Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Brewster’s Millions (of Gold Pieces)

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 25, 2013

When I was a teenager, I read a book called “Brewster’s Millions” (which was, around the same time, made into a movie featuring Richard Pryor, which I’ve never seen).  The book was written just over a hundred years ago, when a million U.S. dollars was worth a heck of a lot more than they are today.  Using an inflation calculator, a million dollars back then was worth about a quarter of a billion today.

In the book, an all-around nice guy (Montgomery Brewster) inherits a million dollars from his grandfather. Then, just as suddenly, he stands to inherit seven times as much money from his uncle… who hated his grandfather. In order to inherit the seven million dollars, however, he has to squander his entire inheritance from his grandfather in a single year, without a penny to show for it. On the surface, that sounds pretty easy to do, but there were a large number of limitations and caveats on this yearlong party. He couldn’t give too much to charity; he had to show good business sense (no buying an expensive yacht and selling it for five dollars, for example… ); and he couldn’t go overboard with gambling. All the easy ways to get rid of the money (by 1902 standards) were pretty limited. Mr. Brewster finds that squandering that much money is not nearly as much fun as it sounds, and becomes quite a burden before the year is out. Especially when the occasional gamble or stock market decision actually becomes quite profitable.

But if he fails, he is penniless, except for whatever is leftover from his grandfather’s fortune.

I imagine it would be a bit easier in today’s age to blow through even that much money.  Not easy – a quarter-billion is still an incredible amount of money, even for someone like Curt Schilling and his 38 Studios. But inheritance tax would devour half of that right off the bat. 🙂 Anyway, I probably missed the entire point of the book, and sometimes wonder what it would be like to have more money than I knew how to spend.

In many CRPGs, though, this is a pretty common problem.  Going over The CRPG Addict’s blog, it’s not a new one, either. At a certain point, there’s really nothing worth buying. The best stuff can only be found through exploration and victories. Which is, in my opinion, as it should be.  It’s kinda anticlimactic if you just go to the store and purchase the best weaponry for your level.  That’s not what adventure should be about!

But, if not that, what do you spend your ill-gotten gains upon? How do you avoid ending up with enough gold to pay off the U.S. national debt and no place to spend it? How does an RPG provide enough ‘sinks’ in the economy to keep the cash flow interesting? While it sounds easy, as in Brewster’s Millions, it’s not trivial.

My favorite method is to provide disposable items that are significantly more powerful than permanent items.  But there’s a fundamental issue of game balance. An expensive one-shot item has to be VERY potent to justify its cost (and make the player willing to use it). But would having a few of this item in one’s inventory allow the player to simply blow through boss encounters with ease?

And then there’s early game versus end-game pricing. Things like curing at temples tend to be overpriced at low levels when you really need it, but by the time it becomes a reasonable inconvenience you can often have your own party members cast the same spells for free.

Gambling – a lot of “equipment-focused” RPGs (Diablo-style, Borderlands, etc) – sounds like a great idea, except in my personal experience I lose interest very quickly. I think only once – at lower levels – have I ever gotten anything worth keeping. In ANY game. When it is so clearly useless, people won’t use it, and it won’t be a money-sink anymore.

Some single-player RPGs do allow the player to purchase (and even furnish) houses. This becomes a nice thing to blow money on when you’ve got more than you know what to do with, but I don’t recall them ever serving a critical function beyond being a place to stash my stuff. It’d be cool if people came to visit you or something, but then you’d probably be playing The Sims instead of an RPG.  But seriously – it’d be nice if owning property actually unlocked interesting new quests and storylines. (Actually, as I recall, this was the case in Baldur’s Gate II, but I don’t recall seeing it anywhere else).

Outfitting NPCs – while this is frequently an ability with NPC companions, the only game where I’ve seen this be  a useful mechanic (rather than an amusing side-effect) for general NPCs is Din’s Curse. In Din’s Curse, the towns frequently come under attack, and outfitting the townspeople with your castoffs make defensive events a lot easier when the townspeople are a bit less vulnerable.  I guess there was a game (Morrowind?) where you could reverse-pickpocket NPCs and cause them to wear some useless equipment… right before you attacked them. But that’s more in the ‘amusing side effect’ category.

Of course, there are also recurring costs – like equipment maintenance (always a favorite among players – NOT!), rent, taxes, docking fees, etc… but these are not frequently welcome unless they provide an advantage — like hiring a mercenary. Even then, they might be only grudgingly accepted.

Training might cost gold – frequently used in older CRPGs like Might & Magic. I’m kinda surprised this isn’t used more in modern games than it is.  This is something that can easily scale with players as they acquire more funds. Higher-level training for higher-level (and richer) characters has significantly higher costs, right?

How about buying quests (or access to optional areas) for gold? Or bribery (if events calling for bribery are recurring and interesting – not just penalizing)?

If a game is going to go through the trouble of having an economy, why not make an interesting one where there’s always something interesting for a player  to spend his character’s money on?

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 23 Comments to Read

  • Robert Boyd said,

    Path of Exile handles this in an interesting way by not having any direct currency at all. Instead, it uses a barter system with the most common barter requests being one-time use items like Identify Scrolls, Town Portals, and items that enhance or transform equipment. Creates a lot of interesting decisions – should I use this item to upgrade an existing item or use it in barter to get something else entirely?

  • Infinitron said,

    Eric Schwarz recently wrote about this: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EricSchwarz/20130110/184600/An_Economy_Is_You.php

  • NWegener said,

    First off: I didn’t like the way Frayed Knights handled Economy (although I did not complete that one, so my Memory might be faulty). Aside from consumables, shops were completly useless and consumables were too few in the Hands of Merchants, so using one of the was hardly justifiable, especially the spellstones. (Plus I thought the Game was too easy to require their use, but then again I dropped out around the Planes of Anarchy, so the Game might have become brutal after that point.)

    On Training Costs: I am currently playing M&M 8 and was previously playing M&M 7 and I do like the Training Costs. They are harmless in the beginning and really expensive towards the end. You are not forced to use Training (thus it was not a form of Tax on the Player) and were a choice (do I keep the Money, but not train?). Not surprised, that not more RPGs use that System, as it does make leveling a bit less satisfying.

    On Consummables: I’m thinking of a Game that, to me, got this right: Ammo in Duke Nukem 3D. Yes. Duke Nukem 3D is an older FPS with different Guns (Shotgun, Rocket Launcher, Chaingun, etc.) and allows Exploration to find more Ammo, Health, Armor, and so on. The thing is, you can only carry a limited amount of Ammo for every Weapon (200 shots for the shotgun, 50 Rockets for the Rocket Launcher) and Ammo is lying around but not infinite. Because the Game is tough, you will need to use all of your Weapons.
    Still, Ammo is fairly common (unless you need it of course :)), so you will quickly reach the limit and see no point in saving up your ammo, but still rare enough, that you don’t want to waste it. The endresult is, that you can safely use the awesome Weapons in the game, without feeling like you are crippling yourself in the long run, but still savor every pickup you get.
    So I think the ideal on consumables is, that they should be common enough, that their use does not feel like a huge investment (You probably know this: I only have 3 Super bombs and I will never use any of them, because there might be a threat bigger, than the one I’m currently facing), while still feeling like you have to use them.

    On Equipment in Shops: I’ve come to think about, how being able to buy Clothes in your size are a pretty big deal in our modern times. In the past you had to have all shirts, pants and shoes made for yourself or they wouldn’t properly fit. So why not have it necessary to adjust Weapons and Armors before you can use them? That would make selling Armor less lucrative and getting a new Suit of Armor more expensive and thus more satisfying to obtain. I remember the game Venetica doing that well.
    Also, why not have Great Equipment for sale? Why not have a merchant in the game with awesome Weapons, who knows that their Quality is peerless and prices accordingly. Getting the Money is a Challenge in itself. Or a Blacksmith who makes Armor for you, if you give him the Materials (That are all really expensive, if you want good stuff). Or having personalisation for your Equipment, paying Money to slightly improve and enchant your Equipment.

    Or if all else fails, why not put a wishing well in the Game, where you can exchange gold for xp.

    Geez, this was long. I hope I made myself clear on those Points :).

    On an unrelated note, I’m using this Post to just say: “Thank you for writing these Blogposts”. I really enjoy reading them, even if I rarely comment on them. So thank you very much for taking the Time to write them.

  • Califer said,

    You could take training a bit further. Once they’re to the point that they have a lot of money, maybe they could buy disposable items that help them play the game? XP Boosts and such. Extra enchantments that they can place on their items. Hiring guards to clear out areas of weak enemies so you don’t run into random encounters there anymore.

  • JT said,

    I’ve had quite the opposite experience with gambling, and I tend to enjoy it sometimes. For example, in the earlier days of D2 I would play for quite some time specifically with the goal of earning as much gambling money as I could. I would obtain a lot of my desired uniques that way, digging a rutted path between the gamble vendor in Lut Gholein and the Sewers hatch to reload his gamble list.

    In Torchlight 2, I’ve gotten quite a few keepers from gambling as well.

    However, I am now in agreement with the first poster as far as Path of Exile. The barter system kind of took me by surprise at first (I had no detailed foreknowledge about PoE before jumping into the open beta that just started) but I kind of like it now.

  • Corwin said,

    I really like the idea of using a house you buy as a means of opening up a new quest line, especially if you also have to pay for major renovations first (a bit like M&M 4/5). That could be a worthwhile money sink. Will we see that in FK3? 🙂

  • Kyle Haight said,

    There was at least one house-related quest in Oblivion… something involving an undead magician in a hidden crypt in the basement.

    NWN2 took the ‘house’ concept up to 11 with its stronghold. Fully upgrading that thing took a huge amount of money but it helped a lot in the later battle that took place there.

  • McTeddy said,

    I actually enjoyed Fable 2’s housing Market… though it didn’t really solve the “WAAAAY too much money” problem.

    For anyone who doesn’t know… almost every building and store in the game has a price tag. Every building you buy then pays you rent every five minutes (Or hour while the game is off). Combine this with manually toying with prices or buying expensive decorations to raise the homes value… and you get to feel filthy stinkin’ rich in a good way.

    Hated everything else about the game… but I still find myself logging in occasionally to buy out a new town.

  • Wavinator said,

    What about being able to pay for things that players really might not want to do in the later game? Would players pay to finance a mage tower/airport/jumpgate that opened safer or quicker travel between areas? What about scouts to find an item, path or person you really don’t want to search for? Or bankroll an expedition to discover new lands (and quests and gameplay)?

    It would be nice to see more dynamic worlds that were less focused on the player to the degree that you need to spend money if you want the world to cater to you. We’ve already dethrowned the “chosen one” positioning to positive effect in storytelling, let’s do it for worldbuilding.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Dragon Quest 8 went the gambling route, and handled it quite well I thought. There were multiple casinos in the game, one with a relatively low entrance fee for when the player is lower level, and then an obscenely high-priced casino for end game use.

    You had to pay for entrance, then pay for tokens. I believe the game had severe restrictions on saving in casinos/made it super inconvenient to prevent save scumming. You could only save at churches in the game, and churches were no where near the casinos.

    The reason you’d put up with this was that nearly everything in the casinos were rare or unique items, and the very BEST items were in the high rollers casino.

    Each casino had a prize booth to exchange tokens for items, and the token cost of the items ranged from reasonable to insane (like millions of tokens for an item). So you COULD just convert money to tokens to buy prizes, but to get the really good stuff you HAD to gamble. And you had to gamble BIG, or else your returns would be far too small for the best prizes. Prizes ranged from cosmetic outfits to ultimate weapons. I thought it was pretty cool money sink.

  • Anon said,

    Interestingly, I deeply hate gambling in story-based video games, especially adventures and RPGs. At least if it isn’t somehow a well integrated part of the plot.

    I always feel that it hinders my progress in the game and that I either spend too much time getting superfluous resources (=not needed for besting the game) or to get even a rather small amount of game currency because the gambling may be rather hard.

    As for Brewster’s Millions I guess the morale of the book is that one shouldn’t get rid of the million in the first place. Be humble, accept the first inheritance and ignore the second, much bigger one.

    Of course the whole point of the story is that with humans, especially those not living in the jungle, greed overtakes reason and so the story gets momentum: Brewster has trouble spending the money, loses love, loses all hope, abandons the money and accepts poverty, finds true love and then – surprise, surprise – gets the prize. Because he was so humble…
    So, human, stay humble and fortune will come to you!

  • Maklak said,

    I have no problem getting rich in an RPG. Heck, I expect to be able to buy a house, some really nice equipment and all the consumables I need after killing and looting so many. I’m also not averse to actually being able to trade with profit by travelling between locations and to other infinite money generators, such as making potions out of regrowing herbs or whatever. I just want some things to spend that money on.

    In a game like FK, where you start in a small town, best equipment should be found. Well, maybe you could get a few pieces of it from a powerful NPC visiting the town, but the majority should be out there and preferably not hidden in chests, but used by the enemy warlords.
    If the player has access to the capital or other city, that changes everything. Custom made, custom enchanted equipment should cost a fortune, but trump pretty much everything else, save for artefacts of power that are family heirlooms of the most powerful noble houses.

    I’m all for as realistic an economy as the developer can be arsed implementing. It baffles me that games use all kinds of complex math to handle 3D graphics, but usually resort to something insultingly simplistic when it comes to handling things like economy, wounds, armour and so on.

    Well, fortunately it seems that we are less then 5 years from Dwarf Fortress getting a working economy.

  • Xenovore said,

    @Califer: Agreed. Not just guards, but more NPC community investment in general. I mean, you’re typically bringing a ton of loot into towns and selling it; realistically those merchants aren’t just going to sit on it and hoard it, they’re going to turn around and sell it for a profit. And they probably pay taxes. So it makes perfect sense that as the PC continually enriches others as well as himself, the community as a whole becomes stronger and better equipped. They’d also probably expand their influence… they’d be able to deal with those pesky rats and bandits on their own after a while.


    It baffles me that games use all kinds of complex math to handle 3D graphics, but usually resort to something insultingly simplistic when it comes to handling things like economy, wounds, armour and so on.

    Totally! I think graphics capabilities have been more than good enough for a while now. Let’s put more emphasis on better game systems: AI, economy, more dynamic world settings, etc.

  • Anon said,

    > I think graphics capabilities have been more than good enough for a while now. Let’s put more emphasis on better game systems: AI, economy, more dynamic world settings, etc.

    The problem with this: It wouldn’t drive up sales in the mainstream market (where the biggest graphics progress has been made).
    On the contrary it would probably hurt sales because people buy prettier games from the competition.

  • DGM said,


    That’s what indies are for.

  • Eric said,

    As Infinitron pointed out above, I wrote an article on this recently and came to similar conclusions you did.

    I think offering consumables is a great way to keep the player continually engaged in the economy. If the player is looking to pick up a Flail of Awesomeness +10, and it costs 1 million gold, well, the level of engagement in the economy is going to be much smaller because the player is only ever going to save up to make one huge purchase, then never participate again. It’s even worse if the player can find that same weapon later in the game for no money at all.

    Instead, giving the player consumables (potions, scrolls, tattoos, whatever) allows for the same sorts of benefits, but on a temporary rather than permanent basis. It means that you really have to think about how to spend money, and on a much more regular basis, because suddenly you are much more dependent on the resource than before.

    I also really like having to pay money for skill trainers instead of spending experience points directly – after all, you can become very strong without much training, but technique is another story entirely. It actually makes more sense than the alternative and gives you a good way to spend money. In some titles, like Gothic, it actually becomes sort of a dichotomy – do you buy that expensive set of new armor, or do you raise your skills?

    Generally speaking, the presence of a gold sink, unless it is in some way necessitated by the plot or game design, is almost always an indicator that a game’s economy needs work. It’s pretty much an admission by the devs that “yeah, the player has too much money, how can we make him spend it all?”

  • Maklak said,

    There is always the need to buy food and other supplies, paying for staying somewhere for the night, paying for passage on a ship and other similar costs, but in an economy where you get progressively more gold, this becomes irrelevant pretty quickly.

  • Xian said,

    On Equipment in Shops: At least custom fit armor would give you something to spend your hard-earned (or plundered) loot on. I don’t know how many games I have finished with a huge excess of gold because there really wasn’t anything to spend it on. The vendors sell items that aren’t any better than what you can find on your own, so other than the odd ingredient or occasional health potion, there really isn’t much reason to purchase anything from them. I liked the way the original Diablo handled that with Wirt. His equipment was outrageously expensive, but at least that gave you a goal, a reason to save up, and something substantial to spend your money on.

  • DraQ said,

    Crosspost from RPGCodex:

    No matter how little money do you throw at the player, it will accumulate and tend to infinity if it isn’t compensated by the reviled recurring costs. And not just any recurring costs, but ones carefully calibrated to raise faster than revenue does, unless player can play really damn well, so that player can’t accumulate and maintain wealth (and power) above their level of competence.

    Powerful disposables are, with all due respect to Jay, an excessively shitty solution, because they are nearly impossible to balance, tempting to to hoard, and usually easy to do so if player is above average (and this is fundamental balance problem, because if they are necessary to progress, they need to be abundant, while if they are just extra, they can be hoarded with impunity by any competent player regardless of rarity).

    Putting physical limits on ability to *have* huge fortune in the first place – no weightless gold, merchants with limited funds compared to worth of legendary items, shifting focus to barter system while reducing or eliminating money-based economy – can put a damper on this raise to obscene affluence which is a very good thing, but only carefully tuned recurring costs players so dislike can stop this entirely.

    Sometimes having mechanics players think they hate is a very good thing:
    Take System Shock 2 combination of respawns, maintenance and ammo management, or Morrowind’s and STALKER:SoC’s lack of fast travel and encumbrance limitations.

  • Cuthalion said,

    I tend to just view it as, “I have progressed beyond the stage in the game where money is relevant.” Really, it’s like becoming independently wealthy (I suppose?). I’m fine if there comes a point where I can buy at a whim anything around, and money is an early or early-to-mid-game challenge as the emphasis shifts from resource management (survival) to tactics (triumph).

    I hate having to pay for training. This has, in my experience, had the effect of turning the difficulty curve into a wall. More specifically, a mesa, as in the early game, you can’t afford improvements and end up accumulating tons of potential you can’t use to get to the next part of the game, so you have to grind. Then, when you’re rich, will it still matter now that you have money to burn? Admittedly, the only game I really remember this from was Spidweb’s Exile III, which has had a tremendous impact on my expectations and tastes (mostly positive, except in this case). Morrowind struck what I thought was a better bargain, letting you buy training you didn’t want to do yourself — you could spend tons of money that way, but it was optional for when you needed to learn something, but didn’t want to build it manually.

    Morrowind also had the enchanting gold sink, the streamlining of which I much lament in more recent Elder Scrolls installments. I lament it with weeping. And gnashing of teeth. (Also, I pretty much stole the system three-quarter-hog for my tabletop RPG.) But the important part about Morrowind’s gold sink was: it was fun. Enchanting broken (but outrageously expensive, in many cases) items was just way too much fun, and sort of a way to experiment with ideas and play god once the main gameplay had worn off.

    I will never spend consumables unless I know I can get more. Ever. The only exceptions are ones that provide a permanent boon, such as a stat increase.

  • CdrJameson said,

    A possible solution is to just have less money in the game. Grinding poverty is generally the norm in these settings, so why would there be cash all over the place?

    WFRP tended to severely limit your wealth by not giving you any in the first place, and then also making magic items obscenely rare and expensive (even if they were rubbish) just in case you ended up with some cash.

    Most promises of wealth turned out to be exaggerations, or just plain lies.

    But then it kept a lid on a lot of the problems in CRPGs by simply making the maximum not that far from the minimum. There were limits on how much better your stats could get, so as a human you could be pretty tough against other humanoids, but you’d never get close to even a small dragon.

  • DraQ said,

    The problem with merely having less money is that they will still accumulate to infinity, just in smaller increments.

  • Nikola said,

    I like the idea with paying for training. I even love the idea of paying being the only way to train (after you get the required experience, naturally). However, I hate when I feel like money is what’s limiting me in character advancement.

    Whatever the limit is, I want a way to go around it, or I want the game to be designed in a way that stops me from even noticing the limit.

    If money is the limit, then I either want some way to (slowly) generate an infinite amount of money, i.e., don’t make the total available money in the game limited), or design the progression/advancement in such a way that I’m very rarely able to hit the hard limit.