Sunday, August 10, 2008

There's no gold in them thar hills

I recently blogged about the value of virtual stuff in virtual worlds and games, and (tangentially) on gold farming (also called RMT, the Real Money Trade). Again, for the uninitiated, gold farming involves playing a game to earn in-game wealth or stuff, and then selling it to other players for real world money.

After having written that post, I read an MMOG Nation post on "Gold and the Perfect Game." An interesting, quick review of the theory that gold farming is the result of bad game design. In short, if a game requires you to do non-fun stuff -- so non-fun that you'd rather pay someone else to do it for you -- then the game is inherently flawed.

I tend to agree, but maybe not for the same reasons, and maybe not with the same conclusions.

I've been reading fantasy lit since about the 3rd grade, when I first read the Narnia series. After that, it was all the classics, including Tokein, Ursula K. LeGuinn, Terry Goodkind, Roger Zelazny, Piers Anthony, etc. etc. Dozens of series and, if you get into individual works, hundreds of books with some kind of fantasy theme.  And, at the moment, I am hard pressed to think of one where growing the wealth of the main character played a major role.

There are also danged few examples of stories where the quality of weapons/armor played a major role. Yes, Arthur needs Excalibur and the hobbits enjoy the use of their mithril armor... but those aren't things that are bought in a store or traded for at a market. They are important narrative elements that come about after key plot points.

Now, in an MMO, not everyone can be Aragorn, Gimli, Gandalf, etc. Levels (earned in experience points) and gear (earned sometimes, bought sometimes) are the ways you know you've moved your character forward and are slightly more Aragornish than your buddy, Stan. Gold farming subverts that system, obviously, by letting you use real world money as a stand-in for in game activities.

But, again... when was the last time you saw ANY adventure story where the good guys needed to hang out and farm, mine, etc. until they had enough dough to upgrade their junk? Money itself is rarely mentioned, and when it is, it's usually bad guys trying to make tons of it at the expense of good people, who are more interested in honor, culture, getting it on with the heroine, etc.

So what would an MMO without any gold look like? For that matter, what would an MMO with no specialized gear look like?

It would look more like a good story, I think.  Which is, of course, harder.

Take away gold and gear and you're left with experience points and levels, and I'm fine with that. How would something like that play?

  • Levels account for 100% of the damage you do with un-spelled weapons

  • Spells that improve weapons would have to be on-the-spot spells, either self-cast, or by a party member. For example, your mage casts "burning" on your regular sword and then, ta-da, it's a burning sword. More spells or more instances are only available at higher levels, or at the cost of not being able to cast other stuff.

  • Same for armor. Assume that everyone can afford good, basic armor. Make it a choice between better protection that slows you down, or lighter protection that's more flexible. Spells to affect durability and effects as per above.

  • If you really want some "stuff" that signifies "I'm more bad ass," then link it to a quest required to get a certain level. That is, to become a level 10 healer, you have to do XYZ, and are then given the staff of XYZ... that does nothing, except be a staff that shows you're level 10. Can you give it away? Sure... but why would you?

  • Make healing basically free (so you don't need to buy potions), but have the places where you can do it somewhat off-the-path from where the quests are. I don't mean a half-hour trek back to down for some water of life... but don't put them within combat-duration distance of the combat. You want to heal in the thick of it? Bring a healer.

Now, you're thinking, "But folks could still pay somebody to level their character up." Sure, that's always going to be a possibility. But what if part of what happened at the lower levels was real, actual training that carried over into higher levels? Essentially, some arcade elements that ramp up, such that if you jumped in at Level 20, you'd have no experience doing [the thing] that's necessary to unlock higher order effects.

I don't know. Some people like the grind, farming, mining, crafting, etc. And a game that made those things more a centerpiece of the action might also discourage RMT. But, for me, a game where I didn't have to worry about gold and gear would be a bunch more fun.

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