Some games need closed ecosystems

Maybe most?

Yesterday, Blizzard announced "phase 3" for Classic WoW. Most notably, phase 3 includes Blackwing Lair, a forty-person dungeon more difficult than anything in the game currently. After seeing this announcement and the ensuing hype from the community, a diagram popped into my head that I could use to explain why open game economies are sometimes bad for games. But first, a little background on how games like WoW work.

WoW is about progression.

You start out as a weak little thing without any armor, weapons, or skills and meet somebody who gives you a quest to kill some wolves or boars or something. This gives you XP, items, and access to more quests. You keep doing this until you reach the maximum level of sixty.

This is called the leveling phase. Getting to the end of leveling is easy and anybody who wants to commit the time can do it.

Once you reach maximum level, you enter the raiding phase. Here, groups of up to forty people work together to complete more difficult content that rewards more powerful gear. Classic WoW released with two "raids"—Molten Core and Onyxia's Lair—and while some hardcore groups were able to clear them with relative ease, some groups of players are still struggling.

To clear raids, groups need to learn the fights and assemble a sufficiently powerful group of players. Mostly, this is a function of gear. This little loop basically summarizes the whole game:

By clearing more difficult content, players are rewarded with better gear, which allows them to clear even more difficult content, rewarding them with even better gear, and so on.

This means that each new raid that gets released will have higher requirements for gear. It will be impossible for players to defeat certain bosses without the right equipment that can only be earned by clearing prior content. These fights are called "gear checks," because unless you have the right gear, the boss will kill your players 100% of the time.

So you have a series of raids with increasingly higher gear requirements. You can visualize it like this.

Over time, players need to achieve higher gear quality to complete new, more difficult content. They do this primarily by "farming" the rewards from the preceding content. So to do Blackwing Lair, players will want to have done a lot of Molten Core + Onyxia to get as much gear from that raid as they can. (There's more nuance to it than this but I'm making illustrative points).

But in WoW, players can only clear a given raid one time a week. And because items are distributed across forty players, it's unrealistic to expect all members of a raid to be fully geared out in the best possible gear when new content gets released. So to bridge that gap, players increase their power with consumeable items that temporarily increase their power.

These consumeables can be very expensive and end up being one of the biggest cost centers for end-game players.

Okay. So that sets the stage:

  1. WoW is about progression

  2. To progress, you need to get better gear to clear more difficult content

  3. Sometimes you need consumeables to help you clear that content

In order for this game to survive, progression needs to feel rewarding. In order for it to feel rewarding, the progression needs to feel valuable. For progression to feel valuable, the investments in progression need to feel costly. Some examples:

  1. Leveling to sixty takes time. A lot. The fastest player ever got to sixty in something like 72 hours. Most players take double, triple or more.

  2. The best gear is difficult to get and cannot be bought with gold. For example, Onyxia—one of the phase 1 raids—drops two powerful weapons. But each time she dies, she only has a 5% chance of dropping each. And players only have one chance each week to kill her.

  3. Consumeables are expensive and gold is not easy to come by. A good rate for "farming gold" is ~50 gold per hour. Flask of Titans, a potion that will be required for most players going into Blackwing Lair costs around 100 gold.

Classic WoW works because (1) progression takes a lot of time, (2) the best gear is difficult to obtain, and (3) in-game gold feels worth something. There's no way to use IRL money to buy your way to sixty or into a set of gear that's powerful enough to clear the hardest content. And while the in-game economy is not perfect, it's relatively balanced (and works a whole lot better than future expansions).

For WoW and other progression games, a closed ecosystem is critical to its survival. Allowing in-game gold to be traded for fiat and vice versa or free trading of items between players not to mention in between games would literally ruin the game. Imagine if the cost of something was one hundred hours for Player A and one hundred dollars for Player B. The fact that this is possible would make the rewards from Player A’s investments feel less valuable. (I wrote about this wrt Diablo 3 previously).

I don't make this point to damn the entire concept, just to make the observation that one of the most beautiful things about these virtual game worlds is that they can be isolated from all other worlds.