Managing resources is an activity which occurs in most free to play games. If it is upgrading heroes/buildings, fulfilling quests or just exchanging them for lives. They are also a part of the game’s economy. And economy is what drives player’s progression towards their short and long term goals.

A few weeks ago I started to think about how different games, where the significant part of a gameplay is focused on managing resources, can bring different experiences. Not just through a theme or a narrative but with the resources management itself. What is fun about converting one kind resource into another? What can be the challenge here?

Because of my level design experiences, I chose to examine this topic through optics of puzzle design first.

A puzzle is a game, problem, or toy that tests a person’s ingenuity or knowledge. In a puzzle, the solver is expected to put pieces together in a logical way, in order to arrive at the correct or fun solution of the puzzle.

For simpler communication, I decided to use Puzzle Dependency Graph what is a framework used primarily for designing puzzle branching in adventure games.

Example how Puzzle Dependency Graph visualize a relationship and an order of required actions

A dependency graph is a graph in which the nodes represent things which are dependent on other things. Often this is a dependency over time and indicates that the later thing cannot occur until its dependencies are satisfied. For a familiar example in gaming think of crafting in Minecraft. Creating a wooden axe requires wooden planks and sticks and those could be graphed as dependencies of the axe.

Joshua Weinberg

For me, one of the most satisfying activity in resource management games is mastering the production pipeline. It’s about learning “recipes”proper planning and finding most effective ways how to fulfill tasks. Basically to see everything working like good oiled machine. But progressing in these games usually leads to unlocking new resources, buildings and you have to permanently expand your knowledge to optimize your next steps. The ratio between “mastering” and “learning” mode is pretty important. But how long can a game provide meaningful and challenging actions only with new resources?

Graph’s Edges – New Resoruces

New resources can create a content gate, and players have to start producing and spend them to continue in a game’s progress. The phase of mastering is temporarily out and knowledge of an overall system has to be expanded again. Quantity – adding more elements into your system is the first step. It will be more challenging, but will it also be more fun? To do the same kind of an action over and over again with a broader pool of resources?

Graph’s Nodes – Resources Processing

By processing I mean actions, which can be done with resources – how they can be acquired, combined and converted. This processing can be determined by:

  • Required player’s action – what have player to do to start processing (tap on the button, play mini game etc)
  • Time – how long will it take (for simplification, we will skip this factor)
  • In Degrees and Out Degrees – the number of incoming and outcoming edges (dependencies).

The higher number of incoming edges – the more difficult will be to collect all of them (incoming resources) and start processing them into a new resource.

The higher of outcoming edges – the more possibilities (more new resources) is open for next processing.

A few basic examples of different nodes in resource processing

By linking and mixing different nodes together you can get interesting dynamics. Together with another game’s features (different kinds of contracts for example) and factors (time or storage limit) are games creating a space for planing, strategizing and progression goals.

If you check the image below, you can see how resources have to be processed, if you want to bake a single pizza in the farming game Hay Day. As you progress in the game, the number of available ingredients and recipes increase. To master the whole process of progress, players have to slowly learn them all. And with basic knowledge, they can start to optimize the strategy (which supplies I will need prepared ahead to create more pizzas in a shorter time?).

Producing Pizza in Hay Day – Different processing of materials – from three basic crops to a tasty pizza

Decisions & Autonomy

In a specific point, mastering all available recipes is becoming not enough challenging. It will become more work requiring four hundred well-learned taps. And here is a space for introducing alternative ways, how to acquire resources. It can have many forms – resource market, rewards in daily tasks, co-op etc. The result for players are interesting options and decisions they can make. I specifically emphasize word decision, because this is what will drive them.

A new way how to acquire resource D can be used as a part of a strategy

Optimizing will not be only about reducing unnecessary in-degrees and nodes required to make a wanted resource. It will be about choosing the optimal method in a given situation. These options are supporting player’s autonomy. But without proper knowledge of game basic’s, players will not be able to do them consciously.

Mental Models

Mental models help us navigate and make decisions and assumptions based on our previous experiences. For example we have mental models about how to drive a car, so when we will sit in a new car, we expect steering wheel, pedals, brakes etc.

Similiary it’s work with resource processing. To get fresh apple juice, first you have to plant apple trees. Then you wait until they ripen, harvest them and squeeze the juice out. Or you can buy ripen apples on a local market. And of course you can visit supermarket and buy bottles of apple juice. This allows you skip the whole process if it will be more efficient in that moment for you.

Using mental models which are generally shared between the significant part of the population help your players to interact with your game’s system in a familiar way they know and make sense for them. Using mental models in a (not only) puzzle design allows you to create situations where players can be fully concentrated on solving current situations and challenges and get into a state of flow.