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 Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.