WildStar's Economic Game
By Charles Durham - May 31, 2013
What is “economy?” Simply put, it is the management of resources. Economics is therefore the study of how resources are distributed. In order to build an economic plan for an online game, we need to determine what the resources are, where they come from, and who gets them.
However, online games like WildStar come with an extra resource distribution problem that we don’t find in the real world: the only natural way for resources to leave the game is for players to leave the game, which is something we actively work against with every design decision we make! Therefore we have to include in our plans various ways to rob… er, creatively redistribute… resources that players earn in the game.
You may ask, “But why are you trying to take my stuff back?!” Well, there are two answers: an obvious one and a not-so-obvious one.
The obvious answer is inflation. Inflation is basically when your money (the trade medium) buys you less stuff over time. Not only is it rough on an active player, it can be a total deal-breaker to players who may want to return to a game after taking a break.
By way of illustration, let us imagine that you are your great (for some of you, great-great) grandparents. You save $240 for a brand new Model-T, but then you are cryogenically frozen for a hundred years because you forgot to pay your subscription fee. When you are unfrozen a century later, you find that the $240 you worked so hard to save up can now barely buy a single tire. You can see how this would be very upsetting and you may wonder why you even bothered playing “life” again.
“Wow, that’s no good!” you might say, and you’d be right. Just as in real-life, inflation is a problem faced by online worlds. “But, where does inflation in online games come from?” you might wonder. In the case of online games, inflation happens because games create money out of nothing, unlike banks which create money as an abstraction of production and debt. “Create money out of thin air? That’s crazy!” At first glance, this is somewhat true, but it is okay. The reason why we continue to do it this way, and have these kinds of inflation problems in our online games, is because of Dungeons & Dragons.
Wait. What? Dungeons & Dragons? What does Dungeons & Dragons have to do with anything?
D&D is the great old grand-daddy of all role-playing games. You see its influence in every role-playing game there is, including WildStar. In D&D, you basically killed things and took their stuff. Often, there would be treasure lying about in some musty dungeon just waiting for the
mass-murderer adventurer to liberate it by excessive violence. Ever since then, we players have come to expect bags of currency (the trade medium) to fly out of anything we hit with a sword like some sort of piñata. And, while this is kind of strange, it’s also a lot of fun! I like piñatas; you do too.
So, one challenge we face in creating online economies is preserving this fun experience while preventing the loot piñata from ruining everyone’s fun when everything costs an astronomical sum of money. And that, basically, is one of the two reasons why we try to take back some of the stuff given out.
“So what is the other reason you mentioned?” I’m glad you asked!
Buying stuff is fun, or at least it can be depending upon what you are shopping for. But what is fun? Raph Koster, a well-known MMO designer, has written about the concept of fun at length in a book called A Theory of Fun for Game Design, which is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with everything in it. In the book, he explains that fun is a byproduct of learning and mastering something, which makes a lot of sense.
Basically, we as designers already know that earning resources is a fun experience. However, because we need to tame inflation, we must also find a way to make using resources fun. Our goal is to turn the use and reacquisition of resources (especially currency) into a way fun and interesting way to learn about economics. We want the players to learn about resource management by making meaningful choices about things they have earned in the game.
And we really do want you to make meaningful choices. We want to give you enough currency that you can have some of things that you want, but not everything. You will need to make choices about how you spend your money according to what is important to you. You will need to plan to purchase things by saving or through the magic of capitalism and the markets. When you master saving your money, or master using the markets to fulfill other people’s desires, you will have had fun in the process because you’ve learned.
We also want to make sure that when you have to make a choice, it is based on what you, the player, feels is most important. Therefore, the choices cannot be too obvious or too enmeshed in critical needs. For example, in the real world there really isn’t much choice between eating and buying a box of Magic: The Gathering cards (unless you are me in 1994). Item repair, for example, doesn’t offer much in the way of choice, so it shouldn’t be an impactful, painful thing. We will get into this particular money sink later, but it is a very handy and fair money sink to have.
An optional money sink is something like housing or in-place resurrection. You don’t need a house in order to get to the end game, nor do you need to resurrect in the same spot. Careful budgeting and creative use of the auction system are skills that will get you better housing items and let you resurrect in place more often. Making these things so cheap that everyone can do them also robs you of the chance to have fun learning to manage money, so they cost more.
So, to sum up, the second reason why we want to take back your stuff is because that facilitates the creation of fun through learning about and mastery of the economy.
We have several ways for adventurers to forcefully reallocate resources in the game:
Monster Killin’ – The cornerstone of science-fiction and fantasy RPGs is the wholesale slaughter of monsters and taking their stuff. This stuff is in the form of money, junk loot, and the “good” stuff. For our purposes, we can also call this “money”, “stuff that will become money imminently”, and “money sinks disguised as good stuff”
Not Monster Killin’ – These are your quests, challenges, adventures, dungeons, and the like. Players tend to not like to get “junk” for this stuff, so instead we give them money and “the good stuff.” Sometimes they get junk disguised as the “good” stuff (that’s a secret, don’t tell anyone).
Free Stuff – This stuff is just lying around waiting for someone to pick it up (discoveries and gathering trade skills). Discoveries only exist because they are fun. Gathering exists because it is advanced fun.
In a perfect world, none of these fonts would give out money. You would have to find a buyer for everything you find and exchange it to another player for an I.O.U. called “money”. We don’t do that because, again, it’s not fun. It’s a science-fiction game, and one of the fantasies it supports is getting richer as you get better at the game. Thanks, Gary and Dave! Aw heck, while we are at it we can blame John, too, for the dwarvish hoard under Erebor that started this whole idea of free money just sitting around waiting to be grabbed in the first place.
So now that we are printing money like crazy so that the players can feel like they are getting richer, how do we get it back? As you know, we find all sorts of ways to steal it back from you. In the process, we literally try to make paying taxes fun. This task is impossible, but game designers are also a little bit insane.
I read a blog post recently where people were discussing resource sinks and whether or not they were necessary. They are, because without them inflation would kill trading and we would then lose a convenient way of acquiring items. Also, for WildStar, we depend upon player trading for creating a complete gear makeup for their characters.
Repair and Training – Repairing your items is a basic resource sink. It is a good one because it scales with a character’s income level. As you get more expensive gear and gain access to bigger piles of treasure, your cost to maintain the gear also increases. When I mentioned the “good” stuff being a disguised money sink, this is what I was talking about. Training is another scaling money sink, which is why we use it. These types of expenses work quite well as a resource drain and free up some economic space for us to do more fun things. Most importantly, these types of drains are very fair, because they increase as your ability to pay increases.
Trading Fees / Taxes – Our “good” stuff is even a money sink when it isn’t being used. When you put items up for trade, we take a small portion of the trade. When the seller creates money on the auction house, that money is just coming from another player. The aggregate total held by all players on the server is actually reduced by the amount of the fee, for every transaction. The only way the “good” item actually generates money in the economy is when it is sold to a vendor. All other times it is stagnant or a money sink.
Barefaced Money Grab – Some stuff is so awesome that it is hard to imagine being an adventurer without it. These are mounts, mansions, or other things that make others say “You ever take it off any sweet jumps?” These are adjustment points in a player’s expected money pool. We expect players to learn to plan for these life events. If you don’t plan, well, there is always the auction house, or just having to save up for them after everyone else has theirs.
Optional Expenses – These are things that are optional. We consider this to be “money play” – the decision-making game play with currency. These are things like: resurrection in place, quick travel, item salvaging, and item selling rates. The player gets to make these decisions based upon their resources on hand, and what they expect to spend money on in the near future.
Planning for the Future
Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, said in On Strategy that “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.”
A better way to put Moltke’s words, for our purposes, might be to say that “no design survives first contact with the real world.” This economic plan is no different. It will have to adapt after we release the game and as we introduce new content. Naturally, players will expect bigger rewards with the new things to do that are just now on the horizon, and with them will come even more expensive things. This is all a balancing act meant to regulate the supply of currency available to everyone for trading. This is the real purpose of gold. The money sinks we put in place have to match the amount of currency that the game generates almost exactly. Almost. There still needs to be a little bit extra left over for trading, but how much?
The amount of money left over for use in trading is a fluctuating value, but the goal is to have it remain consistent with the aggregate amount of gameplay time invested by all of the players on a given server. For example, we could say that one hour of “played” time should translate into an imaginary currency unit called a “Bull.” If we add up the number of Bulls on a server, then it should have roughly the same amount of played time on active characters. If we have considerably fewer Bulls than we expect, then we are charging too much for the money sinks. If we have considerably more, then we are giving away too much stuff or have an exploit.
I hope this brief overview of WildStar’s economy has been entertaining. We hope to give the players plenty of things to do with the currency you find, and have a good time spending it, hoarding it, or swindling it from each other. Thank you for your time!