Meet Howie Zhang — The Economy Designer of Guild of Guardians
We’re on a mission to onboard hundreds of millions of gamers into digital ownership via NFTs, by building the world’s most popular mobile RPG where players can turn their passion for gaming into real assets.
It’s a bold ambition, and bold ambitions require relentless focus, teamwork and some of the best talents in the industry. In this ‘Meet the Team’ series, we take a behind-the-scenes look at the team who are passionately building and spearheading the next frontier of gaming.
Meet our Economy Designer and King 👑, Howie Zhang— A lifelong gamer with a passion for innovation! Previously, he worked as a Quant Analyst in a highly reputable Australian company but decided to use his skills to help build innovation in gaming.
As a gamer himself, Howie has always been passionate about the gaming industry and believes that now is the time to make his mark on the blockchain world.
Tell us about yourself, Howie!
GOG morning everyone, I’m super pumped for this interview!
So a bit about me, I come from a family of Chinese scholars and academics. I was born in Beijing, and I immigrated to Australia when I was a child. Like many migrant families, my parents gave up everything, started with nothing, and worked hard to provide me with a bright future.
I’ve been a gamer all of my life. One of my earliest memories as a child was playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on a Famicon-clone with the older kids in my neighbourhood. In primary school, I was playing Mario Kart on the SNES and later Goldeneye on the N64 at my friend’s place (we could never afford consoles at home). Then in high school, when I got my first taste of dial-up internet on the PC, I played Starcraft, Diablo 2, CS, and Warcraft 3, before moving on to Dota and WoW. Attending LAN parties in the early 2000s was some of the biggest highlights of my childhood and teenage years.
I took a bit of a break from gaming for a few years to focus on school and work. When I got back into gaming, I was less ‘hardcore’, preferring to play more casual games on mobile and PC. My career previously was in Quantitative Finance, where I worked on market design and research at the stock exchange. I spent a few years at a start-up stock exchange, where I contributed to its growth and development until it was eventually acquired by a major US stock exchange. This experience gave me a unique perspective on what it takes to grow a market and the importance of having a diverse mix of participants in any ecosystem you’re building. The variety gives vibrancy — and this is something I’m always mindful about when working on Guild of Guardians.
You’re the Economy Designer for Guild of Guardians — What exactly does your role entail? And what does a day in the life at Guild of Guardians look like for you?
The Economy Designers’ job is to ensure that the generation, flow, and distribution of resources in our game is balanced and fun. Unlike a real-world economist who typically optimises for efficiency, the Economy Designer in a video game needs to optimise for fun. Our decisions typically centre around the player experience, for example:
- Do we introduce a resource pinch-point here?
- Are the rewards adequate to incentivise players to undertake challenging gameplay?
More specifically, various mathematical and statistical models exist to simulate and evaluate our designs. I also give input on various other design challenges that touch on the resources; for an RPG like GOG, that means I may be required to give my opinion on non-economy-related features such as dungeon difficulty, UX flow, and general game design.
My workday typically starts around 7 AM, I’ll read up on overnight messages and emails from the team in US/Europe, and I’ll follow up on the latest news on the press/Twitter. I’ll also read through discord to check in with the community pulse. I have a morning huddle with the Design team, who are located mostly in the US, and we will review the various priorities and dependencies. The rest of the morning is usually reserved for meetings and planning.
My business-as-usual (BAU) involves reviewing various economy models, building my models, and reviewing/initiating design documentation. I also have some oversight into the data and analytics work that goes into supporting and monitoring the functionality of the game and its economy.
In the late afternoon, I meet with our European Economy team, and we discuss the work that needs to be done and the milestones we need to reach to gear up for a successful launch. During the evening, I then either read some articles or think about our strategy.
Why is it so important that our virtual economy is well designed?
There are multiple reasons why we need to pay particular attention to economy design in GOG. First, player progression is very important in the RPG genre, and this is especially true on a mobile platform, where reflex/mechanical skill is diminished due to the input medium.
In GOG, player progression is dependent on strategic decisions related to squad composition, energy consumption, and resource generation. This means that much of the game’s depth is contained in the design of the economy. It should be complex enough that players can get a sense of mastery but simple enough that it’s still fun — striking a fine balance between these two aspects is a mix of art and science.
Secondly, we are a web3 game; what this means is that our economy is open, players own their digital assets, and this means that they are free to do what they wish with their assets. Unlike traditional games where trading is restricted (e.g. Bind on Equip/Pick-up in MMOs) or real-money trading is prohibited, our game explicitly aims to promote the ability of players to transfer and trade their assets with each other. This means that the designer has less ability to influence or dictate outcomes/player experiences. As a result, the initial set-up of the economy needs to be well designed at the outset because intervention into a live open economy is a much more complex task.
Finally, we’re pioneers; the question of economic sustainability has not been fully solved in this space. There are so many fundamental and open questions right now. For example:
- What does ownership mean?
- How do we overcome player loss aversion?
- How do we manage artificial scarcity?
- How do we limit inflation?
- How do we prevent boom-bust price cycles?
- How do mainstream gamers co-exist with new types of gamers?
- How do we safeguard against bots and exploits?
Looking around, we have many examples of what not to do but few examples of what to do. Therefore, we need to be thought leaders and propose bold new solutions to unanswered questions.
A big issue in blockchain gaming is that virtual economies collapse; why does that happen?
It is true that many first-generation web3 game economies have not done very well from a financial ROI perspective, especially for the majority of players who joined later.
I think one of the fundamental questions that many projects fail to answer is the question of what happens when players churn. In web2 games, player churn wasn’t as much of a problem because in-game assets were generally locked to a player’s account. However, in web3, when a player churns, they can simultaneously choose to sell their inventory. If the active player base cannot absorb these goods, and the game has no incentives to sink or stake these assets, then an inevitable collapse occurs. The trap is that instead of addressing churn, projects instead focus on player growth. After all, as long as player growth exceeds player churn, then this collapse can be averted. Games that lean into this end up developing intentional or accidental Ponzi-style models where the sustainability of the economy is predicated on more players joining.
An easy way to encourage new players to join us is to create a mechanic where limited assets produce more limited assets (e.g. a breeding mechanic). The excess demand on limited assets creates a price run-up, causing FOMO and player growth to rise on the expectation of large returns. However, eventually, the game’s assets become over-supplied and the reason for new players to join the game disappears. When this happens, the price rapidly unwinds, and it all comes crashing down. The problem here is that developers should focus on what makes the game fun and reduce churn, not on how to give speculators a way to make the most money.
What do you think will help make Guild of Guardian’s virtual economy sustainable?
One of the main innovations we are introducing is our guild crafting system. This feature requires many players to coordinate and cooperate in order to access the primary earning loops.
Guilds will need to put quite a bit of time and effort into making sure that they strategise, farm the correct resources, have the optimal squads needed to farm recipes, and complete dungeons and raids.
Guild spots are limited, and the number of tokens is also limited, with no ability to create additional crafting guilds. The items produced by a guild are needed for players to progress; the idea here is we balance the earner persona who just wants to grind and earn with the player persona that just wants to progress through content and have fun and mix them in an economy where both are contributing value to each other. We think this type of intensely social experience has the potential to reduce player churn and increase the emotional attachment to their assets. We hope when players do churn, there are always good reasons for players to return to GOG (social connections and continued asset utility).
You were a Quant Analyst at a highly reputable Australian company; what made you switch to working for Guild of Guardians?
I was beginning to lose motivation working in Finance, the truth is that financial markets have been around for hundreds of years, and the scope for innovation is limited by regulation, legacy infrastructure, and also because they’re already so incredibly efficient. Finding ways to improve the design is very difficult. Meanwhile, blockchain and crypto were innovating at such a rapid pace, and I was feeling a lot of FOMO myself. I saw gaming as a perfect application for NFTs and wanted to contribute my skills and experience to the project. As a long-time fan of Diablo 2, the idea of developing and designing a new experience for a new generation was something that excited me.
What are some of your major personal goals?
My major personal goal is to define this new career for all passionate current and future gamers. As the ‘metaverse’ or the time we spend virtually increases, this field will become more and more serious. I remember a time when video gaming was seen as a geeky hobby and seen as a distraction or waste of time. Nowadays, gaming is mainstream, and it’s seen as a legitimate past-time for billions of people. With the advent of web3 and more immersive platforms, gaming in all its forms and iterations will become a part of everyday life for everyone. In the future, the importance of a virtual economist to manage that design and ensure that it brings joy and is sustainable will become more and more relevant.
I want to be at the bleeding edge of that transition, and there’s no better place to do it than at Immutable, working on Guild of Guardians.
When you’re not grinding to help make Guild of Guardians the best mobile game, what do you like to do for fun?
Outside of video games, my hobbies include road cycling during spring & summer, weightlifting all year round, and snowboarding during winter. I’m also a big fan of sci-fi & fantasy books. Currently, I’m really into the Cradle series by Will Wight — highly recommend it!
Where can we follow you on social media?!
Follow me on Twitter at @yowitzer!
We hope you enjoyed getting to know our Economy Designer, Howie Zhang. Stay tuned for the next edition to learn more about the people behind the game, Guild of Guardians.
Until next time.