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Reinventing the compelling MMORPG economy

Perhaps if you’re a hardcore invested economist you think differently, but capitalism is a simple game of incentive for personal gain at its core. Don’t have money? Can’t live above welfare level. Want money? Work for it. Can’t or won’t work and still want money? Commit crimes. Committing crimes is deeply frowned on by responsible authorities, of course, but there’s a certain matter of how well they can enforce it that allow the criminal element to exist. In time, a rift forms between those who excel at getting money and those who don’t, leading (among other causes) to an unbalanced economy lead by lucky/skilled entrepreneurs and criminals.

MMORPG economies, largely conceived by aspiring capitalists looking to make some money through their sale, largely work the same way. Don’t have money? Can’t play above the most basic level. Want money? Go kill monsters. Can’t or won’t kill monsters and still want money? Cheat (for example, con other players or go buy it from an RMT organization). Cheating is deeply frowned on by responsible game developers, of course, but there’s a certain matter of how well they can enforce it. In time, a rift forms between those who excel at killing monsters and those who don’t, leading (among other causes) to an unbalanced economy lead by lucky/skilled players and cheaters.
ICanHasCheeseburger dwells on matters of economic concern.
ICanHasCheeseburger dwells on the
matter of economic concern.

I could get all very excited about the parallels between MMORPGs and real life economies and say that clearly the developers were doing something right and this will lead to a revolution in gaming and I wouldn’t be the first. However, in order for me to say that I would need to be lying, because I know that the goal isn’t to make a game realistic, the goal is to make a game fun. When the result is out-of-control inflation leading to an unbalanced economy where cheating is considered a viable option, what we have is an inequitable failure. It’s time for a critical rethinking of MMORPG economies. Game money is basically the carrot and stick approach to game design. Game money rewards players for doing what you want them to do, that’s all it’s good for. Now, we look at what problems money introduces and brainstorming possible solutions to fix them.

Problem 1: Crime

I don’t want players to be able to cheat eachother by making promises and then not following through with them or simply cajoling a newbie into accidentally dropping all their gold at their feet because that rewards them for cheating their fellow player. Further, if players are able to get money through RMT, they’re being rewarded for what you don’t want them to do.

I'm sure some of you still affected by the Red Scare are looking
at this as a threat to your precious personal possessions.
Well, knock it off, I'm just trying to make an entertaining
computer game here.

As the game masters of our virtual worlds, computers are dreadfully limited in that they can’t tell the difference between what’s a legitimate trade and what’s social engineering. Thus, completely free trade between players has got to go.

It’s not that I don’t want my players to have that freedom, it’s simply that they’ve proved that they can’t be trusted without somebody to regulate the trade. I can think of a few alternatives. First, we could have trusted intermediary players oversee all trades.

Alternately, we could have a trade system where only trusted players are allowed to perform trades. Finally (and this is the easiest to implement) we could simply not add a means for players to trade – even as basic as dropping things so others could pick them up – eliminating trade entirely.

In the game I’m working on right now, I’ve opted to eliminate trade. However, there’s a certain problem with that in that I’ve removed a major incentive for the players to socialize: other players don’t have material possessions they can give you, therefore you’ve less reason to get to know them. This is not neccessarily a deal breaker, so long as alternate socialization incentives exist (such in-game advantages to working well with others).

Problem 2: Inflation

Game money is generally tossed at players whenever they do something right (slay a monster) and sometimes when they do something wrong (accidentally click on a barrel). The underlying problem that many RPG economies have is that, if you keep adding to a number, it will accumulate. This money is generally protected to avoid grief play, and so it essentially exists in an alternate dimension, where it grows and grows.

crushed by money
176,952 U.S. Quarters weigh 1 ton (2000 lbs),
and gold is a lot heavier. How much is your
favorite RPG character carrying to the merchant?

Part of the problem could be attributed to lack of “money sinks” — things the players could spend their bling on. World of Warcraft players no doubt recognize the chores of repairing their equipment, riding the bus (the griffin/wyvern transit system), paying auction fees, and buying mounts. These are all optional activities that soak up massive amounts of dosh. It doesn’t work – World of Warcraft is still inflated at best, or you simply can’t afford to repair your equipment at worse. Either option is non-conductive to fun gameplay.

I could say that they should adjust their money sinks further, but that doesn’t really solve that what money sinks do is only treat the symptom. What really needs to be attacked is the illness: the haphazard way that money is handled in games. I can think of at least two ways to do this:

First, be much more careful about how quickly you give players money – measure out exactly how much they need and reward it to them at the exact rate of what they’ll be doing, then make sure they get it. This solution takes a lot of work, of course, and some players might catch on that they’re essentially on rails. Whether or not you throw money at them with abandon, this is true: they’re still grinding away for nothing but virtual swag. However, dangling the carrot so elusively may cause them to question whether it’s worth chasing.

Aaaigh, my eyes, they burn!
Aaaigh, my eyes, they burn!

Alternately, reward players through means other than money and cut out the middleman. There’s all sorts of alternate rewards you could give them: social standing, access to better or new abilities, direct rewards of upgraded equipment, ect. The players still get the kind of things they want, but they don’t do it with having this big meaningless number to keep track of. It’s really a whole lot more efficient, and even gives developer better control of specific rewards for specific things than a central pool from which the player can choose rewards.

The main downside of the alternate solution is a matter of audience. Many RPG players are conditioned to feel that these games are about accumulation, and would abstain from a game which does not make gain obvious. I wonder if the genre is better off without that attitude, or would excluding such cut out the entire demography of RPG players? I’m hoping not on the grounds that some people still play RPGs out of a desire to have fun or roleplay.


Overall, My lead critique at existing games isn’t that they use money so much as that they don’t seem to realize why they’re using money beyond, “players want it.” Well, if game money is the carrot you’re dangling before the players, then dangle it responsibly in the right places instead of throwing it at them until they drown in a bout of ill-conceived vegecide.

These and other considerations are going through my head right now as I approach the last vital leg of the GUI-level of my game. It’s not enough that I want players to do things, I need them to be able to produce things as well, and handling this necessitates thoughts as to where those things they produce are going to go. What do player characters gain in the long run, is it sufficient incentive for the player to play them, will it dig into other players experiences over time, and is it (above all) fun?

All these can only be settled by good, head-hurting, critical thinking… and I’m just the borderline obsessive compulsive to do it. I don’t know if my game’s economy will be the best in the world, but (with any luck) it may well be different than the clearly flawed examples we can find today.
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