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Game economics 101:
Posted on Tuesday, July 26 2011 @ 22:05:51 PST

GOLD! That one shout has sent more individuals running than almost anything else in the history of man. Gold rushes have occurred in North Carolina (1799, yes, that’s right), California (1849), and the Klondike river valley (1896), as well Australia, Brazil, and South Africa. Gold is not the most precious substance to be found in our history, but is the most lusted after one. Gold recently topped $1600 per ounce, proving that we still value and lust after the precious yellow metal even today. In fact many games use gold as the basis of their economies. Who among us hasn’t had a small or not so small hoard of gold coins in one game or another.

Ever since I found my first potion in Final Fantasy, I have searched high and low for items, coins, Rupees, rings, weapons, armor, and everything else that wasn’t nailed down. I’ve killed men and monsters, cut grass, busted pots and blocks, picked mushrooms, opened chests, dug holes, kicked barrels, thieved, quested, pirated, burned, looted and pillaged my way through countless hours of games play. Tons of money and booty I have amassed over the years, enough to put even Bill Gates to shame. Some people might call me a loot whore, but I don‘t care I had fun. Yet even as I greedily played my games, a small well reasoned voice at the back of my mind was always asking: “Is that realistic? Who in their right mind would hide that there? What’s a rat doing with a gold coin? What the hell was that thing and why would it drop this?”

Let’ take a look at four of my favorite games: Diablo II-Lord of Destruction, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, The Witcher Enhanced Edition, and Sid Meier’s Civilization IV all use gold pieces as their currency. (For short: Diablo II, Oblivion, the Witcher, and Civ IV) Of the four only in the large and completed economy of Civ IV does a gold only standard make sense, until someone points out that you can get gold pieces even before you can mine gold, or mint currency. Nevertheless it is still the least economically unbalanced of the four games. The other three are totally insane.

At Oblivion’s beginning you wander around a surprisingly well lit underground, gold coins are scattered about as if a imbecilic leprechaun had drunkenly staggered through with his pot of gold. Billy-Joe-Bob my level 31 Argonian battle mage had at one time over 250,000 gold pieces, as well as owning every house the game had to sell, each fully furnished and almost overflowing with items of great value. So, why would he want to go chasing after some silly thing or do some silly thing for 50, 500, or even 5000 gold pieces. I may be greedy but this sort of thing tests even the bounds of my gold lust. A loaf of bread, an apple, a wedge of cheese, or almost any basic foodstuff contained within this game sells for 1 or 2 gold pieces. A gold coin the same size as a U.S. dime, the smallest coin the U.S. Mint produces, would be worth roughly $250 to $300. A princely sum for a humble loaf of bread.

Diablo II, and the Witcher aren’t any better. In the Witcher you can buy a leather jacket (the only armor you can wear) for 5000 gold pieces, which would be over a million dollars, that’s some expensive cow hide. Half way through Diablo II I had maxed out my stash, and had to start leaving things behind (the horror). Diablo II, Oblivion, and the Witcher all have some system of encumbrance, yet in all three gold is weightless. Gold isn’t weight free, in fact coming in at 19.3 grams per cubic centimeter it is one of the densest materials known to mankind. That means it’s heavy; very heavy; very very heavy. Lets go back to that dime sized gold coin, it would weigh in at about 6 grams. Most people would say that not too bad, until I point out 5000 of these gold pieces, the Witcher leather jacket’s cost, weighs more than 60 pounds. Carrying around that much weight isn’t at all believable.

Throughout the history of currency there has almost always been different denominations. Here in the U.S. we have $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills not to mention the coins. Besides denominations there have almost always been different materials used to make currency, mostly metals and they have been used to mint coins. Mainly gold, silver, copper, and bronze, although a few others have also been used. So why do games ignore these facts? For simplicity’s sake mostly, in the past games couldn’t have a complex economy due to the constraints of video game systems of that day. That and nobody wanted to do the work necessary to simulate an economy based on more than an overly simplified gold standard. Today’s video game systems can handle a more realistic, complex, and robust economy than could systems of the past, and today‘s game developers should be able to see the benefit of one.

Morality meters, branching story lines, and non-linear game play all prove game developers can make a more complex and realistic world. Like it or not every game, especially a game with human and/or humanoid characters, has some basis in reality or they would be totally unplayable. The totally surreal economies of games is something I feel needs to be fixed. In a more realistic game economy with copper, silver, and gold coins of differing denominations, a single small gold coin would be a treasure to a poor person. Where as a Prince could waste the largest of gold coins on a whim. Some would say: “That’d be boring.” or “That’d be stupid.” Would it really, what better way to show the grinding poverty of a beggar who only asks for a single copper coin, or show the difference between a tumbledown shack on the waterfront and the finest mansion in the land, or prove the imbalance between the have’s and the have not’s, or demonstrate the true expense of a hand crafted suit of armor, or express the impossibly high value of a great magical item, or provide the true worth of a loaf of bread, or reveal the eye popping treasure of a dragon?

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