Mar 202012

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, 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.

  62 Responses to “Do auction houses suck?”

  1. As a former SWG business owner I just want to say that it was one of the most gratifying gaming experiences I have ever had. I actually am an executive in a retail business today and I still think back to my small chain of shops in SWG as part of my overall business experience.

    One question Raph?

    I remember initially at least it seemed to me anyway, that being a merchant and a crafter would be two different professions. I was strictly interested in selling things and not so much making things. When the game first started and people had to devote time to one or the other, I had a great opportunity. I was able to have many vendors, a map ad, etc. I negotiated wholesale deals with my crafters. I bought low and sold high. I felt like I added value because I brought items to remote areas (usually catering to large guild cities before cities where even implemented).

    Sadly what ended up happening was inevitably you would get a small handful of crafters that would be known for having the best products (usually because they procured some rather excellent materials) and people would only be interested in those products because they were the best. Those crafters would no longer sell to me, and eventually being a “pure” merchant became far less profitable than focusing on a specific crafting area and selling “just weapons” or “just food” (I’m sure I could have still made some money but it would have been less than as a specialized crafter). People would just visit the mall, grab the best thing from each of the best vendors and that was that.

  2. I think a good compromise would have been more of a central directory where people could list their items instead of an auction house. In WoW you have the auction house, but you also have people hawking their wares in trade chat or in the general chat.
    I hate the idea of having to keep going around from vendor to vendor looking for the best prices. In reality I do not do it, but instead use a search engine to find the best prices. Of course I am not the shopping type, so I have no desire to run around to a dozen stores.
    Just my $0.02 though.

  3. Economy is just another thing that I like to point back to older MMOs and go “…why does what we have now suck so bad compared to what we had a decade ago?”. That said, I’m still a fan of hefty risk/reward systems that get my adrenaline going, such as item drop on death. Color me niche.

    I’m not sure that the typical “auction house” system (i.e. being able to access all available items instantly) is inherently bad. I think it’s more the game systems surrounding this concept that suck. For one, this fake durability that has started to emerge: where items cost upkeep as you use them, but never actually go away. This of course lead to “bind on equip”, because items would never get cycled apart from new players buying and binding equipment (thus removing it from circulation). This leads to a stale economy for end-game players who no longer purchase gear from one another, because once they buy it, they have it for good. So they have to seek gear elsewhere. And thus the economy of trade-able, purchasable gear has a clearly defined limitation as the developers have to work around this concept; pretty much all significant endgame gear you get is “bind on pickup” – i.e., zero interaction from other players was possible to get this gear (aside from stuff like players helping one another, i.e. raiding). It’ll be interesting to see how the established concept of an auction house works with Diablo 3, as D2 still has a pretty lively economy that is entirely player-run.

    Personally, I was completely happy with the concept of being able to buy generic items from NPC vendors, and better items from players, and all of it eventually crumbling into dust and having to be replaced. Maybe there is a way to mesh this system with an endgame, goal-based non-decaying gear system. I’m not sure. Perhaps having the gear be permanent, but some kind of items that modify it wear off over time (i.e. enchantments or gems wearing out). The line between “meaningful economy” and “boring moneysink” can be very blurry.

    I also love the concept of real, location based merchants/shops, although I don’t think this is a necessary step towards having a meaningful economy. But some of my favorite experiences in UO were definitely based around concepts like “hey, if you want to stock up on some grandmaster heavy crossbows, soandso’s got them on sale just outside of Vesper!” or “have you seen the new vendor mall/rune library outside of town?”. Stuff like this just contributes so much towards making a game world really feel alive and breathing, and it’s a total shame that the most socialization that happens in a game like WoW is people spouting out memes and arguing.

    “Getting” is definitely the core idea here, and it is addicting enough to pose the question or if there should even be any boundaries when it comes to players buying equipment (heck, in many F2P games we are seeing people able to just pull up a store and buy gear instantly, from anywhere – although that’s another can of worms). Still, I can’t help but feel that putting more behind the acquisition of items plays a huge role. I mean, this is fantasy, right? And who doesn’t like going to quaint little book and antique shops? Sure, they may be dying off because in real life, we just don’t have the time to waste looking for things so we flock to sites like Amazon or Ebay… but we play these games for fantasy, and escape. Are we so addicted to working and the idea of having a job that even in our fantasies we can’t have fun shopping around?

  4. Stanley, that’s not a compromise. Do that, and the merchants leave, the end. Making it central and global means it’s a perfect info economy and that means the gameplay for merchants vanishes.

  5. It’s been a while, but I seem to recall cities having bazaar terminals, through which items could be listed and searched. But I also have a vague recollection of having to travel to the location from which the item was listed, in order to make the purchase. Players could search not only for items listed from bazaar terminals in other cities, but also for items listed on merchant vendors.

  6. Since you bring up EVE, it does have something in between the WoW auction house and what you describe for early SWG.

    While you can get a listing of what is for sale in your current region of space, which can be a couple dozen star system, when you buy something through the marketplace interface, it doesn’t get delivered. It is sitting in the station where it was put up for sale.

    So one of the things displayed in the marketplace interface is how far away the item is. This allows for location based pricing. In a lot of regions there is a sales hub where prices tend to be low, but you can ignore those prices and sell for a lot more just a few jumps away, because you can sell convenience. Until you get to very expensive items, a lot of players won’t even bother going one system over to save money. I have even been able to exploit convenience within a system with multiple stations, because I am selling in the station with the right mission NPC, so if somebody needs ammo for the mission they just accepted, they tend to want it right now.

  7. Mike,

    I didn’t actually go into full detail on the setup in SWG. Yes there were bazaar terminals, and a commodities market for low-end items, and even skills to allow players to post up advertisements on the terminals. We did not only have word of mouth for prices. But advertising was still localized to a large degree.

  8. Great post, I could detect the hint of lament on such a brilliantly designed and executed feature. The lesson learned is definitely applicable to next-gen virtual economies, and possibly next-gen real economies as well.

    Just a nitpick, market timing and arbitrage are total opposites, one involves taking risk and expecting betterf potential transactions to be offered soon after you buy in, the other involves contractually guaranteeing two prices almost simultaneously and profiting the difference.

  9. Excellent read.

    I do wonder if even the “getting” game is more enjoyable when it is less convenient? Isn’t it more satisfying to finally get that most awesome blaster from that shop hidden in the desert when few others will find a similar one? I don’t see how getters have a more enjoyable time clicking on the most awesome blaster (one of several) in the AH based on nothing more than whether they have enough coin looted from corpses they grinded through.

    Perhaps counter-intuitively, isn’t inconvenience a big part of fun? Clearly, I don’t mean inconvenience for its own sake. But as an integral part of the game (as in the SWG economy), doesn’t it provide a more satisfying experience for all? Isn’t the system just as inconvenient for sellers who could not throw their stuff up on the AH for quick easy sales?

    Your point in this article, which I fear people will miss, is excellent:

    “Every inconvenience is a challenge, and games are made of challenges. This means that every inconvenience in your design is potentially someone’s game.”

    If the game is ultimately about raiding, this kind of economy is nothing more than an inconvenience. If we want to get the best stats to go into the dungeon, we don’t have time to go wandering and poking about small shops. If the game is about living in the world, rather than blasting through it at every turn, this economy would only seem to add to the richness for all. Those players primarily interested in combat should be able to enjoy the occasional challenge (and resulting satisfaction) of finding that really cool weapon, before heading out again into battle.

    I’m afraid I’m repeating myself. My question is whether this concern is more about the type of game rather than the type of player?

  10. Raph said: “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.”

    Maybe players are the same way in regards to convenience. Maybe they’d be happier if there were no “Amazons” in their games. I often wonder if “easy” in games is really a mass market hook, or if it’s just something that’s there.

  11. Player-run stores, getting lost without a minimap, not knowing where to go for a quest without a bright yellow arrow are all part of the far end of what I like to call the Magic/Practicality spectrum. On one end you have obfuscation, mystique, discovery, depth, and inconvenience, while on the other end you have streamlining, transparency, simplicity, and convenience.

    As consumers of art, media, and games, we land on different points in the spectrum, across a number of uneven dimensions as the mood takes us: Abstract art or photography? Calligraphy or print? Minimaps or getting lost? None of these are trivial decisions in the creation of art, they communicate different ideas and work in different contexts for different people.

    The problem lies with the unchecked assumption that the practical end of the spectrum means modern, decidedly superior game design. Much in the same way the visual arts swung the pendulum in one direction with photography, then violently in the opposite direction with post-modernism, we’re likely to start seeing more of that exploration of the magical side of the spectrum in games. A large part of it is building the literacy of both the consumers and creators, learning to read print before enjoying calligraphy. The other large part is taking the responsibility of evolving the medium in more than one direction.

  12. Great writeup as usual, and spot on.

    I wish more designers would take this into account… the idea of non-combat gameplay being a top tier path of progression, the same as any other. I don’t even think the game has to be a sandbox to facilitate this.

    I’ve often thought one of the hamstrings of economies in MMORPG’s was the fact that all of the “customers” are heroes (player characters). Meaning there’s a finite number of Swords Of Uber Doom that could be sold.

    What about a PvE crafting game where there are NPC “citizens” who ultimately become customers for every day goods as well, with RPG style progression systems built around that… and hell, even “sim” type of gameplay. The better your goods, the more NPCs are attracted to the city or village where your shop is, if not literally at least statistically.. but it would be cool to visualize 🙂

    I’m rambling…

  13. Excellent. The whole point of trading as a dynamic is that quest for better price or advantage. When it’s flattened (such as by global information) then much of its point vanishes.

  14. MMORTS games are the only real MMOs left. 🙂

  15. Speaking as one of those Crafter/Merchant players that was part of a large Crafting/Merchant Guild (Avian Technology and Trade) in SWG I was heartbroken when my game was taken away from me. The Auction house not only ruined the game for small merchants, it also made it infinitely less fun for the larger ones.

    MGJ – aka Master Gui-Jan

  16. Amaranthar,

    Raph didn’t say he was “happier” buying from Amazon, he said he did it for convenience. It is essentially the trap of our new world. Convenience wins out over enjoyment. Next thing you know you have lived a week with no satisfaction even though you’ve gotten twice as much done as you used to. But, you USED TO have fun getting half the things done.

  17. Reminds me in many ways of the UO shops.

    I really wish you would create another UO Raph….

  18. What a wonderful, thought-provoking post. I’ve been sad to see the general move from challenge (“inconvenience”) to easy mode everything (“convenience”). Now, in some games if you so much as click on something, you can expect to ding, see stars fly around, and hear some fanfare play. It makes “accomplishments” anything but meaningful. The mainstream seems to love it, though… so, it seems to be a development that is hear to stay, unfortunately (at least in a majority of the AAA titles).

    With all that said, just wanted to proof the post a bit (if Raph feels like bothering with changing it). Minor mistakes, but just thought I’d post them since I noticed them and it doesn’t take much:

    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<<<>>>being<<<< being great at it. (being x's 2)

    Thanks again for the great post. Hope you keep them coming, Mr. Koster!

  19. whoops… *here

    and messed up on that proofing, sorry

    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))))

    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.

  20. Fun is inefficient. This is something I worked out in Eve (sorry, never liked the SWG markets). In general, the more efficient a game system is the less fun it is, up to a limit where it becomes so glaringly inefficient that it’s no longer fun.

    This is most clearly displayed in the economic sub-games. In Eve, all of the profit potential came from inefficiencies: In Jita, you could buy or sell anything, very quickly if you were willing to compromise on price. But you had to go other places where inefficiencies of distribution, information, or supply and demand allowed for profits unless you wanted to squeak out tiny profits on lots of transactions.

    In WoW, the inefficiencies of information were the source of profits, people who knew what an item could bring could make large profits by buying up everything of that type priced lower. In SWG, people who were willing to make the rounds of the vendors could find underpriced goods.

    In all these cases, fun was synonymous with profits for the people playing the economic sub-game, and a more efficient system offered less opportunity for fun.

    As a real-world example: The shape and size of footballs and basketballs is deliberately chosen because they make the games *harder*, they are inefficient. As does the rules against “super balls” in golf (balls that are too elastic and easy to drive).


  21. While i am sure you get this alot Raph, i am going to re-iterate it in hopes you might give this a second thought.

    With the advent of Kickstarter funded games i was wondering if you have considered doing a new MMO with the same kind of intricate sandbox models you do so well. I really wonder if you boil everything down how much it would really cost to make a MMO with a small dev team that was self/kickstarter funded.

    I know you would get all of those SWG veterans support if we knew you were going to attempt this.

    I feel that there is going to be a paradigm shift in how MMOs are going to be directed, i think the core MMO players are beginning to expect a more complex and difficult experience. With the new flock of games coming that are attempting to change how we view an MMO, like say GW2, TSW, ArcheAge, and i even think Dominus, these games will start to show that there are definitely differing ways to develop, run, and enjoy MMOs.

    Then again i am a hopeless diehard thinking that maybe just maybe my game will be made (SWG mechanics with a DAoC RvR 3 faction design).

    Anyhow i think i am rambling, thanks for reading this.

  22. Great post on economical gaming, Raph.

    How about imperfect information auctioning via concealing prices and bids, and delaying delivery.

    More details here:

  23. Great post … makes me upset that I never got to play SWG .. sounds incredible. I especially like the attention paid to place and locality.

    I really don’t like games in which distance and location have no inherent meaning since travel is either trivial or items can be delivered instantly. I appreciate Eve’s economic game in this sense. Real ISK can be paid by marketing to minor hubs and 0.0 entry points. I just wish Eve had a sense of place in addition to actual differences in location. In other words, in Eve, no matter how far you travel, it looks like your essentially in the same place .. space.

    I wish Wurm had an economic game .. distance is meaningful and travel can be dangerous but trade is anemic despite item decay .. there’s not much game beyond crafting skills so why bother?

  24. Making shops work well requires an open-world player housing system. There have been attempts to make it work with instanced housing, but instancing negates many of the factors that make the retail game interesting.

    If you want to see a world where this is currently playing out in interesting ways, take a look at Second Life. The Marketplace web site allows you to buy virtual goods directly from retailers, but this has prompted an outcry amongst some land owners who perceive a threat to their rentals of commercial space, and by extension, the primary revenue flow of Linden Lab.

    There have been proposals to require mandatory land ownership to qualify for market listings; that would bar people who want to create but don’t have the capital resources to pay tier fees or rental on a plot of land, but those are exactly the people that established players want to force out of the market.

    The fact that Linden Dollars can be cashed out for real dollars (and it takes real money to buy land) just pours gasoline on the flames.

    I liked the SWG system a lot. People could browse and buy on the Bazaar, but they had to come to my shop to pick up their purchases, giving me a chance to do add-on sales and provide some foot-traffic to neighboring shops and establishments.

    You don’t really see how huge a difference it makes to community building and retention until you play a title without the option. Games with instanced housing zones (or worse, no housing system at all) and no player-owned vendors tend to be ghost towns.

  25. It wasnt just the trading in SWG, the Healing arts were very much a big part of the game too, as a doctor/medic my time in game was mostly spent in the medical center in Mos Eisley, it was a very social form of gameplay, much like the dancers/musicians, playing the part of a doctor in a MMO, was oddly fun, and fairly lucrative.

  26. Terry,

    Credit where it is due– the UO shops were created by Ragnar Scheuermann, one of the U9 Dev team members who moved over to the UO team and decided to stay. He and I certainly had our differences, but he did the original implementation of shops. They had been discussed around the team prior to that, but he really set the template for them.

  27. As an pre-CU SWG veteran player, I’m still in a fruitless search for a game as fulfilling as SWG was.

    I just have to say, I would LOVE to see Raph Koster project on as we’ve already seen some gaming projects by veteran developers (Tim Schafer, Brian Fargo) being funded with millions of dollars by the masses of people there.

  28. I never played SWG, so I can’t really comment on the specifics relating to it, and in fact it sounds as though with the item system the way it was, the merchant style economy was a more suitable fit. Personally, I would use the same statement you used for the merchants:

    “Every inconvenience is a challenge, and games are made of challenges. This means that every inconvenience in your design is potentially someone’s game.”

    The change in system presented a change needed by merchants, who should have adapted. While this may not have applied with SWG (the large variation in quality just seems to make more sense with a seller’s market), I feel it applies to most games with a buyer-driven economy.

    Any player that prides themselves at being an effective merchant won’t be stinted in a perfect information economy. Any player that feels stinted simply lacks the know-how to thrive in such an economy. I’m not saying people who can’t achieve successful results with an auction house system are idiots, they just don’t have the experience with such a system to be able to use it to their advantage.

  29. Ah. Thx for clarification. I’m 42 years old and started with UO at 20 and played it an incredible number of hours and years. Since then, I’ve become enthralled with the design of every game I play and compare it to UO. UO had a depth and an emotional connection no other game has. (I’m thinking Archage might). To own a shop, to have to build customers, to be able to own a house (or castle), to be able to lose your items and have that visceral fear in the game. Those elements just seem lacking in today’s MMOs. Additionally, it was brilliant to be able to have one avatar and over time he can change his skills/abilities through use. Again, I think that Archage game has promise although I haven’t seen enough of it.

    I’ve followed your games and life since UO and I am amazed by your ability to see “the matrix” in terms of game design and gamer psychology.


  30. Ragearo, implementing a central marketplace is replacing a complex and interesting system with a simple and boring system. It’s not that crafter/merchants couldn’t adapt; it’s that the new system was so easy that there was no real point to adapting. It’d be like replacing all the monsters in a game with big balloons with prizes inside: it’s certainly more convenient to the prize collectors, but it sort of misses the point.

  31. Alot of this comes down to “lowest common denominator” behavior. These games aren’t made for “us” anymore, those of us who played UO and the first incarnation of SWG and other early games.

    By “us” of course, I mean those who remember waiting for a 386,486…early pentium machines boot-cycle, then the agony of dial-up internet connections. Multi-player gaming on dialup? Good god…the pings, the latency, the very badly timed disconnections?

    You think we were worried about being inconvenienced by having to travel around to shop? That was the fun part of the game.

    Inconveniece was going out into the middle of nowhere, mining for a few hours, loading a pack horse or two down with valuable ore…running it back to town, only to have two PKers jump you just outside the protected zone, and to boot, your dial-up connection just got interrupted by call-waiting. By the time you scream at your little sister, reconnect and log back in, you and your horses are dead and everything you’d worked for is gone… Every early UOer knows this story. =D

    I think in the end everything you write about comes down to something very basic: Most game developers now are making simple, easy to use, “crap for the masses”-type difficulty games. Nothing terribly complicated to learn, no serious consequences if you lose or die.

    Thankfully, at the very least, swgEmu is about one month away from releasing the alpha server so I’ll have somewhere to go to scratch that itch that I caught playing UO and only SWG ever properly soothed.

  32. I disagree that what the masses want is crap. Its just not what some other people want. Maybe they don’t have time, maybe they only care about fighting, who knows but, that doesn’t make their games crap. I love to play HoN. Hon has no complex markets. Does that make it bad? No.

    I would contend that most modern MMOs are NOT actually MMOs. They are coop lobby game wannabes. Diablo 3 will cause some very interesting market changes IMO.

    I think that someone should make a game which is more of what MMOs should have been. That doesn’t mean WoW should die. I am trying, but I am one person, poor, and so forth. It certainly won’t happen anytime soon. So I hope someone who is in a better financial position tries. I will be playing Repop, although personally I prefer fantasy. And I will play AA and GW2 as well.

    Aside from that I will wait and hope.

  33. Puzzle Pirates originally had currency that only was usable in a single group of islands (7 or so). You had to move the currency from one island group to another and risk being attacked by players and mobs. Once at a new island it could be converted at a bank.

    Moving to a global purse made things more convenient but removed some of the charm of the system.

    There has been some clamoring for auction houses in Puzzle Pirates and I’m beginning to see why they would not be a good idea unless limited the island (or archipelago) where you place it for sale.

    Shopkeeping is pretty fun in Puzzle Pirates but it may not be as involved as with SWG.

  34. I see the problem as most developers are going for a home run. They see the WoW model with 10 million plus subscribers, and try to take certain elements to incorporate with their new game.

    This leads to what a lot of us see as the new direction of MMO’s. For the most part, the games we are offered are cookie cutters.

    The sandbox, player based economy, is a game that can thrive. But since it won’t hit WoW or SW:TOR subscription numbers, we’re not seeing it.

    There are a lot of gamers that want complexity. They don’t want their hand held throughout the entire game. This group of gamers is not being offered anything from publishers.

  35. “I’m adding this feature for player convenience. How many people live for the play that this inconvenience affords?”

    This is totally how I feel about the quest helper in Star Wars The Old Republic. I even blogged about these fun-obliterating features…

    Thanks for the post, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to implement my own game’s economy. One of my big goals is to prevent RMT. (As a one-man shop I just don’t have the time to deal with that particular problem.)

  36. Longtime, moderately successful SWG tailor here.

    I think there were two key aspects to the vibrancy of the SWG economy. First, was player housing and the ability to place things anywhere in sight in a player-owned building. (This is in contrast to LOTRO where only designated decorative items can be placed in a house, and then only in designated spots.) This created a desire for non-functional items. I may only need a half-dozen blasters over the life of a character, but my house has four rooms with four walls each, and that’s a lot of decor. The fact that every item was an ITEM and not a picture of an item, combined with the amazing ingenuity of decorators, meant that even the most prosaic of loot items were saleable commodities, as were components of craftable finished items. Game designers should remember, as economists should, that the value placed on an item is not determined by the maker, but by the buyer. Give players more options to trade.

    Second, was the Jedi grind. Having to go through multiple professions (if you wanted to be a Jedi) created a terrific churn in weapons, harvestors, factories, armor, food, and clothes, as well as a need for buffs. Aside from the inevitable tension about whether crafted gear or loot should be better, the economy really started to tank when the holocron system was abolished. The Jedi grind was not, perhaps, intended to foster the economy (or was it, Raph?), nor a feature that could be implemented in every game, but the example of fostering demand should be heeded.

    Personally, I think the global bazaar was great. The availability of near perfect information does not give perfect knowledge. It only provides a tool for those who are willing to take the time to use it. As I play SWTOR, one of my major annoyances is the local plantary vendors which hold (or potentially hold) equipment which you might find useful after the story has taken you away. Having to travel (without the convenience of interplanetary shuttles!) to view them is an unncessary feature.

  37. I’m not a huge merchant fan (more of a pvper) but running a store for my Combat Medic was amazingly satisfying. I think the final line about inconvenience can be applied to something else I was a huge fan of in SWG – one character per server.

    Getting what you want isn’t always getting what is best. It seems like MMOs are bending over backwards to make everything as bland, convenient and ‘equal’…it’s like Fast Food and I am so sick of it.

    Go make another MMO Raph Koster, I need to love MMOs again.

  38. Why should Raph have to do all the drudge work (again)?

    He’s been giving us the keys to the kingdom. All we have to get up off the couch and use them.

  39. I’m going to stick to the main topic of the post here as much as possible. Played SWG, started 3-4 months after it went live and Loved almost every moment I played the game(made some very good friends on there, which were the only reason I played past nge era).

    An auction house system does not suck, truthfully it has never been properly implemented into any of the games that I have played or read about. Currently the only Auction house structure that i have seen has taken on the form of google and the internet. It spans across the entire server encompassing all sales and transactions. the internet is almost identical to this structure. We can search through thousands of stores that could be on the other side of the world through the internet. we can even order items and have them shipped to us without the need for human interaction. Very convenient, very boring system that has helped nurture our growing economy into a more global economy. Well……the auction house does the same thing except the MMO environments are not billions of people and millions of businesses competing against one another localized and specialized into their own nations, countries….etc.

    (so much for not going into other stuff…..)

    An auction house is a localized form of bidding system that gathers people to bid on items that were put up for sale. When the auction house covers the entire server I hardly called that localized. Since a games life, especially an mmo’s is unknowable…the economy hardly needs to grow since resources in game are generated and not finite. Auction houses should have stayed localized and been promoted and funded by the guilds. Having a npc system to help with the auction house would be awesome and make things smoother to do as well. Auction houses properly implemented could have bolster the game play of the merchants and crafters as well….a well funded , highly advertised auction would promote social aspects of the game and high quality or low quality items could have another way of getting to the players without destroying that sense localized merchant play style that was created….

    And I know you said that resources were finite…but the overall SWG system was designed to generate those resources….rarity and uniqueness were just implemented in to not have iron come out as iron no matter how it came it…the iron came out with different stats making some unique and rare and others utter junk

  40. Awesome post! Funnily enough, I answered the title question on my blog back in July. Shameless plug:

    I find the psychological aspect of why people play mmos fascinating. Why have they changed so much from those original “inconvenient” games? Has the entire player base become “getters”? I know I haven’t, but I go with the flow and play what’s trendy, so I hop on the treadmill and grind my gear, but I’d much rather be making it and selling it. I could play an older game, but I prefer to try the new and shiny. I’m guessing I’m not the only person looking for more of the old in a new package.

    On another note, since the real world is approaching a perfect information economy, there are less of those small shops and small time businesses around. The local hardware store, the local bookstore, the local record store have all been replaced by big business: Home Depot, Amazon/Barnes and Noble, and Best Buy, respectively. Since many people play games as an escape or to play a different role than that which they are stuck with in real life, perhaps more people will yearn to play a shopkeeper in-game, because it is no longer an option in the real world. Maybe.

    Thanks for the article, really got me thinking.

  41. In an old game that I played (Runescape) we used to have a very player-driven market that had no player shops, trading had to be done directly from character to character. Then the auction/trading house came along and although it was much easier to trade, it somehow lost that certain flavor old school trading had.

    I mean, back in the day when I would try to look for a guy to buy weapons from it could be minefield of epic proportions. “I would love to sell the sword to you but I know you will just use it to kill me later!” “Wait a minute, aren’t you that girl who chased me all over the wilderness yesterday? Go find someone else to trade with you.”

    Auction houses can’t give you that.

  42. Let me give you the views of a reletively new mmo’er.

    SWG post nge was my first mmo, so I really didn’t get to experience your full vision in my time there. But I have to say that the crafting system as it was when I arrived really blew my mind ..enough for me to buy three more accts.

    Unlike Auction houses in every other game I’ve played since, the Bazaar system gave incentive to go to places you may never have visited otherwise. Without the waypoints I may never have found some of the more obscure shops. So to one who never had to actually scower the galaxy to find bargains …that mix of AH and exploration was perfect.

    IMO what players really want is choices. To be hardcore or casual, crafter or warrior, social butterfly, introvert …psycopath

    SWG came closest to this and I gotta believe that any game developer brave enough to steal as much from there as they do from WoW will have a winner on thier hands 😉

  43. Centralized auction houses are incompatible with a player-driven economy. But then, most MMOs don’t really have a full on Eve/pre-NGE SWG/old-UO style player-driven economy either. Central auction houses become another NPC vendor basically, eventually home to the resource-gathering cartels and RMT traders. Nowadays rare is the game where you need to buy equipment as you level up. And then at the cap, all the best gear is gated by raids.

    I don’t like that old style player vendors are considered as “inconvenient” as XP loss/de-leveling on death, corpse runs, no minimaps, no obvious quest givers and non-teleport travel. Decentralized player vendors are of one kind of game that has largely been sidelined by the easier-to-monetize diku-inspired models that eventually gave rise to EQ, WoW and then the *villes of Facebook.

    It’s because SWG and the like were *hard*. They were hard to grasp and hard to master, even aside from the quality or incompleteness of other parts of the game. It’s a LOT easier to understand login>hunt>kill>sell than it is to understand login>figure out what you want to do>figure out the underlying game system involved>figure out who else is doing it>be like them but better/different.

    Not of mass appeal. I know many folks still in the “if only they did X” camp for certain player-driven socioeconomic games, thinking some level of quality or polish would have given it mass appeal. I always respond: Eve. It is the perfect example of the concept. And also the size of the audience for one 🙂

  44. Gosh, Darniaq, where have you been hiding? 🙂

  45. I still miss SWG massively, and I quit in 2005 at the great “NGE Exodus”….

    On a different tangent, I am absolutely wide eyed in anticipation for Dust514. I can’t wait to see how the EVE economy is linked into an FPS ground war in the Killzone/Planetside style. We could be on the way to a player-made economy involving not only manufacture and design, but also logistics of getting crates of guns and tanks to the battlefield so PS3 players can try and win a war for you. It’s a major step up from the traditional commerce game of SWG, UO etc. Where the merchant has a vested interest in his customers success with his weapons. He could need the new resources that a ground war win will bring 🙂

  46. I was an avid SWG fan and stayed with it from launch to the end.

    One thing I noticed thinking back on all the changes that took place along the way was what my Mentor/Professor Thom Robertson told us: When you start out making an MMO, you (the developer) define the community that is built around your game by the features you include. After a certain point in time the community begins to dictate what direction your game is taking. You have 2 choices, keep it the same at the risk of losing lots of players($) or change it to meet the majority of the communities needs and keep them happy. A business decision is almost always made in favor($).

    So most likely the community drove the changes made that caused a lot of the player base to become disgruntled and leave (“NGE Exodus”) but in the end SOE was most likely trying to compete with the other MMOs and the majority of them had auction houses instead of individual vendors.

    Thinking back I can see a lot those points. In the beginning you had corpse runs and item decay, the community complained and it was removed. Everyone was trying to find the secret professions tied to each account needed to unlock your force sensitive slot, people complained it was too hard, they reworked the professions and everyone could be a Jedi. Everyone complained they wanted a network of vendors that so you could shop from any bazaar and see everything for sale on all the player vendors as well. So that was added as well. By doing that I saw a lot of my friends close up shop and either leave the game, change professions(but refused to be a Jedi), or become causal players with limited play time. Most of the shops on Bria and Starsider where run by elder crafters who had cornered the market either by quality or by sheer volume.

    I personally loved the way it was in the beginning including the advanced crafting system. To me the crafting in games today are pretty boring if they even exist. In SWG crafting and running a business could be your whole end game but today it seams if you don’t PvP then there are very few games out there for you to play. Everyone just wants to grind to max level and get all the uber gear as fast as possible which is pretty easy when you have an auction house. Then they complain there is no content.

    Sorry for the rambling, just my $0.02.

  47. I still think you can provide the login->kill->loot->sell game along with a localized economic sub game but the design for such a game is significantly more complex than SWG/UO/WoW and the financials far more risky because of that design.

    In WoW, lots of the “environment” that the players spend their time in has a decent amount of simulation behind it. Extend it, turn it over to the players and then build in mechanics to make sure that it stays within a certain boundary of acceptability. The diku player could log on, hunt, loot and sell to a dynamic flourishing economy instead of static vendors.

    Turn delivery into a mini game. Significantly up the importance of PvP, protecting transport of goods between local economies. Make materials flow through the economy fast enough that they always feel like a scarce resource. Deal with PvP via player driven governments and factions that are officially supported in game. It’s possible to create a centralized information system and still have local economies because the sheer volume of data coming through the centralized location creates arbitrage opportunities. You can’t grasp it all. Key though is making low level items mean something even after most of your player base is max level/skill/training/rep/insert ladder here.

    In the end, you have a class of players providing the backbone of the simulation for those that would prefer to beat up stuff and raid. Merchants need people to buy from them. People need merchant provided goods. Merchants need protection from player government. Player government needs players to keep the wilderness tame… Governments need merchants for income. Government income provides merchants protection in the form or armies/guards/walls/defenses which naturally leads to war games and all manners of enhanced gameplay.

    I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve looked back on what I tried to accomplish with AoA wishing that someone would create a Eve/UO in 3D. Archeage? Maybe? As long as the Korean leveling treadmill that was Lineage doesn’t take over the game. I’m skeptical. We’ll see if they can resist the urge to be like Mike.(WoW)

  48. The thing I miss most about SWG, while we’re waxing nostalgic, is the prospecting/resource gathering system. It ties back into the “convenience” argument, I guess; it’s a lot easier for casual players to go to a designated node, tap a key, and get a standardized resource. But you lose an opportunity to attain real skill mastery, and thus, an opportunity to have fun.

    The only prospecting system I’ve played that was as good or better in some respects was Project Entropia, and that had the serious drawback of being a wallet vacuum.

  49. I found Ultima Online’s vendors very inefficient. Players could spend hours trying to find items that they wanted and still come up empty. It’s one of the reasons players made alts to make items and forgo even using the vendor system. Later, I coded a tool to search a house’s vendors for items they wanted to buy on a house sign, but I never released it to the players. I regret not finishing that tool for them. The players would still have to browse, but not through 30 vendors sitting in the house.

    SWG’s vendors worked fine, but I considered the commodity interface much like an auction house (aside from travel time to get the item). The resource system caused the database to crash (out of memory), due to its use of a snowflake system rather than a reference system. Compared to an instant auction house, it did give the opportunity for players to visit new locations and explore another person’s decorations.

    Eve Online’s economy is arguably the best MMO economy available in the MMO space. It’s mostly player driven, has limited information, and is the primary game for many players. However, its fun is diminishing, due to the influx of more players and the marginalization of profits due to more competition. Eve Online’s higher population is killing the commodities game, unless their players enjoy etching out less than 1% profits. It certainly doesn’t have that personal feel of visiting someone’s location to pick up the item (starbases are quite impersonal). However, CCP has expressed a desire to make station vendors, once stations are opened up to avatars (most of the player base despises this idea and would prefer CCP focus on ships).

    WoW’s auction houses are different depending on the server player count. Some servers are heavily laden with goods from players. Some servers have extremely high prices, due to low supply/demand. I do know of players that purchase all items under a specific price and then repost them. There is a game to be played with the auction houses, but it is certainly marginalized by the player base’s size.

    I heartily agree with not locking items to players and making items breakable in a game. UO, SWG, and Eve are very good examples of item systems that work with those concepts. However, players in UO and SWG (I have not been a dev on Eve to check feedback from players) both complained about the item decay systems. WoW’s development team opted for an easier system for items, but offset that with item locking.

    I’d say that each game is situational for either an auction house or vendor system. However, you must have a system for scaling with your player base to make auction houses fun.

  50. Yukon, have you tried out A Tale in the Desert? After the initial tier (grass, wood, sand, mud, et. al.), resource gathering becomes a game unto itself.

    (God I’m late to this party.)

  51. I guess I never really understood the friction that item decay generated. It seems a perfectly logical assumption that “things break” and that the maintenence and upkeep of the items provided further ‘game in a game” style mechanic, while also giving the merchant class a reason to even exist. Today’s crafting systems seem to only be really useful in keeping one’s characters and alts geared up, which in itself limits the content that player bases are clamouring for.

    I don’t envy developers these days with thier need to cater to the instant gratification crowd. But at the same time, when you try to build the game “they” want rather than the one “you” want ..these are the shackles you craft for yourself.

  52. Maybe the next new feature that should be created for games should be in game npc “poll takers” who survey those players who just play and don’t bother visiting forums. This would get the opinions of the actual player base and not just those of the vocal minority who call themselves the player base.

    my apologies ..pressed submit on previous post before adding this part 😉

  53. Greydog, I sort of understand the pushback against item wear from a player perspective. People get attached to objects (even virtual objects) for any number of reasons; sentimentality, aesthetics, luck, or miserly greed, among others).

    One of the most coveted items in Ultima Online is a “blessing” deed that negates item wear and binds an object so you don’t drop it upon death. I burned one of these rare and valuable items to secure my hat — an unremarkable, mundane broad-brimmed hat that was my nonetheless my character’s trademark. I could buy (or make) another identical hat anywhere, but it wouldn’t be MY hat.

    In a system with item wear, I think you need some way to preserve heirlooms. Pulling craftsmen back into the process to maintain an heirloom is a good idea — UO has a restorative powder that reversed item wear, but you can only obtain it through the bulk deed system, so it’s a marketable commodity for blacksmiths.

    Michael, ATitD has been on my bucket list for some time now. Unfortunately, it’s a huge bucket.

  54. Yukon, yeah, and it was fairly common to hear someone talk about their horse that they had kept alive. It’s not the item, it’s the idea, the game play effort, the “thing I did”. It’s more game play that’s lost because of convenience.

  55. As I recall, there was only a limited period in SWG when item decay affected clothing. As a tailor I thought it was a huge pain in the ass. Aside from now having to make and keep repair kits, it was a pain to have people constantly sending /tells about could I repair, or showing up when I was trying to help someone with an order for clothes.

  56. […] house, and widely considered one of the best games for crafters. Coincidence? Not according to Raph Koster, the lead designer (emphasis from the original): Fundamentally, though, the biggest difference has to do with the […]

  57. […] But that’s not what we’re hearing.  Instead we’re hearing things like auction houses remove player interaction, player vendors are simply a better way to do things, and the price reducing aspect of information richness causes auction houses only benefit buyers. […]

  58. […] The range of professions and how the economy hung together (or not). […]

  59. […] Reflection on a blog post by Raph Koster: “Do auction houses suck?” […]

  60. mu2zen

    How do I choose the game

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