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.
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.
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.