Digital Economies - Black Markets, Assassinations and Revenge

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Player created digital economies boomed when loot-based games gained mainstream popularity in the early 2000s. At the center of every loot-based system is a strictly controlled in-game economy. Despite all efforts to keep these economies in-game, black markets using real world money to buy and sell items or in-game currencies continued to pop up. This gave gamers around the world their first taste of what would form the basis of a system most Blockchain games use called Play-to-Earn (P2E). Learning about these black markets led me to one of the craziest gaming stories I have ever encountered. So strap in for launch! Let’s look at a personal history of digital game economies and The Guiding Hand Social Club in EVE Online

Grind. Loot. Sell. Repeat

Let’s go way back to ancient times when I was young. The summer of 2000 was just like any Michigan summer before that. Except, instead of hours spent in the woods and at the park with friends, this summer was different. This was the year my favorite game of all time was released, Diablo 2 . Instead of building forts in the woods, I grinded Diablo. Instead of hanging out with friends, I grinded Diablo.

Despite my parents not seeing it this way, my self-induced isolation in the computer room wasn’t spent alone. I was still spending time with my friends since most of them had also purchased the game. It was also the summer I got my first taste of what would eventually become the core of Non-Fungible Token (NFT)-based Blockchain games currently exploding in popularity using a mechanic called Play-to-Earn (P2E)—player-driven economies.

Diablo 2 improved on everything contained within the original Diablo , so naturally, I was hooked. In fact, not just hooked—addicted. I would stay up as long as possible and sneak back downstairs to keep playing any chance I could. At the time I considered myself a master of stealth and silence, something I’m sure my parents would strongly disagree with. Needless to say, I was caught out regularly. But, during one of these sessions, I heard about an item called The Stone of Jordan.

The original motivation to grind (or buy)…for me, at least

I needed this item. I’m not entirely sure why since there were far better items for my Amazon, but the fact remained. I tried to trade for it using the in-game marketplace, but to no avail. However, I did find something else—a link to a black market website that would let me get this precious ring I so desperately needed. The only issue was…I needed a credit card.

So, being the honorable and not-degenerate youth I was, I put my head towards the goal and grinded until I found my very own Stone of Jordan. Well, if I’m being honest, I promptly and without hesitation grabbed my mom’s credit card and bought the item. This is a decision I would later regret since my mom eventually found out, but that didn’t matter. I had my item! Or did I?

At the time there was essentially a trust system for these purchases. After the transaction was made on a website, a player would meet you in an agreed upon private game name and give you the item via the trade mechanic—a risky system that Blockchain smart contracts addressed beautifully. And even though I didn’t have the power of Blockchain at the time, I experienced no issues and received my item. I didn’t earn this item. I didn’t struggle to find it. I just wanted it. So I just bought it. Did that bug me? Absolutely not! I had a Stone of Jordan baby!

I Did It, and I’d Do It Again!

After I acquired my sweet, sweet ring, I was hooked on the black market. A few weeks later during another grind session, a realization burst into my mind—I myself could be the one selling these items for money! I set up a PayPal account and registered on a number of black market websites, and onward I went into the world of digital asset ownership within games. The first item I ever sold was a bow called ‘Windforce.’ It was rare, I had it, and I succeeded in selling it.

It really is one of the greatest items in the game!

Around the time of my first sale I remember logging into and entering the trade chat. I subsequently received an official message from Diablo 2. It issued a severe warning to anyone caught buying or selling items off network and promised that they would receive the ultimate punishment for their transgressions—the Perma-Ban.

Even after the warning, I participated in, fueled, and fully supported these digital black markets as often as I could. I spent years selling items, making money and ignoring the warnings like many other players during this time. I even came across someone on Reddit that claimed to have earned around $5,000 USD over 3 months and decided to make it his full-time job. From my own experience, this is something I can actually say was possible at the time.

So, as the community continued to ignore the rules and sold assets, a war raged on in the background. Stories of well-known players being banned began to surface. Chat rooms started filling up with whispers that a friend was banned for buying or selling items. These whispers soon started to grow louder and louder until…

Nothing. Yup, nothing happened. Anti-climactic? Agreed. OK, technically notorious accounts have actually been banned or removed as well as some players, but generally speaking, regular players have never, (and will never) run into this issue. But, while game developers pretended to combat the issue and advised players not to participate in these black markets, a game came out that not only allowed, but embraced, utilized and encouraged player-based economies. This game is set in a universe of space domination, piracy, resources, and treaties. That’s right, I’m talking about EVE Online .

EVE Online is still going strong to this day, but it’s even more punishing for new players than ever before…at least that’s what I was told

A Brave New World

Now I’m not saying Diablo or EVE Online were the first games to actually permit these things, but they were definitely part of the titans involved in the adoption of digital player economies in games. Personally I have never played EVE Online. That said, I still knew EVE had played a huge part in the acceptance of these systems. So I set out to learn more about EVE’s unique economy for my own enlightenment.

In all honesty, EVE was light-years ahead of its time. EVE uses a currency called Interstellar Kredits (ISK) combined with a system of Sinks and Faucets. Sinks serve as a way to flow money out of the game while Faucets bring money into it. Players were not punished or threatened with bans if they converted items into real world money—instead they were told it was essential for the system that they did so…

If this sounds familiar to Blockchain games, well, that’s because it is. EVE took this economy very seriously using an intricate system to regulate scarcity within the game. They even went as far as hiring actual economists to help control the fluctuating liquidity pools of in-game resources that change in relation to player population sizes. While reading up on these systems, I stumbled across an insane story of spies, kill contracts, Empires toppled and, at the center of it all, assets worth actual real world currency.

Before I get into this story, there are a few key aspects to understand about EVE Online first. In the game, if a player’s ship is destroyed, they have an escape pod that is only vulnerable for a short period of time. If that pod is destroyed, that player loses everything. With this level of risk, teams of people band together and form what are called Corporations. Similar to traditional guilds or clans, these Corporations allow players the benefit of achieving strength in numbers and thereby the ability to dominate resource gathering, piracy, or any other task(s) they choose to focus on.

Corporations are run by some key figures, most notably CEOs, lieutenants, and trusted individuals put in-charge of hangars and coffers. Hangars and coffers are deposit spots that members can safely store ships and pool resources worth tens of thousands of USD in a few select cases. EVE Online currently has an estimated 600 Trillion ISK valued at around 18 Million USD. This is a lower figure when compared with amounts seen previously in the game’s history, but nevertheless, it’s still pretty impressive.

The Molok, a ship with an estimated worth of 500 Billion ISK (around $4,000 USD at present)

A Not So Simple Contract

Now let’s set the stage: The year is 2004, EVE Online is in business, and business is booming. As always, a handful of large corporations dominate and maintain overall power in the game’s universe. Anyone who has been part of a large clan in one or more MMOs knows that petty squabbles can quickly turn into distrust, burnt bridges and in-game wars. EVE was no different, boasting a large market and consistent demand for bounties or kill contracts on other players.

These contracts are not actually part of EVE’s in-game mechanics; instead, they are agreements between players. And where there are contracts, there are people or groups ready to complete them. Perhaps the most infamous group is The Guiding Hand Social Club which gained notoriety after pulling off one of the most labor-intensive and insane heists ever in EVE Online and, in my opinion, the world of gaming as a whole.

The Guiding Hand was approached by an unidentified player who had a simple contract: Kill the player Mirial and present their cold, dead body as proof. Easy, right? Not so much…

Mirial was CEO of the giant Ubiqua Seraph, one of the most powerful Corporations of that time. The unidentified player agreed to pay the sum requested by The Guiding Hand and flat-out refused to take any percentage of the resources and salvage attained from the hit. This was something that was not usually denied when offered in these types of contracts. So, with payments agreed and made, the Guiding Hand devised a plan to accomplish this monumental task and got to work.

Ubiqua Seraph’s Insignia

The Art of Deception and Infiltration

The exact details are vague since members of the group seemingly maintained a high level of secrecy regarding how they did it, but the plan itself was simple enough: Gain the trust of their target and set a trap. While the plan may have been straightforward, the execution and time-intensive nature of it was anything but.

I found reports that The Guiding Hand set up situations where their spies could help members of the Ubiqua Seraph Corporation to garner trust and be welcomed into the Corporation’s ranks. An example is learning shipping times and routes to initiate fake ambushes so that the spies could appear just in time and save the transports. Another entailed paying the Corporation to assist their spies in minor tasks over and over again with no issues.

Eventually The Guiding Hand’s patience and determination paid off. And what patience and determination it was! The operation took over 10 months to complete! I’m assuming you may glossed over that fact. Yup, 10 months, nearly an entire year, to achieve an objective, inside a video game, to kill a single player. Nevertheless, The Guiding Hand had infiltrated not only the 2nd-in-command position under Mirial herself, but every single Corporation hangar and coffer, giving them access to thousands of dollars of in-game items anytime they wanted.

Did I mention they had spies on the board of directors and within a Corporation-specific class called Arenis Xemdal? This division had the power to negate any high ranking official’s decisions, including those of the CEO. With the chessboard prepped for checkmate, all that was left to do was wait for the perfect time to spring the trap…

‘Execute Order 66’

Early in the morning of April 18th 2005, Mirial warped in only to find out what The Guided Hand was capable of. In a matter of minutes, Mirial would be assassinated, and every single hangar and coffer of the Ubiqua Seraph Corporation looted. All of this would transpire with the uttering of a single word—Nichole. Upon receiving this execution code, all spies within The Guided Hand would know it was finally time to pounce. The events that followed would graduate the word Nichole from a simple innocuous name to the rank of legend among EVE Online players.

With every hangar and coffer emptied, every office raided, and billions of ISK in losses even before the items themselves were included (as Mirial piloted and lost one of the most expensive ships in the entire game), The Guided Hand was able to steal resources, ships and assets worth a total of $16,000 USD. Now with current NFT prices, that may seem like a small sum, but to anyone truly considering the nature of the situation, it was an untold fortune.

This is a loss that the Ubiqua Seraph Corporation would never recover from. The uttering of Nichole wiped them off the control board in less than an hour. The Guided Hand Social Club had achieved the impossible and changed the history of EVE Online forever.

In terms of the impact, imagine logging on knowing 1 of 5 groups controls the majority of events and assets in the game’s universe, and the next day, that same group has been completely eliminated. This was where The Guided Hand Social Club demonstrated the power of their group’s name: they guided their targets into the situations they wanted and handed each of them a piece of their puzzle through calculated manipulation and expert subterfuge.

The cherry on top here was that, after everything had happened, there were rumors the resource bounty had been offered up again, something that incurred no risk whatsoever, just a simple yes, and the contract holder would be remunerated. The holder allegedly denied this offer yet again…all they had wanted was Mirial’s virtual corpse.

I can’t say for sure that this rumor is true, but I found multiple posts that supported it. The real question is—What could someone have possibly done so heinously to someone else that they would outright deny a real world payout with nothing to lose? I mean, they received no reimbursement after the fact. All they had wanted was Mirial dead.

It Was the Future, But It’s Here Now

As I wrestle with thoughts regarding what could have motivated someone to refuse such a handsome reward, I am inevitably reminded of the main point—someone wanted an in-game service and was able to have it fulfilled via a mechanism within a player-based economy.

We are at the beginning of what I hope to be the mass adoption of this type of economy necessary for Blockchain-based games using Play-to-Earn (P2E). And as I mentioned earlier about black markets in early digital economies, I will reiterate for Blockchain P2E: I participate in, fuel and fully support them any chance I get…

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