Resource Management in Games

by Chris McGinty (According To Whim .com)

I wrote a post about playing a game called “The Movies” and some stuff about my word processor not working. Well, I thought I would discuss something that I think I’ve touched upon at various points, but haven’t written a focused piece on. I wrote an 8,000 word article on my thoughts about game design once, but I really need to break that up into parts one day and post it here. I meant to send it to Nathan and get his thoughts on it, but I mostly forgot about it until now.

Specifically, I would like to deal with the concept of resource management in games. I believe that resource management is one of the most important aspects of many games, not quite as important as fun, but pretty important. I know that not all games use resource management, so certainly not the most important.

It’s something I noticed from my Farmville days, which abruptly halted when I started having to resource manage my own life from working so much. Farmville has almost no resource management. The entire game is abundance of every kind. The game really drove me nuts in that respect. I’m not sure why I enjoy it, but I’m not really sure why anybody does, and a lot of people seem to. I decided that it must be the fact that the game is different in that respect. I play plenty of games that are about resource management, and about the adrenaline rush, and whatever else I enjoy about games. This was just a game where you clicked things, and came back a few hours later to click things again.

I still found myself wishing that the game was something that it wasn’t at times. Like how interesting would it be to have a game of that size that was based around the idea of a self contained economy? Like if there were accounts that were run by the software publisher that simply played the same role as the organizations that decide how much money is printed. I would be interested in playing that simply because there would be people who would manage to become millionaires while others went bankrupt. In Farmville, everyone becomes a multimillionaire, regardless of how well others are doing.

I have noticed that abundance is a problem in many games. It reminds me of Dungeons and Dragons in a way. There is a play style known as Monty Hall. It’s basically where you slay creatures and get an excess of money and treasure. Your characters never suffer for anything. Have too much stuff to carry? It’s ok, because your Dungeon Master has given everyone in the party a Bag of Holding.

A lot of video games seem to work like that. You struggle a lot at first, and then you do very well all of a sudden. Or you never struggle at all. I guess it probably makes sense. We don’t play games to struggle the same way we do in life. And yet we do need a challenge even in games.

Where am I going with this? No, I was hoping you knew.

I think that some games miss a real opportunity. The moment that you don’t have to think about whether or not you have enough money, enough ammo, enough NPC contacts, and anything else, you are losing an aspect of strategy. I’m not sure what the answer to this is. I know that I’ve read many reviews of games that complain that the game gets too bogged down with the mundane, and I’m thinking that resource management might be one of those things. Maybe if games were more often about resource management, I would get bored. Maybe I mistake my interest for something that would just drive me nuts if it was prevalent in every game I played.

One thing I’d like to say on this subject. If you do design a game for the purpose of focusing on resource management there should be a few basic principles in place.

Slow and Steady – For most of the game, resources should have a basic way that they work that is predictable and workable by the player. In this way, a player should be able to save or stockpile, and eventually have a self-made abundance rather than an abundance that is built into the game.

Good and Bad Luck – There should also be some unpredictable instances, events that happen that cause the player to gain or lose ground with resource management. The likelihood is that the potential loss in these instances should be higher than the potential gain. It’s more likely that you will end up with an expensive car repair than you will win the lottery. That same ideal should be present in resource management games.

Savings and Loan – This should also be pretty accurate. It’s easier to get gigged with a high interest rate on a loan than to get a good return on investment.

Risk and Reward – There should be some amount of risk that the player can take that can be rewarding. One thing that drives me nuts in games, and this goes all the way back to my “Questron” playing days, is that casinos are almost always a winning proposition in games, when in real life the house wins inevitably. With true resource management it should be clear that every investment has a potential downside.

Automatic Bill Pay – Unless the game is about paying your bills, most of the loss and gain should be done automatically as the player plays the game. Either that the player has to pay money for items and people in the course of the game, or that there is loss and gain in their money constantly as the game is played. If the loss and gain is automatic there should be a way to view stats.

Loss – There should be sinkholes in the resource management of any game that focuses on resource management. The basic economy of a game should favour the player, but there should be plenty of opportunities for life to throw a curve ball.

World Economy – This is probably one of the toughest thoughts to implement. I think that one mistake that resource management games make is that the losses and the gains are more random than they should be. The truth is that in life and economy there is a push and pull. If you work two jobs, you have less time to do things at home. If you bailout banks, you have to raise taxes or cut spending somewhere. In game design, it might seem extraneous to try to figure out exactly where all the money and supplies are coming from and going to, even on a very basic level, but it’s almost necessary to balance the resources of the game.

I just want to say before I finish this off that I know that some games are designed in such a way that you don’t want to get into too much detail. There is no reason to walk into Ammo-Nation in a “Grand Theft Auto” game to find that they are out of stock on grenades. You’re managing resources such as your life total and the number of tags the law enforcement has on you. The game is pretty well balanced without worrying about money. Besides, you’re doing the kind of illegal jobs that you presume would make a person rich quickly.

What I mean to say is that if you deal with resource management in anyway, it should be balanced. In the GTA games, the resources that matter most are well balanced, the ones that don’t matter as much, you never have to worry about. In “The Movies” time passes too quickly, all movies make money, and you spend all of your time dealing with the sim actor characters that are nearly impossible to please. It’s out of balance, and it’s no wonder the game isn’t spoken of highly.

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