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.
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.