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An Economy Is You
by Eric Schwarz on 01/10/13 07:50:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Playing Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir lately has got me thinking about the state of in-game economies and how very rarely they resemble real-world economies, or even work in a way that is mechanically developed or balanced.  We've all played games - probably more than less - which have completely broken economies, where gold flows like water, and the player seems to be the sole source of income for everyone in the world.

In this article I'd like to address some problems with in-game economies, and approaches that can be used to rectify the issues that arise with them.

What's an economy?

First of all, we need to take a moment to clarify what I mean when I say "economy."  Game designers tend to use "economy" to discuss all sorts of things, from the number of experience points it takes to level up, to the ability to unlock upgrades throughout the game.  Strictly speaking, for the purposes of this discussion, we will be limiting things to economies where players can buy and sell goods for monetary gain.

However, the above point highlights the fact that, strictly speaking, an in-game economy featuring gold, dollars, starbucks, or anything else is actually not so different from any other economy out there - the player is receiving an arbitrary unit of a resource in exchange for performing an in-game task, which can then be used to achieve another effect at the player's convenience.

For example, finding a powerful sword is a task I can complete, but if I decide I don't want to use it, I can go to a shop and exchange it for 500 dollars.  Those 500 dollars then go into a pool of resources I possess, and I can later spend 1,500 dollars or more on a much, much better sword.  The decision on how and when to use the resource is mine, and not something strictly enforced by the game mechanics.  But, if we were to swap in key concepts like "kill enemy" and "experience points", we would have the basis of a sound level-up character progression system.

It's important to understand that an economy in game terms is an abstract thing and the labels that we give it do not fundamentally affect the mechanical purpose, only the presentation and feel to the player, as well as what is possible within the confines of the system (for story or verisimilitude reasons).  In fact, it's often in playing to the conventions of currency specifically that games sometimes stumble when trying to come up with interesting economic systems.

The economy is a balloon

The way that progression in most modern games is handled, especially RPGs, is along a vertical axis - that is, the player's core ability set, generally speaking, is pretty much fixed in stone.  Throughout the course of the game, the player's main techniques, weaponry, gameplay style, etc. will not change significantly, but the effectiveness will scale up as the player makes progress in the game.  Instead of doing 10 damage, at a certain point into the game, the player's attack might now do 15 damage or 20 damage.

However, what tends to happen is that in order to create a feel of consistent progression, those base numbers have to keep going up.  Sure, 5 damage extra doesn't seem like a lot now, but when you realize the player may level up 100 times throughout the course of the game, you are looking at a player gaining about 50 times as much power as they had at the beginning.  This means that enemies have to have 50 times more health for the game to stay balanced, sometimes even more, as we expect challenge to increase as the game goes on.  This is often called bloat, and many, many games can be accused of it - as well as the awkward effects it produces, such as a level 50 ferret being able to overpower a level 2 dragon.

The exact same principle applies to monetary systems in games.  When you start out playing, you expect to make an amount of money that is useful and rewarding.  Most games are balanced around this.  Let's say the player should use about 10 health potions by the time they get from point A to B, and that a health potion costs 10 dollars.  Fine so far, that means the economy should try to guarantee the player has at least 100 dollars by the time he gets to point B.  But what happens when the player's average income starts to increase?  Over the course of most games, you will very often see the player gain 10 times, 20 times or even 100 times as much money as he/she used to for performing the exact same action, which means the relative value of everything in the game world which ties into the economy has to scale accordingly.

Predictably, they very rarely do.  Often, this is because developers balance economies around the bare minimum the player needs to do to get through the game.  If I stick to the critical path in an RPG, for instance, I may be missing out on over half the available money in the game, especially when you consider the tendency for developers to use money as a generic reward suited to optional activities (side-quests, mini-games).  So, while maybe the player who just wants to get through the game and see the ending will wind up having just enough money to get by, the player who puts a bit more time into the game will end up with so much she doesn't even know what to do with it.  Thus, problem number one occurs: inflation.

Money is worthless

Another major problem that arises from economic systems in games being poorly balanced is that the currency the player has is basically worthless.  That's not to say it doesn't have use, however, the value of the currency itself is questionable.  This is almost always the result of the game either not offering compelling things to purchase, but it can also be a shortcoming of the rest of the game's design.

The simple fact is that most games have the player gain equipment and other tiers of progression by performing feats of some kind, usually story-related.  If I explore a dank cave and find a treasure chest at the end of it, I expect that chest to contain a reward for my time spent in exploring the cave - I think just about every gamer would agree with this, and just about every developer would do just that.  However, the value of the items or powers the player might find in the game world needs to scale with the level of challenge as well as the place the player is in the game's main progression arc.

Furthermore, we have an expectation, mostly from convention from other games, that the best rewards come from optional feats that are often difficult to perform, hidden from plain sight, or require a large time investment.  A good example of this is the Magic Armor in a game like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, or the "ultimate" weapons for the characters in Chrono Trigger.  In those games, money has value, but usually it's not worth spending - in the case of Zelda, because most things you can buy with money can easily be found through a few seconds of grass-cutting, and in the case of Chrono Trigger, because opening treasure chests found throughout the game environments, which are usually impossible to miss, gives you all you need.

Developers are often all too eager to play into the expectations of players, usually because they share those expectations.  However, the result of this is often that the hardcore players who would most likely be interested in exploring the economic systems of a game in the first place quickly conclude that their effort is wasted, because they can already get the best stuff without even having to participate in that system.  The additional trend of giving players everything they need along the critical path, with little or no challenge required, also means that players who don't necessarily care about exploring the game deeply will end up with a less fulfilling experience because they may not even realize the additional systems are there in the first place - after all, if there is no need to participate in a system, many players will opt to simply ignore it.

Gold sinks

A common piece of discussion that surely arises during development is "man, the player sure has a ton of money.  How do we make him use it?"  This gives birth to what I consider to be the sign of a bad in-game economy, the gold sink - literally, a method of draining the player's money, usually for poorly-justified gameplay reasons.  If handled well, a gold sink can become a valuable contribution to a game, such as Crossroad Keep in Neverwinter Nights 2 (which ties into the endgame outcome).  More commonly, it's just a big, shiny bucket you toss coins into until you've got no more coins less, usually for small rewards.

Gold sinks can take many forms.  Houses the player can buy and upgrade, such as in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, are a popular option in modern games, as they tend to have zero real gameplay benefit other than some extra storage space, but stroke the player's ego and feel substantive and important at first glance.  Sometimes, they're gambling systems, where the player can throw huge amounts of money into a slot machine for the chance of receiving a reward.  Often, this reward is completely useless, and it's the temptation that maybe, just maybe, the player will get something valuable that keeps the money flowing in.  Diablo II used this a decade ago to pretty good effect, as gambling was almost useless to the average player, but there was nothing else to spend money on in the game.

I don't think a gold sink is ever a fair and sound justification for the economic imbalance in a game.  We're not dealing with a real economy where money is circulating throughout society, after all, but a set of arbitrary variables that go up and down.  The number of games which actually feature any sort of economic simulation model that might make gold sinks an interesting gameplay mechanic can be counted on less than one hand, so their purpose - getting rid of excess cash so the player feels it's got some worth and scarcity to it - is the only one that can be seriously considered.  All this really does is paint over a problem that shouldn't exist at all.

Do's and don'ts

Generally speaking, many of the problems with an in-game economy actually come less from things that developers do wrong outright, and more from additional features that are added which have unintended effects, and which then go unfixed.  There are a number of things that developers might implement with the best of intentions, but which ultimately can completely ruin an economy.

  • Infinite sources of money.  This often seems like a no-brainer, because developers want players to have enough money to get through the game.  The problem is that these are often abused, either because they are easy to do or because the rewards are so great that it's worth putting up with some frustration.  Mini-games are a very common way of gaining fast cash in games, and most mini-games tend to be fairly easy.  Developers aren't likely to pour tons of time and effort making sure a mini-game is expertly balanced, so the result is often a feature which is either worthless (too little reward or too difficult) or far too useful (easy and/or big reward).  Without finite resources, the player will never feel pressure to consider their spending options, and as such, money quickly becomes meaningless.
  • Giving money for optimal gameplay choices.  Some games offer the player bigger monetary rewards for playing the game a certain way.  For instance, you might make significantly more money if you pickpocket an enemy before you kill him, because the loot you receive doesn't come from the list he actually carries and drops on death, but is generated the moment you perform the pickpocket action.  This sort of mechanic encourages the player to rob everyone in the game environment blind.  Although there are some deterrents that can be used, including making those "optimal" tasks very difficult and inconvenient, these are often not foolproof depending on the game.  Skyrim, for instance, has generic AI behaviors that make pickpocketing everyone you meet a serious risk (at least until you have leveled up), while Dragon Age has absolutely no repercussions for pickpocketing - the target won't react to a failed attempt, no guards are summoned, etc.

When it comes time to actually balance an economy, there are a few techniques which are helpful when used in conjunction with the above ones.

  • Give out monetary rewards that are balanced with game progress.  The easiest way to go about this is to simply play through the game as the player might, add up how much money is gained in the process, and then compare it to all the things the player is expected to buy, or can buy, accounting for a deviation of +/-%.  This is fairly obvious, but it's quite surprising the number of games I've played where it seems the developers just did not do this.
  • Make money a gameplay-critical system.  Too many games don't have worthwhile economic systems simply because there is no good reason to participate in the system, as discussed above.  Consider eliminating many of the free sources of goods the player has access to and outright force them to buy stuff in order to proceed in the game.
  • Avoid giving permanent upgrades to players in exchange for currency.  If you've ever played an online game with an economy, you've probably noticed that some items have incredible value while others have very little.  One of the main reasons for this comes down to the simple difference between permanent items versus consumables - something that lasts forever is far more valuable than a temporary benefit.  Instead of granting the player a +5 Longsword of Slaughter, consider instead giving the player a potion which gives +5 damage for 10 minutes.  If the player has to spend money to stay competitive within the rest of the gameplay systems, then money has been given enough meaning to be justified.
  • Horizontal expansion of currency systems.  Earlier, I discussed how vertical progression is very common in games.  Just like it's possible to avoid the dreaded "HP bloat" in an RPG by introducing more methods to deal with enemies rather than simply increasing the numbers, you can do the same for an economy by introducing multiple types of currency or additional nuances in how it can be acquired and spent.

Closing Thoughts

Of course, what this article can't account for is the simple fact that often in-game economies are an afterthought designed mostly to give the player an extra step in the gameplay loop, rather than to be meaningful on their own or in conjunction with other systems.  Furthermore, if a game's development is pressed for time, it's balance in the secondary gameplay systems, including economy, that is often one of the first things to stop receiving proper attention.

It's also worth noting that, in general, I think games have gotten a lot better about handling economies over the last few years.  While I still see many games where money is worthless, too readily available, or otherwise just not at all well balanced or considered, I find many titles actually do a pretty decent job of it, often by following the same suggestions made in this article.  This may be because of the rise of massively multiplayer online gaming and the more pressing requirement to come up with economies that are properly balanced not just as a gameplay mechanic, but as a fully interactive, persistent and, for lack of a better term, "real" system.

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Martin Juranek
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Something I noticed when playing gothic and Fallout 3. In gothic, almost everything is limited. So I had huge tendency to pick up everything, pickpoket everyone, loot all chests and when finished with area mureder everyone. In the end I had too much of everything, but who knows what future holds.

In Fallout 3 I started with same mindset, pick up every tincan etc. But slowly I realized implication of that 1) weapons and armors from enemies are much more valuable 2) lot of enemies respawn. Put together, If I miss some money or experience, killing few bandits will compensate. I ended with too much of everything anyway but feeling that I don't "need (in sense not to get cut of from something in future by insufficient resources)" to complete everything optionally was liberating.

And don't get me started about police station staff stunned and stuffed into ventilation in Deus Ex:HR.

So I think that infinite sources of mostly everything is fine, as long as they are not too good. Eg. in skyrim I never thought I could make ridiculous money by spliting wood and selling firewood, but was glad that it was there where I was few septims short to do something. On the other hand, enchanted daggers were ridiciously effective way to get rich and ignore money.
Maybe biggest difference is, that what you gain by actually playing the game (in it's main way how to play) is simply progress, but something gained by side activities (not side quest's, as long as they are not strange minigames, they are still main gameplay) is extraneous to gameplay.

Eric Schwarz
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You may be right in that often the lack of a need of money prevents us from making more than would imbalance the game... but then, isn't the lack of purpose money can have also a flaw and imbalance in and of itself? Fallout 3 has one thing worth spending money on, repairs. Deus Ex, maybe the occasional weapon upgrade and ammo (Praxis kits were the main money sink). That's not necessarily a good thing.

Bart Stewart
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I've long wished RPG developers would go the "mo' money, mo' problems" route for balancing the player economy.

It's trickier than a simple "increase the drains" mechanic. But I like the idea that, as you amass more ducats and spend them on ostentatious public objects like castles, vorpal swords and glowing plate armor, you attract... attention. More beggars looking for a handout; more long-lost relatives wanting to cash in; more (and more capable) thieves trying to take your stuff; and so on.

Some of this would create new drains, like the need to buy high-end security systems or hire good guards. But maybe a more important effect is to make wealth accumulation more of an active game -- that contributes to telling the story of the gameworld -- than just "how big can I make this number." In a game like this, you'd actually want to think about whether to accumulate valuables.

This would need to be implemented so that it feels fun to most players, and not like they're being punished for being as financially successful as the game allows them to be. That said, a psychological solution might be more effective than a blunt-force "everything gets more expensive" player-economy balancing mechanic.

Eric Schwarz
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That is pretty much along the lines of horizontal expansion for the economic system, no? Giving you more ways to spend money - not just from a mechanics perspective but perhaps from a story perspective - has some interesting implications to say the least, yet I can't think of a single game that has toyed with the idea (maybe Fable III comes closest?). Money is almost always analogous to "more power" but it's interesting to think about what you could do by subverting that usual role.

Bart Stewart
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That's pretty close to what I was thinking, though I put more emphasis on the world-systems modifying the player economy in an emergent way rather than on economy tweaks applied in order to produce certain story beats. Both of those, though, would be different (not necessarily better, but at least different) than the most common approach of directly changing economic parameters.

Maybe a good way to describe what I'm thinking is in terms of the MDA system. I believe it's fair to say that the first impulse of most game designers to changing a game economy is to think in terms of Mechanics. To change the economy, you update table values for monetary calculations; you add faucets and/or drains; and so on.

I'm thinking more in terms of Dynamics. Rather than the Mechanical approach of adding a subroutine that directly modifies the player's access to in-game wealth over short-term events, a Dynamics-inspired enhancement would focus on changing parameters and behaviors of the world itself, and letting that condition the whole-game economy over the long term... which ultimately affects the wealth of the player's character.

There's no bright line here. Obviously adding some new drain to a game is a modification to the world of the game. What I'm suggesting here is more about the emphasis -- a design mindset from Dynamics will produce a game whose solutions to the question of how to provide a balanced in-game economy feel different than a game where the economy is more directly controlled through Mechanics-inspired solutions.

In reality (and particularly in a good game) both perspectives (as well as Aesthetics) will be applied for all of the game's systems. My feeling is that most developers naturally favor Mechanics for solving economy-balancing problems, though, and I'd like to see Dynamics given a little more love.

Axel Cholewa
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Your discussion reminds me of GTA: San Andreas and GTA IV. In the latter, you don't really need money, you always have your ways of getting stuff without it, or getting enough money to buy stuff (where stuff usually means weapons, of course). The longer you play, the richer you get, but the character is in no way affected. You can just buy more stuff, which you don't really need anyway.

That was a bit different in San Andreas. In the beginning I was making money by driving a cab. I needed to because weapons where not that easy to get, especially the better ones. And I needed better ones than my 9mm!

So I had to drive a cab, and because of that felt much more "in the city". It made the game world feel all the more real, and because it was a need which is common in the real world, it didn't feel forced upon me by the game.

But later in San Andreas, the same thing happened as in GTA IV: I was getting richer and richer and not much changed. My girlfriends (virtual, not real) should have known I'm rich, so they should've reacted to that. The one who was a police officer could have asked where I got all the money from, and the one working in the garage in San Andreas might have wanted a new car jack, a new flat or what not.

It would be very interesting to see such a dynamic solution implemented.

Roberto Bruno
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I actually think Gothic and Risen games handled this fairly well.
Of course you can pile a decent amount of treasures and money across the whole game, but at the same time money never become irrelevant or are subject to heavy inflation.

500 gold coins are a lot of money when you start the game and they still are a pretty valuable sum you don't part with too lightly when you are close to the end.

Eric Schwarz
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True, I especially like how money is just as important for character advancement as experience is. You still need to pay skill trainers quite a bit in order to unlock new perks and become more powerful. With regards to equipment, new upgrades are quite rare and cost a lot of money. Eventually the economy does kind of break, but at least for the first half or so of those games it works quite well.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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I liked the economy in Fallout 2 where the quantity of money (bottle caps) in the whole world is, as far as I can tell, limited. The emphasis is more on barter trade.

In this regard, money is more useful as a "padding" when trading, so that the total values of exchanged items are equal (e.g. you want to exchange a $75 gun you have with the merchant's $100 rifle, so you add $25 worth of bottle caps to even the trade).

And even though the amount of bottle caps are finite, as long as you own something of value, technically you are never without a means to purchase.

Eric Schwarz
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Money in Fallout 2 isn't limited because random encounters are quite common. The first Fallout is much better, there are, say, limited amounts of ammo for certain guns that can be obtained. Merchants don't restock in either of the games.

And yes, I agree that barter systems are a good way to handle an economy where it's thematically appropriate, because value is much more directly associated with items themselves. A rocket launcher, for instance, is worth a ton of cash, but there might only be two or three in the entire game, so selling them is a trade-off you have to consider pretty well.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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I see. From what I can remember, I did amass quite an amount of money, but I used it to purchase a really good weapon, then... my money never got that high again. I don't recall money drops in random battles being *that* generous. I got to the point where I needed to assault the final boss' base, but I never finished it.

That was the thing also, highly prized items like stimpacks don't restock. Don't fantasy game merchants realize if they monopolize the health potion trade they can rule the world?

Axel Cholewa
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Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Demons' Souls did a pretty good job of expanding the economy horizontally.

You buy weapons, repairs, skills, spells, miracles all with the same currency: Souls. But Souls come in many ways: killing enemies directly gives you Souls, exploring the world might let you stumble upon Souls of Fallen Heroes or Soldiers, and of course the bosses give you their Demon Souls. But although there is only one currency, the way you obtain Souls are very different, and all those different ways affect the way you play.

You can lose Souls when you die, making you play the game cautiously. Souls of the Fallen (my name for that) are not lost on player death, and you can trade them in for normal souls all the time. This means exploration is economically meaningful, creating a reliable source of income which doesn't vanish upon player death. And a Demon Soul can also be traded in for a lot of regular Souls, but every Demon Soul also can be spent on unique spells, miracles or weapons. Which one you don't always know directly, so that you should think hard before trading in a Demon Soul.

Oh, and you can't trade in weapons or other gear for Souls. Therefore there's no need of keeping all the things you find.

Pavlo Shushkevich
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For a moment I can only explain 2 ways of balancing game economy... By the ways that including spending in-game resources...

1. More gold - Higher prices...
2. More gold - Higher upkeep...

1. Well I'm not talking about exactly bying a potion of +20HP at LVL 3 for 75 gold and when you get to LVL 13 you'll have to pay 135 for it... My idea is to create a system where having a high ammounts of resource will attract a new opportunities to spend them... In such case X-Universe series have a good start with a stations and stock exchanges but imagine next...
You have played some RPG a few days... You bought a house and accumulated high ammount of gold >500K (for example)... Then you gettin' a visit from an old man that proposing you to buy some old castle...
Not to mention repairs and hiring upkeep personal... But...
2. "Good economy" (exspressed by my not very humble opinion) based on summary of income and expenses... So... You need to pay a salary to those soldiers and other personel at castle... But you may use it like a warehouse for some weapons maded for a royal army or a training ground for your troops and then use them to clear dungeons instead of you... Or escort VIP's for money... But if they get drunk and crash a castle wall by recently bought catapult... Yoll need to pay for repairs and cleaning a castle of their dust fabricated by your anger and some destructive spells... And what if you are goind to your treasury and realize that all money was stolen?.. And your balance get to 0 not including few bank accounts, farms, mines, and armory... Few more quests, and caravanes to transport gold back to your keep... Making that retunr to right state... But then all that logistics with getting good stone to castle, and new dors to treasury... And so on...
Treasury robbed, costly equipped officer dead or bounty on him paid... There are a ways to make a money flow out...

If you want to spend a 40K by player - you'll give him a good armor to buy (or buy mine, then hire workers, then buy forge, then buy receipts for armor parts, then all that leather stuff (hunt/buy, get a skin tanned, and shaped into underwear and fixings 4 armor), get a melting receipt and melt a metal with help of additionally hired workers, compose armor)... But if you need a player to spend 400K gold you may allow him to buy and poorly equip an army...
For a player without buying army is another way to spend huge ammounts of gold - compose legendary artifacts... With help of magic (and a guild of mages, arcane forge which was destroyed long ago, and require many rare resources to get in working order) and expensive source of energy...
But this is only a few thougths...