In many ways, in-game economies work similarly to real-world economies in terms of the risks and stresses they face. One key issue that in-game economies face, is that players are constantly printing money. Think about it – every time you kill a mob in World of Warcraft, you obtain WoW Gold, mine planets in Eve Online and obtain and when you complete quests in Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) you gain in-game. Even when you don’t get currency directly, you can usually vendor the item and receive currency.
This currency is just magically created and awarded to you, putting more currency into circulation. This means that as long as you’re focused on grinding, you can potentially gain a huge amount of currency. When there are hundreds of thousands of players doing this, the economy can inflate to astronomical levels. We saw this happen in Diablo II where Stones of Jordan replaced the in-game currency after it became hugely inflated. The currency becomes worthless.
To counter this problem, MMOs introduce currency sinks. This means that there are certain mechanics in the game that are designed to remove currency. In World of Warcraft, there are Auction House fees and armor repair fees that remove currency from the game. In Eve Online NPC merchant fix the price of blueprints. Advanced blueprints and skill books can be very expensive, removing considerable amounts of currency from the game.
In-game stores can also help remove currency from the game. In retail World of Warcraft, players can buy a WoW Token that grants them game time. This token can be bought with real money, or with World of Warcraft Gold, and the price will change based on the strength of the economy. These tokens cost a lot of Gold so players need to grind to make the Gold, or even online. Players can also use Gold to buy aesthetic items that don’t advance gameplay but look cool.
Another aspect of in-game economies is market manipulation. Part of playing MMOs and making in-game currency often involves some market manipulation, especially if you enjoy flipping items on in-game auction houses. You could, for example, go onto an auction house or exchange and buy up all of one item, and repost it for an inflated price, netting yourself the profit. This process can be profitable but is inherently risky. Some games try to stem market manipulation more than others. For example in Runescape 3, buy limits are in place on the Grand Exchange so that players can’t easily manipulate the market.
Managing an in-game economy is a careful balancing act that many MMOs have failed to achieve, leading to hyperinflation and a frustrated player base. The in-game currency is such a huge part of MMOs that companies risk losing their player base if they get it wrong. Luckily, most of the popular MMOs have now got that balance right! This allows players to enjoy making in-game currency such as WoW Gold and spending their Gold to buy new and exciting items.