Why do so many RPGs allow you to collect more money than you can possibly spend?
By Daniel Wilks on May 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm
With Metro: Last Light due out shortly, I’ve been playing some Metro 2033 to refresh my memory when it comes both to Artyom’s story and the mechanics of the game. Before anyone chimes in to say that Metro isn’t an RPG — yes, thankyou. I already know that. I’m using the game as an illustration of something that I wished RPGs did, and that’s give currency some kind of real meaning within the game.
In the vast majority of RPGs, gold (or rupees, or whatever currency is accepted in that particular world or realm), functions much like a de-facto extra statistic, and one that is simultaneously the most powerful and most meaningless in game, enabling players to buy the most powerful weapons, armour and abilities available whilst also being fairly easy to obtain either through questing or via farming. This empty currency, whilst effecting the balance of the game, really has little impact on the player when it comes to the decision whether or not to spend said currency.
This adherence to an artificial and meaningless currency is not a new phenomenon. It was relatively easy in the early Gold Box D&D games to amass enough money that you needn’t worry about it running out, and even beloved genre classics like Planescape: Torment fell into a similar trap with players being able to quickly amass a fortune they could never spend, even after buying the most powerful spells and weapons available in the game.
Whilst there’s nothing overtly wrong with this approach to in game currencies, the more games I play the more frustrating I find it. Without having any significant meaning to the player outside of being something to collect and use to for upgrades, artificial currencies, for me at least, are starting to feel somewhat divorced from the rest of the game and the world as a whole.
This is where Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light come in. In those games, the currency of the land used for buying new weapons and gear is the very ammunition you need for said weapons. It’s a simple but clever system that forces the player to think about every purchase, making them seem far more weighty and meaningful in the long run.
The upcoming, New Zealand-made ARPG, Path of Exile takes a similar path (geddit). The game features a number of different crafting materials that allow players to upgrade items, improve skill gems, enchant desirable objects, respec points in your passive skill tree and generally make life in Wraeclast a little easier. These crafting materials also serve as the currency in game, both for the AI shops in each quest hubs and for inter-player barters. Every time the player makes a purchase or barters for an item they are forced to weigh up the value of the item compared to the value of the crafting material, weighing up the pros of an immediate character upgrade against perhaps needing that crafting material somewhere down the line.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with an artificial and all-but-meaningless currency, and in some ways I can see the appeal of amassing huge wealth in game and being able to spend said wealth with impunity — but I see more appeal in the opposite approach. Much like in the real world, I find a purchase has more meaning and is more satisfying if I’ve had to work and save for it or otherwise sacrifice. Without simply aping the mechanics of the games I’ve mentioned I’m not entirely sure how to go about making gaming currencies more meaningful, but I’m sure there are some bright sparks out there who can find a way.