Currency systems in RPGs

Whenever you hear "RPG" you instantly think of a handful of elements that are almost always present. Like a leveling system or a robust story. A character customization in western RPGs and turn-based combat in jRPGs. And a currency used to buy and sell stuff in the game. Especially the ability to buy stuff from shops seems to be present in every little subgenre of RPGs, but lately I'm observing that more and more games could easily be just as great without it.

I understand the compulsion the designers have when they are introducing the currency in their RPGs. The players expect it. That's great, but we should ask ourselves a question: why do we need it? Let me give you a few examples of good games where the currency makes little sense.

The Witcher series. I don't know about the third installment, but in first two games I went through the game saving up all my money to be able to buy something cool. Some endgame gear. I often saw a vendor that had a sword maybe 5-10% better than what I was currently having, but it did cost like 90% of my money, so I have always decided against buying it. Before I knew it, I either found a better sword, or the game ended. What made matters worse, the reward for most sub-quests was... money. Money that gave a short term feeling of accomplishment, but in the end, when I was finishing my game with a few thousand orens that I had nothing to do with, left me feeling tricked at best.

Allright, US. It's your turn. Diablo. In the first game, money was more or less useless, as you found the coolest stuff as drops anyway. The only thing the cash was good for was repairs (that's more of a pain than a gain for a player anyway). In the sequel, they introduced the gambling mechanics. What for? To finally give the player a way to get rid of all the useless coins... and get useless overpriced stuff that was still inferior to what dropped from the mobs. And in Diablo III the Auction House and coins pretty much broke the game, resulting in millions of Asians farming cash to sell it to thousands of Americans, Blizzard closing the AH and by doing so, openly admitting it was a really bad idea.

Let's get out of Europe and US and visit Japan. Zelda series. You find rupees everywhere. Literally everywhere. You always have enough of them. Finding blue, red, silver or golden rupees is fun, but in the end, they are nothing else than a shiny thing that you pick up. You never really have to manage your currency, as you will be able to buy everything you currently need as you discover it anyway. Rupees are so commonly useless, that Ocarina of Time had to introduce the bigger wallets to keep you from buying all the coolest stuff at the very start of the game. One has to sit down and think though... Maybe instead of having currency that's useless and wallet that has to keep you from becoming a billionaire just by cutting grass and breaking jars... Just give the player all the basic stuff as soon as he reaches some town and let the player find the rest in the dungeons.

There's definitely more examples of games that have greatly misused the idea of currency. Games with useless vendors that have nothing interesting to sell. Games, where the amount of gold can be translated to number of repairs or arrows. No wonder that the modern design is starting to look at the currency from a different perspective. Souls series have souls that act as both exp and currency - this way you always have something to do with your currency. In Lords of the Fallen, we've gone one step further. We simply didn't introduce currency at all. An RPG without currency and vendors? Every time a journalist asked me this, I just replied that we didn't need them. Because why would the player want to buy crappy stuff from vendors, when he/she can just get the cool stuff from enemies and bosses.

Currencies make much more sense in MMO games, where they have a similar purpose to real life - to give a common denominator for goods so that the players can trade them more easily. Here, what gives the currency the reason to exist is the economy. It isn't there to keep the player from getting some stuff too fast or to give him a dull reward for a quest or to create an illusion he gets something for all the loot he got rid of at the vendor.

To be honest, currency and ingame economy was the first thing that has drawn me to the RPG genre. It wasn't the story, because all the games were in English or Japanese back then and I was maybe 7 years old. It wasn't the gameplay or skill, as I couldn't really appreciate it either. It was the fact that a game did let me earn money and then buy a cool sword. I have spent hours in Oblivion just to make money to buy a house and a horse. I wasted hours in Gothic forging swords to sell them with some small profit. I have played Merchant/Blacksmith class in Ragnarok Online and a Dwarf Artisan in Lineage II. And the experience was extremely rewarding as long as the money was actually worth something (yeah, Gothic, I'm looking at you and your useless money).

So even though I love having the currency in my RPGs, I much less enjoy having money that is worthless. I really wish developers who start a new RPG took more than a minute to think whether they are introducing currency, because they need it or because it's the "genre must". Really, it is relatively easy (compared to other systems) to get it right. You just need to give the player something of value that can be bought with the money at every stage of the game - basic equipment, mid-game potions for stats boosts, endgame trinkets... If you can't think of a system like this, don't worry - there's dozens of ideas how to make a game without your standard currency. Don't put it in just for the sake of having it.

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