Massively Overthinking: Building a better MMORPG economy

We are on a roll with the epic questions for Overthinking lately! “The recent article about monetization got me thinking about just how much most modern MMOs are still trying to replicate real-world capitalist economies,” MOP Patron Avaera begins.

“Virtual currency is usually earned proportional to various measures of virtual effort that are intended to be wealth-generating activities – selling loot earned from skillful PvE hunting, selling crafted goods made from resources gathered over time, owning items or land that generates tradeable material over time. However, virtual effort doesn’t have the quite the same limitations, scarcity, and creativity as real-world effort, and these systems seem prone to exploitation by users/bots that can easily outmatch casual players in terms of how much virtual effort and time they can expend, leading to various RMT problems and artificially distorted economies. How would you go about avoiding this problem, if you had the god-like powers of a game designer? Is there a way to set up a virtual economy so that it isn’t prone to exploitation by bots or gold-farmers, and will we ever see a virtual game currency that can truly be exchanged with a real one?”

I posed Avaera’s question to our staff to mull over.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This is one I’ve thought about a lot, especially as we see more games taking out even basic trading for fear it’ll ruin their games/economy. Truthfully, I think the only sure fire way is to be rid of any hard currency and make sure all items have a durability/expiration date.

What this means is that players are forced to barter. This generally tends to happen in games that already have worthless “gold.” I remember this happening not only in my first MMOs (both Asheron’s Call 1&2), but also Star Wars Galaxies nearly before the game went down for good. The problem with the former was that getting money was too easy, and the latter took out the one thing preventing this problem: item duration. If even basic “stone” has a value for, say, decorating, it means even new players potentially have something they can trade, depending on what someone wants/needs.

The only thing is, it’s not always fun. Working several years for, say, a sword that’ll expire in even as long as a year kind of sucks. It also makes loot a bit less interesting. Darkfall 1 did this, and while it took the sting out of death, it made me care more about big projects, like buildings, ships, and essentially hover tanks (DF was admittedly kind of weird like that). If you can focus on group play and projects, perhaps similar to how Horizons did and what Elite Dangerous seems to be trying to do, you might be able to make it fun.

You like? You buy it!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): You’re probably not going to like this answer, but I don’t think bad economies can be avoided in MMOs, at least not as we now know them. As long as we exist in more or less capitalist societies in the real world, that desire to make money from time is affecting every bit of the design within the game and all the inputs from without, from how we play legitimately to the black market RMTs that hang out in our orbit.

That isn’t to say MMO designers haven’t tried, particularly when it comes to external exploitation of the (let’s pretend) ideal fair playing ground of MMOs. They forbid multiple accounts and multiboxing, they institute soulbound/no-trade items, they wipe out or nerf the power of crafting, they ban scripters, they block auction mods, they tinker with diminishing returns from farming, and on and on.

But most of these countermeasures fail to achieve their goals. Studios don’t have the resources to fight dedicated bot companies or the luxury of turning away multiboxer cash. Soulbound design is stifling and yet easily worked around (consider how EverQuest II players simply sell raid slots to loot the soulbound gear). Want to take away players’ ability to trade at all, or maybe delete all currency from a game so that we’re down to just the drops we ourselves pick up? Doesn’t work either; the trade just shifts out of game, even further beyond the control and profit of studios, which (combined with greed and necessity) is precisely why so many of them took a “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to RMT. Studios are selling us gold for cash and here we’re asking those same studios to solve economic problems they’re willingly exacerbating. Can’t trust the watchers to watch themselves.

Game economies have to be designed from the ground up to escape this. The obvious place to start is the business model; online games need subscriptions both for sustenance and to add a minimum cost to economic exploitation. And studios can’t operate cash shops that interfere in any way with the game’s economy, and that includes cosmetics that would compete with in-game creations. There’s only a tiny fraction of upcoming MMOs promising either of these things, which should tell you both that running a clean game isn’t particularly lucrative and that gamers overall don’t care as much about clean games as they say they do.

But the other angle of the fix is an even harder sell because it fundamentally alters our understanding of a 20-year-old genre. Modern MMORPGs are literally built upon rags-to-riches progression journeys, using fear of loss and scarcity and weakness as motivation to keep us grinding along through a brutal fairytale. They’ve taught us to value what we have only inasmuch as other people don’t have it and that getting and having (almost always through violence) are in and of themselves gameplay, the best gameplay, the only real gameplay, to which everything else is or should be subservient (“fluff”). Trade, as corrupted and diminished as it is in most MMOs, is one of the only social things we have left in MMOs, one of the things that makes MMOs, MMOs to begin with.

In other words, to truly solve the problem, we’d need to reinvent what MMOs are, turn back the clock to when MMOs weren’t chiefly murder sims and achievement ladders, and change what we do in them. In a post-scarcity video game world, where everyone has what he needs and wants, and you need not spend all your time working for loot and prestige revolving around acquiring that loot (and being tempted to cheat to get ahead), what would you do? Would you play games in your game? Go hunting? Try new skills? Script quests for friends? Roleplay in cantinas? Design clothing? Create jumping puzzles? Duel? Explore the map? Build a house? Write a book?

But the achievers and designers who now dominate our genre are comfortable with broken economies because they’re a side-effect of design in games that cater to their playstyle of constant striving and competition and social hierarchies. I just don’t see that changing.

As for currency conversion? It’s already here: Entropia Universe and Second Life.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): While I agree with some of what Bree has to say, I think defining the problem as “because MMOs are what they are, economies are always going to be screwy” is missing out on a pretty fundamental point: MMOs are set up so that effort leads to a reward. That’s always been the case, and it’s shot through the basic level of every type of design. You don’t spend four hours practicing woodworking only to wind up learning that you’re just not very good, for example. And so your problem in any MMO is that ultimately, there’s an endless amount of money flowing to players and not as much flowing away at any given time. So long as effort leads to reward, automatic systems are always going to be able to generate the largest amount of rewards, because they can just automate and go forever.

The question, of course, is whether or not this is actually a bad thing. Because while I think it’s entirely possible to design an MMO where you don’t have some correlation between effort and reward, I don’t think I’d actually want to play that game. I don’t think it would be very fun. As someone once pointed out while I was playing Final Fantasy XI, the alternative to inflation was to have characters pay taxes in-game to keep playing on a regular basis, and while I can definitely see some opportunities for in-game accountants I don’t think it would actually be a lot of fun to play.

But the question here was, ultimately, how one could avoid this problem. And if we’re agreed that avoiding it may not be entirely possible, we can still minimize it. We can make it undesirable to turn to exploits and cheating to make more money. Part of how we do that is make sure that we have people patrolling servers and making sure that any money you generate through automatic means gets taken out of the system, which actually happens.

However, I think something interesting to try to help balance this would be to make most prices, in both auctions and vendors, to be percentage-based rather than absolute. That is, instead of an item costing 10 gold, it costs 1% of your net worth to buy. Introduce a scaling system so that it goes down as you have more wealth, and that makes more money worth having but also means that a given purchase is never inconsequential to you. I’m not sure how fun it would be to play, but it would certainly be an interesting approach.

Ultimately, though, this is the problem of having an economic system where money can be generated through infinitely renewable resources like hunting things and selling what you find. As long as there’s no hard cap on the amount of money in circulation, it’s going to happen; that’s fine. It’s part of the nature of the genre, and the consequences of that are unpleasant, but probably better than the alternative.

Patron Avaera: My solution would be to revisit what activities earn you game currency, so that there is actual “value” in what you’re doing for the betterment of the game or community. I’d like to see a game where virtual wealth was generated through things like creating additions to the game world that other players can enjoy (building new areas, designing new crafts or patterns, game artwork, lore or world fiction, etc), by performing community-oriented jobs (newbie welcomers, guides and mentors, housing neighbourhood event managers), or by completing tasks that help keep the world running smoothly (maybe players help with design reviews, forum/chat moderation, etc). In such a model, what does it matter if a bot does those instead of a casual player? Ultimately the transaction still results in a positive for both parties – the user accumulates a bit of currency for their trouble, and the game either expands, improves, or gains additional depth.

Patron Archebius: Economies don’t necessarily get out of wack just because of dedicated players and exploits – even casual players can amass large amounts of wealth on their journeys. This often leads to designers implementing systems that purposefully suck this excess money out, usually through ludicrously large monetary requirements for housing/crafting/mounts, high gear repair costs, or other money sinks.

But adding hefty prices to things just shifts the balance even more towards RMT and hardcore players – if you balance in favor of the players, these systems do nothing but add a little hassle, but if you lean too far towards stripping money out of the economy, then it makes players frustrated and more likely to pay real money for large amounts of in-game gold, or forces them to spend time grinding yet another resource.

Games like EVE have come the closest to creating a virtual game currency that can be swapped with real money, though importantly, you swap real money for game time, and game time for credits. You don’t get real money out of the system (not officially, at least), because it’s tied directly to time; a constantly diminishing, non-replenishable resource. Personally, I hope we never get closer than this – if people earn enough in-game to pay for the cost of a subscription, or if someone wants to sell game time to get a nice lump of gold they can put towards a battleship, I’m fine with that. But I’ve never liked the idea of games becoming “jobs,” and I never will.

So how would I tackle the issue of off-kilter game economies? First, I would actually strip out money sinks. No armor repairs. No throwing in 400k gold to build a legendary weapon. If I’m putting in a system to balance a resource that I’m giving out too freely, then I’m just treating the symptom. Second, I would reduce the need for wealth. Give basic mounts for free as part of a quest line. Armor is already thrown at players as fast as they can cut down well-heeled rats, so ensure that they can reliably obtain appropriately-leveled gear for the zone they’re in, and get rid of armor vendors. Legendary weapons don’t need fifteen tons of gold; they should need actions that matter. If you want a sword that reflects the night, then take a sword and go kill a hundred shadow monsters.

Ultimately, money in real life is a useful abstraction of a barter system – I did x amount of work, which is worth ten bags of potato chips, but I want to pick the potato chips out myself, so give me money so I can pick out my own chips, and maybe go crazy and buy some cookies, too. Money in games should work the same way – it should be a meaningful tool to purchase things that matter to your character, not a resource you grind up so you can dump it on re-rolling a legendary to maybe get the right stats. Give players meaningful, clear paths to pursue the items they want. Inflation can’t be stopped, but you can make wealth more valuable by making it less plentiful, and giving alternate paths to achieving goals.

The one thing you need some sort of currency for is trading with other players. And that’s why I wouldn’t just get rid of money entirely – it is a useful medium for your interactions with other players. But so long as most of those things can be earned with time and effort, I think there will be a more concrete anchor to the value of currency. So long as you have any form of wealth in a game, you’re going to have people trading on the black market. The most you can do as a designer is to make earning your daily bread fun, and keep players from getting so fed up with the hassle of it all that they open their wallets for shady deals.

Your turn!

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28 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: Building a better MMORPG economy"

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miol
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miol

About the bot’s problem: How about actively giving players “bots” instead?

To build automated production chains, for instance, leaving it to players to optimize them, and leave all the “grind” some players don’t like in typical MMOs anyway to their faithfull servants, like in these games:

Factorio:

Screeps, for instance, is even an open-source MMO (which I thought was only a small multiplayer game, until I’ve looked it up now! XD), where you actually use Javascript or something similar to code your bots’ behaviour ingame:

Your bots continue to live their own lives, with a behaviour established by you, while you’re offline (way better compensation mechanic, than Rest-XP bonus! ;P), and since it’s a persistent world, you can’t just copy paste everything as you have to optimize them to your current situation!
(Justin should take a look at this, since he wrote that awesome article about open-source!)

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Melissa McDonald

Black Desert sort of does this.

miol
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miol

Yet, there’s still the need to find not automated farm spots for yourself! ;P

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Alex Malone

I don’t think we can ever get away from the problem of bots/farmers. However, there are a couple of ideas I’d like to see trialled:

1) Money Sinks – In most MMOs, you can infinitely gain money, either through repeatable quests, repeatable dungeon chests or mobs drops. However, there is usually very little in games that takes money out of the economy. This results in hyper-inflation which disproportionately benefits veterans and farmers whilst hurting newbies. We need money sinks to control inflation.

2) Finite money – I would be interested to see a game where earning money is a one off activity per character. For example, you can only earn money from quests and quests aren;t repeatable. This would mean every player would earn, say, 100 gold by the time they completed the leveling content, but could never earn more. This should prevent inflation and make the economy more barter-based, but should also mean that newbies are in a really good position financially when they first hit the cap.

3) Gradually reducing financial rewards – The server would track all player activity with regards to money. The amount of money would reduce the more people did that activity. So, if farmers were just grinding mobs over and over for cash drops, the server would track that and gradually reduce the cash dropped to near 0.

None of these are ideal, but I would really like to see the money sinks idea being put into practice to defend against inflation. Inflation really hurts casuals / newbies but we need those players to ensure the longevity of our favourite games.

Benjamin Northrup
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Benjamin Northrup

after playing BDO, I no longer see the big deal about direct player-to-player trading. prices don’t go to extreme highs in black desert, and it has great sinks for the large amounts of passive money players can generate. sure people TRY to get others to gift them pearls for boss gear to list it on the AH, but barely anyone does it and even when they do, its not likely they’ll even get the piece they’re paying for. To me, this is the best system we have.

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MesaSage

Don’t want to steal Melissa’s thunder, but this is what Second Life already does. I’ve often wondered why it hasn’t been better implemented in MMORPG’s. I would exclusively play any game that allowed you to contribute assets to the game and be rewarded in RMT. But in order to be practical, it needs WoW-like numbers or better. I’m not going to putter around trying to scrape out pennies. I’ve tried SL, but it just doesn’t hold my interest without the progression that RPG’s provide.

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Melissa McDonald

:D

miol
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miol

Massively Overthinking getting a more prominent weekly spot?

I like it! :)

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Schmidt.Capela

The trouble with MMO economies, IMHO, exist precisely because MMOs are games. As such, systems inside MMOs — including the economy — need to either be enjoyable for the vast majority of players or optional.

The issue here is that for the vast majority of players being poor isn’t enjoyable, so the devs are left with three main options: restricting the potential player base to just those that enjoy a better economic simulation and won’t leave if they are stuck being poor (which makes the game a niche one), making an economy where everyone can get rich through effort even a casual player is willing to make (which completely breaks the economy), or making the economy effectively optional (what most games seem to do nowadays).

Or, in other words, making a better economy is perfectly possible. It just wouldn’t be fun for the vast majority of players.

As for the fight against bots, you should keep in mind that the day we get a real world automaton that can play a MMO well enough to grind the fight against bots will be lost for good, since devs will have no way to detect if the game is being played by a person or an actual robot. The fight against bots is going to be lost, it’s just a matter of when.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

The fight against bots is going to be lost, it’s just a matter of when.

fight the good fight.gif
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Dušan Frolkovič

Barter systems will regrettably not really help in regards to bots/farmers.
As long as you have something that has value in the game and the possibility to trade, you created a currency (e.g. last time i played GW2 the main currency was Ectoplasm and not gold)

The probably best way how to restricts bots is to have gameplay that is hard to automate.
You will never be able to completely prevent botting, but if the effort to automate it is sufficiently high, their number will go down.

Edit: Grammar

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Schmidt.Capela

We live in a world where a “bot” can do things like drive a car, prepare the paperwork for a lawsuit, trade in the stock exchange, or even conduct tactical-scale military attacks, and the algorithms powering those autonomous devices are getting more accessible to everyone — including MMO bot programmers — every day; I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say anything that is accessible enough for a human will be doable by a bot. We might be seeing the last few years before the fight against automation in MMOs is lost for good.

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Dušan Frolkovič

Yes, but there is a very big difference in development effort between an AI for a self-driving car and some MMO combat that could be automated with a sophisticated macro.

Another example, it is much complicated to react to something changing on the screen you need the correct reaction to, then to know that i only have to press 1-2-1-3 and I will get what i wanted.

miol
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miol

Or we go the creative path, where there is no need for such things as efficiency or “winning” to strive for! ;P

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FreecczLaw

I can’t really say what needs to be done to get the best economy possible, but what I do know is that a lot of games have started on the premise of “we need to create an economy that won’t be exploited, oh and it should be good too” instead of “let us make the best possible economic system and then do our best to try and prevent abuse”. This has lead to too many games not even having an economy (of course they have one, but yeah) because it can be exploited which I think is horrible.

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cista2bpo

Games selling ingame gold for real-life cash is not a problem at all. It is simply a gold faucet. Games needs gold faucets because the typical MMO with crafting goes through deflation as gatherers get higher and higher skill, and crafters get higher and higher skill. That level 15 sword that brought in the first accomplished crafters hundreds of gold, now can be bought for some coppers, and the gold stays in the wallets. In that case, all gold faucets are good and stimulate the economy to the benefit of crafters. Can’t sell your shiny noob armour? Well, sell it to that rich guy from Texas who just blew 150 USD on the game, and be happy.

The real obstruction is how to help players get over their entitlement and envy issues. You shouldn’t care that some guy from Texas uses real-life money to buy the same house that you have worked hard (as a crafter or hunter) to earn. If being a succesful hunter or crafter was want you wanted to achieve in this game, well then you have achieved something that Mr. Texas never will. Besides, you are playing an MMO. Real succes in this game is not measured in gold or possessions, it is measured by the people that are your friends and allies!

luxundae
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luxundae

This got me thinking about what role money actually plays in modern, WoW-ish MMOs. You’re given money not for adding value, but for spending time playing the game. So the company, which tends to make more real world money off you the more time you spend in the game world, gives you in-game money to reward you for spending said time. You can then eventually transform it into door prizes….mounts, clothing, etc.

Lets say you took all money out of WoW entirely. Would that be a problem? You could only get items by making them, downing bosses, or completing certain quest chains. Same for mounts. No more worrying about repair costs. If crafting were a larger piece of WoW, I could see it being a problem (because your efficiency goes down when you can’t pay gold for materials on the auction house). But it’s really not. And insofar as it is, it just encourages more involvement in your guild or other social groups where you can barter for resources or pool them.

I’m not convinced that everything wouldn’t just be better, on average. Social interaction is encouraged more for crafting because the AH is gone. Mounts and weapons are more obviously linked to doing cool things in the world (“I explored all the snowy peaks and battled a horde of giants to rescue this gryphon!”) as opposed to simply pouring time into the game (“After doing dailies for 230 hours, I had amassed sufficient gold for the gnome in the purple hat to sell me this mammoth. I named it Mammoth.”). And the random money sink systems like repairing gear, which really doesn’t add anything to the game experience, go away.

Just a thought exercise in well-if-we-can’t-fix-it-can-we-just-remove-it-entirely.

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birini

Averra is closest, I would argue. (For some background, I have an advanced degree in economics.) The issue you have is that MMO economies don’t *really* mimic capitalist economies. In a capitalist economy, you get money equivalent to what you contribute to the macroeconomy. So if you produced $50,000 worth of value over the course of the year, you get to consume $50,000 worth of goods. That symmetry — that everyone gets to consume what they produce — is what keeps actual capitalist economies from getting out of whack.

In MMOs, you almost literally have money falling from the sky. Kill mobs, and coins show up. So if you have botters running around, they produce lots of coins but they don’t produce any more goods to spend those coins on. (Remember how prices on WoW shot up when dailies were introduced — also drove up money without producing more goods in the economy.) The way to solve this sounds great but introduces a lot more problems: a complete sandbox. EVERY item in the game is made by players and sold for what they think is fair. Quests are are only created by players. So if it’s worth it to a player to go kill 50 gnolls, there will be a quest for it, otherwise not. Making this work strikes me as difficult at best. In addition, you lose the fun of getting a cool piece of gear for beating a raid boss or some other accomplishment.

So, there is always going to be an economy problem in MMOs. Monetary rewards have to be based, as the original poster questioner put it, on effort and not on “contribution.” As such, MMOs will be required to work hard to ensure that only “legitimate” effort is rewarded.

Benjamin Northrup
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Benjamin Northrup

This isn’t very true of the real world economy. large portions of the value that labor produces are absorbed by producers. if you produce 50k worth of value over a year, its closer to say you’ll consume a 5th of that while 3/5ths are taken by a producer and 1/5th are absorbed by taxes. Capitalism is inherently anti-worker and anti-consumers. Surplus value and saving have to exist for economies to grow, which happens year over year for almost all major economies.

MMOs are truer to your first statement. by killing monsters, doing gold generating activities, etc. you are creating a certain amount of currency, as that is what he developers, who set up the macroeconomy, think doing that activity is worth. players add that to the economy, and inflation happens as scarce goods’ value increases relative to the unlimited resource of gold from gold generating activities.

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birini

Untrue. Labor gets its marginal product — what the laborer adds to the production process. Those who add capital to the system get the rents that capital produces in the production process. That’s the 3/5s that go to the producer. (Your number is high there. Very high.) Even economists who are concerned about inequality — and there are many — would not make your argument.

Taxes, theoretically anyway, represent your contribution to public goods (i.e., national defense). So you consume them along with the rest of the public.

Benjamin Northrup
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Benjamin Northrup

I apologize. Most people don’t subscribe to the labor theory of value

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Schlag Sweetleaf

In other words, to truly solve the problem, we’d need to reinvent what MMOs are, turn back the clock to when MMOs weren’t chiefly murder sims and achievement ladders, and change what we do in them.

AMEN!

jn 2.15.jpg
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Marvin Marshall

I am a fan of Path of Exile’s barter economy. I am not sure how that would work if transferred from an ARPG to an RPG, but I really would like to see a game try to duplicate something similar to it in a large scale MMORPG.

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camelotcrusade

This is why I love this site, columns like this that are insightful and worth the time for a long and careful read.

Anyway, I agree with everyone on many things but it was Bree who made me squee (and I’m not even sorry). After all those years of MMOing, I must admit her nihilistic “burn ’em down and rebuild ’em!” response had me ready to grab a match. That might be due to baggage rather than the issue at hand but at this point a good fire might cure all sorts of what ails me. 🔥

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Tobasco da Gama

I’d like to see a game where virtual wealth was generated through things like creating additions to the game world that other players can enjoy (building new areas, designing new crafts or patterns, game artwork, lore or world fiction, etc)

RIP Neverwinter Foundry

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