Playing the market: When video games and stocks collide
Video games have mimicked real life for years. Not even trading stocks on Wall Street is safe from virtual attempts to cheat at getting rich.
It's early on a Saturday morning, and after careful preparations, I'm ready to become a multimillionaire.
I'm selling turnips, and the shop in my town is buying them for about four times what most people paid earlier in the week. As a cherry on top, I've opened my town up to a group of Internet strangers who hope to cash in on the pricing anomaly, and who I really hope won't destroy everything I've built in the process.
Naturally, this isn't a real town, but one inside Nintendo's Animal Crossing, a simulation game that's a cross between Sim City and Zynga's Farmville, and perhaps equally addicting. It's the fourth most popular 3DS game for Nintendo in Japan, topping even Zelda, though well behind three Mario games. When it arrived in the US this past June, it sold more than half a million copies in its first month.
The game's premise is simple: You're the mayor of a town with virtual residents who move in and out, along with an environment you can customize to a micro level. That includes planting and removing trees and other flora, placing sidewalks, and even funding public works projects like new landmarks and businesses. All this is timed with the real world, meaning shops keep real-world hours, and if you crack the game open at 3 a.m., your world will be dark and all the other characters will be asleep.
Then there are the turnips.
Each Sunday you can buy turnips as part of the "Stalk Market." It's a cheeky pun (one of many in the game), but the stakes are high. You buy turnips at a particular price on Sunday, and it fluctuates twice a day for the rest of the week in the local shop. If you're lucky, you can walk away with millions of bells (the in-game currency) with almost no effort, funding all sorts of projects, and affording new luxuries for you and your town.
Just like the real stock market though, there are risks. The sale price for turnips often goes down below what you pay, and if you don't sell before the week's over, they expire altogether. As a result, people have come up with creative ways to cash out using mathematical algorithms, or -- as in my case -- teaming up with other players to cheat the system and laugh all the way to the bank, which is actually an ATM guarded by a pelican. But that's not important right now.
Not the only game in town
Animal Crossing is just one of several popular video games that recreate elements of the stock market. Faux stock exchanges have even cropped up around the idea of video games and video game commercial success. Most recently one has appeared in Rockstar's newest chapter of the Grand Theft Auto series, which was released last month and brought in more than $1 billion its first three days on sale.
GTA 5's stock market system mimics the one in real life, with multiple exchanges, and individual companies that you can buy and sell shares of and that have good and bad days. On top of that, players can adjust the outcomes for certain companies by playing through story missions, though it's not an exact science.
It's also believed by some players that what's happening in people's single-player games is somehow being processed by Rockstar, and trickled down into other people's games, effectively making the fake stock market a little more real and volatile. The company did not respond to an interview request to find out if that's the case.
Not content to wait for the typically mysterious Rockstar, GTA 5 players worked together earlier this week to test out whether the system could be gamed, goosing one of the stocks by doing a massive buy and sell operation. The results were less than conclusive, with shares of the test company barely budging. That hasn't stopped additional campaigns to tinker.
For a more exact science, GTA's mysterious stock exchange has led to the creation of multiple, online stock tracking tools. These update each time Rockstar pushes out price changes, which is every few hours, along with tools to suss out and begin gaming whatever algorithms Rockstar has put into place -- if there are any.
Playing the market
As it happens, the secrets behind the economics of Animal Crossing were figured out years ago. The first tool many turn to is one created by Kurt Boyer. A self-professed cowboy and former reality show contestant, Boyer put together a simple tool that lets people plug in the two turnip prices they get each day from their town's shop to see where they are on one of the game's random, yet predetermined pricing patterns.
Cracking those patterns did not come easily. As a former programmer and financial analyst in Colorado, Boyer once created software that would predict the price swings for mortgage-backed securities. To apply similar logic to the world of Animal Crossing involved "hundreds" of hours in a previous version of the game for the Wii (which used the same pricing algorithms). Boyer pushed his system's clock ahead to the future to figure out price ranges and assign them to specific patterns. He then used that same process to craft a tool anyone could use, and that's now growing with the popularity of the game.
That tool processes around 6,000 to 7,000 scenarios a day, Boyer told me. "During summer and winter school breaks (in the US) that number rises significantly," he said, explaining that he expects that number to more than double to well over 15,000 visits a day with a new crop of people getting the game over the holidays.
Of course, getting that price is just half of what's going on here. For those who get a remarkably high price, or who end up on the other end of the spectrum and stand to lose a big chunk of money, there's backup in the form of Internet trade.
What's cropped up has been a series of small trading sites where people post their current sell rate and invite visitors in. The benefit for the host is often tips from people who come in and spend -- in some cases -- half an hour making trips back and forth from their home inventory to sell off their investment. Someone who's invested about a million in the in-game currency, and bought at a low price can walk away with more than six times that. The activity has stretched into buying as well, with people posting their buy prices and letting people into their town to amass a giant inventory at the lowest possible price.
It's just a game
All this complexity leads to a very simple question: Why do people go this far for something so seemingly simple as in-game currency? For both Animal Crossing and GTA, the answer is effort. Amassing wealth in both games can be a grind, whereas exploits pave a speedy road to riches. In Nintendo's case, there's also a matter of security.
Nintendo's 3DS arrived in early 2011 featuring a new cartridge style that didn't fit its previous DS handhelds, but that could play those titles when plugged into the 3DS. It also encrypted local game save data in both the physical and digital copies of its games, keeping third-party editors from tampering with the data. The result is that the same editors, who would let users tweak their towns and inventory in the previous installments, have not cropped up.
Solutions like the turnip exchanges, and now the GTA stock trackers, are the answer to that. But they also fly in the face of what's been a race by many gaming companies to sell in-game goods for real-world dollars. The in-app purchase market for mobile apps and games is set to bring in $56.3 billion a year by 2016 and reach $80.2 billion by 2018, according to ABI Research. For games that cost, in some cases, hundreds of millions to develop, that's an opportunity to continue raking in the dough, months or even years after games come out.
Rockstar is not immune to this, and actually offers in-game currency within GTA 5 that can be purchased with real-world dollars. A report from Superdata, a digital goods measurement firm, earlier this week estimated that gamers will spend $41 million in such microtransactions on that game in the next 12 months, more than doubling to reach $93 million over the next five years.
But it's not always so simple as building a virtual store. One recent example is the "auction house" in Blizzard's popular Diablo 3 game, which lets players buy virtual game upgrades. Last month its creators said the feature "undermines" the way people were playing the game, and plans to close it down in March.
Nintendo has held a similar line in the past, saying downloadable content -- especially when it's forced on users -- "flies in the face of what we believe in" when it's used in one of its own titles. More recently the company appears to have softened on that stance. This week it launched a $1.99, optional add-on for its popular Pikmin 3 game that does just that.
All this makes turnip trading look pretty old school, and maybe that's why it's so appealing. In my case, strangers streamed in and out of my town and barely spoke a word as they made their millions. Too bad it was just a game.