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Virtual Economic Theory: How MMOs Really Work

November 16, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[What makes MMO economies tick? Here's a look at several different games and real-world economic theory to explain the mechanisms that govern value to players, and how to design an economy that best serves your players and you.]

This article basically grew out of my somewhat "rantish" review of Final Fantasy XIV. One of the biggest issues that I -- and many other commentators -- have taken issue with is the way FFXIV handles its in-game economy: the Market Ward system.

My intent with this article is to first address the broader issue of virtual economies in MMORPGs in general, and apply those theories to FFXIV to better explain exactly what is wrong with the Market Ward system.

Wayback Machine: Asheron's Call

I'd like to begin with a journey back to my very first MMORPG: Asheron's Call. AC was one of the three "golden oldies," the MMOs that started it all, as it were. Along with Ultima Online and EverQuest, many of the standards in today's online games found their origins here.

Of particular interest was the development of the virtual economy in Asheron's Call. There were a few major factors that shaped AC's economy: firstly, that money had weight and was, either in coin or writ form, cumbersome and risky to possess; secondly, that the game had no market system whatsoever and didn't even have a secure trade feature (it was added much later); and thirdly, that some of the game's most sought-after weapons and armor were crafted from ubiquitous Pyreal Motes and Crystal Shards.

Putting aside some of the more flavorful quirks of early Asheron's Call -- things that led to the commonplace inscription of item stats and the cataclysmic destruction of Arwic -- I'd like to focus on how players engaged in the most basic economic activity: trading.

Because there was very little economic motivation to amass money in Asheron's Call, economic activity in the game was minimal. Furthermore, the lack of any crafting system and related resource-gathering system meant that players, by and large, didn't acquire much "stuff" to sell to others; most of what was looted was vendor trash. Rarely, a particularly good piece of equipment would drop, and players figured it would be more valuable traded to another than sold to the vendor. But what would they want to trade it for? Not money.

Players instead defaulted to a more limited barter system. The "currency" of the market became the desirable motes and shards, items that everyone wanted. These became so common that players would list the items they wished to "sell" on forums and attached to each a price in motes and shards.

Even more enterprising economists would analyze the market and the frequency of motes and shards and would maintain a "currency exchange rate" between coin, motes, and shards, for those wanting to make sure they were getting a fair deal. In the absence of monetary value, motes and shards became the de-facto currency of Dereth.

Asheron's Call

Prior to an actual exchange taking place, players need a means of communicating their desire to buy or sell an item to one another. This communication took place in two main formats: through external means (mainly forums where people posted what items they had for sale or wanted to buy) and through internal means (mainly players standing around in Arwic /shouting the items they wanted to sell). Players interested in "shopping" would either visit the forums or Arwic and hope to find something they were interested in buying.

In Asheron's Call, this economic activity was generally viable thanks to a very significant factor: there wasn't very much to trade. The items being exchanged were randomly-generated loot, within which there were a relatively small subset of factors determining the value of those items.

For example, crossbows would have damage modifiers; the most desirable crossbow had the highest damage modifier. All magical effects on items in Asheron's Call were spells that could be cast by players, so magical properties were of lesser consideration than the base numbers. As a result, when players went to market, they basically had one item type they wanted and basically just wanted the best available of that type.

And so, long before the days of auction houses or bazaars, the motes and shards would flow in the rather primitive Derethian economy.

Intro to Economic Theory

Economic theory is based on the notions of Perfect Market Competition, the ideal conditions for economic behaviour that, sadly, elude us in the real world.

However, in virtual worlds, many of the otherwise untenable features manifest themselves: there tend to be no barriers to entry, as every player has the same intrinsic capability to engage in any of the game's internal economic activities (harvesting, crafting, trading, etc.); factors of production tend to be highly mobile in most games (once you can craft something, you can do so anywhere, at any time, without an investment in capital); products are homogeneous (all healing potions are exactly the same; all crafted Scorpion Harnesses are identical); and there are constant returns to scale (no matter how many potions you make, it still costs the same to produce each one).

This means that many of the core theories of economics, those of supply, demand, marginal revenue and the like, can be applied fairly directly to MMORPG virtual economies. The key issue -- and, as we shall see, the dominant one in virtual economic theory -- is how a game designs its market around the concept of perfect information.

Perfect Information means that all producers and consumers know the price and quality of all goods. In the case of quality of goods, most games do present that exact information to players. In World of Warcraft, you can hover your mouse over an item and a pop-up box lists every relevant statistic for that item. Is this sword better than that sword?

The player has all the information necessary to make that judgment. There is no question of material quality, branding, or any other factors other than actual performance of an item when determining its value (aside from aesthetic purchase decisions). It doesn't make any difference whatsoever who makes or who sells you an item: it's the exact same item every time. The issue, then, is whether or not players know the price of an item.

The price of anything is what its purchaser will pay for it, as we all know. However, the value of an item is its opportunity cost: the cost to obtain that item. In MMORPGs, the "price" players inherently "pay" for everything is time: the cost of an herb that takes 10 minutes to harvest is 10 minutes of time.

In order to extrapolate the value of time, players merely need to determine what activities they could be spending that time doing: if, in 10 minutes, you could harvest one herb, five pieces of ore, or get 10 gold, then the value of 10 minutes is one herb, five ore, or 10 gold. Most things in an MMORPG can be derived from their time-based cost, because most things can be acquired merely as a matter of time.

A rare item that only has a 5 percent drop rate from a rare monster that only spawns once an hour has an opportunity cost of about 20 hours. Because chance is involved, the actual cost to any given player will vary: some people will "pay" a lot of time and never get it; others will stumble across the monster and get the item with very little cost.

In any case, if players value things in terms of time, then they can determine what they would be better off doing with their time. Continuing from our earlier example, if five ore sells on the auction house for five gold, then you would be better off getting gold and buying ore than harvesting the ore yourself. This notion of "better off" is another of the tenants of perfect competition: each player should be a profit maximizer.

Players are not necessarily profit maximizers. Ultimately, players are playing a game to have fun, and this "fun factor" cannot be discounted in virtual economics. If it is significantly more fun to mine five ore than to get 10 gold, players might prefer to harvest the ore themselves rather than buy it, simply because they find the activity more pleasurable, even if the economic outcome is unfavourable.

This fun-seeking behavior can cause market irregularities: for example, if the majority of players enjoy mining a lot, the market for ore might become depressed as many players mine it and attempt to sell it -- given there are few players interested in buying it.

This example does raise a crucial point: the deflation in the value of ore does not come from a glut in supply, but rather from a glut in suppliers. The prices are not low simply because there is a lot of ore in existence, but because players are harvesting it and placing it on the market at a higher rate than players are consuming it and buying it from the market.

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Jan Koschel
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Thank you for this article and introduction on virtual world economics. While I agree with a large portion of your assessment, the ideal conditions for a working market you suggest do not, from my point of view, take one very important factor into account: the effect of goldfarming activities on virtual world economies, which greatly alter supply and demand of goods and currency as well as overall market interaction between players.

Online worlds with a free market trade system are very susceptible to those illicit and - game operations wise - very cost-intensive external party activities as they increase customer service costs as well as player retention expenditures. The goal for an optimal economic / trade design for an online world should give players as much freedom as possible without allowing for undesirable activities by external third parties.

This can be accomplished by means external to the online world (like the free-to-play business model) as well as by means internal to the online world via building robust goldfarming-proof trade mechanics and systems.

An article I wrote based on my thesis that addresses the "internal to the online world" option can be found at

Adam Bishop
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I liked the article, but while Simon focusses here primarily on auction houses, I think it's interesting to contrast that to the rest of the in-game economy, which is primarily NPC vendor-based. Mr. Ludgate says that these auction house systems are liable to work as capitalist marketplaces much better than some real-life capitalist marketplaces, I think something interesting to note is that the NPC vendor portion of the economy has much more in common with a socialist marketplace.

NPC vendor economies actually make up the bulk of the economy (at least, they did when I played WoW a few years back), and they are characterised by something that most people scoff at in the real world - price controls. The price of all necessary items in MMOs tends to be fixed at a specific point, partly to drain a controllable amount of resources out of the in-game economy, and partly because it feels more fair to players. Unlike in the real world, where price controls inevitably fail because goods are scarce and black markets emerge, MMO creators can effortlessly keep prices level because supplies are infinite.

Generally speaking, MMO economies are designed so that they feel fair, but more importantly so that they are fun. I think the main reason for this is that, despite what many economic theorists like to believe, most people actually are not profit maximizers. When I play an MMO, I'm not looking to amass the most amount of gold or resources in the least amount of time, I'm looking to have as much fun as possible, regardless of the other consequences. And while I know it's dangerous to extrapolate too much from your personal experiences, I suspect that my attitude is pretty common (outside of EVE, at any rate).

Ardney Carter
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"And while I know it's dangerous to extrapolate too much from your personal experiences, I suspect that my attitude is pretty common (outside of EVE, at any rate)."

No, that attitude is pretty common in EVE as well. A sizable part of the population is interested solely in PvP. But due to the fact that engaging in PvP actually carries significant risks to your ability to do so in the future (it's kind of hard to fight with no ship, after all) everyone has to be at least aware of the market.

But thanks to the tools provided, that's easy for anyone to do and as a result, you know exactly what you're risking whenever you get into an engagement. Knowing precisely how much you need to have onhand to replace your losses should things go bad is actually very handy.

Michael Wenk
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I think that an AH or Eve Online Market has its place in an MMO, so does a bazaar. I started out with MMOs with UO and UO has a completely different economy. Its based on the shop concept, like the bazaar. Players had housing that they placed, and in that housing they placed vendors. Within the vendors you placed items. It may have had an "auction house" as well, I stopped playing quite a few years ago, having consumed all the content I wanted from that game.

You marketed your items by making your housing stand out. It was difficult to find items, that is true, and this is a flaw, but in essence it rewards those that are willing to go out and look. And honestly it was fun to go out and check out people's houses, especially after they put into place the custom housing tool.

I think that MMOs cater way too much to the people that play for the economy and to get items. I bet over two thirds of the players that level to 80 never leave the cities after they hit 80 with the possible exception of events, and possibly wintergrasp. They use the LFG tool to get into instances and get summoned to their raids. In my opinion, you could cut the actual land in WoW by at least 50% and few would notice, and fewer of the ones that do notice would care.

Now imagine if WoW had player housing and shops. You now have empowered the players to put a lasting mark on the world. Other players are motivated to look at interesting things, and to go out and find deals for items. No longer do you have lag filled towns full of players. If you spread the housing around, then you spread the majority of the players around. This would make for interesting game play.

Aaron Truehitt
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Ultima Online didn't have a ton of different things to buy though, since a lot of it was basic. Plus you'd lose things fast in that world as well. So it worked out in Ultima. In others like FFXIV, its cumbersome to just try and find a level 11 robe you want for one class you are working on. NPC Shops in FFXIV don't even have armor for you to use or rarely. WoW has to many items as well to make player made shops work efficiently.

Simon Ludgate
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@Jan, I agree that RMT adds a whole new dynamic to the topic of virtual economies. I've touched on this topic in the past (see my two-part study of EVE Online and RMT here:

) and I've been researching and studying the issue in the year since. The issue of RMT itself is multi-faceted: it can disrupt the game economy, it can disrupt gameplay, it can lead to criminal activity (eg: account hacking), and it can put tremendous strain on the technological and human resources of a company. There are equally many ways to combat it, and I am not in a position to talk about the legal and technical side of counter-RMT strategies. However, I can write about how RMT can be reduced through game design choices, and would be happy to write a follow-up article discussing these issues.

@Adam, actually on page 2 of my article, I do touch specifically on the issue that NPC merchants and their fixed prices mean that "gold" isn't actually a fiat currency. At the same time, I would counter-argue that most players do not buy much from NPCs and that, in WoW in particular, NPCs don't sell any gear worth buying. This is not true of "badge" gear, which is worthwhile, but because badges cannot be traded this isn't really part of the economic model of the game. Thus, of the things that are economic merchandise in WoW (eg: crafting materials, consumables, and BoE loot), none of these things can be purchased from NPC vendors with gold. "Content-gates" such as training are another issue entirely and part of the MIMO equation (second half of page 2) rather than the virtual economy.

In regards to the "socialism" aspect, this is present in games, but it is not, as you incorrectly assumed, tied to the NPC vendors. It is, in fact, tied to the production of resources in the game world itself: every player can gather every good directly without actual or imposed limitations (such as limited farmland or a monopoly consortium) preventing their acquisition of goods. It is these infinite supplies that ensure a stable economy, rather than the supplies obtained from NPC vendors.

On your other point, I do know many players who do not amass fortunes in online games. I know many people who spend their gold as soon as they get it. But this ties in strongly to the opportunity cost theory of economics. Whenever a player is presented with the need to obtain something, they can either earn the gold to buy it or obtain the item directly. I would argue that most players, even those who are not value maximizers, still weigh the value of these two choices (along with their personal preferences of how they want to play) in deciding whether to obtain gold and buy the item or obtain the item itself.

@Ardney, you bring up a good point in EVE Online that many players don't like having to "farm isk." I always thought that the most interesting possible correlation of this would be if PVPers could protect "carebears" in nullsec, allowing the carebears to get much more money than if they mined or ratted in high security space and provide the pvpers with "protection money" for their time. However, it has been my experience that other technical limitations in the game, primarily in controlling space and providing 24/7 overwatch, effectively renders this possible symbiotic relationship impossible. Still, it's an interesting design consideration that future MMORPG creators should keep in mind when designing a pvp-centric game.

@Michael, while I agree that the idea of player marketing seems appealing, it rarely works out this way in the actual game. The economic structure of the game (ie: what items are available for sale) also plays a huge role in whether or not such a model can be viable. I did point out that a market was not needed in Asheron's Call, but that there were also very few items worth buying or selling. In my FFXIV case study I point out that players have many thousands of items to sell and 10 slots on their retainer to sell them. Moreover, many items are needed to craft something: a Bronze Haubergeon takes over 20 unique components to create. There's also no means to make your retainer stand out - you can purchase a stall in the market wards, but these are generally ignored by players who have come to expect outrageously high prices in stall retainers.

All of these factors make a more comprehensive market all the more necessary in that particular game. Instead, most players with whom I have spoken in FFXIV refuse to browse market wards entirely. They either buy directly from friends - such as through a Linkshell - or they browse the Yellow Gremlin market system: effectively, looking for a searchable market when the game failed to provide one.

J Calton
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@ Simon

Bear in mind that buy orders wouldn't work for random game items. Or, rather, implementation would rapidly scale up with the amount of variables/statistics involved in each item.

Your magicless crossbow example from Asheron's Call isn't really the sort of thing that happens nowadays, but in such a case, you could put in a buy order for a crossbow with +50 damage (or whatever) and implementation would be viable.

I'm imagining games in the vein of Diablo or Borderlands where the randomly-generated items ARE the game as the worst-case scenario. Of course, even Diablo II had popular set items and so forth (anyone remember Stone of Jordan?) and it would work for those items.

Regarding this paragraph: "factors of production tend to be highly mobile in most games (once you can craft something, you can do so anywhere, at any time, without an investment in capital); products are homogeneous (all healing potions are exactly the same; all crafted Scorpion Harnesses are identical); "

Classic Star Wars galaxies had buy/sell orders for raw materials and components, but middle components and final products such as weapons did not always come out the same. There was no such thing as a standard "Mark V Blaster" or even the "Widget Level 2". You could craft for free only in town, but those crafting stations were sub-par. The best crafting came from the best crafting stations, which were made from the best crafters using the best components made using the best raw materials.

Also in that game, resources were randomly generated. If you needed "space iron," sometimes the world got good space iron and sometimes it didn't. I remember on my server there was a category of metal needed for a type of medium armor that never generated on any planet, ever, in the first 12 months of the game. I wrote Sony about it and they replied "try to buy it at auction from another player" which was obviously impossible. A better answer would have been "Keep subscribing--maybe it will appear tomorrow."

I also think if you're going into detail about MMO market economies, you have to at least mention cash games, particularly Entropia Universe (holds multiple records for in-game cash transactions--currently over half a million dollars). Real world money for online goods is not a secondary market--it *is* the in-game market. It is a MIMO on a huge scale, because they *have* to cause more M.O. than M.I. or else the company will go bankrupt; but if there is too much MO, nobody will play it. Every action in that game has not only an opportunity cost, but an *actual* cost as well. Going out to harvest or use skills or fight involves the loss of equipment durability, which can be expressed directly in real-world dollars. The game really makes each person a small-business owner in their free time, even straight-up Club types. If you want to fight something that pays on average $5.00 an hour, which deals fire damage and your armor decays at the rate of $6.00 an hour against fire damage, then you are paying $1.00 an hour to fight those things. So maybe you pay $20 for fire-resistant armor, but then you have to farm for X hours to get your money back (99% of the time you will never get 100% of your money back or else the company would collapse). And meanwhile, make sure you don't fight any NON-fire creatures on the way to and from your farming or else they will cost you even more money.

Of course putting pressure on the marketplace was an obvious way to make real-world money. Buy up all of Product X to drive up the price, create demand (or scarcity), then re-sell it for a profit. Cash out. What prevented you from doing this? Simple market forces: competition desiring to do the same thing made monopolies impossible, just like the ideal real-world market.

Stephen Chin
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Very nice article; I'd love to see a more focused indepth look from you on Eve in particular.

Zoran Iovanovici
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One of the best articles I've ever read on the subject! My thanks to you for such an informative and well written piece.