Have you ever noticed when you play a video game, you never use your big weapons? Austin has been playing Bioshock lately, in a fit of nostalgia for 2007, and he’s been holding on to his grenades or rockets or whatever in a pattern that is very familiar to me. I’ve done the same sort of hoarding. The thought process is something like “well, I don’t quite need to use this powerful resource now, and I might need to use it some time in the future, and I don’t know when I’ll get more of it, so I had better save it.”

This is a common human behavior, even outside games. I have some half-remembered anecdote in my head about people on the Pitcairn Islands hoarding eggs well past the time when they had turned into little sulphur-bombs because they were rare and valuable, and just having them was a symbol of status as much as anything. There are pathological cases, of course, like the Collyer brothers. But I’m here to talk about game design, so let’s move our focus there.

Wickham Market Iron Age Coin Hoard

I want this many! Via portableantiquities on Flickr.

A lot of modern games have what Macklin calls a coin trick. This is an economy of points of some sort that are valuable to the participants in some way usually to do with control over the randomness in the narrative. And often times, players treat these points like Pitcairn Islanders treat eggs. Any time you feel like you can survive without spending them, you don’t.

But sometimes, people spend them like they mean it. When we played Primetime Adventures the other week, there was no hoarding of Fanmail. It came and went, and while Dan was far and away the best at accumulating it, he also got himself into enough situations where it was worth spending that there was never a bottleneck in the economy.

Fanmail, in Primetime Adventures, is just useful enough. It’s not a big “WIN” button by itself, but it certainly gives you an edge, so you want to spend it. On the other side of things, it’s readily available, coming as it does from doing awesome things, which is just what you hope to do anyway. It’s actually a bit more available than your basic stats, which are limited-use and require narrative justification. So you want to spend it because it’s useful, and you feel you can spend it because it’s available.

But that’s a fine balance to strike, and frustratingly, it’s not the same balance for every group. Something we discovered in playtesting Becoming Heroes[1] was that different groups have different balance points for spending whatever the coin trick might be. Playing with John and Austin and Allie, we spent both the good and weak resource and the bad and strong resource (Destiny and Doom) like it was our job. The other group that John played with hoarded it like if they got enough they could win. It was too useful and too scarce to them.

What we have tried to do to address this, though, is to put the distribution of the coins in the hands of the players themselves. If you get your coins not through fictional events (which you have little control over) but through your character’s behavior (which you have much control over), you essentially get to chose when you get them, and make them exactly as available as you need. Now, players still have to come to actually understand that access to coins is in their control, but it’s a step.

  1. What we are now calling the former In a Dragon-Guarded Land. The new title’s a little bland for my taste, but certainly informative. The game is about precisely that. []
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  • On the subject of rocket launchers, there is an alternative that sees rocket launchers actually put to use: see the threat first, then seek out the weapon to deal with the threat (although in video games you have to signpost this like crazy to get most players to play along). I think the feeling of seeking it out (as opposed to just having it handed to you) is important here. I guess it’s gotta feel like that bit in Buffy with the Judge.

    Quite a few games have found a good compromise by having temporary resources turn into permanent resources once spent (artha building towards shade-shift in Burning Wheel, for example).

    It’s also possible to do great things when you embrace the hoarding — see STALKER for an example. You’re limited in what you can carry, so you have to prioritize what junk you pick up and stash things around. Ammo for uber weapons is rather exceedingly scarce. And everything — ammo included — has weight. I had a blast with this going into the final section, where, after lots of traveling light, I got myself a powered exoskeleton, cracked open my big stash, and became a walking hoard, lumbering along implacably towards my goal. Then, halfway through, once I had used up 30 kilos of bullets and my armor was on its last legs, I pulled out my second suit, becoming light on my feet and radiation-proof.

    — Alex

  • Chris

    Another example: Hour long cooldowns in World of Warcraft.  You hesitate to blow one because you might NEED it, but if you never use it it’s the same as not having it.  And they’re readily renewable.

    • A good example, in part because it’s an example of the refresh being thoroughly out of the players’ hands.