It’s an important question to ask yourself, especially when you’re dealing with a game that involves many different items. But the answer may not be as obvious as you think. The decision to add a shop in a game, like every other mechanic, has ramifications. A poorly placed store can devalue rewards, throw off the balance of areas, or even create unnecessary hurdles.
To answer this question, you must first look at the items you intend to sell. Items can put into three different categories; consumable, non-consumable, and key items. Consumable items have a limited number uses and tend to be items that the player eats or destroys upon its use. If eat one cookie from my inventory, I can’t eat the same cookie again (please let it end there) then that item is used up and I have no more cookies. These items tend to have effects that happen immediately after its use and their usefulness very. Non-consumable items are items that are not limited to one use, like weapons and armor. Key items can be consumable or permanent but are in their own category because they often are required to progress within the game. These can be keys to doors, maps to locations, an ancient tome to begin a dark ritual, or any item that allows the player to move forward.
With these three items in mind, what types of goods should you sell in your shop? All three different item types can be sold in a shop but there are a few things to consider for each type. Consumable items are a nice money sink. As long as the player keeps using the items, they will come back and rebuy. For example, healing items have been sold in many different shops over hundreds of different games. If a player’s character has a finite amount of health points, and the loss of health points results in a failure state then players will take steps to avoid losing health points. Consumable items are often sold at a low price so players can prepare and buy multiple of the same item. Having a consumable item that costs too much will scare players away from buying it. A player won’t buy an item if they think that it’s not worth the money they have. The potency and effect of the item will also determine their price. The more something heals, the more that item is going to cost.
Non-consumable items are typically sold at a higher price than consumable items. This is because the player only needs to purchase this item once, and will get multiple uses out of it. This is where you typically see the largest price fluctuations, as the price can be determined by any number of factors. As an example, Dark Souls sells a multitude of weapons that vary in price. Andre of Astora, an NPC merchant in Dark Souls, sells both a longsword and a bastard sword for 1k and 3k respectively. The longsword, in this case, is cheaper than the bastard sword because of its rarity and damage. Longswords are a common item, dropped by certain enemies and can even be given to players at the start of the game. The bastard sword, on the other hand, deals more damage than the longsword and is not dropped by any enemy in the game. Non-consumable items also include aesthetic items like hats, accessories, clothing, or even furniture, depending on the game. Usually, these would be considered vanity items, and don’t have a significant effect on how the game plays. The pricing for vanity items doesn’t follow any specific rules, because there are no rules for vanity items. Simply put, they are worth as much as players are willing to pay for it.
Key items are a bit tricky and should be sold sparingly. Having too many key items sold in a shop, over time, disincentivizes spending money. If the player predicts that they will need to buy items to progress, they won’t spend their hard earned cash on other goodies. They might not end up using a shop at all unless it’s for the key item, which would defeat the purpose of having a store. Selling key items can be useful in some cases, however. In the Legend of Zelda; the Ocarina of Time, Link is not allowed to progress to see the Deku tree unless he obtains a sword and shield. While the sword is found at the end of a tunnel, the shield must be bought. To acquire the funds to buy the shield, Link must scavenge the town for rupees. In searching for cash, the player ends up learning and using mechanics that will be used throughout the game. Mechanics like jumping, swimming, climbing, and lifting. A shop, in this instance, forces the player to stay within an area that is safe to explore, only to pass when basic commands are learned. This is also a good introduction to how to interact with a merchant, as other shops in the game will have the same layout.
The Value of a Dollar
Shops are a place where players can buy items, this is their primary function. But by having items to sell to a player you’re going to need to give your player money. This aspect alone opens a whole slew of its own questions. How much money are you going to give to your players? How do players earn money? Are you going to allow your character to sell items to the shop?
When looking at how much money you should give to a player, consider how much moolah you want players to have when they encounter their first shop. Would you like them to stock up on items once, and progress through the area? Give them a lot of money in proportion to the cost of the items. Do you want your players to work towards something within the shop? Give them less. You need to consider how many encounters you want the player to do, and how much ambient cash is there that a player can pick up.
After you discover that, you then need to decide how valuable the item is for the player. It can be convenient to create a baseline item, an object that can be used to determine the value of other items. As an example, you may decide that a potion is worth 100 gold. You then choose to sell a super potion, which heals three times as much as a normal potion. The super potion is as effective as three potions which would cost the player a total of 300 gold. You can determine that a super potion is at least worth 300. Maybe you decide that the convenience of using one item over three is worth some additional cost, raising the price further. Or maybe you decide that stronger healing items should have a better ratio of gold to health points healed. If your player has time to heal, it could be more cost effective to only buy the baseline healing item. After all, why buy one super potion for 350 gold when I can heal for the same amount for less in between fights.
This aspect can be difficult to manage because different playstyles will determine how much money is in the player’s pocket. The player’s willingness to do repetitive actions for a long term payoff varies from person to person. This is often called “grinding” originating from the phrase “the daily grind” which refers to an everyday, mundane, routine. Some players will “grind” in an area of a game until they have enough in-game resources to overpower incoming threats. Personally, I have an aversion to grinding, and will often find myself with very little pocket change. However, I have a friend who will not proceed past an area in Final Fantasy 1 until he has 99 potions. With potions costing 40 gold each, and the standard enemies dropping anywhere from 8 to 30 gold, you can imagine how long that must take.
Location, Location, Location
Location can make or break a shop and must be taken into consideration when placing it in a world. Having a shop that is out of the way and inconvenient to get to can dissuade players from using it. If the purpose of the shop is to sell useful items to a player, and you foresee your player returning to the shop a lot, then you should place it in a location that is easy to get to. If your shop is in an inconvenient location players could simply ignore it, and the purpose of the shop becomes moot.
However, having a shop that’s hard to get to can be used as reasoning to sell very specific items. In The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, the Imperial City contains a gated community of mages called the Arcane University. The shops within the Academy sell specific reagents that are key to making useful magical concoctions. If the player wants a shot at the items sold, then they must seek entry into the academy. In this case, shop locations encourage exploration in other quests and guilds.
The placement of a shop should have some influence on what is sold as well. For flavor, shops can sell items that reflect the nature of the area it inhabits. Maybe in a hot desert, a stall sells cold refreshing water, or head wrappings to protect against a harsh sun. Or maybe a shop sells healing items at a high price because it lives in a nation at war, and the bulk of their supplies go to troops. The inventory of a vendor can tell a lot about the surrounding area to a sharp-eyed player. In Final Fantasy 10, there is a mechanic called petrification, which turns one of the player’s characters into stone and renders them inert. Because this mechanic is so strong, it is reserved until later in the game. Before the player enters an area which houses monsters with petrifying attacks, there is a vendor. This merchant sells an item called “soft” which is used to cure the stonie debuff. Observant players will notice that this is the first time that the item has been introduced into the game. You can deduce from the inventory and placement of the stop that the next area will involve fighting monsters that turn your characters into stone.
Let’s make a store!
With all of these things in mind, let’s make an example shop. For the purposes of this shop, let’s say that we are making an RPG, as those games typically have a lot of items. Combat will be turn-based, so using an item will use a player’s turn. Players will have a health pool that will be drained by attacks against them. If the player’s character loses all of their health points, their character will die. Death in this game will result in a game over, which is something the player wants to avoid. With these basic mechanics in mind, we can already start to glean how important items are. Choosing to use an item, in this game, means that the player gives up attacking for a turn. However, dying results in an undesirable event, which means players will need to use items in some scenarios.
Let’s suppose that the first shop is encountered after the player has had a few fights and had the potential to pick up 100 gold(g) from an NPC. Based off of this you determine that if the player had an average amount of encounters they should have somewhere between 80-180g, for an average of 130g. From here, we decide to make the baseline item a potion. We surmise, based off of damage enemies do, that a player will take as much damage as a potion heals in two encounters. We also determine that a player should have three potions worth of health points at this part in the game. How much would you sell the potion for?
If we know the players won’t come back to this area, and they need to stock up on items before leaving then we make the price a small percentage of 130g, probably around 10g or 15g. However, for this example, let’s say we know players are going to come back to the shop often, and we want to incentivise exploring the area thoroughly. We would then sell the potions for a larger percent of 130g, maybe 40g or 50g. We still want the player to buy multiple potions at a shop because they are consumable.
Let’s also suppose that in the surrounding area, there are snakes then can poison a player. Poison in our game will slowly degrade the player’s health every turn until the ailment is healed. Luckily, the shop we are creating sells antidotes which will remove poison. Let’s say that poison will do a potions worth of damage to a player’s health pool in four turns. The player will want to use an antidote before then if they want to avoid using a potion. However, using an antidote before the enemy is defeated could result in the player becoming poisoned again. How much would you sell the antidote for? Again, because it is a consumable item, you want the player to be able to buy multiples of that item. Because using an early antidote can be risky, and we want to incentivise exploration, we decide to sell it at a less than a potion; around 20-30g.
Lastly, let’s sell a key item in our shop that a player will need to buy in order to progress. Maybe a raft to float down the a river to the next location. With our other items, we decided that we want players to investigate the area. We don’t want the player to be able to buy the item the first chance they get, so we make it more expensive than potions and antidotes. We decide that we want to sell the item at 200g. This is more than the high end of our players gold estimates, so we surmise that players will not have enough when they first see it. This means that players will need to grind the area for more gold, in order to progress. However, 200g is not that far from our high-end estimates, it’s only about one antidote more.
Could you think of any more items that a player needs in the shop? Maybe a charm that reduces the chance of being poisoned, or a repellent that scares away monsters. The prices and the amount of gold given to a player influence how they progress within the game. Sometimes literally, like in the case with our shop, and sometimes at the player’s behest.