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World of Warcraft’s inflation problem could finally be hitting regular players

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WoW’s economy has been a mess for years

Blizzard Entertainment

The value of World of Warcraft gold has plunged relative to the value of real money in the past two years, but a series of events in the game have kept that fact from impacting the economy for players who don’t spend money on gold. That could be changing, however, and you might see some shocking prices in the auction house over the next several months if you’re playing Battle for Azeroth.

This is what’s going on, and why it took so long to get here.

Gold is WoW’s currency for exchange

Gold in World of Warcraft is a currency that is awarded in small quantities for completing quests and missions, defeating enemies, and selling unwanted items to vendors. It is used in the game to purchase things like armor repairs, crafting reagents and the use of flight paths that ferry players to various locations. It is also the currency of exchange on WoW’s auction house.

There are professions you can train in to make money in the game. You can be an herbalist to pick useful plants; an alchemist to make potions; a miner to mine ore; a blacksmith to craft armor; a jewelcrafter, who can cut gems that can be socketed into certain items to augment them; or an enchanter, who can enchant items to have bonus stats or effects.

You’ll need things produced by many of these professions to optimize your character, but you only get two professions you can do yourself. Unless you want to grind on a second character to collect all the reputation-gated recipes for other professions, you will probably need to buy the stuff you can’t make for yourself on the auction house. And if the price of the stuff you need exceeds whatever your questing and your followers are bringing in, you might want to sell some of your own trade goods or raw materials in order to finance your purchases.

Some players like to try to game the auction house to make gold by buying things for low prices and crafting them into more valuable things, or simply reselling them at higher prices. You can also use large amounts of gold to buy special luxury items like very expensive vendor mounts that carry portable auction houses and repair vendors. Sometimes you can find special mounts that were exclusive to the Warcraft collectible trading card game that was discontinued in 2013, though many of the most desirable ones, like the Spectral Tiger and the Giant Rooster, are very rarely sold on most servers, and go for the maximum price of 10 million gold.

World of Warcraft - Spectral Tiger
Spectral Tiger in action
Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

If you have a lot of gold, you can use it to pay other players to do some of the game’s less exciting activities, like fishing, herbing and mining. Some high-end guilds like to amass large stashes of gold so that they can provide consumable crafted items like stat-enhancing alchemy flasks and cooked food items that buff players, as well as enchantments and gems, to their raiders.

WoW Tokens: Cash for Gold

The problem with using your gold to pay other players to do WoW’s busy work is that you have to get the gold to pay them, and the way you get gold is mostly busy work. Many WoW players just want to buy their gold from other players with cash — preferably, amounts of cash that are fairly trivial relative to the perceived value of the time and effort required to obtain the gold legitimately.

Selling gold for cash was, for a long time, against the game’s rules. But that didn’t stop large, sophisticated operations from springing up to take advantage of the opportunity to make real-world cash. The outfits that sold gold to players started out by paying foreign workers very low wages to endlessly grind the game, but they later started procuring their gold through quicker and more disruptive methods.

Gold sellers would steal players’ account information using keylogging malware and phishing scams, so they could strip characters and harvest everything of value. They used stolen accounts and the accounts of players who had paid for “power leveling” services to “bot” for resources, using automated cheat programs to harvest resources that they could quickly liquidate on the in-game auction house. This caused the price for traded goods to crash, which impacted the entire economy.

For more than a decade, Blizzard tried to stop the exchange of real money for in-game gold. The outfits that were selling gold to players looking for shortcuts were shady and, in some cases, criminal.

And the methods that gold sellers were using to harvest gold were wreaking havoc on the game. There was no way to stop the selling of gold as long as there was demand among the player base to pay for gold with cash. But there was a way to kill off these parasitic and predatory businesses that were involved in selling illicit gold: In April 2015, Blizzard took gold selling legit with the WoW Token.

The WoW token is very simple: You pay Blizzard $20 for a token, and then you can sell the token on the in-game auction house. A player with gold can buy a token and redeem it for a month of WoW subscription time or for $15 of Battle.net balance, which is like a gift card credit that can be redeemed in WoW or other Blizzard games such as Hearthstone and Overwatch. You get their gold; they get your cash, or at least most of it.

The value of the token fluctuates with time. If a bunch of players want tokens and few people are buying gold, the gold value of a token will rise. If a bunch of people want gold, then the value will fall.

But mostly, it rises, and over the last two years it has risen very sharply.

A recipe for inflation

There are several factors that cause inflation in the WoW economy. First, there is massive inequality, because WoW’s trade goods economy tends to funnel wealth to a small number of players.

The reason for this is simple: Most players don’t need a lot of gold or care very much about it. An active player might earn an income of a few thousand gold per week from sending followers on missions and doing World Quests that award gold. They might then spend most of that money at the auction house buying things like flasks and stat-buffing food to do raids and Mythic+ dungeons. Gold just isn’t a big deal for them.

A much smaller number of players are producing surplus quantities of those valuable goods and providing them to other players. And all the gold generated by the activities of those players who ignore the grindy professions and get what they need from the auction house is flowing to the players who are making all those goods available on demand to the rest of the community. Most of these auction house merchants are sitting on a lot of gold, but the number of people who want to make cash this way is relatively low.

Another problem is that gold isn’t a finite resource; the game is constantly creating more of it. Gold is created every time someone completes a quest, kills an enemy or sells trash to a vendor. Some gold is siphoned back out of the game economy by repair bills, flight paths and a “tax” on auction house sales. Occasionally, a lot of gold is destroyed when someone buys a pricey vanity mount from a vendor. But gold is created quicker than it is destroyed, and it becomes less valuable as it becomes less scarce.

In particular, between 2014 and 2016, it was possible for dedicated players to generate quantities of gold that were previously impossible to obtain, and have not been possible to obtain since. The Warlords of Draenor expansion was the first time the game included nonplayer character followers that players could send on missions to collect resources, items and other useful stuff, including gold.

In that expansion, NPC followers could get an ability called “treasure hunter” that doubled any gold rewards they earned from a quest. And “treasure hunter” perks stacked, so it was possible to get a few thousand gold per day, per garrison. Many casual players who had never had significant amounts of money before earned hundreds of thousands of gold during Warlords of Draenor. Players could sock away millions, since each character could earn roughly the same amount of gold from their garrisons, and you can have as many as 10 characters on a server.

While this income stream dried up when Legion came out in 2016, Draenor garrisons multiplied the total amount of gold in circulation many times. During the Mists of Pandaria expansion, you were rich if you had a few hundred thousand gold but, after Warlords, rich meant being a multimillionaire. However, the impact of this extra gold was blunted for a while, because WoW Tokens were redeemable only for more game time until February 2017, limiting how much gold rich players were willing to sell.

Players only need a finite amount of game time; you buy 24 tokens, and you’re fixed for two years. So the players sitting on hoards of gold had an incentive to sell only a fraction of their stash. The rest of their wealth sat idle in their coffers, out of circulation.

Once Blizzard allowed players to redeem tokens for Battle.net balance, however, there was basically no limit to how many tokens players needed. Rich players began dumping their stashes, and with so many more people trying to sell than buy, the value of gold relative to dollars plunged, and the gold price of the tokens started skyrocketing.

In August 2016, when Legion was released, a WoW token was worth 35,000 gold. Prices began to rise after Blizzard announced that tokens would be redeemable for Battle.net balance, and when the new functionality was released, the price of a token surged to about 90,000 gold. In July 2018, shortly before the release of Battle for Azeroth, prices peaked above 200,000 gold per token.

To put that in perspective, the high-priced vanity mount released with Legion is a giant spider called the Bloodfang Widow. It costs 2 million gold. If you wanted to buy one with cash, using WoW tokens, it would have cost over $1,100 at the time Legion was released, in August 2016. If you wanted to do the same thing in July 2018, it would have cost less than $200.

We were insulated from trade good price inflation during Legion

Even though the value of gold relative to real money plunged during the Legion expansion, we didn’t see corresponding increases in auction house commodity prices, with the exceptions of big-ticket vanity items like TCG mounts. Consumable prices in gold were actually stable or falling during the same period that the value of gold relative to the dollar was plunging by more than 80 percent.

Near the launch of Legion, commodity prices were very high, and Token prices were low, so a $20 token bought you only about 20 flasks. By the end of the expansion, $20 bought you about 400 flasks. Prices for cooked food and enchantments were similar. This represents a huge drop in the value players placed on time spent grinding.

There are several reasons why this may have happened. First, only a fraction of the players who interact with the auction house buy or sell WoW Tokens. While the value of both gold and commodities plunged relative to real money, the value of gold and commodities remained steady relative to each other. Players who didn’t interact with the Token market could buy the same number of flasks by doing the same amount of world quests, or selling the same number of gems or enchantments, so these sellers saw no reason to raise their prices.

Second, flying was introduced in Legion in March 2017, about a month after Tokens became redeemable for Battle.net balance. Flying mounts make farming materials for trade goods faster and more time-efficient.

Third, the Battle.net balance update to Tokens occured six months into an expansion. Players had already leveled their professions on multiple characters to serve various goods markets when gold got cheap, and that meant there were lots of crafters in the market and lots of competition pushing down trade-good prices.

Fourth, beginning in Mists of Pandaria with the Halfhill farm, and continuing in Warlords of Draenor with various garrison buildings that produced resources, Blizzard has been making trade goods more plentiful and easier to obtain. In Legion, herbs, fish and enchanting materials were so abundant that a very small population of gatherers could supply more raw materials than the economy could consume.

Finally, although Tokens took a chunk out of illicit gold-selling, botting — automating characters to gather resources — remains a problem in WoW. Players who cheated this way could glut the market with goods, and keep prices low.

These changes are finally primed to affect trade-good markets in Battle for Azeroth

Each new World of Warcraft expansion is effectively a reset for professions. Old trade goods, and the materials used to make them, become obsolete. And players need new goods made from new materials that no one has stockpiled. That means stuff is scarce at launch.

On top of that, there’s little incentive to go grind ore or herbs to make gold, because for the price of a large pizza, you can get an amount of gold that would take many hours of grinding to accumulate.

All the things that kept trade goods cheap while the value of gold was falling are no longer true in the new expansion. Most players are working on gearing up their main characters right now, and it will be a while before people earn the levels and reputations on secondary characters to serve the markets for high-end trade goods, so there are fewer crafters competing with each other to serve a community that is swollen with returning players.

And Legion-level trade good prices won’t induce people to invest the time into Battle for Azeroth crafting in order to fill the demands of the market. Cheap gold and cheap goods encourage people to just buy everything with cash instead of bothering with gathering and crafting at all.

And more people are buying gold with the expansion turnover; token prices fell from around 207,000 gold in mid-July to around 185,000 gold right before Battle for Azeroth launched. They’ve fallen to around 150,000 gold in the first few days of the expansion. That’s still five times as much as they were worth two years ago, but it’s a 25 percent drop from where they once were. This means that significantly more people are interested in buying gold now than a few weeks ago.

In other words, the surplus of gold spilling into the market through Token sales during Legion was countered by a surplus of trade goods, keeping prices low at the auction house. But the expansion rollover means that the demand for trade goods will far outstrip the supply, at least for a while, while gold remains devalued.

And a market situation in which there is lots and lots of money — and not enough stuff to buy with it — suggests that the prices of flasks and other consumables in WoW are about to rise in a substantial way.

On top of that, after several expansions of making trade goods more plentiful, Blizzard is making components for common consumables scarce again in Battle for Azeroth. The new flasks require a rare herb called Anchor Weed, which spawns randomly in place of other herbs, so it’s not plentiful anywhere and is difficult to farm in quantity. It’s much more precious than any commodity that herbalists have seen in several expansions.

Fish, meanwhile, were significantly devalued by the Underlight Angler, an artifact-quality Legion fishing pole that made fishing so productive that a very small number of fishermen could supply an entire server with materials for cooking. At current rates, fishing in Battle for Azeroth is more time-consuming, which means less food to go around, and higher prices at the auction house. Of course, Blizzard could change spawn rates in a future patch, but as of now, signs point to an economy in which common necessities will be much more scarce.

Mythic+ dungeons and raids unlock on Sept. 4, which is less than two weeks away. These activities require a lot of buff food and a lot of flasks and other consumables, and reward a lot of new gear that will require gems and enchantments.

It is very likely that, when those activities unlock, herbs and fish will be very scarce, and gold will be very plentiful. And when that happens, players who have gotten used to funding weeks of raiding for an entire guild on a single token are going to be in for some sticker shock.

We’ve got precedent for what happens to commodity prices at the beginning of an expansion: They skyrocket. In early Legion, flasks went for between 1,500 and 2,000 gold, which was about the equivalent of a dollar and change. If the cash value of flasks holds with current gold pricing, Battle for Azeroth flasks could be selling for an unprecedented 7,500 to 10,000 gold in September.

If you’d like to get a lot of gold without spending cash, it might be wise to make a speculative investment in the resources that produce raid consumables before those activities unlock.