Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

24 June, 2007

Weekend Design Challenge: Economics
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:08 AM

I’ll keep this short and sweet: Assume you are developing a game with a focus on economic gameplay. Describe what you think are the most important aspects to make economics the focus.

Some thoughts after the jump.

I’ve touched briefly on this topic before in previous post: Fun (via Economics) and Non-Combat PvP where I discuss economic competition is one form of competition between players.

In my opinion, the most important thing is to make sure that all aspects of your economy are meaningful. If you have some part of your economy that is rendered unimportant by some aspect of the game, then that is useless content. A classic example from combat-centric games is crafted equipment. Dropped equipment from big monsters is usually so much better than crafted equipment, and that makes crafted equipment useless (eventually). Of course, if crafted equipment is superior to dropped equipment, then you get people complaining about how useless raiding is. Or, worse, you have everyone making a crafting character in order to make the best equipment in the game. It’s hard to strike a balance.

So, focus on gameplay that is more reliant on economics. Discuss: what is important to consider for the design?

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  1. I’m currently working on a proposal for Dragonrealms (as a player; I’m insane and donate my development abilities like that). The full text of it (NOTE: In Progress; I just scratched a old version and am rewriting) is here:

    I think you hit the answer to your question spot on: you have to make the actual actions meaningful in and of themselves.

    The problem with economy as a central gameplay focus is that economies are means to an end. The overall goal of economies is to improve the quality of life of its agents; this is virtually inexpressible in normal terms for virtual worlds, because QOL is not something to strive for. The way to fix this is to make your game about something else. Combat. Politics. The power of Armageddon. The gameplay might be economics: buy up the cool widgets and charismatics, achieve world domination, succorring princesses, whatever you like. But the mechanic itself, of hoarding money or allocating resources effectively, has to be directed towards a meaningful end that the game can express.

    Comment by Michael Chui — 24 June, 2007 @ 1:44 AM

  2. A lack of perfect information would be totally necessary. If the game revolves around the economy then price histories, buyout prices, and supply shifts would have to be totally transparent to the players (except the ones who track it on their own or pay very close attention).

    Also, as Michael pointed out, the goods your economy revolves around have to have some other purpose– if the items have no value outside of being sold to other players, everyone will want to sell and no one will want to buy. You need to have more to it than just that.

    Really, isn’t ANY mmo an economy game for the players who want it to be? I was trying to picture it, and a game based on the economy that still had utility for the traded items wouldn’t look dramatically different from any of our current games, IMO.

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 24 June, 2007 @ 9:43 AM

  3. Two things I think could make a game economy more engaging and meaningful are localization and blurring the divide in definition between crafted items and dropped items.

    Economic localization was something I thought Vanguard would have, though I haven’t followed it since early beta and I’m not sure if it was realized in any form. If you have an expansive world and you make all travel time-consuming (but adventurous), then that can be the beginning of a system of regional markets and caravans. There’s much more opportunity for economic gameplay if transporting goods is made into an adventure and resources are localized (one region has the best iron and silver mines, another the best silks, etc.). Players could still opt to be stationary traders, but there would be more dynamics behind the shopkeeping. Any number of new professions and skills are made possible by such a system.

    Second, if a sensible system could be designed in which non-vendor NPCs could seize or acquire player-crafted items, then the line between player-crafted and dev-crafted items could be made difficult to distinguish. The devs could still create items for balance and reward purposes, but placing such items in a way that is not wholly predictable could make players focus on items themselves, rather than meta-game info surrounding the items (which I see as problematic, though I’m sure not everyone does).

    Comment by Aaron — 24 June, 2007 @ 10:50 AM

  4. Cameron Sorden wrote:
    A lack of perfect information would be totally necessary. If the game revolves around the economy then price histories, buyout prices, and supply shifts would have to be totally transparent to the players (except the ones who track it on their own or pay very close attention).

    An interesting assertion, and I’m not sure I agree. If you make economics the main focus of the game, then having this information is going to be a tremendous advantage. In this day and age you’re going to get people writing helper programs, especially if you have a customizable client like WoW does. I think you probably want to supply a bit of this information for players to use. On the other hand, how players use this information is where the interesting gameplay effects come in, IMHO. Just because both of us know the price histories of a certain item on the markets doesn’t mean we can both predict the price; I might assume that the prices will continue a downward trend, but you know that a new quest was added that increased the demand for the item as a turn-in, so you know the price will almost certainly go up.

    In all, I think there will always be bits of information that will be missing that you can provide players with large amounts of automatically collected data and the game will still be a challenge for most people. However, I’m interested to hear what others have to say.

    Comment by Psychochild — 24 June, 2007 @ 1:16 PM

  5. Cameron Sorden says, Really, isn’t ANY mmo an economy game for the players who want it to be?

    Well, there are degrees. Most importantly, there is the question of, “Is the economy game fun?” In some games, it’s not. WoW, for instance; I’ve heard stories of people who have tried to do interesting things with the economy, but couldn’t. In others, it is. ATITD and EVE Online are examples. I had a friend who played TrekMUSH and loved trading, but ended up disliking it after they changed the market forces. Or something; I don’t know the details.

    Comment by Michael Chui — 24 June, 2007 @ 10:54 PM

  6. The most important thing you need to make economy play interesting is to motivate players to care about money in a healthy and enjoyable manner. In a standard mmo thats stuff like getting valuable gear which is useful in other game systems.

    If the game is too centered on making money through trading and crafting alone players will eventually find their personal level of grokkness of the economy systems and churn. The question then is which supporting systems are best suited to motivate trading gameplay.

    Comment by Wolfe — 25 June, 2007 @ 12:56 AM

  7. I’m very short on time this morning but since this is one of my favorite topics I wanted to respond :)

    You have two ways that you can go with economic gameplay – player-usable goods or commerce as a means to income.

    An example of player-usable goods would be almost every fantasy MMORPG’s crafting system.

    An example of commerce as a means to income would be trading systems like Earth and Beyond’s or EVE’s, where the focus is buying low and selling high to make a profit.

    Most people will probably want to do more of the first and some of the second at a meta-level.

    Key things for crafting-based economic systems:

    1. “I want to bake bread” and “I want to forge swords”. Google ‘em.
    2. Quality of crafted items has to be high enough to insure demand. If loot’s much better, crafting is meaningless.
    3. The alt factor needs to be addressed. If “hardcore” players have a choice between spending time and spending money they’ll usually go with time to get what they want. Since alts don’t generally do anything other than supply the mains (and sometimes guilds), having a lot of crafting mules can pull consumers out of your economy and hurt the marketability of goods. You can usually defeat the alt factor if you make your crafting system fairly complex so that someone really has to understand it to do it.
    4. Location/travel/scarcity needs to be considered. Game-wide auction houses and such are great for consumers but they lower the number of suppliers who can compete in the market and force those suppliers to compete on price. By the same token, a regional market system is less convenient for consumers, but it allows more sellers to compete, and compete on aspects other than cost (location, quality).
    5. The more robust you can make your economic model the better – for example, things like trade caravans, EVE-style buy orders, and so on are all going to help encourage the economic game.
    6. Make sure crafters have costs to suck away some of that money they’re making. The typical hardcore crafter is going to aggregate the income of as many as 50 other players which gives them a lot of wealth fairly quickly. Either give them a crafting-specific money sink, OR build your game in such a way that the crafters have to put money back in by buying from adventurers on a regular basis.

    …and I’m out of time.

    Comment by Talaen — 25 June, 2007 @ 8:07 AM

  8. @Psychochild:

    Okay, I see your point there. But I still think it would add an additional layer of complexity to the game to not include that data. The problem as I see it is that you don’t have access to that information that you’re talking about usually (it would be akin to insider trading to know that, really, unless the patch notes were available to everyone in advance). In the case of info like that randomly being leaked (or built into the system somehow– like a quest for knowledge of shifting market conditions), you basically are just giving a certain player a windfall. Plus fansites would probably spring up to track and predict market shifts like that.

    While it certainly would be an advantage to have those stats for the average player, it would also make the game pretty boring for the player. Don’t players tend to gravitate towards the historical price? Look at what something like the auctioneer addon does to WoW… prices stabilize because most people who play the market a lot have historical data and place items within a reasonable range of that. If anything is too high, most of those players will pass on buying it. Similarly, anything too low gets snapped up and reposted fairly quickly. I used to do just that for fun. If everyone had access to that data though, no one would ever post something for “too low.”

    I feel like prices (both to buy and sell) for every item in the game would soon become established and you’d basically be playing VendorQuest with players serving as the vendors.

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 27 June, 2007 @ 7:57 AM

  9. Actually, maybe we could have the best of both worlds. Take a look at this:

    What if instead of real time price histories that updated daily or something, instead we had monthly or quarterly reports issued via in-game terminals on the state of the economy and the historical pricing? This would keep information flowing freely while still allowing for enterprising and intelligent individuals to get the jump on market shifts. It also gives the players time to disseminate the data and make predictions and argue about where the market is going instead of getting day to day feedback… could be pretty cool.

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 27 June, 2007 @ 10:02 AM

  10. Interesting. Part of the reservations I have are based on experience. Compared to modern games, Meridian 59 doesn’t offer much information about in-game items. There’s actually a pretty complete lack of any exposed information to the player about various in-game items. This was kept as an intentional game design feature, where players could learn about how items work by trial and error and use that knowledge to their advantage. Some players were less than thrilled about this; the trend has definitely been to give players more information and let them make their own decisions about what tradeoffs to make.

    My gut feeling is that economy information is not that much different. But, it could be, if you accept that the game will be more niche.

    An interesting discussion, though. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 June, 2007 @ 3:08 PM

  11. Regarding data, here’s an interesting and related exchange in the Dragonrealms message boards from 2004. (I only started reading that folder recently.)

    Comment by Michael Chui — 29 June, 2007 @ 1:23 AM

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