MMO Economies – Finding Balance

Previous posts in the series dealt with taps and sinks.  This one will go over the balance requirements to keep an economy stable and useful.  I realize that this is next to impossible to achieve over time, in that inflation is always an issue, but hopefully games can avoid hyper-inflation or a barter-only system due to poor economy.


Your typical MMO has crafting and that’s supported through harvesting activities.  Many of these systems provide a linear scale of quality for components, where after a certain point the material has no further use.  This is often parallel to actual content (e.g. dungeons).  It’s a problem during the life of a game and exacerbated after an expansion.  You’ve just invalidated and entire stream of content and material and killed a potential market.  I’ll use mining as an example.  You’ll find bronze, iron, steel, and mithril – increasing in quality and level.  The downside is that once you’re able to craft mithril items, bronze has absolutely no value.  Iron and Steel are just as bad.  In a 4 tier system this is 75% of the content. In a 10 tier system, you’re at 90%.

Complex crafting systems use all material at all times.  EvE is a good example where even the low level materials are still useful for refinement in other components.  Sure, there’s a bit less value due to sheer volume of low level items, there’s still a market.  A system might trade 1,000,000 bronze and only 10 mithril but both are trading.

Item Levels

Making the former issue worse is item levels and redundant crafting.  Every patch increases the available power to players but rarely does anything for crafting.  So while at launch the top tier crafting is about 5% lower than raid gear, by patch 2, you’re looking at 25%.  Having the ability to perhaps upgrade previously crafted gear would be a huge bonus, to close the gap somewhat.  This ensures items are always relevant and always part of the economy.

Item Loss

This is a bit tough for systems to integrate if they don’t do the first 2 things above.  If item acquisition is extremely restrictive, where there is only one path (typically raiding) then item loss cannot work.  PvP games, or sandbox games allow for multiple paths for gear acquisition so that item loss isn’t so drastic.  If you died in UO and lost some gear, you could always find a crafter/vendor and re-equip at about 90% of the power you had before.    Similar to EvE where ship loss is common.  Losing items means an exchange of gold (or other currency) is required to replace that item.  There’s typically an AH tax or a vendor upkeep tax on that transaction.  For a typical themepark MMO to include item loss, it requires an extremely robust item exchange service below it.

Stuff the tap and open the sink

In design planning, there are set sinks along the path of progress.  These are usually linked to training costs, travel costs and equipment costs.  The first is easy to calculate, heck in some places it’s nothing.  The second is a bit harder but in most linear games it’s easy enough.  If the game is open, say as GW2 is trying for, or TESO appears to lean, then costs can get a bit higher.  Mounts factor into this.  Equipment costs are much different if there’s no item loss.  In a themepark that just throws out items continuously, repairs are meaningless as is item cost.  In a controlled item environment, say like FF14, repairs are expensive and item acquisition is only available through crafting/dungeons.  Depending on the estimated costs for leveling (a sink) you can estimate the actual requirements for the taps.  If you need 100g from 1-20 but the basic taps are giving you 500g, then there’s going to be a massive problem.

This gets worse at max level where items cannot be traded.   Neverwinter straddles this line with top gear being tradeable if it hasn’t been equipped.   Item loss isn’t possible but there’s a larger money sink (by players skipping time) to move up the ranks.

Trading done wrong

Diablo 3 is a perfect example of a broken economy, even though it’s not really an MMO.  It’s so broken that they are going to pull out the heart of it in a few weeks.   From 1-60 the cost was nothing.  From 60+, if you were farming inferno and dying, then the costs were based on repair.  It was a binary system of progress, where content was gated upon stats.  For example, you could clear Act 1 rather easily but Act 2 was impossible for some.  This meant that you farmed Act 1 until your gear level increased and amassed hundreds of thousands (or millions) of gold.  Since the gear that dropped was so poor, you HAD to use the auction house to progress.   Gems and recipes were useful for everyone so a “commodity” market exploded to support it, regardless of level. You ended up with a choice.  Either play a few dozen hours and make no progress or spend the same amount of time “playing” the auction house and doubling/tripling your power in order to progress.

Trading done well

Similar to D3, Path of Exile has a complex crafting/trading system based on bartering.  There is no gold.  You have all sorts of modules that can increase the stats on an item and there’s no baseline for trading.  3 orbs of transmute are the same as 50 identification scrolls as 1 orb of alteration.  It’s hard to keep track of it all and the result is that if you want to trade, you need to be educated.   It makes for a system of interesting trades with no floor or ceiling.

Moving forward

We’re in a spot now where we can look back and see at what worked and what did not and hopefully avoid future problems.  Clearly there are core design issues that need to be addressed – it’s not a simple fix after a few months.  Items drops, crafting, item binding, travel costs, vanity items, repair costs, gating and dozens of other sub systems all need to work together.  Beta metrics are usually pretty good on this front, in that you can measure income and expenditures and make holistic changes across the board.  The more knobs you have to play with, the easier those changes can be.  The end result is that games today need more sinks to combat the ever increasing taps.

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