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Economies are incredibly nuanced, often fragile systems. They operate mathematically, sometimes chaotically, and I’ve pretty much resigned myself to a state of negative capability about them. Economic fluctuation is just something I will never understand, despite my attempts. For what little about it I’ve read, from free market Capitalism to Marxian economic theory, I lack the complex understanding of these behavioral systems that true economists take years to master—and even then, “master” may be a bit of an overstatement.
Virtual economies are meant to function similarly to world economies, and they offer just as wide a spectrum as their real-world counterparts. Smarter and more capable women and men than I have studied the emergent systems of trade in games like EVE Online and World of Warcraft, and that’s all fantastic reading. This article is not about those systems. Instead, I want to talk about something much simpler: why the presence of in-game economies matter and how some can be improved.
Almost all games function on some sort of economic level. We collect coins that reward us with extra lives. We cash in bottle caps, septims, or any number of currencies to purchase better weapons or helpful items. But on a more general level, we budget moves (whether timing jumps or firing bullets) in order to maximize our gain (crossing a chasm unscathed or blasting an alien to tiny green pieces). This is a central component in economic game theory, and yet many in-game economies function without an inspiring game-like economic structure.
The ones that work well don’t just exist alongside more nuanced gameplay but become an integral part of it, and nuanced systems of finance rarely venture beyond the strategy genre. In XCOM: Enemy Unkown, deciding whether to spend credits to build a new satellite or to manufacture some new plasma rifles has just as much weight as commanding your soldiers across a battlefield. It has probably the most beautifully balanced economic system of any console game I’ve played in the last ten years.
As I spent money to build new weapons for the XCOM project, I couldn’t wait to use them to fight off invaders, and when I repelled an alien threat I couldn’t wait to take the new pieces of tech back to the lab to build new weapons. It’s a perfect union of spending and gaining that any economist would applaud. FTL: Faster Than Light works similarly to X-Com in that choosing to either hire a new crew member or to buy a better laser cannon for the ship can be just as conflicting as a battle with pirates. Strategy games, from Total War to Starcraft, are built upon resource management, so it’s no wonder that they have such impressive virtual economies.
Too often, however, financial systems in games are superfluous and underdeveloped, and that bothers me—especially when developers and retailers are struggling to make a buck. It hit me recently as I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed 3. After wading through about three hours of overblown prologue material, I found a quite enjoyable game. The franchise has suffered from a bit of a saturation problem as heaps of new features pile together to form distractions of historical proportions, but the system of trade and manufacturing goods in Assassin's Creed III is probably the series' most needlessly complicated transgression. As I built convoys that traveled land and sea to peddle my homemade wares, I had a moment of clarity and thought, “What the hell am I doing with this?”
Here’s a brief rundown of the capital gain in Assassin’s Creed III. You perform unnecessary missions around your homestead to acquire residents who practice certain trades: smithing, medicine, hunting, woodworking. These individuals fashion items that you buy from them to then create different items and then caravans used to transport them, netting you money. After navigating three or four different menus (in poorly explained tutorials), I finally shipped out a caravan full of bear furs, only to have it attacked (and the game neglected to show me how to defend it).
It took some time to learn, and pretty soon I was swimming in wealth. The only problem was I had nothing to buy. Buying weapons is silly because you craft the best of these, and the enemies pose as big a threat as your average piece of furniture (which I had my artisans lovingly craft while I reaped the profits). I upgraded my ship which I took on missions that opened up trade routes which, in turned, made me more money. I then realized I spent hours building a fortune that Scrooge McDuck would call gaudy, and I ran off into the woods to kill some imperialists. The game improved drastically.
The flaw in this system of wealth gain with little payoff surfaces in all the major console entries of this series, excepting the first. In Assassin’s Creed, you gain not wealth but items that your guild master returns to you after successful assassinations. It’s a much more balanced reward system that keeps in economic presence directly related to the plot at large. Playing the game earns capital in the form of useful tools you use to play the game more efficiently. It’s effective, albeit limiting (which was a popular and valid criticism of the game), in its simplicity. It's a shame that the developers mistook criticism of the game's lack of complexity for a call for needless complication that upset the financial systems of future entries that just stacked capital instead of giving you something worthwhile to do with it--even if repairing Rome was a cool idea that just didn't deliver.
I find myself accruing more wealth than necessary in other games as well. Money in Red Dead Redemption is next to useless because almost any gun you buy will be unlocked by advancing the plot, and medicinal items for sale are rendered unnecessary by regenerating health. In Fallout 3 and Skyrim, building your stealth stats lets you rob everyone blind, which becomes a bit of a bother in the latter game as merchants often have little for sale that you cannot find in the world (often with better stats). I find myself in both of these games burdened with stuff and no one to sell it to, turning an afternoon romp through the world into a slog from merchant to merchant to peddle my wares.
Of course, the case can be made that all these systems (especially those in the Assassin’s Creed franchise) exist only to help the player and can be largely ignored. This is perfectly true, and I bet a playthrough of each of those games without minding the stores would yield some really interesting results. It still stands that, as economic systems, they lack balance and feel a bit stagnant. Maybe that’s the point, that the player can sometimes bend the system to work for him/her or completely ignore it.
Still, I think most in-game economic systems could take a page out of the strategy game checkbook. When the game's financial world is clearly unbalanced, it reveals its own triviality at best and makes the game feel inconsistent at worst. Not every game needs to be about tense financial decisions based on limited resources, but having a solid system of trade can make such decisions more meaningful, more rewarding. If game creators were even a bit more conscious of how virtual economies function, maybe they could improve those real-world budget practices that put many in such precarious financial positions. They should really heed my financial advice, by the way. After all, I'm a virtual millionaire.
So what are your thoughts on in-game economics? Too simple? Too complex? Who gives a damn? Let me know.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!