Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Greatest Threat to the Economy: Ursus Americanus

People wonder why MMO economies are fickle and screwy while also wondering why there are so many immature, selfish people in these games. What is the common answer to both of these questions? Dumbed down tradeskills on the developer’s backburner? A suboptimal auction house mechanic? A marked absence of quantum balancing systems mitigating the sinusoidal variance of markets in constant flux?

False. Black bears.

How often do you go into Walmart and see someone dumping a dozen or so Rotting Bear Carcasses on the checkout counter, asking the associate to give him dozens of pieces of silver in return? That’s essentially what happens thousands of times every day in WoW, and people have come to accept it as normal. If you told me I could go outside and kill every living thing in the woods and sell all the useless parts and scraps to Walmart (or Barnes and Noble, or Gamestop, or any other store because they all pay the same for everything) for loads of silver and maybe even gold, I might break out the old 12 gauge and use Bambi’s inedible parts to pay down my mortgage. WoW enables people to do just that, and we wonder why a certain kind of powerfantasizing selfish teenage demographic is attracted to the genre? When a consistent way of making money is wholesale slaughter for steady vendor trash, there are going to be problems with the playerbase.

Far more important is the effect this has on the economy. Lets review:
1) Killing animals rewards you with vendor trash, which serves no other purpose than generating money for players
2) Vendors will never stop buying vendor trash, and all vendors will all pay the same amount. That bread lady walking around between the Ironforge Mailbox and Auction House must be funded by a Goblin Trade Prince, because I can’t imagine how much crap she has bought from people looking for extra cash.
3) Animals respawn and multiply like Tribbles in heat, so the source of money is self replenishing and literally endless

Combine these three completely unrealistic elements and you have a recipe for financial disaster. People consider mudflation to be a problem with regards to expansions, but the problems obviously exist well before any expansions come out. So what is a designer to do?

(un)Realistically in most MMOs they will never make animals have perma death. There has to be fairly rapid respawning of mobs in order to allow more players to slaughter them. So Problem #3 is not going to change. What can change is what drops from these mobs. Vendor trash serves one purpose only, and in the end it is more of a detriment to the game than a benefit to the players, so axe it, and slightly increase drop rates for useful items. Players will enjoy the freed up inventory space and the less frequent trips back to town to offload inventory for money.

The other step that can be taken is to strive for a zero sum economy. Any time more money is introduced to a static population, the effects of inflation will haunt the economy, and the poor (new players) will suffer. Developers should try to make sure that if X people are playing in any given month, the total amount of money in the system is Y. If the population goes up or down by 25%, the total amount of wealth should follow suit. Sound impossible? Not at all, it just requires a little bit of creativity and unconventional thought (developers hiss and shield their eyes).

The first step is to make NPC buyers more realistic in their needs and wants. I have a hard time believing that a barkeeper has as much need for stacks of leather as a master leatherworker. I think that all NPCs should still be willing to buy any and all items, just at proportionally lower prices depending on the item and their own specialty.

The next step is to keep a serverwide tally of the number of active characters (not players) each week, and the total money amongst them. An optimal “wealth per character” number should be calculated ahead of time, and compared to the actual average wealth per character for each server each week. If the W/C figure for a server is too high, adjust vendor buying prices down accordingly, and vice versa if W/C is too low. This shouldn’t just effect vendor prices and sellback prices, but whatever other NPC moneysinks exist in the game as well. You could even do it on a per city/faction basis to make things fairer and to create a realistic sense of locale (“I’m going to Stormwind, I hear they’re selling Item X for cheap this week!”)

The last step is to manage NPC vendor inventory intelligently. If the auction house is flooded with Linen Cloth, don’t let NPCs sell any for a while so that players will buy from the auction house until supplies drop again and the price rises back up. If Mageroyal is selling at its usual perma-premium, allow more vendors to sell more of it, increasing supply and dropping the price. All this would require is calculated optimal price ranges for each major crafting component and a function that adjusts vendor inventory based on auction house quantity and price. At first glance this may sound too controlling and micromanaging, but realistically you’re just letting those NPC vendors act like real people, buying when they want to, paying as much as they see fair, and selling when the prices are high.

Sometimes realism can actually help a situation! Gasp.

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