16 May, 2016
A major focus of a lot of MMOs is the economy. People have written academic papers analyzing game economies, economists have drooled at the prospect of tinkering with game economies to test theories, and game companies have even hired economists to help with the design of the game.
But, here’s a radical idea: what if a game didn’t have an economy? What if the design didn’t have currency that people use to buy and sell items from NPCs and from each other?
Intrigued? Then, let me share my thoughts for such a design.
Before I start, I want to say that I know this may not be the most popular idea. A lot of people like game economies, warts and all. There are blogs dedicated to things like auction hall arbitrage and making tons of fake money from morons and slackers. But, I think there’s a lot of good arguments for why replacing the economy with another gameplay system might be the right answer.
Game economy inequalities
The typical MMO economy is unlike anything we see in the real world. The economy is faked, a system known as a “faucet and drain” economy. Money is created from some sources, such as defeating monsters or from rewards from quests. Money is then removed from the economy via gold sinks such as repair bills, housing, or transaction fees. So, as players literally make money appear in the economy, they also have expenses.
Generally, there is no limitation on how much money is created. players are known to hoard resources and having a limited supply of money would quickly mean that the faucets would run dry; look up information about UO’s original resource system to see what happens when you try to limit the total amount of resources. Also, you cannot enforce too many obligatory drains on the economy, as someone without resources would probably prefer to leave rather than live the life of a pauper in a fantasy game.
The consequence of unlimited faucets and limited drains is called inflation; as more and more currency builds up in the system, prices will be inflated to match. This has a negative effect on new players coming into the game, as the amounts they earn will be paltry compared to the amounts of resources already acquired by experienced players. Unless the new player figures out some way to rapidly acquire currency, they will be behind others in wealth. On the other hand, this is good for Achievers as they have another metric which keeps increasing; as long as they keep accumulating currency, they feel like they’re making progress.
Money not worth the bits it’s generated with
In most games with inflationary economies, money actually has very little practical use. Most economies are balanced around the initial launch of the game. Meaning that gold sinks like repair bills are built around the assumption that a new character only has money gained from playing the game. Once the game gets established, this assumption is violated repeatedly: alts get cash stipends from their high level counterparts, and new players sometimes get a chunk of cash from veterans. A minor amount of cash from a veteran character will feel like a lot to the newbie. Eventually routine expenses, like repairing gear, feel insignificant to the player who has accumulated a lot of currency.
This leaves two other avenues for currency: paying other players and significant gold sinks. Paying other players is part of the player-to-player economy supported by crafting. (And crafting has its own game design challenges.) While some people can sell their crafting goods and services to others, many times player organizations like guilds will have crafters who literally give away their stuff. Given the escalating nature of advancement in most modern MMOs, lower level gear is almost trivial to craft (and to acquire materials for). So, while crafting is another part of the economy, it doesn’t necessarily use currency for every transaction.
The other use for currency is significant gold sinks. Housing is a great example, where houses generally require a large amount of currency to acquire, decorate, and sometimes to maintain. Another significant sink might be rare drops which can be posted on the auction house for high prices. While most of the currency is transferred to the player who got the rare drop, some of it is taken in transaction fees. But, these types of sinks are put in place to drain off some of the currency and to act as a reward to achievers who were efficient at acquiring it.
The buying of gold is the root of all evil
The last major problem with the economy is the development and support time it consumes. Designing a good economy is hard and easy to get wrong. A economy that isn’t well-balanced can drain some of the fun from the game for players. Whether a game team hires an economist or not, the development team has to spend time working on the economy and balancing it.
The other major problem with in-game currency is the scourge know as “gold selling”, or “real money trade”. In this system, people will farm gold and then sell that gold to others for offline currency such as dollars. This can lead to all sorts of problems, such as people trying to monopolize high return hunting areas at best, or hacking accounts to steal money or exploiting bugs to duplicate money at worst. The slightly inflationary economy means that some people will see this as the only viable way for them to “catch up” with others, despite the problems it causes.
So, what can developers do?
Seizing the means of production
I was lead designer to make an online version of the Anno series of games, also released in the U.S. as 1701 A.D., etc. (This was a different project than what eventually became Anno Online). The Anno games have a strong focus on crafting, gathering, and production of goods. The goal is to grow your city by generating the right blend of goods to attract more (and richer) citizens. The games had combat, but combat tended to be expensive and very risky, so economics was a better way to get what you needed.
The online version was intended to cater to the four Bartle motivation: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers with four different types of gameplay: economy, mapping, city building, and military fights. Because there was a strong focus on economy gameplay, I didn’t want to implement the typical broken economy that you see in other games.
So, I proposed eliminating currency and using a Wealth stat.
A Wealth stat means that wealth would be treated like any other stat. For example, a character might have a certain Strength that allows him or her to wear certain equipment or weapons. Similarly, that character would have a Wealth stat that restricted what goods could be acquired, bought, and sold. For example, a lucrative trade route for an exotic spice would require the player to have a higher Wealth than a simple trade route selling common goods.
This would work well for Achiever-focused players, as Wealth would be a stat they could work up. Running that simple trade good route for a while would increase your Wealth stat. And, like any stat, doing the same thing repeatedly would have diminishing returns. The income from the common goods trade route would feel like a rounding error to a wealthy player, so they would not advance Wealth very easily by doing that easy run. The real beauty here is that all the systems already being developed to implement and balance stats could be used for this system as well; no more special work to make an economy that would likely be broken later.
Even non-merchants would want to work up Wealth, although it may not be a primary focus just as Strength isn’t always a focus for a Wizard. Having a certain minimum level of Wealth was necessary for all characters in order to afford certain goods or services. This meant that a general with a higher Wealth stat would have access to better equipment for his or her army. And, that general didn’t have to track tens of thousands of units of currency in order to afford all the equipment he or she might need.
The inspiration for this system was the Resources background in the tabletop RPGs for the World of Darkness. Instead of counting individual dollars a player had, the player would have a certain level of money based on their Resources stat. This would increase and decrease through gameplay rather than from knocking over some dragon’s lair.
Trucking in material good
One big restriction here is that players cannot trade Wealth freely. A wealthy merchant can’t just give away all his Wealth stat to someone else. This restriction prevents degenerate gameplay, such as having mules farm cash, or gold sellers able to build up wealth to trade to someone else for cash.
The system had a few other interesting elements to help the system along. For example, a player could sacrifice some of their Wealth stat to get a temporary boost. So, if you were one or two wealth points away from that lucrative spice trading route, you could sacrifice some of your wealth to get a temporary boost. Now you could run that spice route, but if something happened and you lost that load, you’d have to work even harder to get back up to that point.
To duplicate the social interaction that a higher level player giving a newbie a wad of cash, richer merchants could become patrons of other players. In essence, the lower level character got a boost in their Wealth that would allow them to afford nicer things. Lower level merchants could take more lucrative trade routes faster, or lower level generals could get access to better equipment for their army. But, becoming a patron carried risk, in that a general that lost a lot or a merchant that failed to deliver goods might result in a lower Wealth stat for the patron.
Every time you spend currency, you’re casting a vote for the kind of economy you want
But, what about one time, direct player-to-player transactions? Although the Anno game I was designing didn’t support it, this could be an important part of a fantasy RPG. This could be handled in a similar way to trade goods. The goods a crafter can create would be restricted by their Wealth stat; no creating ultra-rare mythril armor when you’re starting out. And, a player could not receive goods they could not afford; so that crafter creating mythril armor couldn’t just trade it to the newbie with a low Wealth stat. But, if the crafter finds a player with high enough Wealth stat to take the item, then that would result in progression for the crafter’s Wealth stat. Perhaps the player could also have the option to leave a “tip” for the crafter, which would increase the crafter’s Wealth stat progression even faster based on the tipper’s Wealth stat (without necessarily decreasing that stat.)
You could also incorporate the patron system, with some cost for becoming or ending a patronage to avoid degenerate behavior. A few wealthy characters could still power a guild and keep them going.
It might seem a bit weird to have a Wealth requirement to obtain gear, but if you think about Wealth as a stat, it’s really no different than requiring a certain Strength or even level to equip a piece of gear. Merchants would probably have some way to instantly assess someone’s Wealth, so that they could craft the appropriate type of equipment for someone needing gear without asking cumbersome questions or trying to guess. Again, this really does feel like the same amount of work that goes into every other stat, just used in a way to avoid gold sellers and other economic woes.
I think a Wealth stat and supporting systems would make particular sense for a game where players were organized into different teams. Having crafters who didn’t have to worry about collecting nickles and dimes from their fellow teammates seems to make a lot of sense, particularly if the teams were under conditions of constant war. It seems more than a little silly to try to hold out for the best price when you’re actually supplying the warriors out defending your civilization from the enemy hordes.
So, what do you think? Would a Wealth stat make sense to you? Or are you too in love with the oft broken economies that MMOs currently have?