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.