Playing with Money (2): Space Trading
Playing with Money

Playing with Money (3): Arms Dealers

Previously, the origins of videogame money with the Adventurer Shop, and the space trading game Elite. Now, a look at the infiltration of gun games by shopping.

CSS Buy MenuIn the early 2000’s, the celebrated Resident Evil franchise (known as Biohazard in Japan) was facing cancellation. Despite the excellent quality of the remake of the first game in the series for the GameCube in 2002, and prequel Resident Evil Zero that came out in the same year, sales were disappointing and Capcom needed reassurance that the series could still make money for them. As a result, project director Shinji Mikami was placed under pressure by his superiors, which resulted in a change of direction for the franchise:

With Resident Evil 1, 2, 3, and all the rest of the series before Resident Evil 4, I was always saying to the staff, ‘Scaring the player is the number one thing.’ But for the first time, in Resident Evil 4, I told the team that fun gameplay is the most important thing. That’s what I said. Then the second thing [would be ] nothing. And then the third thing is to be scary. That’s what I said to the team. That all came out of the commercial failure of the Resident Evil remake. And then of course Resident Evil 4 sold really well. I have kind of a lingering trauma there, because the Resident Evil remake didn’t sell – much more than people would think.

However, a note of caution is required here. The remake sold 1.3 million units on the GameCube, while Resident Evil 4 sold 1.6 million units on that platform (based on figures quoted by Destructoid). 300,000 units is not the difference between success and failure on the budgets such games are developed upon. The reason Resident Evil 4 ultimately went on to enjoy commercial success was that it was ported to other platforms; the remake could not be, because it was part of an exclusive deal between Capcom and Nintendo. The breakdown of this agreement allowed Resident Evil 4 to be distributed more widely – if this had happened to the remake, the situation might have been very different.

Nonetheless, the way events unfolded took the Resident Evil franchise away from its roots, and with a mandate for ‘fun’ it is hardly a surprise that this meant bringing in more CRPG elements. RPGs have always been the favourite genre in Japan, as every CESA report confirms, and Mikami-san, in an interview by Xav De Matos in 2011, singled out one title in particular as influencing the direction of the Resident Evil franchise:

“For BioHazard 4 (RE4) it came from playing Onimusha 3,” he said, remembering that he enjoyed the game but thought it could be better if a few elements were different. “If only the camera was behind the player, it would have been so much better,” he thought at the time. “That stemmed the idea for creating the camera system – the [third-person shooter] style – in BioHazard 4.” “Probably if Onimusha 3 had been better, I wouldn't have thought of BioHazard 4,” he laughed.

Onimusha 3 had a character advancement system based around collecting different coloured souls after certain characters defeated enemies, with red souls being used to enhance equipment at a Magic Mirror. Evidently, this supernatural justification for what amounts to a modified form of shopping would not work in a sci-fi horror setting like Resident Evil, where the nonsense is justified using technobabble rather than (wholly equivalent) magical explanations. The solution was the addition of the Weapons Merchant (just ‘the Merchant’ when the game was translated from Japanese). The player collects treasure scattered around the world and sells it to the Merchant with the money earned then being used to power up their guns – a practice clearly descended from Onimusha, the practices of which were entirely conditioned by character advancement in Japanese RPGs.

This is one of several notable examples of shopping making its way into gun games, which had long resisted the player practices of currency and shops. This is ironic, since the first person shooter was itself an offshoot of the CRPG lineage. Catacomb 3-D, John Carmack’s project immediately prior to Wolfenstein 3D, was a straightforward dungeon crawler of the form popularised by Dungeon Master in 1987 (as discussed in the previous Game Inventories serial). Those dungeon crawlers, however, had differentiated themselves from other CRPGs by being interested solely in the dungeon, and discarding the village and overworld (wilderness in the tabletop precursors) that had structured the play of non-dungeon crawlers (see the first part of this serial, discussing the Adventurer Shop, for more on this point).

Resident Evil 4 was to prove influential, most obviously in the case of Dead Space which adopts almost all of the player practices of the Japanese horror game – including the shopping, which becomes a Store where players exchange credits for upgrades. BioShock is another example, although in this case, the game was already enmeshed within the CRPG lineages, and the critical success of Resident Evil 4 merely reassured the developer that their combination of horror, action, and RPG could work. Although I can find no explicit mention of it influencing Tripwire’s Killing Floor, it seems a virtual certainty that the creator of the original 2007 mod that lead to this game, Alex Quick, had played Resident Evil games, and the wave-based zombie slayer feels very much like an interweaving of the practices of Resident Evil 4 with Team Fortress – with shopping occurring after each wave at a Trader that the player must locate in a manner reminiscent of the Merchant in RE4.

There is one other example of shops being added to gun games that pre-dates Resident Evil 4 and runs down rather different lines: Counter-Strike. Starting life as a Half-life mod and developed by Minh “Gooseman” Le and Jess Cliffe, the highly successful multiplayer game was presented as a battle between terrorists and counter-terrorists, although this scenario only goes about as deep as children playing cowboys and Indians, which is to say, it provides the excuse for fighting with guns rather than offering play focussed upon the events and contents of a fictional world, as with CRPGs. More significant than its imaginary world was the way Counter-Strike pushed multiplayer gun games closer towards the player practices of sports, with tightly focussed play over a series of rounds involving (from the counter-terrorist perspective) either hostage rescue or bomb disposal that lead to winning an overall match. The sport-like aesthetic in no way suggests that this would in fact be a game that features shopping, albeit a stripped-down, abstract form of shopping that essentially consists in trading money earned in previous rounds for firearms and equipment while standing in a designated square known simply as a ‘Buy Zone’ (the menu for which is pictured above).

Design decisions for the project were mostly made by Le, with Cliffe working on maps and, perhaps more importantly, coordinating the community of players – an increasingly vital role in game development. Le had played a lot of CRPGs when he was younger, but had found them too great a drain on his time as he got older, so there was a definite possibility that the shop concept was influenced by Adventurer Shops. However, as with all cases of shopping in videogames, there was also the possibility that it was simply everyday currency practices that provided the point of reference. These cases are difficult to judge, and prudence suggests erring on the side of the more general explanation in the absence of any specific evidence.

I asked Minh Le over Twitter about the origins of the shop, since none of the existing interviews had touched upon it and it stands out (from both a historical and a game design perspective) as one of the most unique inventions of the franchise. His answer reveals that the Counter-Strike buy zone was a result of a need to provide some internal balancing to the game:

Originally I planned on letting players pick any gun but came up with the idea of putting a price tag on the weapons cuz I needed a way to differentiate them without having to arbitrarily fudge their performance (ie rate of fire, damage, etc). Like how certain games do. Some games balance the weapons by making smgs more effective in close quarters and making assault rifles have high recoil but you can only do so much to try and make all the guns equally attractive to use, so I just put a price tag on the guns in hopes of making some guns used more. Like if I didn't have the buy system, the ak47 would get used All the freaking time. TBH it should be more expensive to mitigate it's all around effectiveness but by the time the game had gotten so popular, it was too late to make drastic changes to the game without incurring the wrath of the player base. I also liked how a money economy added a mental game to the shoot aspects of Cs. Teams had to consider wise spending in order to maximize their chances of winning the match.

This doesn’t settle the question of possible CRPG influence (nor, to be fair, was it likely to) but this discussion brings out another aspect of the conservation of player practices: the resistance of player communities to change when a game or lineage of games is effectively meeting their play needs. This point is also apparent in Joe Donnelly’s account of the making of Counter-Strike:

By Version 1.3, says Le, opinions as to what worked and what didn’t were so staunch, so resolute, that even a whisper of revision heralded waves of protest from the ever-intransigent camp. It got to the point where even the thought of change had become almost trivial. By Version 1.6, the latest and final overhaul of significant degree, the team realised it was time to step back. “It wasn’t until Counter-Strike 1.6 when everybody - myself, Valve, everyone involved in CS – sort of noticed that the community were beginning to become resistant,” says Le. “It became much more difficult to change the core gameplay. I think at that point we realised it’d become the perfect game and we shouldn’t mess with it too much. It was then we realised this was basically Counter-Strike from now on.”

This represents a microcosm of the situation at large regarding player communities. When a game provides a compelling, engaging experience for a particular community of players, those player practices become conserved precisely because they are effective at meeting that community’s play needs. In this case, quite distinct from game design lineages where specific features (e.g. inventories, control schemes, power-ups) become conserved but can appear in radically different kinds of game, it is the complete set of player practices that are being conserved – what might poetically be called the essence of a particular game. The essence of Counter-Strike was in place by 1.6 in part because it had, right from the outset, a community of players who could act to conserve the practices of its play. There have been few significant changes since beyond graphical tweaks and further attempts at balancing: Counter-Strike: Source added largely unnecessary achievements, while Global Offensive added a competitive mode where the teams ‘change ends’ (switching between terrorist and counter-terrorist), and controversial micro-transaction monetisation. The game design process was essentially concluded when 1.6 launched in beta in 1999; what came afterwards was only refinement to those player practices that Le, Cliffe, and their original player community had established at the outset.

Throughout this serial, the process of using game design lineages to track the player practices of shops and money between games has been complicated by the fact that we are all embedded in the practices of currency and shopping (the ‘game’ of money, if you will). This means that it was always possible to add a shop into any game at the designer’s whim. Yet, despite this ever-present possibility, this is not entirely what has happened. Whenever creator vision has added a shop – whether it was the weapon shops added to the imaginative practices of fantasy adventure stories, space trading being used to maximise player agency, horror games borrowing from CRPGs, or gun games seeking innovative balancing solutions – it has set into motion a community of players whose practices have been conserved. Where those players include game designers (or future game designers), these practices have gone on to inspire other games that have partly conserved those practices, and partly subverted them for creative purposes. This is the path the history of videogames have taken, a path that carries on from tabletop games before them, as well as from literature and films, with whom they share imaginative practices. We all play with money, we imagine its value, acquire it and spend it – both inside and outside of videogames.

With thanks to Dan Cook, Patrick Davis, Adam Hurd, Raph Koster, Jack "LateTide", Minh “Gooseman” Le, Nicholas Lovell, Romley Panable, Felipe Pepe, Paul Wake, Rich Wilson, and José Zagal, for their assistance in the research that led to this serial.

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