These are my own thoughts, based upon nothing more than my opinions and observations. Forgive me if some or all of these ideas have been stated elsewhere - but I have no intention of copying someone's thoughts or starting a new thread for no reason, I simply haven't seen anything along these lines.
Let me begin by saying that I'm trying to jump into the mind of SE devs/designers as to why there's no Auction House in the game from an economics standpoint. Let me also give the disclaimer that I agree the current system needs a real lot of polish to be truly effective (or even, mildly effective...), but hear me out on this post which claims that a P2P economy can theoretically work.
I'm not an economics expert or game designer, but perhaps this is the line of thought that was adopted in the "retainer" system.
First, consider the limited inventory place available. Every player has 80 inventory slots, plus 80 inventory slots on their retainer, in addition to the 20 bazaar slots (10 player, 10 retainer). Of course, this is not taking into consideration item stacks (groups of 12, 99, etc). or crystals. That means that each player can contribute a maximum of 80+80+20 = 180 items to the overall economy (the aggregate supply curve, if you will). This means that the amount of items possible is somewhere in the order of 180N, where N is the amount of players on a server. Excess items simply get vendored to NPCs. This is by definition a finite supply.
Of course, this is very simplistic for the reasons listed above, as well as the fact that many of these items are not available for sale, whether explicitly (i.e. not in a bazaar) or implicitly (mats reserved for crafting, sets of gear equip, weapons, etc.)
On the demand side, items with greatest demand (and the highest price people are willing to pay) should then theoretically be high-level gear and the mats required to make that gear, as with the passing of time, lower-level gear/mats become commoditized as players skill-up, thus driving down their place. We've all seen that happening. Given that, for gear, each player only needs one of each item, there is a similarly finite demand curve as well.
Let me digress for a second and compare that system to an AH economy like that of WoW (in full disclosure, I did not play FFXI, so I can't relate to the painpoints of SE failing to meet past expectation). There are basically infinite supply/demand curves due to being able to dump things in the AH, on mules, guild banks, and the mailbox. Prices in this environment are far easier to manipulate, especially by spambots/RMT. Have you seen any RMT in FFXIV compared to other games? Any at all? Just saying...
Back to the topic, given that virtually every craft of any value requires materials from more than one (usually several) craft disciplines, and given the exponential time required to level a particular craft class, it seems obvious to me that SE's intention was that players ought to focus on specific roles (i.e. ranking up a specific class, not several) and form bonds amongst one another (friends, linkshells, etc.) in order to achieve unique (i.e., non-commodity) success. They've even overtly stated as much.
The most successful (highest level, most gil, most notoriety, etc.) players on my server (Rabanastre) are the high-level crafters with a wide network of like-minded friends. I suspect the same is true on all servers.
But, back to the question of an AH - why would SE purposefully not build an AH? One thing I've seen is that they were "too lazy" or it was "too hard" for some reason to implement, and I just find that very hard to believe. Another is that they're trying to be "different" just for the sake of it - this is closer to what I think is the truth. They're definitely striving to be different, but I think it's on purpose.
1. Again, with the P2P retainer system, they have created a finite supply/demand curve, and therefore a controlled economy. I truly believe that the game design hinges upon the expectations that SE have on this type of economy.
2. RMT is a plague upon all things MMO. Some people love it because it allows them to be lazy, pay real money, and cheat the system, but others recognize that it really ruins the game for people who invest their time, thought, and energy, only to be subverted for people looking for a quick out. And we can all agree that shout bots are incredibly annoying and only take away from the game experience.
3. This system encourages players to work together in unique ways, and form relationships. SquareEnix has stated this as a hope they've had for the game. It can work, and the players who have learned to work successfully together are the ones doing the best right now, by any measure.
That's my speel. I do want to close in saying that this type of system absolutely does not cater to the casual player - you need to dedicate a lot of time to be a good crafter, both in leveling the craft and forming/maintaining the interplayer relationships. On the other hand, casual players have no need for high-end gear, unless they're trying to look pretty - but they'll pay the price on diminishing returns and gear that breaks quickly (and costs a lot to repair).
What does SE need to address? Searching for items, and they've said they're working on it. There are probably ways they could further streamline market matchmakers, and they're probably brainstorming that too, if not developing it already. Again, I don't think we'll ever see an AH because they want to keep the economy finite.
I'll close in saying I've found the reviews of XIV from game magazines to be completely unfair and suspiciously negatively biased (Actiblizzion ad revenue, anyone?). There are subtleties like the ones I've talked about that you can't possibly even begin to think about in playing the game for only a week, let alone a few hours. I rate the current state of the game at about an 8/10, and I hope to break down my thoughts on that at some point as well.
Thanks for taking the time to read this potentially TL;DR post.
EDIT - fixing # of bazaar slots, thanks Chris
Edited, Oct 22nd 2010 11:53am by volta1