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MMO Chat: Scott Hartsman

An excerpt from my interview with Trion's Scott Hartsman as we discuss EQ2, Rift, and MMO Economies.

By now I'm sure everyone's read Part 1 of my new feature articles on MMORPG Economies. I started working on that series back in February, and a big part of the research that led to these articles was a series of interviews with notable industry figures. Unfortunately, I couldn't fit quite as many quotes from the interviews into the articles as I had hoped (I originally handed Christian a 15 page epic full of them) so I'm publishing the interviews themselves seperately.

The full (and rather lengthy) interview is posted here on my personal blog. What follows is a few choice segments I thought you might enjoy. So... enjoy!

This is going off from Rift for a moment into the realm of MMO design theory… Do you ever feel it is advantageous to add artificial limits to the knowledge players have of the game? In Final Fantasy XIV this was a big issue covered in Gamasutra recently where Hiromichi Tanaka was talking about their market wards system and how by making it difficult to see what other people are selling the item for you create a more fluid economy; he thought it was a good idea to limit that knowledge. Do you ever feel that way?

I don’t buy that. I really don’t. It may work for some reason in their game – no disrespect intended – but I think artificially hiding information like that is something we used to do back in the early 2000s and slightly before, but it’s something where when you really do that some subset of your players will figure out some way to get that information and if it provides a benefit they’ve now just been given a disproportionate advantage in the game.

There are some advantages that are fine, but there are some that can be really harmful. If you want to take a step back even farther; remember, some of these MMOs, including one that I worked on, we didn’t even tell you how much mana you had in-game, on your character. We told you how much mana your spells cost and it didn’t seem weird to us at all that we tell you your teleport spell costs 300 mana… well, how much mana do I have? Well, 5 bubbles? A bar? Eventually we just came around and went “ok, really, let’s not go hiding info that is actually germane to people.”

Another interesting thing about MMO economies that make them different from real-world economies is that the money – the coin – is created and destroyed as part of the game system. You kill some monsters, you sell an item, you turn in a quest and money is just created; when you buy something from an NPC or pay the fee for mail it’s actually removed from the world. How does Rift compensate for this? Does this tend to lead to rampant inflation as more and more money is added to the economy?

So what you want to create for the kind of game we’re making – every game will have their own answer – what I would like to see in our game – and we can actually track this through our own economic logging, every server spits out multiple gigs a day of econ logging (and, actually, we’re kind of having to deal with the size of it now) – what we really want is something that is slightly inflationary over time – not crazy inflationary – but you need the average player to be able to feel like they’re making progress and not feel like they’re having to flush away every single penny they spend. So in other words, a perfect Faucet-Drain model doesn’t work where you end up with “oh, for every gold that comes in, one gold goes out! I guess that means we’re doing good!” No it doesn’t! That means your game probably isn’t fun.

You’re setting up your players as heroes, villains, adventurers, in our game, Ascended, they need to feel like they are smarter than your average bear. They want to feel like they are better than… and if they have to pay every penny that they make in nobody feels like they’re making any headway. So you need something that does inflate over time, you need something that does have costs that build up over time, and that’s just part of the normal game lifecycle.

Plus you have to have some pocket change to be able to buy and sell stuff on the Auction House.

Exactly! And it’s nice to be able to treat yourself to things too. Here’s this ridiculously silly thing that I would never ever purchase, but you know what? Boom. There you go. I’m spending 150 plat on this awesome mount. Awww yeah! Why? Because he looks cool.

What about having giant money sinks at the very end? In World of Warcraft I think I got to 50,000 gold and realized “yeah, ok, gold is meaningless.” Once you’ve bought everything, once you have flying mounts on all your alts and all that, there’s nothing left to buy in the game. Some people have suggested player housing for games like WoW, where you might have a limited number of houses and players have to bid for the house, and the more money in the economy the more money gets sucked out through this. What about things like that in Rift?

That in particular – Housing – is more of a question of how do you want your game’s social structure to work and it is with economy. I’ve worked on a game that had them, I’ve worked on games that don’t, it’s a matter of what goes in to which game. Now, are you’re talking about big splurge items, or big limited-edition splurge items?

Well I think I mean unlimited splurge items. Housing for which you pay a monthly fee constantly sucks money out of the economy, as opposed to a mount where you buy it once and that’s it. Unless it were a rental exotic mount?

How enjoyable an experience is it in the real world to pay rent? Nobody wants that. It’s the same reason that people don’t want items that wear out over time. “This is mine.” They want a sense of “me” “mine” permanence. I got this thing. I’m not paying money to rent this thing where it’s not permanent to me. I like the idea of big splurge items a lot, I love the items of big expensive cosmetic items for people who enjoy that kind of thing, I’ve been guilty of doing it once or twice myself. But the idea of things that require upkeep is kind of a slippery slope. It’s very hard to make it feel such that the upkeep feels like it’s worth the amount of fun you’re getting.

Be sure to stay tuned to Gamasutra for part 2 of the F-Words of MMOs!

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