Charting the Relative Natures of MMO Economies

I think that by this point in time, some fifteen years down the road from the launch of Ultima Online, having a player economy is one of the hallmarks of games I consider to be MMOs, at least when I use the term.

If there is no player to player economy, then the game is something else to my mind.  World of Tanks, not an MMO in my book.  EverQuest certainly is.

And desire for a player driven economy stems from the deep in the roots of the genre.

In 1993 I was playing TorilMUD, arguably the precursor of EverQuest, which was very much a gear driven game.  Despite there being no mechanism at all to handle or encourage a player economy, one spontaneously appeared.  The desire to exchange gear for trade or coin, the need to create an economy, was so strong that an unofficial one was started and developed its own rules and customs.  And it became popular enough that there were standard prices for certain items.  We would sit around in Waterdeep and people would do shout auctions for items, which you would bid on with a direct tell to the seller.  And it you were looking for something, you would shout out a “want to buy” or WTB.

The economy become very popular very quickly, to the point that the people running TorilMUD were not quite sure what to do with it.  First they tried to contain the amount of spam it caused in town, putting a limit on the number of yells you could do over a given period of time and then by trying to get us to do this in a single room rather than shouting across a whole zone.  Eventually, an auction house was implemented, though the devs put the auctioneer in out of the way places, as I think they were still suspicious of the player driven economy.

This suspicion came, in part, from the fact that the player driven economy pointed out flaws in the game.  With little to spend the in-game currency on besides items from other players, some people began to amass huge quantities of cash.  This, of course, drove up the price of everything in the player economy because the long term players could afford to drop a lot of coins on things they wanted for themselves or alts.

But the whole sinks and faucets and inflation aspect of the currency is another discussion.

Likewise, when EverQuest launched, there were no tools to drive a player economy.  It formed around the Commonlands tunnel where people would go to buy and sell, very much in the model of TorilMUD.  This popped up again for a bit on the progression servers, at least until the bazaar showed up.

The Plane of Knowledge kills all this...

Nostalgia at the tunnel

I was thinking about all of this and trying to fit MMO player economies into a two dimensional system for comparison.

What I came up with was how much of a requirement the player economy was to play the game and how much friction there was to engaging in the player economy.

The first seems pretty reasonable to gauge.  Can you play the game, or can you get very far in the game, without engaging in the player economy.  For example, in EVE Online, you have to use the player economy to play the game.  You could, I suppose, try to avoid it.  In fact, it might be an interesting experiment to see what you could do without it.  But I imagine that it would be a long, slow grind to completely avoid the market and it would limit what you could accomplish.

Most other MMOs make the player economy somewhat optional, and have moved more in that direction over time.  The combination of quest rewards and game difficulty have moved in the direction of keeping players independent of the player economy.

Friction, on the other hand, encompasses a whole range of things, such as:

  • How easy is it to access the market?
  • How easy is it to buy and take delivery?
  • How good is the UI?
  • How high are the fees/taxes on transactions?
  • How stable is pricing?
  • Do enough people use the economy to make it viable?

And it is with this that you start to get all over the map.  For example, Guild Wars 2 and EVE Online are oddly similar in how easy it is to view the market.  You can bring it up in the UI wherever you are.  On the other hand, while GW2 shows you everything on the market in the game, EVE limits you to your current region.

Anyway, in order to compare these, I made a little graph and put down where I thought certain games might sit on those two continuum.  This is what I ended up with.

Click to make readable

Click to make readable

The X axis is friction, and the mixed bag of items that represents.  The Y axis is how much of a requirement it is to engage in the player driven economy.  For a few games I made entries for past states of the game and how they seem currently.

EVE Online is, of course, the game furthest down the required end of the spectrum.  I also put it midway along the high end of the friction scale.  On the one hand the market is chopped up by regions, there is no delivery so you have to go get the item from the station in which it was listed, this leads to interesting price differentials based on convenience, there is a double tax/fee system, and then there is the whole contracts economy to confuse the issue.  And pity the poor capsuleer in the middle of nowhere in need of something.

Mitigating that friction is that if you go to the right system, usually Jita, you can find what you want to buy, and there are so many buyers and sellers competing that there is price stability.

At the other end of things is Guild Wars 2, where you can list to sell anywhere and just have to find the right NPC to pick up items you have purchased and proceeds from sales.  The friction is so low that low that lots of people engage in the economy, so commodities for crafting and the like are readily available at reasonable prices.  How much a player is really required to participate is a wild guess on my part.  Gear provided by your personal quest line seemed good if you kept up, but I have no idea if that carries on through the game.

In the middle, well, a few other games.  I ranked LOTRO‘s friction higher than most because of the low participation and the annoying locations and mediocre UI of the auctioneers.  On the other hand, you don’t really need it, and doubly so since Turbine started selling very good armor in the cash shop.

EverQuest II was high friction at launch in some ways… you had to be online to sell, sales were restricted to the storage space of your home (which you had to have to sell), and fees pushed players to go visit players directly in their homes.  And, if you were crafting at the time, there was the interdependence of the crafting skills that required you to use the market or use up your four character slots to make crafting alts.  On the other hand, when you buy something on the broker in EQII, it appears right in your inventory.  A lot of that got smoothed out over time, but dependence on the broker went with a lot of that.

EverQuest started at high friction, you had to be online and see the right person on the auction channel selling something you wanted.  Later the Bazaar came and you could get a listing, but sellers had to be online, in the Bazaar, and you had to go find them.  Finally, things got to offline selling in the more recent expansions, though I think you still have to show up at the Bazaar.

I ranked TorilMUD even higher on friction, if only because the player base was so much smaller.  When your player population is a few hundred, and only 256 can be on at a time, your buying and selling options are pretty limited.

And in the middle there is World of Warcraft, which used to have a segmented market, but which has since been unified.  The UI for it has gotten better over time, and the addons for playing the auction house have grown more sophisticated, but the need for the auction house has diminished over time as quest rewards in the form of gear have become more regular and standardized through the leveling process.

So there is my chart.  It is pretty much a gut-level, unsubstantiated work at this point.  Where do you think I am right and where am I clearly wrong?  And where would other games fit on the chart?

And, of course, where do you think MMOs should sit on that chart?  What would be ideal, if anything?

12 thoughts on “Charting the Relative Natures of MMO Economies

  1. HarbingerZero

    UWO would be in the top left. I saw an item from one of their “treasure boxes” that Iiked and went looking for it last night. I had to visit every individual player bazaar one by one, in two cities. And I never saw one listed for sale. Guess that works to their advantage. If I *really* want it, I’m going to have to cough up some real world dough.


  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @HZ – I think that Uncharted Waters Online is obscure enough that you might have to spell it out or include a link with the acronym. I only know it from reading your blog… and even then I had to Google the acronym for a reminder!

    That aside, thank you for adding that data point.


  3. Asmiroth

    My job is more akin to spreadsheets online, which is the primary reason I don’t like EvE. The ideal economy is a personal one. I like WoW’s two tier structure economy where it has minimal impact for some players and can be a meta for others. I also like UOs integrated approach with crafters above sellers.

    Still don’t think there is a perfect one though as it needs to complement the game. Just so long as there enough sinks to offset the faucets and I’m relatively happy.


  4. W

    This post makes me nostalgic for Star Wars Galaxies. It had the ultimate player run economy. Nearly everything of value was made by a player and resources varied depending on harvest time so I had a thriving business just as a surveyer/resource miner.


  5. avatarsofsteel

    Another fascinating read… I’d love to see more games charted there. I’m all thought-provoked, now.. Also, I had no idea that player economies sprung up spontaneously, but it makes sense that they would.


  6. Attic Lion

    For me the main litmus test for whether I like MMO economies or not is how good the crafting is.

    In FFXI we had crafting that bloody well mattered. Like EQ leveling up was a long affair, grouping was all but mandatory for almost every class, and you could not afford to ignore your gear. Then, since non-named mobs never dropped equipment of significance and quests that gave equipment rewards were few and far between, you had to buy the vast majority of your equipment from crafters. Even at end game a fair amount of gear and all consumables had to be bought from, or at least processed by, crafters. So there were always markets and opportunities at every level.

    As well, crafting was a time, and money, consuming thing. You would be very hard pressed to blitz to max skill in one day like you can in other games. But you could, with perseverance and foreknowledge, still manage to be a self made man. It was a hell of an accomplishment to max out your crafting skill, your subcraft skills, and obtain all the crafting gear from the craft guilds.

    No other game I’ve played has had these things. Crafting is quick, easy, and meaningless just like their leveling. And just as well because crafted items are also all but worthless in the one place they actually matter; the level cap.

    The only other game that didn’t have crafting that pissed me off was Warhammer, and only because the crafting there knew it was completely incidental consumable things and didn’t ever pretend otherwise. So it let me make all my own potions and gems instead of ever having to engage with the other knuckleheads on my faction. But even then, ‘not pissing me off’ is a far cry from ‘being enjoyable’.

    Bah, it all irritates me to this day. Even if I don’t even know if I’d still like the old way anymore. 2003, and more importantly high school, is a long ways off from me now.


  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Gaff – And what was that +20hp armor that came from the evil side of the world that used to go for 400p?

    I think, in the end, that the Bag of Snatching only had a cool name. It weighed a lot and did not hold much.


  8. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    Vokko’s iron armor? How is Anna’s cottage on the evil side of the world? And who ever bought that crap armor?

    No, I dug it out. I was thinking of this. Used to be 20 AC and 20 hit points. Was a big deal because mages could wear it.

    Name ‘a suit of dwarven scale mail armor’
    Keyword ‘armor suit mail scale dwarven’, Item type: ARMOR
    Item can be worn on: BODY
    Item will give you the following abilities: NOBITS
    Item is: MAGIC NOBITS
    Weight: 13, Value: 1
    AC-apply is 10
    Can affect you as :
    Affects : HITPOINTS By 10


  9. mbp

    Interesting chart that raises the question: Why are there no games in the bottom right hand quadrant? i.e games where the economy is essential but where trading is easy to do and user friendly. One woudl imagine that if a game relies on its economy a lot there would naturally be pressure from player to make sure it was easy to trade.


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