Earning Your Keep in an MMO Economy (Part 2)

In contrast to the rigid, rewards-oriented gameplay that themepark MMO economies rely on, most sandboxes make their economy the driving force behind player interaction. Crafting often plays a large part in the daily routine, requiring players to craft, trade, and loot monsters and other players for the gear they need. Items are often impermanent and subject to being lost, stolen, or traded away. On top of this, sandboxes require their players to invest a lot of time and effort into taking part in the economy.

The more punishing the game, the more essential mercantile gameplay becomes. Let’s say that the penalty for death is dropping all equipped items for others to pick up; as a result, players are encouraged to continually craft or buy weapons and armor in case of emergencies. On the flip side, this makes it immensely rewarding to defeat other players in battle and take their goods for yourself, facilitating unique gameplay roles like the highwayman I described in a previous blog post.

Gathering and harvesting materials are another key ingredient. Where most people might prefer to pay for essential crafting materials, others opt to do the busywork themselves. For example, when I played RuneScape in the mid-2000s, I made most of my money through gathering profitable materials. I used to spend an hour every day mining ore in a “rune essence” mine—a common but valuable material used to create magical tools and spells. After mining a full inventory of rune essence, I would then spend another half hour in the nearest market advertising my stock in the local chat channel until someone bought it.

The Rune Essence mine where I made my RuneScape profits.


Taken from: http://runescape.wikia.com/wiki/Rune_Essence_mine

The depth of mercantile gameplay means that sandbox MMOs naturally lean towards time-consuming gameplay sessions. Many people find this to be a negative aspect of sandboxes, and is—in my opinion—the main reason why the convenience of themepark MMOs attracts a wider audience. Most people simply don’t have the time to spend hours a day doing menial tasks in a video game. Even so, there is a niche audience craving games requiring this kind of dedication. Busywork means that there is a real investment in crafting; someone put their time and effort into making that sword you’re wielding, or the chair you bought for your virtual house.

Such an emphasis on repetition and time-consuming tasks means that players who are dedicated to the economic game can earn real recognition. While themepark MMOs focus on combat with a far secondary focus on crafting, many sandboxes allow players to avoid combat altogether and earn their living solely through playing the economy. A player with enough time on his hands can become well-known in his social circle for creating quality weapons and armor, or as the guy to go to for cost-effective furniture. The wealthiest players can take the role of tycoons, making smart trades and investments in other players’ goods to expand their own fortune.

Games like ArcheAge (pictured) allow for players to specialize in particular crafting disciplines to make their mark on the economy.


Taken from: http://archeagelevelingguide.com/crafting/

Sandbox MMOs ultimately rely on players to dictate their economy. Supply and demand fluctuates just as it does in the real world, and there are typically very few restrictions as to what players are allowed to buy and sell. This freedom offers an entirely unique form of gameplay that no other genre can replicate, and is the reason why we are seeing a resurgence of sandbox MMOs slated for release in 2016 and 2017. Players don’t just want to go into dungeons to slay monsters—they want to have some real influence on the world around them, and economic gameplay offers this influence that mainstream MMORPGs have been missing over the last decade.

Earning Your Keep in an MMO Economy (Part 1)

Because of how deep the various economic systems in modern MMOs are and how much they differ between subgenres, I will split this post into two shorter pieces. The first post will focus on the themepark MMORPG, while the second post will finish this series by discussing economic systems in sandbox MMORPGs.

Themepark MMOs are heavily focused on rewards and their inherent reward loop. Players play content to get better items which then enable them to play more content, and so on. While some of these rewards manifest themselves as dropped armor or weapons from enemies, most major MMORPGs use some type of universal currency as their standard unit of wealth—typically gold or some other coin. For the purposes of brevity, I will refer to anything that serves this purpose as just “gold.”

The usual methods of earning gold include liquid rewards for completing content (a direct sum of gold awarded to the player), selling items to other players, and selling items to non-player vendors. The first category is typically the steadiest method of earning gold, though not nearly as profitable as selling to other players. Older themepark MMORPGs relied on players selling their wares to each other directly, standing in crowded areas and advertising their wares until someone came along to buy them. While this certainly forces players to be more social with each other, this makes trading a daunting task for many players who don’t want to deal with scammers and long waiting times.

These days, player-to-player trading is typically done through semi-automated “auction houses,” which are the MMO equivalent of an online storefront. Players can browse through posted listings, make their own posts, and place bids on items, automatically collecting their gold when finished. Though this takes scams out of the equation, many consider the automation of trading as a detractor from social gameplay. I would be inclined to agree, but I can’t deny the convenience and time saved.

Guild Wars 2’s trading post is an example of how modern MMORPGs enable players to trade with each other.c537ctrading-post-front-page_1
Taken from: https://www.guildwars2.com/en/news/introducing-the-new-trading-post/

Selling to non-player characters (NPCs) is also an option, but in most games the only time a player will do this is to sell junk items that no one else will buy. Of all of these gold-making methods, most players will try for a combination of all three. To give an example from my own experiences, I play the difficult end-game content with small groups of other players, which gives me a liquid gold reward at the end of the encounter. I will pick up various armor, weapons, and other loot from enemies along the way, as well as some miscellaneous junk items. Afterwards I will sell the most valuable loot directly on the auction house, or make listings for others to bid on. Junk items and everything else left over will go directly to an NPC vendor who will buy them for a pittance.

Just as in real life, having money makes it easier to earn more money. Experienced players can invest large amounts of gold to “flip” items on the auction house, purchasing them and upping the price to make a profit ad infinitum. In games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2, some of the richest players can maintain their wealth with this method, growing exponentially richer as their pile of gold does their work for them. (The cynic in me has to point out the real-world parallels here.)

Crafting systems in themepark MMOs are not typically used to make a profit, but instead are treated as necessary tools for player progression. Most players are expected to level up their crafting disciplines to enhance their own gear, rather than crafting gear for others to buy. Any profits to be made are slim, and crafting is instead treated as a “gold sink”—a way for developers to directly remove gold from the economy and prevent inflation.


Creative Expression, Art, and New Ways to Play

There are many ways for MMO players to express themselves creatively and artistically.  In my second blog post I discussed visual identity through character customization, as well as gameplay systems that allow players to customize their outfits and armor. This is the most immediately obvious outlet for players’ creativity, where many take it upon themselves to create the best-looking or most unique character possible. However, in this post I would like to focus on some of the less obvious ways of expressing player creativity.

One of the best creative outlets in a themepark MMO involves the notion of creating a “build.” This refers to a player’s combat setup, comprised of the skills on their action bar, their passive “traits” or “talents” (depending on the game), and the raw statistics of their armor and weapons. Because mainstream MMORPGs focus their gameplay on combat above all else, players are incentivized to mix and match pieces of these gameplay systems to maximize effectiveness, clearing encounters more quickly and efficiently.

Some games take build-making systems further than others; the first in the Guild Wars series gives us the best example of player creativity in action. The first Guild Wars has a very simple build concept with immense depth; players can take up to eight skills with them into combat encounters, drawn from multiple pools of skills to choose from based on the character’s primary combat profession, their secondary profession, and the supplementary effects of their armor. As each profession has access to hundreds of skills, this means that the skill combinations available to players are nearly endless.

An example of a skill bar from Guild Wars.

Taken from: http://guildwars.wikia.com/wiki/Skill_Bar

Of course, not all combinations of skills work well together, leading to a hefty difficulty curve. However, Guild Wars players are heavily rewarded for experimenting with new and unique combinations of skills. Build-making is almost an art form unto itself—some players have crafted specific combinations of skills that allow a single player to complete content designed for eight, meaning that a profitable encounter will reap eight times the rewards. Others have designed builds that exploit certain skills’ mechanics, allowing a character with the minimum possible health to only take 10% damage per hit, rendering them virtually unkillable when paired with healing skills.

The infamous “55 Monk” pairs a minuscule health pool with a skill that prevents the player from taking more than 10% damage per hit.
Taken from: Salamandra’s YouTube channel

While some sandbox games contain similar gameplay systems, their focus on players making their own fun gives them a bent towards more traditional expressions of “art.” Player-made housing in games like Ultima Online and RuneScape are a great example, allowing players to customize their own little plots of land with hand-placed furniture and customized room layouts. While some players choose to make their house as utilitarian as possible, others opt for lavish, expensive manors designed to entertain guests. Just as in real life, houses in sandbox games are a prime avenue to display creativity.

Some future sandbox titles aim to simply improve on the feature sets from traditional house-building systems (see Albion Online from last week’s post).  An upcoming title, Landmark (previously EverQuest Next Landmark), goes a step further by enabling players to destroy and create terrain and building materials without restriction in a vast open world with other adventurers. Players are able to create unique architecture, dig underground tunnels, and build vast structures. Though its sister game, EverQuest Next, was recently discontinued, Landmark remains poised to take the technology and content-creation tools of the genre to the next level.

Landmark lets players customize terrain and building blocks in miniscule detail with powerful design and content creation tools

Taken from: http://www.usgamer.net/articles/everquest-landmark-quietly-launches-on-steam-introduces-caves

While not every method of artistic expression in MMOs is immediately obvious, the wide variety of gameplay systems in both the themepark and sandbox genres allow for many methods of creative expression. From costume design to personal housing to combat theorycrafting, players continue to generate endless creativity with their limited sets of tools.

Player Interaction, Teamwork, and Collaboration Across the Genre

Considering the name of the genre, it seems only natural that Massively Multiplayer Online games would rely on player interaction to keep their audience interested. The best examples of the genre make full use of the massive nature of these games to deliver unique experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. The types of teamwork and interactivity required from players changes from title to title, but there are some noticeable gameplay patterns within the genre that I find intriguing.

We’re going to start with—you guessed it—the themepark MMO. The divide between gameplay styles of themepark and sandbox MMOs makes for very contrasting types of content for players to interact in, and in turn this results in different reasons for player cooperation.

Your bog-standard themepark MMORPG experience can be found in games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Final Fantasy XIV, and many more. The core gameplay loop consists of working through a steady progression of developer-made quests through unchanging zones, gaining in statistical levels, more combat abilities, and superior armor and weapons. During these early stages of the game, it is in the players’ best interests to group together to complete content and reach the “endgame”—maximum level—more quickly. Because players’ primary focus is to reach the endgame, players are encouraged to quest together, trade together, and form guilds in order to more efficiently reach that goal.

Once the character reaches maximum level, the focus switches to overcoming challenging content and acquiring better combat gear in order to overcome more challenging content, ad infinitum. This is the meat and potatoes of the modern MMO, and is where players will spend hundreds of hours playing and socializing. Players can typically progress through “dungeons” with small groups of players, and eventually work their way towards “raids” involving varying numbers of players facing off against challenging bosses and puzzles. Difficult raids can take hours of effort and failed attempts, inspiring prominent guilds to compete for the title of “world first” completion. With such a heavy focus on this style of gameplay, this means that the games with the best dungeons and raiding experiences hold the crown.

End-game raids come in many shapes and sizes. Final Fantasy XIV’s recently-released “Alexander” raid pits 8 players against a challenging gauntlet of bosses.
Video taken from the Final Fantasy Heavensward YouTube channel

In the olden days (circa 2004), players were expected to gather in populated areas and organize themselves through word-of-mouth, potentially requiring hours of preparation for difficult combat encounters. Many would consider this a positive; it certainly made player interaction a necessity, but at a major blow to convenience. As a result popular MMOs over the last decade have begun to shift more and more focus towards the endgame gameplay loop and multi-player directed combat experiences, with less focus on social interaction in the open world.

The blame for this falls primarily on the “group finder,” or “raid finder,” a pervasive feature in modern MMOs. This is essentially a matchmaking queue that allows players to dial in their group role and wait to be automatically assigned to a group of like-minded people. However, while this feature makes it easier to get into the action, it cuts out the community-building aspect that old MMOs relied on. Many players can expect to queue for a dungeon or raid, complete the content, and then silently leave without ever speaking to their group. For all intents and purposes, group finders turn once-massive games into single-player experiences.

Raid finders are a controversial feature due to their negative effects on socialization.


Taken from: http://wowwiki.wikia.com/wiki/Raid_Finder

Where the modern themepark MMO puts a priority on gameplay and content over fostering community interaction, the sandbox genre takes an opposing stance. This subgenre has suffered at the hands of the themepark in the last decade, with only a select few titles such as EVE Online retaining a consistent player base. Even so, classic sandbox titles in the vein of Ultima Online share several universal gameplay tenets that have resurfaced in future releases like Albion Online and Crowfall.

Above all, these games rely on player interaction to provide gameplay with minimal focus on pre-made quest chains or directed story content. Player vs. player combat is a common driving force, allowing for emergent gameplay driven by the players. If a group of players want to lay siege to a peaceful town, they can try to do so. If players want to dedicate their time towards protecting other players, or hiring their services out as a bodyguard, they can do that too.

Mercantile gameplay is another sandbox specialty. Perhaps a different group of players could instead put their efforts toward building a successful market empire, allocating jobs such as resource gathering, crafting, and supply delivery. These players might form a guild and build up their own town with their newfound wealth, only to have their hard work torn to shreds as those bloodthirsty players from the first example seize the town for themselves by force.

Upcoming sandbox titles like Albion Online allow players to gather resources and build their own houses (pictured), or create towns together that can then be besieged by other players.


Taken from: http://albiononline.gamepedia.com/Player_Housing

These kinds of gameplay interactions are only possible in a sandbox setting, and are why we are seeing a resurgence in upcoming sandbox MMOs using new technology. Players crave the unique interactivity that only MMOs can provide, and as themepark titles continue to shift their focus away from community and interaction, the sandbox will be there to pick up the slack.

A Reflection on Player Relationships Inside and Outside of the Game

At the heart of every major MMO lies the concept of “guilds,” which are collections of like-minded individuals who band together for a common purpose. Guilds are mechanically supported as a feature in most MMO-style games, and offer a framework with moderation tools that allow communities to organize themselves. However, guilds are more than just an organizational tool; guilds can and do expand past the borders of a single game. Many span several games and genres, and the most famous guilds are made up of a dedicated core group of players that have been a part of their community for many years.

My own guild experiences fit this bill precisely. I have been in several guilds across several MMOs, particularly in the Guild Wars series of games. After purchasing the first Guild Wars in 2007, I spotted the “Guild of the Month” feature on the game’s main website. The guild on display that month, “The Dragons of Eisengard,” caught my eye and accepted me into the guild upon request. I spent the next few years playing with this same core group of under one hundred people, and made friendships that lasted for just as many years. Some of my best memories in gaming came from this guild; I still remember doing challenge missions and speed-clears of difficult content with them, all while laughing and having a great time over voice chat.

The emblem of my first guild, The Dragons of Eisengard


Taken from: http://wiki.guildwars.com/wiki/Guild:The_Dragons_Of_Eisengard

Eventually, life got in the way and I drifted away from my old guild. In preparation for the release of Guild Wars 2 in 2012, I joined a new guild in the first game and surrounded myself with members equally as eager to make the jump. Over time, the names and leadership have changed as myself and many others have migrated to sister guilds and various alliances. However, I still play with the friends I have made in these guilds over four years later, and remain this same circle of people playing Guild Wars 2. Though many people discount online games as an introvert’s activity, I have found the friendships I have made in both of these games to be just as real as any other.

It’s not unheard of for guilds to retain the same members for many years. Some older guilds have their roots in MMOs released over fifteen years ago with games like EverQuest and Ultima Online. The death of a game does not mean the death of the guild; over the course of over a decade, the most dedicated members play together from title to title. Friendship is the sticking ingredient in these communities—the game itself is irrelevant, and serves as a platform for community interaction over all else.

Many prominent guilds have taken things a step further, organizing in-person meetups and successfully meeting together with dozens of guild members both on a local and international level. In many cases these social groups have provided an avenue towards creating lasting, life-long friendships between guild members. I view these experiences as a perfect example of how MMOs and MMORPGs encourage social interaction and the creation of meaningful communities on a level beyond any other genre.

The heart of MMO-style games lies in this ability to create lasting communities and meaningful friendships. Though the MMORPG may eventually die out in popularity, I don’t expect the heart of the genre to ever truly disappear. As long as players seek to connect with each other, the concept will thrive regardless of how it is categorized.



Visual Identity, Character Customization Tools, and the End-Game Dress-Up

“Unique” is a powerful word in online games. Developers continually try and fail to catch this golden goose, bound by technological limitations, project deadlines, and financial restraints. Despite this, every online world harbors its share of players trying to squeeze endless fashion possibilities from their limited tools. Every single one of these games, from virtual chat rooms to multi-million dollar MMORPGs, relies on character customization to keep players invested in the experience. Developers have realized that players like to look good, and that catering to the fashionable majority is the best way to stay relevant in a growing market.

In the majority of MMORPGs, the first opportunity for players to customize their character appears at the character creation screen. Advancing technology and an ever-increasing demand for powerful customization tools has resulted in more and more ways for players to create their own unique look for their avatar. Older MMOs (circa 2005-2010) offered impressive customization options for the time, but technological limitations meant that many players would share identical combinations of faces, hair, and body types. However, many of the most recently-released MMOs allow players to customize their appearance in staggering detail, from facial bone structure to the style of makeup their avatar wears. In the near future, it might be possible for no two characters to look alike.

The recently-released MMORPG Black Desert Online boasts some of the most technically impressive character creation tools available today.


Taken from: https://www.blackdesertonline.com/

Character creation tools vary from game to game, but in every case the player is eventually forced to finalize their look and step into the game world proper. How players visually express themselves after this point varies slightly between which sub-genre the game in question happens to fall into—the “sandbox” or the “themepark.” By order of popularity, we will start with the second option.

Linear, directed MMO experiences like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, and WildStar all focus on gameplay pitting the player vs. the environment (PvE) in encounters where statistical advantage rules the day. End-game content revolves around completing combat encounters to achieve better gear to complete harder encounters, ad infinitum. In the genre’s earlier years, this introduced a dilemma in which players would only aim for a select handful of the best statistical gear in the game, resulting in homogenized appearances at the endgame. The audience’s craving for customization led to a few popular solutions quickly rising to the top and spreading in popularity across the top games of the genre.

World of Warcraft’s The Burning Crusade expansion became infamous for providing players with aesthetically mismatched gear, dubbed the “clown suit” by players.


Taken from: http://www.engadget.com/2014/03/28/wow-archivist-warlords-of-draenor-hates-the-burning-crusade/

Modern-day MMOs eventually distilled these solutions into convenient gameplay systems such as a cosmetic “wardrobe” or “transmogrification,” in which players can choose to apply the look of certain armor pieces without affecting their combat effectiveness. Many games also include the ability to dye armor and weapons in a variety of colors. Older MMORPGs without these systems have introduced these features to keep up with their more modern competition.

Pictured: World of Warcraft’s transmogrification system (left) and Guild Wars 2’s dye system (right)
Taken from: http://venturebeat.com/2015/11/06/world-of-warcraft-players-your-bag-space-problems-may-soon-be-over/ and https://www.guildwars2.com/en/news/dyes-in-the-new-account-wardrobe/

What few sandbox MMORPGs that remain on the market have implemented similar customization systems, though they are less essential due to the open-ended nature of a sandbox game. Without a linear progression path to follow and no one set of statistically “best” gear, players are free to experiment with their looks. However, the ability to have a specific look without compromising your effectiveness is enough of a draw in itself to make it a necessity for many players.

Sandbox MMORPGs also tend to attract an audience that enjoys role-playing as their character in an open environment, so players that seek this style of gameplay benefit immensely from this visual freedom. Suppose a player wants his to play as a roaming highway bandit, and look the part while he pillages unsuspecting players. However, the gear that makes him effective in combat does not look at all like what a highwayman would wear. The aforementioned wardrobe system sidesteps this issue gracefully, and is a useful tool for anyone else aiming to be effective in other parts of the game without sacrificing their dashing good looks.

A Primer on MMOs and MMORPGs (Or How I Learned to Love the Acronyms)

It’s impossible to explain what Massively Multiplayer Online games are in just a few sentences. To understand the basics and jargon that will be used in the rest of the blog posts, I need to explain just what the label of “MMO” entails. In the most basic of terms, an MMO is a video game in which there are many players together in a persistent virtual space, typically hosted on online servers. Just about any genre can be considered an MMO, as long as it fits inside these loose guidelines.

The first true MMO, Maze Wars, released in 1974.


Taken from http://www.engadget.com/2012/06/12/the-game-archaeologist-maze-war/

Games like Second Life that focus on creating a “virtual world” fall into this category. However, these types of games are typically considered to be extremely niche in comparison to the undisputed king of the genre: the MMORPG. These days, a “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game” is what people typically mean to when they use the term “MMO.”

Your typical role-playing game (RPG) will let you create a character, gain in power through a leveling system, and earn powerful loot to enhance your character. MMORPGs do this on a massive scale, putting players together in an open RPG world to interact with each other and the environment. The mechanics and presentation vary wildly from game to game, but the basic concept remains the same.

In the last decade, the mechanics of the MMORPG genre have spread from their own bubble to seep into many other genres. Practically every modern triple-A title has adopted MMORPG mechanics in some fashion. The 2014 first-person shooter title Destiny boasts persistent server lobbies and a bevy of multi-tiered loot for players to earn with a heavy focus on replaying content for better statistical gear. Several other major current and upcoming games (see: Warframe, The Division) use a similar formula. In fact, even games that are not online-focused have taken to introducing in-depth customization, stat-heavy elements, and leveling progression systems to keep players occupied—just like a typical MMORPG.

Mainstream first-person shooters like Call of Duty use MMO-inspired leveling systems to keep players engaged.


Taken from https://www.callofduty.com/blackops3/loyalty

As a result, it’s important to distinguish between games with quasi-MMORPG elements and the more traditionally defined tropes found in the MMORPG genre. There is enough discussion material here to write a book; for the sake of this project’s length, I will try to keep the discussion specifically to MMORPGs.

The rabbit hole goes even deeper! The genre can generally be divided into two categories: “sandbox” and “themepark.” A sandbox MMORPG focuses on an open-ended experience and relies on player interaction to provide the fun. Sandbox MMOs like Ultima Online, RuneScape, and EVE Online typically focus on player vs. player (PvP) combat, crafting and mercantile gameplay systems, and robust tools to let players make their own entertainment. Sandboxes have fallen out of mainstream popularity over the last 15 years, but there are a surge of upcoming titles aimed at fans of this once-popular genre.

The big daddy of the MMORPG world is the themepark. Games like EverQuest and its more popular copycat, World of Warcraft, defined the tropes on which the mainstream genre still defines itself. Developers in this genre aim to create a more linear and directed experience for players to go through, with a finite amount of content to experience at any given time. These games let players adventure through a pre-made world with static quests and goals to achieve up to a set maximum power level. Repeatable, challenging combat encounters are the primary end-game focus, with a minimal focus on crafting, mercantile systems, and PvP.

As a pioneer in the popularity of themepark MMORPGs, expect World of Warcraft to come up often in future blog posts.


Taken from http://us.battle.net/wow/en/legion/


With these distinctions out of the way, we can get started on exploring the nuances of these games and what makes them tick.