There’s a problem that can happen in cybertexts but also more broadly in videogames and tabletop rpgs. Where the player is given a resource to spend, if the use value of that resource isn’t adequately communicated then often they will engage in extreme frugality, in parsimony. They’ll hoard the money, the ethers, the tms, the scrolls, the tokens, the favours indefinitely.
Let’s define parsimony for our purposes like so:
Parsimony: When a player hoards a spendable resources because they think they might need them more later and in doing so fails to make the most interesting use of that resource.
In a cybertext with stats (I’m explicitly thinking of gamebooks like Sorcery and Choice of Games) there’s can be great reward in using an in game resource: new scenes, different outcomes, different risks. In writing them we want to encourage players to use their resource (often a Wealth stat). It’s more interesting to get several additional unique moments throughout a game than, say, an achievement for hoarding at the end of the game.
One design goal of the game writer is to enable and encourage the player to make interesting choices. For a choice to be interesting, the alternatives must be at least roughly equally tempting, or rather that depending on player goals, for each choice there is a player who would genuinely want to take that choice.*
Here are some solutions for parsimony that I know about. Please tell me which ones I’ve missed:
Numenera Cypher Method
In the sci-fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Numenera, players can pick up Cyphers: one-use gadgets that offer unique abilities. You might pick up a telepathy implant, a gravity-nullifying spray, an x-ray viewer or so forth. To counteract the players’ inclination to hoard these items until the perfect moment, Cyphers are incredibly abundant and the player has a limited carrying capacity. You’re sure to pick up a few in any given session, but each player starts off only being able to safely carry two at a time without risking adverse interaction effects. In this way there’s both a carrot and a stick encouraging resource use: use it and you can get more resources, don’t use it and suffer.
This works well for unique resources, but what about generic resources like money or reputation?
Mother’s New Car Method
When you make it in Choice of the Robots, you can splash out on a new flying car for your mother. In my Trials of the Thief-Taker after your first pay out you can buy a new outfit or waste the lot in a long weekend of debauchery (or be sensible and save). The point here isn’t just to give the player something interesting to waste resources on, but a way that they can express their character through spending a resource.
This is a great way to appeal to player’s desire to roleplay, but the more mechanically minded or risk averse player might still be tempted to save just in case.
New Batteries Method
After trade shuts down between the US and China in the run up to the war in Choice of Robots, if the player has decided to make their robot with light and versatile Chinese batteries, they’re faced with the choice to shell out some of their income to carry on using the batteries through a more expensive source, or move to a much less elegant power source. The player by this time is already invested in having these kind of batteries as they fit with the idea they have about their robot (especially if they’re going for a graceful machine). They’ve signalled to the game that this is something they value. And so paying to keep what they already value is a clever use of a resource mechanic.
Games like Morrowind do the same where the player must pay money to repair their damaged equipment. The more they value the use of a piece of equipment, the more it gets used, the more they’ll have to pay to keep using it. This works on two levels, because it’s the use of a generic resource (money) to upkeep a relatively unique resource (equipment). Either the player spends their money or they spend their equipment. They can’t be purely parsimonious.
Upgrade to Studded Leather At The First Opportunity Method
Perhaps the most typical way to encourage a player to use an in-game resource is to pitch the difficulty such that the game becomes functionally unplayable if they don’t. This is often the JRPG approach: you’ll fall behind if you don’t upgrade your equipment at each town, you’ll often drink all your potions, use all your revives. The trouble with this method if the difficulty is too high then it removes the tactical interest: you either get through the battle or restart; if the difficulty isn’t high enough the parsimonious player gets to the final battle with 85 ethers.
You Can’t Buy All The Puppies In The Store Method
When you can pursue multiple goals or rewards in a game one way to make them more or less exclusive goals and force a dilemma on the player is to for all the choices to require resources. The player is less likely to resent having to spend because the goal is freely chosen. This method requires you give the player ample opportunity to earn, and perhaps works better when they have knowledge of these goals to work towards before making the final choice of what to spend on. You get this in Bioshock where Adam is a limited resource and the bio-augmentations to spend it on are all appealing.
Saving For A Ticket Method
To pick my favourite videogame example again, most rewards from selling ill-gotten gains and performing quests in Morrowind are eaten up in tickets on the boat, teleport and silt strider networks. Like the London commuter, your hard-earned loot disappears into the transport nexus while you’re pursuing stratagems for earning more of it. In order to get to the next town, the player will either need to walk the long slog or more appealingly spend a bit of time trying to raise cash by looking out for money making opportunities. Notably in this game there are unusual things that can happen on the road, so the player can be rewarded with interesting content if they do decide to forgo spending resources, but there is also enforced boredom of the long walk. In this way, the some control over the game’s momentum can be given to the player.
Finally, the writer can just accept that some players are irredeemably parsimonious and just try to make that as an interesting a choice as possible. There can be interesting pay-offs at the end of the game, or there can be unique opportunities where they are forced to sacrifice other things to maintain that resource and so forth.
Next up… NPC agency.
*Aside: this is why high-level CCG and MOBO play is tedious because for any set of cards or characters there tends to be a narrow band of optimal choices such that the player isn’t mechanically encouraged to use their creativity and ingenuity, rather they are encouraged to pick the community-established best builds.