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My post today is not an amateurish essay or rant but a series of questions. I know a blog like this, read probably only by a handful of people at best, is not the ideal place to spark discussion but it is an example of my thinking, and this line has plagued me for a while.

Basically, as I muse over a fantastical idea for which I’m writing a game design document out of hobbyist’s pleasure, I’m lingering on the idea of in-game economy. The most commonly-discussed example of this is the auction house. Next to player-to-player trade or cash-on-delivery mail, this is the only means by which World of Warcraft players can conduct transactions on their own terms. Items both looted and craft-made are sold for whatever players think is an appropriate price, bound really only by sensibilities like supply and demand. This comes as an alternative to the buyers, who do not wish to or cannot procure these items themselves, and to sellers whose profits will come well above those from prices offered by non-player vendors, whose prices are fixed.

To my mind the best and worst characteristic of the auction house is that it is so simple. The market it creates needs no further control from the developers than those conditions set upon an item as it’s introduced to the game. For example in World of Warcraft, a soulbound item cannot be sold on the auction house, meaning that while those players who undertook the tailoring profession can sell certain spellthreads to boost other players’ cloth statistics, the very best enchantments require the player who wants them to actually take tailoring themselves. Similarly many engineering gadgets may only be used by other engineers, preventing a flood in the sale of bombs and vendor robots to all and sundry.

The problem is that auction houses are very easy to manipulate – certainly if the Greedy Goblin blog is anything to go by. Whilst the entrepreneurial, monopolising player may feel a sense of personal control over the auction house, I think it sometimes unfair. All it takes is a cartel of few to drive the price of basic goods right up, and suddenly this unnecessary but quite positive-sounding mechanic starts to lend a bitter taste to the game. As a mechanic, it’s placed a little ambiguously within this fantasy context and while it’s quite right that merchant trades should exist on Azeroth, I’ve found most of its activities to be rather an antithesis to immersion.

Of course, nobody needs the auction house to play the game, for you need only approach the trade channel or ask at your guild for anything your character definitely can’t loot or dig up. The auction house does offer a convenience however, allowing a miner to devote more time to their quests rather than finding more ore, or allowing a single player to progress their main character without having to ‘roll’ another one just to access a new set of trade skills.

So I wondered, as I sat down to some ideas for my own fantasy online game, how and if I should even consider giving players a more active role in their world’s economy. I’m rather stuck for that answer still, and as I lack the resources to try any experiment I wondered if there were any examples or texts I can read from.

My basic idea is this:

In a game set on a number of different planets across a known galaxy, one class of player will emerge as merchants – a trade alongside weaponsmiths and craftsmen of other skills. Their role will essentially be supply and demand – they alone have the power to bring large numbers of goods, smuggled or honestly gained through their own dealings, to the various locations within the game. The trade can be played honourably, providing essential goods to the various parties and individuals in the world regardless of whether the merchant is playing with them or not. It can at times be the sole source of schematics and specialist parts for other professions, too.

Of course, this merchant profession could be played unscrupulously too through the buy-low, price-high sale of decent or even counterfeit goods, just as in auction houses in existing MMOs. At that point I have to shrug honourable intentions off and resign myself to the knowledge that some players will always try to scam others – though if I can at least frame that in a context which makes sense to the game, I might relieve my ‘designers’ conscience’ that way. Just as everybody expects a rogue to sneak their way right up to the quest objective others have to spend their timing fighting towards, can players tolerate a merchant who may or may not be trustworthy? Perhaps that’s the worthier question.