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)
I currently playing this game! It’s well layed out, I think. The different endings I like, that makes each individual’s experience unique to them, for the most part. And collecting the money to buy things – its slow in the beginning, but heats up later on. I really liked the post – it poses many questions that need mulling over! Money is a complicated thing in every video game world, even the outside one!
Since you mentioned them, do you like that there simply are different endings, or did you specifically enjoy the ending(s) that you’ve encountered (or both)? I enjoyed that I was more or less able to take the path that I wanted to without much meta-gaming.
Money systems are such a consistent feature of role-playing games that it can only be a good thing to put a bit more thought into them.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
I generally like, but fear at the same time, multiple endings in a game. I enjoy that yes, the choices you make as a player affect the characters that you have begun to bond with in the game – which leads to a deeper level of playing. As me, I enjoy getting the ‘good’ endings, such as where no one dies or very few people die. However, I also have that curiosity to find out what the bad endings were like. I hate for a character (or characters) that I grow fond of to die, because of my choices – so I get paranoid if a certain choice is the right one or not.
I guess you could say, it also applies to real life. When we interact with other things and people, we have choices – probably more so than in a video game, besides battle actions – and this, in a sense, is teaching you how people will react to certain things, and how certain people with different personalities react differently, and how to get them on your good side, so to speak. I have not beat the game yet (sadly), I’ve been preparing for school. Though, I am looking to schedule a few good hours to this game here pretty soon. And yes – you don’t have to do a lot of meta-gaming, which I like, to take your own path through the game. I find it quite pleasurable, and less of a hassle.
And money is so complicated – but players really can tell if the dev team put a lot of thought and effort into the money system, or if they didn’t spend as much time as they needed on it, because players use that money daily in their game, often more so.
I’m generally concerned with the ‘good’ endings in games as well, for many of the reasons you described. Sometimes it’s interesting navigating some bad endings to ultimately get to a good ending (like in 9 hours 9 persons 9 doors), but in games where I feel like I’m simply being ‘assessed’ on the game’s interpretation of my morality and ability to tell the game the ‘right’ answer, I get a little annoyed at times. I would much rather choices in games and alternate endings be an opportunity for me to explore the upsides and downsides of different decisions, rather than just be told that they are right or wrong (often via the death or survival of characters I may care about).
Then again, that’s much easier to say than it is to do, and there is something really satisfying about making ‘right’ choices that also feel like the choices you want to make, and reaching a happy ending of sorts.
I agree. Being assessed on my choices, for me, is a little… I don’t really know how to put it. But to actually see the differences, whether they are “right or wrong” – a better way to put it would just be one’s choices – and that is, I believe, where gaming is headed. To be able to see the result, or the consequences (both good and bad) of those choices is what I want to see. Being told what is right and wrong (that fuzzy feeling that we choose when we are “right”, but the curiosity as to what would happen if something was wrong) is not something that works well, always. As humans, I think, we want to know what the “other side” is to things, to see something different, to feel for the things we like. If that makes any sense at all… XD I’m not the greatest at explaining things.
Not at all, you’re making plenty of sense (I think =) ). Especially in games, we get the opportunity to see a viewpoint or perspective that we might not be willing or able to outside of the game, and that’s not only interesting but sometimes healthy and exciting. Endings are a great way for the player to steer towards and away from this kind of exploration. Unfortunately, when there’s just a bunch of ‘stuff going wrong’, you can get that tension of wanting to see everything there is to see, but kind of knowing that everything besides the ‘good ending’ will be sort of dissatisfying.
Yeah, I agree! Ah, it’s so refreshing talking to someone about games! I hardly get to do it, where people understand me. Thank you!
It’s always great to connect over a nice game discussion! Thanks for chiming in =)
I love the small details you find in games that make them great. And you’re absolutely right! The value of in game currency is very important to the experience. This is another interesting look at ways games can give players more choices (and how that doens’t always mean more options, but meaningful, limited, and incomparable options).
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. =)