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I am an amateur game designer. I am designing a resource management game involving real money. This is my first time designing such a game. I explain the design and mechanics below. I need feedback from experienced game designers regarding:

i) The sustainability of the core economic loop of this game,

ii) Concrete suggestions to de-risk or fine-tune it (if you can think of any)


My game is about digging up treasure. Treasure is real $$$ players can cash out. The objective of the game is to make as much money as possible.

Players utilize digging machines (excavators) to unearth treasure. The attributes of these digging machines are:

  • Digging prowess: Most machines are mediocre diggers. I.e. they unearth small treasure. A few rare machines can dig up really big treasure. And then there are other types in between these two extremes.
  • Scarcity: Only a finite number of machines are available in this game world.
  • Transparency: Machines' visual design varies in accordance to their digging prowess. I.e. players can easily spot which machine is better than the rest.

Main mechanics:

When a new player joins this game, they utilize real $$$ to buy one or multiple such machines. Once bought, each machine can either be:

  • Stored away (unused), or

  • Put to work. Note that when a machine accumulates 1 hour of digging time, it unearths treasure. The amount unearthed is always proportional to the machine's digging prowess.

Putting machines to work has an upside and a downside:

  • Upside: Machines that are put to work unearth treasure (actual $$$ players can claim).

  • Downside: Working machines can be forcefully bought by another player (for the machine's current value + 5% profit). No permission is needed. This permanently increases the value of the machine. Which means, if you want to snatch it back, you pay a further 5% increment on top of everything.

Storing machines away has an upside and a downside:

  • Upside: Nobody can forcefully buy them from the player.

  • Downside: They don't help the player earn anything.


How do we finance the treasure-finds?

There is a pool of money in the back-end that finances each and every treasure-finding. We finance this pool in two ways:

  • The first time a digging machine is bought, 90% of the proceeds are routed to this pool (10% are pocketed by the game developer).

  • I earlier mentioned that whenever a machine is forcefully bought, a 5% profit is paid by the buyer to the unwitting seller. We route 10% of that profit to the treasure pool, 10% to the game developer, and 80% to the unwitting seller of the machine.


It would be great to get feedback from experienced game designers regarding the economic viability of the game's core loop. How do we:

  1. Make it sustainable?
  2. What are the economic risks?
  3. How can they be quantified?
  4. Are there any risk-minimization tactics we can bake in?
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    \$\begingroup\$ 5. How do I convince the judge that this is not an illegal pyramid scheme? But that would be a question for law.stackexchange.com \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Mar 28 at 12:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am sorry for calling this a pyramid scheme in my previous comment. What it is actually is a ponzi scheme. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Mar 28 at 13:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ This sounds similar to Bitcoin mechanics. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 30 at 20:49
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Using the revised explanation of the mechanics from a comment:

You're thinking the player gets 80% of 105% the base value. That wasn't my intention. The player actually gets 80% of the 5% profit above the base value (and of course they get the base value too)

We can analyze this a different way (check the edit history if you want to see the previous analysis under a different interpretation of the rules).

We'll look at the player's expected hourly earning from fielding a machine with value \$v\$ that accrues \$a\$ treasure per hour and might get purchased with probability \$p\$ in that hour:

$$\begin{align} E_\text{player} &= p (0.8 \times 0.05 v + v) + (1-p)a\\ &= 1.04 p v + a - p a\\ \end{align}$$

By construction, this is always positive. So that seems to suggest that this is always a profitable investment for all parties and we can make free money off it endlessly! But we know to be suspicious of perpetual motion machines, so let's look closer.

The exponential growth of the machine prices is the trick. Even with a small growth factor like 5%, these values get huge. A machine purchased for $1 originally costs $10 after 48 trades, $100 after 95 trades, $10 00 after 142 trades, and $10 000 after 189 trades.

As we get into these higher prices, whatever rate of return per hour \$a\$ the original $1 machine gave me in treasure earnings is pretty much negligible compared to what I had to pay to buy it. I could get a better return by putting that same money into a savings account or GIC instead. So now as a machine-holder I'm relying solely on other players buying the machine off me to make a profit.

But as we go up and up in price, the pool of potential customers willing to shell out that kind of money for this "game" gets thinner and thinner.

If we model the probability of a machine getting purchased in a given hour as inversely proportional to its price, then my expected earnings per hour approach a constant, while the price to stay in the game (by buying a new machine anytime one of mine gets bought) continues growing exponentially.

$$\begin{align} E_\text{player} &= p (0.8 \times 0.05 v + v) + (1-p)a\\ &= 1.04 p v + a - p a\\ &= 1.04 \frac {p^*} v v + a - \frac {p^*} v a\\ &= 1.04 p^* + a - \frac {p^* a} v \end{align}$$

So there will always come a point where this bounded earning rate drops below what the player can be earning through alternative investments. So they stop buying new machines, cash out their treasure, and put that money into an investment that scales with their investment instead.

That leaves you with a pool of machines that are no longer trading hands (so you make no new profit), and an obligation to continue paying their hourly treasure earnings indefinitely.

So neither the endless exponential growth nor perpetual payment obligation are sustainable.

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The problem with this ponzi scheme (not calling it a game, because it is a ponzi scheme) is that the payout to the members from "digging treasures" is financed by new members joining the scheme and putting in money. As with every ponzi scheme, this is sustainable as long as there are new members, but becomes unsustainable as soon as no members join anymore. And in this particular scheme, that point is actually hardcoded into this system, because the number of available digging machines is finite.

Digging machines already in the scheme get more expensive by forceful buying, but not more useful. Which means their expected return of investment will go down over time. That makes them less attractive the more often they change hands.

When the digging machines are no longer reasonably priced, they will stick with their current owners. At that point all the digging machines will keep accumulating cash prices for their current owners, but there won't be any stream of new cash to finance those cash prices. The price pool will dry up, and a lot of people who invested a lot of money into the scheme will get very angry.

At which point the developer might want to take what money they earned and leave to some exotic country which doesn't extradite them or seize their bank accounts.

But how can we extend the time until that happens? By occasionally adding new digging machines over the running time of the scheme for new members to buy. That way the scheme stays able to attract new and old members willing to put in more cash. It will stay sustainable as long as there is a target demographic to get new members from, or the existing demographic can be convinced that throwing in more money will benefit them in the long run (it doesn't, because as is in the nature with ponzi schemes, it can't pay out more money than it takes). This will increase the time it will take for the scheme to collapse.

Another option to save this scheme from collapse would be to not finance the cash prices from what the players put into the game, but rather use the system to distribute a cash flow from an entirely different source of income.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the elaboration. One distinction though: the game is not necessarily sustainable because of new members (although they do help). The game gets an injection of money every time there is a theft event. A closed system, with conceivably lots of theft events, may actually be sustainable too? That is what I wanted to model and find out. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 15:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here Philipp is using "new members" as a shorthand for "new investment" - you require players to keep buying more and more at escalating costs, whether those are new players buying their first machine, or existing players buying replacement/additional machines. That's still within the definition of a ponzi scheme that Philipp describes. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Mar 28 at 15:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DMGregory: thanks for clarifying. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 16:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HassanBaig The ponzi scheme will collapse as soon as the cheapest digger gets more expensive than the most gullible member is able and/or willing to pay. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Mar 28 at 16:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HassanBaig The core issue here is that you are trying to create money from nothing. People will notice that this is a game where everyone is going to lose in the end except for the developer running the ponzi scheme. It's not even like a poker tournamet where people can be under the illusion that skill and luck will give them an edge over other players and let them take their money. The "game" is far too simple for that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Mar 28 at 17:04

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