Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Faking an Economy (Part I)

In Part I of this article, MMO developer Brian Green points out that a realistic economic simulation in a MMO may not actually be possible or even fun for the players.

Psst. Hey, do you fake it? It's okay, you can confide in me, I won't tell them. I'll admit, I prefer to fake it when I can; it's just a lot more fun that way.

...I'm talking about multiplayer economies! What did you think I was talking about?!

In a multiplayer game, there are actually two different economies: the economy of the game which determines how money enters and leaves the system, and the player to player economy that determines the prices that players will pay each other for goods and services. These two economies are separate but related. I'll focus first on the game economy because that is what designers have the most control over.

The main problem with economics is that few sane people would consider it fun, especially in the context of a game. Who here likes balancing their checkbook? I bet many readers at one time just checked your bank balance on occasion and hoped for the best when a big expense (or party) occurred. So, why should designers make players balance virtual checkbooks to manage their gold pieces? It's just not much fun.

Some people will say that they prefer a simulation of an economy in a game. A designer really needs to consider if a "realistic" economy really does benefit the game. I think that most simulations end up
being terribly unrealistic because people generally don't treat in-game currency like offline money. You also have all sorts of bugs that don't turn up in the offline world; one of my favorite bugs from Meridian 59 was when an non-player character (NPC) gem seller would buy back gems for more than he sold them for under certain circumstances. The NPC was programmed to accept this unfair deal with no reservations, whereas a human businessperson would probably have stopped even the first transaction from taking place.

What does it mean to make the economy fun? From an economic point of view, players have fun in a few ways. Gaining power is fun because it shows mastery of the game; this is usually the point of most multiplayer games with economies in them. Similarly, just getting new items can be fun if they give you new options to play with. Helping other people, particularly your friends, can be enjoyable for people who want to be a positive influence on others. In all these situations, players will want more than enough money to accomplish these things: getting more power (which includes accumulating more money), getting new options (usually in the form of items), and helping others out.

However, if everyone is making money and the money supply continually increases, then you have inflation. Everyone has more money to offer to acquire goods or services they want from other players, driving up the prices for items without a fixed cost. This can have some negative impacts on the game, most notably it becomes harder for new players to participate in the player to player economy since they will usually earn less money than experienced players. Increasing prices also mean that players might become interested in acquiring money with less effort, such as from gold sellers that can affect MMOs. (A discussion of the morality of gold selling is beyond the scope of this post, but let’s agree that it causes issues the designer needs to address.)

Brian Green, known by the pseudonym Psychochild, is an experienced MMO developer. He's best known as the former developer of the classic online MMO Meridian 59 and as the writer for his professional blog.


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