Making a video game, at any level, is a tremendous undertaking. Video games are rising within our culture as an almost Gesamtkunstwerk, requiring more art, creativity, and ingenuity to rise in league with what technology is capable of. However, unlike other mediums, video games not only act as a way to tell stories, but also to emulate and live plausible experiences.
One of the many factors to making the experience plausible is the in-game economy. A video game’s economy seems like it’d be one of those simple background elements. You come up with some variables, a name for the currency (rings, ruppees, gold, munny, etc.), and assign arbitrary values to items within the game world. Depending on your game, this is not so easy.
If I mentioned currency in a video game to most people who weren’t huge gamers, among their first thoughts would be the coins in Super Mario Bros. These can’t be spent in any way and mostly function as a way to accrue points and extra lives. When I’m talking about game economies, this simple collecting and reward system isn’t really what I’m talking about.
Not every game needs a perfect economy, but game economy is especially important in RPGs, or role-playing games, where your income as a player can determine your growth as a character. Rewards from defeating monsters can give positive feedback and provide a level of decision-making. Even in the single-player experience, too much currency can result in money becoming worthless, while too little can make fighting monsters feel like a grind. What game developers usually look for when creating an experience is a “Goldilocks zone” of rewards, where if players explore enough and do the necessary tasks, they’ll be able to advance smoothly.
A game that shows this process very clearly is the original Dragon Warrior for the NES. In this game you have to fight monsters, and while experience is gained, spending the rewards you get from slaying slimes is vital to your progression. Aside from how unguided this early RPG was, when you found an upgrade, it was clear. The item would have better stats than your current gear and also cost more. Some quests could only be done by purchasing items and trading them to someone. In this way, money acquisition sets the pace of the game.
With the single-player experience, a game economy functions as a controlling factor in the game; however, this changes into a different beast entirely with massive multiplayer online role playing games, otherwise known as an MMORPGs. In an MMORPG, you have an experience with multiple players, sometimes numbering in the millions. Such games lend themselves to having multiple factors affecting the in-world economy. In popular games like World of Warcraft, a popular hub for item and gold exchange becomes the auction house, which creates other problems with economy balancing. Suddenly, developers and programmers need to consider farming, which is intentionally focusing on one resource that’s relatively easy to obtain and optimal for acquiring in-game currency. They also need to consider this interacting with other factors like raids and quests to try to balance the game experience so that it still remains in the Goldilocks zone of challenging yet entertaining. In some MMORPGs, players have been known to pay real money for items or leveling in-game. MMOs like Second Life rely almost completely on out-of-game currency, where avatar creation becomes the main appeal.
Other MMORPGs and even browser-based games, like the ones on Facebook, rely on game economy in other ways. By purposefully limiting the amount a player can do or the amount of time it takes to achieve something, they can make the tasks of the game feel more burdensome while still dangling a carrot on a stick. They provide a Cash Shop, where you can buy in-game benefits with real money. Farmville was such a game where you could buy the ability to play longer. Many Korean MMOs utilize cash shops instead of a “pay once” structure or a subscription. With this, games like FLYFF or R.O.S.E. Online offer advantages to players who purchase things, or outfit accessories. Many players who play these “free to play” games often dislike that the game is intentionally unbalanced.
A game’s economy is a developer’s tool. If used properly, after careful balancing, it can smooth a game experience into a rewarding journey, or be used into manipulating players into paying money for a better experience. Either way, economy is a crucial often overlooked element in a game--it’s the measure that sets the tempo.