It’s The Economy (That’s) Stupid 1

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.

One thought on “It’s The Economy (That’s) Stupid

  • Louis

    I know tom and I must say although he is an absolute cock, I real­ly enjoyed this arti­cal. Bravo!

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