10 Oct 2011

The Kitten Standard Economy?

A while back I wrote about the possibility that Titan, Blizzard’s next MMO, would feature a real money auction house. This followed on from Diablo 3, which introduced the concept in order to provide a safer alternative to the grey market that emerged around item trading in Diablo 2.

The main argument at the time was that Blizzard would never put in a real money auction house because it would affect the core dynamic of how players gain power. There was a claim that because Diablo 3 is a dungeon loot fest with no competitive play that there’s no harm to other players in buying high quality items for real cash.

The problem occurs when you try and apply the same logic to Warcraft. Currently the most powerful items and equipment are earned through either raiding (for valour points) or PVP (for conquest points). There is no way to shortcut buying them – no amount of gold will help you, while only breaching the Terms of Use and paying someone to play your character for you will get your character geared up quicker. Not something I’d encourage.

Sure there’s a few good quality BoE items from the top tier raids that can be sold on the auction house, but they’re few and far between. As a result, would it really harm the Warcraft mechanic of playtime=power if a real money auction house existed?

My hunch is that it wouldn’t.

Of course there’s the argument that it would ruin the feel of the game, or that Diablo needs this in order to stop a grey market for items springing up. But that still doesn’t make any sense. Warcraft has its own problems, from the gold farming to account hacking. The illicit trade in gold is huge.

Enter The Kitten

It’s a foregone conclusion that World of Warcraft only has a limited lifespan. With Blizzard admitting that they’re looking at free to play models, followed by the news that more people have played and quit Warcraft than are currently playing it, you reach a point where it becomes impossible to grow your customer base any more. Anyone who’s been interested in subscribing to the game probably already has. It’s only by launching the game in new territories that you can keep the subscriber numbers up.

With the expectation that Warcraft will eventually go free to play, it’s likely that Blizzard are looking at ways to tweak the existing economy. This is where the new Guardian Cub pet comes in. This kitten sells for $10 a time on the Blizzard store, but importantly isn’t bound to account. Instead it’s a single shot item that can be sold on the auction house and used on a single character.

This in itself is no big deal. Masses of people will buy the pet, flood the auction houses hoping to make a fast buck and drive down it’s worth in gold. After all, there’s the potential for an infinite number of kittens and only a finite number of homes to go to. In the end the price will normalise at whatever people feel $10 of kitty is worth in gold coins.

The Kitten Standard

Once the market decides how much a Guardian Cub is worth in gold, it then becomes possible to work out the cost of other items relative to the friendly feline. Can a Firelands raid BoE be bought for five kittens? Would a rare tailoring recipe be worth twenty? Can you sell spots in your Firelands 25-man for three kittens a person?

When players start thinking of items and services in terms of how many cats they’re worth instead of how many gold coins they’re priced at, the Kitten Standard emerges. From there it’s easy to track it back to dollars. In a roundabout way, the real money auction house emerges.

People will trade kittens for gold as long as the little furballs have a reliable value and can be exchanged easily. This is the big but, as it’s entirely possible for servers to become saturated with kittens. If no-one’s prepared to buy your cats any more you could quite easily end up like the Man from St. Ives.

The Experiment Starts

This is likely just the start of a series of ideas that Blizzard tests out on us over the coming months and years. Expect to see more things like this crop up over time as the developers seek to steadily reshape the virtual economy without upsetting the gameplay that Warcraft has become known for.

In the end our feedback will govern what kind of game we end up with once the free-to-play switch is thrown. That tide cannot be resisted, so it’s worth collectively getting our heads together and setting some ground rules about what we’d like our MMO economy to look like. How item shop items fit into that is just part of the puzzle.

In terms of timeline, I’d say we have 18 months or so. The expansion to be announced at Blizzcon is probably the last one we’ll see released in retail stores. I’m expecting that future ones will be by digital distribution only, paid for by Kittens, BlueBucks or whatever the new standard becomes.

Why? Simple. Titan is coming.

Like this? Try these other related posts:

Tags: , , ,