It’s The Economy (That’s) Stupid 1

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We are all, I’m sure, sick to death of money. Great piles of cash lying all about us, wher­ev­er we look. The stuff is every­where, free for the tak­ing, and often thrust toward us at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. There’s so much of it that we just don’t know what to do with it; we can’t pos­si­bly spend it all, we can’t invest it (Heavens for­bid, that might even bring us more of the damnable stuff!) and we can’t even give it away. Money. Frankly, I’m tired of hav­ing so much bloody money.

Sound famil­iar? If you’ve played one of many titles from a wide selec­tion of mod­ern and semi‐modern games, it should. In fact I would sug­gest that in video gam­ing today, filthy, filthy lucre is the most com­mon form of prize regard­less of whether the cur­ren­cy in ques­tion is dol­lars, bot­tle­caps, pure gold­en coins or sty­ro­foam pack­ing peanuts. The logic behind this isn’t hard to under­stand — when devel­op­ers are striv­ing to come up with a reward that play­ers will instant­ly asso­ciate with value, what ticks those boxes bet­ter than a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the very same thing they work eight hours a day for? Too many games will for­get, in build­ing a sys­tem of ever‐increasing finan­cial reward, to include an end pur­pose for the duti­ful player’s hoard­ed rich­es. In some instances the game appar­ent­ly for­gets that money is any­thing more than a met­ric by which to keep score. Instead, the game keeps hurl­ing fist­fuls of cash at the play­er like a drunk­ard in a strip club, scream­ing at the poor girl — in this rather dis­turb­ing metaphor, that girl is you and I, and for that men­tal image I can only apol­o­gise — to keep shak­ing it, shak­ing it baby, and assum­ing that his largesse is appre­ci­at­ed.

Different gen­res tack­le the notion of money in dif­fer­ent fash­ions, but all too often the end result is the same. Sometimes the prob­lems are under­stand­able; a sprawl­ing RPG like Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas is unstruc­tured by its very nature, and as such the devel­op­ers are unable to plot out how much money a play­er should have at any given point in the game. The fact that play­ers can wan­der the world at whim makes it hard to pin­point exact­ly when the hero ought to be strong enough and rich enough to buy and use The Ultimate Sword of Stabby‐Facey Goodtimes, and even hard­er to limit oppor­tu­ni­ties for wealth col­lec­tion. When a game has a more struc­tured pro­gres­sion, a devel­op­er can con­trol pre­cise­ly how much money it is pos­si­ble to have in the pock­et by, say, level 3 and plan the dis­tri­b­u­tion of buyable items accord­ing­ly. However, in both the afore­men­tioned RPG games my char­ac­ter is very, very rich indeed because I am by nature not only an explor­er but also a dirty thiev­ing scum­bag.

In fact, in my first Skyrim playthrough I went imme­di­ate­ly to Riften, hooked up with the Thieves Guild and spent 30 hours rob­bing the entire world blind before start­ing a new char­ac­ter to actu­al­ly progress through the story with. I men­tion these facts not just to let you know that I’m a ter­ri­ble and untrust­wor­thy per­son but also to illus­trate my point: I had quick­ly accrued enough money that acquir­ing any item I desired had ceased to be a prob­lem. If I ever did need any­thing that I couldn’t steal, which was rare, I never had to work for it. I’d sim­ply whip out my wal­let and splash the cash with­out a moment’s hes­i­ta­tion. There’s that pit­fall of the unstruc­tured game again, where­in the devel­op­er is reluc­tant to force the play­er to buy things which advance the plot in case a par­tic­u­lar per­son has spent their entire game up to that point throw­ing lemons at neigh­bour­hood chil­dren instead of accu­mu­lat­ing wealth.

The typ­i­cal prob­lem in a game with a mon­e­tary sys­tem is that a new play­er, naked and unarmed in the wilder­ness, has great need of money and as such will loot and sell any old tosh just to get a few coins togeth­er. The older play­er has enough money to bail out the Eurozone (hey, top­i­cal!) but absolute­ly noth­ing they need to spend it on. The log­i­cal exten­sion of this is that loot­ing — for those who don’t play RPG games, loot­ing is the actually‐rather‐heinous‐when‐you‐think‐about‐it act of strip­ping dead bod­ies and the homes of dead ene­mies for any valu­able items you can later sell — is a learned response, and one that is very, very hard to break. My char­ac­ter in New Vegas is wan­der­ing about with over 250 Stimpaks, a ver­i­ta­ble smor­gas­bord of guns and grenades and other hor­ri­ble instru­ments of death, enough ammo to start a one‐man war with China and to top it all he still has well over a hun­dred thou­sand of the local cur­ren­cy in his pock­ets. Now where this gets inter­est­ing is that despite all of that, I still stop to loot my fall­en foes.

Oh, my stan­dards have cer­tain­ly changed in that, unlike a new play­er, I’ll not take any­thing I know to have a weight/value ratio too high to be worth car­ry­ing, but any­thing light­weight and valu­able is fair game. Regular trips to a local ven­dor are still required. Skyrim is, if any­thing, even worse; I have sev­er­al hous­es dot­ted around the land just packed with expen­sive items that I don’t actu­al­ly want, but that the mer­chants in the town didn’t have enough money left to buy. So I stored them for later. You know, just in case. One of these days some­body might wake up with a seri­ous han­ker­ing for a hun­dred ingots of moon­stone and there I’ll be, ready and wait­ing to take his money. They’re valu­able items, after all, and you’d not want to throw them away only to later find you’ve not got enough money left for that diamond‐encrusted Skeletor hel­met you want to buy.

In the real world, the world of jobs and mort­gages and alimo­ny pay­ments to your secret Vegas wife, this is per­fect­ly sen­si­ble behav­iour. It’s wise to have sav­ings or assets to fall back on in hard times. In the world of a game, par­tic­u­lar­ly these spe­cif­ic games, such behav­iour is absolute­ly pants‐on‐head insane. As men­tioned above, I never have occa­sion to buy any­thing in these games any­more. I broke the econ­o­my so badly that I’m pret­ty sure I am the only per­son in the entire world with any money to spend and I’m not spend­ing it! I will never fall on hard times because not only do I own all the money, I’ve also got the biggest swords and my char­ac­ter is so damn over­pow­ered I once head­butted a moun­tain to death just to prove that I could. There’s no way for me to lose my Smaug‐like hoard, and con­se­quent­ly no rea­son for me to keep adding to it. I bring these points up because I know for a fact, through dis­cus­sion with friends and forums, that I’m not the only per­son doing this. It seems everyone’s ver­sion of Skyrim is pot­holed with hous­es empty but for gem­stones, gold bars and bits of dead drag­on (which are sur­pris­ing­ly valu­able, for some unfath­omable rea­son, since after so many hours of game­play there are enough dead drag­ons lying around the place that any­one who wants a bit can help them­selves). The urge to fol­low the kill > loot > sell > repeat cycle is ham­mered into play­ers early on, and pre­sum­ably the devel­op­ers are aware of it, so why isn’t there any­thing to do with my vast quan­ti­ty of ill‐gotten gains? After a cer­tain point in the game, money ceas­es to have any func­tion other than to sit in your inven­to­ry and make you feel like the big shot you most like­ly aren’t in the real world.

There are games which have clear­ly put more thought into an endgame sce­nario, and will pro­vide use­ful ways to spend the ever‐increasing hoard, but even then the money can’t help but have an effect on the nar­ra­tive by its very pres­ence. In Civilization: Revolution (a stripped down and sim­pli­fied ver­sion of the clas­sic series designed to be played on con­soles) there are var­i­ous ways to win a match. You can dom­i­nate the world phys­i­cal­ly, cul­tur­al­ly, eco­nom­i­cal­ly or by being the smarty‐pants with the smartest pants and accu­mu­lat­ing what’s known as “all the learn­ing.” What’s sur­pris­ing for a game osten­si­bly about guid­ing a nation to endur­ing suc­cess is that by far the eas­i­est way to win is by build­ing armies and pimp‐slapping your neigh­bour­ing cities rather than pur­su­ing more noble goals. Diplomacy in the game is robbed of any sem­blance of sub­tle­ty, with non‐allied nations con­stant­ly declar­ing war or attempt­ing to extort cash/knowledge with the threat of vio­lence — pur­port­ed­ly to keep the twitchy, men­tal­ly infe­ri­or con­sole play­ers stim­u­lat­ed and pre­vent the game from stag­nat­ing – and as such strong walls and a mighty army are a neces­si­ty even if the play­er isn’t plan­ning on pick­ing any fights. In fact, as one nation approach­es a vic­to­ry con­di­tion, all the oth­ers will auto­mat­i­cal­ly gang up and declare war in an attempt to inter­fere.

On paper it’s a decent enough way to keep the play­er on their toes and for­ev­er check­ing over their shoul­der for incom­ing treach­ery, but in prac­tice it usu­al­ly leads to acci­den­tal mil­i­tary con­quest. When you play for an eco­nom­ic vic­to­ry (accu­mu­late 20,000 gold and build the World Bank won­der) you will nat­u­ral­ly have a lot of money lying around, hav­ing geared your cities toward cash pro­duc­tion. So when the other fac­tions begin to get uppi­ty, it’s a sim­ple mat­ter to use some of that gold to mass‐produce artillery and put them back in their place. Once you take a city or two, even the most blood­thirsty leader (which for some very odd rea­son always seems to be Gandhi) will back down and leave you alone, at least for a while. But by then, you’ve got armies of tanks dot­ted around the map, often sur­round­ed by cities who’ve already deplet­ed their defences in a failed attempt to hold back the tide of your armies, and you’ve still got more money rolling in than you know what to do with. Rather than sim­ply rein­forc­ing posi­tions, skip­ping turns and let­ting the money pile up until you win (which is pret­ty bor­ing) the temp­ta­tion is to blitzkrieg the hell out of some near­by cities just to pass the time. Even if you try to resist this urge, it seems your neigh­bours never learn from their mis­takes, and once they think them­selves strong enough they will inevitably launch anoth­er attack, so there’s no way to avoid a con­fronta­tion. Military con­quest, how­ev­er, seems to be a lot like Pringles; you can never stop at one. Backed by some very, very deep pock­ets, your unstop­pable armies will sweep across the globe, tak­ing city after city until you realise that there’s nowhere left to go, and that you’re moments away from a dom­i­na­tion vic­to­ry. Seeley once famous­ly described the British Empire as being “acquired in a fit of absence of mind”, but I’ve con­quered entire worlds sim­ply through a sur­feit of pock­et change. Unlike the pre­vi­ous exam­ples, in Civ:Rev there is a good rea­son to col­lect coinage and a worth­while use for it, but the pres­ence of so much money still warps and dis­torts what the game is try­ing to do.

Some games like to give a pur­pose to the habit­u­al wealth col­lec­tion that can be safe­ly ignored by the casu­al play­er but gives the com­ple­tion­ist some­thing to keep them busy. In the Assassin’s Creed series for exam­ple, or at least the lat­ter instal­ments of it, money has an impor­tant func­tion in the game world. It is used to upgrade weapons and armour, which have the func­tion­al effect of increas­ing dam­age and health, respec­tive­ly, and it is also used in the ‘city recla­ma­tion’ mini game. In this mode, the play­er is pre­sent­ed with a map full of loca­tions — busi­ness­es, empty build­ings into which friend­ly fac­tions can be installed, famous land­marks — which they can buy once that seg­ment of the map has been unlocked (through an act of van­dal­ism and arson, these being well known meth­ods of earn­ing the respect of a local pop­u­lace). Each loca­tion pur­chased brings in addi­tion­al rev­enue, allow­ing the play­er to buy new loca­tions and so on and so forth. Money can be made from other sources, such as the typ­i­cal mis­sion reward or once again by being loot­ed from dead foes, but the most reg­u­lar source of income is prop­er­ty invest­ment. All well and good up to this point; the loca­tions are nice­ly strat­i­fied in terms of cost, with the more basic shops being rel­a­tive­ly cheap and the land­marks being much more expen­sive. Where this begins to fall apart is usu­al­ly around the mid­point of the game, when a con­sci­en­tious play­er will often have unlocked the most effec­tive weapons and armour, as well as pur­chas­ing a major­i­ty of the loca­tions.

Yet the cash keeps rolling in.

Every 20 min­utes, a pop‐up will appear with an ini­tial­ly sat­is­fy­ing clinking‐of‐moneybags sound to inform you that a deposit has been made at the bank, ready for you to col­lect. There are a few more items to be bought, of course, but if the play­er has made their prop­er­ty port­fo­lio a pri­or­i­ty then their earn­ings will eas­i­ly be many, many times that of the costs incurred in each new mem­o­ry seg­ment. Due to a pac­ing prob­lem in the most recent iter­a­tion of the fran­chise, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the best armour is avail­able very early on in the game, thus neat­ly erad­i­cat­ing any need to keep buy­ing new upgrades. The best weapons are avail­able rel­a­tive­ly early too, dis­pens­ing of anoth­er money sink, and once enough prop­er­ty has been pur­chased then the game mode becomes more about mop­ping up left­overs. As a token effort, in Revelations there are sev­er­al very expen­sive books that the play­er can pur­chase from var­i­ous shops in the city, but to absolute­ly no dis­cernible game­play pur­pose. Once pur­chased they mere­ly sit in the character’s home base and, if accessed, give noth­ing more than a few lines of his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion on the text. This is not a par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pelling incen­tive to col­lect them all. At least when Pokemon asked us to do that we had the added sat­is­fac­tion of win­ning what amount­ed to a mag­i­cal dog­fight­ing league.

As the game wears on and the money piles up, it starts to have an effect on the plot­line, albeit only in the head of the play­er. “Why,” the astute gamer asks them­selves, “Why am I con­stant­ly the under­dog pit­ted against my rich and pow­er­ful ene­mies? I quite lit­er­al­ly own this city, and not in a gang­ster rap fash­ion; I own every build­ing and am pre­sum­ably the major or even only employ­er. Why is it me who skulks down alley­ways and strug­gles against a foe with greater num­bers than I? I have here in my pock­et enough ready cash to hire every mer­ce­nary in a hun­dred mile radius, so why the bloody hell aren’t I using it to give myself some advan­tages?”

The net effect of all this is a feel­ing that many devel­op­ers sim­ply ran out of ideas and gave up. They just didn’t know where to take the sys­tem they’d cre­at­ed, per­haps because our soci­ety places such great empha­sis on per­son­al wealth that it seemed incon­ceiv­able that any­one would ever com­plain about hav­ing too much money. The mech­a­nism for gen­er­at­ing wealth remains as the game draws to a close, but there is no longer any­thing to do with it, and even if there is then the mere fact of its pres­ence can change the nature of the game. Many games — in fact more than one of those I’ve men­tioned already — throw in a token achieve­ment for reach­ing such‐and‐such amount of cash, but beyond that there’s very lit­tle pur­pose to con­tin­u­al­ly chase the stuff as if it had real world value.

What’s need­ed is a reassess­ment of the way the gam­ing indus­try views in‐game money; as things stand now, it fea­tures all too much as a replace­ment for arcade‐era points sys­tems where­by achiev­ing tasks or fin­ish­ing lev­els would add to the total score, instead of being seen as a mech­a­nism in its own right. A func­tion­ing econ­o­my can’t be about giv­ing the play­er all the money they want, it also needs objects of worth or desire so that the play­er doesn’t feel like they’re just build­ing an ever‐increasing col­lec­tion of point­less trin­kets. If there is some­thing worth sav­ing money for, then accu­mu­lat­ing it is a chal­lenge with a sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion as what­ev­er object the play­er desired becomes theirs; all that loot­ing and sell­ing has had a tan­gi­ble reward and the play­er feels like the time was well spent. If there is noth­ing to buy, money is just a num­ber, and it soon ceas­es to have any value in the mind of the play­er.

That’s not a good sys­tem, because for a play­er to lose inter­est in part of a game is a step­ping stone on the road to los­ing inter­est entire­ly and putting the game back in its box. Take the recent exam­ple of Diablo III, where Blizzard has actu­al­ly admit­ted that they didn’t expect play­ers to accu­mu­late valu­able items as fast as they did and as such they failed to plan for high‐end con­tent, mean­ing the game has become stale for many of the more hard­core addicts. When done right, with high‐end and worth­while items or objec­tives, the pur­suit of more money can be a way to keep a play­er hooked on the game as they grind the cash for the items they’ve got their eye on. When done wrong, a play­er who’s climbed the hill to suc­cess reach­es the top, sur­veys the view, and finds them­selves won­der­ing why they both­ered in the first place.

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.