Reaming Reamde

REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson

I HATE to be that guy but I just wasn’t expecting Reamde to be so … mass-market. Here’s the review from, which cements the problem I have in general with most reviews of celebrity writers with the very first sentence:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that throwing all expectations overboard whenever Neal Stephenson releases a new novel is a good idea.

Um… no. Expectations are why we have celebrity rock-star writers. Neal and Neil are two of my all-time favorite science fiction writers for a reason, and I read them because I want to read a Neal or a Neil story. I don’t want a Grisham novel or a Steele book. I want more of what I love. In this, Reamde failed spectacularly to deliver, despite starting out with a concept that was almost tailor-made to set alight all my dopamine receptors: gold-farming and MMORPGs. (I don’t intend to rename the blog anytime soon, but it would probably be more apt).

I find reviews of that sort to be empty of any real value. In contrast, Mark writes an honest review in praise of Reamde which makes a far better case for any fan of Neal to pick it up at some point – I don’t have such serious qualms or complaints that I can’t agree with most of Mark’s assessment. But oh my god, Anathem was such a monumental masterpiece! And the Baroque Cycle literally expanded my horizons, historically speaking. (Yes, I’m aware it was fiction. And in an alternate universe, where gold has a stable isotope.)

I guess I expected something similarly mind-blowing with respect to MMORPGs, and i was certainly happy to see what Neal had to teach me about gun lore, liberal biases aside. But (and this is where I nitpick in spoilery fashion) I found the MMORPG part curiously shallow… for example:

Neal certainly got some of the tropes of MMORPGs right, especially the naming conventions for items. But the big Idea for T’Rain, his fictionalized competitor to World of Warcraft, was to make the game gold-farming-friendly, by actually encouraging people to exchange gold in-game for real money. Before I start picking nits though let me bask in a moment of true awesome, where Neal gets a little self-referential:

The opening screen of T’Rain was a frank rip-off of what you saw when you booted up Google Earth. Richard felt no guilt about this, since he had heard that Google Earth, in turn, was based on an idea from some old science-fiction novel.

Look, this pretty much proves that Neal Stephenson is still Neal Stephenson. I mean, if you’re a Fan of Neal, you’ll need a few minutes to just sit and appreciate the sheer rapture the above paragraph is causing you. (If not, never mind).

Anyway – here’s how T’Rain operates:

* Warrior mages and other interesting characters were expensive to maintain. Corporation 9592 charged the owners of such characters more money. Miners, hunter-gatherers, farmers, horse archers, and the like cost virtually nothing; teenagers in China could easily afford to maintain scores or hundreds of such characters.

* Miners, farmers, and the like didn’t require a lot of intervention by their owners. A miner character would reliably generate gold with no human intervention at all, provided that its player had the good sense to plonk it down in a part of the world that had actual gold mines and to protect it from raids by bandits, invaders, and so forth.

* The social structure was feudal. Any character could have between zero and twelve vassals, and either zero or one lord. A character with no lord and no vassals was called a ronin, bugt except among rank newcomers, there were few of these; more typical was to set up a moderately-sized network of vassals who spent their lives doing things like mining and farming. A character who had some vassals but no lord was called a Liege Lord and, obviously enough, sat at the top of a hierarchy; most Liege Lords were small-timers running one-or two-layered networks or miners or farmers, but some ran deeper trees comprising thousands of vassals distributed among many layers of the hierarchy.

By making such provisions and tweaking them over the first couple of years of T’Rain’s existence, Richard and Nolan had managed to pull off the not-so-easy feat of making a massively multiplayer game that was as accessible to the all-important Chinese teenager market as it was to the podgy middle-aged Westerners who were dependent upon those Chinese teenagers for virtual gold. From one point of view, the Westerners got to have more fun, since they could purchase gold pieces and use that virtual cash to fund spectacular building projects and wars that were simply out of reach to the kids in China. But on the other hand, those kids in China were actually making money; playing the game, to them, was a source of income rather than an expense.

Now, this sounds brilliant on the surface, and there’s an even longer excerpt later on in the book describing how money is actually transferred out of T’Rain – virtual in-game gold is “sacrificed” (destroyed) and becomes a deposit to the player’s bank account. But economically, this makes no sense – fundamentally, if gold is generated in-game according to some rate N gp/min, and the exchange rate is X dollars per gp, then the game could theoretically have to pay out NX dollars per minute. Since the system is setup to actively encourage gold farming of this sort, it’s a guarantee that the efficiency of the gp->$ conversion efficiency is going to approach 100%. Even if it’s 1% though, it’s not like Corporation 9592 can print money In real Life. So the payouts have to come from game revenue. In other words, the amount of money paid out to Chinese kids is fundamentally constrained by the amount being paid in by Western podgies.

In Warcraft, we Western podgies pay in, straight to Blizzard’s coffers. AND some Western podgies pay an additional amount directly to Chinese kids for some gp to use in-game. That is, it goes $->gp, not the other way around. And, Blizzard gets a cut too, because those Chinese kids are paying Blizz for accounts just like the Westerners are. In T’Rain, the economics are inverted, and it seems impossible that Corporation 9592 would have any profit at all.

Maybe I just don’t understand economics but I don’t see how this works at all. It’s not metaphysics or alternate realities, it’s basic game mechanics that I think should be fairly obvious to anyone who has played Warcraft for a length of time (as opposed to dabbling on a free account, perhaps to do research on a book).

Here’s my complaint. The true richness of the MMORPG world isn’t evident in Reamde – it’s more like a backdrop for a gimmick, What if Gold Farming Were Real Business? All the reasons we play MMORPGs are absent here – the difference between raids and pvp, why some people solo and others do 5-mans, the eternal treadmill for gear, the social tribalism of a guild. Neal does sort of reference the Alliance vs Horde faction division, but only as a sort of commentary on how arbitrary it is, in T’Rain one side was explicitly Evil and the other explicitly Good, and the users found a way to circumvent that artificial and arbitrary classification (but did so in a frankly stupid way, based on clothing palette. Really? sigh…). In Azeroth, Horde and Alliance are both tremendously varied and there was never any Good/Evil dichotomy, so if that was intended as criticism on Neal’s part, it fell short of the mark.

In fact there is a very brilliant aspect of T’Rain – something truly unique an innovative. It’s called APPIS and I am not going to summarize it here because I think it’s the single thing that makes the book worth reading in the same thought-provoking way that Anathem and Snowcrash and all the rest of his great works are. But to my immense and incredible frustration, Neal introduces APPIS and then never actually uses it in the plot. The actual term APPIS itself only appears on six separate pages in the book! We are given this amazing concept and then it vanishes, never surfacing again in any relevant way, booted aside for guns and jihadists and a discussion about Great Circle routes. This is astonishing. It’s as if the finale to Snowcrash happened in a shopping mall instead of the Metaverse. How can such an incredible concept be left unused? My consolation prize is the essentially useless knowledge that a 1911 is a really awesome handgun. Noted.

At any rate, there’s not much point in complaining further. Maybe we can revisit the Reamde universe at some point where APPIS can play some actual relevant role to the plot. Or maybe not, and maybe some aspiring writer will be inspired by Reamde to invent something similar and actually use it.

Or maybe not and maybe Neal’s next project is the one that will blow my mind the way I expect it to be blown, Stephenson-style. My complaints aside, I don’t regret getting the book and I know I’ll be pre-ordering the next one.

9 thoughts on “Reaming Reamde”

  1. This is interesting. I’ve never really played MMORPGs, so I don’t really have that sort of perspective to come from. To my mind, the interesting thing about the game he set up was the simple nature of acknowledging and designing around the Chinese market.

    It’s the problem of all new MMORPGs – how do you compete with WoW? Most would-be competitors seem to be a flavor of the month, a sorta vacation from WoW, but that only lasts for a few months, then everyone apparently returns to WoW. T’Rain seems like it could actually compete, but my understanding of the game is only surface-level, since it’s only really a plot device in a thriller. You bring up some good points about the money changing system, and quite frankly, I’m not sure if the divide between Westerners and Easterners would be all that comfortable.

    The impression I get is that Stephenson was exploring some of his pet interests in the video game setting. We know, for example, that he’s obsessed with monetary systems, especially virtual monetary systems. Another example is how the game is subverted by its players. Like the hackers from Cryptonomicon being surprised at who their clients ended up being (i.e. criminals), Richard is surprised by various gamers’ perversions of the system (i.e. earthtones vs brightness). And so on.

    But yeah, it’s “just a thriller” and I can totally see how that would be disappointing to some folks, and if you were really looking forward to the Gold Farming/MMORPG aspects, I can see it being frustrating as well.

  2. Just a thought on the profit margin thing… My guess is that the money changers work the same way the ones in the airports do… different exchange rates going either way. So if it costs the Ransom-ees $78 USD for 1000GP, then my guess is that the Chinese Hacker Ransomers would only get $65-70 US. That and the explanation that GP is not simply “created” out of thin air WoW’esqe and put on the corpses of mobs, but there is a finite amount that is available through geological modeling, and that much like in real life, requires time and effort to extract it from the virtual ground, and transform it into usable items/gold pieces/etc, would be a limiting factor. In all reality, just go with it. It’s plot device on a really good story.

  3. oh for petes sake.
    Two things.
    and its going to make a great movie.

    How accessible is Anathem? Cryptonomicon? the Baroque Cycle?
    i’ll tell you how….like perhaps 20% of the population has sufficient IQ to assimilate those books.
    you are such a snob, Aziz.
    did you ever check out the Mongoliad?

  4. ah, a rare compliment! Though if a snob be I, it be from Neal’s own hand.

    okay, Reamde is accessible. So is everything written by these folk and frankly, they do raw mass-consumption thriller better than Neal. I’m sorry to burst your bubble but if Reamde ever makes it to the big screen (and it won’t), it will demote Richard to supporting cast, and be minus all mention of APPIS, great circles, or the War of Realignment. That stuff is irrelevant to the “accessible” plot about a sexy geek girl who gets abducted by jihadis and has to be rescued by the Goonies plus Captain Russia.

    Where Neal excels is in *ideacraft* and my frustration isn’t that there isn’t any ideacraft in Reamde, it’s that he just didn’t do due diligence on developing any of the ideas further than the bare minimum

    frankly if you liked the book then its worth buying. It was a good tale and I am not sorry I bought it. But it wasn’t on the same par as his other books, and if he decided to tone down the geek in order to make it more accessible, and if that was to sell more copies, then you know, I am totally fine with that too. I’m not going to pull my punches on my review, but neither am I going to begrudge a genius for making a buck. After all, genius is the inverse of entertainment success (exhibit A: Firefly.)

    If Neal never writes another Anathem again, then fine. I still have Anathem. But it’s a bar HE set, not me.

    As far as mongoliad, I’ve no patience for the web version – I’ll wait for a proper book when it comes out. This new app/website/forum/communal thing is not my cup of tea, though I am heartily glad he is experimenting (and am very approving of his choices of co-conspirators). there will be a book version soon enough and I’m almost guaranteed to buy it.

    anyway, you surely disagree with all of the above, so let me close with something we surely can agree on. I’d love a book just about APPIS. agree or disagree?

  5. lol, we shall never agree.
    Seeing Further is available now in paperback and kindle.
    You should read Stepensons chapter on computational metaphysics.

  6. you know my habbibi….the basic difference between you and meh….i think the border between physics and metaphysics is semi-permeable.
    so does Stephenson. so does Dr. Hamerhoff.

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