Sid Meier is often quoted as saying that “a good game is a series of interesting decisions”. When building the economy for a social game, it often pays to bare this in mind.
An interesting decision is a choice between options where no single option is clearly better than the others. As it is more difficult to trade off factors without a direct exchange rate, interesting decisions involve choosing between loosely or unrelated factors. This is perhaps even more true in real life that in games – think of the job offer with poor pay but interesting work vs. the one with good pay and less interesting work – it’s a difficult choice because it’s hard to work out an exchange rate for pay and interesting work.
In social games this equates to having multiple factors influencing each decision, so that when players weigh up their options, the optimal choice is not obvious, or is not the same for everyone depending on their style of playing.
The economy in Atlantis Fantasy is an interesting one (we’re pretty proud of it at Kobojo J) – it successively challenges players to balance the three main resources: coins, population and workshop materials (there are over 20 different workshop materials, but for the purposes of designing the economy, they can generally be considered a single resource). When building a house a player is left trying to balance the following options:
– The cost in coins and materials
– The population it will provide
– The rent (in coins) that it will generate
But really this is just a short list. If you take into account that houses take up space on the map, and players are often space constrained, as well as the fact that players are constrained by the amount of energy they have to collect rent then you realise that savvy players will be trading off more complex metrics:
– Population density
– Cost per population
– Rent per energy (and therefore amount of energy to pay back)
– Rent per hour (and therefore number of hours to pay back)
Not to mention how different houses fit into their artistic vision of their city…
Whilst the basic metrics need to improve with each house that the player unlocks to give them a sense of progression, balancing the secondary metrics to give each house its own strengths and weaknesses means that each house is interesting to players for longer.
Take the following two houses, unlocked by players at level 10 and level 18 (i.e. at significantly different points in the player lifecycle):
Broadly, the Mansion is better for rent, and the House on the Seabed (HotS) is better for population. But that’s only true if players are both energy and space constrained. Relax the energy constraint and HotS is best for both, relax the space constraint instead and the Mansion clearly superior.
This means that even though HotS is unlocked later and at first glance appears to offer more population and rent, the Mansion is still an interesting choice for more advanced players in certain conditions.
Finally, I’d life to mention my favourite piece of wisdom from Tom Perkins (the founder of VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers): that a difficult decision means the options before you are equally attractive, and therefore the opportunity cost of a “wrong” choice is actually small. In this context, a game that is finely balanced for hard core players is actually still very playable for casual gamers – because whichever house a casual gamer builds, they won’t make a wrong choice and break their experience.
To create an interesting game economy, consider the following points:
- Make your basic resources as independent from each other as possible, to prevent players calculating a direct exchange rate
- Make sure the headline figures of buildings improve with players’ progression to give them a reason to level up
- Balance options on secondary metrics as well as headline figures to make options more interesting
- Check the experience for casual gamers – will any choice break the experience?