For players, one of the most scrutinized aspects of a video game is its immersion factor. For designers, it’s creating the illusion with seamless finesse. From the first apprehensive steps of level 1 to the final bold strut of level 70, players are deeply woven into an economic system.
How much they notice, however, is the measure of its designers’ success. Especially evident in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), closed-economy structures are magnificent to behold. These games are composed of potentially thousands of tightly controlled interlocking inputs and outputs, and ostensibly appear to be purely about their chosen theme.
Behind the scenes exists a network of intricate maths and economic principles continuing to maintain that immersion. To illustrate, players fresh out of character creation will inevitably begin by doing the following: exploring the environment, conquering enemies, and then purchasing items. This progression will also often occur in that same order. It’s predictable for a reason, and this article will explore why. The concepts explored below will explain how closed economies operate and sustain themselves and the challenges throughout.
Basics of Stability
When conceptualizing an economy, game designers must begin by choosing a currency. Depending on thematic overtures, the name of the currency will vary. For example, many games use the prototypical “gold” moniker. Whether the setting takes place in a fantastical realm or a futuristic timescape will heavily influence the type of currency depicted.
In the case of a closed economy, currency carries a set value. Some designers utilize open economies, however, which operate similarly to real-world money. There are exchange rates, and differential values, which are each relative to one another’s values. Using this model significantly increases the difficulty of creating and maintaining the currency within the game’s world but allows a realistic perspective and some compelling implications. For the purpose of this article, the focus will be on the former.
For example, if an iron sword costs 100 gold, it is expected that it will continue to cost 100 gold. This basic stability allows for the remaining structure to be upheld throughout each play through. While in-game currency, gold, is what your players will be trading, the actual currency that an MMO employs is time. Operating as the game’s independent variable, player progression serves as a substitution for time passing. This commonality between games allows balance for the economy since items can easily have pre-determined time values.
A few basic principles can govern this process nicely. For example, the less progress a player experiences (often expressed as “XP”), the less expensive the product remains. The inverse is also true. So product price and player progression have a directly corresponding relationship.
At level 1, the local tavern sells an iron sword at 100 gold. The difficulty of an event and the reward given share a directly corresponding relationship as well. So a player defeats a worm at level one and receives 5 gold. A player can purchase this sword at any time, but will most likely buy it very early in the game because there is less money available and the item is weaker. It is best suited for the level 1 warrior and will predictably be purchased by the level 1 warrior. Mechanisms like these control the hidden economic fabric of the traditional MMO.
Keeping these principles inextricably connected will continue to provide economic stability to any MMO. Introducing unbalanced items, like downloadable content weaponry that is significantly stronger than currently available weapons, will always disrupt the network. To counterbalance, these items are often not worth much in-game currency or cannot be used until the player reaches a certain level. When these measures are not taken, however, players may feel less engrossed in the game.
Taking this out of theory and into brass tacks, let’s continue.
Developing the specific input modality for item creation and currency allotment is less complicated than it sounds. To begin, there are three interchangeable models for how to complete this feat: utilizing generators, creating event-based inputs, and compiling individually matched inputs.
Generators can be used for anything that regularly adds to the economy without necessary interaction, the only stipulation being some resource-dependency. For example, if you have a player strike oil during renovations, the amount of oil can be determined by the generator, but whether the player uses the pickaxe is his or her prerogative. So when mining for resources, if an unusually specific amount of coal appears on the player’s screen, this is the culprit. After completing the unrelated task the player was engaged in prior to the generator’s activation, he or she may check the inventory and voila! That resource will have manifested itself.
Event-based inputs can be used when given conditions are met. This is most often used in recurring collection quests—quests that require extracting certain herbs from plants to concoct a potion, for example. The formula behind the quest is: “x plant harvested = y herb extracted”. This modality is often tapped for crafting quests and side-missions.
Single inputs are used for circumstantially driven resource acquisition. When certain conditions are met, but they are also not repeatable, these items are offered—for example, when a player conquers a specific opponent and it drops a unique helmet. These are usually reserved for boss battles and story-driven events since they do not require repetition.
Functioning in the opposite way, system outputs remove items and currency from your economy. Similarly to system inputs, there are three major categories: degenerators, event-based outputs, and single outputs.
Degenerators regularly take away resources that do not necessitate interaction. While more sparingly used than their input counterpart, these appear as ongoing costs throughout game play—for example, tax collection that briefly pops up on the Heads Up Display at regular intervals. This oddly specific number will turn up on its own accord without player interference. When checking the inventory, the player will suddenly be missing exactly that amount of currency.
Event-based outputs are used when players complete specific actions that remove resources from their inventories. For instance, a player sells that iron sword to the shopkeep. In doing so, the event-based output activates to remove the sword from the player’s inventory. Depleting resources while crafting, submitting items for quests, and dropping unwanted items all constitute event-based outputs.
Single outputs are utilized when a resource is removed from the economy altogether and cannot be altered again. Many designers use this mechanism when items must be delivered or destroyed based upon story elements—for example, when obtaining a quest item that players cannot use. These items are usually distinguishable from the others by being held in a separate section of the player’s inventory—like “key items”—and can only be removed when certain events unfold.
Artificial Stability in an Unstable World
Utilizing all three techniques enables game designers to create seamless worlds for their players—if they are in harmony. Ideally, the planned economy would be a perpetually operative and well-oiled machine. It would have a set of inputs that exactly equals the number of outputs, which together produce a purely immersive experience.
However, the ideal rarely becomes real. Being human hosts a number of spectacular pros, but one con is that we are not perfect. We are not machines, and thus our creations will usually come to fruition with flaws. To keep these flaws at a minimum, and relatively minuscule, this article will leave you with some machine-ly wisdom from experience.
- Flag Impactful Items: to most efficiently contain simple mistakes in an intricate economy, assign priorities to each resource based on its orb of influence. For example, implementing tighter controls on an epic-level sniper rifle should become a higher priority since it can easily upset the economy. Having an overabundance of iron ore, however, is less likely to have such a significant effect. This way, when entering miles of code in the vast matrix that is the economy, little red flags will tip off any developer that this particular item is a heavy-hitter.
- Don’t Underestimate Bug Checkers: having players test an alpha version of any game is the first line of defense against potentially disastrous economies. Though some issues may not become evident until more time has passed, these players are ready and willing to try. If an enemy is just too powerful or a weapon is just too rare, they will be upfront with their critique. If this prospect seems a little too gut-wrenching, having friends and loved ones look it over is always a gentler option.
- Matrix Double-Glance: daunting, yet unfailingly practical, this technique involves compiling all the game’s items included in the economy and listing them in spreadsheets. Check it against itself forwards, and backwards, and then code it manually. To add another level of security, implementing an automated system and letting it convert the items will drastically improve both accuracy and speed.
- Abandoned Accounts: multiplayer economies have several unique challenges to keep in mind. Suspended, dormant, and otherwise abandoned accounts can create unaccounted-for outputs across a wide variety of resources. This situation can be combated by building slightly different expected-resources-per-player ratios. Do away with generators and de-generators that operate at a fixed rate. Instead, control the flow of resources based on the current amount operating in the economy. This should eliminate any wealth hoarded by abandoned accounts.
Creating a multiplayer economy is an ambitious but rewarding journey. Being able to observe the careful cogs of code manifest themselves as a bustling marketplace is truly spectacular. Even when players gripe about how expensive the rare daggers are, designers know that it is all working according to plan.
This article has only scratched the surface of what makes MMORPG economies thrive. But the first step is always the hardest! Being able to successfully track resources is a fundamental building block that will launch any game developer ahead in his or her project and field. Examples of how the next steps in this journey may look include exploring ideal resource ratios, establishing player-to-player commodity trading, virtual banks for storing currency, and many more.
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