An interesting post was put up on our sister site WoW Insider a few months ago now which told the tale of the NPC merchant at Imported Boomsticks in Orgrimmar. Though my home base in World of Warcraft is usually this bustling city, and I have visited that shop many times for repairs and the unloading of grey/white items, it was eye-opening to note that I was one of the people referenced who did not remember the name of that NPC.
None of my characters have used guns (not a moral thing - just a convenience one), so I never had a compelling reason to see what was offered for sale or pay much attention to this little shop. I just knew it was there for me whenever I needed to stop by the auction house and take care of some repairs and bag-cleaning at the same time.
It then occurred to me that, other than trade goods and recipes, I really hadn't purchased much of anything from the NPCs on any character. It never seemed worth it. There always seemed to be better items to be gleaned from questing or selling goods that other players would pay for. Why, then, are there still NPC vendors selling their wares around Azeroth?
Basic supply-side economics would show NPCs either changing their prices to remain competitive or leaving the market if their goods do not sell. As the prices for their goods are set by the system, rather than the laws of supply and demand, their only option would be to cease operations. This is particularly true since they are forced to buy items that they cannot resell.
The goods offered are generally white, Common, items which are, by definition, inferior to any Uncommon, Rare, or Epic quest reward items. In game terms, this means that as your character levels up, they will avoid purchasing these goods when something more exotic is available.
Yet the NPCs are still there. Ready to buy vendor trash items. It almost works like a subsidy where money is provided by the system in order to keep the vendors around despite the losses they would otherwise suffer. If that is the case, then why bother selling items no one is buying?
I recently made my first foray into EVE Online, a new and uncharted place for me. As a gamer whose outlet has thus far been fantasy MMOs, the shock was undeniable. Since there is so much research, data and commentary out there about the economics of this particular game, I determined that it simply must be explored.
After getting through the Aura tutorials, I set out on my first agent mission... and promptly died to a mess of pirates forming a blockade. Oops. So back to the moon base I went in my little escape pod only to find a shiny new Ibis awaiting me. Excellent. It was then that I first tried to refit the ship and was rather confused. There was a link to the market in my NeoCom, as Aura had shown me, but I couldn't find a NPC shop to buy basic gear.
Suddenly, I felt lost. All I wanted was some ammunition. There was none available where I was. I faced the need to travel elsewhere in order to get simple goods. It was so discombobulating that I logged out to visit forums and search online to see what was going on.
It wasn't until I spoke with one of our resident EVE experts here at Massively (thanks so much!), that I got a clear answer. The vendors in EVE are part of the market system and are subject to competition. How novel! They are not forced to buy items no one wants, nor are they sole suppliers of any given item. They just exist within the larger market to help make basic items available. It doesn't do much for the distribution network from one world (or moon) to the next, but at least the items can be found somewhere.
In this role, EVE Online NPCs serve a similar purpose as the trade good vendors in World of Warcraft - they take some money out of the system while acting as market makers. Albeit, not much, but some. In EVE, any reselling of these items would have to happen on the same market, which minimizes the ability to profit from it. But in WoW the auction house serves as a continual arbitrage provider. In other words, there is a separate market environment available where a reseller can immediately profit.
It may not be a particularly quick path to in-game wealth to sell Flint and Tinder, but recipes will often sell for two to three times the purchase price from the NPC - even those from the vendors wandering about near the auction house itself. So even if the majority of the items will never sell from their inventory, the patterns will.
Perhaps it would be a better system if vendors only sold these necessary items. Or maybe if they offered for sale all the items that had been sold to them within the last hour or two, as is/was done in Ryzom. Why not just have them there as a fence with no items available for purchase whatsoever? Or maybe give vendors some slightly better items to sell, such as weapons that do have bonuses on them but none that would rival those in similar-level crafted goods.
What do you think? Are NPC vendors as we know them an endangered species in fantasy MMOs? Should they still be there to sell common, non craft-related items? Would uncommon items tempt you to browse their inventory? Or in your ideal MMO would it be a single-market system like in EVE with no separate NPCs at all?
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.