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Let's take a closer look at the inhabitants of virtual worlds. Basically, there are three sorts:

  • Characters. These are run by players.

  • Non-player characters. These are run by the virtual world. They look like players' characters, and would think they were the same if given the AI.

  • Monsters. These are run by the virtual world, but neither look like nor think they are players' characters.

We'll start with the effect that NPC population has on the fabric of the virtual world because it raises issues important to the other two. Note that there is also a shadowy fourth sort of inhabitant, non-player players, which accounts for people who need to visit the virtual world but not play in it; I'll consider these separately last.

Non-Player Characters

What are non-player characters for? They

  • Buy, sell, and make stuff.

  • Provide services.

  • Guard places.

  • Get killed for loot.

  • Dispense quests (or clues for other NPCs' quests).

  • Supply background information (history, lore, cultural attitudes).

  • Do stuff for players.

  • Make the place look busy.

In buying, selling, and making stuff, they're normally just fictional conveniences; they may as well be vending machines. Similarly, in providing services (training, repairs, healing spells, and so on), they are interface conceits: Designers want the players to be able to obtain the services in question, and NPCs are the mechanism that has evolved to dress up what's happening so it fits in context. Their being player-friendly helps; they don't look like vending machines.

Guards exist for the same general reason: They're the way designers traditionally choose to enforce a range of gameplay elements that require some justification if not to seem arbitrary. For example, suppose players are to be prevented from attacking one another within a city's walls; one way to effect this would be simply to tell them that they can't. This is unsatisfactory because it's out-of-context—why can't they? Furnishing an explanation along the lines of “you'd never get away with it” is slightly better, but still not ideal: Let players be the judge of whether they'd get away with it, not some invisible commentator. By introducing guards, players can find out for themselves that they indeed won't get away with it. Guards are almost invariably unbelievably tough. Characters that routinely hew down hordes of rampaging giants remain impotent against guards. This is because guards that are unable to guard might as well not be there. Guards that are regularly beatable are meant to be regularly beatable, and therefore aren't guarding any location or state of affairs that the designer really doesn't want to be violated. These “guards” therefore fall into the “get killed for loot” category. NPCs of this sort are basically just regular monsters that look like player characters (PCs). They may be slightly smarter than their monster brethren, but essentially they're there to be hacked and slain. Rarely do these NPCs have names.

NPCs that dispense quests may double up as one of the other kinds of NPC, but in general they have a special status. Indeed, they may be so special that they're elevated to having their own, distinct personalities. Even so, they're still principally a front to allow players to communicate with the virtual world without feeling silly. Their job is to give players things to do and then to remunerate them once they have done it. Beyond that, they're mere flavor text.

Quest dispenser NPCs get players to do things for them. With sidekick NPCs, it's the other way round: They do things for players. Although nominally independent, sidekicks are in essence mere extensions of the player's character. Though presented as henchmen/ henchwomen, servants or familiars/pets[41], they're really just a way to extend the powers of a player. Too many objects to carry? Employ a porter or pack animal. Can't find someone to heal you after a fight? Hire the necessary skills in the form of a cleric. Sidekicks aren't usually used in larger games, as players themselves are intended to undertake the necessary roles. Besides, if a group of 25 players and their 25 sidekicks were trying to act in concert all semblance of organization would rapidly disappear. Players do still need mules, but in those situations they create secondary player characters instead.

[41] A DikuMUD favorite that has since become standard in graphical worlds.

Lore providers are like online manuals. Players can consult them to find out things they want to know, or be accosted by them to be told things they don't want to know but, dammit, it's for their own good that they do. Lore providers can be standalone, but they will often have some other function too (for example, quest dispenser).

The final type of NPC is the extra. These wander around as part of the background. Any attempts by players to bring them to the foreground (for example, by communicating with them, stealing from them, shooting arrows at them) are rewarded with a canned or inert response. Extras don't feature highly in virtual worlds; because players can routinely interact with one another, they are disappointed when confronted with NPCs that have no obvious reason to exist.

Okay, so I admit that this summary of NPC types is perhaps a little cynical. There are plenty of virtual worlds where even the monsters can have personalities[42], let alone the NPCs. The problem is that there are too few such worlds. When a virtual world is alive with real players, designers don't feel the need to make NPCs more than ciphers for interacting with the virtual world. Players objectify NPCs in a way that only killer types objectify PCs.

[42] MUD2 has a baby dwarf that players are strangely reticent to kill, at least until it howls and alerts the other 50 dwarfs in the vicinity.

Again, though, things are changing. Virtual world technology is driven by the big, graphical games, which in turn are driven by their hard-core players. The hard-core players play other computer games, particularly single-player role-playing games. When they see NPCs in these games that are above and beyond what they encounter in virtual worlds, they perceive virtual worlds to be behind the times.

They have a point, too. Virtual worlds have a much longer lifespan than ordinary computer games. A game from five years ago will look very dated by current standards, of course, but it isn't just a graphics issue: Gameplay that was cutting edge five years ago can seem dated, too (albeit less so). Virtual worlds have to adapt and evolve if they are to keep up with the times. There is an argument that textual games don't become dated because people's imaginations don't become dated[43]; in her tour de force 1994 exploration of the Internet[44], J.C. Herz asserts that no graphical virtual world could ever match the imagery present in LambdaMOO—a sentiment with which the players of many textual worlds would agree. This may be true of the imagery, but it's not (yet) true of the gameplay.

[43] There is another argument that suggests they don't become dated because they're dated to begin with.

[44] Herz, J. C., Surfing on the Internet. New York, Little, Brown, 1995.

NPCs embody gameplay elements; therefore, if gameplay seems dated, then its associated NPCs will seem dated, too. Players don't want dated content.

Just because players want something, that's not a reason to give it to them, of course. Design is about consequences, and players don't always accept them. Creating a fully rounded personality for a non-player character has been demonstrably possible since the days of Floyd from Steve Meretzky's Planetfall[45], but it takes a lot of effort. In a graphical virtual world, there's also the issue of animating different personalities. Slimy, sycophantic advisors have different body language than confident, cruel despots. Animating such differences is a painstaking art. Motion capture can help, but it doesn't work for dragons.

[45] Steve Meretzky, Planetfall. Cambridge MA, Infocom, 1983.

In other words, creating fully rounded NPCs is an expensive business, especially in graphical worlds, and very especially if you want 10,000 of them. Players who require intelligent NPCs can expect to have to pay more to get them.

Yet the same applies to many single-player role-playing games. Baldur's Gate II[46] has several hundred NPCs; some of these are so rounded that they can (act as if they) fall in love, but most are there either as plot hooks or local color. Nevertheless, it's possible to speak to all of them, even if they don't actually have anything meaningful to say. The mechanism for interaction is simplistic—the same, select-response-from-a-menu deal that the original Ultima series used—but it's better than the nothing you get from unidimensional virtual world NPCs. Textual virtual worlds sometimes implement a similar approach that masks the actual number of choices available (you might have to “ask guard about prisoner” rather than selecting it as an option from a list), but only for a few specific NPCs. Beyond that, there are pattern-matching schemes[47] based on Joseph Weizenbaum's classic Eliza[48], and hugely sophisticated bots like Michael Mauldin's Julia[49] (although these don't have a gameplay role).

[46] James Ohlen and Kevin Martens (lead designers), Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Irvine CA, Black Isle Studios, 2000.

[47] Formally, these are known as “case-based reasoning.”

[48] Joseph Weizenbaum, ELIZA—A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication between Man and Machine. New York, Vol. 9 no. 1, Communications of the ACM, January 1966.

[49] Michael L. Mauldin, Chatterbots, Tinymuds, And The Turing Test: Entering The Loebner Prize Competition. Menlo Park CA, Proceedings AAAI 12, 1994.

Artificial Intelligence research is ever-advancing. It's unreasonable to expect virtual world designers to ask programmers to endow NPCs with the latest technology, but even a few 20-year-old ideas would make a big difference. So why don't virtual worlds contain more intelligent NPCs?

The usual explanations are as follows:

  • They don't need them because they have real players instead. (Yet they do need dumb NPCs?)

  • Smartening up NPCs would be too expensive. (So how do single-player roleplaying games seem to manage it?)

  • It takes too long to add AI to NPCs in virtual worlds. So much other stuff has to go in beforehand that it's just unnecessary icing on the cake. (But a small team of AI experts couldn't work on it from the beginning?)

  • Artificially intelligent NPCs are never convincing and always spoil immersion. (More or less than artificially unintelligent NPCs do?)

  • Neither the designers nor the programmers are familiar with AI. (And they can't ever become familiar with it[50]?)

    [50] I did a Ph.D. in AI because of its applicability to virtual realities, although I wouldn't necessarily recommend this degree of enthusiasm to everyone.

  • Players don't like NPCs that are too clever. (So don't make them too clever[51]?)

    [51] I put a simple expert system into MUD2 to control mobiles in fights, but toned it down because it turned out to be better than many players. It's merely a question of balance.

  • It's inappropriate for this particular virtual world. (Finally, a valid excuse. You may have a fiction that explains why NPCs are stupid—time travel to Neanderthal times, for example.)

In most cases, the reasons that virtual worlds don't have intelligent NPCs are to do with complacency, inexperience, and (for free virtual worlds) lack of resources. However, there is also a view of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.” There may be only scant justification for not making NPCs more rounded, but that hardly amounts to an incentive to unflatten them. Why should virtual worlds contain more intelligent NPCs?

There are only two reasons.

The first reason is that even minor personality quirks in an NPC can give players some reason to care. Players can anthropomorphize NPCs very well, and are happy to do so in a virtual world. It's not that NPCs have any intrinsic meaning, but that players can invest them with it.

As an example, suppose that the NPC mother of a young NPC boy asks for your help to get a saucepan off his head. It's just a little quest. Next time, she asks you to get him down from a tree he's climbed. Maybe she hits him when he's rescued, maybe she hugs him and cries with relief; it's still just another little quest. The time after that, he's got his head stuck in a fence; the time after that he's locked himself in a cellar. You come to know the two NPCs—the reckless child and the self-critical mother—and if you need a small filler quest you'll often pay them a visit. Then, one day, the mother comes running to you. Her son was dragged off before her eyes by some kind of red-eyed demon. She's hysterical. He kept crying, “Mommy!,” she tried to save him but the beast hit her, by the gods, please, can't you help?

Now the situation has meaning. You and the NPCs have a history. The mother didn't go to any other PC, she went to you. Are you going to leave her son to be eaten alive? No way!

So that's the first reason: It enables players to form emotional attachments to objects in the virtual world; these relationships can then be stressed to add drama and give players cause to ponder their own actions. The relationships aren't anywhere near as strong as between real people, naturally, but they're there. They give the player a reason to feel a part of the virtual world.

The second reason, you'll either comprehend instantly or it'll take an epiphany. It's this: Imagine it! Imagine a virtual world with thousands of virtual people living virtual lives—each with their own goals, their own relationships, their own existence. A living, breathing, self-sustaining creation! Doesn't that fill you with awe? Don't you want to go there? Don't you want to see what they'll do, and do it with them? Wouldn't that truly be a virtual world?

If so, you get it: I don't have to explain further. If not, there's little point in my trying to explain! All I can do is pose the following question: Should those lacking a god's motivation assume a god's powers?

There are other reasons why having intelligent NPCs is good, but their effects can be achieved using other mechanisms. The most important of these concerns the fact that even the biggest virtual worlds don't have enough PCs to sustain their systems and, even if they did, few players would want to do the mundane things that occupy NPCs. Who craves a career as a city guard? Players visit virtual worlds because they offer experiences that they don't get in the real one; they don't want a “real life” in a virtual world. NPCs, on the other hand, live in the virtual world, so their “real life” consists of doing the kind of things players would do in their real “real lives.”

For example, some people want power. In this context, “power” means power over someone. Players won't tolerate being under other players' thumbs for long, therefore NPCs are needed to fulfill the roles of functionaries and foot soldiers. Similarly, players don't buy or sell enough objects to sustain an economy, therefore NPCs should engage in commerce to ensure that prices rise or fall appropriately. The collective behavior of NPCs can be used to regulate reputation systems, consequences for high/low status/fashion, rumor propagation/decay, the growth/decline of settlements, elections to office, and many other useful “background” tasks that contribute prominently to the experience of players but in which players themselves are loathe to get involved. If NPCs report their feelings when asked, this can add even more: I might not care that the NPC wants to tell me about the nearby ruin I already visited five times, but I'd certainly care to know whether that NPC was thinking of voting for me in the upcoming Guild of Mercenaries elections.

Giving individual NPCs more capacity for self-determination is one way to implement these behaviors. Another way, though, is to model the actions of NPCs as a whole, rather than individually. For example, instead of each NPC deciding when they need to buy a new gown and the price they're willing to pay for it, a general model of NPC buying habits can be used to calculate the overall demand curve for gowns and the impact that this has on price. This is easier to engineer, less expensive to program, and simpler to fine-tune than its micro-economic counterpart, although it's also more predictable and not as robust. It's a viable alternative to using hordes of independent NPCs to obtain the same effect. If you have those hordes for other reasons, though, it makes sense to arrange for their collective behavior to emerge from their individual actions, rather than simulating it and having the two diverge.

It could be argued that if a virtual world needs intelligent NPCs, making them artificially intelligent is the wrong route to take. Why not employ actors to control NPCs, and get intelligence of the natural variety? Set up an office in Hollywood where wannabe actors are endemic and it wouldn't even be all that expensive.

I have two objections to this, one practical and one philosophical.

The practical objection I outlined earlier. Going hands-on works for small, intimate virtual worlds, but not for ones with large numbers of players—it's hard to maintain non-superficial relationships with 200 people. Players are deeply suspicious of vendettas, favoritism, and other imagined ways to cheat; if they find that you sent one more monster against them than you did against some other group, they will whine incessantly[52], no matter how much fun they had. They don't generally like talking to patronizing, in-character, support staff at the best of times. Besides, it would be expensive to hire actors in quantity, even in Hollywood.

[52] Never underestimate the whine factor!

The philosophical objection is that one of the major goals of virtual worlds is self-reliance. Computers, not minds, model the physics; the same applies to the virtual inhabitants. If your virtual world design relies on people as components, it may be ahead of its time but it nevertheless crosses a boundary that stops it from being a virtual world. Players are necessary; community managers are acceptable; PC NPCs are a contradiction in terms.

Designers will determine the numbers and population density of NPCs depending on the roles they need them to fill. This raises a question: As a general rule, should it be possible for PCs to do anything that NPCs can? With some minor qualification for the virtual world's fiction, the answer should be yes; it ensures flexibility in design. That in most virtual worlds it isn't true shows just how inflexible designs are. The question also can be turned around: As a general rule, should it be possible for NPCs to do anything that PCs can? Again, the answer must be yes. Why yes? Players will usually have no trouble telling other players' characters from NPCs, but that doesn't mean NPCs also should be able to: If one NPC offers a quest, there's no theoretical reason why some other NPC shouldn't be able to undertake it. This can only add depth and variety to a virtual world—both good things.

From the foregoing discussion, it should be pretty obvious where monsters fit in to this equation: They're simply NPCs that operate under different AI rules[53]. What about players, though? Are they merely NPCs controlled by natural rather than artificial intelligence?

[53] Usually, they also operate under different environmental conditions: Monsters are subject to an ecology and NPCs are subject to an economy. As we'll see later, these (like monsters and NPCs themselves) are really just two sides of the same coin.

Would that it were so….

Player Characters

Players are the best things and the worst things about virtual worlds. They're contradictions.

Players want an immersive experience. They want a virtual world that looks and feels like how they expect it should look and feel. They want to share it with thousands of other people. They want fully integrated, working systems that support a rich, eclectic mix of activities in a balanced way. Only when they have it do they change their minds.

Players' desires completely overwhelm a virtual world. You could have a smooth-running, functionally luxuriant virtual world of 50,000 NPCs that would collapse if 50 players entered it (think Aztecs and Conquistadors here). There's a conflict between what players want and what has to be true for them to have it.

For example, they like a huge playing field. The early textual worlds often advertised themselves in terms of the number of rooms they had, the bigger being implicitly the better[54]. However, when it comes to moving around in such a virtual world, suddenly distance becomes an inconvenience. Players want to be able to get where they want to go quickly. Why should the first half an hour of a session involve moving through uninteresting territory to where the action is? They want teleportation, portals, high-tech transporters—anything, so long as it bypasses the points between start and destination.

[54] Sadly, some still do this, even to the extent of using the same, tired old techniques of yore (for example, coordinate systems) to inflate their numbers and disappoint their newbies.

So they want a big world, then they want to shrink it.

A common outcome of players' insistence on such luxuries is that only player characters get to use them. Mobiles don't. There may be a public-transport teleport gate in the middle of town, convenient for all amenities, but NPCs saunter right past. Those NPCs who want to go anywhere have to walk. The same applies to many other situations: player characters might get better after they've been killed, but monsters certainly don't—they're well and truly gone[55].

[55] There may be unkillable NPCs. Some of these vaguely make sense in context (for example, guards) but others don't. A clan of 100 players can wipe out a clutch of red dragons but find itself powerless against the might of a shopkeeper who doesn't want to lose his stock.

This special treatment for players is not in itself necessarily bad. It only becomes bad when it subverts systems, such as the ecology or (especially) the economy. Here's an example of what I mean.

In medieval times, wine was a drink for the peasants in France but for the nobility in Scotland. Why? Because grapes grow in France and they don't grow in Scotland. French peasants harvested the grapes and made it into wine. They kept some for themselves and handed the rest over to the local feudal lord, who would retain some and sell the excess to merchants. Those merchants would transport the wine to the coast, put it on a ship, and dispatch it to (among other places) Scotland. There, it would be unloaded and sold to another merchant, who would trade it to the nobility because no one else could afford it. The cost of transporting the wine from France to Scotland is what made it so expensive there (well, that and the import duty levied by the Scottish monarch).

Now assume that the people in Scotland could have materialized in France, under taken some transactions, and then rematerialized back in Scotland. What effect would this have had on the price of wine in Scotland?

It would have fallen, obviously. Scots could have bought the wine at source. In fact, they could have done better: They could have bought the grapes at source and then made their own wine. If everywhere is local to everywhere else, this is exactly what happens. Nowadays, transport is much less expensive (although taxes are just as high), so the price of wine in Scotland is comparable with that of the local product, whisky. If transport were free and immediate, the only reason to make wine in France would be because that's where the winemakers wanted to make it.

Now imagine you're back in medieval times and you have access to a teleporter. You can buy wine in France and instantly sell it in Scotland at a far lower price than regular merchants can while making a far greater profit. At a stroke, you have completely wrecked the economy as it stood.

This leaves designers with a problem. NPCs have to use the same economy that players do. With instantaneous travel, there's no such thing as a local market: Prices for goods are the same everywhere. Therefore, the virtual economy should at least simulate the ability of NPCs to use teleporters. Yet, defiantly, players don't want this. They want tin to be cheap near tin mines and expensive elsewhere, just like in the real world. They want silk to come from China, wood to come from Scandinavia, spices to come from India, gold to come from Central America: That's what they learned at school and that's how it should be. If diamonds the size of tennis balls can only be mined on the planet Eebagum, then they should cost less in the gem markets of Eebagum than back on Earth. It stands to reason. Thus, when a player teleports from Eebagum to Earth with a sack full of diamonds and sells the lot, the price shouldn't drop. Then, a month or so later, they can wonder why their immense wealth won't buy them anything from other players.

The subject of player perversion of virtual economies is a big one. However, it's something designers really need to know about, so let's make a start.


Economics is a huge subject of immense importance. In the real world, it touches on absolutely everything that people do. Daily it occupies some of the finest minds on the planet, and yet still the mechanisms by which it functions aren't completely understood. Even top economists can't agree on everything.

Is it any wonder that it scares the willies out of virtual world designers?

As part of their trade, the designers of virtual worlds must accumulate a wide range of knowledge covering many specialist subjects; some of these they'd perhaps rather avoid, but none of them are truly avoidable. Economics is one such specialist subject. Unless it's your own specialist subject, you're in bother.

My advice in such circumstances is to visit your local university. Head for the bookstore and buy whatever book entry-level students are buying. This applies whether you want to know about economics, psychology, artificial intelligence, sociology, anthropology, astronomy, whatever[56]. Read the book you buy. If half of it or more makes sense, you probably have enough of a grounding to be able to apply your newly acquired knowledge to virtual world design. Complex though they may be, virtual worlds are nowhere near as complex as the real one; you may only have the gist of the subject, but when you're working with something that's only the gist of reality, well, that's usually sufficient.

[56] To anyone who bought this book with the aim of studying virtual worlds from the perspective of some other discipline: Hi!

If you don't understand even half of the book, hire a specialist. No sense in burning out your brain.

So, what, fundamentally, is economics about?

It's about resource allocation. Resources are anything that people need or want for any purpose—land, food, labor, sports cars…. When resources are scarce (as they usually are), they can't be allocated to satisfy every need or want, therefore some system of resource allocation must pertain. This system is the economy.

Some economies are more efficient than others. In a barter economy, I might raise chickens and buy the things I need using eggs. Other egg farmers could do the same. If two of us wanted to buy the miller's last sack of grain, the one of us who was prepared to offer the most eggs would probably get it. If we both wanted the same Stradivarius violin, however, it would be more problematical: We might not have enough eggs, the seller might not have a use for that many eggs, and we could be up against someone else who wanted to pay in shoes. It's likely that none of us will get the Stradivarius, even though we all want to buy it and the owner wants to sell it.

Most societies use currency to make transactions more efficient. I can convert my eggs into coins. I can save these up to buy a Stradivarius[57], and the person from whom I buy it can use the coins to buy other things. Currency facilitates transactions.

[57] Sadly, I'm only talking hypothetically here.

The example with the eggs, although it uses a barter system, follows the principles of a free market economy. Prices fluctuate depending on supply and demand. If the miller had many sacks of grain, I could have got a sack at a lower price; if I had many spare eggs, I could have afforded to pay more eggs for a sack.

For virtual worlds, a free market is not the only option available. There are basically four types of economy you can have:

  • None

  • Fixed prices

  • Free market

  • Faddish

Having no economy is fine for worlds with very low persistence. It isn't that there's no economy at all, of course, just that there's no formal economy. If you can't save objects across sessions, for example, there's very little reason to buy things; informal bartering is enough. It's possible that there could be a service market (“I'll train up your strength if you give me 400 units of currency, which I can save up to spend on improving my fishing skills”) but even this is amenable to simple barter.

Heavy role-playing-style textual worlds often have no formal economy (although some older custom codebases[58] omitted it, too). In these, it's common for people to give things away that they don't need, thereby encouraging a community-strengthening favor reciprocation system. The more persistent a virtual world is, though, the greater the need for a formal economy; otherwise, players wanting to exchange goods and services get very frustrated if their favors are not returned.

[58] Although the idea of putting money into MUD1 was suggested many times by its players, I always resisted because I didn't feel it could have coped with inflation. Given that its economy would only have been small and therefore very susceptible to player exploits, on the whole I'm rather glad I did.

The fixed-price approach also works in low-persistence virtual worlds. If you can't take your cash with you when you quit, fixed-priced objects retain their worth. If you can take some money, but only up to some moderate amount, that also can work. If you can keep arbitrarily large amounts of money, fixed pricing eventually equates to “free.” I'll explain why shortly.

Prices in a free market change to reflect how much people are willing to pay and how much people are willing to be paid for particular goods or services. This is the approach used by most virtual worlds. It ought to work—it does in the real world—but there are a few problems that virtual worlds have which the real one doesn't. Again, I'll come to these shortly (after I'm done summarizing economy types).

The final common type of economy is whatever fad idea enthuses the designers enough that they decide to use it. Although the designers will thus be 100% committed to it, prospective players will generally be 100% the opposite. It may well work in practice as well as in theory, but the chances are it will do neither.

Most virtual worlds aim for a free market economy. There has yet to be a successful large-scale implementation of this, however. There are two reasons for this: Designers don't make the economy as free as they think they're making it; players beat it to a bloody pulp.

Let's see how these situations develop.

Wealth enters the system: The main sources of this are monster drops, quest rewards, farming/mining, and newbies' grubstakes. Characters accumulate wealth. By their efforts, they may create more wealth by adding value to items or by performing services. Wealth leaves the system: In a closed economy, what leaves goes into some simulation (for example, of the activity of unseen NPCs) to return in some form later. In an open system, what exits the system has no effect on what enters.

What happens when, because of players' industry, wealth appears at a faster rate than it disappears?

In a closed system, the rate at which recycled wealth enters falls to compensate. There are fewer monsters and quests, or the rewards for success are lower. Players find they are receiving less money, so are more inclined to keep what they have ready for when they really need it; this means that the amount of wealth leaving the system falls again, leading to a fall in the amount entering. It's a vicious circle, which guides the economy to a grinding halt. All it takes is for more people to hang onto their wealth than the designers had allowed for, and it's guaranteed to happen. Given that organized griefers will figure this out and deliberately save money just to watch the whole edifice tumble, closed economies can always expect to dry up eventually[59].

[59] This assumes that players can keep their money in complete safety. If they can't, they will be less likely to hoard it (because it could be stolen). If they can, but that place of safety is a bank, that helps too because money can be loaned from it and thereby re-enter the system. Needless to say, this is not what tends to happen in virtual worlds.

Most virtual world economies are open. If more wealth comes in than goes out, then players accumulate wealth and can buy more things; if less wealth comes in than goes out, they go broke and can buy fewer things. This doesn't matter in a truly free market economy, because prices can rise or fall to match income—even inflationary income. If today the average wealth of a character is 500 UOC and a new helmet costs 10 UOC, then in six months when the average wealth of a character is 5,000 UOC the price of a new helmet will be 100 UOC (if supply and demand remain constant). Thus, although absolute prices may change, relative prices only change when supply or demand changes.

In a fixed-price economy, this doesn't happen. A 10 UOC helmet costs 10 UOC whether people have nothing in the bank or millions. It's normally the latter; this means that after a while helmets are basically free—great news if you want a helmet, but terrible news if you're a player whose character manufactures helmets. In any system with fixed pricing, inflation hurts everyone who crafts goods for which fixed prices pertain. It doesn't matter if you can raise or lower your own prices: If NPC vendors buy and sell at fixed prices, you're screwed.

The obvious solution to this is to have variable prices—that is, a fully free market. The problem is that unless all prices are variable, this doesn't work. One consequence of this is that quest rewards and mobile drops should be variable, too. Who'd want to risk life and limb for 20,000 UOC if it wasn't enough to buy an arrow? Yet how do designers make these price rises occur rationally in such a way that unscrupulous players[60] can't screw over the system?

[60] Some designers might suggest that the term “unscrupulous players” is a tautology. Even though this is perhaps unfair, it can certainly help to look on them that way occasionally.

Actually, it's surprisingly doable. The trick is to give goods rather than cash as rewards. Goods get their value from the free market; therefore their value varies in keeping with supply and demand. If you get a wolf pelt for killing a wolf, then the sum total of the wealth of the virtual world increased to the tune of one wolf pelt. The amount you can sell this for depends on the demand for wolf pelts at the time. If demand is low, you get a smaller return than if demand is high, therefore you go off and kill something else instead of wolves. This will lead to a drop in the supply of wolf pelts until there's a shortage of them, whereupon prices will rise and you might think about killing wolves again. It all works very neatly.

Unfortunately, there are some consequences of the free market economy that require players and designers to accept some as-yet unpalatable truths.

Designers first. A free market economy operates using what Adam Smith famously called an “invisible hand”[61]. Individuals work to promote their own self-interests, but in so doing promote the interests of society as a whole (generally unintentionally). Farmers sell us food because it's in their interest to do so, not because we'd die if they didn't. If all players act in their own best self-interest, the free market economy will flourish.

[61] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London, W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776. Full text available at http://www.adamsmith.org.uk/smith/won-intro.htm.

Unfortunately, in virtual worlds players' best self-interest may be to make your economy collapse—and that's not even the worst of it.

In the real economy, you have to participate because there's nowhere else to go. Everyone can't be rich; some people have to be poor. In virtual worlds, you do have somewhere else to go. If you're poor, you can emigrate to some other world where you can be rich. In the real world, if no one buys the helmets of which you are so proud, you have to make something else instead; in the virtual world, you quit and go where helmet-making is valued. Helmets, potions, laser rifles—it applies to all crafted items.

Also, the free market model says that if a bunch of players want and can afford quality swords and there's no one making them, the demand will prompt someone to get into the quality sword business. Unfortunately, that reasoning only applies within the context of the virtual world. The demand also can be satisfied by frustrated fighters decamping to some other virtual world where there is no sword shortage. No matter how much a designer might want it, his virtual world's economy can never be truly closed because players are a part of it and players can come and go. The free market does work here—supply, demand, and prices do achieve equilibrium—but it works in a way that hurts your real-world profits.

It may be that a free market has unpleasant consequences on the virtual world itself, too. Take the example of bakery wars: A big guild with deep pockets sets up a bakery in a town that already has a bakery. The established shop has a loyal customer base, a long-standing reputation, and it makes tasty bread. The guild shop starts to give away free bread. People go to the guild for their free bread.

What does the local bakery do? It can give away bread for free too, but it still has to pay for the raw materials and it therefore takes a loss on every loaf (so does the guild, of course, but the guild is rich and can afford the loss). The bakery can continue to charge a fair price for its bread, but people won't buy it because they can get something fairly similar for nothing from the guild. Eventually, the original shop is going to have to face facts and shut down. The guild will then hike the price of its own bread sky high so that it not only covers its losses but it becomes even richer. Do you, as a designer, allow such monopolistic bullying[62]? It'll cost you at least the local baker and perhaps some of the people who used to buy their bread there. If you thought about it in advance you can devise ways to stop this sort of thing from happening, but what about the ways for players to turn over your economy that you haven't thought of? What checks and balances do you have in place to defend against unforeseen attacks?

[62] It may be comforting or otherwise to know that real-life governments have to wrestle with these exact same issues, too.

Another example: pelt hoarding. Suppose a guild seals off the forest where the snow wolves live. No one goes in or out of the forest unless the guild guards get out of the way. If there's a constant demand for snow wolf pelts (they're used for making frost storm spells or something), then the price of snow wolf pelts will rise. Ordinarily, it may be that the forest spawns 20 snow wolves a day and the pelts fetch 50 UOC each. Now, it's still spawning 20 a day but if the guild only kills two of them, then each pelt may fetch 1000 UOC. That means they double their profits. This is how cartels operate: By restricting supply, demand is artificially inflated and prices are kept artificially high. Do you have your world react to this, for example by spawning snow wolves in more places? If not, the players who need the pelts will wail about how your crock of an economy allows this kind of abuse to occur. But if so, the cartel will flood the market with snow wolf pelts until your spawning stops, then repeat—all the while complaining bitterly about your interference.

This brings us to the second group of people who have problems with a free market economy: the players.

Players will produce spreadsheets covering your economy. They will then gouge it. They will expect to gouge it, regard it as perfectly natural behavior, and be outraged if you make any attempt stop them. Everyone else, on the other hand, they regard as having no right to exploit the economy in any way remotely detrimental to their own well-being. This is true in the real world, of course, but you can't quit the real world; you can quit virtual worlds.

In a free market economy, the activities that people undertake will sometimes be rewarded poorly. This acts as an incentive for those people to do other things that are better rewarded instead. Unfortunately, for a player of your virtual world, “better rewarded” might mean playing some other virtual world rather than yours.

Suppose you, as a player, like making clothes. It's a big creative thing with you—you enjoy seeing characters walking around wearing your designs. Your entire aim when selecting a virtual world is to have your character be a tailor. So, you sign up to a world that lets you be a tailor, and start to churn out jackets and skirts and coats with which you're immensely pleased. What happens if there are so many other tailors around that nobody wants to buy your clothes, no matter how much you advertise them?

In the real world, you would lose money to the extent that eventually you'd have to face facts and stop making clothes. In the virtual world, you would scream and scream and scream until the world was “fixed” so that there were always NPCs willing to buy your garments. If it wasn't “fixed,” you'd eventually leave in disgust at its betrayal. Again, the virtual world's free market economy is working, but the real world's free market economy is also working; of course, the real world always wins.

Players want an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. If you don't reward them, they feel cheated. If you set up yourself as a snow wolf hunter and make 50 UOC per pelt profit, you're happy. If other people find that killing snow wolves is profitable, they'll join in. With the resulting increase in supply, you'll find you can't sell your snow wolf pelts unless you drop the price. Now you're making only 40 UOC per pelt[63]. What do you do? Either you accept the realities of the free market or you dash off an email to the community service team screeching, “Your STOOPID game NERFED snow wolves!!!”[64].

[63] Or, if things get as bad as they did in Ultima Online, one UOC.

[64] To nerf means to adjust the tangible effects of a virtual world element downward. Although nowadays it can apply to everything from skills to classes to races to spells, it's traditionally used for objects. It comes from the Nerf brand of safe-play toys. A Nerf gun does less damage than a real one.

Players like it when the free market works in their favor; they don't like it if it doesn't. This may be a problem that, in time, the maturity of players cures. Then again, if enough precedents for pandering to players are set then it may never get the chance to be tested. Players will complain—and get a hearing—if they do things that are blatantly stupid.

Player: “You killed my chickens!”

Community manager: “You built your chicken farm in a forest full of wolves. Didn't you expect maybe they'd eat your chickens?”

Player: “Are you hearing me? YOU KILLED MY CHICKENS!”

Telling players that the miserable time they're having is all their own fault will not endear you to them. If they spend four hours hunting wolves when the price of wolf pelts is rock bottom, they don't like being told to hunt something else instead. If they're told that hunting itself is an over-subscribed activity (having designed their character to be a hunter), they will be absolutely livid. Players will spend a lot of time being miserable if the reward is high enough. They'll mindlessly click on the same “mining” icon for three hours, hating every moment of it[65], if the result is that they find the diamond they need to give them an arrow of dragon-slaying. It's when they make themselves miserable for no reward that the problems come. They want an honest day's pay for an honest day's work; they've done the honest day's work, so now they want the honest day's pay. It's immaterial to them that what they've done is as useful as counting buttons.

[65] It's easy for designers to mistake what people do for what people enjoy doing. The chances are if players tell you they don't like doing something, they're not lying—no matter what the data mining results say.

It's because players are frequently unwilling to accept this consequence of a free market economy that virtual worlds will guarantee prices for crafted objects. This assures a market, so players stop complaining, but then there's no incentive for them to change to making something people really want. Besides, players have other requirements, too: Someone who makes clothes that no one buys may be temporarily pacified by being able to sell them to NPCs, but unless NPCs actually wear those clothes they're still going to feel unfulfilled. Even then, NPCs aren't PCs. Surely, PCs would buy your clothes if only their existing clothes wore out quicker? So it's complain-to-live-team time yet again.

Note that designers don't have to guarantee fixed prices, just decent prices. It's perfectly within the power of the live team to change prices manually or to force a change by (again, manually) altering supply and demand—creating and destroying virtual goods is free for them, after all. In the real world, the social costs involved in doing this are too high for it to be successful; as economist Edward Castronova has pointed out[66], however, these costs are absent from virtual worlds and therefore price-fixing could be considered a viable strategy in such an environment. However, as I've just illustrated, there would remain other undesirable effects to do with concepts of fulfillment and self-worth. So although live teams could indeed attempt to control prices, they'd have to know exactly what they were doing to succeed (and be ready for the inevitable accusations of bias and favoritism that would follow).

[66] Edward Castronova, On Virtual Economies. CESifo Working Paper 752, 2002.

Fixed prices aren't in keeping with a free market, and neither is fixed income. If all newbies get a grubstake of so many UOC, the purchasing power of that grubstake depends on prices. It's better to give them a range of kit, but even that can lead to perceived unfairness if the exchange value of what today's newbie gets is more (or less) than it was two months ago. It's more palatable than giving inflation-adjusted grubstakes, though.

Similarly, if monsters drop a (relatively) fixed amount of coin when they die, what it will buy depends on current prices. Again, it's better if you make them drop some resource that can be traded instead of raw money, even if the money is inflation-adjusted—players will moan if “last week I only got 600 UOC but this week my friend got 650 UOC, so you owe me 50 UOC.” You can still get a form of inflation with this, though: A mobile dropping a +1 sword is dropping nothing if everyone already has a +1 (or greater) sword.

Fixed prices and incomes are bad for an economy, as eventually either everyone can afford everything (inflationary world) or no one can afford anything (deflationary world). Fascinatingly, this same argument can be used to justify assigning constant experience point values to mobiles: The more experience points you have, the less the value of an “easy” mobile is to you. Therefore you have to go for the tougher mobiles that give higher returns (leaving the easier mobiles for relative newbies). A consequence of this “level inflation” is that eventually no mobiles are worth enough. Without sufficient sinks (that is, ways to lose experience points), new content must be added somehow, either by the live team or designed-in as an elder game.

Of early virtual world economies on a massive scale, Ultima Online's was the best. It almost worked. The economy and ecology were interlinked and interdependent. It began as a closed system, but it soon became apparent that the sum total of the world's wealth wasn't large enough to go around. It switched to a faucet/drain economy, which held up for a long time despite having some fixed prices (for crafters) and periods of inflation due to bugs. What finally broke it was the lack of sinks: People didn't have enough to spend their money on, so it simply accumulated.

Following on from UO's complex economy, there was a backlash. EverQuest and Asheron's Call both had much simpler economies. Both of these suffered from inflation, although in EQ's case the vast numbers of newbies entering the world managed to soak up the excess to some extent and eventually the economy became relatively stable. AC rapidly achieved hyperinflation (it wasn't helped by some money-duping[67] bugs that effectively gave players their own mints) and its economy never really recovered. Unsurprisingly, most of the EQ–inspired graphical worlds went for the EQ approach rather than the UO one, although Star Wars Galaxies sees the pendulum swinging back to a system that doesn't require a newbie hose to sustain it (ironically, because SWG does have a newbie hose).

[67] Duping is short for duplicating. It means creating copies of objects (or whatever), normally as a result of programming errors. Virtual worlds implemented using a template system for object creation are particularly prone to it, and stackable objects (such as coins) are their weakest point.

The interesting thing to note about formal economies is that when they do break, an informal economy will normally emerge to replace them. AC's informal economy, based around gem shards (needed to make kick-ass armor), certain keys (giving access to spell scrolls and other kick-ass armor), and writs (required to lease a house), became highly robust and stable; the formal economy was only used for interactions with NPCs. It's to the designers of AC's credit that although the economy they originally put together fell apart, their virtual world was sufficiently deep that the informal economy that replaced it became something of an exemplar.

Interference in Economies

How much should you interfere with how an economy “should” work to facilitate its smooth operation?

Let's start with something relatively mundane. Players don't like being ripped off; if they want to trade, should there be a secure trading system whereby goods can be exchanged with no danger that anyone will take the money and run? It's not very immersive, but players are accustomed to the idea and will accept it without thinking (in the same way that they accept slow scene dissolves in movies as a signal for the passage of time). The easier it is to trade, the more likely players are to engage in trade.

Trading, though, is tangible: Coins and objects are things the virtual world can track. Services are intangible: If I want to pay you to guard something, how can the virtual world track whether or not you did it? Similarly, although it's possible to contrive a trade screen whereby I cast a heal spell if you give me money, it's not so easy to do it for more complex arrangements (such as casting heals on you “whenever you need them,” in exchange for “a share of an expedition's profits”).

There will always be unsecure trading, because designers can't hope to model everything that players may want to trade. Given that they can't model everything, the question that then arises is whether they should model anything at all?

The answer must be yes, because it's the only way for low-AI NPCs to trade. Given that it's therefore there already, allowing it for instant interplayer trade isn't really going to hurt any. For transactions that take time, though, it's trickier. If I pay an NPC to train me to use a crossbow, I know that the NPC is not going to disappear with my cash; with a PC, I don't know that. This can be shoehorned into a transaction system, but the more complex transactions become, the harder it gets. There comes a point where to continue would be ridiculous, even if it's short of what NPCs can do. Automated transactions are okay if they don't stretch convention too far, but beyond that they hurt immersion.

If a smooth-running economy were the only aim here, this model could be further extended. For example, players could be allowed to trade with one another without being in physical proximity. Goods could be teleported immediately from point of sale to point of purchase, with the two not necessarily coinciding. This would greatly facilitate the exchange of goods, leading to greater satisfaction for all. In a Science Fiction virtual world, it may even make sense within the fiction.

Whether it would be any fun is another matter, though. One of the things about an imperfect economy is that it takes time for production and demand to fall into step. During that time, profits can be made. If response is immediate, this smoothes out the creases that make commerce interesting.

In some virtual worlds, the mobiles you fight are tuned to your combat abilities. In other words, no matter what you attack, it will adapt to be commensurate with your abilities to defeat it. The design thinking is that you'll have a more exciting time if you're pushed close to defeat but still manage to win. It's flawed, though, because nearly-losing-but-then-winning is only exciting if there exists the possibility that you could actually lose. Because mobiles are bent to fit your abilities, there's actually no real danger of this. Combat is ultimately dispiriting.

A similar thing applies to over-smoothed economies. If as soon as players think of something clever to do, checks and balances come into play that dampen the effect, in time people are going to wonder what the point of it all is. There has to be enough opportunity to make a success of something before the bandwagon arrives, otherwise it's just not worth trying.

Interference in the low-level workings of an economy can thus be counterproductive: The easier you make it for people to trade goods and services, the less interesting it becomes. On the other hand, if you don't interfere then the economy might not work at all. You have to achieve a balance.

There are other ways to interfere that could help.

National governments use interest rates to control their economies. Low interest rates cause people to spend; high interest rates cause people to save. If you have a virtual world where players are spending or saving too much, it shouldn't be too hard to create a mechanism that corrects the problem (for example, by making NPCs change their prices, or by taxing PC bank accounts).

Regrettably, this isn't as straightforward as it sounds. The problem is not the implementation, but players' perception of it. Unlike with a secure transactions system (which is a transparent process), they don't see the workings of the economy's carburetor, just the effects. It's very difficult for them to trust what's going on. Even if you completely automate the checking and balancing, there'll still be a deep suspicion that actually it's the live team that makes all the decisions, with some “nerf knob” they can turn to make prices rise or fall.

It's an issue of trust. If you must have a nerf knob, you might want to give control of it to a committee of players rather than automate it. They may screw up, but at least they'll get the blame, not you!

Tips for a Successful Virtual Economy

I'll wrap up this discussion of the economies of virtual worlds with a few tips to help you design one that works. Rather than merely repeat what I've already said (“Don't use fixed prices, you idiot!”), I'll concentrate on ideas that might not be immediately obvious. Not all of them apply to all virtual world economies, but hopefully they'll spark a few ideas.

Have Stuff Wear Out

The normal problem in virtual worlds is inflation. The effects of this are alleviated somewhat if players have many ways to be separated from their cash. The easiest way to do this is to have stuff wear out so that replacements have to be bought. This hands money to NPC vendors or (if goods are bought from PCs) to NPC miners/farmers. If PCs do all the mining and farming too, it's still of some use because it encourages trade; it's best as a money sink, though. It helps keep scarce items scarce.

Players see it as a money sink, of course, which makes them suspicious. It's basically a tax on action. However, as long as you make it “realistic” you can get away with it: Shields used in combat really do receive a battering, but you'd be hard-pressed to justify why a ring wore out.

Charge for Services

Players don't like it when you take money from them, but they don't mind so much if they think they're spending it. They are quite happy to pay for things that reduce the amount of work they have to do.

For example, consider teleportation. When a player wants to go from A to B, the cost of teleporting compared to the time cost of walking should really be an issue. Players ought to have to think about whether they need a service enough to pay through the nose for it. Naturally, they'll complain that teleporting is “too expensive,” and they could well be right. With a pricing structure that rises and falls depending on how many people use a teleporter, though, a balance should be achieved.

In considering services that can be charged for, anything that satisfies these three criteria is suitable:

  • Player characters can do it.

  • NPCs or the virtual world itself can do it for them.

  • Players don't like doing it.

Have Multiple Currencies

In the real world, there are many currencies. If a price is quoted in one currency and you want to pay in some other, you have to sell some of the latter currency to get some of the former. I can't give a taxi driver in Paris dollars and I can't give a taxi driver in New York euros[68].

[68] Well I can, but they're not going to let me out of the cab if I do.

Exchange rates between currencies fluctuate. In theory, this happens because of trade: If a country manufactures goods that lots of other countries want, those countries will have to acquire the currency of the first country in order to pay for the goods, which will lead to a rise in the exchange rate in the first country's favor. If a country needs more capital to invest in its industry and infrastructure, it can raise interest rates, thereby attracting investors who want a guaranteed return; this will also lead to an increase in the exchange rate.

A virtual world can have multiple currencies, and exchange rates between them. This can act as a form of trade tax (because converting currencies will almost inevitably incur a commission charge) and it's also good for limiting the spread of inflation (the more money of one kind there is in circulation, the less money of another kind it is worth). The number of currencies doesn't have to be high: Gold versus silver coins can work; Simutronics' game DragonRealms successfully runs three “local” currencies.

In practice, real-world currency markets are dominated by speculators. In virtual worlds, the fact that you can tax each and every currency transaction would immediately put a stop to this (assuming you wanted to).

Give Money Weight

This is a great tip for virtual worlds with a pre-Victorian era setting.

If you have 100,000 gold pieces, that's a lot of gold. Post-1982 U.S. 1 cent coins (pennies) weigh 2.5g; 100,000 of them would weigh 250kg, or about 550lbs. Coin quality gold is about 2.5 times denser than electroplated zinc. Moving that kind of mass is not easy without cheating physics.

When coin has weight, the act of transporting it is non-trivial. Someone who is rich in one city is not so rich in another. A local economy can therefore flourish because players can't easily transport enough coin there to undermine it. It leads to a more stable overall economy. Objects genuinely do have different values in different places, and a career as a merchant suddenly becomes a possibility. Although giving coin weight gets in the way of trade, it also makes trade more interesting; it gives it gameplay elements that it didn't have before.

Players can carry high-value items such as gems instead of coin, of course, but gems are like multiple currencies. Rubies are worth more in places far from ruby mines, and then only if PCs or NPCs actually have a use for them. You might be able to convert from coin to gems, but where you're going you may find you can't convert back, or that if you do you get a different amount of gold[69].

[69] If you're lucky, this could be more than you originally paid for the gems, of course.

A corollary to this is: No banks, no banknotes. For any world in a prerenaissance setting, this is historically accurate; for any other world set prior to about 1900, it's inaccurate for the very wealthy but is fine for the general population (who never saw banknotes nor visited banks). In Fantasy virtual worlds, banks are basically there as a convenience for players, acting as money teleports: You pay cash into one and withdraw it out of another. They're effectively ATMs, and as such are somewhat out of place. It's hard to imagine Gandalf visiting a bank in Lord of the Rings; likewise, it's hard to imagine Elrond paying for a horse with a banknote.

Multiple Uses

Elves draw magical power from the number of trees that exist within a certain range. Humans in the nearby town want wood for housing. This is conflict. Economies can drive conflicts. Conflicts can also drive economies. Dwarfs need elf skins to enchant their forges.

Conflict like this is good for gameplay (if not overdone), and having multiple uses for resources is a neat way to introduce it. The same technique can be used to enhance trade (by driving up volumes) and challenge monopolies (because the opposition to them will be greater).

Similarly, having multiple resources for the same use[70] can keep a virtual economy from being mugged. In practice, goods are usually implemented as being similar but not exactly equivalent, so a snow wolf pelt might have a slightly higher warmth factor than a snow bear pelt, but get mangy quicker. Nevertheless, if there were a sudden shortage of snow wolf pelts, people who made clothes out of them[71] could switch to bear pelts. When people have choices like this, meaningful decisions must be made; meaningful decisions are at the heart of gameplay.

[70] These are known as substitute goods.

[71] See Chapter 8 for a general discussion of doing things with your character that you might disapprove of in real life—wearing fur coats, for example.

Charge for Advancement

Players are so pleased when their character has gained enough experience for them to advance a level or skill that they are quite happy to pay virtual coin to seal it. Whether this is through “training” (which for some reason only NPCs seem able to provide) or the acquisition of some expensive item (mithril cross, ebony staff, engraved armor) is not the point: The point is to provide a money sink.

Some designers adopt a “charge for everything” view and make characters pay to enter cities, to cross bridges, to speak to officials, and so on. This can backfire if people find it too tiresome or depressing. By charging for things that don't happen all the time and that the player is happy about, these negative effects are greatly reduced. Charging for advancement is the perfect example of this idea in action.

Personally, I don't like charging for advancement; it's a little too cynical and opportunistic for my tastes. However, with plenty of players trained to accept it by existing virtual worlds, that's no reason for you to overlook it.

Charge for Abstraction

Should player characters have to eat? If they do, should the food work its way through their digestive system or be beamed out of them at the last moment as seems to happen in Star Trek? If nature proceeds like it does in real life, are there consequences for not washing your hands afterward? Or is this all a level of detail too far?

Some textual virtual worlds have eating. Every so often, characters will feel hungry. If they eat, the hunger goes away; if they don't, their attributes degrade increasingly until they do. Some foods are better at restoring attributes than others, but basically, eating remains a background maintenance task that adds authenticity but little gameplay.

Players deal with this by using clients that trigger on key phrases. When the “you are hungry” line arrives, the client automatically issues commands to remove a food item from the character's backpack and eat it. The original message, the commands to address it, and the messages confirming those commands are all stripped out. The player doesn't know the maintenance has taken place, except that the backpack needs restocking with food occasionally.

If players routinely automate responses, why bother having the events that trigger the responses at all? They're just hoops that players are being made to jump through. It may add realism, but the use of trigger code to make them transparent shows that it's realism players would rather do without.

So players shouldn't have to eat, then? In that case, what are all those NPCs doing working on the land? Only NPCs have to eat?

One solution is to make eating improve your character on a temporary basis. If you don't eat, your stats stay low. This is actually pretty much the same as using eating to maintain your (higher) stats, with failure to eat incurring a penalty. However, when phrased so it sounds like it's giving players something for performing an action (rather than taking something away for not performing it), it's more acceptable. This is the Star Wars Galaxies approach.

Another solution is to abstract such activities out. Characters eat, perform their ablutions, and so on, only when the player is offline, in the same way that characters in movies go to the bathroom only when the camera is not on them (or when they're about to be murdered). This allows players to get on with the serious business of having fun, without having to concern themselves with minutiae yet while remaining within the virtual world's fiction.

If this abstraction is performed, the player can pay for it. In general, players are against their characters' being taxed, but they can be persuaded to put up with something equivalent if it fits the fiction; a support fee to cover the incidentals that they run up while the player is offline is one such pseudo-tax. Incentives to increase payments—for example, by granting characters more status if they do—will often work. Characters without the means to pay could either suffer attribute/skill penalties or be allowed to subsist by explicit foraging, depending on the fiction of the virtual world.

The abstraction must be strictly adhered to, though: If characters eat while the player is logged in (perhaps when visiting a restaurant or taking part in a banquet), then their support fee for that period must drop accordingly. Characters who do buy their own food should ideally get a better deal than ones who rely on the abstraction, but this may be hard to organize in a free market economy.

This technique of charging for abstractions can be used for similar tiresome activities such as reloading ammunition and recharging batteries. In general, any unnecessary detail[72] can be removed this way and its cost bundled into a support fee.

[72] In MUD1, clothes were an unnecessary detail.

Non-Player Players

I did mention when I began this section that although the main virtual worlds were populated by characters, NPCs, and monsters, there was a fourth possibility: non-player players. These are the customer service representatives, techies, designers, and other members of the live team who need access to the virtual world but don't want to play it as regular players. They generally need supra-world powers in order to help people, to test the world, to fix problems, and so on. How should the game fiction account for this?

The simplest answer is “it shouldn't.” If you can't ever hope to slip it unnoticed into the fiction why bother? Put non-player players in a uniform so that everyone else knows to expect odd goings-on when they're around, and leave it at that.

The second-simplest answer is also “it shouldn't.” Hands-on event coordinators, as I mentioned earlier, can merge in to the player base and appear to be regular players while actually having irregular powers at their disposal. This is fine for them, but it doesn't work for programmers trying to track down bugs or for customer service representatives showing the human face of the live team.

The more traditional approach, at least in Fantasy worlds, is to have a formal hierarchy of gods/immortals/wizzes. In other words, find some in-context powerful beings and associate the non-player players with these. This may be unavoidable anyway in some virtual worlds—for example, it's hard to conceive that an Ancient Greece world would work without any gods. Your main problem here is likely to be that the non-player players believe the labels and start acting like deities instead of programmers or whatever. A superior character doesn't imply a superior human being.

There is also a danger that through their actions (or players' beliefs of their actions), non-player players may inadvertently extend a virtual world's fiction. If Thor shows up just as a character gets a lucky hit and kills a giant, that character may think Thor is responsible. Before you know it, web sites will be proclaiming that praying to Thor will help in battle, and unless this misconception is nipped in the bud it could become so widespread a belief that complaints from confused newbies occupy more community management time than the programmer time it would take to implement the idea.

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