Tuesday, July 22

The underapreciated NPC Vendor

So for my first attempt at blogging, I'm going to talk a bit about NPC traders in MMO's and how they're under-appreciated and how they could be used to regulate Player movement better in order to prevent clustering, which causes lag.

A common sight in many an MMORPG is that of the huge crowd of people standing around an auction NPC or a terminal providing the same services. In EverQuest II there are the Traders, in Vanguard there's the Auctioneers, in Age of Conan, it's Traders again and in City of Heroes/Villains it's a group of store-clerks or back-alley ruffians. In Guild Wars there aren't any but there's no General Chat as a result either, with all the fish-wives, I mean Players hawking their goods. A pun in that game is that the best place for a quiet chat is the Trade channel.

Something you also see in each of these games and many, many more are A) Your FPS rate dropping dramatically whenever you get near to these large groups of players accessing the game's global auction / trade system. B) A lot of "useles" NPC Vendors trying to pawn off rubbish armor. We the Players visit them sometimes, or at least the one that's closest to our route to the nearest Auction-house, to sell our "Vendor Trash", stuff we can't even get the dumbest player to buy at inflated prices. For the main part they are completely ignored though, unless they've been inserted into a Fedex-style quest chain for instance.

I mean, I recall buying quite a bit of Armor from the NPC's in my first time through the Guild Wars: Prophecies campaign, but by the time Guild Wars: Factions came out, I'd be taking a character to Level 20 and Droknar's Forge (the long route, I never got ran) in little under 12 hours and with a set of armor bought in the northern Shiverpeaks. In EverQuest II I don't recall buying armor or swords from NPC's after hitting 10. I do recall the lag-fests in the Crafting Houses. SOE tried to do something about that by littering the streets with stumble-upon crafting stations after realizing that selling from your home just wasn't cutting it.
(Hello SOE?, ever heard of home-order/delivery Like those Pizza's you get?)

In Vanguard, saga of unfulfilled potential, it was pretty much the same deal. 5 FPS around Auctioneers (or any area not fully optimized) and ghost-towns around them except for the spots where Crafters had been hidden away or the triangular route between Bank - Crafting Station and Trader. A lot of useless traders standing around that tried to sell us white, entry level gear.

Age of Conan even tried to put it all into one spot, including mail. So in order to check your mail (most likely RMT Gold Sellers spamming you and blaming Google for raising ad prices) you have to stutter passed dozens of people checking their banks, guild-banks, mail and the auction-house while pretty much the entire city's instance is a ghost-town filled with lovely Vendors who never get any custom. Except for the Potion vendors who constitute just about the only money-sink this game knows. Like the other games, the armor and weapon vendors see no custom at all. The General Goods vendor just outside the Tradepost in Old Tarantia sees lots of Vendor Trash custom though.

So, there are two "problems" right? Laggy areas around auction house access points where players congregate to not socialize but try to get the biggest price for their goods instead. And NPC's that were painstakingly inserted into their cozy little shops or stalls but are really wasted memory space as they have no purpose.
Just about every game, including CoX these days, is item-centric. That makes "sense" becasue when people stop levelling, you need to find them another time-sink. I don't know who came up with the idea to level gear, but it proved brilliant and Blizzard perfected the system of gear-levelling through Raid-Dungeons, amongst other things.
But it's a sad fact that the stuff that Vendors sell is almost always "Salvation Army Grade", meaning it has the lowest posisble stats for any given tier (usually 10 levels) and you'd really rather not be caught dead in them, except you're very likely to end up just that taking the gear out to the nearest dungeon.

I'm taking a long and roundabout way to get to the point here and you think you see it coming but it's not Player Shops. Or atleast not the way people sometimes propose it. Your own personal NPC to sell your crafted or looted gear on would instantly create scenes the likes of Lineage II with its towns full of secondary accounts used for auto-selling/buying materials.
I'd much rather see a system where the NPC Armor Vendor allows you access to both his Aalvation Army stuf as well as the armor section of the Player Market. If you got separate NPC's for each tier, restrict their access to the Player Market to that particular tier. The same for Weapon Smith NPC's, General Goods sellers and whatnot.

Benefits that I can see are manyfold.
Not only can you lower the ammount of people congregating on one spot, thereby reducing lag in those areas, but by making people "run around town" to visit various stores for their shopping sprees cities will become more lively. Add no-horse/dragon riding signs while you're at it. Additionally you'll bring people interested in the same gear (Tier 3 Armor for instance) within proximity of each other. Like-minded people are more likely to chat and socialize, even if it's only to complain about the rarity of such-and so item. Maybe some on the spot bartering or group-forming takes place. Furthermore, the specialization of the NPC Vendors with access to the Player Market means pre-fixed search queries to that database, meaning you can optimize (reduce server-load) for those. It also helps people knew to the whole player market and searching auction-house thing. Finally, it makes "botting" the player market that much harder.

The one drawback I can see about it is "virtual laziness". If you were to suddenly spring this system on a game where the single-point access Auction House has already been applied, people will probably scream bloody murder and come up with various theories on how your company isn't trying to make money of of your customers but secretly to ruin their lives and make them hate you. If that actually IS your business model, please explain how you can get that to work? Since that's usually not the case though, I doubt we'll see this anytime soon.
I am curious though, does anyone know of MMORPG's that actually support this lind of trading? I played several MMO's but don't recall this kind of system being used anywhere. I'd also like to know people's ideas on cons to this system.

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