November 24, 2006
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Games and Economics

Torill has been reading the tea leaves on upcoming changes in World of Warcraft. Some of these changes are going to require players to get lots of gold; this seems to be good news for people (many of them working in Asia) who make a living gathering WoW gold and selling it on eBay. Does this signal an alliance between the game vendor and the gold farmers?

The answer may be simpler: perhaps Blizzard simply wants to adjust the internal economy of the game. If there's too much gold in circulation, you need to find a way to draw it back out. You give people new stuff to buy, or you increase prices, or you install taxes. Whatever you do, it makes some people livid. And, inevitably, economic policies have unforeseen consequences -- including windfall profits for profiteers.

City of Heroes has a chronic economic problem. It's clear that, in the authors' initial vision, a secondary market would encourage people to trade "enhancements" acquired from the villains they arrested. Nobody does this: you sell the enhancements at a deep discount and buy the ones you need. It's just too hard to find a buyer and a seller. CoH was designed, in part, to be more fun by eliminating some of the tedious bits of WoW, so there aren't rare items to camp and you don't need to craft stuff. A side-effect of the design has been that there's too much money in circulation and nobody is very careful about spending.

A serious puzzle about macroeconomic manipulation in game worlds is achieving your policy goals without unwanted side-effects, and also without the seams showing so badly that they disrupt the narrative. Last year, the designers concluded that they'd accidentally blundered on character design: the best characters max'ed out damage, so it was a losing strategy to emphasize speed or agility or endurance. They fixed this with a technical rule change that reduced the damage of characters that specialized in damaging villains, and this provoked loud howls of pain. "They have nerfed my blaster! I quit!"

(indent,"A better solution might have been to change the villains, so they were better at taking damage -- perhaps especially from damage-heavy heroes. ")

Either way, economic policy yields complex chains of cause and effect.