Part 2 of my series on how MMORPGs have changed between 1999 and 2006 is discussing items, and by extension the virtual economy of games. Actually the most surprising thing when you compare the Short Sword of the Ykesha (Everquest) with the Krol Blade (World of Warcraft) is how little has changed over 7 years of MMORPG development. People still can wield a one-handed weapon and a shield or off-hand item in the second hand, or they can wield a two-handed weapon. They still have a number of slots for armor items, from helmets down to boots. And there are slots for jewelry. Weapons play a role in determining the damage you deal in combat, armor determines your armor class, and all items can have bonuses to your stats.
The biggest difference between then and now is that while the Short Sword of Ykesha (SSOY) dropped from a level 47 Ghoul Lord deep in the Lower Guk dungeon, it was often seen on very low level characters. Everquest did not have a minimum level to use items. So if you had a second character of higher level, or enough platinum pieces, or a friendly guild mate, or you bought the SSOY on EBay, you could equip your level 1 warrior with it. This "twinking", equipping characters with items they couldn't possibly have acquired themselves was very widespread. Needless to say that the difference in power between a level 1 warrior carrying a rusty level 1 weapon and a level 1 warrior wielding a level 47 SSOY is huge.
In World of Warcraft the Krol Blade drops from random level 55ish mobs, but you need to be at least level 51 to wield it. Twinking still exists, and there is still a market for items like the Krol Blade, but the boost to the power of your twinked character has become a lot smaller. It isn't perceived as a big problem any more, and the words twinking and twink have largely disappeared from the vocabulary of modern MMORPG gamers.
The SSOY was famous because it was one of the best 1h-weapons you could twink with. The Krol Blade is famous because it is one of the *few* 1h-weapons you could twink with at the higher levels. While items that could not be traded already existed in Everquest, they have become much more prevalent in World of Warcraft. All quest rewards, and the large majority of rare (blue) and epic (purple) items are "bind on pickup", meaning the person acquiring them can only use the item for himself, or vendor it, or disenchant it, but not pass it to another player, or put it up for auction. Thus Krol Blades are rare and very expensive, and you don't see every level 51+ warrior running around with one.
The introduction of minimum levels to wield, and making most of the good stuff "bind on pickup" has positive effects on game play. It makes questing and dungeoneering the prime source of equipment. Given the time and organizational effort needed to organize a 40-man raid, it is pretty certain that a lot less people would be raiding if raids weren't the source of epic items that can't be gained by any other way. Compare that to a game like Star Wars Galaxies, where the best items were player-made, and there was no compelling reason for people to seek out and overcome big challenges.
On the other side, making the best items come from loot is doing tradeskills and crafting a disservice. Search any auction house in World of Warcraft, and you will see that less than 1% of the items traded there are player-made. Crafting is occupying some niches of the market, notably for bags (which was as true for EQ than it is for WoW), and for some those potions that can't be found as drops. But for crafted armor and weapons there isn't much of a market beyond the first couple of weeks on a new server. Pretty soon there are so many looted items floating around in the economy, that they become better and cheaper than crafted items.
What has changed in the player economies from 1999 to 2006 is the way people trade with each other. Early Everquest did not have any automated trading systems. People would gather at certain places, like the tunnel in West Commons, and just shout out the items they were looking to buy or sell. The Shadows of Luclin expansion added a bazaar for automated buying and selling between players, and different forms of bazaars or auction houses have been with us ever since. Games where the economy is based more on crafted items, and which have player housing, starting from Ultima Online and peaking with Star Wars Galaxies, have houses turned into shops. Instead of a central shopping station like the auction house, people wander around and search shops for goods. Relationships between shopkeepers and customers develop, with players that always have a good selection of items at reasonable prices developing quite a reputation. In spite of Napoleon's opinion of the English, most players prefer to play heroes and adventurers over playing shopkeepers. But as crafting is still quite popular, it is to be hoped that future games will find a better balanced between a loot-based and a tradeskill-based economy.
Related to the changes in trading items, the ways to transfer items between players have also improved. In Everquest you could still drop items on the ground, and pick them up again with another character, and that was the main way to transfer items between two of your characters. Not very safe, as other people could come and pick the item up while you were switching between characters. Dropped items have disappeared from games, but now you can transfer items between players on the same account using shared bank slots (EQ2) or by mail (WoW).
In any game where you can transfer items and virtual currency from one character to another, there exists the possibility of people trading virtual items for real world cash, the so-called Real Money Trade (RMT). Nothing much has changed there from Everquest to World of Warcraft. Officially RMT is against the terms of service of these games, and can get you banned. But the practice is widespread, with a market estimated to be worth an incredible $800 million per year. There are big companies like IGE selling virtual currency in nearly every game and every server. And the game companies are on shaky legal ground when claiming that all virtual items belong to them, not to the players, and are thus unwilling to sue IGE. They just occasionally ban some small fish, especially those gold farmers that use cheating programs or bots, then proclaim the bannings loudly for public relations reasons, but let the majority of the RMT continue. The biggest change since 1999 is that on some servers in EQ2 the RMT is now sanctioned by the game company, and done via a secure trading interface on the game companies website. With the obvious advantage of the game company earning money on the trading fees, instead of third parties. Sanctioned RMT with secure trading also removes a major source of costly customer service calls in which players complained about being scammed. At the moment it is not very clear where RMT is heading. Will it become sanctioned by more companies, or will it be eradicated by disabling transfer of virtual currency in games? My bet is on the former, but many game developers hate RMT with a passion, and so it could go either way.