One of the most challenging aspects of any sandbox game is economics. Just as in the real world there are people that will make it their raisin-d’être to amass wealth, the same will occur in the game. A typical though flawed response is to make the process of amassing wealth overly complicated or worse, make the accumulation of wealth effectively pointless at some stage of progression.
When designing an economy in a game there are therefore a few fundamental features that need to be considered. The first is whether to have an in-out or a closed-loop system. Then it is a question of how (or even if) the books will be balanced. Finally it is application to the Sandbox.
An in-out system is where there are methods utilised by the players for adding wealth to the game. There are by the same token mechanics for removing wealth. A closed-loop system is where there is an amount of wealth in the game and though this may change, it does not do so through the actions of the players. In this blog, I will consider the common aspects of an in-out system as this is the most common to games.
Wealth sinks as the names suggests are means by which wealth can leave the game. This is obviously the ‘out’ side of the in-out system. As wealth leaves the game, there is a need to replenish it in order to achieve targets. Replenishment is dealt with later, but first a quick look at the common wealth sinks.
Single Use Assets
The simplest mechanic is to include single use assets. These ensures that wealth is consumed though puts the choice of how and where to spend the wealth in the hands of the gamer. There is however a drawback in that mechanics for asset accumulation and sale has the potential to turn this into a wealth generation model. A player can reach a point where the sale of built consumables to other players generates more wealth than the overall running cost of the assets required for their construction (gold farming is an example of this). In and of itself this not a bad mechanic as theoretically as demand drops so too does the sale price to the point where sales are no longer profitable. This system can suffer from requiring to regularly stock up on consumables and also hyper inflation. The latter can occur when non-consumable assets are only marginally inferior.
Improving assets can include a wealth element. This may be alongside an experience cost such as in the case of developing character skills, but can be on its own, such as purchasing knowledge from a game controlled vendor. Progression is generally designed to give ever decreasing benefits. For example a character level 5 will easily overpower a character level 1 while a character level 45 will be fairly level with a character level 41, all else being equal.
The principle drawback with this method is that progressions invariably come to an end. Examples include achieving the end of the skill tree for a character and having top-end equipment. Once this has been achieved, wealth generated simply accumulates.
While these work best in a persistent universe setting, they can be used to ensure that wealth continually leaves the game. Generally speaking they should work both like an elastic band and drag.
Drag is the easiest concept to include as it is nothing more than a basic running cost for an asset. This may be wages for personnel in an army, the living costs for a character or the price of replacement parts and maintenance of a vehicle. This can be a linear cost, i.e. 5 tanks cost five times as much as 1 tank.
By elastic band, it is meant that the further the player pushes their position, the more expensive it becomes to maintain it in an exponential manner. This prevents self-sustaining growth which can prove disastrous to a game. In the above example, the elastic band mechanic could be for every 10 tanks, you also need a full-time mechanic and therefore have to pay the extra wages while for every five mechanics you need a full bay which also needs costly maintaining.
The limits of what is considered as an un-stretched elastic band within the contexts of the game should be considered before launch and based on the relative ease of wealth generation. In a casual game, wealth generation should be sufficient to allow for a large self-supporting and defendable power base before spiralling costs kick in. A hard-core game may have spiralling costs on virtually every aspect from production and asset size through to maintenance.
There is therefore always a benefit to scaling back operations.
Decay is the removal or downgrading of assets either through use or time. Decay may be set to repairable or not. In the case of the latter it is effectively a consumable that has been obfuscated or a wealth generating item with a ‘use-by’ date, e.g. perishable trade items – sell them to game controlled markets before they rot. Where repairing the items that are decaying is highly expensive, alternative options will be sought which could prevent wealth from being lost from the game. If by the same token, repairs are cheap, it not only fails to achieve its end as a wealth sink but also becomes a pointless chore for the player.
If people want to buy stuff they need a means of getting money in the first place. This is the ‘in’ side of the in-out system. Generally speaking there are only a couple of obvious paths for wealth generation though how they are dressed up in the game setting is almost limitless.
Hack and Grab
The most used method of generating wealth is to attach it to computer controlled assets and transfer it to the asset that successfully eliminates them, i.e. that bear you just hacked down had 35 gold pieces. Logic may be suspended if fitting. The main drawback with this mechanic is that it is difficult to regulate the accumulation of wealth, leading to hyper-inflation (or either the costs or value of assets) in player controlled markets or serious issues with game controlled markets.
Farming (aka Hoop Jumping)
Similar to Hack and Grab, though adding a step before wealth is acquired. The step can be anything from obtaining items from game controlled assets and selling it on to other game controlled markets (getting bearskin instead of gold in the above situation and selling it to the local fur trader) right through to building an asset from collected components and flogging it on to somebody else. The ultimate source of wealth however is the game. Hoop jumping is simply farming through the use of triggers instead of a 'virtual' item, e.g. returning to the village elders after slaying the ettin to get a reward without.
In the next blog I will look at the closed-loop mechanic, balancing the books and application to the Sandbox.