In game design, game economy designer is a type of game systems designer that specializes in planning, observing and regulating the systems that control and facilitate the flow and consumption of in-game resources.
Now let’s clarify these in more layman’s terms.
Have you ever wondered about how games can have so many resources to collect, items to buy, professions to learn and things to trade?
Then you’ve noticed the results of a game economy designer.
Game economy elements are a subset of the game systems which involve persistence.
In a nutshell, persistence is things that last between play sessions.
- Does Mario get a super star that fades after a few seconds? – Not persistent
- Do you pick up a rupee or new weapon and get to have it again tomorrow? – Persistent.
Persistence is an incredibly important concept in games, but because games are digital, you can theoretically amass infinite numbers of virtual objects.
As you get more and more, their value naturally decreases, unless you have meaningful ways to consume them in the game.
This is why some items in World of Warcraft cost 20,000 gold in 2018, and similar items cost 100 gold in 2007.
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What is a game economy designer responsible for?
Economy designers have four main responsibilities during the design and development of a game:
- Designing a functional economic system
- Balancing the in-game economy
- Monetize the game
- Shaping player progression and engagement
Let’s break each one down in detail.
Responsibility 1: Designing a functional economic system
The initial stages of game economy design is about deciding what resources need to exist.
Is the game world highly traditional? Then wood, gold, iron and meat might make the most sense.
Then next is the game genre – are you a survival game or an RTS(Real Time Strategy) game?
- If it’s an RTS game, then the basic game values push for few resources with clear purpose.
- If it’s a survival game, then you need a game economy focused around harvesting and burning resources with a slow build-up and improvement in efficiency over time.
- You’ll also have far more types of resources and items than you would in an RTS.
Once the themes and general model are established, then you need to decide what consumes those resources.
Two different systems or game elements competing for the same resources must be in proper tension with each other. Both soldiers and homes cost gold? Better make sure there’s reasons to build both.
For example: In Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, shrines grant tokens that can be exchanged for either extra health or extra stamina.
You want both, especially at the beginning of the game, so they are in strong tension with each other.
As you focus on just one… suddenly the other becomes more and more appealing. This is what great tension looks like.
Likewise, a well balanced game economy has all of its elements in tension. As you collect too many X, Y becomes more and more valuable.
A game designer is responsible for ensuring that their games have this fundamental tension from the start.
Then, as players progress through the experience, these resources may become less valuable.
For example: Copper ceases to be useful as you advance into the next expansion of World of Warcraft.
However, these decisions must be made consciously by a game economy designer.
Responsibility 2: Balancing the in-game economy
Once the core elements are in place – the resources you obtain, the way you spend them and so on, the game’s economy is in place, but incredibly out of balance.
Balance is a concept that comes after the game setting and game mechanics are in place.
Balance is about properly rewarding the players in game actions such that they are guided through the entire experience in a way that makes sense.
There are many ways balance can break – too much of a resource, too little of a resource, or the more nuanced and difficult problems created from positive or negative feedback loops.
There’s also the difficulties of balancing free to play and paid experiences. Each of these has its own focuses, so let’s address each context separately.
How to balance an in-game store?
The simplest form of game economy work is a single shop in a game. The shop has either a limited or unlimited inventory and uses in-game currencies to sell the items.
The in-game economy is as simple as figuring out the rate at which players earn gold, converting that into time spent, then mapping the appropriate amount of time spent for each item in the shop.
Most shops are as simple as this for many video games. These very simple game economies are really just a simple cost system, with marginal impact on the core gameplay loop.
Because they affect gameplay in a very focused and narrow way, the economy is mostly focused around how much currency the player generates and controlling when new items are introduced to the shop.
How do you balance a single-player game economy?
Now, let’s expand the scope from a single shop to a single player game.
The economy designer will look at the various items that the player is supposed to purchase, craft, loot, discover or receive as a quest reward during their journey.
Next, they will separate these items into the various sources. Each source gets a different number of items based on how many you need for the various playstyles.
Once they’ve determined where all of those items are going to come from, the next step is to pace out how often you’ll get them.
Usually, in a single player game there isn’t a focus on virtual economies as the dynamics of real world economies are incredibly simplified for a single player experience.
Instead, each reward is mapped directly to a specific activity – defeating a boss, overcoming a dungeon, etc.
However, some of these items won’t be given all at once.
For example: crafting might require you to collect four wooden branches to make a wooden sword.
So these resources are tokenized, so you can pick up all of the required pieces over time in multiple places.
The key part is that the player needs to invest a minimum amount of time to cross the threshold where they now have access to the item.
Many games stop here – your items are permanent.
However, if you start playing Breath of the Wild or Tears of the Kingdom, you might be at first dismayed when your weapons break.
☝️ While this might feel like too much frustration, it actually empowers the games economy to not stagnate.
By creating both builders and spenders, the economy designer encouraged you to flow through many different weapons and experiences – something essential to the survival-like gameplay of those games.
And so, just as the rate of build-up to acquiring the items, the rate of erosion, aka durability, creates an outward flow as well.
Not only do you burn the resources to create the original items, the items themselves erode as well.
How to balance a multiplayer game economy?
Once you scale up from even one player to two players, the nature of the in-game economy becomes exponentially more complex.
Suddenly in game currency now can be traded… or not. And this decision sharply defines what matters and doesn’t matter within the game.
☝️ A game’s economy will often make or break it based upon this decision.
Keep in mind, any resource that can be traded is effectively unlimited in supply, if enough players are willing to collude to grant one player the resources.
As a result, any in-game actions limited only by that resource no longer matter.
However, most games allow players to trade any resource at will.
How do they do this?
Well, an economy designer decides the amount of real world time required to be spent to collect enough of those resources.
Similar to how the game items were balanced for a single shop, the same is done at a global level.
☝️For this reason, you’ll often see resources which can only be produced once a day, have long respawn times or raids which can only be completed once a week in MMOs.
The economy’s inflation is throttled by these time-controlled limits.
Note 1: This is a way to simulate and regulate basic economic principles of supply and demand.
Note 2: This sounds great in theory, but in practice, these economies inevitably break, as they are built early-on to handle a massive load of players harvesting from the same world in a very short span upon release.
Then as the concurrent number of players drops, the amount of resources per player available dramatically increases in the world.
Item planning for multiplayer, similarly to the planning for single player, uses the same type of planning, but now supplying many more items based on role, class and these items often compete for the same resources.
Some games have recently started to explore fixed limits of virtual goods and resources, but none to date have yet effectively done that without provoking hoarding or needing to forcibly inflate the supply later on to ensure new players have access to resources.
Either way, in order to handle a multiplayer economy, an economy designer will look at weekly or monthly stats on the amount of resources produced, consumed and traded by players.
Using this information, they can tweak respawn rates to avoid excessive inflation within the game economy.
I remember the first time I saw this at work, when Eric Dodds pulled up a server dump for World of Warcraft classic.
🤯 I remember being awestruck at the sheer number of cloth bandages being made globally.
Many people doing very small things at scale creates more computational load than most people would ever imagine.
Responsibility 3: Monetize the game
Alright, now let’s get into death and taxes.
Game developers will die if they don’t eat… And they won’t eat unless their games produce money for the studios who will then pay their incomes.
This is the kind of world we live in and so it’s natural for monetization to exist.
Very few people truly believe that game developers don’t deserve to live, and those of you that do should just quietly close this site and go find some other hobby.
With that out of the way, why is real money such a touchy subject for so many players?
Well, it’s many layered, but at the root has very little to do with the actual price of games.
In fact, if we were to adjust for inflation, a $60 game in 1990, such as Super Mario 3, would cost $120 in 2023. However, disposable income has dropped substantially due to salaries not growing in proportion to the cost of living and price of goods.
We all know the cost of game development has shot up, but do you realize how much?
Let’s take the Nintendo’s Mario franchise for example:
- Super Mario Bros 3 had 12 developers;
- New Super Mario Bros had 72 developers.
- Super Mario 3 was developed in 2 years.
New Super Mario Bros was developed in 4 years. With costs going up x12, but the price staying flat, it’s actually kind of incredible that games are still shipping.
So what’s a game economy designer supposed to do?
People have less, but costs have gone up immensely.
Well, working with the real world money folks, you need to find a way to survive. This is where free to play monetization model come in, taking advantage of several things:
- The cost of distributing a game digitally is thousands of times cheaper than cartridges
- Most players who have to pay an upfront price won’t take risks
- Players who enjoy an experience and stick around are more likely to buy things
- Well tuned purchases will cover the cost of many players who cannot or will not pay
As a result, free to play games with real money microtransactions (MTX), such as expanded downloadable content, help bridge the gap between development costs and the reduced availability of cash for entertainment.
Game economy designers collaborate with marketing and ecommerce teammates to identify opportunities to generate revenue without undermining the core game loop.
A wise game studio will realize that long-term engagement is key to keeping the revenue stream running by having return customers.
By the way, the business term for this is called “Customer Lifetime Value.”
Responsibility 4: Shaping player progression and engagement
As you can see, the role of game economy designers is broad and varied.
Overall, they need to
- Understand the core motivations driving players
- Work with gameplay and systems designers to create gameplay loops
- Adjust the duration and variety of experiences required to reward the players over and over again throughout the game experience (module 4 of my course shows you how to do this.)
There are so many different kinds of players that economy design goes far beyond simple spreadsheets.
In fact, I would say that economy design happens AFTER understanding the different kinds of players that enjoy your game.
Game designers will use any one of a number of different psychological models to try to capture the different motivational styles of players.
Quantic Foundry, a mobile focused motivational model, lists out these types of motivations:
- Action – driven by the dynamics of the world itself
- Social – driven by human interaction
- Mastery – driven by understanding and depth
- Achievement – driven by progression
- Immersion – driven by allure of the world itself
- Creativity – driven by self express and experimentation
Likewise, we see players engage with game economies at different levels.
- Some players are driven by amassing resources in the world
- Some are driven by parading unique cosmetics
- Others obsess about recognition for being able to do what others have yet to do.
- Some wants to stand atop the burning heap of corpses that are competitive ladders
Understanding these concepts is at the root of great economy design and big picture thinking requires understanding all of these.
Examples of economy design work
We’ve covered a lot so far and it’s been quite abstract, so let’s go over some concrete examples of how a game economy designer would solve some common design problems.
Example 1: In-game currency design
For this one, let’s create a new mobile game together on the spot.
Game name: Focal Point.
Parameters: It consists of looking at images and solving them like puzzle pieces.
Playtest insights: We know that most people will find this concept intriguing, but the code audience is very niche.
From experience in beta, we know most people solve maybe 10 puzzles a day, with core players playing up to 50 a day.
Goal: As players get better and better at examining pictures and solving mysteries, we want to reward them with better tools and techniques for revealing details inside of the pictures.
In fact, you can even go back to older puzzles and reveal a hidden story by doing so.
Tools: We have about 20 different tools, and each one adds a little extra lifespan to the game, as players can re-perform their analysis and get faster and faster.
Since we don’t want players to be overwhelmed or replay every level on day 0, we will release these over time and for the cost of some in-game currency earned by correctly answering questions about the photos.
In-game currency: We have two currencies at a minimum.
- A limiter of the number of puzzles you can solve per day
- The Photo Bux you earn for completing missions
Design problem: How to balance between hardcore obsessive and slowly dabbling player types?
Now let’s solve this design problem:
Since we know most casual players will only play 10 puzzles a day, we’ll set the daily limit to 8.
This is just below the amount most people want to play, but we don’t have a solution for players who want to play 50 puzzles a day.
As it so happens, we cannot produce 50 puzzles a day from scratch. So if they play at their maximum volume, they will churn out of the game too quickly.
So we launch with 300 puzzles and allow players to buy Camera Crystals (gems) which they can spend either to unlock more puzzles.
Furthermore, we grant each customer who buys from our shop a 50% Photo Bux bonus after every match.
As an economy designer would set the price of the camera crystals appropriately such that a player who wants to burn through the content quickly will provide 2x to 10x the amount it costs to acquire a user.
This is called a soft/hard currency model.
The parts you can only acquire in-game are soft currencies – you have to play for them:
- Photo Bucks (from the example)
- Experience points
The hard currencies are the parts you can only get if you pay for them:
📏 General rule of thumb: Rather than letting players acquire soft-currency directly, you allow them to acquire it faster if they are paying.
This requires that they still play to unlock everything, just that the amount of time they spend doing so is reduced.
The advantages are that you can appeal to both hardcore burnout and slow-burn players who play intermittently will spend less at a time, but be able to play for free or a much lower amount over a longer period of time.
This way players can pay what is reasonable for them at the time and still be making progress on their own.
Example 2: Appealing to player psychology
In the above, we appealed to two different types of players – ones who would feel held back if they can’t play through the content and ones who would like to play the game at their own pace.
However, the other axis to balance besides speed is – completionism.
So how do you solve this design problem?
Solution 1: By scoring the games and having it take multiple replays to finish fully.
Players who don’t want to do everything are able to keep playing, while the perfectionistic and completionist players can replay until they get it right.
However, this makes sense for some games and not for others depending on the target audience.
Solution 2: A game economy designer would address this by then deciding
- What kind of grade is passing?
- How many hours of content minimum the players would need to complete before they can move on to the next tool, feature or block of content?
This requires achieving a keen respect and awareness for the rate of player content consumption, audience play style and content production.
Example 3: Fixing a resource balance issue
The most relatable example of creating a balanced in-game economy is that of a game developer releasing a game but not realizing how players would actually play the game. 🤦🏻
For example: Players might turn out to be much better at killing Buffalo NPCs by chasing them off of cliffs instead of fighting them one on one.
To solve this design problem, a game economy designer would determine if the best solution was to
- Reduce the drop rate of buffalo items
- Or reduce the respawn rate of buffalo
- Or perhaps remove them from the game altogether.
Either way, the goal here is to do the best you can to ensure the goals of the system are met.
Example 4: Data analysis of spending habits
Finally, the 🧙🏼wizardry most people assume game economy designers do is often the rarest, but still quite valuable:
- Examine what players actually do
- Examine what systems they enjoy interacting with and ensuring the pricing is correct
Keep in mind, to even get to this stage, they’re usually already working with an ecommerce team.
For example, we had this setup at Riot, as well as specialists in big-data analysis. These analysts will help determine if there are streaks or errors in recent data collection so that conclusions aren’t made on a faulty basis.
They look at
- How many things sell?
- Who buys them?
- How often do they engage with the game after those purchases?
Note: This kind of thinking can be risky – because you can easily become tunnel visioned with data.
For example, this is how League of Legends has 9 Ahri and Lux skins when many other champions have only two or three.
Focusing the same way can lead to your vice president making recommendations that are short-term focused.
How do you become a game economy designer?
Step 1: Hone your skill set
The main way to do it is to practice the following skills to learn how to push players into action.
Skill 1: Player psychology
- Learn fundamental game design principles
- Focus on player engagement and long term retention
Skill 2: Learn math and financial tools to help you analyze data more effectively:
- Curve Analysis
- Spreadsheet software is key
- Google Sheets
Skill 3: Programming
Oddly enough, while programming is useful here, it’s not essential, but can be incredibly helpful while making projections and handling large data sets.
Skill 4: Collaboration and communication
Meaning, working with other game designers. Even if you aren’t on a team yet, you can study how games are made.
As a game economy designer you’ll be likely be working closely with
- Finance specialists
- Ecommerce specialists
- Game programmers
- Content designers
- Systems designers
Understanding their work and priorities will help you communicate and collaborate better.
Step 2: Prep your portfolio
A game design portfolio for a game economy designer is more difficult to craft (just like any other systems designer role in general), but not impossible.
Here are a 2 ways to demonstrate your capabilities:
- Take your favorite RPG or MMO and create some spreadsheets to model and demonstrate patterns in player behaviors. Explain how systems work together and how changing just a few numbers would dramatically change the way players engage with the game.
- See the spreadsheet examples I provided above as references.
- Use the free tool Machination to map out a diagram of in-game economy systems of your favorite games.
Here are 3 tips to create an effective economy design focused portfolio:
Tip 1: Showcase a strong understanding of the difference in economy design between PC and mobile or web games.
Tip 2: The more work you can do to show that you understand core game design as well as the math will take you far.
Tip 3: If you have no experience, don’t try to create your own from scratch. First analyze, dissect, and model economic systems from existing games.
Step 3: Get hired
When you’re ready to get started, you’ll most likely start with a generalist entry level game design position.
See How You Can Learn the Gameplay Design Abilities Game Studios Are After To...
Here is a guide on how to get hired for your first game design position.
Make sure to make your interest clear to your team lead that you’re interested in developing into an economy designer and ask for tasks that require skills in economics, marketing or general math skills.
These might be listed as game economy design, or they might be under general game balance. Both routes will get you there.
Game economy designer career path:
The career progression will look something like this:
Jr. Game Designer → Jr. Economy Designer → Mid-Level Economy Designer → Sr. Economy Designer → Principal/Lead Game Designer → Creative Director → VP/C-Level Leadership
Obviously this can vary depending on
- Your starting position
- The studio’s organizational structure
- The type of the game you work on
- Inside The Witcher 3’s Crafting-Based Economy – GDC
- How Video Game Economies are Designed – GMTK
- The Diablo III Marketplace – Economy Design in Games – Extra Credits
- MMO Economies – Hyperinflation, Reserve Currencies & You! – Extra Credits
- MMO Economies – How to Manage Inflation in Virtual Economies – Extra Credits