So I’ve been putting off this response for a while, because I wanted to get at least one more playthrough off the ground. I’m sort of a role-playing nerd when I get into games like this; when I roll a ranger-type archer who hates cities and is a miserable bastard to everyone, I try my best to play the character that way, all the way through. Consequently, I’ll never do a playthrough where I successfully unite the Thieves Guild, the Dark Brotherhood, the Companions and the College of Winterhold while chasing the Imperials out of Skyrim, learning every shout, finding all 25 unusual gems, every single nirnroot and maxing every skill to 100. Because nobody would ever do that in real life (fictional) Skyrim. Anyways . . .
The Economy of Waiting in Line
JH had some really interesting comments to my last post, and instead of going point by point I would like to take one of his main themes and run with it, and eventually bring it in line with one of my criticisms of Skyrim (and RPGs) in general.
So he writes:
So yes let's talk about Skyrim's socialist economy: anyone can walk up and use any machine or natural resource and no one cares. The only thing that counts as theft is taking someone's personal possessions. As long as you're willing to wait in line, blacksmiths are cool with you tooling around at their forges. Miners don't really care if you tap out their ore veins (ok they're probably not totally tapped out, but miners have to do some work digging to get a fresh seam). So basically, the means of production, from raw material to finished product, are available to anyone.
What doesn't seem available to anyone, however, are the means of commerce, since the only way to profit off the products of your labor is to sell them to established merchants who will offer such shit payment that it may actually cost you more to buy the raw materials from them than to sell the finished product. I assume this is because the power of capital has not been completely broken in Skyrim and well-connected merchants can gain the patronage of local lords to create a rent-seeking competition-stifling consumer-fleecing closed trading guild. But obviously, this only reinforces the need for perpetual revolution, for the pre-requisite of full socialism is the highest development of free-market capitalism.
There’s a lot in these two paragraphs, but I’ll start with the most basic of observations – the economy of Skyrim is the way JH describes because of conscious choices by the designers. However, I don’t think their conscious choices included anything related to socialism. I do not, for example, think they set about to make a sort of socialist utopia whereby the means of production are available to everyone because they felt it was high time to unshackle the gamer’s economic predisposition from capitalism. I also don’t think JH thinks this either – what is interesting to me is how Bethesda’s socialist approach to production is essentially a consequence of design decisions.
Let’s look at smithing. It doesn’t make much sense for a player to be able to make swords while he’s walking between cities. Obviously, if you are trying to create any sort of realism, you will want to tie a crafting skill like smithing to the traditionally required implements of that discipline – you need an anvil, a forge, a hammer, and a bunch of other shit you can’t lug around with you. There’s a bunch of ways to do this in a game.
First, you can sprinkle forges around your game world, with no clear ownership attributed to anyone. Depending on the depth you require for your standard of realism, this can cause a problem. Who built these forges? Who maintains them? Who keeps the fires burning, where do they get the fuel from, and why haven’t these sites been looted by, well, looters? If we wish to draw a corollary to some other modern means of production, you can’t drop a bakery in the middle of the wilderness and expect nobody to ask the questions I just asked. Clearly, if realism is your goal, you have failed. Instead, private ownership of these facilities neatly answers all of the above questions – we don't have to ask who takes care of the forge, because the guy that owns it obviously does. Disentangling yourself from this narrative of ownership is probably not an issue a video game designer wants to tackle.
Another way to do this is build forges in populated areas and claim they are owned “by the people”. If you can create a social fabric in your game world that would support this type of economic activity, this kind of forge would make perfect sense. Unfortunately for Bethesda, the Empire is a capitalist monarchy – the entire history of the series has relied on capitalism as its main source of economic activity. You can’t just drop forges into cities and suddenly claim that, oh yeah by the way, the people of Skyrim are totally into communal ownership of property. This is the sort of assertion that needs to be made on the back of a well-built history/mythology that is clearly designed to support it.
A third way of making smithing realistic is requiring the player to rent/lease the implements he needs in order to make something. So instead of random blacksmith dude letting me push him out of the way to spam iron daggers, he charges me for the use of it. Going beyond a mere pay-to-play scheme, the blacksmith could let me use his forge if I perhaps do a little chore for him (or if he likes me enough, or if he is racist and only likes Nords and, well, I happen to be a Nord, etc.) Essentially, the game could assign a value to the use of the forge, with that value being met in a variety of ways, through money, coercion, or fair trade.
The most obvious problem with this suggestion is the complexity. A designer might think that this is one-step too far down the path of realism (I don’t agree, but I can see the argument). It could make the whole process of smithing a little more opaque than the designers wished, or maybe make it enough of a hassle to keep some players from doing it. I don’t know about these objections, but then again I’m not a game designer. However, it seems to me that this type of set-up is merely an extension of renting a room at the inn.
Take my ranger. He hates cities, so I don’t spend a lot of time in them. I moved into the Alchemist’s shack because it’s in the middle of nowhere and I don’t have to worry about kids on my lawn. I go into town once in a while, usually to trade in any loot I’ve picked up. I take my money, maybe grab a beer, and then I’m hittin da club.
My problem? I have 33,000 Septims. And I have absolutely nothing to spend them on.
How did this happen? If we examine the way Skyrim handles prices, weighed against the three crafting disciplines, we’ll see a huge chunk of the problem right away: it is far, far cheaper to make gear that is better than most of the shit you can buy. This isn’t necessarily bad, but if you can spam your smithing skill to 100 in 30 minutes by making cheap iron garbage, the ratio of gold to time is horribly skewed. Add this to the fact that gear is leveled (so you’re bound to get something decent, if you're patient) and you really have nothing to worry about. Why spend the money?*
If smithing was an involved skill that took a long time to level up (think of WoW) then I could definitely see the tradeoff – smithing produces superior weapons, but it will take you a long time to get them. Having said that, I can understand Bethesda’s reluctance to implement an MMO-style mode of crafting, because they’re usually tedious and boring as shit. So the solution is to make crafting fast-paced and interactive and fun and exciting . . . but now it’s overpowered. Once again, why buy what’s in the store when you can make something better with a minimum of effort?
The end result is piles and piles of money, with no must-haves waiting on the shelves of your local merchant. I should point out that being loaded isn’t just a function of my stingy ranger’s personality quirks; my Nord dual wielder and my Imperial mage were both swimming in doubloons by midgame. Skyrim, like Oblivion and Morrowind, suffers from a poorly balanced economy, where money eventually has no value other than its worth as a collectible.
Of course, there are plenty of optional things I can spend my money on in Skyrim, like houses. If you factor in real estate, suddenly the economy of Skryim becomes more balanced. The problem with houses in Skyrim, though, is that they are basically a meta-gamed invention to take currency out of circulation. They don’t really add any concrete benefits to the actual mechanics of the game; they are basically in-universe achievements. You’re spending your chuck-e-cheeze skee ball tickets on another game of skee ball, so what’s the point? I’m not walking away from the transaction with any meaningful benefit, other than a place to sleep and store (some of) my crap.
Juche System Is Best System!
All of these problems – the over-abundance of money, the disparity between crafting/purchasing/looting good gear, the lack of meaningful purchase options – are a result of taking the player away from the “means of commerce”. In Skyrim, you are nothing but a materialistic, consumerist shill, Gorden Gecko with an axe and less wrinkles. There’s really nothing constructive for you to spend your money on, and making money isn’t really that hard.
I started this post talking about the socialist aspects of forge (read: factory) ownership in Skyrim. This set up seemed to be nothing more than a compromise between complexity and playability, but it has unintended consequences. By allowing the player the produce goods for free (or close to free, having considered incredibly cheap materials) the Skyrim economy is based solely on consumption. Paradoxically, there is no drive for consumption; outside of buying gear (goods that don’t really need to be bought) or houses (which have no real value as a modifier on gameplay), there is nothing that puts a demand on your finances.
The immediate solution** to this problem is to give the player access to JH's aptly described "means of commerce." To put it another way, let me open up my own damn business.
Now before anybody goes off half-cocked, consider that this type of gameplaying mechanic already exists; play any 4x space sim like X3, and you’ll have the opportunity to assemble vast caravans built upon your prowess as a trader. An RPG like Skyrim could easily implement a similar system. Allow me to open a store in Whiterun, or start a caravan to Dawnstar, or sell my services as a healer. Or better yet, let me build a house (or a manor, or an estate!) instead of buying one, and make quests that pull this feature into the main story. Give me some way to interact with the economy beyond trading in dwarf shields and bone meal.
And once I’ve made my money, let me use it in a way that actually affects the game world. Instead of bending my bow to the Imperial cause of wiping out the Stormcloaks, let me help finance the civil war (or buy the loyalty of Ulfrics lieutenants, or fund a Skyrim chapter of the Morag Tong to wipe out the Dark Brotherhood, you get the idea). Let me put my dough towards completing objectives. Opening the gameworld up to this kind of activity allows for a much greater degree of freedom, and it helps cement the idea that the game is truly a sandbox.***
Operation Free Market Garden
Am I getting carried away?
Yeah maybe. One of my first – and still remaining – criticisms of Skyrim is that it is too combat-centric. Really, the only way to move the game forward is by combat, and most of the skills you can develop are, directly or indirectly, aimed at increasing your ability as a fighter. So perhaps letting me open Sir Meadhead’s House of Horns is a mechanic that seems out of place in a game like Skyrim. Who the hell logs on to Steam so they can sit behind their imaginary counter in their imaginary store and sell imaginary tankards to their imaginary customers? I mean, I think I would do it but I can’t get pissy at someone who wouldn’t.
I’m not picking on Skyrim, here. I’ve had this complaint about several games in this very blog, and usually the complaint arises from a stunted feeling of freedom and/or control. Great strides have been made in improving melee combat, magic systems, speech and persuasion systems, lock picking and all the other staples of the western RPG experience. But for some reason, I’m still selling spare swords to blacksmiths like I was doing 20 years ago in The Bard’s Tale.
I think it is time for us to reconsider what we "must have" in an RPG. I don't want any reader to think I am nitpicking the game to death. I didn't make Skyrim, and I step with caution around the sinkholes of criticizing a work of art for the things it doesn't have. With this admonition in mind, all of the criticisms I hope to offer are constructive in nature. I simply feel it is time to look at the economy of your gameworld as factor no less important than the combat mechanic, or breathtaking vistas, or the ability kill a dude and then raise him from the dead to go kill other dudes. When I can make my money selling swords to would-be adventurers, take those profits and build an estate, host a member of the Dark Brotherhood in a lavish room and then pay him to kill my rival business owner . . . well, I don't know what the hell I'd do. But it would be neat.
*I haven't run across a single instance where I needed better gear. Most of my ranger gear is made up of stuff I've found -- I think I bought my bow, but at 1300 Septims it hardly made a difference. I'm playing on Expert. In other words, if you have some patience you'll eventually find whatever gear you need.
** I'm well aware that people may think no solution is needed, because there is no problem. That's okay.
*** I realize that my solution is probably way outside the original idea expressed by JH in his quotes; in fact, it may be the complete opposite.