Today, I’d like to talk about a fascinating intersection of MMORPG economies and hard currencies. More specifically, the Astral Diamond system in Neverwinter. Most hard currencies are regularly used by only a minority of players in games, but Neverwinter is designed for a constant flow of Astral Diamonds from players of all kinds, and with a player base of over two million players, that’s got to be bringing in some serious revenue.
So, what is an Astral Diamond? It’s a currency that acts as an accelerant for Zen, the game’s hard currency. This’ll take a little explaining, so bear with me. It’ll all make sense in the end. Astral Diamonds can be earned through play, but there’s a hard limit on how many a player can earn in each day. On top of that, when players do earn Astral Diamonds, they earn them in a form called Rough Astral Diamonds that can’t be spent. These need to be refined into normal Astral Diamonds first, and a hard cap of 24,000 Astral Diamonds can be refined per player per day (Presumably to limit the speed at which Astral Diamonds can enter the economy and keep it from being devalued too quickly).
Astral Diamonds can be used to buy high-value items, but where this gets really interesting is with the auction house. In Neverwinter, the only currency accepted by the auction house is the Astral Diamond, and thus the main currency exchanged between players. Astral Diamonds are the lifeblood of the game’s entire economy. Each player that exists can add a maximum of 24,000 Astral Diamonds to the game’s economy per day, and each transaction in the auction house removes 10% of the Diamonds from the economy. Astral Diamonds can be spent on other goods as well, but my belief is that the auction house is primarily responsible for removing Astral Diamonds from the economy.
Now, let’s talk about the actual hard currency and how it relates to Astral Diamonds. The hard currency is called Zen, and it’s used by other games published by Perfect World. Players can use Zen to buy premium MMORPG goods such as character slots, boosters, high quality gear, etc. It works just like you’d expect a premium currency to work.
However, there’s one final key feature to this equation: The Astral Diamond Exchange. Players who want those goods but don’t want to spend real money can instead offer their Astral Diamonds to other players in exchange for Zen. Players in need of Astral Diamonds can buy Zen and exchange it for someone else’s Astral Diamonds. Players who don’t pay money can still enjoy items that cost hard currency, but someone somewhere still contributes revenue. I’ve seen this in Puzzle Pirates and a few other games, and premium currency exchanges have always fascinated me, especially since the prices are player-controlled and fluctuate to meet supply and demand.
If you combine the existence of the Astral Diamond Exchange with the presence of the Astral Diamond-only auction house, you get something magical. The auction house is full of desirable goods, and the transaction fee creates a constant drain on the number of Astral Diamonds in circulation (offset by the creation of new Astral Diamonds). Players who want to trade Astral Diamonds for Zen will become very active on the auction house, selling whatever they can and contributing to the game’s community and economy. The value of the Zen is tied closely to the Astral Diamond; if the market has many Astral Diamonds, the value of the Astral Diamond falls and the Zen can be traded for more Astral Diamonds (capped at 500 Astral Diamonds per Zen).
Some might be bothered that a player can get premium currency without spending real money, but it doesn’t matter if a player can benefit from Zen without personally spending money on it. What matters is that the Zen is purchased, creating revenue, and that the Zen is spent, removing it from the economy. A top-performing free-to-play game needs to have monetization intertwined with the game design at its most fundamental levels, and by creating a careful tie between the premium currency and the economy, Cryptic has built something fascinating.