An economic system is often the backbone of a game. Used to gate parts of the experience, support progression, reward players, guide them through specific systems, create social interactions, or introduce difficult choices. The versatility of these systems will often make them a strong addition to any game design. But designing economic systems can make for a daunting task, and for good reason! After all, “economic designer” is a full-fledged job in itself, and among the most thought after (and well-paid!) designer positions in the industry. We could literally write books about this subject.
But fear not! Like every obscure topic, breaking it down carefully will help reduce its complexity. In this article, we will lay down economy basics (from a game design point of view) before jumping on the tools I have been using, as well as my tips and design keys for you to be able to design your very own, super-efficient economic systems.
Let’s start by framing our topic.
What’s an Economic System
An economic system in a game is the framework overarching all trades and exchanges, centering around the currencies and resources at play. In multiplayer games, this economic system is actually developed very close to a real-life one: a market economy, driven by supply and demand, with a governing entity (the dev-team) acting to control the stability of said market. Some games made their economy so advanced that it became one of their key selling points, like Eve Online which employed Ph.D. economists and keep releasing economic reports about production and inflation statistics every month.
The idea of incorporating virtual economies into games isn’t new, and Zachary Booth Simpsons, a designer on Ultima Online was already laying the core of such a system back in the nineties. For him, the benefits of an economic system were to ration power, support specialization (impossibility to buy everything), encourage interaction between players, provide players goals, and support role-play. This was a very right, yet grounded approach: one suiting an MMORPG like Ultima Online. Since then, economic systems found their place in about every possible game and genre, under a vast array of forms and shapes.
There is then a legitimate question: “Does every game require the same depth and complexity when talking about economic systems?” Well, some would, for different reasons, but most games go with what is essentially a shell of an economy (if any), the bare minimum to support their experience and add layers to their different systems. Some aspects though are a constant between systems, like their most central part: currencies and resources.
Currencies and Resources
In its simplest form, a currency could be defined as an agreed-upon tangible medium of exchange for goods or services. And the key-word to remember here is “Exchange”. When you ask any player to give an example of a currency in video-games, the typical answer you will get is “coins!” or “gold!”. In most cases this is actually a very valid answer, but not always. Are coins in Mario or rings in Sonic a currency? In essence, they aren’t: they are resources, used to gain extra lives or protect yourself. It is very important to understand that what makes a currency has nothing to do with how rare or valuable said currency is. Ressources have proper value, a value often given by their transposition in currencies, just as any services are. Also, resources have a purpose, a usage.
A currency is also often associated with a multitude of usages. Based on our models of society, it makes a lot of sense: you can buy almost anything you want with money. But this shouldn’t limit us, and a currency could very much have very restricted usages. In Borderlands 2 for example, we have a very broad currency, the dollar, used pretty much for everything in the game, from purchasing items, being respawned after death, or gambling at the slot machines. But the game features other, more specialized currencies like Eridium, an end-game currency used to purchase upgrades at the black market or getting access to the final bosses of the game, and Badass Points, gained through challenges completion and exchanged for small, permanent stat boosts.
A resource is useful in itself, a currency isn’t. A currency is a bridge between systems, a way to connect the different parts of the player experience together.
Some important points to note:
- Resources can play a pivotal part in a currency: a wholesale distributor “gameplay” is revolving around buying and selling resources, with the currency acting as the facilitator for transactions.
- Resources can be entirely left out of any currency (impossibility to buy or sell): when designers want to keep a specific system isolated.
- A resource can be a currency at the same time: Nectars in Hades are resources to gift to different characters for new items but can also be used to purchase various items in the different shops of the game.
As you can see, this distinction is a pretty grey area. For this reason, in the rest of this article (and in the usual Game Design jargon), both currencies and resources are usually treated as the same thing, and generally called “currencies”. This makes for more understandable discussions, but being able to differentiate the two will help you create very robust systems by understanding the relationship between them.
Key #1: Identify what in your game is a currency, and what is a resource. Though debatable, this exercise will give you a better understanding of the ecosystem you are creating.
But an economic system isn’t just a list of currencies, it’s also the dynamic between them: the way they transform, how are they created, and for what are they exchanged or destroyed. The common terms used in the industry to define these transformations are Sources and Sinks.
Sources and Sinks
In essence, these two terms are fairly straightforward: a source is a way to gain a currency, such as selling items, opening chests, or slaying enemies, while a sink is a way to lose currency, like buying items, dying, or repairing and upgrading gears.
There are 2 important aspects of these sources and sinks an economic designer will have to focus on: how many of each will their different currencies have, and the balance between these gains and losses, which will translate into what we will call “generosity”.
Number of Sources and Sinks
There is no strict rule, nor even guideline on how many of each does a game need. You could have a wide variety of sources funneling into a single sink, or on the opposite have a single source (for example the loot you would get slaying the final boss in a roguelike) opening a wide variety of end-game systems by providing sinks for said currency. The number of sources and sinks a game will need for each currency will then be dictated by its systems and expected player experience. Is the game trying to promote freedom of choices and self-expression? Then having a multitude of ways to earn a currency will ensure that players can focus on the part of the game they prefer or are the best at (assuming the sources are balanced equally). Is the game instead wanting players to engage with a particular system or rewarding particular actions? In this case, having a currency dedicated to these will instantly create a strong incentive for players (or a tight bottleneck if the currency is part of the main flow).
On the sinks’ side, a multitude of them will create meaningful choices and prioritization for the players (“What to buy?” or “what to buy first?”), while a single sink will focus the players’ actions and gameplay towards a single endpoint that they shouldn’t miss.
Key #2: define the number of sources and sinks of a currency by how much agency you want your players to have in playing, or progressing through your game systems.
Now, let’s talk about a burning topic in games…
Generosity is key in players’ engagement and, in terms of economy, relies entirely on the balance between the sources and the sinks. Nobody wants to play a game where everything there is to buy is unaffordable (hello real life!) and a sense of stinginess can make players drop from a game entirely. This balance deeply affects the players’ perception of a game and their engagement with it.
So, not being generous enough can turn players away. But what about the opposite then, showering players with currencies? Extra-generosity, though beneficial in the short-term (human nature drives us to always amass more of everything) will be catastrophic in the long-term: it will dilute systems, break the soft-gates of a game, and more importantly, it will brutally affect player’s motivation too! The two extremes are equally bad and lead to the same conclusion: players drop.
Key #3: being too generous, or not enough, will lead to the same drop in players motivation and should be tracked and tuned carefully by designers.
What I personally advise is to play on both sides of the spectrums at different moments of the player experience. At the start of a game, players aren’t engaged yet: being too generous (and thus having sources outpowering the sinks) will give them a strong sense of control and progression and will invite them to continue playing. Remember: humans love hoarding, and playing on this deep need is an instant win. Then, as the game progresses, more refined and educated desires and needs will surface in our players. As this slowly happens, having the sinks growing while the sources shrink will but make these desires stronger. This will improves retention and their need for mastery (optimization, prioritization, etc.).
Schematically speaking, a currency balance over time will often look like this simplified one:
Key #4: the balance between a currency’s sources and sinks can vary over time: use this relationship to drive player’s behavior and cater to their current needs and motivations.
Of course, as always in design, every situation is unique and this balance may take a multitude of different shapes: never shy away from experimenting and finding the perfect fit for your game. In a free-to-play game for example, when a hard currency (real money) is doubling a soft currency (in-game “fake” money), you may have a very different curve. In the following example we have a first “hooking” period, where purchasing currency will never be necessary, with a balance that suddenly inverts itself to bring a hard-gating of the experience once the “trial” is considered over:
To help me design this balance between sources and sinks, and make sure my different systems respect it, I use a global metric: currency per [minute]. By knowing exactly how much currency a player will earn in a certain time frame (could be seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks…) it is very easy for a designer to calibrate their sinks accordingly. Applying this metric to your entire game (example: “in a 2h play-session, players must earn in average 3000 gold”) will give you a very strong design direction, and applying it to each of your systems (example: “playing exclusively races, players must earn in average 2000 golds +/- 500”) will open plenty of opportunities. For example, Giving slightly more currency in a system compared to the global average is a very valid way to incentivize your players to engage with this system! I’m sure you all played a game slightly differently because “If I do [X] I’m actually getting more gold than doing [Y] for the same amount of time”. Now the question is: was it planned? Did it lead you to have a better experience?
Key #5: define the amount of currency per [minute] your players must earn globally, then per system in order to tune your sinks accordingly and help shape your global game experience.
Now, let’s take a step back and sum up what we defined here: a game’s economic system is made of all its currencies and resources, as well as the connection between each of them and every system in the game. It is central in the player experience and heavily influences how players will play and engage with the game. A currency, on the other hand, is a means of exchange, expressing itself through sources and sinks, and the balance between them has a key-impact on the motivations and retention of the players.
That’s a pretty good start! We now have all the basic concepts to start digging into the finesse of the design of an economic system!
Developing an economic system is no easy task and the first difficulty is simply knowing where to start. In this article, I will expose you to my approach, which hopefully will work for you too!
When I kickstart the work on an economic system for a game, I personally like to take a big step back and approach it from a very meta angle.
Before even deciding how many currencies a game needs, there is a key question that needs to be answered: “What will these currencies be used for?”. Buying gears at the black market maybe, or a drink to NPCs to try and get them to divulge secret information? Or maybe to sell your crops in order to purchase fancier home furniture? These answers are all very valid, but unfortunately way too micro. They do not give any ground for a currency to exist and they will instead become a list of your different game’s system.
Instead, let’s ask ourselves a different question: “Which areas (or pillars) of my game would be strengthened by an economy? Are these aspects connected to each other?”
This is undoubtedly a way harder question to answer, but one that will give you the broad lines of your economic system. It will help you define the number of sub-economies you will need (at least one for each different pillars needing one), and which of these economies to blend together (the connection between them). If you read my previous article on the Game Manifesto, you may remember that we defined game pillars as the holistic approach to the game mechanics, a high-level approach of “what will your players do?”. Well, this is an excellent start, and economic pillars will often map themselves pretty well on the game pillars!
Let’s take common examples of economic pillars and try to project how they could translate in a game:
- Exploration: we could imagine a set of multiple resources, region-based, some with a rarity high-enough to truly reward players looking for them in every nooks and crannies. This could be an excellent way to engage your players into embracing your world and truly exploring!
- Collaboration / Social: how about a single currency that only grows in value when passed around between players (bringing trust at its core) and that can only purchase community wares that expand the game for all, to invite positive interactions? This example is interesting, as changing the core of the sinks to “purchase things for yourself” could turn the currency into a brutal coopetition mechanic (who’s gonna betray the other first?).
- End-Game: what if we had a set of micro-currencies being rewarded when the highest challenges of the game are beaten and that unlocks unique shops and upgrades (this one is a classic)? This could shift the game and open a fresh end-game experience!
The list is infinite and, as you can see, it is extremely easy to imagine interesting economies once you framed your game and its player experience first. I’d also recommend mapping these pillars: their size could give them a sense of priority against each other, and their overlap would signify interesting connections:
As always, be wary: your game doesn’t have 20 economic pillars (nor game pillars) and this abstraction can be difficult to nail down. Spend enough time properly defining what truly makes your game and encompasses all its mechanics.
Key #6: Start by defining and mapping carefully the economic pillars of your game and how they position against each other. This will give you an extremely solid building base.
Now that we have this base, we can start creating currencies! But first… how many should we need?
Number of Currencies
The question of the number of currencies a game needs is complex, and there is pretty much no proper answer to it: it all depends on the game you make. Let’s start by taking extreme scenarios.
First, let’s consider a game with a single currency, say gold. In this scenario, every system is linked to this unique currency. Kill an enemy? Earn gold. Sell an item? Receive gold. Craft an object? Spend gold… This leads to a very risky scenario: if players have too much gold at some point, they will remove every gating the game throw at them. Every system of the game tied to this currency will instantly lose any interest. Why go on an extremely long quest if the reward is again gold? Why sell items and engage with the trading systems when you are indecently rich? Worse, to achieve this scenario, players simply have to find which one of the numerous sources rewards them with the most gold! Once found, they can completely ignore the rest of your systems, leading to a very repetitive and dry gameplay. Remember that players are hoarders, but also terrific optimizers: they will map every pattern of your game, find the dominant strategies and apply them relentlessly, even if it is detrimental to their own fun. A wide number of games fell into this trap in the early days of game development.
So what if we take the opposite then: hundreds of currencies, one for each and every micro-systems in the game, without any exchange of currency. On one side, this is extremely safe: every system is completely isolated, left with its own balance. Even if one currency crash for a reason, the rest of the game is completely protected. This is also a terrific way to make money, as proven by the crazy amount of currencies found in free-to-play mobile games. But this approach brings 2 dangers (omitting the insane load you’re putting on your players’ minds and mental models): the first one is the brutal reduction of the player agency: players must engage with every single system in the game in order to earn the currencies necessary to their progress. The other danger is that it makes a game feels… well, gamey. A real economy strives from its interactions, systems communicate to each other, currency trades for one another…
Designing a virtual economy is all about balance. Hades, though having a consequent amount of currencies for this format of games, managed to carefully isolate them into 3 big pillars: run-exclusive (Obol), exploration/repetition (Darkness, Gemstones, Nectar), and end-game/challenge (Diamonds, Titan Blood, Ambrosia), all of them with their own sources and sinks. There are some connections between them, but they are extremely taxed.
As you can see, their economic pillars fit beautifully the pillars of a Rogue-Like, and make for an extremely efficient engagement loop encouraging the “alright, 1 more run!” mindset that makes for the best games of this genre.
Key #7: your number of currencies will be dictated by your systems, their relationships, the level of player agency and freedom your game requires, and the safety nets you need to put around key systems.
- Currencies are the smallest reward: at the heart of every game-loop sit rewards, be it extrinsic or intrinsic. And the easiest, smallest reward to give players is a bit of currency. Having one granular enough to allow for these small rewards is highly recommended.
- Be wary of currencies exchange: I’ve seen many systems failing because of situations like this: Gems can be exchanged for gears, that can be exchanged for gold, that can purchase tokens, that can… In the end, all these currencies communicate together and only form a single one, with all the dangers it brings. Be wary of these exchanges, or tax them accordingly. The Wretched Broker of Hades creates pathways to exchange currencies but at a very prohibitive cost:
- Cater your currencies to different kinds of playstyles: there are many ways to design a currency with a purpose. Mapping them on your economic pillars (and thus on your game pillars in a way) is a pretty powerful solution, but I also like to approach it from the form of investment players put in the game: you may want to reward your players for their time (the grind), reward their skill (boss or achievement currencies) or even reward their loyalty (X-time a [day] currencies, like daily gifts, or cross-games currencies).
And talking about designing currencies with a goal in mind, there is an approach I particularly like to take:
As you may have noticed, I like using verbs in my design. Verbs convey actions, actions convey gameplay. I already used this approach when designing skills in the article Keys to Meaningful Skill Trees, and I love to use it while designing economic systems too!
So here is my tip: for each of your currencies, list all the verbs associated to them, like the following example:
- Gold: loot / sell / buy / repair / win / earn
- Diamonds: find / exchange / reward / steal / protect
- Iron: melt / trade / negotiate / bargain / upgrade
Not only this may highlight some unwanted crossing between currencies (and help you specialize them, remove some, or create new ones), it may also give you neat system ideas that you never considered otherwise and will reinforce your game’s promise! What if storing Diamonds make you a target for thieves and the more you hoard, the more you’ll have to protect them?
Key #8: map your currencies semantic! This is an easy way to understand their field of action and open new ideas to densify your systems!
Player Value and Evolution
Finally, before closing our topic on currencies, there is one final aspect we need to talk about: currency value over time. And I’m not talking about game value, but about player value: the value your currency has in the eye of your player, and how it evolves over time.
To put it simply, this value will keep fluctuating during the experience of your players and their game progress. Here are 2 fairly common examples:
In this situation, we have a soft-currency, like gold, used as the go-to currency in the game. At the start of the game, this is the most valuable resource as the player has literally everything to purchase! Then after some time, as the player gets richer and richer, there are fewer and fewer things to buy, and the currency value drops. Finally, the player reaches this state where gold doesn’t hold any value in his eyes anymore, and every system associated with it finishes dying with it. I’m sure you have experienced this scenario in a vast amount of games.
This second example is about an end-game currency. This currency is useless to players at the start of their journey (like a raid-token) and is thus hidden from them. As they slowly reach the end-game, they are introduced to it and start seeing it as a pretty valuable thing to have (and value starts growing)! Finally, they reach the moment where the systems associated with this currency truly open (like raids becoming available, or players having the required levels or achievements) and it becomes the most valuable currency to have, and one of the players main drivers in the player’s experience!
What is interesting, outside of these fairly classic examples, is what happens when you map them together:
One naturally replaces the other in the player’s eyes over time. And this evolution will be felt everywhere and ripple through the player experience: different goals, different motivations, different rewards, and systems… By carefully mapping this expected player value for each of your currencies you will be able not only to ensure their relevance but also to control every system in your game associated with one, and the player’s motivation to engage with them! A dying currency can be a good thing, and you can plan for it!
Key #9: Project on the player value of your currencies over time, and predict how they will compete with each other at the different stages of the player’s journey.
But something is off… Why is even the end-game currency slightly losing value at the end of the curve?
Inflation, Deflation and Destructive Economy
There is a scary word that keeps appearing in online discussions regarding economic systems: inflation. It is mentioned as if this was the worse thing that could happen to an economy and that it just should be avoided at all cost. But the reality is much more complex (and a lot grimmer for game designers).
Inflation and deflation are the 2 sides of the same coin, linked to supply and demand and directly related to the buying power of a currency. Real-life economies are extremely careful of these values and central banks act actively to control them. But is it legit to try and translate real-world models and solutions onto simplified game ones? In my opinion no, simply because virtual economies are often so simplified, they can’t sustain themselves in the long run.
Let’s first take the example of Diablo 2. The entire game revolved around a single currency: gold. One striking difference with real economies is that this currency is constantly created by players: every monster slaughtered is dropping gold, every chest opened too. This gold has been created out of thin air and keeps pilling in players’ inventory. A solo game could pretty much keep this growth under control (and Diablo 2 did fairly well on this front), but we cannot say the same of the multiplayer side of the game. Players amassed fortunes to the point where every player was insanely rich (it was usual to get welcomed with piles and piles of golds from veterans simply by logging in a fresh character). For any multiplayer transaction, gold became worthless, to the point where simply keeping it in your inventory wasn’t worth the loss of space anymore. This is a clear multiplayer inflation example: the main currency was worthless, no amount of money could buy you any premium item from other players anymore, and the game didn’t have any backup currency to solve this issue… What happened next is exactly what would happen in real economies under the same circumstances: players started trading instead, and commodity currencies naturally emerged. In the case of Diablo 2, the shell money that became the standard was the Stone of Jordan, arguably the rarest, most valuable ring in the game. Its gold value was irrelevant and an entire player-driven, side economy developed around it (just like the Shards in Asheron’s call actually).
On the other side of the spectrum was the game-driven aspect of the economy. As the prices in the in-game shops stayed fix, they became virtually free: the currency deflated to nothing, and entire sides of the progression and core loop became irrelevant as a result of this uncontrolled currency creation. Interestingly enough, the Stone of Jordan also suffered from the same issue, became irrelevant at some point, and got supplanted by other shell currencies as the game kept living.
GTA Online is another very interesting case study of clear inflation. But this time, an inflation that propagates through the solo-experience too. As more and more players are sinking thousands of hours in the game, the global amount of money in-game is following the same uncontrollable curve as our previous example, to the point of reaching hyperinflation. But this time the developers fought back to keep this amount of liquidity under control: every game update would introduce new systems and items costing more and more in-game money. On one side, this prevented players from destroying the economy, as well as giving the engaged pool of players new shiny rewards to sink their money in (actively destroying currency at the same time).
The downsides of it are well known (and well-debated): it creates a gap between rich and poor players that keeps growing, actively ostracizing any new player trying to enter the game. As many updates are asking players to own very specific things (like a nightclub) to participate in it, it also keeps them out of the hype and forces them to play the “old” game. It also makes the price of items in the game skyrocket to ridiculous heights like in the example below where close-looking cars could have a price difference of more than 10,000%:
Finally, let’s take the example of World of Warcraft. This example is particularly relevant as their approach to gold has been widely different from other games (and evolved so much over the years that it would deserve a book on itself).
Wow has been affected like other games by the global deflation that comes with currency generation. Gold was pilling up, prices weren’t. But this deflation spread through the multiplayer aspect as well! The auction houses were flooded with items looted by farmers and bots, dropping prices down as they were eager to convert their loot in even more currency.
An interesting approach that WoW took was to rebalance the economy from an extension to the other. Let’s take a simplified example: a new extension comes out. With it comes a whole batch of new shiny items to purchase. These items will obviously cost more than any previous expansion (like GTA Online) giving clear motivation to rich long-term players as these items will cost even more than what they currently have. But here is the twist: while doing that, Blizzard would also rebalance the entire economy, multiplying the different gold sources at the same time. Doing that ensures that new players can find these items reachable and for these items to become clear engagement drivers. The downside is easy to see: players would, from an extension to another, lose a substantial amount of money as money devaluates. The millions of gold players amassed during their previous playtime would only give them a small headstart in a new expansion and may lead to some drop in engagement in the time prior to its launch.
So, after these examples, a question comes to mind: Is it possible to create a strong, sustainable virtual economy? My answer to this question is pretty brutal: no. Whatever you do, your economy will crash, and your currencies will become worthless. The faster you accept it, the faster you will put failsafes in place to try and contain this drop.
Games economies have too many flaws in themselves: virtual currencies are infinite, and constantly generated by players. Players do not need to spend this money in any way and can hoard it as much as they want (compared to reality where everybody needs to engage with the economy to simply live). Also, game design generosity will naturally contribute to disbalance any system. The need to cater to every player won’t help either… In short, game economies are doomed from the start (I know, I know… not ALL of them, but not every game as the ambitions of Eve Online, so it’s a fair assumption).
Key #10: a game economy will crash. Accept it early enough to anticipate the effect of this devaluation.
Now that we took the worst case scenario as a given, let’s look at some of the possible options to contain this reality.
Failsafes and Currency Protection
After this clear demonstration of fatalism, let’s look at the multitude of ways we can alleviate this outcome. This list is by no mean exhaustive, but these directions are working, efficient and has been serving me for quite some years on my own games.
- Remove the multiplayer sharing component (or tax it): this is the most brutal, yet the most efficient of all the solutions I got. Trading and exchanges between players open the door to an insane amount of variance, making controlling a currency a much harder task. On the opposite, keeping a currency player-centric will let you precisely predict growth and usages. This solution may sound unrealistic for big multiplayer games, but many of them followed this path successfully in the past. Diablo 3, after their Auction House nightmare, ended up implementing something bold: the expansion Reaper of Souls not only rolled back on the AH, but also removed the entire multiplayer economy: legendaries couldn’t be traded anymore, gold and most items were account-bound, crafting became king, RNG was everything… And surprisingly, this change was mostly praised! If you can’t resort to that, at least tax these exchanges! The taxes in auction houses are here for this exact reason: remove as much money as possible from the system on each of these transactions.
- Multiply and specialize currencies: this is another extremely easy win. The more currencies a game contains, the smaller their impact will be: this will lead to better control and the certainty that a currency crashing won’t ripple through all your systems. Warning: this only works if these currencies aren’t connected in any way! If a currency can be exchanged for another one, they are virtually the same thing and will rise and drop together.
- Destructive transactions: an easy to learn / hard to implement solution. To counter the constant generation of currency by players, systems should be put in place to remove this currency overflow from the system. Typically, this could be done by simple game vendors: a service or item is bought, money is destroyed from the system in the process. Sell an item? Receive but a fraction of its purchase price. Simple enough right? Not always: these systems are only removing a fraction of the insane amount of money players create non-stop. On the other side, Eve Online, through their mass destruction of currencies has leveraged this failsafe wonderfully (not every game can brag about creating wars to keep their economy safe!). Understanding the reach of your sources and sinks is key! Below, the Eve Online battle of M2-XFE, which destroyed 23.6 trillion ISK (estimated $345,000 real-world value). We are far from vendors ripping you off for 2 coins!
- Upkeep systems: a rather unpopular solution, yet a terribly efficient one. This to me is the ultimate destructive transaction: asking the player to pay to use what he has. It can take many forms: taxes on an apartment, weapons durability, and repairing cost, food for your workers, taxes on your Guilds, etc. Rust, for example, is particularly aggressive with its upkeep base system. This approach is extremely efficient as it can easily scale with the players’ wealth, keeping any currency in check without punishing early players. The danger here is about perception, as players have grown accustomed to these rather artificial ways of containing an economy and see it as restraining. My advice: build upkeep systems that are legitimized enough in your fantasy so it feels as natural as possible (like the Fallout guns durability).
- Wallet limits: worried your players will earn too much currency? Forbid them! By limiting the quantity of currency players can carry and store, they will have no choice but to spend it to continue earning more. Paired with an array of destructive sinks, you have an extremely secure base for an economy. Once again, this solution may feel artificial, but properly embedded in the game’s fantasy (gold weight and inventory limitation for example) will make it accepted by players. These limits can also evolve over time, accompanying players through the different steps of their growth (adding new storage space for example, or, better, BUYING more storage space).
- Economy Rebalance: this last item is probably the most dangerous one. As discussed in our WoW example, it’s always possible to perform a big refactorization of your economic system, readjusting sources and sinks to level back your players into an acceptable range of currency. While extremely efficient it may alienate your most engaged players base that will feel cheated and think that “it was all for nothing”.
Key#11: Consider what could make for strong failsafes to delay the depreciation of your currencies
Slight digression: You may have noticed that, in this article, I never suggested what seems to be a very obvious solution: having a finite amount of currency! After all, this is one of the keys to a solid real-world economy and why governments are so careful while printing more money! Well, unfortunately, this has been tried in some old school MMORPGs (one reason why the original Ultima Online economy failed actually) and always led to the same situation: players hoarding money combined with a lack of obligation to spend this money completely froze the economy and virtually removed it from the game world. I’d love to one day see a truly finite system but I’m doubtful this will ever happen. Even Eve Online that is a wonder of economic systems kept some strong ISK (their core currency) creative and destructive systems. It’s worth noting that one key to succeed in this endeavor would be to create an economic system entirely managed by players (banks, setting up prices of everything in the game, shops, etc.) as well as implementing brutal protections, such as items decay to prevent hoarding, impactful taxation systems, or money devaluation when stored to promote spendings.
Digression over… Back to our failsafes! If we were to try and visualize these solutions simplistically, here is what we should be aiming at in terms of player value over time:
As you can see, this isn’t perfect in any way. But it buys you time! Maybe the time you need for a new expansion to come out, or another currency to step in…
Mapping an economic system
You may wonder at this point how to make sense of all this information and crystalize it into documents that could enter your design workflow. To be honest, I have always struggled to map my economic systems properly. There doesn’t seem to be any document existing apart from the monstrous Excels crunching the numbers at the end of the chain. So here are the 3 documents that I consider vital to have in the design phase. They are high-level on purpose, and here to drive the vision of your economy. They will be the guidelines for your designs, implementations, and iterations. As always, this is what has worked for me in the past (and on some pretty complex game) so even though I can attest to their usefulness, I highly invite you to bend them and adapt them to your own way of working!
The first document that I create is a meta-view of my entire system. It contains:
- my economic pillars,
- every single one of my currencies positioned in their respective pillar,
- the flows of currencies and exchanges possible between them.
It’s simplistic but damn efficient to project on your systems:
In this crude example we can already see that:
- Gold will be our go-to currency, crossing 2 core pillars and a strong mean of exchanges
- Diamonds are the most valuable currency in the exploration pillar: they can pretty much be exchanged for everything.
- The narrative/quests pillar generates currencies that are extremely controlled, and no other system is helping bypass their gain, though progressing through it could help on the exploration side by generating gold if needed.
- Renown tokens will probably be our premium-end-game currency, introduced throughout the game and shining later on. As many end-game currencies, this one is standalone.
Keep it clean and high-level: its goal is to give you an overview of what is otherwise an extremely complex system!
My second document is basically an evolution of the previous one and is pretty optional. I would take the overview we created previously and add to it every single flow of every single system: sources and sinks would be represented, as well as the semantic connections between them.
Here is a quick example with our previous “Iron” (on a completely fictional game):
This document can become quite enormous (thus why I only created a zoomed-in example) and I would advise creating it only if your game has a dense, complex, and intertwined economic system (builders, strategy games etc.).
The final document is actually one we discussed already in this article: it is the full representation of your expected player value over time, for every single one of your currencies. Here would be a quick ‘n dirty example:
This document is one that is central in my designs and that I keep referring to constantly. It may be very theoretical (and very imprecise for an economical document right?), but it gives me a clear vision of my system and the expected players’ motivations over time. Look at what this simple graph can already tell me:
- Iron is an entry game resource that will lose its value pretty consistently, and it’s ok: it will serve its early-game purpose and I won’t try to rescue it.
- Gold, as my go-to resource, needs to stay relevant until the start of the end game: I will try to contain its drop until then with some wallet gating and the introduction of new vendors with scaling prices (economy rebalance).
- Diamonds need to be seen as the most valuable resource in the game from the get-go. Being a protected currency, it will barely lose its value throughout the game and must retain its key-place in my end-game (though a light drop will be inevitable).
- Being a F2P (because why not), I will have a Hard Currency. This hard currency must appear more precious than anything that the game can offer, for monetization purposes. Being the omnipresent currency, as well as the only sink for premium systems, it will retain its value up into its Live phases, which will keep feeding this system to ensure it never drops.
- Renown Tokens are going to be invisible for players at the start of the game but ultimately will become the main player driver into the end-game. At this point, they will actually overpass the value of hard currency for the players (social status, markers of pride…). By doing so, my end-game players will become my drivers for more acquisition.
- As the game evolves, players will be driven by different currencies, and thus different systems, freshening up their motivation and engagement. We can clearly identify 2 strong phases: early / mid-players, and end-game players.
The examples we took here are of course pretty straight-forward, and your game could complexify these in an infinite amount of ways. But if my game was made of these resources and currencies, I’d have a complete, precise vision of what I need to create, clear guidelines to follow, and even projected results that I can now test and verify. And this is exactly what these are made for: give directions to visualize a system as theoretical and complex as an economic system.
At the start of this article, I mentioned that economic designers are among the most sought-after and well-paid designers in our industry, and that designing economic systems is a full-time job in itself. With that in mind, there is, unfortunately, no way to be extensive in a single article, as long this one is.
What I believe though, is that by applying the keys, tools, and mindset we discussed here, you will be able to create, maintain and polish very efficient virtual economies. They have been applied to successful games, and really helped me throughout the years.
The last key I want to leave you with is a classic for a design-focused article:
Key#12: Iterate, test, and iterate more. Your system won’t ever be perfect from the first draft. There are too many components, and one of them is the wildest of them all: human beings. Always keep an eye on your economy.
That being said, there would be a million other aspects to cover, like excel tools, micro-design, zero-sum systems, investments resources, KPIs and live tweaking, reserve currencies… And who knows, we may tackle them at some point, either here or on our Discord! In the meantime, I hope you will look differently at currencies and economies in games and agree that, even though it didn’t look like it, it is a damn sexy design topic!
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