It's a well known secret that JaGEx once stood for Java Game Experts and that RuneScape was originally written in the Java programming language. In programming languages, numbers like the amount of experience a player has, the amount of gold pieces in their bank, or even the coordinates on a map are stored in memory and are known as variables. In some programming languages--Java included--variables have a definite size; an amount of computer memory they take up. In RuneScape, the most commonly used variable is the integer, 32 bits of space. An integer in Java can hold counting numbers from -2,147,483,648 to +2,147,483,647. This is why the maximum amount of GP a player can have is 2147M, and the maximum amount of experience a player can have in one skill is 200M (assumed to be clipped from 2147M / 10).
When RuneScape was originally developed back in 1999 as DeviousMUD, most personal computer hard drives were less than 10 GB in space. Size was an issue, and since our player avatars were stored server side, each new account took up precious space. In addition to these practical design constraints, there were logical limits as well. In a game where gaining experience was designed to take so much time, and items and money took so long to obtain, how could anyone possibly reach 2 billion? An integer--much larger than the short, which can only hold 32,767, and much smaller than a long, which holds more than 9 quintillion--was the natural choice. Oh how times have changed.
Briefly glancing at the RuneScape Hiscores, there are about fifty accounts with 200M experience in Attack, more than sixty accounts with 200M experience in Fletching, and more than 80 accounts with more than a billion total experience. As insane as those values are available, its even more difficult to imagine the number of accounts hovering at or near max cash, or individuals with banks worth more than several billion total. While these numbers are staggeringly mind numbing, an interesting question arises:
What are the implications of JaGEx retrofitting their game with long-type variables, instead of int-type variables?
There are three things I'd like to look at: the race to the top of the hiscores, the market for consumables and unfinished goods, and a thawing of certain stackables and rares.
First off, if JaGEx changed the amount of experience acquirable in each skill, for instance, raising it from 200M to a seemingly limitless 922 quadrillion (read as more than 4 billion times bigger), several things will happen. First, players will stop grinding skills they don't like (or are not very efficient) in their effort to reach the top of the total experience hiscore. Second, there will be differences in experience between #1 and #60 in the hiscores of skills like attack. Third, there will no longer be a magical goal number for players to train their accounts to (other than 104M for a theoretical level 120 in that skill, or 200m for former maxing out). Fourth, a paradox would occur. There would be a reason to continue to train a skill (continued experience), while at the same time having no point to train that skill (no end in sight). This ushers in a new theoretical dynamic of players trying to get atop the hiscores.
The market for consumable and unfinished goods would expand in both supply and demand. Players that no longer want or need items like dragon bones, yew logs or water talismans might suddenly find themselves looking to buy up everything. Players that find no use for tinderboxes might have to visit the general store once more. In the short term, stored GP from maxed accounts would flood the market as certain players look to jump positions in their ranking. In the long term, prices would stabilize on these items, or fall due to the relief that all others would feel: there is no point to training a skill past 99, there are no more tangible goals for players to achieve instead of the max experience players are chasing.
Since it is unlikely that JaGEx would ever change the maximum experience in each skill, a more foreseeable event is that they would change the maximum stack of items allowed. Players have already met and surpassed the 2147M limit on GP, and the "street value" of certain items have already exceeded 2B, meaning in the current game form GP has become worthless to a certain class of players.
If JaGEx decided to change from int type variables to long type variables, several things would happen. Players that trade for wealth and already have a maximum cash pile would be able to set new goals, and would be able to use GP as the medium through which they store their wealth once again. In the short term, this type of update would open the floodgates for how much a player can spend and sell. The market for virtually every valued item would be blown wide open. In short, an increased volume of cash flowing through the economy would cause inflation, exactly as it occurs before a bonus EXP weekend.
In the long term, a majority of these merchants will either quit, become disinterested, or ultimately slow the rate at which they trade. Also, 2-3 months after the update, deflation would set in, as these types of players would no longer participate in the economy.
As we witnessed when free trade was reintroduced, certain items with a street value different than the GE price were, in effect, "stuck". This is because the junk items traded alongside them to supplement their worth had value in and of themselves, even though that value was not as liquid as GP. Because of this, in our theoretical situation, similar types of items paralyzed from the maximum cash pile may fall in value slightly. In the long term though, freer markets would mean more trade, more movement of wealth from player to player, and likely more items lost due to careless people and banned accounts. A decrease in supply almost inevitably means an increase in price.
Even though the game would become freer, the majority of players would not be able to appreciate the benefits of the super rich being able to trade rares.
More than a decade ago, when the ideas and concepts of DeviousMUD were set free from the mind of Andrew Gower and shaped into the game we know as RuneScape, I'm sure he could not have foreseen this day; when the seemingly arbitrary limits he imposed on maximum XP or maximum stack-able items would ever be realized, nor that we'd ever be having this discussion. In all honesty, I find it incredible that as a community we're even at this point and able to see the effects of maximum experience or maximum items. As more and more players reach these limits, it will be interesting to see how JaGEx deals with the shortcomings of Java's int data type, and whether or not they'll decide to change their game to incorporate the seemingly limitless long.