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[In this, the first part of a three-part series, MMO economy expert Simon Ludgate examines the concept of fairness -- how the economy of a game, and the way items function, can keep the player base convinced that the game is fair, and thus, satisfying to play -- and how some games have either maintained or destroyed this delicate and abstract concept through their designs.]
Late last year, I wrote an article about Virtual Economic Theory. It was fairly broad, covering a number of basics and a few specific case studies. This series of articles go beyond the basics and examine major current issues in MMORPG economies, with the help of some of the people who brought those systems into existence. If you haven't read the original article, give it a skim over; I'll try not to duplicate much of that material in the pages that follow.
Joining me are a few of the legends in MMORPG history (listed are the games which we discussed):
There are three major F-words in today's MMORPGs: Fairness, Faucets, and Free-to-Play. As it happens, these three systems are very tightly intertwined.
In order to better understand the dynamics of MMORPG economies, consider the far simpler example of single-player games. In a single-player game, everything about the game is within the domain of the developer's control. The developer makes all the rules: whether or not monsters respawn, whether or not they drop coin, how much inventory space you have, what things drop and when and where. All of these details are determined by the developer. Indeed, all of these details are carefully crafted to produce a planned game experience.
"When you're creating a solo player game, whether you're talking about advancement in your character's attributes or advancements in their wealth and what they can buy with that wealth -- the next armour or equipment -- those are quite controllable, quite containable," explains Richard Garriott, when describing his work on the Ultima single player RPGs.
"We can very tightly constrain the ways that players have to earn money so by the time that they reach a certain point in the story we can know with pretty good authority what we call the relative scale of money they have in their pocket is. You can increase the scale of wealth and the scale of where they are in the story and you keep them in quite close lock-step."
Scaling is an important element in maintaining the sense of challenge in a game. In an RPG, the challenge of an encounter is directly proportional to the difference between your level and the level of your foes. If you are level 10 and your foes are level 10, the challenge might be normal; if you are level 12, the challenge might be easy and if you are 8 the challenge might be hard.
If you are too low -- if the challenge is too hard -- the usual player response is to backtrack and "level up" by completing easier challenges. This "grinding" is something many older players of JRPGs from the '80s and '90s will be intimately familiar with. However, if you are too high and the challenge is too easy (and you haven't been grinding all that much), the game just feels poorly designed. Shouldn't the developer have expected me to be level 15 by this point in the game?
One of the major changes in single-player RPG design has been the somewhat controversial implementation of dynamic content scaling. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was famously criticized by a portion of "hardcore" gamers for scaling every encounter throughout the entire game to the player's current level. Every dungeon you visited, even if you had previously encountered low-level monsters there, would have monsters at the player's current level.
You could never encounter a challenge that was too easy or too hard. That barrier to exploration, the sense that, at some point, you'll be strong enough to go somewhere, does not exist in Oblivion.
Bethesda's follow-up RPG hit, Fallout 3, used the same scaling to set the initial level of encounters, but "locked" the level of monsters once players visited an area, alleviating some of the annoyances with complete level scaling in Oblivion.
But MMORPGs don't scale. They can't, really, because players of all different levels might wander into the same area at the same time. You wouldn't want a game that would spawn a level 50 monster right next to a level 5 player just because a high level player was riding past. Thus MMORPGs scale their content in the same way that classical JRPGs did: monsters of various difficulty levels are intentionally painted over the landscape. Here's one of my favorite examples of this: a map of Dereth, the game world from Asheron's Call, showing the relative levels of monsters.
What does this have to do with fairness? The point is that the distinct graphical layout of monsters in Asheron's Call meant that players could directly associate areas with accomplishment. When I first set foot in the Obsidian Plains -- when I finally joined the elite ranks of Tusker-slayers who roamed the black heart of the Direlands -- that was an accomplishment. And any time there's a sense of accomplishment compared with others, there's also a sense of fairness.
Fairness is a very important concept in developing MMORPGs. That's because fairness doesn't exist in their single-player predecessors. "Cheating" and other forms of rule-changing in single-player games is not only acceptable, it's encouraged. Many games have difficulty settings or cheat codes that allow players to tailor the experience to suit their desires. Does it really matter that you beat the game on easy instead of hard? Only to you.