The Last Bastion

For the old guard, the happy fools, the dreamers.

The Trash Loot Economy and Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Posted By on March 22, 2012

I’ve spent a couple days trying to come to terms with ArenaNet’s last blog post. It’s still a work in progress in my mind, and considering the fact that we are still entirely starved of details and specifics, I can’t really come to a final opinion until likely sometime after the game releases. That’s a shame…but I’m perfectly fine with being patient and holding my wallet closed until I decided whether this game box is worth it for me.

Even though I haven’t completely made up my mind about anything, I would like to share some thoughts I’ve had, and also explain a bit about why this gem currency announcement bothers me (and maybe why it bothers others). It’s not an easy concept to understand, let alone explain, so I think a lot of people struggle and get quite frustrated. They know they don’t like it, but WHY?

To start off, here’s sort of the way I’ve come to look at Guild Wars 2. It’s kind of a tale of two games.


On one hand, you have what I would call a more “traditional” MMORPG experience. There will be levels, and loot, and adventures. There will be items which you can acquire by investing play time in the game…items which offer a unique appearance and act as trophies, or prestige items, so players can feel pride and show off their accomplishments. There will be achievements and titles for the same reason. Everything sounds great so far…but nothing I mentioned above can be tradeable.

There will be something rather gigantic missing from this “traditional” MMORPG experience in Guild Wars 2, and that is an insulated player-driven in-game economy. What do I mean by insulated? Well…it’s all about value. I’ve talked about this a lot, but it seems like a very difficult concept for a lot of people. It just happens on its own, and is somewhat subconscious for most people, but we all assign communal value to significant things in our shared experience. In a traditional MMORPG, the valuable things are the things that take a lot of play or challenging play to acquire. It’s really that simple. If it’s hard to get, or takes a long time to get, it’s valuable.

In traditional games, many of these valuable things can be sold or traded with other players. In order to maintain the value (which again is created through play), the in-game economy has to be separate from any outside-the-game influences. In this way, you get a very social, interactive playground for an economy in the game. Everyone is operating on communal value, it’s a completely fair and level playing field (because everyone is bringing the same thing to the table – play time).

With Guild Wars 2, this can’t, and won’t, exist. The in-game economy in its entirety is an extension of the microtransaction shop. ArenaNet has created a cash shop currency called gems, and players buy gems with real money. They can then use these gems to buy cash shop items, or sell the gems in the game for in-game gold. Because of that, all items in the game which can be bought for gold, can now be bought for real-life money. This is fairly massive in terms of its effects on the design, obviously.

What it does, effectively, is make everything tradeable in the game into trash loot. Nothing in the economy can have in-game communal value, because if it did, being able to buy it for real money would make it effectively worthless in the context of the game. Either that, or the valuable item would constitute a clear advantage to the player spending real money, and ArenaNet can’t allow that. Players spending real-life money can amass gold without the requisite play time, because they can sell gems to multiple players and consolidate those multiple players’ efforts without actually putting forth any effort themselves. Because of this, the value of anything in the economy, and gold itself, has to be very low or non-existent in the game.

If gold could buy you anything communally valuable, then having tons of gold would constitute a substantial advantage…so again, ArenaNet is in a situation where they have to make sure that nothing in the economy is really worth anything. So how do they do that?

By making anything that would normally provide value extremely easy to acquire in multiple different ways. You can get the best-stat gear at any level very quickly and easily by adventuring, crafting, or buying using multiple different currencies, including real-life cash. You can get crafting mats super fast all by yourself. You can make everything in the game with little or no effort. Everyone will have anything they want in short order…so the only differences will be strictly cosmetic appearance differences, which are of course the definition of valueless in the context of the game. If everything tradeable is set up to be extremely easy to acquire (in order to avoid any advantage being provided to gold buyers), then it’s all trash loot. Literally the entire in-game economy is nothing but easy to acquire cosmetic things. It has to be.

So this begs the question…what does making a trash loot economy do to the game? I don’t think we’ll know that for a while. I would say that it’s definitely untested ground, at least in the context of this type of game. I don’t know that any other game has maintained the lack of value successfully…I think most end up selling advantage because having an economy that is entirely trash loot kind of makes it a little worthless to play.


The other realization I have come to is that I think I understand why I and others are uncomfortable on a very fundamental level with the gem system in general, and the “convenience” or time-saving items in particular. I think it has to do with that old saying…

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

A lot of us grew up playing games with that concept drilled into our heads. Games are about level playing fields. They are about everyone operating under the same set of rules and sharing a game play experience. Games are about everyone relating to each other and gaining things in common by all doing things the same way. In the modern MMORPG genre, and in GW2 in particular, a different saying might be more appropriate…

“There is no losing, and it doesn’t matter at all how you play the game.”

The whole “no way to lose” thing is a topic for another day…but I’d like to talk about why some of us reject that second part, despite game developers and some other players assuring us that it’s totally okay and actually better than the old way of thinking.

In a social game like an MMORPG, players are placed into a virtual world where they gain things in common. It isn’t just about being in the same place, or being able to communicate with each other. It’s also about shared experience. It’s about building relationships through common experiences. We both understand things and look at things in a similar way, because we had to reach them the same way. We followed the same rules, so we value the same things. We develop a shared understanding of, and value for, the entire virtual world. This allows us to easily relate to each other. It’s how you play the game that matters in this regard.

What ArenaNet and other companies have done is to create a separation between players, and tried to justify it by claiming that it doesn’t matter at all how you play, everyone can still play together. There are multiple different ways to play, and multiple different sets of rules, but somehow everyone can play their own game together in the same game world. You can arrive at the endgame in GW2 by playing an entirely different game than the one I played to get to the same place. I’m not talking about the story, or the dynamic events when I say “different game”…I’m talking about the fundamental rules by which we experienced everything.

When that is the case, how can we really have much of anything in common? You don’t value the same things I do…because you acquired them in a totally different way that didn’t require any game play investment. You played by a different set of rules and look at the game in a totally different way. What this means is that ArenaNet is setting up a situation where every player is playing their own, private game…with their own set of rules and their own value placed on everything…and players are just supposed to ignore how other people play the game and somehow play together.

Instead of a situation where we’re all in the same boat, and all rowing to move it forward… some people are rowing and some people are operating an outboard motor. Some people are kicking their legs, and some people are swimming and pushing the boat. Some people are even towing the boat using their much bigger, fancier bling-bling boat. Yet we’re somehow ALL supposed to share the experience.

It’s like trying to play a game of basketball, where one player is counting his baskets as one point, another is counting his baskets as two points, and another is never dribbling at all…just running around with the ball. Are these people really playing a game together? I have a hard time believing they are, simply because they’re on the same court and all calling their game “basketball”.

It’s not a matter of feeling like “I have to work and you don’t”… it’s not an envy thing. It’s the fact that you are experiencing something entirely different from me, and therefore we really don’t have much in common. The only way we can play together is if we both completely ignore what the other did to get here, and that’s very hard for a lot of people to do. When we play together, we are forced to align our priorities and values…we have to think of things the same way and consider the same things important. That’s basically impossible in a game where some people can buy their way through while others choose to play it.

This definitely comes into play with the in-game economy in Guild Wars 2, but the more significant disparity is with the “convenience items” that ArenaNet is going to offer. Now granted, we don’t know exactly what those things will be or how significant they will be…but it’s clear that ArenaNet is fine with people substituting money for time played…and that creates a fundamental separation in the player base. Everyone is playing by their own rules.

Buying boosts to experience and any other earnable resource in the game for real money means that we are going to be playing two different games, and value things very differently. The worst part of this is that players who just want to play the game are forced to accept the lack of value in the things they earn, because others can get the exact same amount of power by simply buying it. Even those non-tradeable prestige items will only be cosmetically different from the things you can buy for real money on the game’s economy…so is it really possible to value them at all? We’re forced to place no importance on how you play the game, or on any aspect of the experience, because other players will be short-cutting or bypassing the experience to get to the same place.

Some players, me included, will just always have a difficult time seeing something like this as a truly social game. Without shared experiences…without everyone rowing (moving the boat forward the same way)…we really can’t share play in the sense that we used to.

It’s quite sad. If you go back and look at my previous blog posts, I clearly had the impression that ArenaNet was making an amazingly social game…that they understood on a fundamental level the importance of players building a community and friendships through common experiences and communal value. But I was operating without all the information. It turns out that with this trash loot cash shop economy that they had planned from the beginning and the sale of time-saving consumables, they have set up one of the most individual, isolated game play experiences that I’ve ever seen. Players can play (or not play) any way they want, by their own rules and with their own values placed on everything, and all experience the same game and get the same stuff. I’m somehow not supposed to care that we got the same things by totally different rules. Sorry, but for me it still is a little bit about how you play the game that matters.


2 Responses to “The Trash Loot Economy and Row, Row, Row Your Boat”

  1. perfect says:

    For me, it’s not about how you play the game but about having fun while you play the game.

    Some people use alternate rules for the Free Parking space in Monopoly. I despise that rule as I consider myself a purist. Does that mean a group of like minded individuals can’t get together and play a fun game of Monopoly?

    To extend this to MMOs (and not just GW2) and use your metaphor, there have always been people who rowed faster than me. I never did an Epic in EQ. Never went on a raid. I explored a lot and helped people out. Played for like two years, didn’t even hit the level cap. When people talk to me about what they did in EQ, it was like we played a different game. I didn’t do the same things that they did.

    And that was alright cause we had fun doing our own things. It was still a community because we experienced the same feelings of joy, even if we went out feeling that joy in different ways. I never felt like what they were doing (raids, epics) took away from what I was doing (chatting, exploring).

    College football and professional football have different rules. Same basic concept but winning can take two (or twenty) different paths. It’s the same game, though. Should college people feel that the professional people are less of a winner because they didn’t play by college rules? When we play street football, we don’t follow most of the NFL rules. We play the basic game (get the ball into the end zone, be nice) and we have fun doing it. Just because someone else plays a different way does not diminish the joy I find when I knock down a pass or ‘tackle’ (it’s just two hand touch, cause, you know, street) a person a foot from the goal line. I still get much enjoyment out of watching the pros play (I think college is a waste of time), too. I don’t care that they got the same thing (joy at winning, despair at loss) by different rules.

    For me, it’s not how you play the game. It’s that you have fun while you are playing the game.

  2. Fozzik says:

    The only way your Monopoly analogy would equate to this situation is if you and your friends tried to play Monopoly with different rules for free parking simultaneously. When Joe lands on it, he takes all the money in the pot, but when Frank lands on it, he just picks a card. Obviously nobody plays games with separate rules for each person. THAT’s the problem with what they are doing.

    Someone rowing faster is still rowing. You’re still playing the same game by the same rules.

    I totally understand that some people don’t care how the game is played. They are perfectly happy with different rules being applied to different people in the same game, and everyone just having their own little personal bubble of fun. I’m not. There’s no right or wrong here, except right or wrong for the individual…and for me, it’s wrong.

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