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Game Design In Theory

Player-Driven Economies

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Player-driven economies are all the rage.

This has been the case for a while, though. Puzzle Pirates is the earliest game I can think of that did it, though I suspect Ultima Online had some degree of player-driven economics in it. Supposedly Final Fantasy 12 had a player-driven economy, which led to memes about the price of a potion.

This leads into a key detail: When we talk about “player-driven economies”, we’re not just talking about having an items market. The difference between World of Warcraft and Albion Online–among other things–is that in Albion, almost every item you buy is made or found by a player. The only things in Albion Online that are sold by NPCs are your starting tools, and even those aren’t so much “sold” as they are crafted, with an NPC’s help and materials you gathered on your own (with the exception of your very first pickaxe, which is given by a quest-giver).

This has wide-ranging implications on the game, for better or worse. The dream is that the players can take part in a vibrant, flexible and ever-changing world, where it’s equally viable to be a swordsman or a farmer, and you can carve out a niche wherever and however you want. Unfortunately, there’s several failure modes of player-driven economies. Real-world economics is hard. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about accidentally starving our virtual population, or else it’d be even harder.

Hunting To Extinction

This is maybe one of the more famous things about Ultima Online: They tried to simulate a real ecosystem. This isn’t quite what you’d call economics, but it does tie into the economy of a game where slaying goblins is a viable career path, which is why it was incredibly troubling that goblins were immediately hunted to extinction.

This is the first and most obvious failure mode of a game economy: an off-balance set of incentives that leads to players over-using and depleting a resource. The solution in UO’s case was to make goblins respawn infinitely. As nice as it sounds to have a 100% realistic supply-chain and a living world, building a game around a living world implies the ability to kill that world. Perfectly fine for a single-player game, of course, but in an MMO you don’t want the early players literally ending the game before your post-launch players start.


This is the other major failure mode of a game economy, and it’s best exemplified by EVE Online and Elite: Dangerous.

The thing about EVE, see, is that it has all this base-building stuff and the ability to own entire space stations, and destroy other people’s space stations with your giant space battleships, and so on–but, uh, that usually doesn’t happen. The one major conflict I can remember in EVE Online was sparked by a total accident, in which a capital ship warped into entirely the wrong part of the galaxy. Outside of incidents like that, open war in EVE is vanishingly rare.

But the point of the game is intergalactic corporate warfare, right? So why doesn’t anybody fight? Because it’s not profitable. The cost of repairing your ships after you’ve won a battle is prohibitively expensive, especially for the really large ships–and if you lose that ship, that value can be counted (famously) in millions of real-world US Dollars. The gains, meanwhile? Not really that big a deal. Why spend money on conquest when you can simply build up your own industry? Hell, why spend money? You can just keep running mining missions. You can sit on your riches and get richer, which is just a thing that happens if you don’t specifically try to counter it in your economic system design.

A similar thing happens in Elite. Most players don’t play as bounty hunters. Hell, most players don’t even play as pirates, and the ones who do often complain that they never actually get to steal anything. The more profitable enterprise by far is mining, because mining is almost entirely risk-free; even piracy has been reduced to a formulaic escape method, boiled down to a simple three-step process: 1) turn, 2) burn, 3) activate your jump drive while your attacker is turning around, after they recklessly afterburner’d past you under the assumption that you’d run directly away from them.

And this is boring. Well, more accurately, it’s a very specific kind of planning/optimizing fun that delivers on only one part of the promised experience. Both Elite and EVE offer the fantasy of choosing your destiny, whether that be lawful or lawless, and if crime simply doesn’t pay, then you aren’t really offering that part of the choice.

Of course, the opposite problem also applies: if crime does pay, and pays more than honest work, then your thieves will soon have nothing to steal. Balancing the power of investment against the power of the gun is hard.

A Proposal

But what if there was a tool that MMO designers aren’t using to its full extent–something that would let them take a stagnant economy and upend it, without necessarily making that disaster permanent?

What if I told you that this was a tool that has already been used?

Events and seasonal content are nothing new for MMOs; whether it be a christmas-themed set of quests and gear for the holidays, or a special story event with accompanying raid boss, MMOs have had major story and gameplay events that go away after a bit for decades. But these could be taken to a new height.

Imagine, if you will, a player-driven economy MMO–perhaps something like EVE. And imagine, for a moment, that out of nowhere, an NPC faction starts offering twice the market rate for certain materials–maybe something that just isn’t considered profitable, or something that has significant upfront investment to start making–or better yet, it’s an item that is assumed to be incredibly common. This dramatically changes the market–suddenly everyone wants to sell to that NPC. Players who don’t have a manufacturing setup for this material are now incentivized to go build one–or to go find one, if you catch my drift. Maybe this NPC has a no-questions-asked policy, and normal shops won’t buy stolen goods. Maybe this NPC even specifically tells you he’s more than happy to receive stolen goods.

Another angle you could take is working with quests–with NPCs putting out hits on player characters. If you’re the head of a major guild, you might receive a shadowy message informing you of some massive reward to be had if you can destroy a certain amount of another guild’s ships.

Finally, part of the calculus here is risk–and what mitigations there are for that risk. Maybe mining is profitable, but only when you don’t take the cost of workplace accidents into account. Maybe piracy is hard to make a living at–until you build your own shipyard, and suddenly repairs are nearly free, with the materials coming out of your foes’ wreckage. Players are risk-averse, especially with large investments; give them a risk-free option, and they’ll always take it, making that stagnation even worse.

If you run out of ideas, you can always take inspiration from real-life disasters.

Update: 2021-09-28

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