The Problem with MMO Economies Part 2
A few years ago, STO developers Cryptic, added a new system to the game that allowed players to re-engineer gear and alter the various modifiers associated with each item. One of the reasons behind this move was to reduce the hyperinflation associated with high end gear that has the most desirable statistics. If players could re-engineer the items that they desired it would undermine the trade in such items on the exchange. Needless to say this plan didn’t succeed and the market did not radically alter. The overall cost of the resources required to successfully re-engineer a piece of equipment ended up being comparable or even more than the price of a similar item being sold on the exchange. Similarly, the legendary progression servers in LOTRO had a brief period of economic stability and fiscal prudence when they were launched. Initially, no one section of the playerbase had more resources than others. A year on and now the same issues of inflation and excessive prices have happened with a tedious sense of inevitability. Can anything be done to stabilise MMO economies?
If MMO developers wanted to seriously address this matter, it would require designing a game with a far more controlled and regulated in-game economy. It would also require a far more interventionist approach in managing the ebb and flow of in-game resources. IE controlling the availability of specific resources and items, as well as imposing taxes and fees upon auction house transactions. Such an approach would certainly be perceived as “political” from certain quarters of the gaming community and would not be well received. Given the levels of political and socioeconomic illiteracy among some players, it would more than likely play into the ongoing culture wars we see across all levels of society in western democracies. And it can also be argued that “trading” is one of the few social elements left in the MMO genre. Plus it’s also a “game within a game” for many players. If this is fundamentally altered or regulated to the point of “no fun”, then its effectively just another nail in the coffin of the old school concept of the MMORPG. I’m not too sure how many nails the playerbase can endure.
Grinding out rewards and obtaining rare and unique items is a fundamental motivator for many MMO players. For those without the time to pursue such goals, buying these things from the in-game auction house is a credible alternative. There are still a few ships in STO that are demonstrably superior to others. If you are unable or unwilling to spend real world money on multiple loot boxes to get one of these ships, then there is always the exchange and the option to buy what you desire for energy credits. It may well be an immense uphill struggle but it can be done. If you remove such an avenue from the game you are effectively barring certain players from achieving their goal. That sends very clear message to the playerbase and not a positive one. There are already enough obstacles for new players of long established MMOs. If a player feels that they cannot reach their full potential then why should they continue to play. Life isn’t a meritocracy but we broadly seem to like the illusion of one.
Conversely, if resources and rewards are too readily available and easily acquired, it does much to mitigate a great deal of the challenge and motivation to play. It is always fun to log into a MMO test server and instantly receive all the gear you desire from the live server. But the novelty soon wears off. Players like to have goals to work towards and if you negate that you really are pulling the carpet out from under them. I don’t agree with the philosophy that things given freely have no inherent value but I do agree that familiarity breeds contempt. The optimal path is somewhere in between, so let players earn their rewards but make the journey credible. Overall, I don’t know what the long-term solution to this chicken and egg conundrum is, as it requires that developers and players alike must “unlearn what they have learned”. Perhaps it will fall to a small developer to make a bold experiment one day and create a game with an economy that breaks the existing mould. In the meantime I’m sure this problem will persist and we’ll still see regular articles decrying the status quo and asking for something to be done. Gaming like any other aspect of human culture is cyclical.