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I never thought I’d play a fantasy-adventure game in which I’m both an epic hero and a landlord, but thanks to Peter Molyneux that’s exactly what I became in Fable II. Early on in the game I bought every house I could afford, and shortly thereafter the rent started rolling in. Unusually, the rent payments from my tenants were based on real time, not played time. If I put the game down for a week and came back to it, I’d have tons of rental income waiting for me.

Fable II had a surprising amount of economic gameplay. You could work a variety of menial jobs like wood-splitting; buy goods in one town and sell them in another; take advantage of temporary sales to load up on cheap goods; purchase businesses and receive both a cut of the sales and discounts when you shopped there; and you could furnish your properties with better items to raise their rental value.

Depending on your other activities, you could also make a given town more or less prosperous. If you had a lot of investments in a particular town, making that town safer would increase business and raise your income. I suppose you could also make a town less prosperous for purposes of depressing prices there so you could reliably buy cheap goods and sell them in happier places.

Despite all this, Fable II‘s economic gameplay was crap. It was too easy to get too much money too fast, and after that you just never cared about money anymore. You might keep buying houses for the sake of achievements, but you didn’t really need the income.

I’m having a similar experience in Assassin’s Creed II. There’s a small town that serves as your stronghold and you can pay for a variety of upgrades to the town which improve your income. You also get discounts from businesses you help fund. I was pretty jazzed about this because it’s an alternative progression system: I’m gradually improving my character but I’m also gradually improving my town, both of which have visual and gameplay ramifications.

Unfortunately, I maxed out the town upgrades very, very quickly. Money flows at you steadily in Assassin’s Creed II and within just a couple of play sessions I had finished all of the upgrades. I’m still making small improvements to the town’s value because the various items you collect make the town more prosperous – although I’m not sure why the town makes more money when I buy a sword – but what I thought would be an enjoyable, ongoing sideline to the main storyline turned out to be a very brief and shallow experience.

In both cases, these games have problems with basic economic gameplay: faucets and sinks. Faucets are how money enters a game and sinks are how it leaves the game. If the flow from faucets outweighs the drain from sinks, the player has too much money and it loses its perceived value. Shopping isn’t much fun when you can buy everything because the joy of shopping is the trade-off between what you want and what you can afford.

MMOGs have experimented a lot with economic gameplay. One thing they’ve done very well is expanding the sinks. Consumable items are excellent sinks: health potions and the like, since you keep using them and buying more as replacements. Damage and wear to armor and weapons is another sink since you’re basically paying rent to keep items you already own.

However, there’s a third element MMOGs have done very well that single-player games haven’t: markets.

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In MMOGs, the ability to buy and sell items between players (and I’m talking about transactions with in-game currency, not real-world gold farming) has created actual markets. Prices paid for items rise and fall with demand and scarcity. You might make a big investment in one kind of item or material that has a high price only to find that the price has collapsed because a hundred other players started investing in the same thing. Fads and trends mean that even long-established items may experience dramatic price changes and create market opportunities for canny players. In some games, such as EVE Online and my own Pirates of the Burning Sea, you may even lose your investment outright due to your ship being destroyed or seized by enemy players.

Such economic gameplay is both broad and deep. It lets players participate in a variety of ways, from being simple consumers to masters of enormous trading companies. And throughout is the most important sink of all: risk.

Normal sinks like item purchases and even consumable item replacements have no real risk involved. You just repeat the same transaction with predictable results. But in a market, risk is very real and can drain money away from you in surprising ways.

Fable II tried to do this with markets. You could buy low and sell high, mostly by exploiting sales and price differentials between towns. The faucets were turned on so high, however, that the income you might make from these simple markets was worthless.

Let’s construct a simple market feature for Assassin’s Creed II, since that’s the game I’m currently obsessing over. Our goal is to give the player with an excess of money the opportunity to risk it in return for possible benefits.

At your stronghold villa there is a loyal servant of your family known as the Trade Master. When in your villa, you can ask him to invest money for you in one of several commodities. You also choose which trade route to invest in: Florence-Tuscany, Tuscany-Venice, and Venice-Florence. (Each trade route option is bidirectional, to prevent the options from multiplying.)

Having made an investment, it will come to term after thirty minutes of gameplay. Investments have a minimum amount of $10,000, and you can have multiple investments going at the same time.

The game rolls dice behind the scenes to decide whether commodity prices for a given trade route go up or down for a given period of time. Usually you earn +/- 5%, occasionally you earn +/- 15%, and very rarely, you earn +/- 30%.

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So how do you play the markets more effectively? In Assassin’s Creed II there are town criers who announce various things. If you are being hunted by the town guard, you can bribe a town crier to suppress news of your exploits. For this market feature, town criers are also where you learn what the market trend is. In Florence, the town crier may say something like, “Grain is in short supply between here and Venice”. This indicates that grain prices will be higher for the next period of time. By paying attention to the town criers and then hurrying back to your villa to instruct your Trade Master, you can make better investments. Further, you should be able to bribe the town criers to deliver false market news, actually increasing the chance of commodity prices to rise and fall as you desire for short periods. They won’t definitely go your way, but your odds improve.

The game also features bands of thieves whom you can hire to distract town guards for you. For the market feature, you can pay off the thieves to threaten a given trade route, increasing the chances of inflating prices there. So if you’re investing in Venice-Florence, you can pay the thieves to harass that trade route (excepting your shipments, of course!) and reap the profits.

So the town criers affect commodities and the thieves affect trade routes. By playing them both smartly, you can increase your odds of success in the markets. Bribing them is no guarantee, but it can help.

Of course, manipulating the markets has a price. The game’s die rolls on the three return rates (5%, 15%, and 30%) are initially biased towards the low end. Most of your investments pay off at +/-5%, but the more often you manipulate the markets by bribing town criers and thieves, the more volatile the market becomes. The odds shift towards bigger potential losses and rewards. In addition, the interval between new rolls on the commodity and route tables grows shorter. When you first bribe a town crier the price change you desired remains in effect for twenty minutes. When the market becomes more volatile due to your manipulation, however, those price changes are re-rolled every five minutes.

So if you want to maximize your manipulation, you’ll have to drop everything else, just pay bribes, and make frequent trips back and forth between your villa and the towns. Your reward will be higher potential gains but also higher potential losses. With dedicated play you can game the system in your favor, but you’ll have to spend a lot of time and effort doing it. Or you can play the market more casually with less risk and lower returns.

There’s a lot more we could do to make economic gameplay more interesting and integral to the game, but this is an example of a way to get high-rolling players putting their money into risky investments that will give a little bit of control in exchange for accepting even greater risk. Once your game’s economy has actual risk to it, you have a better chance of keeping those faucets draining at the rate the player needs to feel like it all really matters.

John Scott Tynes would love to Make Money Fast while hanging out with Leonardo DaVinci, and if he has to assassinate a few Borgias in the process then that’ll be okay.

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