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Money Changes Everything

Hello again and welcome to our ninth development blog for Pathfinder Online.

This weekend, the team is gathering in the Seattle area to shoot footage for an upcoming video project that we're sure will generate a lot of buzz and excitement about Pathfinder Online. We'll be talking a lot more about that video production and its purpose in the next few weeks. To get this done we've reached out to a number of our friends who have professional video production experience both in Seattle and in Hollywood—we're determined to make this thing look first–class. Please continue to make and post your own videos (see this thread on the messageboards for more info). So far the videos that you've posted have been fantastically cool and very humbling.

We are also in the middle of a blizzard of legal work. Finalizing our middleware deal has been the focus of a lot of effort over the past month or so. The terms have been negotiated and we have a mutual understanding of what everyone wants in the deal—now we just have to get it all memorialized on paper and signed. As soon as that's happened, we'll be able to tell everyone exactly what we've got planned.

Put on Your Green Eyeshades

As always, our blogs introduce design ideas that are subject to change based on community feedback and playtesting. What you're about to read represents the current status of our game design, and we're looking to your input to help us improve it.

While a lot of attention is paid to combat and exploration, the real engine that drives a sandbox game is its economy. Economics is often called the "dismal science," and this blog goes into quite a bit of detail on the system we have planned, so please keep in mind as you read that not all of the accounting bits we're talking about are going to be experienced to the same degree by to every player. (Don't worry: Pathfinder Online is not going to be the World of QuickBooks MMO!)

There are effectively two approaches to economic systems in sandbox games: a simulated economy, or a virtual economy.

Simulated economies provide the illusion that there's some rational basis for the prices of goods and services, but in fact there isn't. Most theme park MMOs have simulated economies—the more you look into the way things like their auction houses and vendors work, the easier it is to see the flaws in those systems. Simulated economies are fine for games where the accumulation of wealth is a side effect of playing the game and where money is used as a gate to access content as characters become more powerful. Simulated economies can be—and usually are—badly exploited by those who care to figure out their weaknesses, but nobody really cares because having a whole lot of money usually doesn't get you any kind of meaningful in–game advantage.

Virtual economies are the exact opposite. They are as real as any actual economy, except that they exist in a self–contained universe that usually has only a tenuous connection to ours. Supply and demand create pricing signals. Scarcity affects price. Distance affects price. The complexity of the value chain that is required to complete and deliver a finished good affects price. And the accumulation of wealth allows the purchase of high–impact in–game benefits. Virtual economies tend to reduce operating margins to razor–thin slices very quickly, meaning that the only way to make significant profit is to operate at tremendous scale. This rewards groups of people who can coordinate their actions effectively over long periods of time and over substantial in–game distances. Markets change in response to local needs, and finding a place where one can extract arbitrage can be a very lucrative venture—at least, until others find it too, and the market self–corrects through competition.

Pathfinder Online is going to have a virtual economy. As much effort will be spent on the economic development of the game as will be spent on the other major aspects. And like the rest of the game, the economic system will be continuously iterated over time as the population of the game increases and as player characters become more complex and skilled.

The Big M

In conventional economic theory, the term M is used to represent the supply of hard currency in the economy. The economy usually has much more value than just the sum of the currency supply—the value of an economy also includes stuff like the equity in stocks and bonds, real estate, inventories of goods, accounts receivable and outstanding savings in the banking system, for just a few examples. M just tracks the "money supply"—the bills and coins people use directly to buy and sell things.

Pathfinder Online has a very simple currency system: the coin. We may decide at some point to give coin some flavor, like named currencies in various denominations depending on where in the Inner Sea region certain bits of legal tender were minted. That's just window dressing, though; fundamentally, there's just coin.

Coin is a unit of account. Coin can be infinitely divided and combined. It is virtual and does not appear as an in–game object. When your character walks around, you're not lugging around a huge bag full of money. Coin has no weight and can be moved from place to place instantly. We may decide at some point to generate some in–game rationale for all of this using mystic hand–waving and such to "explain" the curious properties of coin, but for the sake of this dev blog we'll keep it relatively simple.

All the coin in the game enters via a faucet. Faucets are things like rewards from NPCs for completing various tasks, or payments made by NPCs when they buy things from player characters. New coin may also be found as loot when a monster is defeated, or it may be discovered as treasure while exploring.

Coin exits the game as well, via a drain. Drains include actions like paying an NPC vendor for something or paying a tax or a fee to an NPC or to some system service. Coin might be consumed by player characters in other interactions with the game world in ways yet to be determined.

When players exchange coin between themselves, it is neither created nor destroyed. When your character dies, the coin you were carrying is not lost, and it doesn't stay with your husk. It is possible for coin to leave circulation without being destroyed—for example, coin associated with inactive characters is effectively out of circulation. But should those characters return to the game, their coin will be there waiting.

In general, more coin will enter the game than leave it. This will allow characters to accumulate wealth, and it ensures that there's ample capital available for loans and gifts. But when the value of M increases in an economic system, it often drives inflation. So like real–world central bankers, Goblinworks will have to carefully manage the size of our M, watching to see that inflation doesn't overwhelm the game's economy. Luckily, unlike real–world bankers, we have 100% visibility into how much coin exists, who has it, how it is being used, and what prices are charged for goods across the whole game world. So we can operate with a kind of Olympian perspective unavailable to our real–world counterparts. We can adjust our economic system with precision, changing the amount of coin that enters via faucets, and controlling the amount that exits via drains. There's no perfect stable point; M will have to be constantly adjusted over time in response to player activity. It's just one of those maintenance tasks that comes with operating a sandbox MMO.

Stored Value and MTX

Pathfinder Online will also have a robust microtransaction (MTX) economy as well. This system runs in parallel to the in–game economy, and the two have very limited and very controlled places where they interact.

We start with stored value. We're currently calling this "Skymetal Bits." Each account has a Skymetal bank, and you can purchase Skymetal Bits from Goblinworks using a variety of payment methods. Because there are overhead costs involved in processing credit and debit cards, there will be a minimum amount that you can purchase at one time. We haven't set that minimum yet, but expect it to be in line with other MMOs at around USD $5-10.

The other part of this system is the Skymetal Bits store, which will be accessible both in–game and via our website. In the store, you'll be able to see prices and features of all the things you can purchase with Skymetal Bits.

You'll use Skymetal Bits to purchase four kinds of things:

  1. Enhancements to your account: Things like having multiple characters, paying for skill training, and other premium services
  2. Convenience consumables: Things that your characters might want to use in–game in lieu of relying on always having specialist characters with you while you adventure, or as a way to recover from an encounter that goes horribly awry
  3. Bling: Visual displays that have no in–game mechanical effect, such as specialized clothing, decorations for buildings, and interesting–looking mounts.
  4. Theme park adventure content: In–game modules that you can unlock for yourself and your friends

From time to time we may offer a variety of other things that are linked to Skymetal Bits—things like access to Pathfinder Online conventions, real–world apparel, or other such merchandise.

The Skymetal Bits store will not sell much in the way of items with in–game mechanical benefits. You won't be able to use Skymetal Bits to purchase awesome arms and armor, or magic items, or the ability to summon powerful entities to slay your foes. In other words, you won't be able to bypass the need to play the game in order for your characters to become more skilled and powerful over time.

Some players will opt to have a recurring monthly subscription. Subscribers will have a predefined package of benefits that will remain available as long as their subscriptions are paid, without needing to buy and spend Skymetal Bits for those benefits. If they choose to stop their subscription payments, they can still buy Skymetal Bits to continue to apply those benefits. In general, though, the subscription price will be lower than the price of the Skymetal Bits you'd need to acquire all of the things that subscribers get, so if you want a lot of those benefits, you'll likely want to subscribe.

Some things in the Skymetal Bit store will not be automatic subscription benefits, so subscribers can also buy and spend Skymetal Bits if they wish.

When Worlds Collide

We are planning on allowing one item from the Skymetal Bit store to also be sold in–game for coin: skill training packages. This has two important consequences:

First, players who want to spend money on the game can use Skymetal Bits to buy skill training, and then sell that training, via the in–game market, for coin. In essence, they'll be able to "buy" coin with real money.

Second, players who don't want to spend money on the game will be able to continue training their characters essentially for free, as long as they're generating enough coin in the game to buy that skill training.

This is a win/win for both groups of players, and reduces the scope and effort so–called "gold farmers" will waste trying to compete for your business—which is also good for Goblinworks, as those people are sources of constant problems for MMO companies, including fraud and identify theft.

This system will work very much like PLEX works in EVE Online. PLEX has proved to be extremely successful at reducing the effects of gold farmers, and at making it easier for casual players to enjoy the game without requiring them to put in massive effort to raise in–game funds. We expect to see the same positive outcome in Pathfinder Online.

Accounting for Fun and Profit

Coin needs to be kept somewhere. That somewhere is an account. Every character has a basic account to keep track of coin. Nobody has access to that account except that specific character. Characters may also have access to other types of accounts, by way of social organizations.

Accounts have various common features:

  • Accounts have an owner. Accounts can be owned by a character, a chartered company, a player settlement or a player nation.
  • Accounts have at least one administrator. Administrators control how coin is deposited and withdrawn from an account. Administrators can add and remove other administrators. When you create an account, you are its first administrator, but you don't have to remain the administrator forever.
  • Accounts have names. Administrators can name accounts to help users keep track of which account is used for certain kinds of transactions.
  • Accounts have ledgers. Ledgers display each amount deposited or withdrawn to or from the account, and the nature of the transaction. Transactions are also time– and date–stamped and indicate the character that caused the transaction and, where applicable, the name of the administrator that authorized it.
  • Accounts have a balance in coin—the current total of all the deposits and withdrawals.

Accounts come in four types:

  • Open: Characters who have access to open accounts can receive and disburse unlimited amounts without approval by anyone else. Player characters' personal accounts are always open to that character.
  • Approved: Characters who have access to approved accounts can receive unlimited amounts and disburse unlimited amounts after approval by a specified party.
  • Limited: Characters who have access to limited accounts can receive unlimited amounts and disburse amounts up to a defined limit without approval by anyone else, and can disburse unlimited amounts after approval by a specified party.
  • Capped: Characters who have access to capped accounts can receive unlimited amounts and disburse amounts up to a defined limit without approval by anyone else, and can disburse unlimited amounts after an election by either a settlement or player nation, depending on the ownership of the account.

Each account has various types of associated permissions to control access and visibility. Player nations do not inherit permissions from their constituent settlements; settlement and player nation accounts are always separate.

Access Control: This permission restricts who can see the account. In order to be used in a transaction, the account must be visible to the player character who wants to use it.

  • All Members: All members of the player settlement or player nation (depending on the owner) can see the account.
  • Group: A defined list of player characters can see the account.
  • Character: Only a specific player character can see the account. A player character's personal account limits access to that character only.

Account Balance: This permission restricts who can see the current balance of the account.

  • All Members: All members of the player settlement or player nation (depending on the owner) can see the account balance.
  • Group: A defined list of player characters can see the account balance.
  • Character: Only a specific player character can see the account balance. A player character's personal account limits balance visibility to that character only.

Account Transactions: This permission allows a player to see the full ledger details of the account.

  • All Members: All members of the player settlement or player nation (depending on the owner) can see the ledger detail.
  • Group: A defined list of player characters can see the ledger detail.
  • Character: Only a specific player character can see the ledger detail. A player character's personal account limits transaction visibility to that character only.

Information Overload

This sounds like an awful lot of complexity, and under the hood, it will be complex... but we intend to make your experience of it only as complex as you need it to be. If you're not part of the financial decision–making process of an organization, you'll just have simple tools to manage your own account. If you have a high degree of trust with your friends, you'll be able to share common assets without any bureaucracy. And if you're the head of a large organization, you'll have a high degree of control over who can spend your organization's funds.

We are seeking to provide a balance of control and transparency so that social organizations large and small can manage their collective assets effectively and yet ensure that rogue elements don't have the power to steal all those assets, or dump them in a pique of anger, or make unauthorized purchases that aren't in keeping with the will of the organization. Our intent is to provide safeguards, not force you into a blizzard of red tape.

We also intend to make the user interface for using your accounts as simple as possible. We'll be taking our inspiration from consumer–friendly—but powerful—accounting tools like QuickBooks and Mint. You'll be able to schedule payments, set up reminders and notifications, and in many other ways manage your Pathfinder Online accounts just like your real–world banking. Mainly, we'll do our best to let you do what you want with your coin with just a little effort on your part.

To Infinity and Beyond!

Of course, some people will want to do things like create banks and insurance companies, offer loans with interest, and even sell stock in companies and settlements. All of those things and more are great additions to the game, and we're thinking about ways they can be implemented safely and without causing problems with griefing and fraud.

We'll take a relatively hands–off approach initially. If people want to set up this kind of thing without a built–in game system to support it, our basic rule will be caveat emptor—buyer beware! Goblinworks is not going to act as financial cops keeping people true to their word. It will be up to the community to decide with whom they do business based on trust and reputation, and how to hedge risk in general. That's all part of the fun in the sandbox!

Discuss this blog on paizo.com.