Player to Player Economy/Vendors

One of the most important parts of creating a game which is immersive is providing many ways for players to interact with each other besides the tired "hunt in groups" idea.  Players selling and trading items to each other is a fantastic avenue of interaction, if it’s not horribly annoying.  Because players are on- and off-line at different times, the process of direct barter becomes even more frustrating than usual, and often it’s practically impossible.  Therefore, there needs to be an in-game system of shops and shopkeeps that deal specifically in player-created goods.  Right now, Ultima Online has the only player vendor system in MMORPG’s, and for many UO players of a mercantile bent, it’s the only reason to play.

A proper player vendor system, ideally, has to have a number of characteristics to make it useful.

  • Ease of interface
  • Accessibility to artisan players of varying means
  • Accessibility to prospective shoppers
  • Ability to buy goods as well as sell them, as determined by the owning player
  • Maintenance fees and commissions to contribute to cash drain from the player economy

Ease of interface applies both to the shopkeeper player and to the shopper.  The simple UO vendor is decent for this:  the owner drops items into the vendor’s bag o’ stuff, possibly in subcontainers.  The player can then label it as "unbuyable", like the player’s own emergency gear pack or his house keys or a subcontainer, or as "buyable" with a price tag and maybe a little description of what exactly is for sale here.  The shopper can now look through the bag, single clicking on invidual items to check its label and price, and can purchase the items by a text trigger ("vendor buy") and a targeting cursor.  The item is selected, the player’s assets are checked, and if he has enough money, the money is transferred from the purchaser to the vendor, and the item moves to the buyer’s pack.  The vendor then holds onto this money until the owner comes by and collects it, draining a little bit off every day as salary.

A 3D interface like that of Asheron’s Call and Everquest lends itself well to popup shopping menus for the buyer, much like dealing with any NPC vendor.  The owner’s menu may be more complex, which is fine as long as it doesn’t become an unnavigable kludge of commands and submenus.

Accessibility to artisan players who wish to sell their stuff to other players opens up a new area of possibility for game world systems.  Employing a shopkeeper is generally considered to be an act open to relatively well-off merchants; peasants still hawk their corn themselves in the farmer’s market.  The expense of hiring a vendor employee can therefore be somewhat high, keeping the vendor count at a reasonable level so as to reduce strain on the server.  However, there is also the possibility of the consignment shop, or pawn shop, to players who lack the means or the motive to maintain their own little stall on Market street.  A consignment vendor NPC would be willing to hawk limited quantities (meaning usually 1-2 at a time) of player loot to the public who is just dying to get their hands on another set of bloody, smelly used chainmail with a big spear hole through the middle of it.  The consignment vendor can sell the item at whatever price the player wants for it within reason, which provides an interesting game of market analysis as the consigning player checks out what his neighbors are asking for bloody, smelly, used chainmail with a spear hole so he doesn’t price himself out of the market.  Generally, a pawn shop guy will not deal in high-ticket items.  Within about a week or so, the player checks back in with the pawnbroker, collects cash (minus a big commission) if the item was sold, else taking the item back, or maybe offering to sell it to the broker for an extremely low price… pawnbrokers are always looking for cheap inventory to sell to black market speculators and such.  If the player leaves the item with the pawnbroker for too long and it doesn’t sell, the broker just keeps it for the trouble of holding such an unwanted piece of trash, taking it out of the item economy.  The facts that the broker will not deal with high value items and will only take one or two at a time is an intentional annoyance to players, as are his higher-than-standard commissions, encouraging them to either not loot so much or go through the motions to get their own shop.

Accessibility to prospective shoppers is of obvious importance to the merchant player.  Location, location, location.  In Ultima Online, this made certain prime areas with lots of foot traffic extremely valuable to player merchants looking for a spot to park their vendors.  However, since the placement of vendors in Ultima Online is directly tied to house ownership (vendors need to be attached to a house), one is just as likely to find the vendor you want outside a dungeon entrance, in the middle of a godforsaken swamp, or in a notoriously dangerous PK hunting grounds.  The out-of-the-way shop is a good idea for number of reasons, say travellers down on their luck or for the business of people unable to enter town (i.e. murderers), but in real life, hawkers tended to congregate in market squares or certain areas of town where everyone could go and browse.  This was especially important in a world without convenient mass transit and broadcast advertising.  Therefore, in a realistically designed middle ages-type game, a vendor contract would usually be entered to get the services of a guy who stands around Market Street along with all the other vendors.  As more and more vendors are hired, "Market Street" starts to expand, is eventually cut off by city regulations, and becomes very crowded.  If the demand for vendors in this area continues to rise (as it would in an MMORPG filled with starry-eyed entrepeneurs), the vendors form a guild and start charging higher prices to take advantage of the supply-demand ratio.  Eventually this takes care of itself, and vendors reach a price range which is more or less consistent with the demand for their services, driving would-be merchants who don’t realize a profit through vending into another line of business, creating a new opening.

Another option for merchant players is the self-contained shop.  Far more high-falutin’ than hiring a guy to sell snake oil to people on Market Street, a shop becomes possible with building construction and/or ownership.  A shop is naturally more expensive to maintain, as now you have to pay for the land, the building, and its maintenance in addition to the shopkeep, but might allow the player to sell bulkier items, and more of them, than one guy on Market Street could haul around in his carpetbag.  It’s also a landmark, and a mark of prestige for the owning player, who can then tell the story of how he worked his way up from a street urchin to apprentice bowyer to the proprietor of the most popular weapons shop in town.

Ability to buy goods is not currently implemented in the UO vendor system.  Allowing a player vendor to purchase materials fro the populace at large opens up new avenues of moneymaking for beginning craftsmen and materials harvesters (i.e. lumberjacks, miners, farmers, and the like) who aren’t well-off enough to have a shop of their own.  In order to do this, the controlling player needs to be able to divide the funds held by his employee into three categories:

  • Salary
  • Profit
  • Discretionary Funds

"Salary" is the amount required to maintain the employee.  "Profit" is the amount of cash over and above this that the player can collect from the vendor after successful sales.  "Discretionary funds" are funds that the vendor can use to purchase items from players, based on a list set by the player.  The easiest way to deal with "salary" is to have the player hire the shopkeep for a certain amount of time, paid for up front.  This contract should be no longer than, say, two real world months or so, subject to renewal.  The remaining moneys, "profit" and "discretionary," can be controlled with a slider bar controlled by the player.  The position of the marker on the slider bar represents either a percentage of all available monies that can be used to buy goods, or a threshold below which the vendor may not purchase additional goods.  The items to be purchased are selected from a listbox in the vendor menu, along with an amount and a buying price.  Players who have what the vendor is looking for (say, bars of iron for metalworking) can make an offer to the shopkeeper like they would to any NPC vendor, and the shopkeeper will buy the goods from the player, to a maximum determined by the amount the owning player and the amount of discretionary money left in the shopkeep’s reserve, and possibly limited by encumbrance factors (more on this later).  When the player comes back to check up on the vendor, he can take the iron (or whatever) and do what he likes with it, freeing up space and mass for the vendor.  If a commission is earned by the vendor for purchasing the goods, this figures into the slider bar calculations as well.

An interesting possibility in a system where player-run merchants have the ability to buy goods at set prices is direct trade between player merchants.  Say Andy’s merchant is looking for large quantities of ginseng root and is willing to pay 4 crowns per pound, and Deborah’s merchant happens to be selling ginseng at 3 crowns per pound, and they happen to be operating the the same general area.  After a while (periodically checked instead of constantly to reduce lag from constant checks), the two merchant may become aware of this, and a deal is struck between them directly.  Deb’s merchant sells her ginseng at 3 crowns per pound, and Andy’s merchant pays 4 per pound for them.  The excess cash can be considered to be skimmed off the top in a player vendor kickback scheme in addition to whatever commissions they may earn.  This has the advantage of making things simpler for the players involved, but a designer may wish to disallow this sort of trade, as it removes a possible avenue of profit for particularly impoverished players who may want to make some money by running the ginseng themselves.

Maintenance fees and commissions include things like salary, handling charges, sales commissions, and other sundry concerns for the shopkeeper (like a guy to watch for pickpockets, maybe).  These provide a good source of cash draining to prevent flooding in an open-ended economy, and can be considered a trade tax levied on society’s theoretically wealthiest members, i.e. the merchants.  A salary is a fixed amount paid to the shopkeeper, and can be influenced by factors like the demand for vendors in a limited vendor per city system, the status of the vendor (i.e. hawker on the street versus a true shopkeep), and expertise.  "Expertise" reflects the knowledge of the vendor to sell certain types of goods.  For example, a guy working in Bob’s House of Polearms, which sells polearms and also buys raw iron from the locals for smithing, has to be conversant in the general fields of melee weaponry and metallurgy.  A guy working in Alicia’s Everything Shop, which deals in a wide variety of goods including arms, armor, bows, magical reagents, clothing, leather goods, etc., has to have a broader knowledge and is therefore worth more money.  His salary should be a little higher for his expertise.

Commissions can be earned for any transaction involving the vendor.  This is probably best handled as a flat percentage of the amount of the transaction.  A guy working for Robbie’s House of Incredibly Powerful and Fantastically Expensive Magic Weapons should earn more in commissions than the guy working at Harold’s Animal Feed Store, unless animal feed is an amazingly high-volume business.  Commissions can also subsume any trade taxes the local government levies on marketplace transactions.

Using this model, we see that there are three basic classes of vendors available to players who want to buy or sell to other players:

  • The pawnbroker, a guy who works in his own shop and sells stuff for the player in exchange for a commission.  He doesn’t deal in high priced items, won’t do volume business with a player, and won’t keep his eyes open for things the player is looking for.
  • The street hawker, a guy working in the market area of the city for one player, who sells stuff for the player.  He is limited in inventory to the items that one (or maybe several) man can haul around.  He will probably not be willing to look for items for the player to buy, although there is always the possibility of a special version of street hawker who does only this.
  • The shopkeeper, a guy working in the player’s store.  He has the advantage of much greater storage, status, etc., and costs more to reflect this.  He has enough storage space and (presumably) funding to buy materials for the employer at his request.

There is one more possibility that players would want that isn’t adequately covered:  the wilderness merchant.  This is the guy who sells and buys from players away from the town market, either because it’s more convenient for the owning player, because it’s convenient for adventurers who are away from town, or because he wishes to avoid taxes and other inconveniences in town.  Such merchants are unrealistic unless they are part of a small trading post off the beaten track, but they do add interest to the game.  These can be considered "shopkeepers," the most expensive class of player vendor.  There may also be a pawn broker in a remote outpost, but it’s more likely that the outlet for salvaged goods away from town will be a cranky and shrewd NPC merchant who buys at very low prices and sells very high.

2 Responses to “Player to Player Economy/Vendors”
  1. The wilderness merchant could be justified as a traveling merchant.

  2. Ever since you made this document, a lot of games have an auction house system that allows players to trade with each other without both being present. Although…I still like this idea, especially about vendors buying goods for the player.

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