Over the Christmas break I had the good fortune to have time to play through a number of excellent games that had been building up in my queue (including Bioshock Infinite, Guacamelee, and the latest Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell) and it occurred to me that most of them have one feature in common - they all have in-game stores - and now that I’ve been thinking about it, I’m not really sure why this is such a popular idea. For clarity, I’m not talking about in-app purchases here, just games like the ones above that have a virtual currency component. I’ll be picking on Bioshock Infinite a lot, though I should stress that I did enjoy my time in Columbia. I’m also talking primarily about action games, if my examples above didn’t make that clear. Visiting stores for character customisation and stat boosting may be important to the Skyrim experience, but in Bioshock Infinite, it’s importance is such that if you read the game description on their website and view all the official screenshots, you wouldn’t even know it was in there.
I should probably also note that this whole blog might seem a little petty. This isn’t a huge issue plaguing videogames, but I think it’s important to analyse anything that seems to be taken for granted, even if it’s fairly minor.
The game of shopping
Perhaps this is simply a result of my obsessive compulsive mindset, but I have a love/hate relationship with shopping. My miserly nature means that I like to research my purchases, I can wait for good deals, and I want to know that I’m getting the best value for my money. Shopping in a videogame rarely delivers any of that, and it often boils down to a case of “guess which of these things you’ll want in the challenges you have yet to encounter”. It's all the worst parts of real-life shopping, including the challenge of finding and saving the money, without the best parts. I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else but myself here, but I find shopping in most games to be at best a waste of time and at worst a somewhat stressful experience.
The worst in-game store experiences can be detrimental to a game, because they put the player in the position of having to guess which purchases will be more useful, or more fun, and to weigh up which of those is more important, whilst simultaneously distracting them from the core game. In the case of something like Bioshock Infinite, the player is asked which weapons and vigors they want to upgrade, which both forces them to ponder the aforementioned issues, and encourages them to stick with a limited selection throughout the game. The end result was that I used two weapons and two vigors for the majority of the game, because I had upgraded those ones, so anything else seemed inefficient. Is that what the designers had in mind?
Not only does Infinite’s design discourage you from using everything at your disposal, the need to buy these upgrades means that in a game where you can otherwise find most of the supplies you need as you progress through the world, you’re encouraged to slowly traverse every room, searching every single box, drawer and trashcan for coins, in addition to individually searching every single dead body, making the game as much a first-person looter as it is a first-person shooter. If someone were to propose a game based primarily around searching an environment and the corpses in it for coins so that you can afford your next upgrade, I doubt many of you would be lining up to preorder it. In addition, while most parts of the game (the story, locations, weapons, vigors, enemies) all change and evolve over the course of the game, this process of collecting and spending coins remains exactly the same from start to end - there's no depth to it, no challenge, just work. This coin-hunting exercise is entirely optional of course, but because these upgrades improve your combat abilities, you’d be volunteering to play a harder game if you chose to ignore it.
This may be more of a side-note than a serious complaint, but the in-game stores in many of these titles also seem completely illogical. For example, why are there vending machines all over Columbia for vigors, when I seem to be the only one in the world using them? Why are there vending machines that upgrade guns, and why do the upgrades I make to one rifle also magically apply to any other rifle I find? In other games it seems just as strange. Why do I get money for beating up undead minions in Guacamelee, and how do I learn new wrestling moves by spending money at a save point? Why does Sam Fisher need me to collect money, based on whether I perform certain optional mission objectives, to unlock gadgets he already had in previous games? Apparently he’s the best hope America has of stopping a terrorist network, but he needs to pay for his own stealth pants? Is this a comment on military spending?
When I really think about it, in all of these games I’ve played recently, only in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag does the economy even seem to make sense in context, in that an 18th century pirate would be collecting money from his endeavours and spending it on weapons and ships. Much like Bioshock though, looting every corpse still seems far more like work than fun.
All of this might be justifiable if it were necessary, but I would contend that even that isn’t true. Let me give a simple example. Back in the early days of the Tony Hawk franchise, each skater had a combination of skill points in various attributes (speed, spin, balance, etc). By completing goals, you’d earn more of these skill points that you could assign to any category you chose. While these points may not initially seem like a form of currency, they are earned through gameplay, then spent on upgrades, so they serve the same purpose. In 2002 Z-Axis and Acclaim released Aggressive Inline, one of the better challengers to the Tony Hawk crown. Among the many innovations this game brought to the genre, it automated the character upgrade system. Instead of passing challenges, earning points and spending them, the game had the radical idea of “improve by doing”. For example, if you spent enough time skating at your maximum speed, your speed stat improved. Spend enough time doing spinning tricks and your spin stat improved, and so on. This has a number of advantages:
It makes perfect sense in context - you get better at something by practicing it.
It forces you to actually do all the things at your disposal - you can’t magically get better at handplants without ever doing one.
It removes the need to frequently visit a menu screen to make decisions that are largely unrelated to the core gameplay.
I realise this last one might a little controversial. While I subscribe to Sid Meier’s view that a game is a series of interesting decisions, we should remember that not all decisions are interesting, and not all decisions add to the core gameplay of a particular title. Especially in a game where your goal is ultimately to max out all those stats, simply choosing the order in which you do that isn’t key to the experience in any meaningful way.
If multiple play-styles isn’t that important, then I think a game designer should have enough confidence in their craft to say “at this point in the game the player gets X” and build what they think is the optimal experience. And if having the game support multiple play-styles is important, then consider instead how the game might adapt to the player. Splinter Cell Blacklist provides a good demonstration of how this might work - the game already tracks your progress along 3 different play-styles, and most of the items in the game are specifically suited to one of these. Simply connecting the unlocks to the data already being tracked could make the whole process automatic. Less shopping, more spying.
It would be completely ridiculous for me to suggest that I could design a better game than Bioshock Infinite. But since I’ve come this far, I’ll give it a shot anyway and you can use the comments to tell me why I’m wrong.
Imagine the same game (hopefully you’ve played it by now, it’s pretty amazing), but with the following changes:
All coins and vending machines removed.
Vigors aren’t upgraded individually, but rather through a global meter that represents Booker’s inherent ability to use them, which is increased by, you guessed it, successfully using them.
New weapons are introduced and weapons get upgrades as you progress through the world. These could even be semi-random on each gun you pick up.
All items are dropped in combat, preferably picked up on contact rather than having to interact with every single corpse.
I think this would make the experience quite different. Exploration would primarily be about finding more about the world/story, rather than looting, both saving time and that awkward feeling of being a petty thief. The incentive to stick with a few select weapons and vigors would be reduced, making the gameplay more diverse. The game would be faster-paced and more focussed on the story and core gameplay ideas, with fewer systems that don’t make any sense in context. In my mind, this seems like a better game, but I’m curious whether you, the reader, agree.
Stores introduce customisation and resource management aspects, but not every game benefits from these things. Guacamelee is an interesting example because, as a Metroid-style game, most of the upgrades you receive during the game are given to you at specific points in the world, rather than being available in the store. Additionally, the generic health/stamina upgrades that you can buy in the store are also found in the world, as a reward for finding secret passages/rooms. I’m confident that you could play through the entire game without ever visiting the store screen at all, and the only thing that you’d be missing would be some minor stat boosts, costume variants and some optional throws that would probably make more sense if the luchador coach in town taught them to you anyway. Looking at it this way, the concept of a store seems like a fallback place for the upgrades that they didn’t find a way to integrate into the world.
And that’s how I feel about stores in most of these games - they’re largely unnecessary. You can usually give the player new abilities through the natural progression of the game. You can customise the player by levelling up their skills or gear based on what they choose to do in the game. I don’t see a lot of good reasons to stop the player dozens of times throughout the game to make purchasing decisions in a game where in-depth character customisation isn’t a selling point. Perhaps this is simply a side-effect of wanting to reward every little action the player takes, as if they’d lack any desire to beat the game unless every step along the way earns them some coins? Or perhaps this is about developers wanting to put RPG elements into every single game, irrespective of whether the particular game needs it?