Mannconomics: You Gooze(x), You Lose

Via http://www.tcbreview.org/winter_2012/current_issue/features/dangerous_terrain.aspx

[WARNING: This article contains ideas that may only interest people with elbow patches on their jackets. It often grossly oversimplifies esoteric concepts. As is usually the case when I'm grossly oversimplifying things, I don't care.]

Once upon a time, waaaay back in July 2006, there was a man. This man was upset with the current landscape of the used games market: he could either sell them for a lot of hassle but little money, or he could hope and pray that he could find someone to trade with. Neither of these were ideal. So he came up with an idea to facilitate game exchanges between like-minded gamers that avoided the normal downsides of other trading options. Thus, Goozex was born.

The man looked at his creation and saw that it was good. Trades were happening quickly. Concurrent trades were up to over 5,000. People seemed happy with the service, and he had a good system of monetization. It was, as Martha Stewart may have proclaimed, A Good Thing™.

But the man got greedy.

He and the other operators at Goozex made a series of seemingly logical but economically ill-informed decisions. Within a couple short years, the whole house of cards collapsed. Through ignorance, negligence, or maybe plain old-fashioned greed, Goozex took a good idea and killed it. The company inflated its currency, capped the prices that inflation needed to change, and have not remedied their situation. What was once a vibrant trading community is a ghost town of tumbleweeds and EA Sports titles from 2005. And the man is left to wonder where it all went wrong.

Goozex was created in part to avoid the difficulty of hunting for a suitable trade for your game — in other words, to bypass the normal barter system. A barter system is a system in which goods are traded directly for other goods. This has some obvious shortcomings, the main one being that the person who has what I want may not want what I have to trade.

Goozex created a similar setup using a medium of exchange creatively titled “Goozex Points.” A user could send their game to someone who requested it, thereby earning points, which then enabled them to request their own game from someone else. Instead of having to find the one lunatic willing to trade you their copy of Gears of War for your copy of Aquaman 64, you can simply trade with anyone who wants what you have, then purchase anything else that you want. If the price is right.

So far, so good. Games rotated in and out pretty quickly, and the queues moved. Goozex seemed to have a pretty good pricing mechanism, with the newest games going for 1,000 points (a real-world $50 equivalent) and the cheapest games going for 100 points ($5). Ideally buyers and sellers would set their own prices, but an active and well-written pricing algorithm seemed a reasonable and lower programming-time option.

Eventually Goozex seemed to realize that it wasn't making enough money off of trades to make maintaining the site worth their while. By my math the company was only pulling in around $180,000 a year*, and after paying taxes, credit card fees, server/bandwidth fees, etc. there's not much left. So it needed a better way to monetize traffic on the site. It needed more money. So, in 2009, it began allowing users to directly buy points. This decision had some very predictable and very deleterious effects. Namely: inflation.

Inflation is simply an increase in currency (e.g. Goozex Points) without a corresponding increase in wealth† (e.g. actual video games). Inflation has a great many effects, a few of which are good but most of which are very bad. You may hear the aforementioned brainiacs in elbow patches debate this, but they are talking about very slow, steady inflation in the order of 1%; not what we see in Goozex's example‡. Still, once the initial dust cleared from this currency move and things re-normalized, it probably wouldn't be a lot worse except for some disgruntled users who thought they’d had a lot of valuable points beforehand.

That is, assuming prices could adjust. But Goozex didn't let them.

Goozex, holding all the control over prices, held prices where they were. To this day, new games are priced at 1,000 points. Now, price controls have a long and storied history in economics, and unlike inflation, are thought by pretty much everyone to be a terrible idea. Whether it's the oil embargo of '73 or Rome's Edict on Maximum Prices, price controls create shortages. If a good (say, our Goozex game) is worth 1/10th of the economy, but a person can only get 1/20th of the economy's medium of exchange for it, that person is going to choose not to sell the good. It wouldn’t be worth it.

Goozex, which has (perhaps foolishly) been kind enough to publicly post its concurrent trades since its inception, has provided a very clear window into the aftermath of their inflation/price control death spiral. Overall trades, which were well above 5,000 in 2009, dropped by more than half to 2,400 in late 2010 and as of the time of this writing are sitting at 835. Anecdotal evidence bears out the shortage, with fora across the internet complaining about the inability to get games, especially newer (read: higher priced) titles.

I myself have witnessed the drop. One game in particular that I had on my queue for a long time is a sad-but-funny example of the weird situations this scenario can create. Alice: Madness Returns for the PS3 "launched" at Goozex on June 30th, 2011 for 1000 points. It is still 1,000 points, 16 months later. In that 16 months it has been traded a mere 65 times, and ahead of me on the queue there are 152 other people. At that rate, it would take me an additional 37 months to receive the game. At a "$50" rate. The actual market, however, is pricing used copies at a mere $13 and brand-new copies for $20. PC versions have been seen on Steam sales several times for a mere $5.

There is a fix to an inflated system, of course: deflation. But to the site owners, it's a messy proposition. The only way to deflate the currency in Goozex's case is to remove points from the system without removing games. The only legitimate ways to do this are to buy back points from users, or to give them a site-bought game instead. To Goozex's credit, it did try a small run with the Amazon exchange, but it was far too little, far too late.

Better would have been to have found other ways to monetize the site. It could be ad revenue, becoming a sales source themselves, selling "perks" like cutting to the front of a game queue, or a combination of several things. All have their own trade-offs, of course, but the economy-ending spiral of inflation and price controls was the worst possible outcome. It may even be possible that their original model is sustainable, given a conservative enough approach.

Economics, at its simplest definition, is the study of scarce resources. Unfortunately, in practice it is anything but simple. The real world has a tendency to contain far too many variables to ever properly isolate into a concrete scientific analysis. Modern multiplayer and interconnected video game systems, on the other hand, often contain very closed and controlled worlds and an ability to quickly aggregate a tremendous amount of data. This is a boon to anyone who likes to get their nerd on.

Perhaps some companies think that their virtual systems are more controllable or somehow don't follow the same rules. Some (like Valve) certainly do, but at this point there is still plenty of instructional fodder for those with patched elbows. Goozex, much to the chagrin of both its owners and gamers writ large, falls into the instructional category. It still stands today as an example of the dangers of inflation and price controls run amok in a system.

[size=9]*5,000 trades happening concurrently. Each trade lasted roughly 10 days. So roughly 180,000 trades a year. At a dollar net per trade (Goozex's fee), the math is pretty easy.[/size]

[size=9]†To use a simplistic example, suppose all of Goozex was ten people, each of whom had traded in a single newly-released game for 1,000 points. So the economy of Goozex is ten games, with a total currency of 10,000 points. Each game is 1/10th of the economy. But now, suppose Goozex sells an additional 10,000 points to people who haven't put any actual wealth (e.g. games) into the economy. The currency count of the economy now stands at 20,000 points, but each game is still 1/10th of the economy. Remember, the points are just a currency and have no inherent economic value. Since the actual wealth of the economy (still games) hasn't increased but the currency has, each game is worth 2,000 units of currency. [/size]

[size=9]‡No one knows for sure how much Goozex Points have been inflated over the years, but since points have been for sale for years and have often been for sale at half-price ($25 for 1,000 points), one can assume it is quite severe. The data we do have, as we will see momentarily, bears this out.[/size]

Comments

What an interesting read!

I think I made a great decision when I "cashed out" in early 2010, basically trading for anything that I could get any value from at Amazon or GameStop.

Kamakazi010654 wrote:

I think I made a great decision when I "cashed out" in early 2010, basically trading for anything that I could get any value from at Amazon or GameStop.

You did indeed. I was up around 4800 points in early '11 but burned most of that on whatever I could get my hands on, and it was almost too late even then. To this day I still have 1,000 points sitting around collecting dust because I can't even land throwaway stuff like Harry Potter 5 despite having been 2nd in line for, I dunno, six months now.

Value may think they follow different rules, but they went and took the step of hiring an actual economist who could tell them whether or not that is actually the case.

Awesome! Love me some economics mixed in with my video games. More please!

I really don't understand how goozex could thing that controlling the prices while injecting points was a good idea, or at least made changes as soon as they saw what the results were. In such a tight system, they basically have perfect information, which economists everywhere would drool over. Instead of responding to the change, they seem to have ignored it. It's like being on a sinking ship and refusing to fix the leak because your expensive suit might get wet.

Gremlin wrote:

Value may think they follow different rules, but they went and took the step of hiring an actual economist who could tell them whether or not that is actually the case.

Indeed, and the link I provided over their name goes to his blog. It's a fascinating and informative read if you ever get the chance. Assuming there's another one of these, I will probably choose a Valve theme as a counterpoint of how to do things correctly, since this piece was all about screwing up.

Dysplastic, you just distilled my entire argument into a pithy ~80 words. Jerk.

For the record, a couple years back when you guys were active on Goozex and mentioning it on the podcast every other week or so, I made this exact point in an email that never made it to the show. Just saying. (-:

I remember some friends mentioning Goozex in 2009, but the very concept seemed iffy to me. This, of course, is because I don't trust other people, especially when used games are concerned.

In the end I'm glad I never hopped aboard that train. I do wonder, though, why we haven't seen someone else try this out. You can find a bunch of lower-budget crappy rip-offs of GameFly and Netflix with worse websites and selection, so you'd think you'd at least see cheap imitators of Goozex. Was it just never enough of a success?

In any case, it was a fascinating read.

Good read. I've mourned the loss of Goozex. The site was fantastic when it was at its peak. My wife loved how I didn't lose any money trading in a $50 game for another $50 game.

Minarchist wrote:

Dysplastic, you just distilled my entire argument into a pithy ~80 words. Jerk. :)

It's the old exam tactic of summarizing a concept to make sure you understand it. This article brought me back to undergrad Macro class - which is definitely a good thing.

They should have stuck to the gold standard.

Yep, currency manipulation. Does terrible things to an economy.

Would this article be considered proper games journalism?

Also, if Goozex has more or less killed themselves off then perhaps it's time for someone else to take a stab at this and try and do it properly. Anyone have some capital to start a company?

This is a great summation of pretty much own thoughts (but worded way better than I could). I was an enormous Goozex cheerleader. I'd naively figured that when they sold points they were also injecting games into the system to offset doing so, but... nope.

The sting of losing a great system hurts me more than sitting on 4000 points that will never be good for anything. The games I effectively gave away would have only gotten me a pittance in trade-in, anyway.

I second beep. I was in the exact same situation, actually having started using Goozex in 2009. I got a lot of great trades out of it, and I got to play a lot of games I probably wouldn't have otherwise gotten to play. I was even recommending it to friends, as well.

Today, I am sitting on about 1100 Goozex points and after reading this I realize I should probably cash out. I'm first in the queue of several games I am mildly interested in, and at this point it seems that having a tangible item instead of these nearly worthless points would be preferable. I actively tell friends to avoid it.

They waited far to long to attempt to start correcting the points inflation problem. It's a shame. It's almost as if the owners treated the business as a hobby, or weren't really engaged for some other reason. Because, like Dysplastic mentioned, they should have seen this coming from a mile away. My theory is that the cash flow coming in from people purchasing points was too good for them to cut off, and now the site will pay the ultimate price for it.

I never used Goozex, but this is an interesting read. Well done, Minarchist.

I'm sitting on 1000 points as well. I really should cash them out. Its such a shame as Ive probably gotten close to 30 games from Goozex trades without paying more than a few bucks per game in shipping and token fees.

Great! Enjoyed this immensely, will bookmark it for future reference and I am still elbow-patchless...

Goozex was a great site until about the middle of 2011. I just checked and over 3 years from 2008 to 2011 I trade 114 games out and had 110 trades received. I saved a ton of money over that time and played some great games that I would not have otherwise played.

It is a shame to see it go. I was a regular member of the Monday night 1am crew requesting that week's games.

However, with Steam sales and the usual Cheap ass gamer fare I'm sure I will still find a way to game at a discount.

You can take this whole analysis and apply it equally to the TF2 Warehouse!

The_Judge wrote:

You can take this whole analysis and apply it equally to the TF2 Warehouse!

Oh yeah, those guys really don't know what they're doing.

The_Judge wrote:

You can take this whole analysis and apply it equally to the TF2 Warehouse!

I think TF2 Warehouse is a different pathology. Their usual problem isn't shortages, but surpluses. (Which is doubly stupid, since crafting provides them with at least a short-term solution to that problem.)

They'd make a great case study, if this becomes a series. (And I hope it does, I love me some game economies.)

I have a question for Minarchist (or anyone who knows, really):

The article wrote:

Goozex created a...setup using a medium of exchange creatively titled “Goozex Points.” A user could send their game to someone who requested it, thereby earning points, which then enabled them to request their own game from someone else.

I presume the seller got the points from the buyer, right? How did they bootstrap this? Did they give a bunch of points away first, sell them, or what? TF2 Warehouse solved this by being a clearinghouse, so you sold to them and they gave you points, but your description suggests this wasn't the case with Goozex. Just curious.

Excellent article, thank you! Reminds me of the Law of the Game on Joystiq. Definitely want more.

Great article - I'm no economist but the field fascinates me and I love listening to Planet Money, Freakanomics, etc. This article has that same deep analysis in an easy-to-understand format.

I have to admit though that as a PC gamer, I had never heard of Goozex!

garion333 wrote:

Would this article be considered proper games journalism?

In light of the past couple days, it's harder for me not to snap at this than it would usually be. Please, clarify your question.

The_Judge wrote:

You can take this whole analysis and apply it equally to the TF2 Warehouse!

Fun fact: The working title for this article was "Mannconomics."

pgroce wrote:
The_Judge wrote:

You can take this whole analysis and apply it equally to the TF2 Warehouse!

I think TF2 Warehouse is a different pathology. Their usual problem isn't shortages, but surpluses. (Which is doubly stupid, since crafting provides them with at least a short-term solution to that problem.)

They'd make a great case study, if this becomes a series. (And I hope it does, I love me some game economies.)

Both have an issue with fixed/controlled pricing. If TF2 Warehouse has a surplus, then it follows that the item in question should reduce in value. However, this doesn't happen, or happens very slowly.

As an economics major I really enjoyed this read. Bravo.

Nice piece. What did the people at Goozex have to say about it?

I learned more about economics in this article than I ever did trying to bash my head against Ferguson's writing in The Ascent of Money. Well done, Min!

A great piece, Min.

I was always very cautious about maintaining any kind of serious balance in the Goozex system, precisely because it felt so capricious. Any time my balance hit quadruple-digits, I went on a buying spree.

One of the most boneheaded moves related to the price fixing is that I used to be able to pick up old mediocre games for 100-200 points. Given that Goozex got paid per trade, it was in their interest to encourage as many trades as possible. And yet, here I sit, with 350 points to my name, and I can't find anything reasonable that price.

Shot themselves in the foot, big time.