Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When Alternate Currencies Go Too Far

Kairos describes the LOTRO economy in shambles - "most l.65 players are awash with money, and have nothing to spend it on."

I've noticed that the economy on Vilya is a bit quirky as well. I can sell raw crafting materials on the AH, and my gold stockpiles have been slowly increasing as a result, but prices are lower than I remember them from previous visits to Middle Earth. Why?

For those who have not made playing the AH their main goal in the game, the purpose of virtual money is to pay other players to do things you don't want to do, using currency you earned doing something you were more willing to do. It doesn't matter whether the activity you want to avoid is boring, difficult, or simply a bad use of your opportunity cost/time, only that you want out of it, and that the game allows this to occur.

Nothing to buy?
So what, precisely, does LOTRO allow players to buy their way out of? Very little. Here are the things that matter to an endgame player:

- Legendary Item Grind: Scrolls, exp runes, and most relics are all non-tradeable

- Radiance Gear: Nope, this entire mechanic exists to make players repeatedly re-run the game's limited number of dungeons, and Turbine will resist allowing any other means of obtaining it for as long as possible

- Unique Skirmish Rewards: Marks can't be traded, so you're going to need to run skirmishes yourself if you want soldier abilities, unique cosmetic rewards, etc

- Kill Deed Credit: Nope, you can't take out a contract on the 2000 mobs you need killed, though you can and probably should find someone else to team up with if possible

- Pre-SOM Rep: The reps in Lothlorien and Mirkwood (the one new rep of the current expansion) do not have trade-able barter items that players can turn in for rep, and even require bound quest reward tokens to purchase rewards. Most of the pre-Mirkwood reputations do have this sort of option, but none of those rewards really matter that much in the long run. Even if someone did really want a different colored horse, the price they'd be willing to pay for rep barter items has a ceiling because you can get the relevant rep tokens from mobs or skirmishes very quickly - I gained several thousand rep with the rangers of Evendim just from mob kill tokens while doing the epic books.

- Consumables: Sure, you can buy these. Prices don't seem to be very high, though, at least if you don't insist on higher quality crit consumables - players need to produce large quantities of these for crafting exp.

- Raw materials: As I said, this perennial MMORPG market is at least somewhat alive, but not thriving. Part of the problem is that the new mini-expansion did not provide a new crafting tier - if you were maxxed as of Moria, you're still at the cap. Also, common harvests are not needed in large quantities to produce stuff once you're done with exp, and the rarer items can be obtained quickly via skirmishes or easy daily quests. Finally, the crafter-only relic perk might not be sufficient to convince players that they really must sit AFK for hours, watching the progress bar advance to get them the required crafting exp.

The Paradoxical success of alternate currencies
On paper, LOTRO's ever expanding range of currencies sound like a great idea. From dungeon runs, to daily quests, to skirmishes, anything the player wants to do is likely to supply their character's needs with something from a token vendor.

The problem, beyond driving an increasingly desperate need for a currency tab to hold non-tradeable tokens, is that this feels like it comes at the expense of the player economy. There's nothing to buy because everything either can't be traded or can be obtained so easily that it's not worth paying for.

The irony is that LOTRO was once a game that demanded a certain degree of reliance on other characters, e.g. with crafting vocation combinations that prevent most characters from harvesting everything their character needs for crafting. Somehow, Turbine managed to streamline that interdependence out of the economy, to the detriment of the game and its community.


Spinks said...

Good post!

The economy in LOTRO is strange to me as an ultra casual player. The stuff I would buy is just a bit too expensive, just enough to encourage me to gather my own materials instead.

I didn't have to pay anything for my horse either, just did some daily quests and got some rep.

And daily quests give tokens that you can exchange for potions and debuff removal salves et al.

Kairos said...

An excellent, detailed analysis. It's true that at the end of the day, almost no MMORPG (indeed, no RPG) has ever managed to construct a long-term viable economic model - by which I mean one that remains plausible for the life of the game. They all sooner or later collapse either into severe recession, with play virtually stopped for lack of money for essential running costs or, more often, move into Weimar Republic-style hyperinflation.

LOTRO made a fair stab at it, however, during almost the first two years - but as you point out, the game is now almost completely independent of a money economy. I had hoped, briefly, that the developers might introduce some form of universal exchange for barter tokens of all kinds, but it never happened...

Stabs said...

I suspect the game design is being shaped by the desire to fight illicit RMT.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Never really thought about that before, but you're right. I noticed that the Symbols of Celebrimbor (a rare drop required to make the current highest end legendary items) sell for a stupid amount of money; but these are one of the few things a higher end player will want that can be traded.

This goes along with the earlier observation that there is more "grind" in the recent expansion than there was before. Perhaps it was just that it was easier to trade for items you wanted, but now you have to go grind everything out yourself.

Yeebo said...

Two comments:

The money sinks LoTRO does have in place are almost all optional. You don't have to buy a riding skill, you get a slightly slower mounts for free. And you don't need to buy a house. Even at that, upkeep on the biggest house is only 400 silver a month. The biggest money sink for most characters is the likely last few bank slots, which are also optional.

A separate inventory for tokens and rep items is desperately needed. The skirmish system is fun, but those tokens have blown my bag space straight to hell.

King of the Paupers said...

"most players are awash with money, and have nothing to spend it on"
Jct: In 1999, I paid for 39/40 nights in Europe with a timebank IOU for a night back in Canada worth 5 Hours. Tell me how many Hours of time your chips are worth and I'll take yours if you'll take mine. I think you are one step away from trading accommodations if you just start up a list!

Feycat said...

Actually, most of the skirmish rewards are unbound. The cosmetics are BoE not BoA now, and you can sell scrolls of empowerment on the AH and make quite a bit of gold doing it.