Game Design: Play Economics

One of the important things to consider as a game designer is that players approaching your game will consider things in the game environment as being very real; sometimes holding incredible amounts of value. As a result, it is important to consider the bad economic decisions that players will make in order to prevent frustration and regrets, encouraging players to have a more positive experience with the game.

One of the first rules of economics is inherently psychological; players (and people in general) notice a turn for the worse much more than a good event. In addition, as more good events occur they lose meaning to the players; to a certain degree this is a natural consequence of good game design since players will eventually lose track of the beneficial experiences, but it also drives in-game economies; a player who has two trillion gold pieces won’t mind paying the fifteen to teleport back to town when he’s done with the dungeon. Of course, it’s important to note that the paid teleportation comes with a benefit that has a lot of utility; theoretically the fifteen coins are an investment in the future, allowing the player to amass more fortune more quickly. A pure loss, on the other hand, is more annoying. A player who loses a trillion gold pieces for dying can quit the game outright.

A lot of these mechanics are unduly focused on primarily by creators of multiuser experiences and serialized titles such as MMORPG’s that do best when they have a lot of users for as long as they can, but they have applications for designers and creators of traditional games as well. For instance, death in Dungeons and Dragons requires a costly resurrection or reincarnation spell, and will usually come with a direct penalty to experience or a character attribute. This makes dying bad news. In Eclipse Phase, on the other hand, death really is just a temporary setback, and the rules make it unpleasant, but in Eclipse Phase there are many unpleasant things, some of which are much worse than death, pushing Firewall agents to make risky decisions or even commit suicide rather than, say, become a slave to the TITANs.

One concern is sunk costs economics. A lot of games make it so that players don’t have a lot of options for flexibility; once they go down one path they cannot return and choose an alternate path. For instance, a game that has players advance through skill use, like Skyrim or, perhaps more obviously its predecessor Oblivion, suffer from a sunk-cost flaw. Once a character becomes good with certain skills, they level up. However, there are dozens of skills in Oblivion and slightly fewer in Skyrim, so it’s possible for players to max out a character’s skills in a certain area only to be left with the sudden realization that they have hit their peak and cannot move onward. Games like Final Fantasy XIV realize that this can be an issue, and so to counteract it they give multiclass bonuses where traditional game design tends to encourage players to specialize, allowing characters to level up quicker and use skills from their more experienced classes when they go back to try out a new hat. Players generally won’t make logical sunk-cost decisions, however; they will become frustrated and give up more readily than they will search for a resolution to their problems. For instance, many players who invest toward 15% of the red space station will finish up the red space station even after the blue space station, which they prefer, is added to the game. Even if they’d be twice as happy having the blue station, they’ll build toward that lesser goal, and if they get burnt out or dissatisfied that’s a player who hasn’t gotten the most out of the game. The more logical decision is to just abandon the progress on the red station and put all the future progress toward the blue one, but that’s not emotionally viable for many players.

Another problem that we encounter with dealing with player economic decisions is the concept of grouped economic perception. Players look at investments more favorably than losses, but prefer pure gains. Players also tend to look at good things in a pretty static fashion (i.e. any good thing is just “good”), while they look at bad things much more closely (bad things can go from “bad” to “awful” or “terrible”). As a developer, it’s important to link good things with the losses that players might experience, but also permit a lot of good experiences independent of the losses in order for players to feel that they are encountering success. One of the things I learned back on StoryNexus is that if you want a player to hardly notice that they’ve lost something, you can give them something else, but that if you go too long without rewarding players they begin to wonder when the next reward will come. This isn’t to say that there’s not a good reason to have some uncertainty and randomness in the reward process; gambling exploits that all the time, and the same psychological approach applies to rare random loot or the like, but rather that it’s important to ensure that players feel like their contribution to the game is rewarding them with a measure of progress and gain.

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