It’s the economy, stupid.
Politicians since the beginning of time have known it. The secret to success lies in a healthy economy. When the economy is flourishing it’s damn near impossible to make an unpopular decision. You could have an illicit affair with an intern, and no one would give a shit. The moment that the economy begins to turn, however, you’ll be treated like you’re a Georgian peanut farmer who just gave a speech using the word malaise. It might not even be fair, but them’s the breaks. This same conundrum that players face when starting most games with any sort of currency. It is most obvious in games with multiple players and any sort of scaling, but is present even in games where stats, leveling, and even action don’t exist.
At first, every bit of money is precious. You scrimp. You save. You hoard. You load up on whatever might give you more currency, and you spend a lot of time early in the game trekking back and forth between the same few locations so that you can set yourself up early on for whatever might come your way later. Soon, you have a tidy little nest egg, and you can afford some early big ticket expenditures. This, in turn, almost always allows your to then recoup those expenses pretty quickly. Before long, you are making tidy little nest egg omelettes because you have so many tidy little nest eggs. You’re flush with cash.
This is where most games fall down. There is a point in many games where money becomes meaningless. This isn’t to say that you can then buy anything you want to buy. Rather, the stuff you want you really can’t buy, and the stuff that is purchasable is easily purchased. Wealth then becomes something of a high score tracker, and, outside of purchases solely for status, is mostly meaningless.
There are a couple of things that lead us to this point in multiplayer games. The first is an improperly learned lesson. See, back in the olden days of dial-up, ISDN, and ADSL, MMOs didn’t really have a concept of Bind on Equip. Things could either be sold, or they couldn’t be sold. There was no sense of removing items from the economy. This was in part because gear didn’t have a fixed time limit like it so often does now, and because it was cleaving heavily to its tabletop adventure roots. The idea that a piece of gear could be sold and traded until it was used, and then it wasn’t able to be sold to anyone else went against the very ethos of the game. The dominant theory was that this devalued gear tremendously, and would glut the market with a bevy of powerful items that were then extremely easy to acquire. Conventional wisdom then said that by making the items able to be sold once and then only able to be sold to a vendor once equipped would keep the market strong and steady. In my opinion, that didn’t actually happen.
To understand why this is a failed lesson, we have to look at the overall implementation of the proposed solution a little more closely. World of Warcraft clung tightly to the loot randomization model created in Diablo II. Rather than making specific items with specific stats attached, including weighted saves, Blizzard opted to follow the randomly generated loot model. This resulted in a glut of items that could be had cheaply because the stats were trash, and were sold as such. There were several grouping of stats that were most desired, due to the dual stat system, and the rest were a fraction of the price. However, because of the “end game or bust” model, no one really cared about the majority of stats. Instead, they picked up a new weapon every so often, because it matters more than anything else, and they only cared about the raw DPS. The same was true for even “rare” quality items. They were nice to find, but unless it was a level cap item, it wasn’t worth anything. Once you reached max level, almost everything was bind on pick-up anyway. There was the occasional “epic” quality item that was worth purchasing, but you really only did so if you weren’t going to be raiding or couldn’t get lucky on drops. Of course, PvP was there too, so it wasn’t like you couldn’t just go do that for a dope weapon. In fact, most people did. This meant the item economy never really took off outside at the beginning of the game. This was further compounded when official model of gear turned into a tight cycle in tune with each patch, and heirloom gear was introduced.
This wasn’t the only problem. The other problem with this implementation is that the game didn’t want you to obtain the best gear through purely monetary means. There were never enough options to outfit your character with comparable gear through bought and crafted items alone. This was, of course, by design. At first, crafting was an option for personal growth or specific encounters. Once the rolling content model got underway, it was a way to outfit one or two specific slots and that was it. For the most part, this wasn’t done because it required raid drops in order to craft these items. As such, it almost always became a “gear up an alt” option during the next patch cycle. The exception to this was whenever a new expansion was released and the initial crafted items were in demand. Unfortunately, the move to rolling content and accessible content means that this was more or less doomed before it began.
The third leg of this failure is the evolution of the accessible game. I will not argue that accessibility is a bad thing. However, I will strongly argue that the economy was never properly balanced once the game made this shift. Things that used to cost a thousand gold ended up costing twenty instead. When convenience becomes core, it requires some extra analysis that didn’t occur. Quests gave double the gold at max level, incentivizing quick, efficient leveling so that you can easily make a pretty penny. Daily quests also gave a large amount of gold in an attempt to make it not feel like it was the grinding that it was. The bonuses to incentivize using the LFG tool further compound this veritable river of gold. Leveling a character ends up costing next to nothing, as well, so the amount of money you make from that, and the ease in which it occurs is another facet of this. It’s no surprise that people end up with hundreds of thousands of gold and nothing to meaningfully spend it on that will advance their characters.
Of course, supporters of this model might say, “Well, it’s not like you can look how the EQ model worked for a long time in a vacuum to see how it would have played out”. Oh, but I can. You see, EQMacexisted frozen in time at the Planes of Power expansion. Planes of Power came out in 2002, with EQMac coming out a few years later, giving us damn near a decade of data. A decade down the line, money has become a high score counter, and barter is the coin of the realm. It is humorous that this is the far end of the spectrum from World of Warcraft. Items have retained a strong value, mostly due to the relatively low MUDflation. Money, much like in WoW, is worthless.
It is literally impossible to buy things for money. If you want an item you either have to trade an item of equal value for it, or you have to go farm it yourself. This is difficult, of course, because of the nature of Everquest. It’s not like you can just pop into an instance and run it over and over until you get your drop. You have to hope other people aren’t already attempting to get that item, and usually have other people with you to help you out. Now, there are plenty of items of lesser value that would normally go for a small bit of money. However, because money is worthless, people just give these items away. Also, because items can be shared with anyone and not just people in your group, the whole methodology of looting rights becomes a thing. Items that can’t be traded can’t be sold to vendors and hold no value outside of what people assign to them. For the most part, this means that low to middle items have no value, so it’s given away for free. This obvious cements the idea that money can’t get you what you want and that the item is king. This is hardly a bastion of good currency economics, but at least it is a different problem that the one seen in WoW, and is what WoW was trying to do with their implementation.
So, in attempting to make values have meaning and the economy be stable, the economy of MMOs has become more transient and unstable than ever. I’d say this qualifies as a poorly learned lesson.
I am not saying that the previous method was actually good, either. It obviously didn’t create a world where items and money both had value. It stands to mention that LARPs tend to bounce between these two models, based on the LARP itself. LARPs that are closer to NERO in origin tend to run into the problems of WoW, where LARPs that are more open to character development and have less numerical emphasis tend to run into the EQMac problems. Again, these are both problems. In what I have laid out, money is the core of both issues. The solution, then, it to change the way money works.
Path of Exile does just that. It makes all currency consumable items. Let’s address upfront that not all of their currencies are equally attractive, so there is some needless bloat. Additionally, the game’s UI misses some crucial features to give you the information you need to make intelligent decisions if you did not discover items yourself. For example, items are hard capped at a number of sockets based on their item level, but none of this information is displayed anywhere. As such, it makes currency based purchase sort of a crap shoot. You just have to believe your fellow players, and be that at your own peril. Some of the currencies suffer from this, too. You simply have to know about things like individual property limits, quality limits, and the fact that some thing reroll stats, links, sockets, or randomized properties on use while others do not. This is obviously far from ideal and leads to weirdness where you want to use currencies in certain orders or it heavily devalues them. The lack of an auction house means that item values and currency fluctuate wildly, so the amount of information that needs to be tracked is high.
These issues aside, the core idea is a very interesting one and one worthy of experimentation. The currency is approached through a dual path system. A large portion of the currencies trade up at set rates through vendors, keeping their value fixed, while many more are only valued through player desire. These currencies are desired for their explicit use. You want Jeweler’s Orbs to try and get the socket numbers and colors right on your equipment. You want Orbs of Fusing so that you can then link those sockets once you get them right. That magic item have the sockets and links you want? Use an Orb of Scouring to wipe away the stats, but leave the base item, and then use an Orb of Alchemy to make it into a rare item. You want some character customization? You should invest in Orbs of Regret to stockpile some respec points. The point here is that currency doesn’t accumulate. It serves a very specific purpose and then leaves the economy for ever. The player gets a cool benefit from it, and then moves on. Another point here is that just about every item use is completely random. That means everything is gambling, and you will go through a staggering amount of currency before getting what you want. This leads to some suboptimal behavior in terms of what gear is desirable, but nothing that couldn’t be corrected by just upping % a bit or locking randomization low ends as a “check point” rather than max or nothing.
While some people will inevitably accumulate wealth for the sake of accumulating wealth, most will not. These items will see use because they are valuable and it affords players the ability to customize and play how they want to play. Bloat seems unlikely, as many of the currencies are strictly gained through drops or through recipes that are extremely lossy in nature. Now, Path of Exile hedges their bets further by rotating through leagues every four months. This certainly helps matters, but due to the consumable nature I think currencies would still remain pretty strong regardless. New content just serves to reinforce how valuable the currency is, as it can now directly apply to those items.
This has been played with in Dust to Dust since the beginning of the game, though in only a few areas. Smiths could convert mystic materials directly to effects, consuming the item entirely. Gems are not only wealth, but capable of becoming potent magic items that then no longer serve their function as wealth objects once used in this manner. There are many rituals that allow the consumption of various items and forms of wealth to allow a marked increase in power. This is all outside the standard sort of crafting system that turns money into consumable goods. The money itself here provides the benefit, and, in my opinion, is doing much better things to the economy. Of course, that won’t correct all of the issues that have developed, because the game does suffer from the EQMac problems laid out before.
Hopefully, games will start looking more into this method of currency. I’d like to see a lot more data on the subject, but I think this is a meaningful and rewarding alternative to where we are now. Certainly I will keep pushing to implement various aspects of this, and anything in the future will see its inclusion if I am involved.