It’s a question that’s nagged at me for a while, and was underlined recently with the abysmal money system in Mass Effect Andromeda. I wanted to collect my thoughts on this situation, which affects virtually every roleplaying game I’ve ever played, and engage in baseless speculation about whether they could be improved.
What is money used for? Details vary, but most RPGs will include one or more of the following categories.
The most commonly used expense, and generally the most significant. This traditionally includes weapons and clothing/armor, but can cover any items that improve your character’s ability to perform common tasks. Gear is commonly tiered, with earlier and cheaper items later replaced by more expensive and powerful equipment.
This is very common in MMORPGs, and in the past has been a staple of single-player RPGs. Items will degrade over time with use, and require periodic investment to bring back up to full quality. The price generally scales with quality, so there’s a natural escalation in outlays as the game continues. This tends to be a purely negative experience, a brute chore to perform, and players never enjoy it (probably why it has become less popular over time).
Some games will use money to directly advance your character’s abilities, sometimes as the sole means of advancement but more often as a supplement to an XP-based system.
This is rare, but some games will use money to recruit additional NPCs to your group. More often, you will be able (or required) to spend on your followers, making the same sort of purchases for them as for your main player character.
While generally controlled through spending real-world money, sometimes you can spend in-game currency to gain access to new quests, a new area to explore, or other things that extend your playtime.
Quality of Life
These expenses will directly benefit you, the player, but may not have a direct impact on your character. This might include features like fast travel or revealing a map.
This is a broad category for any outlay which does not have a mechanical impact on your game but that players may still desire for aesthetic or roleplaying purposes. This might include cosmetics, fancy clothing without stat bonuses, lodgings for your character, lore, donations to in-game charitable organizations, or upgrades to any of the above.
The core of an economic system tends to be straightforward: acquire larger amounts of a currency, and then spend that currency on the above expenses. However, as RPGs have grown more complex, they have introduced multiple ways to acquire those same results. Depending on the game, these might replace the use of currency, or be offered as an alternative.
Particularly common in Western RPGs. When you defeat an enemy, they might drop items in addition to currency. Thus, to acquire gear, you can simply fight enemies to take their stuff rather than saving up to purchase for yourself.
Accomplishing a mission may result in anything of value, from gear to additional quests to fluff.
This system is generally separate from the numismatic economy, although they can overlap. You acquire some combination of raw materials, plans, and skills, and then build items. This approach tends to be cheaper but more time-consuming than purchasing equivalent items.
Using items or skills
You might be able to steal items directly using a Pickpocket skill, or high Charisma to convince someone to give you a house, or use an armorer’s hammer to maintain your breastplate rather than paying someone to do it.
This is particularly common in MMOs: while the main currency might be, say, gold pieces, certain items will also or exclusively be made available through tokens, badges, or other special coinage. Recent single-player games have adopted a similar system with non-numismatic currencies, such as Influence in Inquisition or Viability Points in Andromeda.
Before you can spend money, you need to earn it.
The most common way of acquiring money, especially in Japanese RPGs. Enemies will drop straight money (in place of or in addition to items). Notably, if a game includes both respawning enemies and cash loot drops, then players can acquire an infinite amount of money.
The second-most-common way of acquiring money, and in many RPGs the most profitable. Sometimes these are simple trash/valuable items that have no use other than being sold. Frequently (as in Andromeda) they are pieces of gear.
Instead of getting a sword that you can't use or a crown you won't wear, sometimes a quest-giver will just hand over the gift of cash at the completion of a mission.
This is a rarer but interesting situation, where a property or investment will provide a stream of income over time. Sometimes this will be acquired from a quest, other times it's something the PC can purchase. Examples include some of the strongholds in BG2, certain cryo pods in Andromeda and certain repeatable war table missions in Inquisition.
Here are some of the issues I keep seeing.
Nothing worth buying
This is fresh on my mind because of Andromeda, which has a varied system for acquiring money but almost nothing to spend it on. Items may be available for purchase, but they are either inferior in quality to items that can be acquired through other means, or can be easily picked up elsewhere.
Even if there is stuff to buy, and you have money to purchase it, you might hesitate to close the sale. In a game with item drops, you might be worried that you will acquire an equivalent or superior item later at no cost. For games with multiple item tiers, you may already have your eye on the next-better piece of equipment, and want to save your money for that piece instead.
Untuned money curves
RPGs tend to grow in scope as the game continues. The player character becomes more powerful, as do the enemies she or he faces. Similarly, at the start of the game you generally earn small amounts of money and can buy cheap items; by the end of the game you will have much more money and can buy more expensive items. If the increase of inflow does not match the increase of outflow, the economy feels broken. On the shallow end, you'll earn money too quickly, running out of items worth buying. On the steep end, money arrives too slowly, forcing you to find items elsewhere or doing without. A surprising number of games get it wrong in both directions, with money far too tight in the early stages and useless at the end.
The Reason Why
Almost every game has a bad economy, but the causes seem to vary greatly. Here are a few!
Money becomes less valuable when there are alternatives available. Making the same assets, or the same types of assets, available through alternate systems such as crafting or looting discourages players from purchasing those assets. It also makes balancing more difficult, since designers will need to accommodate players who are saving and those who are spending.
As I harped at in my previous post on Andromeda, modern "open world" RPGs can have a huge range of potential playtimes. A player focused on the main plot might wrap it up within 20 hours, while someone pursuing a more completionist playthrough could spend 100. That latter player will have an extra 80 hours' worth of money, and presumably access to the same stores as the former player. Again, this makes balance extremely difficult: ideally, you want to give that super-player an incentive to keep earning, without forcing other players to grind out a victory.
Adherence to "realism"
This is a less common problem these days. Examples include limiting the functionality of shops (merchants' cash on hand), inaccessible shops (traveling far to offload loot or compare prices), requiring licenses for certain purchases, or other arbitrary obstacles that impede the smooth flow of commerce. These are sometimes intended to adjust balance issues, but since they can be circumvented they end up just generating annoyances.
Is it possible to have an economy that doesn't stink? I think there are a few ways to accomplish it. There isn't a silver bullet, though: each option can drastically affect the game, and most only make sense given certain pre-requisites in the design.
Get rid of money
I increasingly think that this is what Andromeda should have done. The only items I purchased were minor tokens: cheap quest items to advance a plot or aesthetic upgrades for the Nomad. Both of these could easily have been handled through the crafting system. Getting rid of credits could also have allowed them to drop the annoying micromanagement of the loot cycle. There would still be plenty of incentive to fight and complete quests with the promise of more XP, AVP, and crafting resources.
I think that money is one of those things that game designers tend to automatically include, since every RPG has been doing it for decades. In a lot of cases, though, it doesn't add anything meaningful to the game. And, particularly since so many RPGs are built around epic save-the-universe storylines, it always feels ridiculous to be negotiating with merchants as you try to equip your team to save everyone's lives. There are plenty of other tools available to track player progression, and developers should consider money to be just another possibility, not a requirement.
In the absence of a tightly tuned money design, money sinks are an easy way to paper over underlying deficiencies and help currency feel at least somewhat useful. Typically, these are very expensive items that don't confer a strong advantage on the player but do provide a goal for super-achievers to pursue. This might include real estate (Final Fantasy VII) or cosmetics (Dragon Age Inquisition).
Improved game design
Carefully thinking through systems can reduce or eliminate some of the common problems with money. Big modern RPGs can take a "kitchen sink" approach to design, adding more and more systems, but resulting in a mess. This is a difficult area, but I think one thing that helps is to avoid "crossing the streams": having crafting, looting, and money each yield different non-overlapping rewards. This allows each system to be tuned in isolation, instead of having an imbalance in one area break economies in the other.
By far, the best economy I've seen in recent years has been in Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun games. Money is always useful, always interesting (multiple worthwhile things to buy with limited resources), and is engaging throughout the duration of the game. Part of this is due to smart economic decisions, but a huge aspect has to do with the fundamental design of the game: as a semi-linear RPG with no grinding or looting, it's far easier to balance than a sprawling open-world game like Andromeda or Fallout. The designer can know with a fair amount of certainty how much nuyen the player has acquired by a certain point in the game, and can adjust available items and prices based on that.
That won't be a solution for every game, but it may point the way for better balancing options. For example, open world games could choose to limit money payouts to the completion of plot-critical missions, while still allowing unlimited resource collection in free-roam and side-quests. That would immediately make money far more interesting, and simultaneously a lot easier to design around.
Finally, as a reminder to myself: it isn't that big a deal. I find broken economies frustrating, but they've never turned a good game into a bad one, only kept me from enjoying it to its fullest. In the grand scheme of things, there are for more important elements for game designers to get right than the exchange of virtual currency for virtual goods, and I should probably be grateful that they're focused on those other priorities.