Updated: Jim Durbin pointed out that I was doing it wrong, so I’m taking some of his cues to bang it around more and see what I missed in-game the first time around. Expect an update in a week or two.

I’m a gamer, having played video games all my life, an avid World of Warcraft player, and much more, so when someone announces a social game that purportedly combines gaming and social networks, of course I’m going to take a peek. Such is the curious case of Empire Avenue, which is supposed to be a fantasy stock market, but for social media personalities as opposed to companies and commodities. So, what did I come up with in my first 24 hours playing?

Empire Avenue is possibly one of the best designed pyramid schemes I’ve seen.

First, it’s got the vanity/ego hook combined with a claim about social media metrics. Bam. Every social media monkey who obsesses over things like Klout score is in all the way, if only to have another number to attach to their names in lieu of actual accomplishments. That by itself is a guaranteed win, because ego hooks every time.

Now, in a regular video game, there are currency sources and sinks, or ways to obtain in-game currency and ways to spend it. In World of Warcraft, for example, you kill critters or demons or big bads for money, among other things, and you spend that money on gear and upgrades. There are no options for obtaining currency (within the Terms of Service) outside the game.

Guild bank

Look at the way Empire Avenue works. Every player starts out with 10,000 or so of the game’s currency. After your initial account creation, what are the sources and sinks of game money? More friends recruited (who bring their own starter cash), watching ads, or outright buying game currency. There aren’t any in-game sources of money after the starter cash except getting lucky on investments – so you either have to build up your own pyramid and downlines to feed your empire, or resort to out of game purchases or purchase equivalents. This builds in a network effect and a pyramid all at the same time – the more people you recruit, the more money potential you have in your downline, since the principal source of new cash in-game is recruiting.

Next, look at the game mechanics. Every transaction has a house cut of 5%, so if you buy and sell, say, Mack Collier, you’d better have made at least 10% on the deal or you’ve lost money. Think about that for a second. Other than buying it outright or with purchase equivalents, there is no source of in game cash other than recruiting new people, which means that once the service plateaus, the house will be bleeding away 5-10% on every single action in the game. Put another way, the economy will be consistently shrinking once the service plateaus and the infusions of new cash from referrals dries up. To keep playing, you will have to buy in or hope you get very lucky on your “investments” to beat the house.

Finally, look at how the system incentives work. Social media personalities show up and they provide immediate cash drains for the majority of the player base. You’re much more likely to “invest” in Chris Brogan than you are some guy you’ve never heard of, and people like Chris and I are likely too set up shop there but not do much else (we’re too busy), so we are effectively cash sinks that drain away resources from the bottom of the pyramid. What happens when the masses at the bottom of the pyramid burn through their starter cash and can’t beat the 10% house fee? That’s right – time to buy more game cash, either with real world cash or cash-equivalent actions (watching ads, downloading apps, etc.)

If you want to hear more about my review of Empire Avenue, be sure to tune into John Wall’s and my remarks on Thursday’s episode of Marketing Over Coffee.

I salute the Empire Avenue team for coming up with a very potent cocktail of social gaming, gambling, and strong financial incentives to make one heck of a pyramid game. It’s got all the right mechanics to make its creators a bucket of money at the expense of people who want to be known in social media for any reason at all or are desperate to chase after any new shiny object, which is a brilliant design.

None of this holds a candle, of course, to the real Wall Street, which has some amazing schemes in its own right. (Amazon affiliate link)

Should you play? That’s up to you. I’ve pretty much abandoned my account already, so I apologize in advance for being a massive cash sink in the in-game economy. Feel free to roll a Horde character in Warcraft and beat me up in Alterac Valley to get even. (for the Alliance, even if the Alliance on my server can’t PvP to save its life)

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