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Collecting shiny things is the ultimate self improvement plan (in games)

Ding!

You leveled. Feels good, doesn’t it? You can spend your skill points on whatever you want. I suggest the perk that gives your punches a five percent chance to incinerate.

Developers put character progression mechanics in games for one reason: incentive. Reward systems make games; they keep players addicted on the short term while also providing a long term goal. They come in a thousand different coats of paint including common skill points.

In-game currency, of course, serves precisely the same purpose. Players accumulate it through gameplay (usually by murdering bad guys and woodland creatures) and then spend it on buffs. The only difference is that skill point buffs are generally permanent whereas currency buffs are tied to removable equipment.

But currency doesn’t feel like those abstract progression points. It has a presence in game worlds that comes off as intuitive and natural. That’s why it’s the ideal reward system. So, on second thought, save your skill points. Just buy the Fine Silken Gloves of Immolation instead.

This oughtta cover it

When you get right down to it, all progression systems work the same way. In the course of play, counters go up. When the counters get high enough they trigger unlocks. Whatever the in-world explanation, if any, these unlocks consist of increased stats and new abilities.

Put it that way and all systems should be equal. If gold or credits mean the same thing as skill points, why even separate them? True, I can change my mind if I decide I don’t care for my +1 Frock of Banjo Mastery (it doesn’t have anything to do with fire). But if the game allows players to respec, the dividing line between the systems begins to blur.

So, we have no rational reason to favor one over the other. Skill points are equal to gold is equal to orbs are equal to… crystogen points. Right?

Well, not quite. In-world currency has something extra that sets it apart. It has presence. It’s substantial. Without feedback, reward systems lack teeth. Nobody wants to play a spreadsheet (except, maybe, EVE Online players). Some games, like The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, maximize feedback with Pavlovian triggers like playing the sound of a jingling coin purse when the player loots gold.

LinbeckI cannot overstate how important this is. How often do you go out of your way to kill low level enemies that don’t afford much experience? Okay, now how often do you stop just long enough to pick up one or two measly rupees? Something about their rendering in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and its stylistic successors makes them seem almost good enough to eat.

It works so well because it preys directly on basic human psychology. It appeals to our ingrained instincts, exciting the mesolimbic pathway in a way more abstract methods can’t. Unlike skill points, it has a direct analog in the real world.

Spending money on new stuff or on improvements to things I own makes intuitive sense because I do it all the time in real life.

 

On the other hand, what the hell is a skill point? Honing a skill isn’t a binary process. I don’t practice a craft every day to suddenly wake up and feel exactly a sixth more capable. Sure, the medium’s limitations force these kinds of compromises. But making excuses won’t help it seem less artificial.

Now, I’m not here to equate use of abstract, point-based progression with poor game design. If that were true, we wouldn’t see it in almost every game.

But currency really represents the ideal character progression system that all others aspire to. It makes sense, it works well, and it appeals to our basic impulses. Its attributes can serve as a guide in how to make other reward systems more compelling. This won’t come as a surprise to developers; they’ve known it for years.

From the constellation based skill trees of Skyrim, to the pulsing orbs of Devil May Cry, to the absurdly named but admittedly beautiful Crystarium of Final Fantasy 13, game designers make a strong effort to appeal to our natural love of shiny things even as they exploit our tendency to horde.

Crystarium

I don't know what these glowy marbles are, but I want ALL of them

To be sure, real money is an abstraction of value, so the in-game equivalent need not copy it exactly. It simply has to scratch the same itch.

So what if it’s all just numbers in the end? At least we get to read them on a damned pretty spreadsheet.

 


Do you find yourself collecting coins, credits, or rupees even when you don't need them? All video games rely on art and audio assests to breathe life into code. Do you think this serves an important purpose when it comes to character progression?


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