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Balancing the Scales: Gaming the Economy

Written by darkness on June 16, 2013
I'd think that a decade ago, back when the term "MMORPG" was still a relatively new term, or at the very least an aspiring market in its own right, game developers never knew what they were getting into when they built their in-game economies. Capitalistic, it'd likely be, but the details were anybody's guess.

Now, in good ol' 2013, it appears that a mostly capitalistic system reigns over most games. They follow a basic supply-and-demand system, with governmental influences (the developers) and, on occasion, major player influences (think of them like inside traders). Sadly, for the most part, like the US government's capacity to balance the budget, many of these games have also struggled to maintain balance.

Let's start with Maplestory, shall we? Now I'll be frank and say that I haven't seen the likes of that game in years, so I'm not exactly keen on their economy. Last I checked, however, was that Nexon was pumping out daily-monthly-yearly events like everyday was Christmas, free stuff came out with each patch, and people were more power-hungry than ever, with their +100 scrolling and +100 enhancements supplemented by +100 potential lines and whatever other bonuses Nexon could cram into a single piece of equipment. From what I could gather there was an extreme dichotomy between the "average joe" equipment and those forged from the anvil of Hephaestus. Top-notch equipment was worth so much that not even the maxed-out meso limit could afford their wares.

In the meantime, the average player trundled along. Bots and hackers, into the game or the player, were constant pests or threats. Gathering money in a conventional manner--either picking up loose change drops or selling clean clothes for a profit--won't net players much at all. Many of them barely had the self-sufficiency to jump into the merchanting business, though once one gets a foot into it, they generally strike it rich (given sufficient patience).

In all, though, playing sans cash shop is virtual suicide. In other games neglecting the microtransaction system usually means a slight, albeit insignificant hurdle to pass. In Maplestory, it's a pay-to-win game through and through; if you disbelieve, just look on occasion when they actually sell sacks of mesos for NX! If that isn't pay-to-win, then I don't know what is.

Runescape hasn't fared much better. Actually, it has, a great deal better than Maplestory, I'd say, but it's still VERY rough. The Grand Exchange has been a great aid for those too lazy or impatient to trade wares, though many criticized the system for virtually destroying player-trade interactions (which it did, relatively). More devastating to the system, however, were merchanting clans and other such players who manipulated the fairly locked-in system of the Grand Exchange, usually sending prices skyrocketing before selling off that item for massive profits, leaving fellow players in its ruinous wake.

As of late, however, even Jagex has settled down for a microtransaction system, which, predictably, caused an outrage in its own right. The Squeal of Fortune provides freebies daily, plus more for those who find extra tickets in-game or buy them on the website. Solomon's General Store initially provided cosmetics, although it has also featured some other tools as well, like extra bank space and pick-up pets.

Like many games--if not all games--Runescape runs on a system where fountains outweigh sinks, and the difference is more than just marginal. Although not as horrifically one-sided like Maplestory, where the player market essentially ensures that mesos never leave the economy, Runescape doesn't have a sink for a lot of products. The result is expected: tons of scrap equipment, like bronze and steel armors, bows aplenty, and magic staves, pile up uselessly in the economy as players make them to increase those respective skills. Perhaps if Runescape refined the productions path, there'd be less clutter in the economy...

Puzzle Pirates, on the other hand, presents a vastly different problem. It's economy is somewhat balanced, perhaps more so in the early days--though that could be said for most other games, can't it? There is a general system of NPC-provided or island-generated goods that enter the economy, typically through pillaging, foraging or logging bid tickets on established islands. That, combined with the fact that most products are time-limited (most by login days, haven't seen a product be counted in calendar days) means that there's a general stability between sinks and fountains. Even ships, which have a theoretically infinite lifespan, can be cut down in a sinking foray; though a ship sunk can be returned to its former glory, it will require materials akin to making a new ship, so goods are still sunk in a similar manner.

That'd be good and all, except for a few things. The major problem comes from special voyages called "sea monster hunts", which can be to Atlantis, the cursed isles, or to the haunted seas. While they all present a different challenge in order to reap rewards, one thing is clear: they bring back chests from these voyages. These chests can contain mere pieces of eight, currency of the seven seas; trinkets, which can be used as a respectable bragging tool or otherwise transformed for other useful purposes; and products.

That last part is very concerning; though most products are of poor condition--only products specific to that voyage are received in new condition--it is very easy for a player to obtain special furniture that can stall the decay of products, meaning that they can be stockpiled or saved for future use. This puts a real damper on the player-based economy; why buy a new sword or clothing when you can go on a few of these voyages and save up a slew of old swords and clothes to use? A prominent navigator would never have to buy anything again (though, top-notch players generally still buy them for the boasts).

Another problem is the elitism of the player base. This is generally due to the maturation of the game population, where, because of its poor player retention capacities, a dichotomy between the cream of the crop and everyone else appears. Plus, everyone wants to be a battle navigator, meaning no one wants to be stationed at one of the other stations needed to man a vessel properly, let alone efficiently. These top-tier players generally become extremely wealthy, though poker has its ways of (unstably) redistribute that wealth.

Finally, the last problem is that the game just isn't being sustained. Monthly updates have dried up to a trickle of worthlessness; cheap microtransaction opportunities and a weak player retention trophy system are all that really passes by. Thrice have Three Rings tried to gain popularity: a merger with Sega, a spot on Steam, and soon, an opening into the tablet market. Of the historical mentions, they had garnered a fair number of players; what the real problem was, and has been stressed in this blog, is player retention. These methods of advertisement and the rare newfangled toys that Three Rings throws out do very little to ensnare the average joe. Despite all of these things, the player base has continued to decline.

But I digress; I'm starting to ramble again. Long story short, the economy is great theoretically, but without actual physical support, it stagnates quite quickly. A forumite actually likened Puzzle Pirates to a pyramid scam: one needed more non-navigators than navigators to sustain a ship, and that meant more newbies and fresh faces; when that fails, so does the pyramid. Interesting analogy, not necessarily incorrect.

So from my perspective, there's still plenty of dissonance on how to operate an in-game economy (and a economic mix of in-game and out-game systems). Either the players become too crafty or the developers fail to adjust the current system or problems correctly (usually the latter, though sometimes the former). It's a real pity too, since having a proper economy might be an incredible asset not just to a game, but to the game industry as a whole. Games are nothing more, and everything but, an emulator of life, and what opportunities could be had if an in-game economy could properly simulate a real one?

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June 16, 2013
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