9 December, 2012
Okay, I made a big deal about the economy of Guild Wars 2 and how I did not view it as a fun system supporting to the game. Given that there was a lot of discussion about this, and that I'm an MMO designer, I figured I should post something detailing what should go into the design of an MMO economy.
What are the goals of economic design? What are the important factors? What should be avoided?
As usual, these are my opinions based on my experiences playing and designing games. I have a background in business, but I'm not a formally trained economist; this is probably a good thing as I'd likely not have much soul left over if I were. ;)
Goals of the design
A game economy should be more than just a way for players to make and spend money. A typical faucet/drain economic system with endlessly respawning monsters ensures that players can accumulate money, so if a player wants to gain money, he or she can just by playing the game and being as frugal as necessary.
Most games tend to have economies where players will easily accumulate more money than they can use; in other words, the faucets run faster than the drains. For many people, particularly the Achievers that these games cater to, having an increasing amount of money is its own sort of fun; so you expect a bit of inflation as a result. But, man games later add "gold sinks" to the game in order to give players something to spend their money on once the "make the numbers go up" goal has become less interesting for people. Too much money in the system also tends to alienate newer players, as prices for items will increase significantly beyond the spending power of a new player if the established elder players have significant cash on hand and can simply splash it around on the most desirable stuff.
We've also seen people who like to play with the economy for the fun of it. We've seen this in pretty much every major game, from the crafters in UO, to the people in the tunnel of East Commonlands in EQ1, to the people who spent way too much time updating plugins to keep track of prices on the Auction House in WoW. Even Meridian 59 had people who would farm items to sell to others, but this was rarer as people would usually keep the good stuff for themselves or their guild for fights. We've seen a change in the focus of the economy through these games, where more modern games have a shared focus on crafting as well as the rare drops that were important in earlier games.
So, what should be our design goals? Some people might be tempted to say that the goal of the economic design should be to simulate the real-world economy. This is the wrong goal. The goal of a game economy is to be fun.
Making the economy fun
Okay, that's a fuzzy goal. What does it mean when the economy is "fun"? I think there are two parts to this answer: the short term and the long term.
The short term is pretty easy to figure out. It answers the question: "Can a player get the stuff he or she needs?" For example, can a newbie get enough money to pay for training he or she needs? Can a new player who decides to go into crafting find a market for buying materials and selling products? Does a player have a pretty good idea of how much money they need to keep going? Also simply accumulating money will be a sort of Achiever-focused fun for some people, but like any increasing number there needs to be some context or game element associated with it so that they can show off.
The longer term starts to get a bit less precise, but I would sum it up as "Can a player get the stuff he or she wants?" Does the player have goals to work toward for saving money? Can the player identify ways to accumulate money that he or she finds fun and that matches his or her playstyle? Can the player earn enough money to feel "rich" (or at least financially stable and secure), even if he or she isn't the wealthiest person in the game?
Obviously, there are a lot of devils in those details. So, let's analyze what elements make up an economy.
Obviously you have two primary elements in a game: currency and items. If your game uses a typical faucet/sink system, then the game will create a supply of items and currency for the players to use. (So few games use closed economic systems that I'm not going to go into much detail here. Needless to say you should read up on the original resource design for Ulima Online and how it evolved if you want to consider closed systems.)
As I said in the last post, economics is really the study of scarcity. This is one of the tools in a game designer's toolbox for creating a fun economy. Note that scarcity doesn't only relate to how common an item is in the entire game. You can have scarcity of an item in a particular location, assuming there's some cost to transport items; we see this in EVE Online, where shipping is a risky task, and buying items cheap in one area and selling them for a profit in another area of higher demand is a valid playstyle.
Another measure is usefulness. For currency, the usefulness is measured in how useful the currency is for interacting with NPCs, or any other system that effectively takes money out of the economy. For example, money will always have some measure of usefulness in Guild Wars 2 as long as you can convert gold to gems to buy stuff in the cash shop. For items, the usefulness tend to relate to gameplay aspects: a +4 sword is going to be more useful to an a +3 sword. A snag here is that usefulness can change based on other circumstances, such as your level in a level-based game. At low levels a +1 to a stat might be a big increase, at mid levels, it might be an insignificant change, but at high levels in competitive areas like raiding or PvP some people would knife their own mothers for another +1 even though that bonus is probably vanishingly small; but any advantage is an advantage compared to other people. Therefore, player behavior is a vital factor in determining usefulness.
What a designer must do
So, remember, the designer is in charge of everything in the world. Scarcity and usefulness are up to the designer. And, in a live game like an MMO, these aspects can change significantly based on changes to the game.
It's important to consider the effect of any changes to the game, as well as other design considerations. For example, if one of your design philosophies is that players should be able to move around the map fairly freely, it's going to hard to have geographically-defined rarity. Also, changes after launch need to be considered carefully, a you don't want to frustrate new people coming to your game by making the economy feel stacked against them.
A good economic design needs to straddle the extremes between too much and not enough. Think of it like gaining xp: going up levels too slowly will bore many people, but give them a "push button, get infinite xp" button that trivializes the game and everyone will get bored. Same thing with the economy: if money is too hard to get, it feels frustrating to play with the economy. If money comes too fast, then it feels trivial and leads to problems with inflation.
Of course, as I said above, player behavior plays a huge role in the economy as well. A classic example is when players choose a new form of currency when the developer-define currency (gold) becomes worthless through oversupply (such as from a dupe bug). Players will often take another item in the game (probably stackable) with some usefulness and use it as a substitute currency. As I've mentioned before, players used some spell reagents as a medium of exchange when dupe bugs made the in-game currency nearly worthless.
Unfortunately, the specific design of a game's economy really depends on the game. So, it's hard to get into details unless we focus on a specific game. So, let's do that. :)
How to fix GW2's economy
Let me add in the usual caveats at this point: I'm not a GW2 designer, merely a player. I have no special access behind the scenes. Usually a game's development is much more complicated than it will seem from the outside, so these recommendations might be worse than useless given some specific quirk to the game.
Also, fixing an economy after launch is extra difficult because you have to manage player expectations. Even the most buggy and broken system will have some supporters out there. Changing the economy might alienate some people who have worked to master the current setup. It's also entirely possible that GW2 needs to focus more on retaining players rather than attracting new ones given their business model.
As I said in my previous post, the economy is great if you're buying. It's easy to buy a full upgrade of gear for only a few silver, much cheaper than pouring time and game money into crafting. On the other hand, I think a better economy would help players, especially new ones, earn gold easier. I've noticed a flood of gold farmers in GW2's main city. So I guess there must be some people who find it preferable to buy gold from shady websites than to earn it in game or even use in-game systems to buy the gold.
I'll also note that it seems that the GW2 designers have been trying to address the problem. The new "donations" system with the Mystic Forge that was introduced with the Lost Shores update seems like it was intended to take items out of circulation. But, it seems those steps have only slowed things, not improved them. And, according to an interview, they are monitoring the economy closely. (Although I have to admit that they seem to not quite share my design goals.)
Analysis and potential solutions
I think the main problem with Guild Wars 2 is that there's no meaningful scarcity. This is a natural consequence of a lot of the design decisions focusing on ease and convenience for the player. The loose server situation, the global economy, the always-available trading post means that every item that can be sold will be sold. This means that supply will be huge. Unfortunately, it seems demand has not kept up, so there's a downward pressure on prices. Any opportunities to turn a profit on supplying the undersupplied will be spotted by one of the millions of other players.
Having a lot of competition also forces prices downward as people try to undercut each other. If you post up an item for 99 copper pieces, the next person likely try to undercut your price by 1 copper (or match you, but let's keep this simple for illustrative purposes). If you're competing against 5 other people who use the same tactic, the going price drops by 5 copper. 20 other people = 20 copper. So, what happens when you're competing with a few hundred thousand other people? Yeah, the price drops to the minimum and stays there; this is pretty much what I've seen in GW2.
This is problematic for two main reasons. First, it trains new players away from using the trading post. If 95% of the items I find won't turn a profit on the trading post, is it really worth checking for the 5% of the time it is? The other problem is that it discourages crafting as an economic activity, as the amount of time and money you pour into the activity will be unlikely to be worthwhile. As the dev from the interview linked above wrote, "We make sure things don’t get too cheap, which robs players of a feeling of accomplishment, just as we makes sure things don’t get too expensive, which makes it difficult for new players to buy things."
How can you address this issue?
- Decrease supply. Basically means reducing the drop rate. The problem is that will punish new players who will want goods but not have the good fortune to have been around to collect as much money as the established players have. Another option would be to revamp crafting to have cheaper recipes that are easy to create in mass quantities to lower the flooding of the market with items people grind through.
- Increase demand. As I said, the donation system seems intended to help take some items out of the system. However, players have figured out the "most efficient" way to get the items, and buying stuff of the trading post isn't it. It's also harder to "force" players to buy and consume more stuff elegantly, compared to simply reducing drop rates.
- Change how items are sold. This means changing how the Trading Post works, likely to reduce supply. An easy change would be to make sales postings only good for a limited time. This would cause items to be taken off the marketplace as items listed by inactive accounts disappear. It also creates some risk of listing items for sale, as your posting fee might be wasted, as it is in other games.
- Create local markets. If you create inequalities in supply, this creates opportunities for people to exploit. It also creates mini-economies where you're not competing against every other player who has looked at the trading post that day. But, given quick teleportation, creating geographic markets as in games like EVE Online is not really possible. But, there are divisions that are already created and exploited for gameplay effect...
Designing localized server economies
The main purpose for the server divisions is to create World vs. World (WvW) groupings. One server is pitted against others in a fight and allowing players to form communities and get to know each other. So, let me propose a design that uses these divisions to help the economy.
In essence, each server has its own economy. Now, I realize this would require a lot of changes and would require a load of testing, but here's an initial concept.
- Otherwise unbound items are "bound" to a server. Any items you get are bound to a specific server where you acquired the item. This isn't a strict binding, and it might be better to come up with a better name, but let's go with it for now. Items you get in overflow servers are bound to your home server. Items you get while guesting on another server are bound to that server. Any item that is bound to character or account does not necessarily need to be bound to a server.
- You keep your items at all times. Any items bound to a server travel with you when you do. If you've picked up a super-awesome rare item and then transfer to a new server, you keep that super-awesome rare item.
- Trading Posts only show items listed on your server. If you post an item on the trading post on a server, it only shows up when you search on that server. This creates the local economies on each server.
- Trading server-bound items on another server costs in-game money. Let's say you are from server A and have an item bound to server A, then transfer to server B. While on server B, if you want to trade the item or list it on the trading post then it costs a bit of money to rebind it. This price would be a function of the vendor price of the item.
- Items bound have an indicator on the UI, mouseover shows the server it's locked to. You could use a different color indicator to show soulbound vs. server-bound items as well.
- Money and gems are unrestricted. You can earn and spend money freely on any server without restriction.
In essence, if you're playing on a single server the experience of using the trading post will remain largely unchanged. Prices will change, of course, but that's an intended goal of the system. It would probably be good to unlist all items on the trading post and refund any listing prices to give each server a fresh start to create their own economies.
Two other thoughts: First, you could adjust drop rates on a per-server basis. Make scales drop a bit more on one server, but totems drop more on another for a month. During that month, people who want to play the market could identify trends and carry the items to other servers to sell if there's a profit to be made. Or, if you were worried about speculators and monopolists, have the trading post list all items for sale, but include the cross-server markup automatically, paid by the buyer; this is how EQ2 handles sales across the "good/evil" divide within a server.
As I said, this would require a fair amount of coding and testing, but I think it would improve the economy and make it more fun for more people with a minimal amount of disruption to other aspects of the game or to player behavior.
So, what do you think? Would this make the economy more interesting? Or do you see some fatal flaw I didn't?