The Weird Incremental Economy of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
Announced a few days ago, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla seems to continue in the action-RPG direction of the last two episodes of the franchise and here I am, feeling nostalgic of the older ones made of parkour, social stealth and a formulaic game structure.
I played most games of the series but never Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, the follow-up to the beloved second episode. End of last year, I visited the beautiful city of Rome for the first time: in these pandemic times, international travel feels like an artifact of the past, treading a virtual reconstitution is a close as it gets. And I get hooked pretty easily in this type of game too, so why not give it a try.
The ‘formula’ still works wonder on me, I quickly devoured the entire game and 100% completed it. For my overall opinion on the game, I’d follow the general consensus: Brotherhood is very close indeed to the excellent Assassin’s Creed 2, with few new features but tweaks all around which don’t revolutionize the experience but twist the game loop just enough.
As a game designer specialized in progression systems, I was particularly interested in the economic systems, comparing both AC2 & ACB to see in which area they were improved & how so.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood central economic system has the same premise as his predecessor, on a much bigger scale.
In Assassin’s Creed 2, you had the objective to renovate Monteriggioni, a town ruled by Ezio Auditore’s family. You could invest in the local buildings to upgrade their appearance and unlock merchants, get new items for sale and discounts. Every 20 minutes, a revenue based on your total investment was added the Villa’s chest, which you’d of course re-invest to renovate more properties and the cycle went on.
Brotherhood features the same renovation system and it now encompasses the entirety of Rome: you need to “liberate from Borgia’s hold and restore the city to its former glory”.
The Italian capital has 6 times more properties than Monteriggioni to renovate, which means you’re interacting with the system much more frequently in this episode and have more choices. Parts 1 & 2 of the article dig deeper in the design and balancing of this economic loop.
This opus didn’t change the “revenues every 20 minutes” rule but you can now access your revenues from any bank, which fixes one of the major flaw of AC2, the mandatory back & forth trips to the villa. A simple change with a big impact on the rhythm & ease-of-use of the system, this is the focus of part 3.
Finally, in the part 4, I analyze two new features of Brotherhood, the trade objects & shop quests. These aren’t directly related to the renovation system but are interesting to study to understand the impact of friction on the use of game mechanics.
Part 1 — The incremental economic loop
The renovation system is built on two complimentary game loops:
- You first need to destroy the Borgia’s tower of the area (district themselves are gated behind progression in the main story) to “unlock” the renovation of nearby buildings.
- Then you need to have enough funds to pay for the renovation. Since each renovation increases your revenues, this effectively creates a loop where your return on investment covers future spending.
At the end of my playthrough (100% main & secondary activities completed), I had, according to the stats menu, a total of 1.089k florins earned, 878k florins spent. It’s about 25% extra money, the balancing isn’t as broken as I expected. Indeed, like most players, there was never really a moment were money was a limiting factor, I was almost always able to buy everything I came across.
Let’s do a quick number analysis to see if the maths check out. To save myself some time, I checked the official guide for the game, they always contain accurate information directly from the team, it almost feels like reading behind-the-scenes design documents.
According to the guide, all main & side quests combined grants you a total of 140k florins, an info I can use to extrapolate this rough distribution of my income:
- 80% from renovations revenues
- 13% from activities rewards
- 7% from the rest: looting enemies corpses & opening chests, which gives really few, as well as assassin guild contracts
Again, I only have partial information but I know that the total cost for all 124 ‘Rome upgrades’ is somewhere between 577k & 432k florins (you get a permanent 25% discount for all renovations after made after the completion of story Sequence 6).
All the equipment & gameplay items I purchased (character upgrades, armors, treasure maps & a handful of weapons) amount to a total of about 300k florins.
The distribution of my expense is therefore likely something close to:
- 55% to renovate buildings
- 35% for equipment (weapons, pouches, armor, treasure maps)
- 10% for the rest: refilling consumables mainly, also some cosmetic elements & misc interactions
Even without precise numbers, the balance for the renovation system is clearly positive: you’re making profit out of restoring Rome. Just like other incremental economy games, like Cookie Clicker or Forager, the more you invest, the more you gain; this positive self-reinforcing loop feels great.
Unlike most recent open worlds (including the last Assassin’s Creed games), economy isn’t there to encourage you to complete side activities nor to halt story progress. There is rarely a shortage and even if there is, you just have to wait until your next 20-minutes revenues come. You always feel comfortable when it comes to money.
What strikes me as odd though, is that economic systems usually introduce interesting player choices & strategies, but there aren’t much here as we’ll discover in the next part.
Part 2 — Unbalanced properties types
The baseline so far is that you obviously should engage with the renovation system: from an economic perspective it’s a system that pays for itself, the more you spend, the more you gain. There is no point avoiding it and saving money on purpose, even to purchase gameplay equipment.
There is a choice though: the order in which you buy the properties. In Assassin’s Creed 2, all purchases had the same 10% return on investment every 20 minutes, it wasn’t a decision factor. In Brotherhood, each individual building has a different price & generates different revenues, some are therefore likely better investments than others.
The buildings to renovate are sorted in three categories in the menu:
- Shops, which you’re incited to purchase 1) for the comfort of proximity and 2) because you unlock items for purchase & permanent discounts if you have enough of them (5, 10 then 15%).
- Renovations, which are interesting as they provide services to the player (spawn allies & horses nearby, fast travel points, access to locked areas).
- Landmarks, which have nothing special to offer, they just generate revenues like the other two categories (but cost a lot to acquire).
The Bank menu exposes precisely how much each properties generates, making it obvious to the player how uneven they are. A Blacksmith can cost as few as 800f to renovate and it adds 220f to your income, while a landmark like the Pantheon is 49.750f for a mere 88f revenue every 20 minutes.
To figure out how big the gap is, I put up this graph which shows how much times you need to get those 20-minutes revenues to break even for each of the 124 renovations.
Most buildings pay for themselves in 4 to 14 revenues cycles, the guild buildings & aqueducts take up to 40, or 13 hours of gameplay. It’s is a lot but if you play for long enough after purchasing them, you should still turn them into profit.
What this chart highlights though, is how massively unprofitable the landmarks are: they cost a lot and add very few to your income to be a justifiable expense. You need to collect revenues 450 to 680 times to get the money back, that’s an average 185 hours to break even. Since the game is completed in 45 hours at most, you’re definitely not renovating these properties for profit but only for completion, which is the reason why most players advocate to acquire them last.
Why such a difference though? Couldn’t we even things out to offer slightly more diverse investment strategies?
I suspect that towards the end of production, the economy was really unbalanced and the team made a last minute decision to increase the cost of landmarks by a lot. It would make sense since these buildings have no gameplay impact anyway, raising the price (even slightly) of other properties could have a negative side effect on the experience (for instance the player refraining from acquiring shops & fast travel, resulting in a lot of tedious trips across the map).
In the final game, landmarks represent 3/4 of the total amount of money needed to renovate Rome but they generate only 4% of the revenues.
Another hint of this late balancing is the fact that all the figures mentioned in the official guide are 25% higher than what is actually revenues in game (which by the way aren’t round numbers, unlike what’s in the guide).
Decrease the revenues, increase some costs, sounds like a good economy balancing strategy. Did it work? To have an idea of what the balance was like at the time, let’s pretend landmarks don’t exist and add 25% revenues to the figures I had. I would have finished the game at 1.263k florins gained, for 557k florins spent, so 126% extra money, clearly unbalanced.
Good job team, the game got better without introducing new issues.
And anyway, I must admit that if I didn’t do a complete Excel analysis, which 99.9% players won’t do either, I would never have figured this out. When I was playing, I could sense that landmarks weren’t economically balanced but I was happy to have expensive things to spend my big wallet on regardless.
For me, that’s a takeaway from the economic design of this game: even if you don’t really feel challenged by the money-management part, it feels great to interact with the system, which also has a lot to do with what we’re going to see in the next part.
Part 3 — The importance of rhythm & friction
I’ve mentioned a few times already that revenues are added to bank vault every 20 minutes, now is the time to have a closer look at it. The timing is the same in both AC2 & ACB but there is one major difference in the flow, a difference which changes drastically the way you react when the notification pops on screen.
A small detour
In Assassin’s Creed 2, you need to get to the Villa in Monteriggioni to collect revenues, which is located in another map than the two major cities Florence & Venice. Brotherhood has 10 Banks scattered all around Rome (the city you’re spending 95% of your time in the game). Sure, you need to renovate them before collecting from the vault but as we’ve seen previously this is not a very demanding task. In both games, you can’t teleport directly from the map menu, you need to physically interact with the fast travel points.
I played on the PS4 remaster which has quicker loading times but it’s still an important factor: when the notification pops up and you need to decide to do a full back and forth trip to Monteriggioni, chances are you’ll often chose not to interrupt what you are doing in AC2. In my experience, I’d make a detour to collect income far more often when the notification popped in Brotherhood.
I did a side by side comparison below to see how much time you need to reach a bank from an ‘average’ location: it takes twice as long in Assssin’s Creed 2 just to collect income, whereas in Brotherhood you can quickly get it on your way to the next mission.
If you haven’t played either game, you could wonder: why not wait and collect revenues whenever you feel like? Well, the vault has a maximum capacity of about 4 times your revenues, so you ‘must’ collect your income at least every 1h20 or you’ll miss some payments.
This is rule was put probably in place to encourage you to regularly engage with the system and to prevent you idle farming (letting the game runs for hours to gain a lot of money). If you skip collecting your income a few times, your desire to do it increases a lot: you don’t want to “waste” the gains to come.
This concept is a well-known cognitive bias called ‘loss aversion’, first conceptualized by Daniel Kahneman in is best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow. To put it simply, people have a much bigger tendency to prevent loss than to acquire equivalent gain. Give something to someone and he’ll put much more efforts to avoid losing it than he rationally should. It also works with potential future gains; we consider them as ours already and have a hard time to let them go.
Loss aversion can generate player engagement towards a system, in Clash of Clans for instance f you don’t log in to empty storage buildings, the resources produced by your other buildings are “lost”. Another good example would be Stardew Valley, in which you need to take care of your farming crops everyday or risk losing them. In both, there is a very small effort to perform the expected action, eliminate the fear of loss and start again to allocate your attention on the more interesting gameplay choices.
This is the biggest difference between Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood: in the former, the notification often breaks your, mostly mission-based, flow and forces you to either make the trip or experience a slightly unpleasant feeling of missing something. In the latter though, collecting income is something you naturally integrate in your activity plan.
Removing the frictions from the same system with the same rhythm made it much more engaging.
Part 4 -Trade objects & shop quests
For the last part of this article, let’s move away from the renovation system and have a closer look at another new addition of the economy: trade objects & the associated shop quests. Unlike the improved vault system, there are strong frictions here which make the whole mechanic hard to engage with.
In each shop of the Tiberian island (the central place where the hideout is located), you can complete a “shop quest” by bringing the required list of objects to the vendor. The reward is an equipment which isn’t mandatory to progress but really compelling nonetheless(Fast poison for instance).
You can receive trade objects from three sources: treasure chests, looting on some specific enemies (such as Borgia Courriers & Bandits) and as a reward for each unique Guild Contracts (which are completed by recruiting, training and sending assassins on a mission, another major addition of this episode).
The first two sources can feel quite random & repetitive, there are 48 items, the chances of getting exactly the ones you need are pretty low. The unique contracts feel like the easiest way to acquire trade items since you know exactly what you’ll get in advance from the menu. However, as their name imply, they can only be completed once, yet you often need more than one unit of the object.
Even if we eliminated those caveats from the game loop, the UX for the trade objects is far from ideal.
Shop quests requirements can only be seen in the menu: if you want to remember and track them efficiently, you almost need to take notes on a sheet of paper. Trade objects can also be sold to merchants, some of them exist solely for that purpose. I calculated I could have gained an extra 48k florins by selling the useless ones, not a big loss considering all the money I was making from the renovation system but still could have been useful at some point.
The result is that most players, including me, don’t bother engaging with the shop quests and have a basic strategy:
- Loot corpses & chests as you come across them
- Never sell any of your trade object, just in case
- Occasionally visit the shops to see if you’ve completed one of the quest
When I completed the game, I had only 3 shop quests completed out of 6. At some point, I tried to engage with the system but it’s simply is too secondary to go as far as “farming” chests or specific enemies until I get lucky. This isn’t the type of fun I’m looking for in Assassin’s Creed, even for cool rewards.
What’s especially frustrating is that we could drastically improve the impact of this system by just adding a small icon in the interface to mention if the object is part of a quest requirement and adding a notification “Shop quest completed, Get your reward at the Doctor on the Tiberian Island”.
This wouldn’t change the strategy but would at least support the player: each item looted would be welcomed with a sense of anticipation. For non-quest items, just mark them as such in the Sell menu to ease the experience.
Eliminating small frictions like this is particularly important for minor gameplay mechanics: they do not need to steal the spotlight from the core of the experience but can participate to the general enjoyment.
I called this article The Weird Economy of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood because when I played it, I was often puzzled by the design choices, unusual compared to what we’re used to see in modern open worlds. Why an incremental economic system which pays for itself? Why little-to-no choices to challenge the player on what seems to be a major system of the game?
Actually, these choices aren’t difficult to explain when you consider Assassin’s Creed was mostly story-driven (no longer true for the new episodes) and the economy was meant to reinforce the narration, not to bring something else.
When most games creates artificial scarcity to push you to play more or draw your attention to secondary activities, Brotherhood conveys a sense of plenty. The game doesn’t care if you end the journey with more than you can spend and Rome 100% renovated: it’s precisely the tale it wants to tell.
Sure there could be improvements here and there to the economy but at the end of the day, it shouldn’t try to be anything else than the side activity it is, a fun low-effort distraction between the assassinations, stealth & parkour moments everyone bought the game for.
The way you design & balance the details of your systems is integral to the story you want to tell (or the one you want the player to tell himself), as much, if not more, than the dialogues & the cinematics.
Your duty as a developer is to know precisely the role of each mechanic within the grand scheme of things and figure out the right implementation. That’s what the team did with the economy of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and it works very well.
Thanks for reading me. If you want to reach out to start a discussion, feel free to write a response below or come on Twitter @JB_OGER.
If you’re interested in economic design, check out this other article I wrote:
Extensive look at progression systems in Disney Heroes — Part 1
Everything I learned as a game designer after playing this mobile game for months.
For more about open world game structures (including economy):
The Greatness of the Open World Formula
Why does it creates such compelling experiences when every single gamer despises it? I chose to explain it with pizzas.
And for even more, check out my Medium profile & you can also follow me to be notified when I release new ones.