First of all, let us address the misconception that you cannot start a game without any money. This is only the case if you are accustomed to buying your materials or starting goods from a player market rather than the NPC vendors. Prices at vendors are, at least we hope, set such that when a character would encounter them and need the goods they sell they will be affordable. This is particularly true in starting zones where you must quest or loot for your pay. If you are really strapped for cash, there are a number of ways to mule yourself into financial comfort without grinding through it the "hard way." But if you're going to do that anyway, you could probably generate much of the stuff you would have purchased. All that being said, why is it that, with such an abundance of low-level items to be found, they remain out of financial reach for the average starting player?
High prices occur as the result of three economic factors: high demand, low supply, and the presence of too much money. The more people playing the game, creating characters, and buying stuff for those characters, the higher the demand will be. Fair enough. But low-level characters do not have the kind of money it often takes to start out this way. They cannot be held responsible for the inflation of low-level prices.
Enter: factor one – players with alts. As soon as characters of greater means (read: higher level and therefore receiving more money per quest/kill/sale) start purchasing low-level goods for alts (or friends, if they're really nice), the price goes up. For example, instead of a level 5 item costing what a level 5 player would be able to afford, it now costs what a level 25 player is willing to spend on an alt. Few games these days do not allow for the sending of funds or items to another character on the same account making this is a very widespread practice, despite the protests of the Game Musketeers. Even newly-launched games can see this type of inflation if beta testers are allowed to keep their characters and items while new players are just purchasing the game.
There are two components interacting on the supply side. The first is the rareness of an item. As items needed to begin in crafting are usually easy to find in starting zones or on NPCs, this is not a problem. So it stands to reason that getting these goods does not have to be expensive – unless, of course, you value your time.
The other issue with supply is that someone has to be willing to provide the goods to the public. This is where the price hike really starts. When there are few people selling, the prices tend to be higher. As more potential sellers see the high prices that their goods might fetch and capitalize on the opportunity the price will usually come down. It may still be higher than you are willing to pay, but that's what auctions are for.
That brings us nicely to the final source of high prices – the amount people will pay. The "problem" with in-game economies is that money comes out of nowhere. In a real world economy, the supply of money is limited. Sure, the mint puts out replacements for the bills and coins that are damaged and taken out of circulation but, by and large, the number of whichever-your-preferred currency available for use is capped. In MMORPGs, this is not the case. Whenever an NPC spawns, dies, and drops loot, more money is brought into the economy. Selling items to a vendor also creates money. The more money available in the system, the higher the prices will tend to be as characters have more to spend. Without adequate gold sinks and with the ability to trade between players, the money tends to flow from one person to another. This means that more people are able to pay more money for the same stuff and prices go up across the board.
It is crucial to in-game economics that money is allowed to circulate but measures can be taken to combat the increase in prices of low-level items. In order to do so, the devs would have to address each of the issues contributing to high prices. Unfortunately, attempts to increase the supply of items within the game as a whole does not necessarily mean that the price at auction will decrease. It still relies on players taking the time to farm for sale, not for use. Making crafting items level-limited would mean that only lower level toons could sell these materials, which would put more gold into the coin purses of lowbies, therefore likely increasing prices. Gold sinks at higher levels, such as mounts in World of Warcraft or housing in Lord of the Rings Online and Runescape, decrease the amount of expendable currency among endgame characters without impacting lowbies, therefore making them less likely to spend exorbitant amounts on materials for alts. Another option for some games is to limit an account to only one character as is done in Runescape. Or we could all just suck it up and grind through the low levels for crafting mats - as if that's going to happen!
Do high prices for starting crafting materials hit you square in the wallet? What else do you think should be done to keep prices at the auction house in line with levels, if anything?
Alexis Kassan is a numbers nerd. She spends her days with statistical programs and her nights with spreadsheets and textbooks. She's also a MMORPG addict, having gotten sucked into Ultima Online at a formative age. In her time away from work, books and games, she can usually be found drowning in pools of sprinkles. If you have a question about in-game economics or how crafting fits in with them, hit her up at alexis DOT kassan at weblogsinc DOT com.