An MMORPG Economy

One of the things I find fascinating about a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game is the concept of the in-game “economy.” In World of Warcraft, cash and items enter into the game economy in the following ways (most of this article should hold true for other games as well):

  • You loot items and money from the bodies of the monsters and opponents you kill.
  • You sell the items you loot to vendors for cash.
  • You buy items from vendors for cash.
  • You trade items with other characters, or buy and sell items from and to other characters.
  • You buy and sell items via the auction house.
  • You use components via your trade skills to create useful items, then use them or sell or trade them.
  • You buy services, such as training, from non-player characters.
  • You buy services, such as enchanting, from other characters.
  • You fulfill quests and receive rewards in the form of items and money.

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There are a number of things that affect prices of items. First, if an item is easily available from a vendor, then odds are other characters won’t be able to sell the same item for a lot more money. However, the prices of other items are heavily influenced by supply and demand.

On the one hand, the great thing about an MMORPG is that you can go out and “farm” almost any resource you might need. Need cash? Go kill some bad guys carrying it or complete a few quests. Need copper ore? Go raid the Fargodeep mine and mine the ore nodes there (assuming you have the mining skill). Need linen? Kill some of the bad guys that carry it. Need a new weapon? Find out about a quest that offers one as a reward and complete it.

On the other hand, there can be stiff competition for such resources, particularly at busy times of the day–if you only play during peak hours, you might not find it so easy to farm your needed resources. Not everyone wants to do this; some people would rather just pay for their materials and be done with it. Some resources are a bit on the rare side and you can’t be guaranteed of getting them when you go out looking for them. And in WoW, things are set up so that no matter what trade skills you take as your two main skills, you’ll almost inevitably need resources provided by the other trade skills (it encourages socialization within the game). To a certain extent you’re going to have to realize that if you don’t like farming up your own money and resources, you won’t have as much of these things as other people–just as folks who don’t want to spend their time raiding won’t get as many amazing epic items.

Some folks solve their lack of resources and money in a way that I think most players dislike: by buying gold or items through places like ebay from “professional farmers” who game solely for the purpose of selling game items for real-world money. Apart from the rather sad statement on an individual’s priorities that this makes, it can also unbalance an economy to a certain extent; you’re only helping to drive prices up further and encourage farmers to monopolize farming areas when you do this (which means you’re making your own problem worse).

However, in some ways it seems to me that the whole argument is moot. There are some fairly easy steps one can take to ensure that anyone deliberately trying to drive prices sky-high doesn’t ruin your gaming experience:

  • Spend at least part of your game time farming your own supplies. Don’t always buy them from others. If you don’t like the price you’d have to pay for something, simply find out where to acquire it on your own and go get it. If you aren’t willing to do this, accept that you can’t have everything you want.
  • Don’t fall into the vanity trap of having to have that one perfect item right here right now. Either wait until you’re high enough level to acquire or create it on your own, or go without. If you really must buy it for some reason, then keep watch on the auction house and trade channels. Decide in advance what a reasonable price for the item would be and do not buy it until you see it for that price (or close to it).
  • For that matter, make auction house buying a sort of mini-hobby. Keep an eye on general pricing of items you tend to buy. Develop an idea of prices that are reasonable, and don’t buy items that aren’t priced reasonably. People can only sell items for outrageous prices if there are people buying them. You’ll find plenty of mods out there to help you with auction housing.
  • When you sell items that tend to sell for ridiculous prices, sell them for a little bit less than the going rate. If you sell them at the insane rate then you’re simply adding to the problems. However, if you undercut the insane rate by too much, all you’re doing is enabling the folks selling at ridiculous rates to buy your low-priced items then turn around and sell them at the ridiculous rates. Whereas if enough people undercut the high rates by a little at a time, it can slowly drive the prices back down. I’ve seen this happen on some servers, so it can work. Another way to do it is to put a very low starting bid, a relatively high buyout (again, a little less than the current too-high rate), and a length of auction of 24 hours. Most professional auction house buyers don’t want to wait 24 hours, so this gives people a chance to get something for less.
  • Join and encourage the kinds of guilds where people help each other out and trade items and services between members. This seriously keeps costs down. You do have to be a little discerning if you want to do this, however–group with people you’ve played with a little and feel you can trust at least minimally. Otherwise you can end up with one or more people mooching off of others, and that just fuels the imbalance.

Thanks to the fact that MMORPGs have resources that anyone at all can go out and harvest, there’s little reason to let someone else ruin your experience of the economy. Instead of letting a lack of money get you down, farm your own resources, make some money through selling things so you can keep up with the economy, and undercut some of those high prices by just enough to make a difference.


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6 comments on “An MMORPG Economy
  1. LaTale says:

    Ah, the dreaded in-game economy. Seriously, those things can mess up a game drastically. Anyway, thanks for the write-up; there’s definitely a lot of good stuff in there.

  2. Mmorpg says:

    I love games with solid in game economies. Goonzu has an excellent economy, as all in game transactions are done between players rather than between player to NPC. NPCs don’t buy items from players, so they have to sell to other players.

  3. mogs says:

    Part of the problem is that with a constantly supply of currency (by killing NPCs) you experience constant inflation (MUD-flation) which is one of the reasons you have to keep uping players levels and the price/power of new items just to keep up with the inflation in the game. The problem is when a new player comes into a developed game with a high inflation rate and is unable to afford basic items; this can really kill off the new player experience and cannabolize an MMO (like EQ has seen the past 3 years).

  4. The most complex and real in-game economy I have seen is in Eve Online game. It’s totally player-driven. Great game with complex political and economy system 🙂

  5. Tacoma says:

    @mogs: The killing of NPCs lets you gather money which does cause inflation in the economy. But NPC money sinks like equipment repair that cannot be performed by players create an outflow of money. I’d be surprised if Blizzard hadn’t added server tools to track the total money in the economy and graph it for Monday staff meetings. They should be able to tweak money drops and prices offered globally to affect money in and money out.

    They could also globally raise difficulty in the game, causing more people to suffer from equipment degradation, which wouldn’t be obvious enough to anyone to raise any red flags.

    Or if the problem was that materials were worth too many coins, instead of affecting the flow of coins they could affect the flow of materials. But since the materials generally get used up by whoever buys them that just enriches the material value of people and increases the money flow from material users toward material gatherers. It doesn’t actually change how much money is in the system it just accelerates their skill gains. Whether the material users having more materials and gaining skill faster, or the material gatherers having more money with which they buy better equipment to attain superior rewards earlier than otherwise.

    The problem is mainly just that the game economy has matured. Imagine when the first Really Awesome Axe of Gnome Chopping hit the auction house and the seller could charge the moon for it. That kind of scarcity-fueled economy is gone and replaced by one defined by money inflation and trade in different currencies; trading one material for another or using powerful items as trade goods.

    And certainly there isn’t a good reason for someone to join WOW now. They’re better off entering the next MMO when it comes out and at least getting in on the ground floor with everyone else. At least there’s the illusion that you have a chance at being one of the golden people.

    I call it an illusion because on launch day, on launch second, a man in a wheelchair will log in. He will have arrayed around him multiple oilcans of Rockstar, a leather tankard of caffeinated jelly beans, an enormous bag of smaller bags of chips in many varieties, and 72 hours to kill. His chair is equipped with a pair of Stadium Buddies. He will level up first. He will get the Rare MacGuffin first. He will hit the endgame content first. You can read about it in his blog while you’re hunting electric sheep for 1d3 gil each. He will always be better than you and there are thousands of him in many configurations. There are half a million Chinese and Indian gold farmers that swap the hotseat so their accounts remain active 24/7/365. Collectively these people will ruin the economy before you have a chance to experience it.

    So we have to ask ourselvesif the game is still fun to play if we cannot be the best at anything in it. Not even one thing. No, someone else has more Goblin Earwax. Someone else tamed more Corrugated Jalopies. So if we can derive some sense of winning without that, or we care not for such things as winning, then maybe we should play an MMO. Otherwise, not so much.

  6. Dofus says:

    I play a lot at Dofus, a french MMORPG with an economy similar to WOW. Always good to find the most needed ressources for a period of time, and make huge tons of kamas.
    Ankama (Dofus’s editor) plan to release a new game called Wakfu in 2011 with a brand new system : no NPC at all. Sure that the economy on this kind of game will be really interesting to follow, hope it will goes well!

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