Currencies

September 11, 2017 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten

Currency. Every single game operates in exchange of various currencies, whether they’re obvious or not. The most immediate ways we see it exchanged with games is in things like points or coins, but it extends to less obvious types like lives and health and even into figurative currencies like available time. That is to say, not only things like in-game timers affecting a variety of mechanics, but how you, the player, choose to spend your time and emotional energy invested in a game. Every engagement with a game involves an exchange of your resources (figurative currency) for the desired form of entertainment, and you manage your expectations in real time by choosing to continue to play the game or put it down.

Although we typically tend to think of resource management as something more specific to things like RPG’s, even older, more actively-engaging action games operate in currency exchange on sometimes rapid levels. The classic FPS, Doom, is often considered to be the father of action-oriented FPS design, but you are still operating with fluctuating resources at a heightened rate. Things like your health and armor levels, the current ammo you have available, the health of your foes, and the actual number of foes you’re forced to deal with are just a few. While searching for secrets and ammo become an obvious form of management, you’re forced in real-time to weigh the value of various currencies and how to spend them every second that you’re engaged in combat.

For example: unexpectedly taking hits reducing your health to almost-nothing in the middle of a level immediately flares the value of your health to an extreme height, and this also directly effects the perceived value of your remaining munitions. Those plasma cells you were hoping to use to easily take care of an upcoming trouble spot suddenly become very attractive to use immediately. Snap decision? You switch to your BFG and take care of the immediate threat, a horde of lesser enemies that you’d underestimated.

In the moment you decided to blow through those plasma cells, you made a judgment that they were suddenly less valuable than the meager health that you had left. Previously, 10 health was nothing to lose and you wantonly strutted about the level, unafraid to spend it in exchange for your privilege to be reckless. Conserving those plasma cells was paramount for ensuring a swift exchange of currency in your favor when you hit that problem room, so you used weapons with better ammo efficiency and more suited to taking care of the small fry. Now? You made a mistake on a horde of small fry, and 10 health was suddenly all that stood between you and a fail state.

Although you didn’t consciously recognize it as such, your brain was very quickly, very actively measuring the value of a variety of resources and choosing to exchange them at a rate that would get you through the situation with desirable circumstance. Sometimes it makes a bad decision in this heightened state, and that ammo you waste drastically effects how you’ll handle the upcoming room. Every hit you take and every shot you fire – whether it hits or misses – actively adjusts the value of each individual currency in your arsenal of currencies and forces your brain to readjust what the desirable circumstance is. To even further complicate matters, you’re dealing with even more subtle metrics like timing and spacing available between monster movements and attacks.

This exchange of resources is exciting not only because of the aforementioned variables, but because the end goal dictates how you’re forced to engage. You want to make it to the exit, so you’ve got to get there safely: which means outsmarting all the enemies and obstacles along the way. Currencies exchange at rates that your mind cannot attach number value to, and therein lies a lot of the fun of action-oriented games: engaging with them on your terms and processing the abstract situations they put you into.

A huge part of what makes Doom, in particular, so much fun is how much these values change moment-to-moment and how they tend to fluctuate across the particular map. Doom’s mechanics and individual maps are carefully engineered to leave these exchange loops (e.g. collect resources, encounter enemies, assess values, repeat) open until the end of the map, thus making each encounter play into a larger scale operation. Success and failure in one instance of combat bleed over into the next one and the next one, thus making the currency exchanges far more exciting than if they simply existed only within the encounter.

Doom 2016 (the latest installment) fails to understand core elements of the original’s design and tends to operate on fewer, simpler loops. Enemies spill so much health and ammo that collecting and managing is significantly less important, and you can get through huge portions of the game using only a single weapon and simply milking a few enemies for health when necessary. The high-stakes currency exchange that the original Doom operated in is reduced to picking a favorite weapon – as they all maintain surprisingly similar levels of ammo efficiency and ability – and making sure to manipulate the situation to get health or ammo out of enemies when necessary. If you feel you’re dipping on health, do a glory kill. If you’re running dry on ammo, pull out the chainsaw for a free kill and watch ammo spill out.

While the game is relatively tuned to at least make these individual encounters exciting, they tend to exist in a vacuum free of overarching consequence and quickly lose a lot of the edge that the exchanges in the previous game had. Each room becomes a contained arena, thus devolving every encounter into a very repetitive routine. While the monsters might now ostensibly feature more complex behaviors, removing health and ammo as pressing concerns lowers the stakes, and turning individual rooms into locked-in battlefields funnels the design to only knowing how to exist in these arenas. Punishment is more swift, but the consequence is less intense – you’re only sent back to a checkpoint, rather than the beginning of the map (please don’t talk to me about quicksaving in the original, which is widely considered a learning crutch). Your objective goes from “reach the end of the map” to “reach the next checkpoint,” which is typically the end of the encounter.

By containing every encounter, focusing on making every arena large (and typically circular), and offering full means of recovery in nearly every enemy, they strip the game of its identity and turn it into a repetitive mess. Every firefight boils down to a nearly identical routine of running laps around the arena and occasionally switching up to get health or ammo back. If you screw up, your mistake is mostly felt within that individual fight. Excitement in Doom 2016 doesn’t even last until the end of a single run through the game if you’ve tightened how to exercise your routine before that point.

What makes the original Doom so much more exciting are the variables that its pacing, map design, and monster design allow. Despite being technologically rudimentary in comparison, it taps into a type of design considerably more cerebral and complex. The better the map is designed, the more unique the values of its various currencies become, and it’s part of why the game still has a dedicated map-making community decades after its release. Running out of health or ammo in the classic game is a constant threat, and how to treat each new situation with your available resources requires surprisingly intricate thinking.

Comparatively, Doom 2016 attempts to add complexity in one of the most tired, banal, and modern fashions available: metagaming objectives and rewards. Kill certain numbers of enemies in certain fashions or complete other tasks (some of which exist in a literal void, entirely divorced from the rest of the game) and you’re able to gain permanent upgrades that increase your killing efficiency or ability. On a superficial level, this sounds like it has the capacity to make the game considerably more complex than its predecessor, but in practice, it only makes it even simpler and more routine.

The effect that most of these upgrades have is linear. That is to say: they strictly make you more effective, strictly make you better. Most of them only act as increases to your killing ability, and it often requires busywork or playing the game in unintuitive (and largely boring) ways to earn them. The original Doom’s enemy and weapon set promise a near-endless amount of interesting combinations due to their vastly different uses, subtleties, (such as enemy pain thresholds causing flinching with different weapons) and limited munitions. Doom 2016’s weapons all upgrade linearly and into multi-purpose carnage machines that become suitable in almost any situation.

Many might assume that more active thinking went into their completion of metagaming tasks for rewards to make their particular favorite weapon into a prominently efficient tool of destruction, but it’s only on a surface level that any thinking went on. There’s no complex thought done under the hood or in the moment: there’s simply menial, plainly-spelled-out work done to reward you with thinking less. The player sees the exchange of currency going on, watches as they kill enemies to fill checklists to increase strength, and they tend to assume that they’re being active, clever agents in this world by making active strides to reduce the risk in these exchanges. They spend their time and energy, they get a tangible reward in watching their weapons become more efficient.

In another game, the very point of it might be to do this: manipulate systems of numbers, work to reach maximum efficiency, master the system. But in Doom? Not so much. The appeal, even in the new one, is typically described as being in the combat encounters – a place where currencies become abstract and intuitive, where your brain is actively thinking faster than it could possibly explain. Values rise and fall, and failure to comprehend them quickly results in failure. This kind of excitement is what brings people to these types of games – Doom is not about slowly, consciously making the best decisions to get rich through stacking the cards, it’s about doubling down on a bad hand because you’ve just worked out how to intimidate everyone else at the table into folding. It’s simply what it excels at, and to capitalize elsewhere is to make a worse or fundamentally different game.

If this is true, why settle for closed-arena combat and tedious upgrades? Why not simply play the old game on new maps with new and more complex variables? The most important thing to consider, here, is what you’re looking to get out of these games. Every game you play is an investment of your resources, an expenditure of your time and energy. I feel like it’s important to ask yourself when you spend these if all you want is superficial engagement and cheap outlets for easy player empowerment.