Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Avoiding the “Out of Gold” Trap

Your basic video game economy is a collection of sources, which effectively print money,
and sinks which destroy it. Multiplayer games will have some circulating currency but it is the rate of the sources vs. rate of the sinks that determine if the game economy is inflating or deflating.  Now, take WoW for example: if a player’s sword breaks and the player is unable to afford to repair it then the player is stuck unless another player gives some. So, how do we avoid this?

First, lets look at a players spending and how it leads to being stuck.  Purchases come in two categories: needs and wants. A need is something the player has no choice but to spend money on it. If the player is out of cash, then they are stuck. A want is what motivates the player to keep earning cash. Unfortunately, just like in the real world, players with low future-time orientation will spend themselves into the poorhouse at first opportunity by buying every want is it presents itself. It is bad for society and bad for your game because players with an in game spending problem probably also has a real-world spending problem and you want them spending on your masterpiece instead of the latest turd from Zynga.

So how do we get rid of the “out of gold” trap? We redesign to eliminate need spending. For WoW Classic (the only version of WoW I’m an expert on), this means changes to armor repairs and the food and drink system plus free abilities and free basic mounts (say, via quest).  Only the first two affect gameplay in any way and they are easy things to fix.  Armor damage serves as a death penalty so either switch to free slowly regenerating armor or a system of stacking weakness counters. The purpose of the food and drink system seems to be a pacing mechanism. If you fight more enemies simultaneously, which helps you kill stuff faster, you will require more food and drink, which will slow you back down again.  Replacing this with a simple rest ability keeps the game in balance. The Economy, on the other hand, is going to need some work.

Without all the basic need sinks the game will have massive inflation, which is bad for new players who’s earnings are limited by in-game sources that aren’t inflation adjusted. Which means increasing the in-game sinks. An increase auction house fees would work, but people will switch to trade chat in response so there is an upper bound to how much you can raise it. Increasing enchantment prices is a subtle way of making wants more expensive; when people impulse buy new equipment they will then have to buy new enchantments, which sinks even more gold.  To tax end game players, who are the biggest sources of excess gold, increase the cost of the existing system of expensive battle flasks, which high-end content requires. Alternatively, you could add spiral knights style dungeon keys, which are single use, expensive, and the only way to get some of the best gear.

Ultimately, the “out of gold” trap is a relic of older game systems. By simply repurposing gold as a reward mechanism instead of a generic currency, players can enjoy all the benefits of a gold-based system without the risk of getting stuck. Besides, who ever decided that players worrying about how they are going to pay for food is a good mechanic anyway? Video games are about escapism, right?