Hey everybody, apologies for the break, but vacations happen from time to time. I’m back, so let’s get started. While on holiday, I blazed through Shin Megami Tensei IV. I had a few things in mind to write about it, but when I read Dyl’s post last week I knew it was a good opportunity to follow up on theme.
While discussing the post last week with my brother, I hit upon the argument multiple times that some of his comments reflect something about him personally, but are also signs that the mechanic as a whole is a bit broken. By ‘the mechanic’ I mean money acquisition and purchasing of resources in most RPGs, and by ‘broken’ I mean that it ultimately just wasn’t accomplishing much in the game to justify its use as a mechanic. I don’t think I’m alone in this assessment, but instead of dwelling on the reasons for this, I would rather spend my words here focusing on how I think Shin Megami Tensei IV quietly improved on the standard.
When it comes to money in an RPG, there are two major variables: the amount of money available to the player (relative to the time put in and the cost of anything he or she might buy), and the value of whatever it is the player is buying.
The Amount of Money Available
Here’s a simple scenario: the player has obtained 1,000 of an imaginary in game currency called macca (the Shin Megami Tensei currency) without much extra time or effort beyond just playing the game, there are five useful things to buy, each costs 200 macca, and there is no value in having multiples. It doesn’t take much time to realise the player probably just buys all five.
Now, in that same scenario, what if the player has spent as much time and effort as they would do without extra motivation, and has acquired 200 macca instead? Already, the player has more choice and the game is more interesting: do they press on, buying only one of these useful items, or do they spend extra time and effort to acquire more? The money and item acquisition mechanic is made better simply by reducing the amount available to the player, a lesson applied well by the developers of Shin Megami Tensei IV.
Rather than acquire money from each enemy encounter, the game ties money to the selling of ‘relics’, which are found while exploring and respawn according to the amount of time spent playing. This allowed the game developers to throw encounters at the player at whatever rate they felt suited the game, without saturating the player in currency.
At a rough estimate, early in the game you can acquire something like 100 macca every 20 minutes without too much added effort, and the average cost of something useful is 1000 macca. At the end of the game, it’s more like 10,000 macca every 20 minutes, and costs get up to 600,000 macca. There are also many such useful things to purchase, raising the amount of money you would need to get everything, but more on that later.
Of course, as with many good mechanics, there is the opportunity for the player to make choices to suit his or her own playstyle. If you are keen to spend time getting as much money as necessary to buy whatever you want, there are ways to customise your character to facilitate this process. However, this comes at the expense of other possible play styles and so itself represents another opportunity for the player to choose the experience right for him or her.
The Variety/Quantity of Things to Spend it On
Back to our scenario: the player has 200 macca and five shiny new things they could buy, each costing 200 macca. What if each of those things all do the same thing, like add to defense, but one of them, the breastplate, adds more than the others? The game has made the choice, not the player. Or worse, what if some kind of gatekeeper battle is basically unwinnable unless you have all five? Now the player doesn’t even get to choose whether they put in the time to get them all or not.
Clearly the number of spending options available matters, but this example illustrates how other factors play a part. The balance between those options matters, as well as how much room for choice is allowed by the challenges of the game.
In Shin Megami Tensei IV, there is a large selection of outlets for the player’s money: recruiting enemies, buying back former allies for fusing new monsters, different kinds of weapons, different kinds of armours, consumable items, even the game’s version of ‘continuing’ when you are defeated. Within each of these categories there are further choices at all stages of play, so even if you know you want a new weapon to improve your basic attack, you probably have at least 3 (and possibly more) options to choose from.
It’s important to stress how different these options can be. How easy is it to compare the usefulness of a fresh ally with a new move set to the value of bumping your own stats up a bit? How about changing your vulnerabilities versus transforming your basic attack into a multi-hit with a status effect versus having a few more MP healing items?
All of these can turn the tide of a difficult area or battle, but it depends greatly on the situation and the player’s strategy. Having situational usefulness with many incomparables between the options makes it much less likely the game is making the decision rather than the player. Technically none of them are necessary (though spending money on nothing through this difficult game is a task left to the masochistic), but if a player is stuck, there are always a handful of potential solutions to tip the scales purchasable with that hard-earned macca.
Money, Money, Money
I have heavily weighted the ability of a player to make meaningful choices with his or her purchases as a defining characteristic of a good money system in RPGs. You could argue that there’s nothing wrong with buying stuff to make things transparently easier, but I find this is generally covered by the experience and levelling systems of RPGs (why do it with two different systems?)
On top of all that, there are more intangible elements that suddenly have the opportunity to play a larger part when there isn’t a rote ‘correct’ decision. For example, I chose my headgear based on the fact that I liked how it looked on my character, and I chose my demon allies based on their mythology (all without feeling like I was sacrificing ‘effectiveness’). I feel pretty good about that, and it facilitated getting personally invested in the fiction of the world instead of just investing in manipulating the various systems.
This was made possible by the quantity and variety of choices which could all help me on my path through the game if I used them right. The game gives you a resource, but doesn’t tell you how you have to spend it by incentivizing some options over others, just how you could spend it. It also doesn’t give you so much that there’s no choice to be made at all.
So now it’s your turn. What makes a solid money system in a game to you? Did you like, dislike or not notice the elements of Shin Megami Tensei IV that I’ve highlighted here? What other games out there do you think of when joining this discussion? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading,
Bonus: Here are some stats I’ve drawn from my playthrough of the game for those interested in having a bit more data for these kinds of systems in the future.
– 78 Hours
– Total money earned: 1,405,000
– 60,000 spent on negotiation
– Didn’t fundraise
– very little spent on continues (9,000, once)
– 200,000 spent shopping (weapons and armor only)
– 855,000 spent in compendium (costs cut in half by an ability)
– 1,000,000 earned through quests and selling stuff
– Shop 1: Weapon/Armor 500-2,000 ; Consumable 50-1500
– Shop 2: 3,000-10,000
– Shop 3: 5,000-15,000
– Shop 4: 10,000-30,000
– Shop 5: 15,000-45,000
– End Shop: 300,000-600,000
-Beginning Run: 100
-End Run: 60,000
Compendium (costs cut in half by an ability):
-Level 1: 300-500
-Level 10: 1,000-3,000
-Level 30: 4,000-10,000
-Level 50: 10,000-20,000
-Level 70: 20,000-35,000 (chain fusions increase costs)