Game Design Theory Level 4 – Advanced Game Mechanics and HUD / GUI Elements

Game Economies and Upgrades – FUN-damental Tips

Now is a good time to talk a little about game economies and how to use them to your advantage and enhance gameplay while avoiding some pitfalls of sloppy design. The economy of your game can drive the upgrade, inventory and progress systems. Money and loot are optional ways to let characters buy upgrades and trade things they find in the game. Some games even make characters acquire a certain amount of money or a group of items before the game can progress. It’s important to balance the pacing and exposure to money / loot just like you balance the pacing and exposure of all the other game elements like hazards and enemies.


Remember that these tips will save you a ton of time and wasted effort. 


Never Underestimate the Greed of the Players!

greedy player 

There will always be a segment of your audience that will be super-greedy and you should never underestimate the greed of the average player as well. Use their greed to prompt interesting scenarios and challenges that wouldn’t have been worthwhile otherwise. Using a bag of game money sitting behind hazards and enemies gives the player incentive to take on the challenges because they can see the reward. Other scenarios have hidden treasure that can’t be seen until it’s reached. In this case “you never know what you’re going to get.” The anticipation of getting an unknown prize can thrill players into taking on challenges as well. You shouldn’t try to trick players many times though – if there is a complex or difficult challenge guarding the treasure or power-up you want to make it worth the player’s while. Players may also take unnecessary risks to get an advantageous power-up. For example in a space shooter game the player could take on a particularly hard obstacle to get to a power-up that will give a huge advantage when they could have hid in a calm section of the screen instead. Dangling the power-up and putting a hard obstacle or enemy near it practically dares the player to come. 


Plan Out the Economy and Upgrade Systems for the Entire Game. Price Items According to When You Want Players to Earn Them In-Game


You should have a general idea (and specific amounts if you’d like) about the amount of money and items the player has at any stage in the game. The player character’s upgrade scenes in the game should also be highlighted. These amounts of items and player upgrade moments should be included in your GDD, beat charts, etc. to help keep track of them and monitor pacing and exposure.


The pacing of the economy refers to how long it takes for the player to reach the maximum amount of money or have collected all meaningful items. There can be a slow grind where the player must wait near the end of the game to have it all, and other games give players a ton of loot from the start. You know which one players prefer. A safe approach would be to make the player feel like they’re getting good loot and then later reveal that there is more to acquire. Similar to the pacing in the upgrade system you should not wait until the end of the game to let players have enough money to buy the most expensive things and you should always provide some high-ticket items worth buying when the player has a lot of money. Most games even tease these items early on with ridiculous price tags.


Most modern games give the player their full arsenal about 65-85% of the way through the game

 If the player spends roughly one third of the game fully powered and having decent money and loot. You can build some great player upgrades and gameplay modifications into the last third of the game to give the player incentive to keep pushing. There are generally two ways to break down an upgrade system: in linear ways where the player has no choice and they receive a certain ability at a certain time. Then there are systems like the Batman Arkham series where you get XP points and buy the abilities you want at the time. Then you can continue to upgrade your abilities at your own pace. Even in this system though there are hard controls such as some gadgets and abilities being off-limits until a certain time in the game. Others are hidden at the end of a branch of the “upgrade tree.” Imagine a tree where each ability is a branch and different upgrades to that ability appear along the branch in order with each usually having a higher cost. Using hard controls, pricing and placement in the upgrade tree the team controlled the economy while still providing freedom and choice. That’s a great design.



There are alternate routes you can take though such as giving the player nearly all of their abilities in the beginning and then have them upgrade the abilities or having the player take over a stronger, more powerful character later in the game. Just remember that although it’s recommended to pace things normally that you are free to experiment and come up with interesting systems.