Monday, August 27, 2007

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

This question of how to implement the economy in a MMORPG based on Star Trek is one of the more fascinating intersections of real-world economics, Star Trek, and MMORPG design. I'd hate to see the value in it get lost in the personal views that all of us (myself included) hold concerning real-world economics, though. So maybe a better way to focus this discussion would be to let go of the "why" for a moment and focus on the "how."

How should a Star Trek MMORPG be designed to implement either the money or no-money economic philosophy? What would such a game look like; what would the typical player's experience be like?

For those who'd like to see Star Trek Online follow the possibility that citizens of the Federation don't use money, how would that work as a massively multiplayer online game? How would such a game satisfy those players who do enjoy the mercantile subgame of current MMORPGs while staying true to the concept of characters living in a world where the pursuit of wealth is explicitly rejected as a primary raison d'etre? What kinds of features would such a game have, if the economic subgame usually found in MMORPGs is not developed? How will your game explain the lack of manufacturing and sales features to potential ST:O players who don't feel it's a real MMORPG without them? Could crafting be fun in such a game? How?

For those convinced that a moneyless game is both unrealistic and unfun, how would you implement your vision of Trekonomics in Star Trek Online? What should a massively multiplayer game based on Star Trek look like where players are able to make value exchanges with each other but where the acquisition of money is clearly not a driving force in the lives of most Federation citizens? How will your game explain the existence of a trade-based economy to potential ST:O players who don't feel it's "Star Trek" enough? How would the economic features in your vision for ST:O address the problem of gold-farming, which disrupts gameplay as designed by the game's developers? What would crafting look like in your Star Trek MMORPG?

I think if we could see two competing designs and compare them, that would be a much more practical way to understand the pros and cons of both approaches than batting them around as theoretical possibilities. I happen to like discussing possibilities, but maybe this discussion would benefit from taking a more practical tack.

Of course no one is obligated to put forward any such description of the game they'd want to play. I'm not implying that it's somehow a "proof" that anyone's wrong if no one offers a vision of how ST:O might play with or without a production/exchange/consumption economy.

But I do think it would be a more constructive way to explore this question.

That said, there's a specific question about crafting to which I'd like to respond:

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
How does money improve the gameplay in the context of a Starfleet setting? Your answer so far: People love to make money. They do not craft or trade for fun and joy. They trade for virtual currencies, to rise the value of a number that states the characters currency possession. They craft to say: "I have 50.000 virtual banana muffins, while you only have 10.000, you nOOb!"
The theory I operate under says that yes, there actually are people who like to craft just for the joy of making new things.

What I think has happened is that MMORPGs have been designed around consumption as a subgame. To give combat players more things to do, games are designed so that items are either destroyed in use, are damaged or decay over time, or become too weak compared to the character's advancing level. Constantly acquiring new high-value objects thus becomes something else one must do to play the game.

In some games, the developers allow player themselves to supply some, most, or all of these objects by "crafting." Not surprisingly, then, crafting in these games tends to look like a combination of manufacturing and sales. When one says "crafting," most MMORPG players today will instantly translate this into something like "making a bunch of objects in order to get rich by accumulating the money received from other players in exchange for those objects."

I get funny looks from some people because I question whether this is all that crafting should be. By coming at crafting from a more personality-oriented perspective, my perception is that there are a lot of people who try crafting in a MMORPG and are immediately repulsed by it because it bears no resemblance to their translation of "crafting," which is closer to "imagining and constructing unique new objects to better understand the principles of construction."

These people are completely turned off by the Achiever-like, accumulation-focused design of manufacturing/sales crafting. What they want is Explorer crafting: the exploration of design and building principles through the creation of new kinds of objects. For them, they do want to craft for "fun and joy!" For them, it's not about making money at all; money is just a means to an end, not the end in and of itself, which is to express a kind of practical creativity. For them, it's not about cranking out a thousand identical copies of some simple thing, it's about the joy of being surprised when an experiment doesn't turn out as expected. (As Isaac Asimov once observed, the real moments of progress in science are almost never "Eureka!" events -- they're someone in the middle of the night scratching their head over some experimental results and saying, "Hmm, that's funny....")

Whether anyone else finds value in the actual objects these crafters produce is irrelevant...

...that is, it would be irrelevant if any developer ever actually built such a MMORPG whose crafting system understood and valued Explorers-as-crafters. (Or perhaps I should say crafters-as-Explorers.)

As a practical matter, any MMORPG with a player-run production/exchange/consumption economy pretty much has to design its crafting system to enable manufacturing and sales. I get that. What I'm saying is that MMORPG developers so far are failing to appreciate that crafting can and should be more than this, that crafting should be designed so that it goes beyond mere combat support and becomes a viable form of gameplay in its own right.

A truly great MMORPG will offer not just manufacturing/sales to appeal to the Achievers (who already have combat gameplay). It will also offer the creative/surprising crafting that is appealing to the Explorers who will happily discover all manner of neat new kinds of objects (and thus expanding the entire game economy) not to make money, but simply because they enjoy tinkering to increase the total amount of understanding of how the (game) world works.

That philosophy sure sounds like the Federation's to me. So, regardless of whether we think the Federation uses money or not, wouldn't Star Trek Online be a particularly good game in which to offer such a broadly-appealing crafting system?