When you decided to address the problems in UO were you comfortable with the idea of going in and starting to restrict player activity? It seemed like the whole game was designed around the idea of giving people as much freedom as they wanted.
RV: It's very bad to start taking things away from players. It's really bad. You should do that before launch. Whatever rules you have that's what you should launch with. Restricting players and causing things to change drastically is not a good thing. It does cause friction and players leave.
Virtual worlds have also had problems with economic systems that are prone to inflation and deflation. How do you manage the economies?
RV: Managing economics in a game is very hard, especially as a game ages and older people stay and new people come and go. You have to think about inflation and deflation.
Obviously that isn't an issue in single player games so few developers had to spend time thinking about this before. How did you get the necessary understanding?
RV: We have economists. On UO we had a couple of people with economics degrees working on it. And we constantly look at graphs on the game, we know what the flow of gold and silver are and what the exchange rate of the game is. We look at everyone's inventory. Anything that looks out of place, such as an exploit, we can tell.
We look at guilds or how much gold or platinum they're carrying. You can just see usually where holes open up because of exploits people find or gold farming. We can look and see and readjust. That's constantly something we monitor because you don't want deflation and you certainly try to avoid inflation. Deflation just happens because items always reduce in value the more you have in the world.
Is the tendency towards inflation or deflation?
RV: A lot of times you have deflation because as you get older more items that used to be of value are no longer as scare as people are still making them right so the supply and demand basically happens. Then there is inflation and it really depends on how you balance it – it does happen and that has to be about your item drops, because that's really based on rarity: how many items are in a world at a certain time and how they're selling.
Now, in order for a player economy to happen it has to be the players that run it, not us. We just kind of give a base price for stuff NPCs are selling. The players are the ones that determine what the cost and price of each one is. That's basically based on supply and demand – what's rare versus what's common.
Do gold farmers affect this?
RV: They do and that's why you try to look out for those people and ban them when you find them.
What kind of impact do they have?
RV: It depends on what they're mining. They don't want to have deflation, what they want to do is get the most money they can for their items or a character that levels right so they can sell. Most people who buy from the gold farmers buy money. Most of them want currency versus characters and some do buy characters because it's really about time.
Gold farmers cut the time equation out and that's why people buy from them. If you have a lot of repetitive tasks, just grinding, you have a pretty good economy for gold farmers because people don't like to grind and so there's a demand for their stuff.
Is the existence of gold farmers, therefore, a design flaw?
GP: It is, but you also don't want to prevent it. Grind is sometimes good; there's nothing wrong with that. Downtime is good in a game. Downtime causes socialization, right? It gives people the ability to sell stuff at a market and gets people to go socialize and get stuff from other people. There's actually nothing wrong with that. In fact, when you go too far away from it you hurt your game.
Another trait of online worlds is the level of gender swapping -- male players playing as female players and vice versa. I was speaking to Richard Bartle, the co-creator of MUD, about this. He argued that part of the reason it is so common is that MUD was invented in the UK rather than a U.S. state such as Alabama where homosexuality is less tolerated. What do you think of that argument?
RV: I don't think that's the case. I think people play women because it's easier to get loot, easier to advance – people give you things. It's easier to socialize if you're a woman. It is. And it's fun to role-play, right? The game is about getting out of your day to day life and go role-playing something wholly unique in another place, but I do think a lot of people play women because it's easier to get stuff.
Another interesting social aspect of massively multiplayer games are the player protests held inside the game. Some companies see it as inappropriate to protest about real world events or a problem players have within the game. What's your stance on it?
RV: I think they're great. It's a great expression right? I try not to stop those things. The funnest time we had in UO was when we had all the GMs around Lord British to protect him and someone threw a fireball and he didn't have his invulnerability on.
Of course, he thought he did and he jumped into the fire and died. It's like shooting the president; we all ganged around him and we started teleporting everyone out of the area, you know, to control the area. But everyone just had a blast and it made news everywhere when that happened.
And it's the same thing about protesting about UO. People came out dressed down to the underwear and protested the lag and things like that that were happening in the first year. You know what, we went out there and talked to them. There's nothing wrong with that. The thing we don't like in a game is when we have racism in a game, which we do encounter and other things like that. Sexual harassment, we don't tolerate. Those things are bannable offences. We don't take those lightly at all.