Devastating price crash in the Diablo III hamburger-dagger market

The market for a virtual hamburger which can be used in as a dagger in a popular video-game plummeted over the last week

Keeping on the hamburger theme, here's a sentence which will make sense to about two of you: the economy of Diablo III has fallen through the floor after a glut of Horadric Hamburgers (a burger which is also a dagger) for sale on the game's real-money auction house pushed the average price from around £90 to just £7.50.

The Horadric Hamburger is a "legendary" item in Diablo III. It's hard to get, and can only be found in a secret level, "Whimsyshire". And yes, it's a Hamburger which is also a dagger. The game provides only the cryptic description:

The Horadrim wandered far and wide to gather the finest ingredients for their feast. Only the lone traveler sent to the Moo Moo farm failed to return. Diablo had laid a trap for the Horadrim, the Hell Bovine, who struck the traveler down before he could gather the final ingredient: cheese.

The problem with the Horadric Hamburger is that although it's classified as an extremely rare item by the game, it's actually a bit rubbish. The game models stabbing someone with a hamburger relatively faithfully. That is to say, it doesn't hurt very much. As a result, no player who is practiced enough to find the damn thing is actually going to use it. It's a bit like a solid gold tennis-racket.

So the natural reaction of all the players was to take this immensely rare, precious, thing which they didn't actually want and use a new feature of the game which debuted last Friday: the real money auction house. There, they could sell their valuable trinket for cash money, and use it to buy real hamburgers which they can eat, rather than stab NPCs with.

Unfortunately, it seems everyone else had the same idea. As PC Games Network reported, three hours after the auction house opened, the burgers were listed at an average price of £87.91, with 12 chancers going for the maximum price of £200. By Tuesday, it appeared that they had realised their folly. Although it's impossible to tell how many sold, the average price had plummeted to just £7.50.

Virtual economies are increasingly interesting to economists, because of the sheer wealth of data they can produce. Valve, the makers of the Half Life and Portal series, recently hired Yanis Varoufakis, who rose to fame analysing the eurocrisis, as their "economist-in-residence". The President of Valve, Gabe Newell, laid out his pitch to Varoufakis:

I have been following your blog for a while… Here at my company we were discussing an issue of linking economies in two virtual environments (creating a shared currency), and wrestling with some of the thornier problems of balance of payments, when it occurred to me "this is Germany and Greece", a thought that wouldn’t have occurred to me without having followed your blog. Rather than continuing to run an emulator of you in my head, I thought I’d check to see if we couldn’t get the real you interested in what we are doing.

The Diablo economy is far simpler than the one that Valve appears to be setting up, but there's still no shortage of teachable lessons. The key one from this story is the fallacy of the idea that goods have some "intrinsic" value. Produce - even a legendary hamburger-dagger - is worth what people are prepared to pay for it. No more, no less. In this case, the labeling of the item gave faulty signals, which convinced sellers that there would be more demand than their actually was. As time went on and none sold, they were forced to cut prices to a more realistic level.

The auction house has now settled down a bit. If it goes the same direction as the auction house in Blizzard's previous game, World of Warcraft, expect to see some very interesting case studies indeed.

A hamburger. Not a virtual hamburger. Certainly not a virtual hamburger-dagger. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.