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As a longtime RPG player, I have a bone to pick with Bioware. Don't get me wrong – I don't think they've made a game that I didn't thoroughly enjoy. I'm almost willing to overlook that they've committed this grievous wrong time and again, but with Star Wars: The Old Republic gearing up for a winter launch, I can sit idly by no longer.
Bioware consistently messes up its games' economies. Money in Mass Effect serves no purpose, so why is it there? Vendors in Dragon Age should simply hand out their wares because I won't have to do any work to buy them out. Bioware knows its craft, so I'm puzzled as to how they keep on screwing this up.
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A game economy should aim to mimic real economics by balancing currency with goods. What happens when one or the other becomes unbalanced? If goods are too expensive, they become unattainable. If money is too plentiful, there is no challenge in acquiring the best goods.
There's a strong case for arguing that RPGs are more about story and choices than getting the best loot. The experience really is less about becoming the most powerful hero in a story than it is about developing character and living with the consequences of your actions. After you play Knights of the Old Republic, do you remember hitting level 23 or learning that you're Darth Revan?
As a secondary game mechanic, RPG economies then exist only to reinforce the concept that the character you're roleplaying is unique and influenced by your decisions. Economies have to have some purpose; they cannot simply hand out the best gear and call it a day. If that's what roleplaying is, the genre really has lost its way.
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Case in point: on a recent playthrough of the original Mass Effect, I accumulated approximately 12 million credits after completing the Bring Down the Sky DLC, most of the side quests, and the main campaign. That was after I purchased the best armor, weapons, and upgrades for my characters, including both sets of the top tier Spectre weapons. I was left with more credits than I could count, and I wonder why, in hindsight, I bothered hoarding that fortune in the first place.
Surely it wasn't for the excitement of doing the side quests. I landed on every planet, spending hours doing nothing but finding resource nodes to survey. I explored what felt like a thousand identical ships, mines, and buildings. I can't remember a single moment of elation, discovery, or victory.
The best that can be said for Mass Effect's side quests is that they're voluntary. The economy can be made artificially difficult by choosing to abstain, but you then forfeit entire levels of experience and some neat bonuses that carry over into the sequel if you import your character. Still, Mass Effect is not half as bad as Dragon Age: Origins.
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My first playthrough of Dragon Age, before all the DLC came out, actually presented a balanced economy. Money was plentiful, but you couldn't buy everything that vendors offered. I remember feeling like a child pressed up against the window of a toy store when I realized I couldn't afford that ring which would be “just so perfect” for my character.
Then The Golems of Amgarrak DLC was released. Featuring a fun, almost absurdly difficult final boss, completing this DLC meant any future playthroughs of the main campaign would present me with a mace called “The Reaper's Cudgel.” While a powerful weapon, players could sell it as soon as they reached Ostagar for nearly 340 gold (about as much as I earned through the entire campaign the first time).
It's Mass Effect all over again, except this time, I don't have to complete any side quests. I simply start out with 500 gold in my pocket, able to buy half of Ferelden right off the bat.
It's impossible to argue that Bioware doesn't put too much money in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and their other games, the definition of “too much” being “more than anyone could possibly spend.”
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The Competition's Answer
Open world RPGs like The Elder Scrolls games, with their endless possibilities, are a different story altogether. In a game like Oblivion, players expect to be able to explore every ruin, roam the horizon, and play the game exactly as they wish. Unlimited money makes far more sense in Oblivion because it's ancillary to goals like exploration of new dungeons and ancient forests. Money is nothing more than an extra bonus because discovery of new places, characters, and stories largely becomes the game's only focus.
However, Bioware only crafts linear games, corralling players through predefined locations, the sole, lamentable exception being the explorable worlds in Mass Effect, which are as bland as they are time consuming. In most cases, money and experience are the only reasons to visit these extra worlds. At least XP can help power up your character with additional stats and abilities, but money becomes worthless once there's nothing left to buy.
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Lessons Learned for The Old Republic
Make no mistake, Bioware is arguably the best RPG developer in the world. Buying a Bioware game means you're going to experience a memorable story, engaging characters, and the urge to replay the game immediately after you finish it. Still, by no means are these games flawless.
With The Old Republic less than a year away, Bioware will have to fix these issues which have plagued its games for the past decade. MMOs rely on carefully balanced economies because crafting, farming, trading, and selling loot are all tied together. As the game evolves, its economy will easily require as much tweaking as raid bosses and PvP.
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A Simple Fix
Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 3 are also coming up, but they won't receive as much attention as The Old Republic. However, a few changes to their design can prevent players from amassing a ridiculous fortune.
Why do Oblivion's side quests work where Mass Effect's fail? It's not about the money at all. It's not even about the treasure, though there are good weapons and armor spread throughout Tamriel. Exploration of the continent becomes an enjoyable goal in itself. I know that when I stumble across a unique and breathtaking vista for the first time, I stop and take a moment to just enjoy beauty for beauty's sake.
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Even So, Bioware's Still Magic
Bland and generic is never the way to go. Beyond that, Bioware should do what it does best: populate those locations with stories and characters to give everything significance. When the most important thing I discover on a planet is that it has a node of aluminum ore, something's amiss. It stops being a Bioware game and starts becoming a monotonous waste of my time.
Even if these problems persist, I'll still be the first one to pre-order Bioware's next title. What's right in these games dwarfs what isn't, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to see a game fall just short of perfection.
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All references and images from Mass Effect, Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 3, Knights of the Old Republic, The Old Republic, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
A two part review of Mass Effect as well as a look at Bioware's broken economy.