How To Make A Good Game Better: Money and Stuff

How To Make A Good Game Better: Money and Stuff


In the second part of the series, Marcus Mulkins addresses the problem of too much money and way too much stuff in RPGs.

Money and Stuff

Welcome to Part Two of “What The Walrus Said”! As in “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to speak of many things.” Etc. In this episode we will look at the real foundation of gauging success: stuff. That’s right, it’s stuff that lets both you and the rest of the world know just how much of a VIP you are (or aren’t). More stuff means more wealth than less stuff. A bigger, nicer house suggests a larger accumulation of nicer stuff within than what you would expect to find in a smaller, shoddier house. Stuff has value, which equates to cost and price. Nicer stuff costs more than your run-of-the-mill stuff possessed by lesser beings. You are born into this world naked, bereft of stuff to call your own, but after a long life you can bet a mound of stuff that you possessed more stuff than could possibly fit into the casket with you.

Get Stuffed!

Stuff is a yardstick that tells you just how well you are doing. Especially so in a computer RPG. Forget about the goal of the game, what really matters is the stuff that the character amasses. He starts with just the basics; just enough to hopefully survive the first encounter. What happens then? Loot the bodies! Take their stuff and make it your own. If any of it is better than what is in your starter kit, upgrade! Oooo! Now I can take more damage! Now I can inflict more damage! Even if the other (deceased) guy’s stuff is inferior, you snag it anyway, because you can sell or barter it to a vendor that will provide you with even better stuff than either you or your deceased benefactor had. Feel your power grow! What do you do next? Go forth and do something, and incidentally get more stuff! Fairly soon, you will have acquired so much stuff, you can’t possibly carry it all without it becoming an impediment to movement (and maneuverability in combat, which is, frankly, an even greater concern). What to do with all that surplus stuff? Well, sell it of course. Money takes up considerably less space than a mound of stuff. Further, in most CRPGs, money has no weight, so even schlepping around a million monetary units doesn’t encumber your character even a tiny bit. “But... but some of that stuff could be useful in certain situations in the future!” So, rather than sell off potentially useful stuff, you cache some of it somewhere where it will hopefully stay put until you come back for it. Which you do again and again until your character looks like he is operating a chain store with numerous outlets. Or even better yet, he acquires a house (or several) where he can store an unlimited amount of stuff. Mountains of the Good Stuff! And it’s all yours, yours, yours! Mwahhahaha!

Seems like only yesterday that your character was setting out with just that basic Starter Kit. Oh, wait; it could very well be that it was just yesterday. Or maybe just the day before that. Whatever - I hope you get the point.

Just Dive Right In!

Stuff may be your yardstick of success, but do try to recall what it is that you are DOING in this CRPG game world: You are entering an alien world of which you only have a vague idea of what to expect. You don the persona of your chosen character, and for a time, you try to forget about that oppressive Real World that limits what you can do, say, endeavor to accomplish, or simply just try to get by. If for awhile you can actually “lose yourself” in that game world, then you are being immersed in that Make Believe world. If the designers have done a decent job, it may be several hours before you look up from your monitor and exclaim, “My goodness! Where has the time gone?” But if the designers have done only a so-so job of it, the comment will instead be, “What should I have expected? It’s just a game, after all.” Which version would you prefer to be playing? “Where did the time go?” or “It’s just a game, after all”?

Stuff plays a BIG role in either helping the player to immerse himself, or conversely frequently remind him that “it’s just a game.” Pretty much EVERY time that a player pops the thought, “If only it worked this way in Real Life!”, it breaks the immersion. Maybe just a little bit, or perhaps jarringly, like soil erosion, all those bits and pieces wash away until all the topsoil is gone, baring the naked foundation for all to see THIS IS JUST A GAME. So it behooves designers to pay attention to the details, and wherever possible, try to be “realistic”. HOW the designers handle stuff will be a big determinant of how players evaluate the game.

NOTE: Players that are particularly materialistic (i.e., greedy) will most certainly disagree with some, most, or even possibly all of the following suggestions. I’m fine with that; “Different strokes for different folks” and all that. I’m just describing features that _I_ believe would make a better RPG. You, dear reader, are encouraged to pick and choose as you see fit.

Real Versus Unreal

Money, money, money! As mentioned above, many games don’t bother to assign weight or volume to money. I’ll readily grant that the weight and volume of a coin is pretty much negligible. Even a handful of change doesn’t amount to much. But all those coins add up. Just imagine how much you would be staggering if you had to lug around a backpack stuffed with gold doubloons. And those amount to just a couple thousand gold coins at most. Whenever I look at the User Interface and note that my character is hauling several hundreds of thousands of coins, I’m reminded that “it’s just a game.” Even if the game allows for paper money with multiple denominations, once you start tallying up a million or two, which is easy to do in many CRPGs, weight and volume become a Real concern. Beyond weight and volume, there is also the matter of the value of money. “If diamonds were as common as pebbles on the beach, that would also describe how much they would be worth.” Gold coins or pieces are the most common currency in CRPGs, because “everybody knows” that gold is rare and valuable in the Real World. But in CRPGs it seems that pretty much EVERYBODY is sitting on a mountain of gold coins. Do you doubt that? Then have your favorite character in your favorite CRPG go visit a merchant. Sell the merchant stuff until he’s out of currency. Come back the next day and – lo! – his cash register is full again. Sell him stuff again until he’s out of cash. Do that for a year, and you will be sitting on over a million coins. Then ask yourself, “Where did the merchant get his daily allowance of gold coins?” From other customers, right? What’s the population of the community? How much per resident? And keep in mind that was just ONE merchant. You could, if you had enough stuff, repeat the process with every merchant in town. You would be gathering in tens of thousands of gold coins EVERY day, and it would be the case that all of those tens of thousands of gold coins had been rattling around in the Bags of Holding the townspeople wore on their belts.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, which is what most Fantasy worlds are modeled after, a person that made fifty silver coins per year was considered well-to-do. That would translate into maybe FIVE gold coins at most, per year. But in most CRPGs gold coins circulate like they were as rare as farthings (1/4 of a penny). That makes a gold coin worth about a farthing – in the player’s mind. Money stops being money and is instead viewed as being some kind of score tally.

So here’s my suggestion about money: Give it weight and volume and value. Multiple denominations to reduce the total amount of currency needed to keep the Economy working. Set up banks so that characters don’t have to strain themselves hauling around their life savings. If a player doesn’t want to be paying the banks for storing their money and valuables – which is the way it often worked in the Dark and Middle Ages – then let thieves occasionally loot the player’s cache, house, or stash. If the player insists on keeping ALL of his money on his person, then there comes the point (fairly quickly) where the character simply can’t move. His choice, his consequences. If there is an absolute need for carrying around that much money, make it easy to converts mountains of cash into a pocket full of gems – which MUST be kept rare and universally valuable.