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What I Do

Ever Wonder How An In-Game Economy Is Designed And Maintained?

Those numbers--and the balancing act they require--don't put themselves in the game

cottonbro studio

Welcome to the second instalment of our new feature series 'What I Do', where individuals in and around the video game industry tell us what, exactly, they do for a living.

The purpose of this feature is two-fold. First, as we saw with Pokémon's former chief lawyer, individuals have interesting stories to tell! And secondly, it's my hope that by showing this business is made up of specific people with specific (and often wildly different) jobs, it can help dispel the idea that everyone is just a "dev". Video games are more complicated (and interesting) than that!

Anyway, this week's feature is with "Bruce" (not their real name), a designer who has worked a variety of jobs including being the "economy lead" on a major free-to-play RPG for years. Ever wonder who actually builds the economy and sets the numbers for a game like that? It's people like Bruce.

Luke Plunkett: Hey Bruce, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Can you tell me and the readers a bit about yourself?

Bruce: I'm a game designer with a Master's degree, and have worked at Activision, EA, a bunch of mobile games companies and a handful of start-ups and independent studios. For the last decade I've been working on mobile free-to-play projects in a variety of capacities. As of last year, I left the F2P space because I wanted to be able to focus on making fun, welcoming games without always having to balance "make the game fun/good" with "make our revenue constantly go up".

I also write fiction, and did some Dungeons & Dragons writing back in the day. 

LP: What have been some of your actual, specific job titles?

B: On my current project, I'm the Lead Systems Designer. On the F2P character collector I worked on for over five years I was (at various times) a Technical Designer, Lead Mission Designer, Systems Designer, Lead Systems Designer, and finally Lead Designer. 

Notably, the word "economy" never appeared in any of my job titles, even during the period when I was running the economy team and responsible for hiring a junior Economy/Systems Designer and Economy Director.

LP: What kind of stuff does your job do? Like, beyond the title, if you had to explain to someone what it was you did on a day-to-day basis, what would you tell them?

B: My actual day-to-day is highly variable, based on what stage of development the project is in. 

When I was on the character collector, I was often bouncing between: 

- Working with a feature team and a client to spec, develop, and test a new gameplay feature.

- Helping the mission team dial in the tuning on our endgame content. This was incredibly important, because if it's too hard nobody can beat it and people lapse/quit the game, while if it's too easy, you're not motivating people to invest in newly released characters or gear.

- Supporting other designers with their features, often by focusing on technical or economy-linked topics (like skill-based matchmaking and reward scaling).

- Planning future economy updates (via modelling and spreadsheets).

- Checking in on the state of our current economy via dashboards and custom Business Intelligence reports, and checking in with the LiveOps and Design teams about actions I wanted to take based on those reports.

In practice, I usually had a main focus (usually a new feature, or supporting a content release/someone else's feature) which took up roughly half my attention, and the rest of my time was split between supporting other people, pulling reports, attending planning meetings, and crisis management (i.e., someone on the LiveOps team accidentally gave everyone way too much soft currency, what can we do to keep the game afloat?).

I left the F2P space because I wanted to be able to focus on making fun, welcoming games without always having to balance "make the game fun/good" with "make our revenue constantly go up".

LP: What is it about your job that you love the most?

B: When I'm doing more hands-on work, like tuning a drop table or a new piece of content, the part I love most is taking a bunch of tuning values and translating them into a deliberately crafted play experience. As an example, in the character collector I worked on, we often needed to build missions so an older team could barely scrape by, while a newer team would romp to victory. Whenever I got a mission calibrated just right, it was a great feeling of satisfaction.

As I've transitioned into less hands-on roles, my passion has shifted away from detailed craftsmanship and more into heading off problems before they happen. One of the biggest issues we had on the character collector was that our tooling and data pipelines weren't built to support the frequency and scale of updates that we needed to make, and while in the early days we could paper over the problem by working harder and having an elite team, as the game scaled, our tools and data management rapidly became issues, and made a lot of extra work for people. 

In my current role, a lot of my job is anticipating issues we're likely to run into in the future, and taking steps to head them off before the team or our players have to deal with them.

LP: Moving on from what you love, what are some things you'd like to see changed or improved about your job, and its place in the wider industry?

B: Game systems and the economies which support them are inextricably intertwined, and there's a tendency for people to believe that you can both shoot from the hip (i.e., build an economy by feel, rather than simulating and planning the experience) and also constantly keep expanding economies and resource sinks endlessly. Neither is true, especially in live service games. If you want an economy or game system to be healthy over the course of years, you need a plan in place, and a clear understanding of how adjusting different knobs will impact the game, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. 

To put it another way: Your live service game isn't necessarily healthy just because you have lots of players and you're making money right now. If you don't have a plausible, multi-pronged plan for how you're going to keep things from going sour in three months, six months, or a year or more, you're basically gambling with the livelihood of everyone on your team. How are you keeping your current players engaged? How are you getting new players? How are you accelerating those players into the endgame, or making endgame players want to play with them even if your new players aren't endgame-ready? If you're selling stuff to players, what's going to make them want to keep buying it?

Not all of these questions are purely systems- or economy-driven, but you need good answers to them if you want a game to last. And you're not going to have good answers without economy specialists who are focused on where your game is, where it's headed, and are empowered to propose solutions to problems that haven't happened yet (but are inevitably going to happen based on experience and modelling).

LP: Thanks for your time!

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