has covered the housing and banking industries ad infinitum, but this crisis has impacted many others whose stories have gone untold. This feature takes a shocking look at how fortunes have cruelly turned for a forgotten sector of our gaming communities -- shopkeepers and merchants.
An Economic History Of In-Game Shopkeeping
The in-game shopkeeping industry was a relatively small market through the late 70s and 80s, relegated mostly to paper transactions in Dungeons & Dragons and the tabletop games that followed. The industry was relatively safe at this time, as Dungeon Masters globally exercised considerable regulation over all in-game merchants.
These NPCs enjoyed great security, knowing that the community of Dungeon Masters recognized the usefulness of shop-owners to player characters and would never willingly let them fail. There were many documented cases where a merchant was bailed-out by their omnipotent overseers, provided unsecured gold loans to purchase unwanted items from players or magically gifted with expanded inventory to take advantage of player needs.
In these early years of the industry, a shop could operate with little risk, but at the cost of limiting their profit. With the advent of the digital era, merchants were forced to radically change their business model to suit the times, and it is here where we can see the seeds of the industry's current financial woes.
A young Timothy Geithner learns about economic oversight.
As the RPG merchant made the leap from pen and paper over to electronic commerce in video games, two important factors came into play.
Firstly, the rise of the video-game shopkeeper heralded the end of industry regulation. It was simply unrealistic for a single creator of a universe to provide oversight and correction to tens of thousands of virtual shopkeepers on a global scale for their games. There was simply no way for the Dungeon Masters of old to be in that many places at once.
The de-regulation of merchants allowed for shopkeepers to take huge liberties in dealing with their player customers. Freed from the burden of oversight, they began to gouge players by purchasing inventory items at a small fraction of their market value, and selling items or weapons which were statistically inferior to ones more easily acquired on quests at unreasonable prices. Merchants began to flourish as profit margins rose on every item sold.
(Sidenote : This business model became the inspiration for flesh-and-blood shopkeepers in some sectors, giving rise to the modern used-game market economy.)
Shopkeepers do it in the games, so we do it TO the games.
Second, the number of players that a virtual shopkeeper could reach through a video game were astronomically larger than those in the D&D market. With a legion of potential customers as opposed to just a single party, shopkeepers were able to purchase huge amounts of found items from players on the cheap, and raked in exorbitant sums by selling them to the next player to wander through their village.
Thus, digital shopkeeping became a booming business with a huge upside for those lucky enough to get locations in towns or near popular dungeons. The industry spread its wings, branching out from the RPG community to begin business in the FPS, RTS, and even some platforming market sectors.
The Downfall Of The In-Game Merchant Industry
While the factors of deregulation and increased player population were hugely beneficial to the shopkeepers in the short term, they also proved to be their inevitable downfall.
You see, a pen and paper D&D merchant could be assured of a smaller player population revisiting their business over the course of many years, thus providing longevity in their business model. However, video-game shopkeepers quickly found out that they did not have the same protection.
Even though they were enjoying a huge influx of player customers, these short-sighted individuals could not predict that their game would become old and thus new players would stop visitng the shops after 12, 6, or even as little as 1 month in some cases.
Would you kindly buy our products?
With a glut of players selling off low level items to merchants, shopkeeper inventories were bursting at the seams with poison antidote potions, unused pistol ammo, weak guns, and useless quest items. As long as new players kept joining the game world and buying these items as they levelled up, the industry could be assured of unlimited profit potential.
Unfortunately, as players adopted a habit of quickly moving on to the next game world, digital shopkeepers found themselves stuck with enormous warehouses, packed to the gills (instead of gil) with unsellable toxic assets.
Without the regulatory protection of a Dungeon Master to help them get these toxic assets off their ledgers and no new customers, the industry began a rapid collapse which continues unabated today.
The Sad Reality Of The Shopkeeper Bubble Collapse
While we interviewed many of these now struggling shopkeepers, none struck us as deeply as the story of "Moira". We found her in the ruins of the decimated city of Megaton, shooing away a gigantic scorpion with a sledgehammer. Once one of our crew members targetted the creature's tail and hit it squarely with a railroad spike, the creature retreated, and Moira agreed to share her tale of woe.
"I used to have a sweet gig back in Hyrule, selling painted boomerangs and costume jewlery to young elves. I'd buy a can of blue paint for 6 rupees, and tin rings at 1/2 a rupee each, paint them up, and then sell them to these suckers playing Link for 250 rupees each.
Maybe you rememebr my old slogan? -- 'Buy Something Will Ya!'"
Outdated marketing materials.
"I might as well have been selling Nintendo DSs, I was making so much cash. They obviously had the money to spare, and I figured that Gannon was gonna take them out anyways, so who really got hurt in the long run?
Anyways, when the VG merchant bubble burst, I knew I had to make a change to stay afloat. Players weren't coming back to my cave any longer, and the cost of keeping those two torches lit 24/7 was threatening to tap out my savings.
I thought moving to a new venue might invigorate my business, so I researched a move to the Capital Wasteland. Turns out that shop space was plentiful and cheap, and the inflated value of the rupee over the bottlecap made it an attractive option.
Within a month of moving here, some douchenozzle in a blue jumpsuit detonates a freakin' atomic warhead in front of my shop. Let me tell you, that's been really bad for business. My inventory was instantly fused, and it goes without saying that there isn't much of a market for a glowing ball of welded-together junk out here. I'm at my wits end."
"I don't need this crap, I have a MBA from Yale!"
"I drank irradiated water out of the toilet yesterday. I'm addicted to Stimpaks. My face is falling off, and moisturizer is at a premium.
But you can't just dwell on the bad. It really makes you focus on what's important in life, the whole no-face thing. I've got so much more time now to work on my book! In fact, if you're heading south, you could bring me back any information you get from the archives for my research. That or some Vasoline Intensive Care lotion would be great."
The Future Of The Videogame Merchant
So where does the industry go from here? Many merchants like Moira have given up and wallow in poverty and obscurity. Other merchants refuse to go so quietly, and choose to attempt to innovate rather than face extinction.
We found a shopkeeper in Spain who was getting by quite comfortably, by selling green herbs (legal in Spain) and weapons to government agencies. The secret to his success, it turns out, is to be mobile and agile in business.
"WHAT ARE YA ASKING? I'm sorry, just habit. How am I still in business? Well, I took my show on the road, and I go where the demand is. The old days when you could just set up shop and wait for the customer to come to you are over."
The modern video game merchant dresses for success.
"In this day and age, convenience is the name of the game. After I meet a player, I make sure to stalk them as much as possible, showing up periodically behind a house or before a difficult boss fight. This allows me to do business with the same player multiple times over the run of the game. Most players have moved on to the next infection site, so I have to maximize the opportunity I have.
Working out of a trenchcoat as a storefront keeps overhead costs down, and also helps with branding. I know it works, because I often hear players say, 'Now where is that trenchcoat-wearing &*$%&@ when you need him?'"
Another example of the new wave of agile and enterprising new merchants is in the use of emergent technology and internet applications.
In our research, we stumbled across this famous merchant using websites such as Craigslist and Ebay to help move surplus gear at a reduced price to keep his balance of toxic assets down to a minimum. We found this listing below to be a prime example of his new strategy.
No scammers, will not ship out of state!
So, it seems there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for the in-game merchant industry, but it will take time and hard-work. It will also require enterprising individuals with fresh ideas to bring player consumer confidence up and keep the players coming back to buy. And shopkeepers must never forget the painful lessons learned regarding deregulation and over-speculation, or history will repeat itself once again.