Been a busy few weeks and I’ve not been blogging nearly enough. Couple the busy schedule and a bit of the nothing-thats-new-or-expected-soon doldrums and you have a recipe for non-bloggage.
A number of recent posts have touched on a few aspects of MMOs which I inevitably see linked to some of the challenges of better world design. The challenge for me is to actually not get sucked into an ever expanding analysis of every aspect of an MMO that these idea touch on, but its hard. I’m sure if someone were to take the time to scour the MMOGosphere, they could come up with a really good comprehensive list of Improvements That Would Make the Virtual World Better.
But until they do, we blog and we blog. Onward.
Tobold had a recent post on Auction Houses that provoked me to revive a number of half started articles I’ve never gotten around to posting. My problem is that anytime I start something about improving game auction mechanics I get sucked into an internal discussion of The Economy. Being a former student of the dismal science, this should be understandable. The mere thought of these things generally evokes painful memories of intersecting blue lines and red lines and phrases like “pareto-optimality” *shudders*.
Most auction discussions focus, rightly so, on the challenges of creating the illusion of an efficient market. The idea of a auction mechanism whereby individual players can post items and “let the market” determined their true value through a competitive bidding process sounds good. I say “illusion” because the devil lies in the artificial constraints or rules placed on the market exchange mechanism. Constraints create distortions and distortions can create less than “efficient” outcomes.
Anyone who’s been sniped on eBay knows exactly what sort of distortions I’m talking about. Time eventually runs out and the highest bidder wins often with a high degree of gameplay and maneuvering in the last moments. Unfortunately, the notion of a limited time auction in an of itself creates the biggest constraint of all. Competitive bidding will result in an efficient market clearing price for the demand present for the item during the duration of the auction which may be significantly more or less that at other times when supply or demand may be wildly different.
Anyone who’s spent any time at all in a game like WoW with a sizable population understands how the world population balloons like a sea side resort town in the summer time on the weekends and evenings when more players are actually logged on and playing. Concentrated play around the weekends creates a surge in demand for consumables around those times with resulting effects. A surge in play time also means that more drops come into players hands and flood the market.
Concentrated play time often means that players will be unwilling to wait for an auction to resolve itself and instead opt for the immediate “buy now” price (if there is one) for the item. A buy now price of course has the effect of terminating an auction “early”. Unless you’re really disciplined and are obsessive about getting the best price on things, most players just simply need x quantity of y potions or scrolls and want to get on with raiding or questing. They don’t want to wait around for an auction to expire and see if they won a simply commodity item needed for ordinary play.
A couple of effects: the buy now option results in creating a pretty significant disparity in market information: sellers know who is selling and what their buy price is, but can’t really get any information on the demand side since there is no bidding activity to monitor. Is the lack of items below a 10G buy price because they all sold at that price (or maybe all sold at 1G and the 10G seller is crazy) or because no one is interested in these items at all and sellers haven’t plumbed the depths of the market far enough to find a price that moves buyers to action? Sellers end up “competing” with themselves in a vacuum.
Seems to me that saleable items (more on that can of worms in a minute) fall generally into three general categories: commodity items like crafting resources, useful but fairly abundant items (most green items in WoW) and truly scarce items (rare components, BoE blues and purples, etc.). Each of these faces a fundamentally different market.
Commodity items are not particularly hard to come by and are in relative abundance. Vast quantities of copper ore may take a while to harvest, but any miner with some time and inclination can obtain it. Of the three, commodity items seems most amenable to some structural fixes.
Remember that the “buy now” feature of auctions is for the convenience of the buyer (otherwise they’d call it “sell now”…;)). An auction posting is in effect an escrowed order to sell based upon specified terms (e.g., minimum bid, buy out). What the vast majority of MMO auction systems lack is the buy-side equivalent and the market information that goes along with it– purchase orders. A purchase order would act in effect as a buyer’s agent and buy off the market until your order is filled or maybe some reasonable expiration date like a few days or a week out.
Here’s how it would work: visit an NPC that acts as a buying agent (could be the current auction masters or another) and place your order such as 100 copper bars for a maximum amount of 100sp. The agent would take the maximum amount of money required to fulfill the order plus a fee and go to work. The agent would then purchase off the market until your order is fulfilled. Maybe its 10 listings or 1, maybe prices varied from 50cp per bar up to 2sp for some. All you care about is that you get 100 copper bars for no more than an average price of 1sp each. The agent could simply have each purchase forwarded by in-game mail.
At any point in time, players could see what ORDERS where in the market for commodities and actually go adventuring to fill those making resource collection a game in itself for all players, not just farmers or commodities players. Current “Bid” and “Ask” prices would be available to players providing the necessary economic feedback to make more rationale decisions.
A purchase order system is still one step short of what I consider a better overall system for more commodity type items that actually have enough supply and demand to create a meaningful market (as opposed to very rare epic BoEs that might show up only occasionally and fetch wild prices). The unattended auction system is still only a proxy for the creation of a real time market.
A better system IMHO for commodity items would be an NPC that acts as a market maker. The NPC is an independent market actor buying and selling commodity items in the market at a calculated average market clearing price which would move overtime as overall supply and demand fluctuated (i.e., fluctuating bid and ask prices). Sellers could sell to the resource broker now at the current market price for a small fee and take away cash in hand.
The resource broker would then resell the commodities into the market. The resource broker would be a source of liquidity rather than a source of the commodities themselves. Players would still be the only source of harvestable commodities and resource buy prices would be a function of the prices that the commodity was selling for. If it worked reasonably well, there would be little opportunity for arbitrage as the market that the broker creates would respond to fluctuations in supply and demand. Depending on the amount of liquidity the broker could provide to the market, quite a few of the hills and valleys of supply and demand could be bridged (i.e., Wednesday prices start to look more like Saturday prices for common items).
Seems that a player order system might be easier to implement but conceptually more difficult for more players to grasp whereas the resource broker would be more difficult to design (if it were to interact with a wider game economy as opposed to creating an exclusive resource only market) but probably conceptually easier for players to understand. I go out into the wild world, harvest commodities, and when I get to town, I sell them to someone who actually gives me a fair price (as opposed to rock bottom “vendor” prices which don’t move with the market).
Other Market Categories
As I mentioned, these sort of improvements probably works best for commodity items that are largely fungible and readily available. With the wide variety of itemization in most MMOs, a resource broker concept for items other than true resource commodities like ore, herbs, gems or even more commodity-like player manufactured goods like potions or other crafted items probably doesn’t work. There is probably too little market information to create a meaningful market for a level 25 Zugzug’s Chainmail Hauberk of Moderate Goodness when a level 24 Shining Gleaming Chestplate of Wonderous Leetness is a very close substitute. For that, the current auction system does a decent job of providing information on effectively substitute goods.
Likewise, for extremely rare items, an auction is still probably the best opportunity to redistribute these items. Sotheby’s exists for a reason, but notice that Sotheby’s doesn’t deal in commodities. A completely different global exchange market has evolved for those items. That kind of market just doesn’t exist for a one of a kind Picasso or Vermeer.
Take Out the Trash and Get a Job
A few final game economy thoughts while I’m at it. Lets get rid of all vendor trash. Not a new idea, but with each new game that continues this ridiculous tradition, I get more and more sick of the routine. Either an item has an economic use in the game or its complete trash, so why have it? If the Lord of Goodtown has an orc problem, then set a bounty on orc-heads and let us go a-hunting. Yes, in this case, I’m pro kill ten rats. If there’s a plot driven reason for it, then so be it. Newbs need jobs in the world to make coin. At least bounty hunting is rational. Let me gain reputation in service of the Lord of Goodtown (which has to have meaning) rather than selling Foozle gizzards and toe nails to any vendor in the universe. Vendor trash is just crap and a cheesy cop out by devs. Kendricke has a good rant on this here and I’ve mentioned it before in other contexts too, here and here.
Vendor trash is a poor attempt to put some coin in the pocket of the average player. If we were to roll up a new toon and drop into a world as a complete fresh newb (or for you RPs, left your village and family which was killed horribly and burned by orcs to find your fortune and revenge in the big city), we would have to either beg or sell the only commodity we had in abundance: our labor. Vendor trash only serves to deflate the value of every other economically useful item in the game.
Let the newbs earn coin for service to the King defending the realm, or service to the armorsmith who needs commodities or whomever. Eve does a great job of this with their player driven economy and mission system. Don’t want to mine asteroids? Talk to a mission agent who will have something for you to do to earn your keep. As you gain their trust and demonstrate your worth, you are rewarded with more complex, dangerous and financially (and socially) rewarding missions.
Old dev habits die hard, but they’ve got to change some day right? Until then, I’ll keep banging the drum.