Reasonable Cash Economy

Every game, I swear, EVERY GAME  that allows players to make money in a multiplayer environment somehow gets its economy completely blown out of proportion.  UO was flooded with gold from unfettered mule tailor salesmen even before the advent of duping gold and GM’s spawning castle deeds for profit.  The Asheron’s Call pyreal is worth slightly less than a German mark circa 1923.  Even the apparently ultra-stingy EQ cash flow was made meaningless eventually just through relentless repeating cash quests and stupid economic decisions that created overnight millionaires.

One question that this hyperinflation begs to pose is:  who is minting all of this money?

The traditional unit of currency in all of the big three, and indeed in most fantasy games of all types, is the precious metal coin.  In UO it’s the gold piece.  In Asheron’s Call, the pyreal.  In Everquest, it’s the traditional D&D money system of a mixed assortment of metal coins.  All of this money can be considered real, as it is represented by actual coins and is assumed to have intrinsic value.  Even the trade notes of Asheron’s Call are not paper money in the sense that modern U.S. currency is paper money, since a trade note can be redeemed immediately by any sufficiently well-off merchant for its value in coin, and the note itself isn’t even usable as a means to directly purchase goods and services.  This means that someone has found a sufficient quantity of the metal required to make these coins, mined it, smelted it, and minted it into a universally recognizable unit of trade.  Barring duplication bugs and crooked administrators, the amount of this real money circulating around in any MMORPG seems to indicate that there are mountains of precious metals right near the surface (making it minable/pannable with pre-water pump technology).

Even leaving aside realism for a second, the effects of a hyperinflux of cash into the game economy are obvious, and have been demonstrated time and time again.  Money becomes worthless, king’s ransoms are given to newbies as soon as they enter the system (making them, in effect, not newbies anymore), and while the price of many standard goods and services doesn’t increase for some strange reason, you wind up with newly implemented items like hair dyes having price tags more appropriate to an earldom.  Items which were envisioned as being status symbols, like the top quality of store-bought plate mail, are now mere afterthoughts, and if the price of plate is not increased through inflation, you either have a situation where there are NO goods of any kind for sale anymore as they have all been bought out by the player-tycoons, or else you have to give up on the idea of realistic manufacturing and allow everyone to buy unlimited plate, forcing the assumption that somewhere below the earth there are about 8 million hapless artisans churning the stuff out on a daily basis.

Just to twist the economic dagger in the backs of developers, the "closed economy" that Ultima Online was originally envisioned with does not work at all.  In a closed economy, the world has a limited number of resources of all types, and that’s that.  Iron turned into a helmet is gone from the ground forever, only returning when the helmet is destroyed, presumably broken down into ore by some sort of super-bacteria.  The closed economy has a lot of theoretical advantages, but the fact that it means there are limited fixed resources screws 99% of the playing population, as the first guys out of the gate in final will monopolize these resources, filling their houses with stacks and stacks of useless weapons and other goods, in some mistaken belief that hoarding is a way to "win."  The guys who come in after them have no chance.

Operating on the assumption that a closed economy has no chance of success, the challenge then becomes a way to manage an open economy (where materials appear out of thin air on a regular basis) while avoiding hyperinflation.  The only way to do this successfully is to make sure there enough unavoidable money sinks in the game to continually drain resources away from the players, while trying to maintain a certain level of "fun" for the inevitably greedy subscriber.  This section is primarily concerned with cash money, so we’ll leave the question of item management for later.  (See "Item Decay.")

Various money sinks have been implemented after the fact (hyperinflation) in all of the big three MMORPG’s, but they never work.  The reason for this is that in order to remain unobtrusive, the cash sinks are always optional, and if they are useless sinks (like buying a meaningless title), players won’t go for it.  At the other end is offering sufficiently big carrots for the players to pay out for, which lends itself to game mechanic inflation.  Pay lots of gold for a superweapon that is better than anything in the game, for instance.  This does nothing to stop the influx of huge amounts of money, and only contributes to an inevitable breaking of the game.  Note that this and other "solutions" for inflation are not limited to gold disposal concerns.  The shard and key economy of Asheron’s Call, having supplanted the hopelessly broken coin economy,  is riddled with this sort of nonsense.

Requiring players to pay for advancement or education isn’t a bad idea in itself, but it doesn’t halt the problem of hyperinflation.  If you require players to pay tuition of 1000 gold to the Wizarding College to learn the deeper mysteries of theurgy, this is a pretty good idea and contributes to cash draining, but if 20% of the world is made up of multimillionaire hoarders, all this means is that after a while it becomes a nonfactor to anyone who can ask the rich guys for a thousand gold.

There are really only three ways to effectively control the flow of cash to the player in an automated persistent world:

  • Reasonable financial rewards from hunting other creatures and robbing them
  • Expensive component requirements for professional equipment
  • Taxes

Controlling the rewards for hunting the enemy is important in many respects.  With a little forethought, it can be done.  The amount of cash one finds on a dead enemy is easily limited by logic, especially if like most minted coins, the minted coins of your civilization center were make by the guy in charge so he could immortalize himself on the face of a piece of currency.  The local nomadic tribe of humanoids wouldn’t have much use for these things, except maybe if they like shiny objects.  They aren’t going to be buying much from the town market with them, after all.  The big thing to control is the reward to players for selling off the gear of their murdered opponents for profit, something which has always been way too generous to the looter.

First, consider the fact that most of the time a guy spent after a historical battle was fixing his stuff.  The spoils of war in the form of armor, weapons, and shields off corpses are not going to be in mint condition.  Most of it will be flat-out useless, and what might have some value is going to require a lot of work to fix up if someone wants to bother doing it.  Then again, the local tribe of goblins might be barely out of the neolithic age, especially if they have a nomadic raiding existence that doesn’t contribute to high level manufacturing.  Not much of a market for stone axes and bronze knives in an iron age town.  Also consider that some traditional high ticket items like plate suits are a big pain to take off their dead owners, especially with a spear stuck through them, and once you get it off them, you can’t just fix it up and put it on… it’s not possible to fit these things generically.  If you’re really down and out, maybe you can sell it to the smith as scrap, or to an eccentric collector or museum if you are very lucky.  In cases where equipment of the fallen might be resold at an open market, a man might get a reputation as a vulture of the battlefield, resulting in worse reactions from people who know about his corpse-stripping activities.  For the most part, though, battlefield spoils were typically vultured by the local peasants after a battle in the hopes that they might be able to sell it off to an itinerant adventurer or bandit for a few pennies to supplement their poverty-stricken existence.

Expensive component costs in MMORPG’s are most often associated with mages, who have to shell out every day for bizarre herbs and powders to perform magical feats.  However, you can easily expand this into other professions through the simple and logical system of item decay.  A fighter who routinely goes out to battle in a suit of plate and a round shield should have to pay some rather exorbitant upkeep costs to keep that gear in order.  Archers need arrows, of course, and possibly other sundries like restringing, laquers, what have you.  There should always be a way for players to not have to pay these upkeep costs, especially if they are newbies or self-proclaimed hermits with few possessions, but the sort of things these people will be using (hide armors, spears, etc.) should be of the sort that one could reasonably repair himself given sufficient skill and resourcefulness, and should not expand into equipment like metallic armors that require a considerable manufacturing base to produce.

Taxes are dealt with in the following section.

4 Responses to “Reasonable Cash Economy”
  1. I was wondering… what if you could securitize large packages of player equipment. You could, for instance, package up several hundred olthoi swords and offer bonds for them. The bonds would, of course be insured by the monarchy, so they would be AA rated. Then player could invest in those bonds and, as long as the value of the Olthoi swords continued to increase to meet the demands of a growing player base, the value of those bonds would increase and we could all get rich. I would not invest in them personally, I would just take a percentage of each transaction as the bonds changed hands.

  2. Personally i think it just overcomplicates a game unnesscarily, though maybe thats just me and my simple ways

  3. I like the idea of having hefty maintenance costs, particularly for higher-end weapons and armor. You could even make it somewhat realistic. For example, one of the most basic weapons for a newbie might be a bronze dagger that doesn’t do much damage, but which only requires you to spend a small amount of money every so often to clean and sharpen the blade. On the other hand, weapons used repeatedly in battle against NPCs and other players, plus magical high-end weapons, would have a very short usable life-time before you have to spend a small fortune to get them re-made and re-usable. Certain NPCs might become infamous as high-risk, high-reward creatures, where you have to kill them for a certain item, but in the process virtually all of your equipment is rendered useless until you can get repairs. Then couple the whole thing with “carry” limits, so that your adventurer can’t carry around 999 Swords of Destruction on himself.

    Taxes are a good idea, too, particularly in a corrupt town or city setting. You can pile up a large amount of gold, but that also means that you come to the attention of corrupt rulers/gangsters, who then demand huge pay-offs in exchange for not robbing your house/beating you up.

  4. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

    I was thinking that what could happen was to allow players to rob houses, so that the houses of high-level players with mountains of loot and money would be robbed and therefore reducing that players wealth, and then their gear could be sold at black markets or taken by the thief themselves, so that the high-level gear could be shared around eventually by all the thieves. Then you could have a mechanic of if a high-level player was really famous than stealing his armour of awesomeness could lead to you being hunted or not having any fences buying it, and so that armour would become useless, and would reduce the wealth of high-level players.

    House maintenance could be added as well, so that their houses decay and need repairs which would then reduce the wealth of a player.

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