And Now You Are Rich

Money in Videogames: when things get a bit too capitalist and unfun

Written by ritabuuk and dubiousdisc
Posted on September 24th 2017
Last Updated on June 10th 2018

Most video games have a problem where the in-game currency is extremely important in the beginning of the game, but before long you will be so rich that money no longer has any meaning.

Here are some of the most extreme examples that managed to make us feel so poor in the beginning, but then, very quickly, like we were deities above such mortal concerns as money. I suppose this is unintentionally an accurate portrayal of the flaws of the capitalist system, but not the most fun thing to have happen while playing a video game.

Pokémon

No matter what version of Pokémon you start playing, you initially must be very careful with your Potions to prevent your fledgling team from fainting all over the place. And never go anywhere without sufficient PokéBalls or some Shiny Pokémon or wandering Legendary may pop up just to taunt you. However, it surely won't be long into the games before you have more items and more PokéYen than you can possibly ever use.

Illustration for Pokémon Pinball featuring Meowth being hit by a Pokéball and golden coins scattering around.
A perfectly legitimate source of income.

The Generation I games are probably the least extreme examples of this problem, as one severe oversight of game design was that, in the post-game, the only way to get more funding was to use Meowth's special Pay Day move or to challenge the Elite Four over and over again. This situation was fixed in later games by making more trainers available for endless rematches and thereby endless prize money. This was useful especially since you needed to make lots of expensive purchases in these games to obtain stat-boosting vitamins, move-teaching Technical Machines (TMs), and evolutionary stones.

Each new generation of games adds more and more stuff, and also provides more new ways of obtaining said stuff. You can grow and harvest berries, people will call you on the phone and offer you generous gifts, Meowth and Zigzagoon will find neat stuff on the ground for you, your PokéWalker can supply you with endless Moon Stones, and your Pokémon can spend time on island paradises and get even more presents for you.

Pokémon collecting beans, stones, and berries on Poké Pelago
Pokémon collecting beans, stones, and berries on Poké Pelago

To look at the most recent example of Generation VII, it wasn't long in Pokémon Sun and Moon that we had our Pokémon harvesting more status-ailment-alleviating berries, unearthing more evolutionary stones, and finding more golden nuggets than we could ever know what to do with.

The expensive items have likewise become a bit easier to obtain. The vitamins, TMs, and evolutionary stones have become much more frequent prizes of these item-getting techniques. Not only that, but TMs have become reusable rather than a too-expensive-to-try single-use investment. The need to buy medicine has also become less important over time -- while the Pokémon World has always had free universal healthcare, the portable methods of healing were supplemented with freely obtainable berries starting in Generation II, and by Generation VII, if cultivating berries is too much effort, you can now simply pet your Pokémon and I guess kiss the booboo better, thereby healing paralysis, burns, and other ailments simply with the amazing (and free) power of love. Hallelujah!

The only thing that remains really expensive at this point is the clothing, which is an optional concern, but still really bothersome for Denise that she can't yet afford to put together a decent outfit involving the color green.

Dawn and Swinub find a cache of berries inside a hollow tree
What are we going to do with all these berries?

As much as we love the Poké Pelago and all those other features, and as much as we appreciate that a lot of the stress-inducing elements of the Pokémon games have been toned down and made more forgiving, unfortunately, this exponential growth of wealth means that a large part of the game quickly loses all meaning. What joy is there in gathering Poké Beans or berries if I already have hundreds of them? But it makes me feel like a spoiled jerk to leave the beans to rot on the beanstalk and the berry fields fallow. But what could I ever do with so much?

We are glad that now more focus can be given to equipping our Pokémon how we choose so that the two of us can have a fun battle right away, without first needing to grind to get access to the specific TM that our strategies are hinged upon. And we are glad that we can have so many resources that we don't need to feel chained to the 3DS to make sure we don't miss out on harvesting a single berry the moment it ripens... but perhaps some more balance is needed to keep these parts of the game fresh and less like "the dripping fat".

Assassin's Creed II

Concept art of the brothel in Monteriggioni
Ezio earns 900ƒ per hour from this fine establishment.

At the beginning of Assassin's Creed II, everything is so expensive, and it feels like nothing is within your reach to buy. However, if you prioritize investing what florins you have into rebuilding Monteriggioni, Ezio can become the town's podestà and therefore get discounts within town and receive a cut of all the revenues. For every, erm, resource Ezio renovates, be it the mine, the thieves guild, or the brothel, he receives 10% of the reconstruction cost back every twenty minutes. This financial growth quickly gets out of hand, and you cannot return to Monteriggioni frequently enough to get all the florins you are entitled to, since the treasure chest that holds the accumulating wealth eventually hits a cap. Even if Ezio is too busy assassin-ing around to collect every last florin, he will quickly become Signor Moneybags and be able to buy all the new clothes and weapons and anything else his heart desires, without ever worrying about money ever again.

Psychonauts

Raz using the dowsing rod
Now could we get a dowsing rod for dollars?

The currency of Psychonauts is arrowheads (considering Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp is, of course, built on top of a Native American burial ground, and the arrowheads are imbued with energy that is valuable to the psychic campers). You can find arrowheads by digging around and maybe finding one or two arrowheads at a time. At this rate, you wonder if you will ever be able to buy anything in the camp store.

What you need to do at this point is try to spend as few arrowheads as possible until you can manage to buy the dowsing rod. It costs 50 arrowheads, which will require a lot of digging, but in the end, as Cruller points out, the dowsing rod is worth the cost since "it helps you get money". With the dowsing rod in hand, you can detect and dig up 10 arrowheads at a time, and finding them becomes so easy that you will recuperate the cost of purchasing the dowsing rod in about five minutes. In fact, you will probably buy everything else that the store has to offer in the next hour, including the ultra-expensive 800-arrowhead cobweb duster and even the cosmetic upgrades that you don't really care too much about. And then, even though you could now scoop up tons and tons of arrowheads out of the ground with ease, there's really nothing left to buy, and now the arrowheads no longer have any point at all.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

While you never quite feel poor while playing Oblivion, the beginning of the game does have a bit more emphasis on money than later on. However, much of the game revolves not so much on buying anything, but rather on exploring ruins, opening chests, and looting dead enemies. There are a few things that you can only buy in the shops, unique to each shop, and in those cases, you need to very slowly build up your funds to get the cool staff or whatever. But that's about it.

Illustration of the Mercantile Skill from Oblivion
The Mercantile Skill

This is a bit unfortunate, as the game has an entire Mercantile Skill that governs your ability to haggle, and that's cool, but as soon as you reach around level 10, when the loot from enemies becomes good enough that you can be happy with what you find and sell unwanted items for major gold, you now have all the money you could ever need... but nothing left to buy.

This problem is especially bad in Oblivion, which is intended to be an infinite game. You moreso hold onto expensive items and sell them because you can, and because it feels bad not to, not because you actually need the money for anything.

One later blip in needing money is if you want to purchase a house and pay money to renovate the furnishings. This requires significant funding, but it is optional, and once all the upgrades are purchased, again money becomes meaningless.

Rather than sell cool-looking objects, it becomes more useful to decorate your house with them, if you have enough patience to attempt carefully placing objects with the finesse of a fishing pole.

Shun the Orc with her ominous blue hair.
Shun the Orc

Sparked by writing this analysis, we are currently attempting a playthrough where we avoid doing anything involving money... our very silly roleplaying of the situation is that we are an orc with vibrant blue hair -- a bad omen, causing her to be rejected by even her own kind. She was given no name, but has taken on the name of Shun, as that is what everyone does to her. Shun can only enter towns in the rare situations where she might be somewhat welcome (considering she saved the town of Aleswell, they say a free bed in the inn is always available to her, even if it is just a rutsack in the corner -- but it is better than the ground Shun usually sleeps on). In other situations, she can maybe pass through town at night if she is wearing a hat that covers her hair. But by-and-large, she does not have access to shops, and therefore cannot buy or sell anything.

So far, the only minor inconvenience that we have encountered is with the repairing of equipment. It is a bit uncommon to find a repair hammer just lying around. So, Shun normally does not repair anything, but rather tosses busted equipment aside and re-equips whatever is available. This works out splendidly for regular axes and boots -- there is so much usable equipment lying around that doing this does not matter at all. The only pain comes when we find special enchanted items that Shun does not have the ability to repair anyway, as repairing enchanted equipment requires a certain level of skill at repairing. We are holding onto these items in the meanwhile, as surely eventually Shun will get skilled enough with the repair hammer to fix these items too. But if Shun is ever over-encumbered, we will probably toss these items aside as well.

The icon for Feather from Oblivion.
Maybe the true way to ease your burden and become light as a feather is to only hold on to what you truly need.

So far, playing this way has been oddly freeing -- Shun very rarely even gets close to being over-encumbered, and she is willing to try out all different weapons as they are available. In other playthroughs of Oblivion, we've had to overdose on Feather potions and run to the shop to sell all the items that we didn't need but were too good to leave behind, just so that we could earn money that we also didn't need. Perhaps playing the game in this new way and traveling as simply as Shun can teach us the Buddhist ideal of non-attachment...

For contrast, we then attempted playing as a new character, Sereth, with the goal of becoming a Master of the Mercantile Skill, with very encumbered results...

The Sims 2 DS

Sim games are generally good about this sort of thing - we originally put the sack of Simoleons as our header picture just because it was a cute picture of video game currency, and putting it as the header made us go teehee.

Gourd
Please, sir, buy my gourd...

However, there is one notably monetarily unbalanced Sim game that we have personally played. In The Sims 2 DS, you play as a hotel manager, managing your hotel. Sorta. In the beginning, you don't have enough money to do anything. That's because your hotel has just one room that you are able to rent, so your income only comes from your one guest renting your one room. You also need to wait until your guest checks out in order to be paid, which won't happen until one or more real-time days pass. So, at the beginning of the game, you are poor and, to earn any money at all, you need to pick up gourds from the ground and sell for the current market price of ground-gourds, and supplement that by scrounging whatever pennies you find while vacuuming the dusty corners of your hotel. Things are tight.

Once you build the casino, you can play the one card game mini-game to make money, but it adds up very slowly. If you're smart, you'll put every cent toward adding more rentable rooms to your hotel as soon as possible, since that is your main source of revenue. Now that you have more rooms, you will make a lot more money, which means you can spend the next few days unlocking all the special upgrades for your hotel, like the fitness center or the government laboratory. As you add these improvements, your hotel will have a higher rating, and so you will make more money. You can use your funds to buy better furniture and re-decorate the hotel rooms, which means that the guests will pay you more. So, now you have all this passive income... and... now what? The game isn't over -- this is trying to be an infinite sort of game, and we reached this predicament long before we were even done with the main plot. We're rolling in dough, but there is nothing left to buy. Anything left to buy is simply something that will make your guests pay you even more money that you don't need. There's no other long term goal here!

All that's left is, maybe you personally decide that you want one room to be decorated entirely with green furniture and appliances -- this has no real benefit, but this is a Sims game, so, the idea is usually to set your own goals and make your own fun. Occasionally your guests will insist they know color theory and interior design better than you do, and swap all the colors around, so then your stockpile of Simoleons could be used to re-buy the green stuff... if you still care. Once Denise's all-green room was randomized by a guest, and once she knew that this could potentially happen again at any moment, she certainly wasn't going to exert the effort to recreate the room, knowing it was only a matter of time before it would be randomized again. So, that potential use of money -- to decorate the rooms as you please -- is ruined.

Vault
The underground vault features a machine that prints money. You can literally print money at this point.

It's not like we were farting around trying to make a lot of money. Actually, we were pretty focused on completing the main plot rather than grinding. Usually we have a more leisurely pace with games than this, but considering the gameplay leaves much to be desired and our main interest in playing this game was to unlock character dialogue -- which in this game really only happens in plot-related events -- we had an unusually laser-focused attention on the main plot. Yet, there we were with all the money and nothing left to buy halfway through. :(

And, considering that you are a manager of a hotel, you'd think there'd be all sorts of mechanics based around... managing the hotel?!? We don't have to budget anything? You just buy furniture, and that's it. Once every room has a bed, a couch, a bathroom set, a refrigerator, and a bunyip, you're done.

In this game, it is particularly glaring that you have all the money and nothing to buy because within 20 minutes we can brainstorm about a million mechanics centered around the idea of managing a hotel that would have made this game infinitely more fun to play.

Tales of Symphonia

We have never felt so poor before in a video game than what happened to us near the beginning of playing Tales of Symphonia. Let us sing you a song, a song we like to call The Ballad of the Cabbage Sandwich.

Early in the game, Lloyd and his friend Genis set off alone into the desert with the hope of catching up with their other friends that left ahead of them. Eventually, they make their way to an oasis, which is the first town (apart from their hometown) that you visit on your journey. Denise was being Player One at the time, and she had Lloyd go into the marketplace. While there, she bought a new weapon for Genis and a new weapon for Lloyd, because that's what you do in video games when you get to the new town, right? We had something like 2,000 gald at the start, that's more than sufficient funding, usually. After buying the new weapons, we had something like 500 gald left. We're no longer rich, but shouldn't be a problem, right? Let's just get a few healing items and go.

Gold
Gold
Gold run through a swirl filter
Gald

By the way... we can't help but stop a moment to repeat that the money of Tales of Symphonia is indeed called gald. Gald. That's just a typo. That's just a silly accent. Gald. Gald.

Anyway, after finishing all of our purchases, we realize we only have 241 gald left. Perhaps we should do a few battles before progressing any further in order to recuperate our funds. Alright. We go out and fight three battles; now we have been poisoned by snakes and scorpions and are next to dead. We limp as fast as we can back into town to heal. It is then that we realize that staying in the inn costs 100 gald a night. We look in the menu, and we currently have 341 gald. We stay at the inn. We are right back where we started, with 241 gald. Oh my god.

By now, Rosy is pissed that Denise blew the money on new weapons. Blew the money?! But we need to upgrade our weapons! But, how are we ever going to have funds again with this expensive inn and this desert full of venomous creatures?!

"Wait," we said in unison, "the cooking!" It turns out that Tales of Symphonia has an entire system for cooking, where each character can learn a basic recipe, and add some ingredients of their own choosing for a bit of a personal flair. With practice, they can learn to be a bit more adventurous and try more ingredients, which is good because the resulting meal can heal you and possibly provide various perks, with a greater effect the more ingredients used.

Genis was just recently informing us that cooking is an important aspect of going on an adventure, and he specifically pointed out that it can be a more frugal alternative to using the more typical and expensive medicines. So, forget the inn, we thought, let's make sandwiches instead! Obviously, we'll need some ingredients first though. We go to the grocer and... each "Bread" is 70 gald. That's for the non-sandwich of just two slices of bread and nothing inside. The only required ingredient for a sandwich is technically just bread, but both Lloyd and Genis know how to put greens inside, so we'll try that. This grocer sells cabbage, so I suppose we can get some cabbage. Cabbage sandwich. Oh my god, that is so pitiful. The cabbage is 60 gald. We spent almost all our remaining money on two loaves of bread and a single head of cabbage.

Okay, we go back out into the desert to see if we can get some money. We make it through our first battle relatively well, and we got 30 gald from that, and we're not too hurt and -- wait. Rosy hit the X button on her controller by mistake and Lloyd and Genis stopped to have a desert picnic, making sandwiches out of one of the loaves of bread and the cabbage. Why is Player Two even able to trigger cooking (but do so little of anything else)?

Well, now our only remaining food is one loaf of bread.

Three slices of bread
Maybe they are eating two slices of bread with another slice of bread inside?

We managed to get through a few more battles, eating the sad bread "sandwich", and dragging ourselves back into town. Lloyd and Genis spend a much-needed night at the inn. We are now up to 290 gald. Oh my god.

Can we sell anything? The only useless item we have are these lens things. We'll never use them. Let's go sell them for... 5... gald... a piece... you know what, nevermind.

Long story short, it took us desperate cost-benefit-analysis of whether it was more cost effective to spend a night in the inn or not, or whether we could afford cabbage inside our pathetic sandwiches. We eventually limped our way back through the desert to return to the earlier forested area, where the enemies are significantly less likely to inflict us with poison. There, we killed as many rabbits as we could find before rationing our last apple gels and finally getting up to a respectable 500 gald. At that point, we felt that we could safely progress in the game, being somewhat comfortable with the possibility of needing an emergency run to the inn.

Whew.

We want to clarify that, even if we were playing wrong at this point of the game, we're not at fault. Part of good game design is protecting the player from accidental self-sabotage before they even know what the rules of the game are, and we really feel like Tales of Symphonia dropped the ball in this case. We didn't realize that the inn was quite so very expensive, and we didn't realize that shortly, we would be reuniting with Raine who, also unbeknownst to us, specializes in healing magic and would be able to magically to heal our characters for free, saving us countless gald. If we had known in advance what was going to happen, we would have hurried to catch up with the others and only later worried about upgrading our weapons or recuperating our funds. But we had no way of knowing these things the first time around; the situation could have just as easily been that Lloyd and Genis would need to fend for themselves for quite some time, so we'd better upgrade their weapons so that they can hold their own more effectively.

Snake
Snaaaake, oh no, another snaaaake!

All this agony could have been prevented with just a few tweaks in the way the game was designed. If the weapon shop in the bazaar was just not open for business yet upon Lloyd and Genis's arrival, we could have been prevented from upgrading our weapons before we had rejoined the rest of the party. Or, if the animals around the first part of the game could have not been so venomous, Lloyd and Genis could have been not so devastated by the effects of poison. In fact, it is odd that poison is so prominent so early in the game, but almost never an issue later on. These tiny tweaks could have made our gameplay experience much more enjoyable, and honestly, we are lucky that we didn't completely break the game at that point. We could have very easily put ourselves into an unwinnable situation and needed to restart the game from the beginning (or, more likely, throw it out the window).

Understandably, Rosy was scarred from this experience. Her fear was to the point of stopping Denise from buying any new equipment for the characters despite her protests that we need to upgrade sometime.

Denise was almost convincing Rosy to upgrade Colette's poor basic chakram from the beginning of the game, when the game proves Rosy right, and we are hit with the plot twist of needing to buy a 1,000-gald bottle of wine to replace the bottle that Colette accidentally broke. At the time, 1,000 gald was almost our entire funds. The game even taunts us by having a barrel of wine just floating in the river, but there is no way to reach it. There's just the 1,000-gald wine in the shop. If you don't have enough money, Colette the Chosen One can take up part-time waitressing to eventually buy this expensive wine. Aaargh!

Lloyd rowing a bucket boat
What exactly are we paying for?

Not long after this expensive wine-replacement fiasco, we need to take a ferry to access the island that is the home to the Water Temple. Despite the fact that this so-called ferry is actually a fleet of simple wooden bucket boats that the characters have to row themselves, the trip still costs 50 gald. We can afford it, but, man, this game is nickel-and-diming us to death!

Despite all these money-woes earlier in the game, around the halfway point, after having met all the new party members, we found we were much more monetarily self-sufficient. This was because of the natural progression of being better equipped, being more able to heal ourselves with magic, being able to challenge the Colosseum and win the prize money, and so on. So, at this point, we were able to afford inn visits and new equipment without needing to think too much about it anymore.

At this point in the game, we also discovered the important perks of walking around as the different party members. The game does a really poor job of advertising this, but if you equip certain Ex Gems to the characters, you unlock their "Personal" abilities, which they can then use if you make that particular character be the otherwise-cosmetic on-screen character.

Regal
Regal the Walking Coupon

Two characters have useful personal perks with regard to money. Regal, who we suppose must be very charismatic despite his habit of wearing handcuffs everywhere, gets to be your Walking Coupon -- if you buy and sell goods with Regal as your on-screen character, for some reason the shopkeeper will sell you items with a 10% discount and buy items from you for 10% more money. Is it due to admiration for Regal's business abilities, or fear of what those manacles represent?

Zelos
Zelos the Walking Fundraiser

Making only marginally more sense is the personal ability of the suave Zelos, who gets to be your Walking Fundraiser. If Zelos is your on-screen character, and if you have him talk to female NPCs, his hotness will somehow compel them to give him gifts of items or even cold hard gald -- women, old ladies, little girls, it doesn't matter, as long as they are female, they will all fall for his charms. Even characters who say they already have a boyfriend will still feel the need to give Zelos some sort of parting gift as they turn him down. If Zelos manages to flirt with every single female NPC in the game, he will become renowned as a Gigolo! Congratulations Zelos!

However, at this point in the game, when we would gladly afford whatever ridiculous fee or expensive bottle of wine or whatever unfair twist the game wants to throw at us next, most of these fees are now waived! Most notably, the ferry to the Water Temple, which was an annoyance to us before, is now free! Why did it cost money when we were poor, but is now free for us when we are rich? Such is the paradox of the capitalist system.

Luin Reconstruction Fund
Sure, you can have some of our chump change

In fact, the only really expensive thing left in the entire game at this point is to rebuild the City of Luin. This does indeed take major funds: it will eventually take no less than 455,500 gald. But unlike the earlier expensive endeavors, it is optional for completing the game, and with Zelos going around, erm, asking ladies for donations, the fundraising efforts go pretty smoothly. Eventually, Luin will be restored to a glorious gleam, and we will essentially have the entire city in our debt. They'll be building statues in our honor and simply bestowing mayoral powers upon us. That's right, you worms, bow down before us! You can never dream to be as wealthy as we are now, mwhahaha!

Parting Thoughts

An NES rendition of Scrooge McDuck in a pile of gold coins.
Don't be an 8-bit Scrooge McDuck

In conclusion, video games teach us that the rich get richer -- once you have some money, the best way to get more money is to invest it in ways that ensures that your wealth grows, like purchasing the dowsing rod of Psychonauts. It's even more efficient if your investment brings you more wealth passively, like rebuilding the villa of Assassin's Creed or enhancing the Poké Pelago of Pokémon Sun and Moon.

However, simply gaining more and more wealth in these games is not fun in itself, if there is nothing more you want to buy. In some cases, tending to your useless wealth can even become a burdensome chore. Once you have access to anything and everything you could possibly want, any more money is useless. Money can buy access to happiness, but it is not the end goal in itself. This should be remembered when designing a video game, and in our own lives.

References

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