Massively Overthinking: Rescuing the worst economies in the MMO genre


As a hardcore economy player in most of the MMOs I play, I pay a whole lot of attention to the health of the game economy, as I’ve been on a soapbox about inflation being the “long death” of MMOs for longer than most MMOs have even been alive. The interesting thing to me is that most games march into these stagnant economic endgames eyes-wide open. They know it’s gonna be a mess in a few years, but they figure it’s more important to keep players happy in the short-term with lots of faucets and not enough drains.

So I’m always intrigued when devs of longer-running titles actually admit there’s an economy problem and come up with ways to address it – some obvious, some not. Both of my current main games are doing just that; SWG Legends, for example, has been sharply curbing AFK credit farming (i.e., shutting down some of the major currency spigots that drove inflation), while Lord of the Rings Online is overhauling crafting in a way that will hopefully address the midgame resource situation (we’ll see).

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’m asking our writers and readers to tell me all about the most busted-up, broken-down MMO economies they’ve ever played in – and what, if anything, the studio did to try to fix it. Did it work? Or did it just succumb to its long death?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Both Asheron’s Call 1 and 2 had broken economies early on. Cash just had no value, so the economy was mostly based on goods, especially keys that opened chests that guaranteed good, randomly generated loot. For AC1, introducing housing really helped get money out, as did (no surprise) adding a gambling den. Goods were still often preferable for trades, but virtual gold (“pyreals”) did bounce back.

AC2 was a bit odd, as there were no NPC aside from quest givers. Gold was mostly used for crafting at launch, but it was also very expensive, required a lot of materials, and didn’t give good bonuses. The crafting overhaul helped this a bit, but so did mounts, as they weren’t permanent but were consumables you had to pay for/craft. You also had buffs you could “craft” that cost money, so that helped, but as in AC1, goods (and keys in particular) were the basis of our economy, and that was mostly fine.

The absolute worse was the last year or so of retail Star Wars Galaxies. The game was very much meant to have item decay, but that was turned off when I joined. I was on the most popular server at the time, and the economy was stagnant. Its being a sandbox with robust crafting meant I needed other crafters to make me stuff to make some of my cooler things, but the credits they wanted were astronomical. The players had amassed so much wealth that they needed little to nothing, and if they wanted something, they could charge sums of money I couldn’t even wrap my head around. No items I got were really of value, even though resources were randomly generated in their stats every so often, so I was generally locked out unless someone took pity on me, which never felt good. I don’t think the problem was solved, but I know I left the game due to the combination of dead servers and an economy I realized I would never be able to participate in.

Andy McAdams: I always struggle to try to balance “broken” with “I didn’t actually engage with it the right way.” There are lots of games that drive me nuts with the economies on the low-level stuff being astronomically expensive (and totally unattainable for the folks for whom it would be most useful), but that could just be me doing it wrong. Probably just me doing it wrong. But the most broken economy I’ve seen lately is retail EverQuest II, where basic things cost hundreds of platinum, when the game was clearly originally designed around gold being the primary currency. Now, I’ve seen things listed for millions of platinum, an absolutely astronomical number, especially when combined with the fact that you generally need to use loyalty tokens to buy a bag of coins to get 500 plat just to engage.

But then on the other hand, selling something for 500,000 platinum as I did the other day is really gratifying, even if its just indicative at how wildly broken the EQII economy is. I don’t actually see Daybreak doing anything to fix it, and arguably the “bag of coins” from loyalty tokens makes the situation worse by continually flooding the market with free platinum.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): The old blog post of mine lays out the worst ones I’ve ever played in, honestly, and Ultima Online probably takes the cake. I only ever saw it get worse over all its long years, to the point that basic amenities were so expensive that the extant community probably kept a small country’s worth of RMT vendors funded. (Seriously, there is just no way for a new player in UO to get 120 powerscrolls, essential for modern builds. Not happening without a benefactor or RMT. I’m so glad my toons were finished years ago.)

I know it’s tricky to manage this, so I don’t envy the studios. SOE’s largesse for player houses and cities post-Katrina demonstrated that it’s super hard to undo a free ride once you’ve given it because going back to normal feels like punishment, even if it’s essential for the economy’s health. And yet, if a game starts out with hardcore sinks – New World is coming immediately to mind – that’s a huge player turn-off too. I’m still a proponent of hefty luxury taxes and trickle-down incentives to keep things humming, but ug.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): This is one of those times when I don’t have a lot of skin in the game, if I’m very honest. I barely engage with MMORPG economies, and when I do, I usually follow guides from others or advice from peers who do this sort of thing far harder than I do. I suppose that’s a result of most MMORPG crafting being tertiary at best, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

I guess my most “broken” experience (for levels of broken as I care to pay attention to) is in Final Fantasy XIV, which I don’t know is busted so much as a constant tug-of-war as auction house sellers seem to constantly undercut or race to the bottom. There’s also the perception that you have to be an omincrafter (aka a character who has leveled every gathering and crafting job to absolute maximum) to turn anything close to a profit that both ultimately keep me away from that title’s economy.

Honestly, I’d just be happy hauling around someone else’s goods and getting paid for the logistics. Give me some truckin’, in other words. That way I can partake in an MMORPG’s economy and not have to think too hard.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I don’t have a whole lot to contribute to this, but it always makes me chuckle that RuneScape has a literal Gold Sink — as in, a water source, but made of gold — that you can craft for over 100 million gold (which is a lot) and put in your player house.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’ve never been huge on a game’s economy, so I’m probably one of the last people who can speak towards it. Since I played Guild Wars 2 a lot for many years, it is probably the closest I would be to somewhat competent, but I’ve been out of the game for the last year or two, so I’m probably out of the loop on it now too.

However, I recall that in the early days, Anet actually had an economist (or similar) on staff who was at least partially tasked with keeping the game’s economy from running amok. For a few years, that work seemed to be helpful. The last time I checked, the gem to gold exchange for buying gold with real money was fairly flat. Perhaps that’s a sign that this was mostly working there.

In HP Magic Awakened, there isn’t really an economy as in a typical MMO, but players can trade cards with tokens and level up with gold. However, everything without MT is getting more and more difficult. When it looked there might be ways to at least make gold effectively, those were quickly nerfed. It’s not really a surprise that NetEase would push everything too far, but hopefully it swings back somewhat.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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