Single Player Economist

I don’t think you need to be an economist to build a game economy. Certainly, some games could use an economic study – particularly the MMO space – but in the general world of gaming design, there are 1-4 bread-winners, and building an economy to work around them means different rules than you’re going to see outside the front door.Games that don’t recognize that key fact have what we call a “false depth economy”; a situation in which currency is rapidly devalued until it becomes irrelevant – or possibly even aggravating – to gameplay. Remember putting rupees back into chests in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess? Or ignoring the store in Star Fox Adventures entirely after the first few hours? These are both bright examples of what happens when the economy doesn’t work as planned.

I can’t argue that good games haven’t fallen to this problem before but succeeded nonetheless. Nobody is going to throw down Twilight Princess in disgust over rupee returns. But I can assure you that it’s a design problem that every designer wishes they could take back and fix, and one that every player will write down as a negative about their overall experience with a game.

With this in mind, here are three key points to consider when building your single-player economy:

Focus on Risk

Believe it or not, your economy needs risk to be interesting. Give different inventory and different prices to the shops. Make the player decide whether they want to prepare for the present or the future. Maybe his decision is terrible, and the next shop over has that hockey stick for half the price. Or maybe that same stick turns out to be a lifesaver. But by keeping it in the player’s hands, they take responsibility for what happens, regardless of the end result.

The worst thing a game can do to a single-player economy is to try and take away those decisions. It may seem to make sense initially that simpler shopping is easier for players of all ages, but when you think about it, who doesn’t go shopping? I’ve seen five year olds with enough penny-savvy to figure out how to get the most for their money.

Key Example: In Resident Evil 4, the creepy weapons dealer rarely changes his prices, but his inventory offers plenty of risk and (inevitably) plenty of interest for the player.

The shop contents usually have several varieties of each type of gun, and while some initially seem more powerful, upgrades tell a different story over time. Not only does the player need to figure out what style of play they prefer – shotgun, pistol, rifle, etc. – but they also need to figure out if they want to put priority on cost, damage, or several other statistical factors. Maybe they just want a gun called the “Killer 7“?

As a gameplay economy, this is great, because it not only makes the player question his purchase, but it also gives him plenty of alternate opportunities for next time. The grass is always greener on the other side, so to speak, and that will egg the player on to look harder at what’s available next time.

Don’t Limit the Market

I can think of a hundred games (or more) where money is literally treated as the equivalent to points. The game design convinces the player that he should crave money and go out of his way to find it.

This is actually good design sense; collecting is one of those really-easy-to-communicate gaming concepts that players love to do. If I’m out there saving the world, I think it’s pretty appropriate that I’m rewarded in kind, right? Maybe the cost of goods goes up dramatically later on, but we shouldn’t hinder the player’s ability to earn.

So why put a market cap on what the player can hold? As I mentioned about Twilight Princess, the player is actually forced to put money back, which strikes me as absolutely absurd. There was clearly a reason for the design decision – stopping the player from acquiring too much money early on – but it’s really just an awkward fix for a bigger game design problem of how to reward the player.

Key Example: In Dragon Quest, it’s not that hard to just “camp” outside of a town and kill monsters indefinitely. This may seem like an economy-breaker, but in reality it’s just rewarding the player for playing the game. So what if he leaves Tantagel with enough GP to start a trust fund? He probably ran out of things to buy there anyways, and he just put in a bunch of extra hours you couldn’t even count on in the game design.

That’s win-win, as far as I’m concerned.

Don’t just balance your Economy. Break it.

The classic gaming economy is called the “ladder”. It basically entails building a set of items to be made available at each step, superceding what came before until you reach the top and are either broke or financially independent. The ladder design has worked for more than twenty years now because it’s flexible enough to allow for the player to go at their own pace between each step. Slow players can farm their way back to respectability, and fast players can charge on ahead at their own risk.

Like any ladder, though, there is a final step – an endgame, rich or poor – and that’s where some designs fumble the ball.

The ladder is essentially a limited-time gameplay element. You use it, and eventually it stops working; there’s no infinite path as new steps become just too expensive to implement. Games that recognize this will time the end of the ladder to fit in with the rest of the design flow. (JRPGs, for example, usually end the ladder a few hours before the end of the game, signifying to the player that money is not really so important anymore with only a few bosses left to go.)

Games that do not take this into account – the Star Fox Adventures of the world – leave the player confused, feeling like a part of the experience was too fundamentally broken to continue. I mean, if you have ten more hours of gameplay, why bother collecting coins if you’re already at 999 with no way to spend it all?

(Heck, do the dinosaurs really want your money if they could so easily find it themselves?)

Key Example: Final Fantasy Tactics has a classic example of the ladder economy. At the end of the game, sure, things break. The player could build their own kingdom with their remaining income. But up until those final few hours, the economy is essential to play, funding countless pieces of new gear, some with questionable or unusual benefits. Progression unlocks more steps with more gear to purchase rather than outright giving the player what they need.

And when the player does see the end of the ladder, they know the game itself is beckoning to the end as well. Any farming or team building at that point is mere gravy and not a prerequisite to victory.

Okay, not everything I said is going to apply across genres. Your ideal economy design is going to vary wildly based on the number of players and the rhythm of the game mechanics. Just don’t be afraid of breaking your gaming economy, because your audience can and will make it happen eventually anyway.

Think of it this way: which would you rather have determine how much fun your audience has?

The flexibility of your game design? Or a a couple of flowcharts?


  1. radiant

    I HATED putting rupees back, even if it was only 10 rupees. It leaves an unopened chest and you forget what’s inside. I agree with you – why should I be punished for being a conservative spender or an efficient player? Why should I be punished for working extra hard to find rupees?

    If that’s one of the few major gripes of a game design, then it’s a pretty bad design.

  2. juandonde

    Mass Effect had a nice thing going with buying items at that game early on. They show you some powerful items you can get and at the beginning there is no way you can possibly buy any of the top tier items, but the bottom tier is easily affordable. Then as you get higher in level and earn more money you can start getting all that. However when you are lvl 50+ you pretty much can do an entire side quest and suddenly have more money than god. I have gone from 5 million to 0 then to 8 million and not even notice I was earning that much money. And that is not including the items I then sold.

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  4. masticate

    The only thing about Twilight Princess that I didn’t like were the rupees.
    I really liked your key examples, they were… key to your argument…

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  6. Richard Knight

    Um, thanks masticate. 😉

    juandonde: Yeah, I agree. Mass Effect is a very interesting economy that seems to make tremendous sense early on but quickly breaks down into inventory management.

    Typically, the ladder system works because the player is stuck in a certain region (others being too hard to progress to immediately.) Bioware basically flattened the difficulty curve so that the player could visit everywhere right away – not a bad idea, really – but without making some sort of design change to the ladder.

    I think I found a way to spend most of my money by the end of the game, but that was only at the very end when those legendary grade weapons and gear begin to filter into the system. For a good 20 or 30 hours, money was about as useful as omni-gel.

  7. Richard Knight

    A commenter on kotaku had an interesting point that is worth addressing. He argued that the article had a critical flaw in assuming that I’m even discussing an economy.

    I think it’s a good point in some sense – with only one live participant, its certainly not an economy by standard definition. But I would argue that because the player must behave as though the economy *does* function in some respect without input, the player must assume there is another party of interest, even if that party simply buys, sells, and trades at a fixed rate.

    Game advancement and economy may seem like semantics, but they each operate as tools which may have different intended behaviors. Where EXP is typically a function of player accomplishment, money is a typically a function of exploration, and items are typically a function of manipulation.

    Assuming they are all the same thing and should be compressed is a problematic decision that usually exposes a number of other design issues.

    (I might have discussed this over there, but it seems like Kotaku is a little clunky with the commenting.)

  8. Montablac

    very good article,will deffinatly help when i start makeing games (need a solid idea and a truck load of time).got any other advice for an aspireing games creator?

  9. Angus McQuarrie

    One technique available to ‘cap the ladder’ so to speak to to introduce extremely expensive vanity items. Games like the later GTA games do this by making property available for purchase for obscene amounts of money. By the time you can buy property, you’ve long since stopped worrying about the price of guns at the local firearms store, but if you really want to own that night club (which serves no purpose other than creating an additional save point), you’ve got to earn.

    One can imagine all kinds of vanity items that the heaping piles of wealth you have endgame could contribute to, without breaking the design for those not interested.

    Good call, in any case.

  10. Marcus Shiffler

    Tales of the Abyss had a great economy. It always bothered me, how absolutely crappy everything is in the first few towns of the game, and how everything keeps improving over time.

    Tales actually fixes this. There are items that are near end-game available in some towns, some places. You can pick them up on a replay, or possibly even afford them if you have no life. I think it’s a nice touch, and they generally fit it in really well.

  11. Richard Knight

    Good point, Angus. I think an interesting variation of this comes from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where there are a few absurdly expensive items (usually luck related) that are constantly available. (I don’t quite like the entire playthrough cost, but the principle seems sturdy enough to try.)

    Marcus brings up another variation of this that sounds like it works better (though I haven’t tried that particular Tales game yet.)

  12. A.Grott

    About Mass Effect economy… well maybe the idea was good, but i finished the main quest withot a single transaction, just using found items…

    i liked diablo 2 gambling, even if it’s probably a late fix for a a fubar economy…

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