The Problem with MMO Economies Part 1
I have a very mixed relationship with MMO economies. In The Lord of the Rings Online I have adequate supplies of in-game gold but most of the items I seek to buy on Auction House are insanely overpriced. In Star Trek Online, earning energy credits is so problematic, the developers have had to add them as part of the daily personal endeavour rewards. Again, there is runaway inflation and the most desirable items such as Tier 6 ships are ridiculously priced. And in The Elder Scrolls Online, the gold slowly builds up over time but the lack of a server wide auction system means that finding and purchasing quality gear at credible prices is an arcane undertaking. There was a point a few years ago when I use to play the LOTRO economy and as a result, I had sufficient means to buy what I wanted. But maintaining that level of wealth and financial leverage is time consuming and requires adhering to a strategy. As I do not play the game, or indeed any other MMO, to that level anymore, my personal wealth in all of them has declined accordingly.
Over the years there have been many articles written about the iniquities of MMO economies and whether anything can be done to run them in a more equitable fashion. For example, last Wednesday, there was an interesting post by Ben Griggs over at Massively Overpowered about the short comings of the Guild Trade system in ESO. Then today, there was a further article about how to acquire in-game wealth in Guild Wars 2, by Bree Royce. Both highlight the recurring problems and complaints that MMO economies regularly generate. A cursory look at the comments on both posts show that there isn’t a prevailing consensus among gamers, as to which is the best way to run an MMO economy. Furthermore, game developers seem to all too often throw in the towel when a games economy starts to get out of control and hyperinflation sets in. It’s as if it is just assumed that this is an inevitable course of events and simply something endemic to the MMORPG genre. And I’m beginning to think that perhaps they are right.
Video games are commercial products. Yes, they can be art as well but MMORPGs are not developed by altruistic, Franciscan monks out of a sense of social obligation. All the resources required to create a game come with a cost. In many ways video games are the ultimate expression of consumerism in western, capitalist countries. The controversies surrounding the monetisation of a leisure activity such as video games, is the epitome of a “first world problem”. However, when you consider the economic factors that determine the creation and sales of video games, it is hardly surprising to find the same dogma perpetuated within the virtual worlds they offer. Therefore, there is little or no will to create a game with a radically different economy to that of the real world to begin with. The mantra that “time is money” has always been the under-pinning ideology of game economies. Those with any advantage in this respect will always find themselves succeeding more than those who have a time deficit. And any MMO that has existed for several years or more, will have a core player base that owns superior resources to that of any newcomers.
Over time MMO developers have often tried a variety of methods to try and mollify these problems. Tinkering with drop rates of valuable items or reducing how often resource nodes spawn. Then there’s binding items to account or to characters. Some games have even put a specific cap on how much in-game gold a player can own. But players always seem to be one step ahead and all too often such restrictions are circumnavigated. Hence, we see bots and scripts implemented by players to farm resources. I’ve even subcontracted out my own resource gathering in LOTRO in the past. You can also find third party websites where rare items are traded for real money. Player in ESO will use the gifting mechanic to achieve sales that can’t be facilitated by traditional means. And if the developers are too vociferous with the bind to character mechanic, then people will just sell accounts. It’s a blunt tool but it works. All of these issues persist because neoliberalism that exists in real life economies, bleeds into the MMO games design.