Whoever decided that a realistic economics system is a vital component of a fun game, please dismiss yourself from the industry immediately. We’re stuck with your legacy, but at least you won’t be around to make things any worse.
I’m not just talking about video games, though it’s worse there than anywhere else. Any kind of game. Role playing games. Board games. LARPs. MMORPGs. If there’s a FPS out there with an economic system, I’ll bust some skulls, I swear. The curse of Economics affects all gaming, dragging otherwise fun games into the bean counting muck.
Before I go any further with this argument, let me lay out some justification. Think back to college, if you went. If you had to list your 10 least favorite classes, would Economics be on the list? Unless you were pre-med or pre-law, my guess is the answer is yes. If not, I still doubt you enjoyed the class much, and probably couldn’t tell me anything useful you got from it.
Ok, I’ll admit. An economics system is a necessary evil. Unless you’re making a total platformer like Super Mario Bros., where Item Acquisition is controlled by which level you happen to be on, you’re going to need some way of keeping players from getting everything at once. I’m not arguing against economic systems in game.
I’m just saying they aren’t any fun.
No one programs because they want to handle memory management. No one becomes a carpenter because they like to sand things. And no one plays a game to balance their checkbook.
Many games require an economic model. Some very realistic strategy games demand an extremely nuanced economic model. In fact, realistic strategy games may be somewhat exempt from this arguement. They’re a different beast.
Anyway, as I said earlier, you’re going to need one for many of the types of games you want to design. The trick is recognizing that it’s there to make the game work and is not a Feature of your game. Or rather, it’s only a feature of your game if it does its job without requiring your players to think more about the in game economy than they are about the, well…gameplay.
Two examples. Both Role Playing related. The first is not from a computer game at all, but from a LARP. Live Action Role Playing. I have a soft spot for LARPing, and due to that soft spot end up playing at this LARP called OGRE. I have a number of issues with their game system, but we’re talking about economic systems. OGRE is obsessed with creating an “in-game economy.” Unfortunately, as in most LARPs, the materials available in-game to cobble an economy out of are limited. Food and shelter are out, because you have to give your players shelter and they’ll just bring their own food if they have to. Same goes for clothes, since a bunch of naked people at a camp will do something other than LARP. So what can you do? What is your in-game money supposed to buy?
Depending on the system, lots of things. Things like spell scrolls, potions and other powerful items can be sold in-game easily. Also, while LARPers bring their own foam weapons, you can restrict the player’s use of those weapons by saying they need an in-game tag to make them “real” weapons. This way, you can at least increase the power of weapons by selling better tags. Given proper availability of money and items, you can nicely control the flow of power through the game using your economy. Great.
Then things go off the rails. In its desire for the dreaded realistic economy, OGRE starts making a lot of common mistakes. First, it doesn’t put much money into the game. Second, it set up an economy where everything costs more than you can reasonably pull in. A meal in the inn, if you want hot food, costs you 3 coins. Figure 4 meals in a weekend, and that a new player starts with 10 coins and you start to see the problem. Third, purchasable items rarely come into the game. Most items are only made by players (remember, it’s an “in-game economy”), and those players can only make items at the start of an event, because it’s more realistic that it would take time to make a sword. So if you don’t know who makes things, or you happen to use a weapon no one made before the game started, you can’t buy it even if you have the money. Fourth, weapons degrade over time, becoming unusable after a certain number of events, and weapons can be destroyed in-game using spells that cost less to use than a weapon costs to make. Also, many characters only have a single weapon they can use in combat, so having no weapon means you sit out every battle.
That this all adds up to is an economy so realistic that you can’t afford anything, and even when you can, you can’t find what you want to buy. Would the intention of some kind of in-game economy have made the game more fun if it was done right? Yes. Absolutely. But did anyone come to LARP to fret over whether they could afford to purchase a sword so their character would be able to do something that weekend? Did they pay real money they earned in the real economy to sit around doing nothing because no one has a spear tag?
On the other side of the same problem is World of Warcraft. In WoW, they wanted to have the same sort of in-game economy that ORGE went for. In game money is used to buy things, and the best things come from other players, allowing money to flow from one player to another for things. Or, better yet, for people to trade their respective skills for things from each other. WoW, as it was made by seasoned game designers, doesn’t make the beginner mistakes OGRE does. They make different mistakes that are just as bad.
Everything in WoW costs lots and lots of money. Just like in OGRE, weapons degrade and can fall apart. WoW lets you pay NPC smiths to repair your items, but if you die a lot it can get expensive, since death degrades your weapons (a realistic touch, no?). New weapons can break the bank. Even more expensive is the cost of training character skills. And let’s not even talk about the cost of player-made items or player-found items being sold at the Auction House.
The casual player is lucky if he can afford anything beyond base equipment. After spending hours getting to a new level, it’s disheartening to learn you must spend more hours getting the money to train the skills that gaining a new level only made available for purchase. Getting cool stuff in WoW means either finding it yourself (tedious), making it yourself (tedious and expensive) or having a friend who did one of the above two things feeling sorry for you and giving it to you.
How do you get money in WoW? Grinding. Spending hours killing stupid creatures, picking up their Cracked Horns or Slimy Eyeballs and selling them to NPC merchants. So basically, you get home from your real job to work for a couple of hours in the WoW spider-mines so you can afford to buy a new sword. You know what, Blizzard? I’m sure the reason people play your game is to simulate the crushing tedium of their real jobs, fancied up by letting the character be a Night Elf while they do it.
No one plays a game for an in-game economy. No one. Even strategy games that require them to be realistic aren’t played for the economies. They’re played for letting the player Pretend To Be A General. The game is creating a fantasy world for the player, and no one’s fantasy is to come home and be an accountant. Especially real accountants.
In game economies, at least the monetary side of them, should be invisible to the player. Look at Civilization, where the economy came down to Gold Coin, Books and Luxuries. The numbers of them didn’t even matter; as long as there was a positive number next to them in the world screen, you were safe. I didn’t even know what the Luxuries things were for years, and I was able to play the game. The economic model was part of Civilization. It wasn’t what made it fun.
An in-game economy should be a few things. It should be simple enough that the player never feels like they’re managing their bank account, and it should trade in an abstraction of money that’s easy to understand at a glance. It needs to be there to support the game and give the sense of a world that actually works without being as complicated as stock speculation.
It needs to be something else, too. See, where the bad in-game economies fail is that they revolve around purchasing the essentials. Food, weapons, healing. You earn money to spend them on things you need to play the game. You spend your entire time in game earning money just so you can keep playing the game. That’s what you do in life. When I hear “realistic in-game economy”, that’s code for “make you count pennies to buy food.” When players earn money, it shouldn’t be for essentials like weapons and skills.
It should be for a Batcave. Or a sidekick. Or an airship. The death of a game is when it asks you to simulate the parts of your life you hate. An in-game economy should assume the minutia of money management is going fine and let you spend that Gold Coin on something you’ll feel cool for having. A healthy in-game economy, at least in a multi-player game, isn’t fueled by abstract money going from person to person. It’s an economy of prestige. It’s someone seeing a character with an airship and joining his crew because someone who has an airship is just that cool. It’s item creation that requires more skill than time or currency, allowing people to trade something they made for something someone else made.
Economics isn’t fun. Community is. Don’t confuse the former for the latter.