Wednesday, May 2, 2018

It's The Economy, Stupid!

Once again I find myself feeding off a post at The Ancient Gaming Noob, only this time what prompted me to respond was something Gevlon said in the comments. I might have been tempted to put finger to keyboard anyway, since Wilhelm compares the upcoming addition of instanced content to EVE (in the form of "abyssal deadspace") with EverQuest's 2003 expansion "Lost Dungeons of Norrath" and LDoN has always been one of my favorite EQ expansions.

LDoN came as a complete surprise - even a shock - at the time. It fundamentally altered the way EQ was played, dismantling the cultural barricade between "above ground" and "dungeon" players, converting most of the solo and casual population to the kind of group play that had hitherto been seen as the province of the game's self-appointedly more committed and serious players.

I learned more about group play and especially how to start, build, maintain and lead a group in the six months that LDoN provided the backdrop to the EQ zeitgeist than ever before or since. I also made more friends in the game in the first few weeks of that expansion than I'd made in the previous four years. I can think of several periods where my long EQ career could be said to have peaked but LDoN may have been the zenith.

Wilhelm concluded his post by asking a very direct question about the upcoming addition to EVE : "Will it change the game in a good way?". My experience with LDoN was that it not only changed EQ structurally but culturally. The game was never the same again and I would always contend it became a better MMORPG as a direct result of what we all learned in the Lost Dungeons.

EVE is a very different MMORPG from EverQuest and what's more it's one that I've never played, so I wouldn't presume to speculate on whether or how the introduction of instanced content might change things there, be it for better or for worse. Gevlon has played EVE extensively so it was interesting to see him put his finger on the crucial difference between the two games.

By that, I don't mean  the radically different setting - Spaceships instead of Dragons. Nor do I mean the central role played by PvP, or even that the entire game takes place on a single shard instead of well over a dozen. All of those make any comparison between the two games not so much apples and pears as apples and aardvarks but in this case the supreme point of difference is the economy.

LDoN did, as Wilhelm points out, introduce the concept of Augmentations to EverQuest - plug-ins that fitted sockets in your armor to upgrade it or add fresh functionality. That, in my experience, however, wasn't the primary attraction for the swarms of overland and solo players who suddenly found themselves scanning LFG and learning dungeon etiquette.

LDoN also offered vendors with armor that was better than anything overland players could have imagined themselves wearing. As with the arrival of  Darkness Falls in Dark Age of Camelot, the addition of a currency system that permitted the purchase of superior gear from NPCs rather than having to hope for a lucky drop made people re-assess the entire way they played the game.

They had to because in both cases neither the currency nor the items were tradeable. If you wanted to wear the armor you had to do the content. There was no way round it.

In EVE this will not be the case. In EVE, at least as I understand it from the outside, everything is negotiable. As Gevlon says, "It cannot change the game as a whole, because every reward will be available on the contracts. Ergo, if you want it and have the ISK, you can have it without ever setting foot in it."

This brings us to the heart of the problem. The Economy. All MMORPGs have an economy of some description but they vary wildly in breadth, depth and influence. There are a handful, like EVE and Entropia Universe, which have unrestricted player-to-player trade as a core feature. At the other extreme some, like FFXI and the original Guild Wars, allow players to trade only through a bourse with strict price controls.

Most MMOs settle for a hybrid economy in which many items are freely tradeable but others are not. This allows the designers to retain some control over prestige and desirability, giving them levers they can use to move player activity and interest from one aspect of the game to another. Commonly, for example, the very best gear or the most spectacular mounts or illusions will require players to complete raids, kill bosses or run quests for themselves.

This in itself gives rise to a whole set of behaviors that were probably unintended but which often become more or less part of the culture. When raiding was added to GW2, "carrying" players through a raid for a fee became such a point of controversy that ANet had to rule on whether it was a bannable offence (it isn't, unless it's a scam, when it is). EQ2 has a whole grey economy based on "SLR" - selling loot rights - in which someone kills a mob with an untradeable drop then invites someone else to come group with them and loot it - again for a fee.

Once items become freely tradeable in this way the entire game changes. It's no longer about imagining you're a freebooting space-pirate or a bold adventurer. It becomes about knowing where to go and what to do to earn enough money to buy the things you want. In other words, it becomes all about having a job.

The deeply ironic thing is this: a fully-functioning, unrestricted in-game economy does more than anything to turn an online game into a genuine "virtual world". Players really do begin to live in the imaginary space as though it were "real", making the same kind of decisions and choices as they would have to make were they physically present, not least in EVE where there isn't even the safety-net of a "play nice" policy.

None of that matches my wishes or expectations for virtuality. When I took up this hobby I was all in favor of the virtual world approach over treating MMORPGs as "games". What I didn't have in mind was moving to a complete replica of the society in which I already live, just with everyone dressed in leather and carrying a sword.

Over time I came to first mistrust and later despise the very concept of a "player economy". For several years I used to jump into forum threads to contend that the complete removal of all forms of direct player-to-player trading would be a cure-all for most of what ailed MMOs at the time.

I have since mellowed on that extreme position as I have mellowed on most things. It's quite disturbing, looking back, to see how similar my thinking was in my 40s to the way I saw the world as an adolescent. Perhaps I'm finally growing up. Or just giving up.

These days I favor an in-game economy with some form of fairly strict central control. I strongly admired FFXI's price mechanism in the brief time I played that game. Something like that would be my starting point. I also think it essential for the long-term health of an MMORPG that many desirable items (and probably services, too) should only be obtainable by the direct action of an individual player. They can be assisted by friends or guildmates or even strangers but they should at least have to be there when it happens.

The idea that you can get anything you want just by doing the things you like is all too attractive on the surface. Who could argue against it? Not me. The problem is that, far from allowing players to do what they enjoy, it's a road that always leads to them doing what they think is the most efficient. Whatever brings in the most money for the time spent.

That in turn leads to an MMO in which normative gameplay largely consists of grinding or farming the same content long after it loses any flavor it might have had. We see this happen over and over. Players routinely end up skipping things they'd prefer to do because they don't bring in the same gold-per-hour. Instead they spend session after session on things that bore them so much they have to do them while watching Netflix on another screen. Eventually they either become so bored they leave or so burned out they turn into the kind of haters and trolls who can't help but use every available channel to badmouth the game that betrayed them and ruined their life - even as they go on grinding.

That is not my conception of immersive gameplay. Nor is it the kind of virtual world I could recommend as an imaginative and stimulating alternative to the non-virtual one in which we all already live.


  1. A bourse! There is one for the word a day calendar.

    There is very much a fine line for an in-game economy. If you want to have crafting people need to be able to sell to other players, which means they need to be able to make things worth buying and the market needs to be able to absorb production. If people want to just be crafters then raw materials need to be a sellable good as well. Lots of MMOs fail on the first point. How many weapons can a weaponsmith in EQII sell when you only need a new one every ten levels or so and drops are likely better most times in any case? I also recall the tragi-comedy of the early days of EQII and interdependent crafting professions. People wanted to sell raw materials and every preliminary product output for more than actual finished products would bring on the market.

    EVE Online is a bit of an outlier on this front as it is on so many. Unlike any of the other examples you mention, all equipment in destroyable. Every ship or module or implant is temporary. If you undock somebody might blow it up. Also a large percentage of the modules and all ship hulls are manufactured by players,as are enhancements like drugs. So aside from a couple of starter missions that hand you low end ships you simply can't go out and run some PvE content to keep yourself supplied. You need the market because even if you go get all the items, if you lose your ship you're back at square one again.

    While Gevlon is on track for the most part I think he overstates the ISK drive. In his theory anybody doing anything other than obtaining ISK is wasting their time because ISK is all. And yet people do things other than collect ISK all the time. Wars happen that have no direct economic benefit. I haven't bothered to do any ISK gathering for months. Instead I've been flying around in fleets and shooting other players, which is the fun part of the game. People obtain ISK to enable them to do what they want. For some people that means making more ISK. For others it is a means to an end and they use their ISK to go have fun elsewhere. For still others their fun involves a secondary pursuit like manufacturing which itself generates ISK. And the economy helps regulate what people do. In the case of this new abyssal content, the price of the augments will drive people to do the content. If the price drops people who don't really like the content will fall away while those who enjoy it will carry on.

    You're favorite Edward Castronova quote still seems to hold true, "Being an elf doesn’t make you turn off the rational economic calculator part of your brain."

    1. I have very much modified my longstanding dislike of MMO economies over the years because the simple fact is that, when they're well-done, they add a lot of fun and enjoment to the games. I loved EQ's Bazaar from the moment SOE finally got it working. In fact, as I've mentioned before, there was a point when my EQ gameplay pretty much revolved around Bazaar trading, with Norrath's sell-back NPCs acting as my unwitting wholesalers. I also had a great run in the first few weeks and months after the Stromm server launched, traveling to unlikely spots to farm peculiar items that no-one else was supplying. I made a lot of money, relatively speaking, back then, and it was very satisfying and entertaining too.

      No matter how deeply involved I am in the trading aspect of an MMO, however, there usually comes a time when it occurs to me that the reason I bought or installed the game in the first place was to go adventuring and exploring. It's all too easy, I find, to get sidetracked and end up turning yourself into the owner-operator of some kind of small business instead of the adventurer you meant to be. When that happens I do sometimes get irritated with the design that either tacitly or overtly encouraged me to lose sight of my real goals.

      You're right, though, that rational individuals should be able to manage these expectations and opportunities effectively. When the rules of the game are well-constructed that's what happens. A lot of MMOs aren't especially blessed in the "well-constructed" department though.

      As for "bourse" I never feel I'm using it correctly according to the dictionary definition but I used to believe it had connotations of direct government control over pricing in a market. Since it's French that's probably not an unreasonable belief!

  2. There is one more thing to add: RMT. If there is player economy, there is necessarily RMT, where players "give" value to strangers for out of game purposes.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide