Black Hole Economics

Posted: June 13, 2007 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts

Inspired by a discussion I’m having with Potshot in the comments of his “It’s the Economy, Stupid” post, I took to thinking about the idea of dynamic vendor economies in MMO’s. 

It’s a subject dear to my heart, as I made my first fortune in old Everquest by a mysterious and arcane rite known as “merchant mining”.  It was a bit like antiquing online, as I’d go to various merchants around the lands looking for whatever cast-offs someone decided to sell, to see if I might find some treasures among other players’ trash. 

I loved the idea that the merchants themselves were dynamic in that way, that they held on to items other players sold, and then would resell them.  I loved that having a higher reputation with a particular city or political faction might better your prices.  Even “charisma” (that black sheep of RPG statistics) greatly enchanced my chances at getting a good deal (I used to carry around a set of Charisma gear just for selling to vendors). 

Fast-forward 500 years and apparantly Wal-Mart has taken over Norrath in the aftermath of The Shattering.  Everywhere I go I generally tend to find the same prices – and everyone buys everything, but nothing you sell is for sale. 

Collect item X which is apparantly worth something to NPC vendors (but worthless to player characters), sell the item, and then watch in amazement as the item disappears forever!  *poof*

It’s a little something I like to call “Black Hole Economics”. Those 1’s and 0’s are now gone from the world as we know it.  They’ve been eaten by a quantum singularity of epic x4 proportions. 

Well, that’s certainly not very fun, now is it?  How “alive” does that make the NPC’s feel? 

I think the immersion would be better served by having merchants who are a tad more discerning in what it is they buy, and by having descriptions on “vendor trash” items that make sense.

Bear with me a bit here. Imagine the following:

I’m a new adventurer in a big, big world. I go out and kill a heebyjeeby that was about to attack me (it’s coming right for us!). When it’s dead, I start ripping the carcass apart in case I find it’s liver or what?

Ideally, I have some idea that the liver of a heebyjeeby (in good shape) is a prized delicacy. I also remember hearing once that heebyjeeby teeth are pretty symmetrical, and are prized as arrow heads. I might even recall hearing once that heebyjeeby horns are made of a substance that, when ground to a powder and mixed with the appropriate agents, makes a pretty good detoxifier.

In game terms, these items have a chance to “drop” from heebyjeeby’s and when looked at (i.e., examined, moused-over, right clicked, etc), give a descriptive text which either hints at the above uses or just flat out explains it.

Now, when I get back to town, the local blacksmith isn’t interested in the heebyjeeby liver at all. He’s not interested in the horn, either. There’s even a pretty good chance he’s not interested in the teeth (unless he happens to make/sell arrows). No, he passes on it all.

However, when you wander by the local butcher shop, that liver nets you a cool 50 silver, and the horn manages to bring in a nice 2 shiny gold pieces down at the apothecary’s shop. Try selling the teeth to bowyer or hunter and you might get different prices.

The idea isn’t to just hand over X coin for Y product no matter which vendor you speak to. The idea is to build a metagame based on vendor selling, which could even result in players who know where the really good prices are (or who have worked faction up to get even better prices) going out in the world offering to buy up raw materials direct from other players at a lower price (to still make a profit at the appropriate vendors).

In other words, smart players who learn the local econonmies are rewarded more than average players, you keep an immersive time/space sink in the game, and the game makes more sense.

Here’s a different angle to the idea: have the potions only exist on apothecaries as players provide the ingredients necessary. If no one’s turning in horns, or if players are buying up the potions quickly, then the potions increase in cost.

To further add a layer of immersive complexity, restrict NPC merchants/crafters to certain levels of quality on products. These are retailers, not necessarily master level crafters (much as city guards aren’t master level adventurers).

Have these lower quality items as supplies or fodder that can be used as a base for more refined, higher quality goods by PC crafters.

In this example, heebyjeeby horns can be sold to NPC apothecaries. The apothecary sells “heebyjeeby horn poultices” which sell for a base of 1 gold each. Turning in more horns reduces the price of the poultices for you (think of it as a suppliers discount). Eventually, you work the price down to half a gold per poultice.

These poultices would be useful, but not nearly as useful as “Refined Detoxifying Agents”, which can be made from several different methods, including (you guessed it), heebyjeeby horn poultices.

I think that this idea has some good merits to it, and it certainly touches on several issues close to my heart.  I made fortunes in old Everquest just by “playing the markets”, and indeed I felt that working the Bazaar was oftentimes more fun than adventuring.

  1. cdsorden says:

    I feel like this would be one of those “sounds cool” ideas that actually gets a horrible reception. The problem is that it’s inconvenient to stop by every vendor in town to maximize the profits from your loot, and it requires both time and knowledge of the town layout to do so.

    You’ve then made your game unfriendly to newbies (who won’t know where any of the vendors are) and casuals (who only play for 1-2 hours in a sitting and can’t spend 30-45 minutes traveling around a sprawling town to hit all the vendors).

    While it might seem like a fun mini-game the first time or the first few times, sooner or later a player will figure out who gives him the most cash for his items and it becomes a boring time sink to unload your goods.

    The interaction with vendor-sold items is kind of cool, but then you have the issue of players needing items and the vendor not having it because no one has bothered selling something to him in a while. So crafting becomes that much more time consuming and annoying because you either have to pay exorbitant rates to the people who immediately buy the special “turn-over” items from the vendor for huge resale prices or go out and farm item A, sell it to the vendor so he makes item B, and then hope you can buy item B back from him before some other faster player snags it for resale and your effort is wasted.

    No-drop alleviates this a bit, but then you still have the issue of low population and empty vendors.

  2. kendricke says:

    One player’s boring timesink is another player’s reason for playing.

    Most games fully acknowledge and embrace the idea that there’s many types of niche “metagames” that certain types of players really enjoy. Be it PVP, tradeskilling, raiding, questing, collecting, housing, pets, or in this case, playing the market(s).

    Think back to Everquest. You’re absolutely right that most players didn’t bother dealing with this merchant or that. Most players simply didn’t care. You found a merchant or two that you got decent prices on and that’s where you went from then on. Most players didn’t even bother trying to “maximize” profits, because it wasn’t an important priority for them.

    Honestly, you can do this now in EQ2 (on a much smaller scale than in old Everquest), but how many players bother to find out which merchants give the best sell back rates? Most just go to the merchants closest to the dock, or to the bell, or whichever vendor happens to be closest to the nearest broker.

    Even then, how many players bother to go to vendor’s houses for every purchase? Most just eat the broker fee (another black hole moneysink) and just go about their business.

    To players like these, the above suggestions aren’t likely to impact their playtime much, if at all. They’ll either find the right merchants to sell to (and remember where they are) or they’ll just destroy the “vendor trash” and move right along.

    But for those players who did care, this was the kind of polish that could add that little-bit-extra (TM) to the overall gaming enjoyment.

    Besides, if the idea that some merchants won’t buy product at all is somehow considered too annoying or hassling, just create a situation where there are “broker” style merchants who pretty much wait by city gates, docks, or other entry points who will buy up anything and everything you have that has any value at all…but not nearly at the prices you’d see some vendors buying the items for.

    Again, the idea isn’t to outright lock players out of content, but to provide avenues for skill and effort to provide more rewards. Isn’t that supposed to be part of the point of playing these games? …that knowledgeable and skilled players who put in more effort find greater rewards than everyone else?

    To paraphrase Raph Koster, “we play for glory”. Without other players to compare against, and without situations where we can compare, there is no opportunity for glory.

  3. Meeka says:

    I have a friend who loves this sort of thing. In EQ he knew which vendors were likely to have tradeskilling stuff on them he could resell in the bazaar, what days were best to check them, etc. We called it dumpster diving. 😉

    He enjoys this and still laments that it’s hard to find in games he enjoys. When VG was being created, he hopped on a plane and went to that early meeting just so he could personally stress to Brad and the team how important this was to the economy and to his and other people’s enjoyment of the game. He was of course told it would absolutely be in there for him, and of course it wasn’t.

    I still try to find the merchants that will sell for the best prices, for I am cheap! I think it would be great if merchants bought items based on need – the armor merchant paying more for armormaking stuff and tossing you a few copper for something they would completely not be interested in. Back in EQ I used to look at an item and run to merchants that would deal with those items to compare prices, it made sense to me then that they would, or should. Though I don’t think they always did. Then again, it was always easier as I was a chanter and charisma was no issue, nor was being liked by a faction (assuming there was one that was castable on – while it was true when I was low level and would hit the attack button by accident at the merchant, later on some became unattackable and/or just immune to faction changing effects).

    I have to say, I’m not sure what path ended me up on your blog today, but I’m glad I stumbled across it. 😉

  4. potshot says:

    What this whole thing my really lead to is the development of a mini-game based on inter-region trade. That might take some of the sting out of the “time sump” aspect. Less needle in a haystack profit optimization and the evolution of a “trader” class or profession.

    Maybe too many sims and RTS games make me want to revisit the trade route concept as an MMO minigame.

    Hard to balance something like this in a world with quick travel, but just imagine if you could develop your bargaining skill and favor over time? Sort of Vanguard’s idea of diplomacy meets the virtual world economy.

    This sort of profession or metaskill could be developed by doing npc-only based quests, but ultimately have effects on all a player’s interactions with the NPC world (i.e., respected Journeyman merchant gets a discount from all npc vendors in a particular region where faction or favor is attained…)

  5. […] is highly subjective, but hey, its a blog.  Kendricke and I started kicking around a few ideas that grew out of our apparent mutual hatred for vendor trash.  The other part of that […]

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