HOWTO: Build A Game Economy

It’s easy to criticise – or so they say. Actually, criticism, at least good criticism, can be hard work. But it’s true – often in the MMO field we point out stuff that’s wrong, but less often do we come up with really comprehensive ideas to fix the problem.

That’s why I found Brian “Psychochild” Green’s lengthy essay on the subject of in-game economy building so fascinating. Starting from his criticisms of Guild Wars 2’s economic model, he writes an A-Z of economic design, talking about everything from scarcity – why it matters and how to create it – to the very goal of having an in-game economy at all

“Obviously you have two primary elements in a game: currency and items. If your game uses a typical faucet/sink system, then the game will create a supply of items and currency for the players to use. (So few games use closed economic systems that I’m not going to go into much detail here. Needless to say you should read up on the original resource design for Ulima Online and how it evolved if you want to consider closed systems.)

As I said in the last post, economics is really the study of scarcity. This is one of the tools in a game designer’s toolbox for creating a fun economy. Note that scarcity doesn’t only relate to how common an item is in the entire game. You can have scarcity of an item in a particular location, assuming there’s some cost to transport items; we see this in EVE Online, where shipping is a risky task, and buying items cheap in one area and selling them for a profit in another area of higher demand is a valid playstyle.

Another measure is usefulness. For currency, the usefulness is measured in how useful the currency is for interacting with NPCs, or any other system that effectively takes money out of the economy. For example, money will always have some measure of usefulness in Guild Wars 2 as long as you can convert gold to gems to buy stuff in the cash shop. For items, the usefulness tend to relate to gameplay aspects: a +4 sword is going to be more useful to an a +3 sword. A snag here is that usefulness can change based on other circumstances, such as your level in a level-based game. At low levels a +1 to a stat might be a big increase, at mid levels, it might be an insignificant change, but at high levels in competitive areas like raiding or PvP some people would knife their own mothers for another +1 even though that bonus is probably vanishingly small; but any advantage is an advantage compared to other people. Therefore, player behavior is a vital factor in determining usefulness. ”

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What do you think? Is there more to a game economy? Is GW2’s economy actually fine?