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Gamasutra: Eric Schwarz on the pitfalls of CRPG economies

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Gamasutra: Eric Schwarz on the pitfalls of CRPG economies

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Thu 10 January 2013, 17:39:15

Tags: Eric Schwarz

Codex BRO Eric Schwarz, having recently played Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir, was inspired to write an article for Gamasutra about in-game economies. Over the course of the article, Eric identifies and describes the three common problems in such economies - inflation, worthless money, and money sinks. He offers a common sense list of game economy "Dos and Don'ts" to help minimize these problems:

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.
Eric concludes the article with the admission that ultimately, game economies are often just an afterthought - non-meaningful systems that stop receiving attention as soon as a game's development is pressed for time. However, he does optimistically note that these systems seem to be improving in recent years, possibly due to the influence of MMO design practices.

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