Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Game Economies with No Required Spending

Most video game economies do not have a circulating currency. Instead, games use a model of sources and sinks. A source is anything that creates money (killing a monster and it drops gold) and a sink is anything that destroys money (repair costs, buying items from NPCs). One issue with this design of economy is that as time goes on, the money supply keeps growing, which means trade prices between players will rise, which makes it harder to new players to get started because prices are too high compared to the money sources available at the time.

To combat this, games have money sinks that serve no purpose other than to keep a steady bleed on the economy. In World of Warcraft, for example, Killing monsters, completing quests, and selling the items found on monsters to vendors create gold. Paying for repair, training new abilities, purchasing mounts, auction house fees, and the new black market auction house all destroy money.

While WoW has done a lot to remove a lot of the income traps, there is still the possibility that someone could have their armor completely broken and not have the money to fix it. (This is the only spending that is required in the game.) This is a large improvement from classic WoW in which a player could be in a position to not afford food, afford a mount (needed for travel), or afford training abilities.

As I was developing the basic economic model for my game, I started thinking, "Could a source/sink economy be designed with no mandatory spending." In other words could everything that costs money be a want instead of a need. I immediately realized that in the purest sense, the answer is no. There will always be the one player who has collected everything and has nothing left to spend money on. For that player you'll need some sort of consumable required for the hardest dungeon, or quit the game taking the money out of the economy with them. (That last one isn't the best design.) For the other 95% of the game the answer is "yes", but it certainly complicates things, because you will have to design in new types of wants.

WoW has plenty of wants: various cool looking mounts and pets to collect; enchantments that have to be re-created for every new piece of equipment; item customizations that cost money; trade skills that require a lot of resources to level up; and various items that can be purchased after an expensive reputation grind. However, all that requires added complexity. Cosmetic items require either a multiplayer game or custom leader boards on which to show-off. Customized items require more complex item code (I have an item with these properties instead of item #314.) Crafting requires a crafting system.

Most games have income traps and they do just fine or even great. Simplifying the design can make the difference between shipping your game and developing it forever. However, removing required sinks reduces the learning curve of the game, which helps with complexity burnout of new players. Not all hard-core features are good gameplay (a lot of players mistake complexity for challenge.) The ultimate question for the developer is, "Is it worth the effort?" What do you think?