Virtual Currencies – currencies of the future? To what extent?
Bank innovation published a very nice article about virtual currencies and the progresses made by Facebook and Apple and such other virtual currency “emitter”. Let’s look at those currencies progresses and try to see the limits of the system they set for themselves.
First of all, let’s look at the facts.
The virtual currencies are not completely new. How many offline retailers tried to do this? Loyalty points? Competition and rewards? Win points that you can exchange against presents, gifts and more or different loyalty points. Loads. Once upon a time retailers dreamt of managing their own currency so that they control fluctuation more adequately based on their own standards then a currency that wouldn’t listen to what they thought about the market.
To set things straight, Facebook and Apple are definitely democratising the concept but the real player that was worth watching when this came along was World of Warcraft (W0W). Blizzard didn’t in fact control the sales for those virtual goods that some users spent weeks seeking in the game and were mostly sold offline or on eBay. Many made a living out of that business very fast and it is said that there still are some 400 professional WoW sellers in South Korea alone and there are even price comparison sites to buy “WoW Gold” online (the WoW virtual currency). I am sure that Blizzard will see this as a big source of their future revenue for their next Massively Multiplayer game they ll produce. Who wouldn’t?
eBay themselves had to issue new rules of how to sell those items which pretty much banned the virtual goods of the site at the time as the fraud was big and even sometimes went very far in litigation and even some murder cases (!).
So what is new?
Certainly the scale. If the article quoted at the beginning is correct, Facebook would have sold for $250M of virtual money this year. This number is big. Although in the grand scheme of things $250M compared to the overall scale of payments (about $20-$25 Trillion) is nothing ~ 0.13bps or 0.0013%.
The growth would also make people wonder. Facebook’s revenue alone are said to grow 70-80% a year still and 1/4 of that would come from their virtual currency. Something to watch out for then?
The number of players in that new economy is also interesting, of course most talk about Apple and Facebook early successes but the number of players in the market is astronomical. Small and medium merchants are also issuing their own currencies, usually game producers and other gaming platforms are forced to emit their own virtual currencies. Reason: economies of scale perspective. In effect, all payment companies charge a by-transaction fee that would make the low cost items too expensive to sell and eat the merchant’s margin so they all came up with that virtual currency so that they can afford to get higher ticket items and lower proportional transaction fees; $0.18 of $1 would be 18% of your margin that would just evaporate, $0.18 of $18 is much more affordable and only 1%.
Let’s consider the limits to these new currencies
At this moment, no or few rules exist on how to use that currency but of course as any financial services company and banks all those companies issuing these new mode of payments will need to comply with normal rules. Facebook is considering usage of their virtual currency offline, for physical goods and beyond borders. Surely at some point our lovely lawyers and regulators will start to regulate all of this very strictly. Again all is about scale.
Inter-operability will also grow into an issue. The big players will probably be strong enough to enforce more and more acceptance points but what about the myriad of small ones? Where would I be able to use my obscure virtual credits that I bought online if the company goes bust or if I don’t want to spend some more. Very few companies authorise these currencies to be cashed out. And even if they did, Anti Money laundering laws won’t be long to block any kind of transfer back to cash.
Virtual currencies are an interesting problem to have, for some economy of scale stand point, players have created new problems that they wouldn’t have if the payment industry was more adaptable. PayPal is at this moment the only payment player that issued their Digital Goods’ pricing but I see this as a legitimate fight back by those industry giants. How long for the historical players like MasterCard, Visa and American Express to emit a reasonable response? Will it be too late to turn back to “normal money” by then for all the small players? Will Facebook and Apple succeed where other retailers that created their own currency failed?
Posted on 11/09/2011, in Virtual Currencies and tagged Apple, Digital goods, Facebook, MasterCard, PayPal, virtual currency, Virtual Payments, Visa, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.