Why MMO Economies Are Broken & 4 Ways To Repair Them

The Solution

Economies may be broken in the average MMO, but there are a few ways to fix them. The most important rule is to never withhold information from your players. Give them the option to drown themselves in numbers if they want to.

1.) Make end-game items player-crafted, not enemy-dropped

End-game gear should not be dropped by enemies, plain and simple. If I kill a raid boss, it shouldn’t drop a fancy new sword. Rather, it should drop some nice crafting material – related to that boss – which I can use to craft a few different items.

By making bosses drop items better than those the player can create, developers remove the relevance of player economic involvement. It reduces the potential end-game market to consumables like gems, potions, and scrolls. A healthy economy requires players to be able to craft gear that is the same level or better – preferably better – than the gear dropped by enemies. This encourages players to actually do crafting and sell their goods on the marketplace. By making boss drops the most powerful items a player can get, developers shift the ideal activity away from crafting and selling and more towards killing and hoping the drop rate treats you well. That seems silly, doesn’t it?

This could be tied with the focus on discovery that I mentioned in my crafting article. Make a boss drop a unique chunk of himself – some shard or essence or what have you – that the player can then use in a discovery-based crafting system. The chunk gives unique stats, just like the item the boss would drop in a normal system, but allows the player to create a variety of items instead of only getting one.

2.) Give the player more information on costs and profits

The first half of this suggestion is simple: I should know the costs of everything I do. Vendor costs are pretty simple and common, but costs for items only available through the player market are never shown. In that same vein, time costs are rarely communicated to the player in an effective way. When I craft a group of items in World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, it doesn’t tell me how long the job will take. I have to download a third-party add-on to enable it.

The second is a little more nebulous. While markets will always tell me the profits I get by selling my items at a particular price, the game rarely tells me how my actions will profit me. How much ore can I gather by mining a particular node? What are the chances and amounts for materials gathered via disenchanting magic gear? The game sure won’t tell me.

Both are fixed by just providing the user with basic information. While it’s alright to hide these sorts of numbers from the end user initially (economics is not for everybody, after all), there should be an option to flip on the switch and get all the relevant data you could need. The lifeblood of traders is information. Accurate numbers for everything from unit price to average volume sold are vitally important to the player wanting to sink their teeth into markets instead of dungeon bosses.

3.) Divide player economies into markets and auction houses

As mentioned earlier, auction houses are terrible for selling large quantities of goods. They are, after all, designed around the principle of auctioning items, not outright selling them. By shoehorning them into the role of high-volume market, developers create many mechanical and interface issues for market players.

The fix is simple: Split the player-driven economy into markets and auction houses instead of trying to stick with one or the other exclusively.

Think of it in terms of real life. When you go to the store, you aren’t constantly trying to bid the cashier down for basic goods like a can of soda or a cheap coffee mug. You just want to buy your item and get out as quickly as possible. While this dynamic changes a little depending on the part of the globe you are in, most established businesses run this way. It’s because haggling and bartering for goods that are sold often is a waste of time. The seller may as well give you the best price immediately and move on to the next customer, as the time spent haggling with you is lost profits. Opportunity cost rears its head once again!

By comparison, you are more likely to be overcharged for an item that you’ll have for a very long time, like a car. Such items don’t sell often, so there is no real necessity for the seller to move quickly and get you out the door. You are expected to haggle to bring the price down to acceptable levels, and the potential profit that a seller can make from winning a haggling war far outweighs the cost of spending time with you.

This translates directly into the MMO landscape. High-volume items – ore, potions, scrolls, basic crafting materials, etc – are generally not haggled for but instead bought at list price. These items should be listed on a general market where you can simply buy them in bulk. This is where Guild Wars 2 shines. Big items, like legendaries, are usually bid on to reduce the potential cost of purchase. These items should remain in an auction house. By giving players the ability to separate their transactions like this, developers make trading much more accessible and fun.

4.) Make markets visible and usable from anywhere

EVE Online may have the most involved and interesting virtual economy of MMO I’ve ever played, but there’s one part that drives me nuts: You can’t view prices outside your region without visiting another region. Viewing market prices and setting market orders in other regions requires you to jump out there yourself. In a universe of instantaneous interstellar communication, you can’t sell your ammo that is two jumps away because it happens to be in a different region.

This is one of very few areas where EVE Online can learn from another MMO, specifically Guild Wars 2. Make your market viewable from anywhere. On top of that, make it so players can buy and sell from anywhere, assuming that the items they are selling are in the right spot.

Sitting docked in a station or next to an auctioneer to manage your investments, orders, and auctions is not fun. It’s tedious. Players want to be able to go out into the field and play the game while managing their assets. If I have an item sitting in my bank, and I decide I want to sell it, I should be able to sell it from anywhere in the game world. If markets are local – like in EVE Online – than apply this principle locally. If I have an item sitting in Jita, I should be able to list it on the market at its current location without having to jump into the same region as Jita. Hauling and delivery of player market items should remain the same, but selling/buying should be made global.

Virtual economies have a lot to teach us about the vagaries and problems of real economies. Thanks to their controlled conditions and consequence-free manipulation, they can give players, developers, and academics unique insights into how people interact with each other. They just need to be more informative and more accessible. Otherwise the question isn’t why players do these transactions, but why they put up with such annoying design.

These suggestions are, of course, from my time spent in the MMO world. Have some thoughts of your own? Want to let me know why I’m right or wrong? Leave a comment below!

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3 Comments on Why MMO Economies Are Broken & 4 Ways To Repair Them

michael

On March 8, 2013 at 6:51 pm

There are easier ways to make MMO’s more fun. I myself have constructed a full proof formula that makes MMO’s very user friendly and challenging to all types of players. But I can’t give away my ideas sorry. But I can tell you this. Getting rid of Leveling up is a huge start.

Chris

On March 8, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Your suggestions basically mirror what you can do in EVE online, an i totally agree.

While i first got into that game, i had no clue about economics. about a month in i lost my first Raven to inexperience, and believing that because i could fly it meant i should, which is a common newb mistake. i had a choice, i could go out in my drake again and mission for the money, or i could try and sell a bucket load of low tier ore. i went to try the ore and one of the main trading hubs and while the ore was , i bought a T2 module for cheap and re-sold it for high. my little economic carrier took off from there, and i ended up making the money for my raven in two days.

I did this because eve gives you all the info Auctioneer give you as a baseline, including stock market graphs. its an absolute amazing system, mostly because it acts like a real world economy because ti all player driven.

Bryan

On February 8, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Your fourth point is actually something that isn’t true for all MMO economies.

Taking your example, EVE is a game that is just as much about the economy as it is about the game. In many ways, the economy is more important to the game than many of the ‘real’ game elements. And, of course, a large part of that economy is the imposed limitations, such as preventing

Taking your fourth point, it is just as easy to argue that preventing people from trading outside of where they are ensures that the economy – an integral part of the game – remains interesting and, potentially, dangerous. It also preserves the risks and rewards of operating in null-sec and, as a general rule, ensures that the economy doesn’t become hyper-competitive to the point where competition in many goods is impossible for players with little to no ISK on hand.

It might be fair to say that they should be able to view the entire economy from one place, and maybe put sell orders up anywhere, but allowing people to buy items put up for sale anywhere in the game from the distant ends of null-sec would really damage a large part of what makes the game interesting.

Remember, game economies exist to serve the game, not the other way around.