Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's the Economy Stupid

In game economies is a relevant topic given the failure in nations' economies worldwide in the last two months. What started with the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States has expanded to a serious failure of the credit and lending industries, leading to the ironic situation of a fiscally conservative administration taking steps to nationalize the banking industry. The same story is being repeated throughout much of Western Europe and southeast Asia.

In game economies, however, don't have Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae to cause widespread problems. For the most part, speculation in game is limited to "buy low, sell high" in commodities markets with perhaps more elaborate and interesting examples in games like Second Life which involve RMT (real money transfer). Having little experiences in those games, I will talk about my experience in World of Warcraft as an example of a functioning and complex in game economy.

World of Warcraft is, now five years after its launch, a truly massive experience with many different aspects that a player may engage in, sometimes to the exclusion of others. There are some who focus on the high end PvP arena game, others who have never step foot in a PvP battleground, and still others for whom the game is the bleeding edge of raid content. Given a sufficient amount of time, most players will have experienced the majority of what the game has to offer, even if they then proceed to dabble in a relatively small subset of it.

Driving and connecting these systems is an economy of scarce goods. The economy is vital to the continued life of the game and any MMO of similar construction. By its successful implementation, the developers can lessen their own burden of generating content. The structure of the economy itself will give players motivation to return day after day, whether that be to work on a crafting skill, do daily quests for gold, or participate in a raid. Almost all the activities a player might engage in outside of strict role play scenarios is motivated or at least facilitated by the search for scarce goods or the means to get them.

The way this is implemented - loot tables, quest rewards, crafting/gathering professions, the auction house, PvP honor/battleground rewards - forms an organic, self-sustaining whole. So long as the rewards on the high end are sufficiently hard to obtain, and others so random that no amount of time or effort is guarantee that one will obtain them, there will always be something to entice players to log into the game. In this I am not claiming that the motivation for "phat lewtz" is primary for players but that it is the organizing principle around which most of the game (and most of its peers) was created. Consider that nearly every quest in the game has either a gold or item reward, that the high level PvE content, more than player skill, demands a cache of rare gear and expensive consumables in order to complete. Even the PvP endgame has its own treadmill of item based rewards with arena rating and points for tiered gear.

As a last example, consider the economy in Diablo II. The developers of Diablo have always recognized the allure of finding rare items and they built a dynamic system to facilitate players' search. Much like the first incarnation, Diablo II was repeatedly compromised leading to widespread duping of even the rarest items. Yet, the duping didn't break the game; the game as played changed to accommodate it. The vibrant player economy of Diablo II stands as testament to the well thought gameplay mechanics which enable them and the underlying motivation of the grind.

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