The Story of First Star Origins: How Bad Economic Design Can Ruin a Good Game

First Star Origins logo
First Star Origins logo

A Background

Most people have probably never heard of a little online RPG titled First Star Origins. It appeared and “disappeared” rather quickly and silently. It was mostly only known to close followers of games created by the developer and owner of Unfun Games. I’ll quickly fill in anyone outside of the know of this tiny little company. Unfun Games developed a number of online RPGs with the title “First Star” in the name of each. It began with “First Star Online” which had a decent following for a new 2D online RPG at the time. Eventually, the source code for the server and client were up for sale and spawned games like “Terra World”. Unfun Games continued to make FSO 2 & 3 along with two tactical based online RPGs. First Star Origins was the most recent game.

First Star Origins had a new idea that sounded fantastic. Let the players build the game. Give them the content and they can build the world. And indeed they could. Players could purchase land in “squares” from the website (similar to Second Life), gather resources, and build a great number of things. It almost sounded too good to be true. From houses to mansions; from fences to interior furniture; from starting a farm to setting up a shop with an NPC to buy and sell items, players had a large amount of freedom in building the world. Players also had a large amount of crafting options in making equipment for their characters. Players could level up a number of skills related to crafting, battling, treasure hunting, farming, taming animals, fishing, etc. Finally, players had the option to build mines that would generate gold and ore. So, it actually played slightly like an RTS at times.

First Star Origins screenshot
First Star Origins screenshot

What Went Wrong

What a bunch of amazing ideas! How could anything possibly go wrong? The answer to that question is bad economic design and lack of support. Bad economic design made the currency useless and thus made shops, the auction house, and treasure hunting useless as well. Typically, in games, we interact with NPCs where we exchange money for items and vice versa. The value of those items are predetermined by the game designer. In online RPGs, the value of items can fluctuate based on factors such as how easy it is to obtain money, how easy it is to obtain items, and what the predetermined price of various NPC sold items are in the game. Supply and demand also play a large role and is the primary reason why item prices can be very different on different servers in MMORPGs. But it’s the NPCs that give the money actual value because the money would be useless otherwise. And that’s what happened in this game. There were no NPC shops and nothing could be done to the gold to give it a useful purpose.

In real life, gold has value for many reasons. It cannot be tarnished or weakened and is not affected by other substances. This allows it to maintain throughout many years in almost any environment. Gold can be used in jewelry and other crafts. It is also a nonrenewable resource. Today, it is commonly used in electronics. Gold has maintained its value better and longer than most, if not all, other monies and commodities throughout history. It is for these reasons and many more that gold has been used as a medium for trade all over the world for over a thousand years. Game money doesn’t have these traits and so it is up to the game designer to make sure that money has forced value.

In “First Star Origins” there were no NPC shops to make a use for gold. There was no way to use gold in crafting or anything else. The only use for gold was a one-time purchase of a boat for 5000 gold. This was a small amount of money and was only useful to brand new players. As a result, players refused to trade in gold. Instead, they traded in ore, wood, seed, information, and other useful resources. If a player built a shop, they were forced to use gold as a means of exchange for items so players never took shops seriously. The auction house did the same thing. Players could pan for gold or “treasure hunt” as it was known in the game. This was only useful as a skill to increase the player’s level. This easy access to gold also caused a great level of inflation to what already had no real value making it almost impossible for new players to ever have enough gold to purchase even the most basic of items in some cases. It was a good thing that it was easy to obtain them through other means.

The Decline

Players still enjoyed the game for a month or so. The more hardcore players kept playing for as long as three or four months. But the novelty soon wore off and the game lost purpose. Economic design played a major role in this. A serious lack of content, updates, quests, and other features also played major roles. Eventually, people stopped playing entirely and the game was abandoned by its creator (though the server and website are still up). It was a sad end to a game that had incredible potential. This should serve as an important lesson to designers attempting new ideas in games or real life. It is important to thoroughly think out the consequences of radically new designs and test them well before implementing those ideas in video games or anywhere else. Or else that great idea might just become obsolete.

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