This is an excerpt from my 2009 “Sustainable Virtual Economies and Business Models”. I am making this section public while most of the 35 page paper remains proprietary.
Cheese: A Developer’s Ultimate Weapon
Classic real-world economic theory holds that given adequate information, a consumer will make the best choice to enrich themselves. Noting that there are variances in individual motivations and needs, economists use the concept of utility to weight purchases based on the relative needs or wants of each consumer. If a consumer loves beer, they will get greater utility from a beer purchase than a non-drinker would. This beer-drinker would also thus be willing to pay more for that beer.
In virtual worlds, consumers do not always know what the best choices are initially. Given the communal nature of such play this lack of knowledge is quickly overcome and virtual world participants operate uncannily like the perfect economic consumer (unlike “real” consumers who are less predictable). Regardless of real-world variations in preferences, virtual world participants can reliably be trusted to weight their choices towards whatever the dev team has intentionally or unintentionally signaled as the preferred activity.
Another less economic trend at work here lies more in the realm of behavioral studies and sociology. Humans get very competitive. Even players from traditionally more team-oriented cultures (like Japan or China) get very competitive in online environments once free of the bonds of their real-world culture. Granted they might get a team together to compete instead of “going rogue” but compete they will.
In a recent real-world event in California, a radio station had a contest for concert tickets or some such, with the winner being the one to drink the most water. The winner, a young lady, excitedly went home and died a few hours later. She died from too much water in her body, causing her brain to swell. Also in California, our current Governor and one of my early idols since I am a Venice Beach-raised exercise physiologist has been a strong public advocate against drug use. Nonetheless, despite amazing natural talent, when it came to competition he was fast to grab the needle and do whatever it took to win. This is a reliable law of professional sports behavior: If you are paid to win, and all the other guys/gals are using the needle to win, when faced with the choice between the needle and unemployment, the athlete will use the needle.
This same problem faces our economy as a whole with much discussion but no easy solutions. If you run a factory that is environmentally responsible, but your competitors all save money by dumping their poisonous byproducts in the local river, you might go out of business because you are producing the same product at a higher price. In the real world, usually government steps in at some point with regulation. In a virtual space the same thing happens but here you have the advantage that you can change reality so that poisons cannot be put into rivers. Often the solution involves understanding the exploit that is being used, and identifying which design weakness is under attack, so that a modification to design can be made.
Developers can harness this inherent human desire to achieve. Whatever they design as the fastest path to achievement (intentionally or inadvertently) will be an inescapable lure to their player base. This is the concept of cheese. If the development team unintentionally drops cheese into the world this is often termed an exploit. Once a developer drops the cheese into the world the results are rapid and predictable. This is by far the most powerful tool in the developer arsenal. Unfortunately it is often either underestimated or underutilized by development teams though producers seem better trained to take advantage of it. I rely greatly on the power of cheese in this work as its usefulness (and danger) is nearly limitless.