Monday, May 7, 2007

The link between level and gold

Once upon a time, in a galaxy not so far away, there was a MMORPG named Everquest. It wasn't *the* first MMORPG, but it was *a* first in many of its aspects, being 3D and level-based, as opposed to the 2D and skill-based Ultima Online. And it was a lot more "massively multiplayer" than its MUD roots. And so with little precedent to go on, the developers had to design many features and interactions from scratch. And many of the things the EQ developers designed have become standards and conventions of the MMORPG industry. One feature I want to talk about today is the link between your character level, and the virtual gold you earn. And I want to explore what went wrong with that concept, and whether its time to throw it overboard.

The main source of money flowing into a MMORPG economy is loot from monsters. While you might make a lot of virtual gold by playing the auction house or selling things in other ways to other players, that process doesn't create gold, it just moves it around in the economy. Only by finding coins or loot on a monster, or by getting items from some sort of treasure chest or resource node, and selling the items to a NPC vendor, is money brought into the economy. And the design basis from Everquest on earning this gold was that how much you could earn depended strongly on your level. At level 1 you would be killing rats and sell rat whiskers for 1 copper piece to a vendor, while at high level you would be killing giants that dropped platinum pieces as loot. Your virtual wealth would grow with your level, giving you another incentive to level up.

The developers obviously thought that your wealth being tied to your level was well implemented and written in stone. Thus the items in Everquest did not have a minimum level, and most weren't bound to the person picking it up, but could be traded freely. Apparently the designers were thinking that this wouldn't be a problem, as a low-level character would never be able to get hold of a high-level armor or weapon. He wouldn't be able to kill the mob that dropped it, and he wouldn't be able to afford the item when it was sold on the open market. This turned out to be a fundamental design flaw, because the developers hadn't thought of two major developments: asymmetric trades and mudflation.

Asymmetric trades is when character in the game gives something to another character in the game for nothing or much less than it is worth. It turns out that this happens very frequently, especially if the two characters belong to the same character. EQ didn't have mailboxes or shared bank accounts, but you could drop items on the ground in a secluded spot, quickly log off, log on your alt and pick it up. Or you gave the item or gold to somebody you trusted to hand it to your alt. Asymmetric trades also happened between friends, relatives, guild mates, and then people selling platinum on EBay started to appear. All that meant that a low level character now could get hold of virtual currency far in excess of anything he could have earned himself.

Mudflation is a form of deflation, where the value of a specific item in the game world drops. In Everquest the majority of items weren't bound to the players in any way, thus you could always sell your old equipment to other players when you found better things. Lets take a specific item, the Short Sword of the Ykesha (SSOY), dropping from a level 47 ghoul lord in the Lower Guk dungeon. At the start of the game none of these existed. Then some day people were high enough in level to go to lower Guk and the first SSOY dropped, being incredibly valuable at the time. And from then on more and more SSOY entered the EQ economy. And because it was a good weapon, very few of it ever left the EQ economy, instead being handed down from player to player. With more and more SSOYs in the economy, supply rose and demand stayed the same, so the market value of a SSOY dropped. Until at some point a low level twink with a couple of platinum pieces from his high-level character or a friend could buy a SSOY and start killing level 1 mobs with a level 47 magic sword. Which is obviously working a lot better than doing it with a level 1 rusty knife.

Later games introduced level limits to items, or made at least the magical items bound to the characters using them, so they couldn't be handed down to lower level players. Nevertheless twinking was never totally eliminated. In WoW you can still see lots of level 19 or 29 players in battlegrounds equipped with the rarest and most expensive armor available at that level, financed by some higher level character. With features like mailboxes or shared bank vaults nowadays making transfers between characters much easier, you basically have a common pool of wealth shared over all of your characters. And gold farming has become a multi-million dollar industry, allowing you to even twink your very first character. How rich or poor you are depends on how you play the game, whether you have higher level characters or friends, whether you buy gold, and has little relationship to your level any more.

Still the level 1 rat drops copper pieces and the high-level giant drops gold or platinum. If you have a level 70 character and a new level 40 character, both being dirt poor, and you don't want to buy gold, but you do want to earn enough gold to buy your first level 40 mount, what do you do? Grinding gold with your level 40 character would be obviously stupid. You can earn a lot more gold grinding with your level 70 character and then mailing the gold to your alt. As your wealth is shared between all your characters, and the earnings depend on your level (as long as you don't cheat an buy gold), your wealth is effectively controlled by your highest level character, with little or no contribution from the others. With a low level character you can play the auction house, but you can't make much money by killing mobs or gathering resources, and you can't even make money by crafting, because crafting is also often linked to your character level.

We are trapped in a convention coming from a flawed design of an old game. There is absolutely no reason any more for your virtual earnings being linked to your level. A system in which a character could earn the same amount of gold pieces per hour from different activities, regardless of his character level, would work just as well. You would just need to have minimum levels on all items, and have all money sinks, like training costs, also remain constant with level. The only real resource a player puts into a game is time, so why shouldn't one hour of his time be worth the same amount of virtual gold, regardless of level?

The big advantage of such a system would be that you could finally create an economically viable crafting system. Right now it might well happen that both a level 5 character and a level 70 character both decide to take up a craft like smithing at the same time. Assuming the low-level character isn't twinked in any way, he will have to run around and mine copper, to craft himself his first low-level armor, which isn't really good. Meanwhile the level 70 just buys all the copper from the auction house and skills up smithing in a very short time. That leads to the perverse situation that the low-level smith is actually better of mining the copper, selling it on the auction house, and buying magic loot drop armor from the proceeds. He'll end up with no smithing skill, but better armor and more money. If both the level 5 and the level 70 character would make the same money from killing mobs, they would also compete on equal footing in the area of crafting. Being able to skill up a tradeskill to the highest level in one hour, as long as you have the cash to buy the resources just shows how broken the current crafting systems are.

Another advantage of a flat money distribution, instead of a level-based one, would be that twinking, and in consequence buying gold from gold farmers, becomes less interesting for the lower level characters. While the current system forces the gold farmers to level up first, once they are high level they earn more gold per hour than any lower level character. So one hour of their time is worth more than one hour of the regular low level player's time, and they can use that leverage to sell him the gold he needs. Whether your low level character is twinked by a higher level character of yours, by a higher level character of a friend, or by a high level gold farmer in the end has the same effect on the economy. The motivation to earn little money with your low level character when you know how much more a high level character makes just isn't there. And it is the big cash pool of the high level characters that ends up dictating many auction house prices.

Tying virtual earnings to your level has just lead to problems, from Everquest to the MMORPGs of today. You might argue that you'd expect a dragon to be richer than a goblin, but it isn't as if current dragons would really have treasure hoards. Poor Onyxia has less cash on her than the price of a good (aka epic) horse, Smaug would be ashamed of her. And if you designed it right, the dragon could still have more cash than the goblin, just as long one hour of dragon killing earned you the same as one hour of goblin killing. It is time to cut the link between gold and level, it serves no useful purpose.

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