DCUO: Economics Trumps Cosmetics

Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand

Adam Smith. (Invisible hands not shown.)

A lot of MMO developers don’t get in-game economies. They put them in the game, sure, but they don’t seem to spend a lot of time thinking about what that in-game impact is going to be. This is probably because:

  • Doing in-game economies properly is hard, where most MMOs implement in-game economic frameworks like auction houses and player trading just so they have them.
  • There’s a belief that the ‘invisible hand of the market’ will solve all game economic ills, ignoring that the MMO-based invisible hand typically tries to stuff as much gold into its pockets as possible while afk macroing.
  • Virtual economies work under different rules than the real world if in-game resources are allowed to be infinite (and they usually are, with the term “gold farming” a very familiar term to those who play MMOs) but developing resource sinks is dull game design work.

However, there are times when you’d think that there would be some consideration to how economic options are going to impact on player behaviour.

DCUO’s February update introduced the auction house, which seems to have come with a shortcut around one of DCUO’s proclaimed features: costume pieces as loot drop. Rather than having the vast majority of costume pieces available to characters from level 1, DCUO instead offers the bulk of its costume pieces as rewards (typically through defeating enemies). If you want to ‘unlock’ a costume piece, you first have to acquire it and wear it, then you can choose to either keep the item or change it for something else but keep the cosmetic appearance.

In short, costume pieces as key parts of the reward system.

But along with the auction house comes a change to that equation:

“Those of us who are collection fiends now have an easy way to finish sets or sell off extra pieces we pick up during our travels. For those who don’t care about collecting but want all the unlocks, the auction house provides the benefit without the time spent hunting. So, too, for those who want costume-type unlocks immediately. Find a piece of gear with the style you want — it doesn’t even have to be one with stats you care about — equip it to unlock the style, then vendor the item. Easy.”

Black Adam Tiered Armour

You probably can't buy this in the Auction House, but I'm just highlighting that no-one needs shoulder pads bigger than their head.

Yes, all too easy. I’m sure not all costume pieces are available to buy, but it suddenly allows players to acquire a lot of costume pieces – things that they would have chased as rewards – through a quick process of “buy, equip, sell”. And because they can sell it back, that money can be re-used to buy all costume pieces in that price band. As the number of costume pieces on the market increases, it becomes an increasingly trivial process of buying your way to full costume sets.

Which then raises the question: why restrict those costume pieces from characters at level 1 anyway?

The way around that would have been to make costume pieces consumable to some extent – up to five different people can wear the same latex jumpsuit (ewww!) before it gives up the ghost on the final unequip – but that’s probably too late a solution for DCUO to pursue (or one that would be very unpopular if implemented now).

Blankman costumes

This is what happens if you DO create a costume based on what you find lying around. And the results aren't good at all.

Cosmetic / costume-related player behaviour is different in superhero MMOs to MMOs of other genres. Superpowered characters typically don’t create their appearance as a patchwork of stuff they’ve picked up off the ground, but as a stylised representation of their own inner values / conflicts (or at least to follow the Rule of Cool).

DCUO originally had the costume loot drop system as something that made them stand out from competitor superhero MMOs – you had to EARN your look – but it only took a bit more than a month from launch to drop that idea entirely (albeit possibly by accident).

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