In his “Game Plan” column in the latest edition of Game Developer Magazine (December ’09) Editor Brandon Sheffield asks the question: “…of what worth are virtual items?”

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Some of what I imagine are the common arguments against virtual items are mentioned in the article, like Raigan Burn (of Metanet)’s assertion that “…most virtual goods are purely useless” – so he says – in comparison to tangible physical goods like a book, a pen or a shovel which can be read, written, or dug with. But there are other items – both physical and non – that have uses not covered by those three examples: specifically, toys.

Toys have a use – they provide fun. Or at least the good ones do. And we’re willing to pay for them, even though they provide very little practical use. Getting a sword in WoW isn’t largely dissimilar from buying that extra accessory pack for your Bionicles; the virtual sword is desirable because it has something a physical toy doesn’t – motion, animation, visual effects, etc. – but it probably costs a fair amount less than the plastic Bionicles sword. Neither sword – physical or non – provides any practical use. They’re just fun.

Which brings me to another point mentioned in the article:

“…the rules are designed to extract more money out of people rather than to provide people with an enjoyable experience.”

No doubt in many cases that is true. But – going on the premise that virtual items have the same value as traditional toys – if we want more money we have to provide an enjoyable – i.e. fun – experience.

There’s a possibility that Virtual Items could reach a saturation point where the paying public will develop an innate sense of their worth – in the same way that we approximate a chocolate bar to be between one and two dollars (or whatever your local approximation is : ) we’ll have a feel for “useless” cosmetic virtual items (like the Animal Crossing ‘cool yellow-shirt’ type goods mentioned in the column) being between 50 and 75c and (for example) key larger story quest type items to be around $2 and $4. These items could be “more than cosmetic” in that they essentially unlock extra episodic content to make the large pricetag worthwhile to the customer. I’d pay 75c to unlock the stormtrooper costume and I’d pay $4 to get Obi-wan’s lightsaber (and, perhaps, a new questline looking into Obi’s history).

As long as the transactional process was invisible and effortless like the iTunes store I’d be happy to pay between 50c and $5 for something that gave me, a casualcore player, a few extra days of enjoyment.

So, of what worth are virtual items? Eventually, they may be worth whatever value the Players decide to give for each specific one. And it’s up to the game designer to convince the Player of the item’s value (in the form of fun) in order to encourage the Player to give value back (in the form of dollero). I don’t know whether virtual items will ultimately turn out to provide a sustainable revenue model but I know I’d give them the benefit of the doubt at this stage. What do you think?