A Tale of Tulips and Documents
It is said that the first economic bubble happened in the Netherlands around the 17th century. It started with the still world-famous Dutch flower commerce. Its main protagonist was the tulip, one of the most well-known Dutch symbols. For that, this event is also known as Tulipmania.
Tulips are beautiful flowers that bloom in early spring for a short time. They last only a few weeks and then remain dormant until the following spring. Tulips are often planted and commercialized in a mature bulb format, as their seed takes years to mature fully.
Due to their brief appearance, tulips had a high economic and societal status, but their commerce was somewhat limited to those few blooming weeks. That is, until someone had the idea of anticipating the entire process, not by fooling nature, but by commercializing them before they were ready to be harvested.
The idea was to buy the upcoming blooming tulips from farmers before spring in the form of a document. When the tulips were ready, the document holder would collect them, bypassing the competition. This process is seen as one of the earliest manifestations of stock markets.
As in stock markets, stocks can be sold regardless of their physical manifestation. If I had documents that gave me ownership of 100 tulips, I could sell these documents right away for a profit rather than waiting for the upcoming spring. The repeated document-selling caused tulips and their respective documents to reach unprecedented prices.
However, as most of the market was around trading papers rather than flowers, people soon realized that the entire economy was built under mere assumptions, not tangible goods. It was operating under promises: the promises of blooming tulips, the promises of constant interest for them, and the promises for a continual increase in their values, even though they were, again, only flowers.
The entire market collapsed when people started the inverse process: selling the papers and transforming those assumptions into tangible assets. Realizing that those promises could not be fulfilled made people hasten to turn their documents into money. The sudden massive rush to sell the documents caused the prices to plummet, leaving many in ruins. After all, yet-to-bloom flowers and papers were not worthy of castles and windmills.
Promises and Premises
What caused the tulips and their documents to increase their values over time is what we understand as speculation. In practice, speculation is this process of buying and selling assets, anticipating how their actual values will change over time for profit.
Speculation is still widespread in stock markets and other economic mechanisms based on promises and premises of how markets and consumers behave. Many companies and enterprises operate mainly under these conditions.
For example, an all-you-can-eat restaurant runs on the premise that clients will consume and cost less than they pay. Even if an occasional customer comes in and devours the sushi buffet, most clientele still make the business profitable enough to operate by eating an appropriate amount or even less than they should.
Nevertheless, some of these premises might change drastically in days. Events like the recent COVID-19 global pandemic were responsible for changing many of these premises and creating others.
The Brazilian Flying/Failing Plans
Brazil is a continental country that spans multiple timezones, climates, and biomes. Due to its size, it is easier and faster (not cheaper) to travel between cities by plane. However, Brazil has no low-cost flight companies, making it a luxury for the few who can afford it.
Indeed, some companies attempt to fill this market gap with options and strategies that allow cheaper travel alternatives or reduced flight ticket costs. One of them, 123 Milhas (roughly translated to 123 Miles), operated with these strategies.
Mainly, 123 Milhas combined flight ticket purchases from multiple passengers to get discounts directly with the flying companies. Moreover, the company used monitoring systems to find dates and timetables with lower costs, further reducing the prices.
However, during the pandemic and the flight restrictions caused by it, the company had to come up with new solutions to keep afloat, and they did: promo no-date flights. It consisted of passengers buying the rights for a flight without specifying a date to guarantee their upcoming trips when the flight restrictions were lifted and the pandemic was over.
123 Milhas was running under two basic premises. The first was already part of the company strategy: finding lower-cost dates and bulk-buying tickets for its clients. As clients were not picky about up their dates, this process could be even more optimized, allowing for more flexibility to get cheaper options.
The second premise was based on the consequences of the pandemic and the flight restrictions: the number of clients wanting to travel would increase further as the pandemic persisted, driving the prices of flight tickets and related services down due to the predicted high demand once the restrictions were lifted.
Unfortunately, the opposite happened. As the pandemic was considered over, flight tickets soared high to compensate for the deficit caused by the restrictions. At the same time, jet fuel prices have increased significantly since then for a variety of reasons. With that, the company was and is still unable to provide the services (and promises) it sold to many customers in Brazil.
Currently, 123 Milhas is undergoing legal manoeuvres to compensate for their failed assumptions, while risking bankruptcy. Unlike the Tulipmania, the 123 Milhas fiasco was not a matter of clients realizing the pitfall of their assumptions, but rather that life was quicker to show them that it is not always wise to bet on an unforeseeable future.
We Game on Future Prospects
In essence, both stories are similar in how people are keen to bet on prospects to make or save money. We look for tendencies and try to use them in our favour. But more than that, we are hopelessly hopeful about the future.
Although it might sound like a long stretch, games have explored these concepts for years through multiple mechanisms, such as promotional trailers and even exclusive box art that are way better than their respective games. The concept of pre-orders is another example of a mechanism that, like tulip documents, allow customers to own games before their natural bloom.
As they often lack specific launch dates, pre-orders are similar to 123 Milhas' promo no-date flights: you can pay for them now and hope to enjoy them sometime in the future. Or at least, you hope you will enjoy it, as there are no guarantees besides our assumptions and growing hype.
While it might be seen as a harsh take on pre-orders and the games industry, it is essential to note that, at the same time, these mechanisms that allow players to engage earlier with promised games can also help developers and designers deliver on these promises. Supporting systems and crowdfunding campaigns are also based on promises but are meant to lead toward their fulfillment rather than anticipated profits.
As life operates in gradients rather than extremes, pursuing a single instance on this matter is not a question. There might be games you believe enough to pre-order, while some crowdfunding campaigns might sound too sketchy to be trusted. On the other hand, it is essential to consider our behaviour as it is an important aspect of the game industry as a whole.
As we invest in games, be it through monetary funding, criticism, or word of mouth, we have an impact on the entire system. Then, let us consider where we put our effort and investments: is it in supporting and fostering creativity and inclusivity through new developments and new designers that deserve a chance, or is it in keeping the industry as it is, with all its contradictions?
As we are, indeed, hopelessly hopeful for a better future and, of course, better games, we cannot help ourselves to not get involved in promised future launches. Still, we can, at least, consider who we are supporting by doing so.
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