Friday, February 27, 2009

Dynamic economies in games

Before reading this post on how dynamic economies can work within games, I recommend reading Soren Johnsons post on Game Economics.

The Problem
Due to the international credit crisis, stories about our worlds economics going wrong are rife. More relevantly there was a case in Eve Online. You can read more about it on the BBC website but it basically involved some viscous back stabbing on the part of some players. I bring this up for two reasons. Firstly, Eve is a game which is heavily focused around a dynamic economy. However this story demonstrates both the pros and cons of a manipulatable economy. This Sandbox environment allows for cool, real life things, to happen. This keeps the game fresh and interesting. However, this comes with its downsides. While some people may have loved this twist in the galaxy, many players will have had there experiences ruined by 2 people who they probably don't know.

While this isn't exactly synonymous with dynamic economies, particularly in single player, the problems are certainly similar. Even in a single player game, a dynamic closed economy can bottom out. A closed economy is one which everything remains inside the system and nothing can be added.

This is actually less common than you might think. Take any RPG, drops from monsters are being created when you kill them. In an otherwise closed economy, this will create hyper-inflation as you sell all the excess items you find, so you have more money to spend, so prices rise etc.

However, even if you create a completely closed economy, you will hit problems. For example, in an RTS, most resources are finite, so the system is closed. At the start of the game, this can make for interesting trading; if you are fortunate enough to start next to lots of stone, you can trade it for wood. However, as the game goes on, supply will out-pace demand as other constraints come in to play, namely managing your troops. This causes the market to drop out with everything becoming worthless.

Advantages of a dynamic economy
All this adds up to is, if you include a dynamic economy, you need to think carefully about a lot of things. Obviously, the reward is a dynamic game that features an extra layer of strategy. One of the main things that makes Civ 4 so re-playable is the different strategies that are available to you. Even the different victory conditions can all be broken down in to different ways of achieving them. A dynamic economy can become one of these ways; cripple the persons economy, then you can easily walk over them.

Sins of a Solar Empire (a game which I will be mentioning a lot on this blog as in some ways [not setting] Sins is very similar to Frozen Kangaroo and there are many lessons to be learnt from it, both in its successes and failures) features a dynamic economy involving the buying and selling of resources. It doesn't immediately suffer from the above problems, but rather another thing that you need to consider when including an economy in to your game.

Distractions can destroy economy
Unless your game is entirely focused around the economy, then it is likely to be a small part of some other strategy. The problem with Sins isn't an economic one, but a game design one. To read the economy requires careful injections and extractions of resources to raise and lower the price. You have multiple options for buying and selling. However, you simply don't have time to figure out how it works. You are expected to do this whilst managing your fleet, your empire, your technology and your diplomacy. As a result, despite the fact it is quite cool, it slips down your list of priorities as the reward is simply not worth the time investment.

What are the solutions to this? The first solution is to strip everything else out of the game, leaving only the economy. Obviously, this is not viable for Sins, the focus of the game is epic space battles.

However, that doesn't mean that an economically focused game can't work. I read an interesting post on about why all our games seem to be focused around violence or fighting. Part of it is certainly down to the human need to feel like we are winning. However, that does not mean that an economy driven game can't do that. Possibilities include either having to bankrupt your enemy, or, if you want to keep the war aspect, have a "war" being fought with you only managing the economy. Cornering resources secures you battlefield advantages etc. While you don't manage the battles, they are almost entirely play out as a result of your actions (the last thing you want is for your actions the feel irrelevant)

The other solution is what I hope to implement in Frozen Kangaroo; automation. In some ways, this does not solve the problem; the fun is playing the economy and seeing the results. As a result, in Frozen Kangaroo it will be everything else that is more automated. While I describe Frozen Kangaroo as a real time strategy game, it is heavily focused on management and logistics of a war. As a result, I think that it is right to allow a greater focus on the economy. I'll be posting more about what the economic element is in Frozen Kangaroo soon.

Back to my original point: can dynamic economies in games work. The short answer is yes. However, you must consider a number of different things. The first one is one you should ask yourself every time you add anything to your game, does it fit with what already exists and does it improve the enjoyment? If you can't confidentially say yes to both questions, chances are you are putting it in because it sounds quite cool.

Next, you must asses whether the player will have enough time, and the reward great enough, to actually use it. If you think it passes these stages, then an economy can work in your game. Only then do you need to start working how keep the economy balanced and interesting throughout the duration of your game. Play testing is the key to this.

And finally, a "realistic" economy is not necessarily a fun economy, our economy is realistic, is unemployment or very expensive oil fun for anyone?

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