Too Similar and Too Many
Commodity and Saturation Problems with Gear in MMO’s
In the first companion piece, I outlined market efficiency problems in MMORPG’s. This is a response to recent announcements calling for player driven economies (good) along with abandonment of auction houses (bad). My premise there is that removal of auction houses adds an information asymmetry to your MMO economy and that is really never a good idea. Auction houses didn’t create a problem in MMO’s, auction houses illuminated a pre-existing problem and auction houses are now erroneously catching the blame for those problems.
My position is that the blame the auction house crowd fall victim to a few fallacies. First, that auction houses decrease socialization in economic transactions. This is a sweeping over-generalization, some bargaining and haggling very much occurs in an auction house model and paying attention to where and what would be prudent. The second fallacy is the idea that auction houses harm the smaller merchants due to the inflexibility of supply and demand.
[Note: both Raph Koster and Kruunch have some very well reasoned disagreements with me, you can find these in the comments to the first companion post]
The thing is, we have an abundance of research on real business transactions that fairly explicitly demonstrate that both of these conclusions are wrong. A body of business strategy research, called the Resource Based View (RBV), tells us an awful lot on how a firm can thrive in information efficient markets.
Business thrives when it produces goods that are valuable, rare, inimitable and non-substitutable (see above link for a quick definition of each, I’m using Wikipedia here because most of the good stuff on this topic will be behind paywalls). When you achieve these positions, you enjoy a differentiated market position and can earn above average profits. When these things have been violated, you are looking at more efficient markets and in these situations cost focus more than anything else determines business validity.
I concluded my last column observing that MMO’s do, indeed have two economic problems. They have problems with commoditization and saturation. In this piece, I will talk about each of these problems. Once I have done that, I’ll address the necessary tension between your crafting and adventuring system and offer some thoughts on successfully balancing that tension.
Commoditization – everything is too similar
But the quest item has a much happier prefix than the loot drop…
So, you might be thinking, “hey wait, there are swords, bows, daggers, staffs and other weapons in my MMO. If that isn’t variety, what is?” The thing is, though, that all of these items boil down to two variables that matter, item level and the +gooder stat. For simplicities sake, I’m going to focus on melee weapons in this discussion, but the general point I will make applies to every item in the database of pretty much every theme park MMO built after 2004.
Item level determines everything in the modern, theme park MMO. The higher the item level, usually segmented hierarchically by some quality level, determines the primary damage of the item. Additionally, the item level also determines the amount of the +gooder stat you will find. A level 20 item is better than a level 10 item, there are few to no exceptions.
The +gooder stat is a throw-back to the RPG origins of the MMO market. Every weapon features a specific +gooder stat and that +gooder stat is uniquely suited to a single class. It used to be that multiple attributes mattered to every class (e.g. Anarchy Online), these days though it’s been simplified.
Fighters need strength, rogues need dex, mages need intelligence and priests need wisdom. Heck, you might as well remove attributes names altogether and just refer to it as the damage bonus stat. In the modern MMO, the bonus stat’s only purpose is to segment warrior swords from rogue swords (or other class separations).
Woot, Upgrade, Rolling NEED!
All of this is nicely sterilized in a linear model with incremental improvements, turning gearing into a series of loot treadmills. You don’t really make decisions, you just look for more of a stat. If it’s +gooder, it’s +better. I’m using the term “gooder” here deliberately because this system simplifies gearing so much that there are no trade-offs and the only cognitive skill required is one you internalized around age 7 (greater than, less than). Additionally, the systems are designed so this gear is completely disposable. You will wear it for a few hours, then destroy it or vendor NPC it.
The thing is, when a product is not differentiated in any meaningful way from another product, we think of it as commoditized. Commodity products inherently violate the inimitability and non-substitutability aspects of specialized competition. Since everything is mostly the same, the only variable that matters is the one that varies: price.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Imagine a system where multiple attributes mattered to each class. As an illustration, consider a system for Fighters where:
- Strength impacted damage from swinging type weapons
- Agility impacted damage from thrusting type weapons
- Strength and Agility interacted in some way to impact Accuracy
- Strength impacted how much you could lift.
- Constitution impacted how quickly you expended energy under different encumberance levels (determined by strength)
- Agility and Strength combine in some way to impact your personal recycle speed
- Intelligence impacted your ability to maximize damage on critical hits (crit power)
- Your Wisdom influenced your ability to recognize opportunity to create increased damage moments (crit rating)
Such a system is a mess, but I’m not trying to build a character system here, I’m trying to point out that you can broaden the base of critical statistics.
In such a system, various fighters (or rogues for that matter) can be conceived. You can see finesse based and brute force styles emerging. You, ideally, have trade-offs to make (e.g. you can’t do both things well). In such a system different types of weapons inherently appeal to different types of players. You can take this further by thinking through the basic attributes of a weapon:
- Weight reflects the item’s impact on your encumberance
- Weapon speed interacts with your personal recycle speed to determine your personal global cool down rating
- Weapon complexity impacts the accuracy rating of the weapon (some things are just easier to use than other things)
- Weapon minimum damage impacts the lowest damage level you can do anytime you successfully hit a target
- Weapon maximum damage becomes the starting value for determining your critical hit damage
Now you have different weapons ideally suited to different types of players (of the same class no less). The value of a sword isn’t influenced solely by its item level, it’s influenced by the subjective value of that type of item to a specific player. You have created a system where it’s possible for market segments to arise, market segmentation opens the door to a more varied economic system. None of this matters though if you don’t solve the saturation problem. It is for this reason (and a few others, I’m particularly happy to see niche products appearing) that made me pretty happy to see the Camelot Unleashed entry suggesting they were bringing back encumberance, variance in gear and trade off decisions are good things.
Saturation – there is too damn much of everything
If commoditization influences the valuable and non-substitutable then saturation addresses the rarity and inimitability aspects. In fact, there are two different saturation problems in MMO’s. The first problem is there is just too much stuff entering the system.
“Why thank you for the rat pelts, let me grab one of my many +1 Longbows of Doom”
Every quest in the game offers an array of new items. Think about the typical quest NPC. That fellow, lady or thing must be sitting on a Tardis wrapped around a CostCo filled with stacks upon stacks of +Gooder Longbows of Slaying +1. Killing monsters offer an array of items. I am not talking about bosses or rare spawns, in the modern era great loot is pretty much everywhere. And, just in case we aren’t dropping enough loot, we can always tweak the system so that even more +gooder stuff drops +oftener! Crafters in pretty much every MMO system run a high velocity assembly line which would make an advanced robotics factory jealous. The item inflow in MMO’s is just a bit ridiculous.
For rarity to manifest, it suggests scarcity must be present in some fashion. This means that either the Demand exceeds Supply, it is difficult to get to the supply (boss loot) or that the supply itself can be expended (harvested resources in Star Wars Galaxies). Instance lockouts do not provide a useful limitation to supply, they are actually just another manifestation of the overuse of fixed interval reinforcement in MMO’s.
The second problem is that virtually identical loot drops from virtually everywhere. Now, the virtually identical sounds a bit like commoditization (it is), but the point I’m getting here is that in most cases we just bypass the market/crafter in the MMO. Kill a few dozen rats and eventually a nice green foozle will drop as we’re leveling. If that doesn’t work, then look for an NPC with punctuation over his/her/its head, turn in 10 rat pelts and get virtually the same green foozle.
If, and only if, that doesn’t work, check the auction house and pick up one of the ten kajillion green foozle like items made by the crafters in game. Here’s a thought for the auction house nihilist, the auction house didn’t kill the MMO merchant, the quest hub did.
This really needs to be curtailed. Regular, run of the mill mobs should drop coin loot and maybe resources. Lieutenants should possibly drop common items, but rarely. Bosses should be where the action is and they should have some really neat items. However, getting those items should be reasonably rare enough to elicit the appropriate operant conditioning result for variable reinforcement (see Penny Arcade’s outstanding Skinner Box video for more on this).
Crafters really need to not be able to mass produce items (consumables being an exception). Either time to complete (SWG had a bake time for more complex recipes if I recall) or recipe lockout timers would help here. Crafter interdependency is helpful here, if I need stuff from other crafters, it slows my output down (and that is a good thing in our ADHD itemization systems). Further, take advantage of the idea from Guild Wars 2, give most of the XP for a recipe on the first combine of that recipe. Use diminishing returns to zero to provide an extinction option, helping crafters decide that it’s time to make something else.
Trinkets of Uber +20 for everyone!
The problem here is that players have largely been conditioned that swinging a sword once or twice should generate 3-10 nice magic items. They have further been conditioned that they should change out their items every 5-10 hours of game play. This isn’t an auction house problem, it’s an itemization problem: you guys opened Pandora’s Box, it needs to be closed.
But what are they going to be doing if they aren’t gearing up every 5 hours? Hopefully playing the game! People don’t play Halo or Gears of War to level up and gear up (all of that goes away between matches). They play because they are having fun.
MMO’s used to work this way. I didn’t play EQ to level, I leveled because I was playing. We have really screwed up the reinforcement model of the modern MMO and in the process we have taken the focus off of play and turned it into acquisition. You can’t fix saturation if you keep building quest hub MMO’s (must have loot) and you can’t get make MMO’s fun if the only meaningful way a player interacts with the world is to add a punchmark to a reward system of some sort (bring on the next treadmill).
The player needs to be more invested in the world and that takes sandbox elements. These are things that let the player meaningfully alter the world (and yes, meaningful is a pretty vague word); bring those back and the socialization will happen. Heck, add in a nice layer of sharp social networking UI tools (auction houses and crafter lookup) for even more connectivity. Information helps, not hurts, markets.
Resolving the Tension
So, in the above sections I have identified a few things that would help, making choices matter and turning down the loot tap. There are some other things, though, that should help resolve some of the tensions between crafting and adventuring, without sacrificing good auction houses on the altar of economic misunderstandings.
Crafter’s need unique things. No, not from the drop database, but different from each other. Here I’m in conceptual agreement with Bill Murphy who argues for some form of discovery system. I will point out, though, that a discovery system is just a short-term bandaid. We live in an information rich environment and all of those discovery recipes will be on the web at some point. You can constrain this somewhat via rare drop recipes or hard to complete quest recipes, but you can also get there through an experimentation system. Here we are talking about things like Materia in FFXIV and item improvement in Aion. Successful experimentation adds a beneficial stat to any item (including boss drops) a failed experiment reduces, removes or destroys existing improvements. This doesn’t so much give crafters the ability to corner a market (discovery, if possible, would do that) but it allows you short-term access to markets of one (as in there isn’t another item like this available right now).
Location and Logistics – One of the arguments for removing auction houses is that it would improve socialization, particularly if we added player shops. I’m a bit unclear how interacting with one player’s NPC vendors is more social than interacting with an auction interface though. Realistically, if you want players to be able to set up shops, you have the tools to make this work and you actually benefit from doing this with an auction house. You control the delivery speed of an item and the transaction tax on an item. When I buy the item at the auction house I should get a decision option to receive have it delivered or have it waiting at the players store. If I want it delivered, make it take an hour and add a nice transportation tax to it. If I’m willing to go to the shop to get it (escrow the item so it doesn’t get sold out from under me), I can head out to the shop and pick it up for free (or a much lower) tax. Now, the location of the crafter’s store matters to me, if it’s close I’ll run out there, so store location influences the value of a good.
Add Scarcity and Quality to Resources – This is something SWG had right. If raw materials are easily accessible and available in unlimited supply, you can’t address the saturation problem. You need some scarcity to resources and this can be achieved by varying quality and letting resource pools deplete. As a side benefit, varying the location and quality of resources actually enhances explorer game play, so this is a double benefit. You may not even need to add this constraint to item manufacturing, you might be able to apply it to the resources for your experimentation system.
Building a system like the one outlined in this post gives something to everyone. Adventuring brings in resources and the really unique items. Crafting provides the basic items and the means to customize all items. A variety of item types and a robust enhancement system should allow for better market segmentation, letting savvy crafters/merchants build a book of business by meeting the markets needs. Location matters for store fronts, but not so much that it disrupts the flow of game play for those who dislike shopping.