Friday, June 8, 2012

Money for Nothing: Fixing Currency Systems

If there is one thing that you can count on when playing an RPG, and many other game genres for that matter, is that eventually, your character or party will become a sort of economic singularity - the focal point of all commerce in the world, either by providing goods at a rate that not even the biggest manufacturing plants or most skilled craftsmen can match, or by having so much cash on-hand as to make it near-worthless as a resource.

The currency problem is one that developers have struggled with for decades, and it's hard to find an RPG that doesn't fall into this trap.  The reasons usually boil down less to a lack of talent and care and more to the simple fact that, especially in a single-player game, a well-balanced economy isn't a really big priority compared to crafting interesting encounters to enjoy, or tweaking more important gameplay systems.  Multiplayer economies, fortunately, tend to balance themselves out as players create their own currencies and set the prices on their own.

In this article, I'll be taking a look at currency in games, with specific respect to RPGs, and how they can be made valuable once again.

Currency & Economies

First, it's worth drawing a line between money and an economy.  Most interesting game systems revolve around economies of different sorts, especially any game with an element of customization or free progression to it.  An economy doesn't have to have money at all; it can also include skill points to assign to new skills, or crafting materials used to upgrade items and equipment.  Mechanically speaking, all of these offer more or less the same sort of function: they impose a limitation on the player's capabilities by way of a singular resource.

Of course, money works so well because it can fulfill a number of roles.  The first, strictly mechanical, allows the player to exchange a common resource (cash, gold, etc.) for new equipment, or upgrades, or even story progress.  This scratches an interesting itch with systems design - specifically, it gets systems interacting with one another.  In the case of currency, the interplay between equipment and the means to acquire it (such as combat) can create a cyclical relationship where one element fuels the other.  The Gothic games are a great example of this - most money is made by completing quests and exploring the world, and that money goes directly into character training and new gear, which allows the player to explore and quest more.

Fallout's bartering is more or less mechanically identical to any currency system, but the way the information is presented says a lot about the game world.
The second great thing about currency is the narrative value that is contained within it.  While it's easy to say that currency works simply because everyone already knows what it is, it can actually serve to flesh out a game world significantly.  Fallout's combination of a barter system with bottle caps, for instance, suggests all sorts of things about the lack of economic and social stability of the world, while the strictly-counted coinage of Dragon Age suggests a stable economy and the presence of financial authorities.  Moreover, sometimes the absence of currency is just as evocative as the nature of currency itself - Path of Exile uses a barter system without any sort of currency at all to reinforce the primitive and unsettled nature of its environment.

It's also worth bringing up here that money is typically a problem in and of itself not so much because of what it is, but all the baggage it carries along with it.  Money is a near-constant in our world and a staple of almost every single large organized society on the planet - it simply makes sense as a way of exchanging goods and services in a free, fair and equitable manner.  However, that exact knowledge we have of money drags it down - we have expectations about how money should work in a game world because we know how it works in our own world.  With some other form of currency, this problem can be neatly avoided because of the associative distance it adds.


The huge problem with currency systems is that there's always a desire for the player to keep advancing, which usually means bigger rewards, higher costs, and so on.  The end result is a sort of systems bloat that only becomes manifest through extended play-testing - the player might make 10 copper coins for a quest early on, but late in the game, he/she will receive 10 gold coins instead.  Relatively speaking, the value of currency needs to stay constant to keep the system balanced.  After all, if a health potion costs 5 copper both early on and late in the game, later on those potions will be extremely cheap to purchase.

Mods like Skyrim's "Dynamic Merchants" promise to make the game's economy better, but sometimes they can become a liability for players.
There are two ways to deal with this problem.  One of them is to implement more realistic economics into a game.  Many popular mods for the Elder Scrolls series already do this, but given the extra difficulty in developing and balancing such systems, these are usually left out of original game releases and left up to dedicated fans to implement.  Moreover, these realistic approaches to economics aren't always fun - if the player just wants to offload some junk items, should he/she really have to think hard about which merchant to sell to, in order to maintain the best economic situation?  It may simply not suit the style or pace of the game to require the player put that much effort into what might, ideally, be a quick and easy process.

The second way of dealing with inflation, and the one that is seen more often, is to effectively raise the cost of living.  This means that as the game goes on and the player levels up, those old health potions, while cheap to buy, won't be very effective because the enemies are so much stronger and the health bonus they provide is relatively low - instead, players need to buy the much more expensive Potion of Ultimate Healing(TM) to manage.  This preserves the feel of progress and improvement, because the numbers keep getting bigger, but it can also come across as a bit shallow.  After all, the player still wants to feel like he/she is getting stronger and more successful, and keeping everything constant around the player can lead to a state of monotony.  The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a classic example of this approach taken to extremes; ideally, there should be a gradual incline in the player's buying power, not just a fixed, straight line.

Supply & Demand

One other way to help keep currency valuable is to implement finite item supplies.  Most games feature infinitely replenishable sources of money and equipment, simply because it's fairly easy and safe.  However, it also leads to the problem of players being able to "farm" endlessly for supplies or money, not necessarily a problem for some games that rely on it (Diablo being the obvious example), but it's often not so good for single-player titles where pacing of the narrative and gameplay can be a real concern.

Still, there are issues associated with limited supplies.  The most obvious is that the player can, in theory, bring the game into an unwinnable state by using up all of those vital supplies on trivial tasks, and is left with none to use to finish the game with.  While usually more of an issue with optional content, if there's a way to break the game, chances are some players are going to do so.  When combined with other issues, like autosave/checkpoint save systems rather than hard save files, it's a real concern that probably deserves to be addressed.

Diablo III has merchants and gold, but these are almost meaningless outside the multiplayer meta-game, as merchants rarely carry anything worth buying, and fighting enemies yields far greater rewards.
Yet another is that it can be immersion-breaking to have truly limited supplies, depending on context.  Sure, it makes sense that the world of Fallout would have a limited amount of Stimpaks or assault rifle ammo, because nobody can manufacture more, but most game worlds aren't like this and typically have some form of industry that's capable of creating goods in the first place.  Did the blacksmith suddenly decide to just stop making helmets?  Did the town alchemist decide it wasn't worth brewing up any more potions?  In a genre that often strives for verisimilitude, the prospect of no resupply whatsoever is an issue.

The best solution to this problem I've seen is some sort of timer that triggers when items are restocked.  This can be difficult to implement given the game, because not all titles have any sort of persistent world with simulated time flow, and often the work-around (have shops replenish or change inventory at key story points) can come across as a little contrived or heavy-handed.  Ideally, only certain items would restock with merchants, and only certain enemies, supplies and other sources of items would respawn - basic supplies that are useful throughout the game are a given, but it's probably not a good idea if the best, unique equipment also reappears on schedule.

Sometimes, Poorer is Better

Still, recalling the mechanical reasons for including money in games (universal resources exchanged for disparate game functions), it becomes clear that sometimes the best solution is actually to stay as far away from money as possible.  Money is only valuable for what it represents, after all - and many games can do just fine without it - there are myriad alternatives that are just as if not more effective, and avoid the unnecessary middleman money can often be.

Crafting is the go-to example of an in-game economy that is often detached from money itself.  In some respects it's actually a more pure economy and has more interesting systemic interplay - crafting items can be different types, materials and so on, for instance, while typically money is one type of resource (sometimes broken up for aesthetic reasons, i.e. gold/silver/copper).  Crafting supplies reward players by allowing them to create new items of their own choosing, but avoid the unnecessary and immersion-breaking issue of an in-game economy that makes absolutely no sense.

Another economy system that tends to be overlooked is, of course, experience points and leveling up.  Even more direct an economy than crafting is, experience is typically and directly rewarded for victory in combat, and can in theory be used immediately as it's gained (by banking it for a level-up).  Dark Souls implements something along these lines by allowing players to use souls (XP) both to level-up their player character, as well as purchase and upgrade items.  In the context of the game universe, it makes sense and has a story reason for working the way it does , and it also avoids the problem of the economy getting bloated.

Closing Thoughts

Generally speaking, I'm actually of a mind to stay far away from money as a form of currency when it can be managed.  While there's something to be said for money as a narrative and gameplay device, the problems in balancing it in such a way as to make sense in the game universe, as well as a game system, can make it more trouble than it's probably worth.  Money is usually one of those things that's included in games (and especially RPGs) simply because it's expected, but the underlying concept is far more valuable than face value.


  1. In Jagged Alliance 2, an old x-com style tactical game with RPG elements, they include several mechanisms to keep money from becoming a problem - until the mid/late game.

    You get revenue ($X/day) from mines captured. On the other side of the ledger you have to pay for your team of mercenaries (usually a week/2 week contract) and militia to defend your captured cities (daily cost). You can also order new equipment (guns/ammo/gear). So in the early/mid part of the game, you'll be balancing your small but steady revenue against several expenses, all of which are crucial to the game. It's very challenging and very satisfying to pull this all off.

    However by mid/late game, you'll have captured enough mines that money soon stops being a problem and that part of the games' challenge goes away. But then it's balanced by your enemies becoming much more dangerous at the tactical level.

    1. The fixed income concept is definitely interesting, but of course only works in certain types of games. It doesn't make much sense for an independent adventuring party to get a weekly cheque, for instance, but with strategy games the idea works much better, and ties success in planning and strategy early on to success down the road. Unfortunately, sometimes this can lead to the player with the best early game winning almost automatically because the other player simply can't keep up (StarCraft and Command & Conquer are good examples of this).

  2. I just finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution just yesterday. I noticed at the end of the game, enemies stopped giving experience, which made some sense, because they were everywhere and dumb. That helped encourage me to just start stealthing every where rather then systematically knocking everyone out, like I usually do.

    However, there was one strange thing. They kept rewarding me with money. I thought to myself, "is there really going to be a gun dealer here for me to spend my money?" There wasn't. There was a LIMB clinic at the least. But what was the point of rewarding me with money if there was nothing to spend it on? It removed the value of money, ironically.

    Anyway, good article. I think good game design really needs to treat money better in single player games.

  3. I just had a realization. I think the auction house and crafting system in Diablo 3 is actually a detriment to long-term gameplay.

    One of the reasons I played D1 & D2 so long was always chasing that next big drop. It was a continuous cycle: get epic loot that bumps up your stats even more, mobs also get their stats bumped up to match, causes need to get next epic loot, cycle continues.

    Now, that need is gone. Want better gear? Head to the auction house and get items that are better than what I already have and on top of that have the bonuses I specifically want. Add on to that the crafting system to build your own gear (though it seems like you'll need to grind to get mats and recipes).

    It seems to me the only thing that would drive long-term playing of D3 would be the social element. But WoW is better for that and offers (from a long-term playing) more variety. I think Blizz really shot themselves in the foot here. From my uneducated opinion.