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August 6, 2001

Comments from Vex: Ultima Online's Economy

New to Comments From the Team:

I'd like to take a moment or five to talk about UO’s economy in a big-picture sort of way. The things I am writing about here are basically my thoughts and opinions as a game designer. Nothing written here is to be construed in any way as plans for future development on UO. My intent is to give you a little insight into my thought processes on the subject.

Most players will agree that, while UO’s economy in some respects works amazingly well, it also has some downsides. For example, take the housing trade. It has been a roaring success despite early on lack of support for secure house trading. Houses are bought, sold, and auctioned outside the game. UO’s virtual real-estate market reflects a real one in many ways. Some properties are at premium value and others are more modestly priced. Location, size, and other factors influence the market, which is entirely driven by its participants.

But, in other respects, like player-NPC trading, the system is completely controlled by the game engine. Prices for commodities are mostly fixed, somewhat limiting dynamic supply and demand-based economics. Furthermore, there is no guarantee of supply of a needed item (like spell reagents), making it somewhat inconvenient at times for players to get the things they need right away. It is clear that the system could be improved – and it is our job, as game designers, to create workable win-win solutions.

So, what is the basis for the imperfections in UO’s virtual economy? The answer lies in classic design approaches rooted in single-player games. Classic single-player design approach dictates a totally designed economic situation. It makes perfect sense in the context of a single-player game. Almost universally, prices and monster loot are fixed in single-player RPGs. Designers have goals in mind. In a single player RPG, the "economy" designed into it isn't an economy (in this context) at all. Rather, it is a subgame built into the whole. Game designers predetermine monster loot and shop item costs. Its whole purpose is to act as a barrier to overcome in order to win the game. Usually, by the end of such a game, the main character has more money than he can use. The economic subgame has been beaten. There is no point in simulating a supply and demand economy in this kind of game. It would just be a bunch of trees falling in a forest with nobody around to hear, while the player is busily slaughtering demons in the underworld.

Unfortunately, the same approach is almost universally used in multiplayer games as well. Better equipment costs more money, and higher-level monsters drop more. In the early game, a player might have to play for an hour to collect up a few hundred units of currency, but in the late game the money might be rolling in ten or a hundred times as fast. The only problem is, in a multiplayer game you have "lowbies" and "ubers" mixing it up together. One veteran player giving away the loot from one short hunting trip to a new player will totally blow the curve for the new player. One thousand gold coins might mean five minutes of play to a veteran, but five hours to a newbie. This illuminates a basic flaw of the multiplayer game's economy. It's true that in the real world, one hour of an all-star basketball player’s time might be worth thousands of hours of an average Joe's. The only difference is, in a multiplayer game, all players can reach that all-star level of virtual income just by progressing through the game. If everybody in the world got multimillion dollar contracts to do their jobs, then the dollar would be next to worthless.

How could it be designed better? That’s a tough one, for sure. The casual gamer probably doesn’t want to spend much time shopping. Being on a limited time budget, this type of player wants to equip and go. Many players would probably prefer fixed prices, considering that prices are generally stable in the real world and they’re used to fixed prices in single-player games. Merchants would prefer to see real supply and demand determine prices, finding the dynamics of a reality-based economy enjoyable. Virtual craftsmen want to be guaranteed a demand for their services. With so many different playstyles to accommodate, a perfect solution will be difficult indeed to find.

I'm going to leave this article at that, for now. For my next few Comments from the Team articles, I intend to delve deeper into this same subject. Eventually, I'll get around to exploring some possible solutions, and I look forward to discussing this subject at our upcoming Online Worlds Fanfest.

Michael “Vex” Moore
Designer, UO Live

Posted by Thellaren at August 6, 2001 9:45 PM

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