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ECON 4024 - Macro-Economics in Virtual Environments

Red Thomas Posted:
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Macro-Scale Economics

By virtue of their open economic system, by not investing time in artificially limiting players' options, developers of games like EVE Online create endless branching opportunities for in-game stories.  This is a ton of content for the modest price of not investing in something.  That's a pretty ridiculous return on investment.  Their choice means that conflict between groups of players aren't just variations of meeting on the playground after school.  Smaller factions might have significant impact on larger ones by attacking shipping or production facilities.  Plenty of softer targets open themselves for exploitation in a free market, but even the market itself can be a tool.  Working to drive prices up on basic commodities will sometimes impact a large organization far more heavily than a small one.

You might wonder whether this even matters in some games.  Plenty of games now promote themselves as PvP-centric, and then they never feel quite fleshed out.  You can't put your finger on it, but you're not sure why.  I submit that it's probably because PvP is the overt result of what you want in the game, but not actually what you enjoy. 

Gordon Walton, from the team developing Crowfall, recently showed me some fantastic data they'd collected from a series of surveys.  Central to this data were subtle questions to help the team understand what drives their players.  Crowfall is a very overtly PvP game, and the answer should be obvious.  Those who are excited about Crowfall must be big fans of PvP.  That makes total sense, except that it turns out not to actually be true.  In this survey, players were plotted on a series of graphs based on their answers to the questions asked.  Distinct groups of players emerged from the data, allowing the developers to get an idea of what players wanted from Crowfall.  It turns out these players were all there for everything except PvP.

Crowfall data showing most of their players care more for building, than they do for PvP.

Amazing, but true.  All these players who are interested in Crowfall are more interested in things like world-building, crafting, and exploration than they were the virtual conflict we call PvP.  The great thing about this is that that diverse set of desires and priorities engenders conflict.  That conflict will give PvP meaning in Crowfall, just as it currently does in EVE, and which other games lack.  Humans are an innately cooperative species.  For the most part, we don't just randomly fight each other for no reasons.  Games that suggest we engage in conflict for no better reason than the fact that we're wearing different colors leave us feeling like something is missing.  Games that give us the opportunity to don different colors in show of allegiance to one cause or another, those are games that capture the depth true conflict needs.

Economics are a major wheel, and probably the easiest to implement, that drive that meaningful conflict.  In order for it to work as it should, the crafters in that economy have to be treated as more than just catalysts for the changing of one good into another.  There needs to be profit in that change, and there needs to be profit in transporting those goods from where they’re made to where they are needed.  That’s not easy to do, but the games that get it right are the ones that find themselves mentioned in articles that aren’t even about them.

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Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.