The Pillars of Internal Economy — An Introduction to Game Economics

Yvens Serpa
Cores of Game Design
11 min readOct 16, 2020

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Irises, by Vincent van Gogh (1889) [from USEUM]

In his book, Fundamentals of Game Design (2004), Ernest Adams establishes that most games have an internal economy: a system in which game resources are produced, consumed, and exchanged. The complexity and importance of this internal economy, or simply the game's economy, varies from game to game. Even more, if they belong to different genres. [1]

The game's economy encompasses the game's resources and mechanics manipulated by the players. A resource is any concept that can be measured numerically [2]. (For a more in-depth analysis on the subject of resources, refer to this previous article)

In short, almost anything in a game can be a resource. Elements controlled by the player and concepts that influence the game state are commonly understood as resources. Contrarily, fixed level design elements, such as walls and platforms, are (usually) not considered as such. As stated earlier, the understanding of an element as a resource or not depends on the game.

Although all resources are related to the internal economy, not all game mechanics need to be. Mechanics that do not produce, consume, or exchange resources are not directly related to the economy. Walking, e.g., is not often related to any specific resource, even though games use it all the time.

Some authors differentiate between resources and entities. A resource is an abstract notion, whereas the entity is the concrete realization of it. For example, if "wood" is a resource, a "block" or "pile of wood" are entities. For this article, we will use only the term resource for both notions. [1, 2]

The Pillars

Game economies usually include four main functions that control the game's resources. They are the pillars: Sources, Drains, Converters, and Traders. The following definitions are based on their descriptions in books [1] and [2].

Sources are mechanics that generate resources out of nothing. Sources can be timed or activated upon certain conditions, but they do not require resources to be activated. The number of resources produced by a source is commonly referred to as its production rate. Sources are not unique access to resources.

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Yvens Serpa
Cores of Game Design

I'm a Brazilian teacher currently working at Saxion University (Enschede, NL) for CMGT. I write every day for education, programming, and as a hobby. [@yvensre]