I've signed up to this forums specifically to create this thread and ask this question:
Is it just me or do MMORPG developers usually not hire any sort of economic or psychological consultants in order to get their advice on how to design game mechanics for their game? And if they don't, why do you think that is?
The reason I'm asking this question is because I like to think of myself as sort of a knowledgeable person on the topic of economics, psychology and online games in general. And I see so many good games that get the gameplay perfectly right, they create this beautiful game world but then they go and screw up in the most essential part of the game - the game mechanics! And by that I mean how your character progresses and what you can do in the game.
Let's take an example. Maybe you've heard of DarkFall before, maybe you didn't but it's basically a really beautiful game with awesome FPS action packed game play MMORPG developed by a Greek indie firm Aventurine. It's uniqueness comes from the fact that it's a sandbox game without any linear story lines and it's specifically intended for PVP play with full loot which means if you die, you lose everything you were carrying to whoever picks it up first. The way you character progresses is also unique. As you play and move your character around their game world you constantly use skills such as running, swinging a sword, casting a spell, crafting an armor and as you use these skills you also level them. The higher the level of your skills to better your performance. With running you run slightly faster, with swinging a sword you hit slightly harder and so fort and so on.
Now if you have no idea about human nature and you're just basically an IT person who knows how to code such a game you could look at this description and see no apparent problem in it. And once you'd launch such a game you'd have no choice but to try and fix problems that would occur on the fly and you'd most often treat symptoms instead of the actual cause of a problem which is a core design flaw.
For instance in DarkFall players soon discovered that leveling skills gives your character a significant advantage in fights. Coupled with the fact that you lose all of your stuff if you die naturally no one would willingly fight with any disadvantage. Hence players started using AFK macroing to get an edge. Now again if you are an IT person besides not understanding why this is happening you might not see the immediate ramifications for your player base if a small groups starts to behave like this so you ignore it until it becomes a big problem. In DF eventually everyone learned that if you want to compete and basically not get slaughtered you better macro your skills. Those who refused got stomped and soon quit, those who didn't have now 2 years after it's release such an edge on a new player that I have a really hard time imagining their player base ever starting to grow again.
My argument is that if Aventurine had hired someone with similar or better knowledge in the before mentioned topics like me, even though I could have been of no help of actually coding the game, I could in fact have foresee these problems and suggested adjustments to game mechanics.
Of course you could try to argue that predicting how players will respond to a sandbox game is impossible and that they often behave irrational but I guarantee you they don't. If you have the proper knowledge in human nature and economics you can fairly accurately predict how players will respond to certain game mechanics and you successfully identify game-breaking mechanics and prevent a problem before it even manifests.