Once upon a time, there was a game set in a science fiction universe where the economy was very important. Its name was not Eve.
In this game, players could, if they so chose, run a business. They could
- designate a building as a shop
- hire an NPC bot to stand in it
- give the bot items to hold for sale
- specify the prices at which those items would sell
- customize the bot in a variety of ways
- make use of advertising facilities to market the shop
- decorate the shop any way they pleased
With this basic facility, emergent gameplay tied to the way that the crafting system worked resulted in players who chose to run shops being able to do things Ike build supply chains, manage regular inventory, develop regular customer bases, build marketing campaigns, and in general, play a lemonade stand writ large.
The upshot was that at peak, fully half the players in Star Wars Galaxies ran a shop.
Now, most of these players engaged in the system in a shallow way. Advanced versions of the capabilities cited above were unlocked based on RPG-style advancement. You had to choose to do a lot of merchant activity in order to get Merchant XP, in order to unlock more advanced advertising capabilities etc. But even a dabbler could run a small business.
Advanced players actually made the economy their entire game, working either solo or in highly organized guilds, managing oilfields worth of harvesters, factory towns worth of crafting stations, and whole malls.
The economy in something like World of Warcraft is very different in character. The peak populations on a shard in each game were comparable, though of course WoW achieved far far higher subscriber numbers in aggregate. But the peak of economic play in WoW is essentially basic arbitrage, timing the market.
There are several factors that make the functioning of the two economies radically different, of course.
- in WoW all the best stuff is spawned as a result on combat. In SWG it was crafted by players.
- in WoW nothing breaks; instead you outlevel it. In original SWG everything decayed.
- in WoW a lot of the most valuable items aren’t actually items — they are buffs or skills in fancy dress. They aren’t transferable to other players. In SWG there was no “soul binding” and anything could be traded or gifted.
Fundamentally, though, the biggest difference has to do with the basic approach taken. You see, in Star Wars Galaxies we designed the economy to be a game, not a side effect. In particular, the merchant class was created to fulfill the fantasy of running your own business. It had features like decorating your shop because that is part of the fantasy of being a shopkeeper in a world such as that — to build up the equivalent of Watto’s junkyard, or a Trade Federation.
And this meant that above all, one feature could not exist: the auction house.
If you think of running a business as a game, then think about what you need in order to make it fun. Game grammar tells us that you are probably playing this as an asynchronous parallel game, meaning that you are measuring yourself against other players’ progress against the same opponent you fight. What’s the opponent? The vagaries of supply and demand as expressed by market price. The actions of other players have an indirect effect on this system.
Remember, a game provides statistically varied opposition within a common framework — if there is no variation, we call it a puzzle, not a game. Because of this, we invested a lot of effort into creating ever-varying economic situations in SWG.
- Every resource in SWG was randomly generated off of master types. We defined “iron,” and gave it statistical ranges. Different kinds of iron would spawn with
different names, but they would all work as iron in any recipe that called for such. This meant that you might find a high-quality vein of iron, or a low quality one.
- Even more, it might be high quality only for specific purposes.
- Resource types were finite. You could literally mine out all the high quality iron there was. It would just be gone. A new iron might be spawned eventually (sometimes, very eventually!) but of course, it would be rolled up with different characteristics.
- And in a different place. Resources were placed using freshly generated Perlin noise maps.
- Crafters gambled with their resources, generating items of varying quality that were partially dependent on the resources and the recipe.
- Crafters could lock in specific results as blueprints, but that forced a dependency on the specific finite resource that was used, meaning that blueprints naturally obsolesced.
All of this meant that a merchant could never rely having the best item, or the most desirable item (indeed, “most desirable” could exist on several axes, meaning that there were varying customer preferences in terms of what they liked in a blaster). Word spread through informal means as to the locations of rare ore deposits. People fought PvP battles over them. People hoarded minerals just
to sell them on the market once they had become rare. And of course, they organized sites like the now defunct SWGCraft.com, which monitored all of this fluctuating data and fed it back out in tidy feeds for other sites and even apps to consume, such as this one, which was widely used by hardcore business players much like a Bloomberg terminal is by someone who plays the market.
Then it all went away. You see, a key feature of the system was that the central NPC run shops were not permitted to interfere with this. Nor was the spawn system allowed to drop high quality items as loot. The result was that if you wanted the coolest weapon, you had to hunt through player-run shops like a mad antiquer on a summer drive. The result of the above systems, you see, was an economy where it was very very hard to see the gestalt of the trade economy. You really had to hunt to find out if you had found a bargain.
For someone who just wanted to frickin’ buy a blaster, it was very inconvenient.
In other words, we had local pricing in full effect. This meant that the individual merchant, who, remember, was there to fulfill the fantasy of running a small business, could get away with not being being great at it.
In the real world, we are rapidly approaching a perfect information economy. I can instantly look up the varying prices of something I want, determine the one with the lowest actual cost to me (price, shipping, time to arrival, physical location, quality, etc), and get exactly what I want. It is a world optimized for the buyer.
The experience for the seller, though, is not generally awesome, unless they happen to have the scale that drives victory in a winner takes all scenario. The big guys can essentially dictate prices by undercutting everyone. They dominate the visible market, and can drown out the smaller or more unique offerings. In this sort of world, the funky used bookstore with the awesome decor tends to die, and it doesn’t matter how much fun the shop owner had in coming up with said decor.
SWG eventually did put in a serverwide auction house, responding to WoW. It made life easier for the buyers. But it created a perfect information economy, and all that complexity and variation that was present in the market earlier fell away. Small shopkeepers were shut out of markets.
If that happens to you in a game, you don’t find another line of work. You quit.
So do auction houses suck? No, not if your game is about getting. It is a better experience for a gamer interesting in getting.
But the fantasy of running a shop, or being a business tycoon, is not just about the getting. It is about the having — of relationships, of an empire, of a well-oiled machine. It is about running things, not about working your way up a chain of gewgaws. The gewgaws are a way to keep score, but you play the game for the sake of the game.
SWG was not a game about getting. After all, everything you could get in the game eventually broke. It was about the having. Having your shops, your town, your supply chain, your loyal customers, your collectible Krayt dragon skull or poster or miniature plush Bantha like in the Christmas Special.
When the merchant changes went in to SWG, the merchants went out.
Getting is kind of addictive. For a mass market audience, it may well be the path to greater acceptance and higher profits. Me, I like funky bookstores; but I have to admit I usually buy from Amazon. It’s convenient.
The lesson here is that sometimes features that make things better for one player make them dramatically worse for another. Every time you make a design choice you are closing as many doors as you open. In particular, you should always say to yourself,
I’m adding this feature for player convenience. How many people live for the play that this inconvenience affords?
The small shopkeepers; the socializers who need the extra five minutes you have to spend waiting for a boat at the Everquest docks; the players who live to help, and can’t once every item is soul bound and every fight is group locked and they can’t even step in to save your life; the role player who cannot be who they wish to be because their dialogue is prewritten; the person proud of his knowledge of the dangerous mountains who is bypassed by a teleporter; the person who wants to be lost in the woods and cannot because there is a mini-map.
Every inconvenience is a challenge, and games are made of challenges. This means that every inconvenience in your design is potentially someone’s game.