When I played World Of Warcraft dedicatedly – every day for about nine months – the currency system, was, to put too fine a point on it, fucked.
I don’t mean it was fucked in the way any person who existed was a primary producer and there wasn’t enough produce to sustain an inflation rate. I don’t mean in terms of economic structures, though hahah, good luck making sense of those in-universe. I mean that the currency system was fucked in that currencies represent things people care about, and there was basically no good way to think about them.
There were kind of four currencies WoW used at the time for end-game content. You had gold, which represented a real currency that vendors would exchange for goods and services in infinite supply, putting price floors and ceilings on things. You had Justice Points, and Valor Points, which represented things you’d done and that you could subsequently exchange for high-level equipment. You also had Experience – which was a currency only the player cared about, and you would eventually stop caring about it. You would eventually hit a certain value of experience and that was it, you were done. You didn’t need any more. Nonetheless, those were your four basic currencies, and there were others you could earn, in the form of Tol Barad commendations, honour and conquest points – things that I didn’t deal with much.
Now, once upon a time, Justice and Valor points were actual physical things that when you beat up a boss monster in a dungeon, you’d get and you could take them to a vendor. That vendor would then trade it for gear. That is to say, that vendor was running a business and she could exchange with you these things for services. This was an incredibly gamey element: you were being rewarded for killing bad guys of significance, enough, with good gear. The loot system of WoW is also ridiculous, don’t let’s go down that path.
The thing that this has me thinking about though, is in the context of so many worlds, currency is determined as a thing people care about. A thing they care about in a way that’s meaningful or lasting. A thing that’s fungible. In Fallen London, there are a kajillion currencies of different qualities and grades, and that’s sort of part of the fun of it – the currencies represent a sprawling city of impossibly strange little subcultures that value wine and secrets and bruises and that’s fine. But in other, more whole-feeling worlds? What the hell does a gold piece represent? What is a gil, in Final Fantasy 5?
I dunno. These systems always imply something about the world around them. Experience is a currency whose transaction exists exclusively between the player and the game: Earn more of this, and I will exchange it for this unlocked content. In some extremely system-y games, like Hoodiejoy’s From Whence It Came the ‘high score’ is used to unlock new areas of the game and new abilities. You do worse so you can do better, spending your eventual score in the name of the promise of exceeding that.
But we love increasing numbers.
If it’s a number players care about, maybe you don’t need to dress it up well. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the currency doesn’t make anything you can call sense. But maybe you can create an interesting space just by what you choose to call the little number that’s going up. You can use it to earn something with the player. You can create currency.