Do you consider the economy implemented in your favorite MMORPG to be "advanced" compared to the current real-world Western economic system? Why or why not? How about in MMORPGs generally? What the heck is an "advanced" economic system, anyway? What features define an economic system as advanced or not? How could these features be implemented in MMORPGs, and what changes might have to be made to these features so that they work as part of a game? For that matter, why do MMORPGs need advanced economic systems? Where's the benefit?
This essay is intended to consider these questions. I recognize that they've been thought about and discussed by professional designers and others, and I don't presume to suggest that this essay provides all the answers. Nor am I suggesting that most past, current, or proposed games are "broken" if they don't include advanced economic features.
But I do believe several things:
- some real-world cultures have seen sharp increases in economic activity
- it is possible to characterize the innovations that enabled these increases
- most MMORPGs implement only the earliest of these economic innovations
- these innovations could be implemented to offer deeper economic gameplay
- some MMORPGs would benefit from implementing more of these more recent innovations
Note: This document was originally developed in late 2003 as an essay on the official online message board for Star Wars Galaxies (SWG). It has been expanded and modified from its original form to be less SWG-specific and (I hope!) a little more coherent.
THE TABLE OF ECONOMIC STAGES
Humanity over the last 10,000 years or so has for most of that time enjoyed a relatively primitive level of economic activity. The dominant form of economic activity for thousands of years consisted of handcrafted goods exchanged through a barter system. This "Prehistoric" stage of economic action was better than nothing... but not much.
Eventually population densities increased to the point that new economic concepts appeared and spread through a culture. Some of these new ideas were technological, while some were new cultural institutions for organizing human action, but when they occurred together, the economic activity within that culture increased dramatically. (Carroll Quigley's The Evolution of Civilizations is the best discussion of these and other effects I've ever read, and I recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in this sort of big-picture analysis.)
The following table lists what I believe are the key technological and organizational innovations that enabled distinct new levels of economic vitality:
|1.Civic||agriculture||city||Çatalhöyük||ca. 5000 BC|
|2.Trading||currency||code of laws||Lex Duodecim Tabularum||ca. AD 1|
|3.Mercantile||printing press||banking||Bank of England||ca. AD 1400|
|4.Commercial||sailing ships||corporation||Dutch East India Co.||ca. AD 1600|
|5.Industrial||steam engine||factory||cotton mills||ca. AD 1800|
|6.Service||(special)||division of labor||Ford Motor Co.||ca. AD 1900|
|7.Information||computers||?||Internet||ca. AD 2000|
(Note: It's not yet clear what the key organizational form of the Information stage is or will be. Also, the "special" technology concept enabling the Service stage is just a conveniently short placeholder word representing three important technologies that arrived nearly simultaneously. Finally, the dates given aren't meant to be exact -- they're simply rough markers of when the behaviors common to a stage began to be clearly visible from a later perspective.)
(Also, there's a special concept I believe has operated throughout human history: the idea of ownership; the belief that things can be someone's property. The concept of property is so intrinsic to any notion of economic action that there's no point in treating it as a distinct innovation. Of course a perfectly communistic MMORPG in which the concept of personal property does not exist is possible, but if that's what you're itching to implement, this essay won't help you!)
THE TABLE EXPLAINED
Although economics is sometimes said to be the study of the effects of scarcity, I believe it's equally correct to think of it as the study of the creation and movement of value. ("Production" and "distribution" are another way to think of these two phenomena.) When goods and services become available, they move -- if they can -- from places where they have low value to places where they have high value.
What all of the technologies in the above list of economic stages have in common is that they vastly increased the speed at which value could move. And what all of the organizing forms have in common is that they vastly increased the speed at which value could be created. When key technologies and organizing forms (let's call them "techs and orgs" for brevity) were adopted at roughly the same time by enough people within a culture, vastly more of the human potential for creating and moving value was unleashed.
As each of the techs and orgs listed here were widely adopted, massive jumps in economic activity levels followed, often accompanied by social turmoil as the new ways of living shifted economic power in that society. There have been other points in history where a civilization became more productive (certainly there were plenty of innovations before A.D. 1400, such as the plow and the feudal system), but the ones given here are, I believe, a reasonable selection of those that have had the greatest economic impact wherever they have been applied. (Of course the specific innovations listed here are debatable. If there are other innovations that can be justified as more important economically, I hope this essay will encourage discussion of them.)
I've listed both techs and orgs as requirements for a distinct new economic stage. It seems that innovations for producing and distributing value require each other; each enables and sustains the other. The social features of an organizational form allow the technology to be applied creatively, while access to the technology supports the survival of the organization through spreading the effects of that creativity. These effects resonate with and feed back into each other, sweeping through a culture and transforming it permanently. Perhaps it's because some key techs and orgs didn't happen simultaneously in space and time within some culture that there haven’t been other and more economic stages identifiable as such.
Speaking of "stages," this is simply a name I've given to the period following the adoption of techs and orgs that generated a major burst in economic activity. There's no real demarcation between stages; they're just a convenient way to distinguish one level of general economic activity from another.
Finally, it's useful to recognize that once the Commercial stage is enabled, all of the technologies shown in the table (including the Service stage technologies, discussed in that section) fall into one of three categories: power generation, transportation, and communication. Improved power generation technologies enhance the production of value, while new transportation and communication technologies enhance the distribution of value. This observation will be helpful when I discuss how the techs and orgs of each stage can be implemented in MMORPGs.
ECONOMIC STAGES AND MMORPGS
Now consider the MMORPGs you've built or played. At what stage would you consider their economies?
My impression is that most current and recent MMORPGs (some of which I've played, others I've read about and talked with players about) have, at best, a pre-Commercial stage economy. In other words, most MMORPGs offer a Trading stage game, with economic features limited to those less capable than printing presses and banking.
MMORPGs may offer some kind of simple crafting; they allow secure trades between individuals; they may but generally don't require agriculture (no one has to eat to live); they have "cities" (though these may only be clusters of NPCs); they let players collect and trade currency tokens (plat, gold, credits, etc.); and the game code imposes some minimal set of "laws" that attempt to insure trustability in supported economic transactions... but that's about it. Some MMORPGs do offer more advanced economic technologies, but they don't also offer the related organization form (or vice versa). Often they don't implement all the techs and orgs from intermediate stages to support the more advanced economic features they do provide. Therefore I suggest that these MMORPGs can't be said to fully operate at an advanced economic stage.
Let's consider SWG as an example. SWG has the features described above to constitute a Trading stage economy, but does it go beyond these? Looking at the techs and orgs in the table of stages shown above, SWG does not offer any equivalent to the printing press; there's no way to spread creative knowledge generally within the game. (This happens outside the game, reducing the value of supporting it in-game.) Bank loans are not necessary in SWG because money is so easy to get through missions that banks aren't necessary. SWG does offer vehicles, but their lack of an ability to carry cargo prevents them from supporting a Commercial stage economy. And although Player Associations -- SWG's guilds -- come close to being corporations, PAs don't "own" things or limit the liability of their owner-participants in risky economic ventures. SWG does implement an advanced power generation technology, which helps to increase production. But while players can personally automate the mass production of items, there's no feature supporting a formal organization for letting multiple players cooperate to mass-produce goods (i.e., a factory). SWG's very good crafting system offers many craftable items, including a few that require cooperation among a small number of players, but too few of these crafting projects are sufficiently complex to require a widespread division of labor. SWG also lacks a secure player contracts system that would support dividing complex tasks among several participants. And despite being a futuristic game, SWG's in-game email and chat facilities, while accomplishing some of the functionality of Service stage technologies, are not equivalent to having Information stage networked computers that are capable of generating new capital by linking the ideas of many people or enabling the discovery of useful patterns in masses of shared data.
In general, then, despite having lasers and starships, the technologies and organizational modes for a futuristic economy are not fully implemented in SWG. In fact, SWG doesn't even offer a true Commercial stage economy. This isn't to pick on SWG; again, I'm just using it as an example to illustrate how even an advanced and deep game can wind up with a surprisingly limited economy. While other MMORPGs -- in particular, EVE Online, which implements not only a form of corporation but player contracts as well -- offer some of the more advanced economic features, those features aren't comprehensive in the way suggested by the table of stages. Most MMORPGs, like SWG, stop at Trading stage features. That doesn't make them "bad" games, but it does limit the economic fun they offer. (Note that whether a MMORPG economy is open or closed, or whether it is player-run or includes NPC vendors, has no bearing on what economic stage the MMORPG offers. This depends entirely on the features available to players.)
Let's assume for the moment that I've persuaded you that it would be good to implement more advanced economic features in the game you're designing. (I'll directly address the "why" question in my Conclusion to this essay.) If Commercial stage and later features are the main innovations in real-world economic history that MMORPGs lack, how could they be implemented? Since most MMORPGs already have Trading stage features, let's examine the key features of each economic stage beyond Trading.
STAGE 3: MERCANTILE ECONOMY
If pressed to name the single greatest economic innovation in history, I would have to say "banking." Put simply, a bank is an organization which multiple people trust as a safe place to store their money, yet which profits by lending the money of its depositors to other people.
This has two great benefits. First, it allows hard currency to be replaced with paper (or, later, electronic funds). By switching to a more easily transportable form of money, the number and size of financial transactions can be vastly increased.
Second, the bank's lending function allows it to place accumulated money in the hands of some individual or group who will likely employ that money in some productive way. This creates wealth which that individual or group would otherwise have been unable to afford to produce, promoting the growth and amount of productive economic activity to a degree not otherwise possible.
The related technology, the printing press, not only served to create the paper money that could now begin circulating, but it allowed individuals to communicate new productive concepts to each other, increasing the speed and effectiveness of new ways to generate wealth. (This particular economic benefit is of course in addition to the phenomenal boosts the printing press gave to increasing literacy, spreading knowledge, and encouraging scientific activity, all of which would enable a staggering number and variety of new goods and services to be created.)
Let's consider now how these concepts could be implemented in a MMORPG. Do MMORPGs need to offer their players the equivalent of the printing press? While players often wish for a way to be able to write "books" within the game world, and some MMORPGs actually do offer this feature, it's possible that this ability isn't really required within the game world as long as players can communicate with each other outside the game world. I believe that it would be more interesting and probably more economically powerful to offer this feature in-game, but the basic utility is all that's required to achieve the technological aspect of a Mercantile stage economy. If players can share knowledge, that's not perfect but it suffices.
But what about the organizational form required for a Mercantile economy? What about banks? Many MMORPGs do not offer a full banking feature -- at most, they provide a money storage facility. Since an avatar could, if so programmed, "carry" an infinite amount of notional money, this storage function of banking isn't especially useful. What's important is that MMORPGs don't provide banking's more crucial function, which is to grow the overall wealth of a community through making loans that increase productive capacity.
Implementing this in a MMORPG would require changing the conventional thinking about how to motivate players. Most MMORPGs allow individual players to obtain boatloads of cash fairly easily by making it a reward for performing various designer-favored activities such as completing quests, or whacking NPCs. Money is an effective pellet to dispense, but allowing individual players to become cash-rich greatly reduces the value of and need for a bank to loan money to start or expand a business. To allow banks to be important sources of money, MMORPGs would have to remove cash as a quest or loot reward. It wouldn't be necessary to go all the way to implementing a closed economy, but that's a possibility. Either way, banks would need to become the most important faucets from which money enters the economy.
That's not necessarily such a bad thing. You'd lose one kind of reward pellet for completing quests or defeating an opponent, but loot would still be available. What you'd gain from giving up money as a reward would be a powerful emphasis on constructive activity rather than destructive activity. Because the lending function of banks is to provide capital for productive development, banks in MMORPGs would promote an ethos of building, rather than one of non-stop killing.
If your game is about exterminating all living things as quickly and as often as possible, then you're probably not in the market for an advanced economy. Otherwise, implementing your money faucet as a bank could be an effective means to encouraging the productive, constructive behavior that you want.
Naturally, there are some hard practical questions of implementation that would have to be answered for banks to work in MMORPGs. How do you insure that money loaned will be used for community-productive purposes instead of on personal consumables? Worse, what's to stop a player from taking a loan and never paying it back? What if they create a new character, get a loan, give the money to an alt, then delete the original character? In short, how do you make a character pay back a loan?
The idea of a bank in a MMORPG has been proposed many times, and this criticism that players will "always" find ways to cheat the bank has been raised an equal number of times (at least) with nearly as many ideas for curing it. Most suggested solutions depend on adding the notion of collateral to loans, but this produces the effect of "you can't have it unless you can prove you don't need it" which seriously degrades the value of having banking at all.
My suggestion (which is by no means the only way to approach these concerns) would be to base the loan amount on two factors: the length of time since a character was created, and the amount of money a character has been given to date. In effect, the amount of money a character could get would fall roughly under a bell curve. You couldn't get much money as a new character, which would help to limit gold farming, but playing the game over the long term would be rewarded with higher loan amounts. At the other end, it wouldn't be possible to take an ever-increasing amount of money from the bank -- you'd get enough to help you become productive, and the rest would be up to you. This would support the early- to mid-game players in their attempts to join the game economy, while causing the advanced economic player to rely on working with other players to make more money rather than on interacting just with the game code to grind for cash.
This still leaves you with the question of what to do with the Grasshopper player who blows all his loan money on your game's equivalent of beer, as some certainly would. The obvious blunt-force approach would be to limit the kinds of items or services that could be purchased with loan money, but there are probably better solutions.
STAGE 4: COMMERCIAL ECONOMY
The specific techs and orgs I named in the table don't always have to be implemented in exactly those forms. What if your game world doesn't have oceans -- how could you implement sailing vessels?
What's important about ships such as the galleons and carracks that began to see widespread usage in the 1500s is not that they were floating vehicles -- it's that they could carry much more cargo than overland travelers; they could travel to distant places much faster than could be achieved on land (because they now had multiple masts and sails); and they could maneuver to reach many more harbors through the new capability of being able to tack into the wind. Their increased functionality enabled economic opportunities that previously had been inaccessible. Similarly, what's important about the corporation is not its form, but its capital-concentrating and economic risk-reducing functions.
So enabling a Commercial stage economy in a MMORPG will depend on giving players capabilities that enable long-distance commerce that benefits the members of a group. Implementing several post-Mercantile features could achieve this goal:
- some places that contain valuable goods take a long time to reach
- certain vehicles can use alternate routes to get there faster than regular travel
- these vehicles can carry cargo (yours or someone else's stuff)
- these vehicles can maneuver to go where you want (subject to some limitations)
- these vehicles should be so expensive that only a group can afford to obtain them
- (corollary: purely solo players should never be in the same wealth-producing league as groups)
- players can create groups to which other players may choose to belong
- a group can exist beyond the departure of its founder(s) (someone else "runs" the group)
- resources can be pooled (the group can "own" its own resources)
- group resources can be employed on behalf of the group
- group members who only supply resources (non-directors) aren't liable if directors get in trouble
It bears noting that this kind of capability isn't without risk. Investing in speculative opportunities sometimes pays off big, but sometimes it doesn't. Allowing the pooling of money for speculative investment can lead to "bubbles" of unrealistic expectations, which, when they "burst," can turn investors into paupers overnight. While the Dutch did well through the 1602 founding of the Dutch East India Company, by 1637 many Dutch were financially ruined when the irrationally inflated prices for tulips (the so-called "tulip mania") collapsed. And in 1720 came the infamous collapse of the South Sea Company bubble. Isaac Newton, who lost 20,000 pounds he had invested, remarked, "I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men."
Another consequence of the corporate-funded exploration and development of new resources was the inflation of many of the national economies backing this process. As gold and silver poured into the previously stable economies, prices rose, leading to severe social disruption. Masses migrated to the cities where their inexpensive labor became a contributing element to the next major economic stage, but rioting and lawlessness increased as well.
Along with the enabling features listed above, a MMORPG designer who's contemplating trying to achieve a Commercial stage economic system should consider what additional features might be worth implementing to try to prevent or cope with speculative bubbles, as well as with the potentially inflationary effects of exposing new resources.
STAGE 5: INDUSTRIAL ECONOMY
The next stage of human economic progress is so pronounced in its effects that it's well known as the Industrial Revolution. Again, this is something most MMORPGs don't directly implement, but because it offers opportunities for greatly expanding the number and scope of economic activities your players can enjoy, it's a feature worth considering.
As in the other economic stages, attaining the Industrial stage depends on a confluence of new technologies and new organizational forms. In this case, an industrial revolution requires greatly increased local energy and a concentration of undifferentiated labor.
First let's consider power generation. The particular form is less important than the recognition that some way be found to achieve greater power outputs than are possible through simple human or animal muscle power. Pre-Western civilizations were utterly dependent on human and animal power. This explains the importance of slavery in Classical civilization, and the value of oxen in the East and horses in the West after the collapse of Rome.
Only with the discovery and spread of machines that could provide much greater amounts of power did the next great economic advance occur. First came windmills and waterwheels. These were used for milling wheat, and later for supplying power to weaving "mills" (the most prominent early factories in the modern sense of that word). But as sources of abundant power, they were limited in that they depended on their proximity to natural resources. The wind could usually be relied on in flat northwestern Europe, and hillier country with streams could support waterwheels (in either overshot or undershot forms). But such rural locations often did not coincide with sources of available labor. Thus the economic effects of these new forms of power, while significant, were limited.
It wasn't until the development of the (relatively) highly efficient steam engine that the next stage could occur. Not only did the steam engine provide vast power for purposes such as pumping water out of mines, its use of a transportable fuel source (coal) allowed it to be sited virtually anywhere, including right in the middle of the greatest source of cheap labor: the cities themselves. For that matter, the steam engine could be used to pull multiple containers that rode on steel rails... and the emergence of the railroad system enabled a new level of commercial activity by dramatically increasing transportation volume and speeds. From 10 million people traveling by stagecoach in Britain in 1835, by 1845 there were 30 million journeys by rail recorded. By 1870, there were more than 330 million rail trips.
Similar to the other stages, this new steam engine technology by itself was not sufficient to initiate the next burst of productivity. The ready supply of labor in the cities supplied the necessary support for a new organizational mode: the factory system. With enough people to operate the machines powered by steam, it became possible to manufacture vast quantities of goods. As the number of steam-power factories grew, the West's material wealth increased by orders of magnitude.
Most MMORPGs lack these features of the Industrial Revolution: a large-scale power generator and the organizing concept of the factory. It's not enough just to have the energy to mass-produce goods; more complex goods (including the machine tools that are necessary to create complex goods) can't be made by the lone craftsman. What's needed is a crafting system that enables a stable group of crafters to work together in an organized way to produce quantities of goods. The concept of the factory provides the organizational form that permits this new kind of productive action.
As is also well-known, this expansion of productivity came at a high price. Operating hundreds of factories powered by coal-fed steam engines had other, not so pleasant effects. Pollution so intense as to be deadly spread throughout Europe and through England in particular. (Lethal smogs occurred more than once in London, which wasn't even one of the more industrial cities.) And then there were the extraordinary social effects of what was effectively the mechanization of human laborers. Although the response to the dehumanizing exploitation of men, women and children as mere cogs in the factory system led to today's liberal society, getting here meant surviving radical levels of social unrest and strife, effects we are still experiencing 200 years later.
So why would you even consider adding a feature that might produce such effects in your virtual world? The short answer is, because you're a smart designer. As the designer, you can create a factory system that offers many of the advantages with only enough of the disadvantages to make operating a factory an interesting choice. Being the designer means you can create a factory system that gives players some fun things to do and boosts your game's economy, but in a way that's not abusive or harmful to the game world... unless you actually want to model reality, in which case you definitely want to offer a big-power factory feature just to see if the in-game social effects mirror the historical real-world effects. (But I wouldn't advise publishing your home phone number.)
Providing an Industrial-strength power source in a MMORPG is relatively simple. A Commercial stage power source ought to be tied to some physical location, but in an Industrial stage MMORPG you can offer a player-constructible building. It should cost a lot so that only groups pooling their resources can afford one, since this supports and builds on the features provided as part of the earlier economic stages. It should also generate some negative side effects so that it's not something everyone puts up just because they can.
More importantly, an Industrial stage MMORPG will provide a feature allowing players to work together on projects. Players should be able to form structured persistent groups. By "structured" I mean consisting of defined relationships beyond "one leader" and "multiple followers" -- players need to be able to define hierarchical or consensus relationships.
Mass production should be possible only through multiple individuals working together in an organized way. (An individual character should never be able to independently operate a high-productivity factory in an Industrial stage or earlier economy!) In the first place, implementing the factory model encourages players to cooperate with other players toward the production of desirable goods. This could give new players something useful to offer (their labor) while they build their own capital, while insuring that the goods desired in that game are widely available. In the second place, allowing players to organize themselves prepares them for the features provided in the next economic stage: the Service Economy.
STAGE 6: SERVICE ECONOMY
Where the Industrial stage economy is driven by centralized power and production, the Service stage economy begins when techs and orgs appear that distribute power and productive capacity to small groups and individuals.
Widespread electrification spread the cost of power generation so that, in effect, individuals gained their very own steam engine. Now an individual or small group could do what once required a huge factory and power plant. At roughly the same time, the internal combustion engine revolutionized transportation by enabling high-speed personal automobiles and trucks (and creating the oil industry and multi-lane road grid that supported these vehicles). Now we could rapidly move goods from where they were created to where they were wanted, stimulating new commercial activity. Fast transportation (with refrigeration) also snapped the ancient agricultural bondage to the land that prevented the majority of individuals from traveling to where they could perform more productive activities. Even the new communication technologies of the telegraph, radio, and the telephone shifted productive power to the individual by increasing the amount of information available for developing new goods and services.
But having these technologies is not sufficient to achieve a Service stage economy. A Service economy depends on specialization, on there being someone willing and able to do for you those things you can't or don't want to do for yourself. "Division of labor" is another way of thinking of this effect. Increasing personal power through electrification, cars, and telephones exposed more of the human potential for productivity; the division of labor among the members of the group is the organizational form that harnessed that potential.
It's perfectly true that the division of labor began long before the year 1900; the growth of the middle class from medieval times onward was due in part to specialization. But the personalizing technologies that appeared in profusion from about 1900 vastly expanded the number of specializations possible. Where steam power and the factory system emphasized mass production of identical goods through identical action, the new technologies of electrification, cars and trucks, and the telephone shifted power from the factory floor to the individual. Having many goods was no longer enough -- it now became possible and desirable to have many kinds of goods. The specialization of productive functions allowed the creation of highly complex goods, rather than the mass-produced simple goods possible in an Industrial economy.
The single most effective feature MMORPGs could offer to enable the Service stage of economic activity is automatically enforced player contracts. Player contracts enforced by the game itself would allow players to engage in economic activity beyond the one-time personal deal available from prehistory days onward. The Secure Trade Window is just the first and most primitive form of enforceable contract -- this concept can be expanded to promote a wide array of economic exchanges while still allowing automatic enforcement by the game itself.
(It has been suggested that letting players act as lawyers would be a cool feature in a MMORPG. Personally, I see no way to allow this without opening up massive levels of "legal" griefing, but that may be just a failure of vision on my part. That said, if I were the designer I'd stick with making the game itself the arbiter of when the terms of a contract have been fulfilled -- or not -- and of executing the agreed-on consequences of either result.)
In particular, a Service stage economy becomes most productive when the crafting system of the MMORPG allows complex goods to be crafted. To put it another way, while a strong player contracts system would increase the velocity of wealth exchanges in the game world, taking full advantage of this feature will require letting players cooperate (using not just contracts but banking and corporations as well) to craft objects that individuals cannot craft on their own. This serves multiple goals: it encourages interaction among players (a Good Thing in a "massively multiplayer" world); it satisfies the need to feel a part of something larger than one's personal limits would allow; it satisfies the desire of some players to manage complexity; and it serves the game world by providing valuable goods.
STAGE 7: INFORMATION ECONOMY
Finally (at least so far in human history!), there is the Information stage. The key technology in our world that makes Western civilization's budding Information stage economy possible is the widely networked computer, which is responsible for speeding by orders of magnitude the creation and distribution of that most precious form of capital: ideas.
As a society attains this stage, every organization in that society is magnified greatly in value because it becomes what might be described as an "intellectual capital bank." Until this point, the variety of goods and services is limited by the difficulty of communicating concepts. Consumer needs and desires can't be fully supplied, because no individual is creative enough to figure out how to make and deliver that vast array of goods and services. But with the advent of networked computers it becomes possible to harness the ideas of every worker toward achieving the goals of the enterprise. New goods and services become possible as more of the intellectual potential of workers can be combined. And the economy enjoys another period of expansion.
In MMORPG terms, attaining an Information economy means accomplishing what is currently one of the most difficult challenges in multiplayer game design: figuring out how to let players add their own content to the game. A sandbox world can offer this feature, but enabling significantly open-ended player-created content in a multiplayer game world is a hard problem. There are not only technical constraints (such as designing and building a game engine capable of supporting player-created goods, as well as a database system that can reliably store and quickly retrieve them all), there are legal concerns as well. (Who owns the player-created content? Can you make that conclusion stand up in a court that doesn't understand technical issues? Can you afford the cost if you're wrong, or the cost of litigation even if you're right?)
Because this is such a hard problem for a game world, it's not fair to criticize a multiplayer game for not implementing an Information stage economy. That said, the game that manages to solve these problems will become the respected progenitor of the amazing game worlds to come. Assuming it has also implemented features that enable the earlier stages of economic activity, a game that lets players create their own unique goods and services, that allows a truly rich expression of human creativity, will, I believe, have the most satisfied players of any online game to date.
Even if it doesn't yield wheelbarrows full of cash for its designer, that would still be a reputation worth winning.
I believe the preceding discussion has shown that advanced economic techs and orgs can be implemented as features that will deepen and extend the economic gameplay available within online game worlds. But this begs the question: Why do MMORPGs need such features? Not every game needs an Information stage economic system, or even a Commercial stage economy. If the setting for your game is medieval France, you may be just fine with a Mercantile stage economy.
There are at least three reasons to consider implementing advanced economic systems in your game. First, they give your players more to do -- i.e., more content. Second, because they will better reflect the economic dynamism of the real world, advanced economic abilities will increase your players' perception that they are members of a living and opportunity-rich community. And third, some MMORPGs just don't seem complete without advanced economic features. Any serious MMORPG with a modern or futuristic setting deserves better than a Trading stage economy! (For that matter, the designer of a truly futuristic game ought to have thought about and included futuristic economic effects far beyond those generated by mere Information stage features.)
Implementing a deeper economic system isn't desirable merely for the coolness factor or to supply Marketing with something unique to advertise. Nor does being able to offer your players an advanced economic system mean only that some few players will be able to engage in a high-level economic competition game. Implementing the features that enable a deep, complex, integrated and high-velocity economy in your game world means that every player will have more opportunities to find interesting things to do, especially in conjunction with other players, and that your game is likely to satisfy more of the economic desires of every player. Even those players who don't participate directly in the economy through crafting or sales will still benefit from a generally higher level of economic activity, as satisfying their own needs and wants becomes more likely when you increase the economic capabilities of other players. Everybody wins.
That's not to say that implementing a truly advanced economy in your game will be easy, even if you're able to use some of the ideas proposed here. Every design of a new MMORPG seems to require a lot of wheel-rebuilding. In particular, there don't seem to be any standard building blocks allowing designers to simply plug a full economic system into their design. That's both a Bad Thing and a Good Thing, of course. Not having a prebuilt system to use means your design and development phases last longer, but you learn more when you have to build a complex system from scratch. (But it's still annoying to have to do so over and over again.)
It's also a fact that most deep MMORPGs come with large price tags just from the sheer amount of code that has to be written. Spending the time to design an elegant Industrial stage or better economic system could jeopardize the completion of some other important parts of the game. Sometimes you just have to do what you can and let some of your great but time-consuming ideas go.
Finally, there's the reasonable objection that developers can barely control the limited economic systems they do offer. A more advanced and more complex economy that gives players deeper powers might also come with more ways for a clever and hostile player to inappropriately dominate or cheat the system.
These truths acknowledged, I still believe it's appropriate to consider how to offer players a fuller and more satisfying economic experience in their virtual worlds. I like the idea of offering a toolkit of economic features that could be inserted into a MMORPG based on the designer's needs, cutting development time while enhancing the features of the final product. This toolkit could conceivably be some sort of code library, but for the design phase even an abstract model (such as the one offered here as my table of economic stages) could be helpful if it stimulates thinking on what kind of economic system your game needs -- or doesn't need -- and the economic safeties and monitoring tools you'll need to install no matter what.
In the end, this layered model of economic stages is just a starting point for thinking about how you want value to be created and moved within your game world. "My game will be set in an idealized Wild West, so I'll need most of the features of a Mercantile stage economy with maybe a few Commercial stage features for flavor and effect... but are there any features outside this model I need to consider as well? And what can go wrong if I do add those features?"