Tweaker Service

Fergus couldn’t believe the moves the Cutlass pilot was putting on his partner’s Hornet. Between his service in the UEE and his current gig with Galactic Security & Escort, Fergus had tangled with hundreds of ‘Lassies but this one didn’t move like anything he’d ever seen. He had a unique view of the action, floating in space amid the wreckage of his 300i. “I’m going to miss that boat,” Fergus was thinking just as the pirate pirouetted around the z‑axis faster than he’d ever seen a ‘Lassie move. His partner tried to pivot his Hornet away, but it was no use and the Hornet went up in flames. Fergus glanced across at the Starfarer they were supposed to be protecting. They’d delayed the Cutlass, but not long enough. There was no way the Starfarer was going to make it to the jump point before the Cutlass caught it. The Starfarer captain must have done the same math since cargo modules started streaming out of its bay. The Cutlass pilot tractored what he could fit and fled before any UEE or GSE ships could arrive. Fergus checked his suit’s readouts to make sure his rescue beacon was on and settled in to wait for the rescue boat.

We don’t know for certain what CIG has in store for equipment customization. We know players will be able to mix and match different modules on the various ships’ hardpoints. We have hints, but no confirmation yet, that players will be able to customize the performance of the individual modules. Shift a setting here, tweak a subroutine there and a savvy pilot could meaningfully alter a ship’s performance – allowing it to make unexpected maneuvers during dogfights or even optimize other ship functions.

This post assumes this sort of tweaking will be something CIG allows in Star Citizen.

Most Star Citizen fans reading this blog are familiar with tweaks a savvy user can perform on a computer. Overclocking, fiddling with BIOS settings, fooling with memory settings, optimizing network protocols – the list is pretty endless. Users can develop this expertise through trial and error and/or by reading guides posted on the web.

However, there are lots of not-so-expert folks more than willing to pay experts to do this tweaking for them. I expect the same thing will be true in the Star Citizen universe when it comes to tweaking ship components.

If I’m right and CIG enables component tweaking, it creates an economic opportunity for players who enjoy tweaking ship systems. A pilot could swing by “Kaylee’s Shiny Tweak Shop”  and buy services from an expert Tweaker. The pilot would leave his/her ship in the care of the Tweaker, who would perform setting changes according to the wishes of the pilot.

Some Tweakers would specialize in tweaking for combat – maneuverability, weapons, and shields. Another Tweaker could optimize electronics for explorers looking to find new jump holes. A Tweaker with a fondness for miners could buff equipment used in detecting and retrieving certain types of ores. Name a ship function and a Tweaker could develop saleable services to help pilots perform that function.

The tricky part of this economic pursuit, at least from the CIG side, is how to handle the contract between the parties. No pilot wants to pay for a tweak that doesn’t work. Performance gains are also highly subject to pilot perception, so determining payment based upon a “test run” won’t work. Sadly, a pilot could deny seeing a performance change just to skip out on a Tweaker’s bill. Because of this, contracts between Tweaker and pilot can’t really be left to payments based upon pilot perception.

If there is to be a Tweaker economy, CIG has to create the ability for pilots and Tweakers to see numeric baseline and post-tweak performance data for a ship and its systems. Tweakers could examine a prospective customer’s baseline data and create a contract based upon what delta the Tweaker thought he/she could create. The pilot would review the offered delta and bargain accordingly for a fair price. If the claimed delta was delivered by the Tweaker, the contract would be completed by deducting the agreed amount from the pilot’s account. If the claimed delta wasn’t delivered, either the contract would be renegotiated for a smaller payment or the Tweaker could reverse the tweaks, cancel the contract, and hand the ship back unchanged to the pilot.

I strongly believe Star Citizen must create economic opportunities for people who don’t always (or ever) want to pilot a ship. More bodies in the game make it less likely players will get bored. It also means more people adding their contributions to the collective, creating a stronger game universe. That’s good for all players and good business for CIG.

 

Economic Pause Button

Jake knew when the phone rang it was trouble. It was fire season in the Sierra Nevadas so, as a smokejumper, he knew it was only a matter of time before the call came. Answering the phone, Jake learned he was going to be a supervisor this year – which was good for the bank statement, but it meant being away from home for several weeks at a time. His brother would take the dog and his sister would mind his fish, but that wasn’t what he was most worried about. Who could he trust to manage his Star Citizen account to prevent his Vanduul, Constellation, and his brand new Starfarer from being impounded for non-payment of garage fees? When he bought the Starfarer with the ore processing modules this morning, he knew he was cutting his balance close. He wasn’t too worried, though, because he knew even a couple of shipping contracts in the Starfarer would solve that problem. Now he had to leave for the airfield right away, so Jake had a problem…

Modern in-game economies feature recurring charges to act as money sinks. Without some way to regularly siphon meaningful sums of money from the economy, adverse effects like rampant inflation and even dying interest in the game can result. Money sinks are often in the form of regular periodic fees. In Star Citizen, likely examples of periodic money sinks will be garage fees, insurance, guild membership fees, and subscriptions to services.

There is a good poll in the forums about different kinds of money sinks. The thread conversation, at least the last time I scrolled through it, was pretty good. You should check it out.

This post isn’t about what money sinks CIG ought to consider. It’s about a feature I strongly encourage CIG to implement – the Economic Pause Button.

Gamers have real lives and, sadly, sometimes our real lives interrupt our gaming efforts. As we saw with Jake, these interruptions sometimes occur unexpectedly and/or the duration can be measured in weeks. Money sinks keep hitting our account even when we are not logged in, which can be a real problem if a player has to be gone for a lengthy period.

What Star Citizen needs is an Economic Pause Button. The Economic Pause Button would allow “pausing” or “freezing” accounts for increments of at least one week. This allows those who have an unavoidable absence from the game due to real life to avoid getting hammered with money sink fees.

Let’s say a player has a business trip and will be gone for two weeks. The player goes into her account settings and chooses to freeze her account for 14 days starting on a day she chooses. All recurring fees incrementing on a daily basis are frozen. So are any bids she has made on contracts she would have to be in game to fulfill (like combat escort or shipping). An option for her to suspend bids for items in any marketplace could be included. Any open contracts, however, with NPCs/humans she has where she is the payor (shipping, bounty, etc) would remain open so her absence doesn’t harm another player.

If the player returns before the 14 days are up, she can “un-pause” her account – but the “penalty” is all those frozen recurring charges will be posted to her account balance immediately.

(I would code this penalty to round to the nearest week. If our example returned from her trip early and un-paused her account on day 11, the first week’s charges would remain forgiven but she would be charged for days 8-11.)

I thought this would be a good post to make on Christmas Eve, despite having to post it over dial up (!), because so many of us are traveling or otherwise away from our gaming rigs. For our servicemen and servicewomen, firefighters like Jake, students during finals week, and/or businesspeople who travel, the Economic Pause Button would be an easy, player-friendly feature to implement.

Merry Christmas!

 

The Star Entrepreneur Academy

I really can’t believe it. Just last year, I’m a student in the Star Entrepreneur Academy trying to win the business plan competition. An investor liked the idea so much, she gave me money to actually launch my class project as a business. I raised nearly a million creds to launch, and the business was a wild success. Heck, I was just named on a list of top entrepreneurs! The investors are paid off and we’re bringing out new products every quarter. Life. Is. Good.

For 10 years in the real world, I co-taught an Entrepreneur’s Workshop co-created with a business partner. We taught an undergrad class at a local university, running nearly 1,000 students through the program in that time. We strongly encouraged students to work on real business ideas and the focus of the class was to take them from business idea to business plan in the 10 weeks we had them.

There were 90 businesses launched from that class. According to our research, this makes what we developed the most successful undergraduate entrepreneurship program in the United States. And that bit of fiction at the top? Well, it’s pretty close to reality. One of our students was just named to Forbes magazine’s Top 30 Under 30. We were happy when her group won top honors at our end-of-class competition (attended by 350 people), and we’re very, very happy for her now.

If I’ve learned anything in a decade of helping students turn ideas into businesses, it’s the process is neither easy nor obvious. For the Star Citizen economy to be successful, CIG is going to have to devise an effective, ongoing program to help “Star Entrepreneurs” build successful businesses within the confines of the Star Citizen universe.

This program can be inside or outside the game fiction – or both. It needs to be more than just a few pages of text or a forum on the out-of-fiction RSI message board. Our program’s success showed lectures were important, but back-and-forth feedback and real-life examples were the key to helping entrepreneurs.

I propose a “Star Entrepreneur Academy” – a (preferably) in-fiction construct combining a short curriculum, interviews with successful entrepreneurs, and regular content updates about entrepreneurial activities inside the Star Citizen universe.

The initial curriculum would cover basic Star Citizen economic features – a listing of possible business types, guidance on contracts, a legal section, advertising tips, how to finance a start up, and a few sections on best business practices. This basic curriculum would be available on demand or as part of a discrete course. The format would be either text or video instruction. The “student” would be “tested” after each section, more to verify they at least opened them than to assign some sort of grade.

The next stage of the curriculum would be the successful example portion. From an in-fiction perspective, interviews with successful entrepreneurs – both human and NPC – would be created. Initial interviews would focus on how the successful entrepreneur used the tenets set out in the basic curriculum to get their business off the ground. Subsequent, more detailed interviews would focus on how the entrepreneur became successful in their specific area. As with the basic curriculum, short “tests” would be made after the videos to make sure the students are learning something and not just clicking on links.

The final stage of the curriculum covers feedback. Students who’ve progressed through the curriculum – and restricting this level to only students who did the tests is important from an efficiency standpoint – would get feedback from a group of entrepreneurial mentors. These mentors would be a combination of CIG staffers and volunteers. The most obvious construct is a message board restricted to students in the class. This message board could be part of the in-game fiction, even though it would operate largely as the existing RSI site forums do now.

If the Star Citizen Academy was organized into discrete courses instead of an on-demand format, the “graduation” component of the course would be a business plan competition. Think of this like Kickstarter, with votes instead of actual credits being pledged. Students outline their business idea and members of the Star Citizen universe vote on the best ideas. The winner gets some sort of prize, along with exposure for the business.

The task of supporting entrepreneurs does not end with graduation. One reason why our class was so successful is most of the students in the class became members of an extra-curricular “network” of class alumni. We hold regular events where entrepreneurs can make contacts and share ideas. This sort of networking could also take place in-fiction as regular meet-ups or streamed content within the game.

One important feature of the Star Citizen economy should be the concept of a Business Assistance Center (BAC). Located in most major systems, the BAC would provide a listing of all businesses located in the sector. A budding entrepreneur could look to see who his/her/its competitors are and where there might be holes in the services offered in the sector. The BAC would also list storefronts for “rent”, nearby sources of equipment necessary for common economic activities, and other items important to setting up shop in that system.

Creating a Star Entrepreneur Academy will help more businesses be successful inside the Star Citizen economy. Combining the Academy with in-game support structures like entrepreneurs’ networks and the BACs adds another layer of support. Doing all this inside the fiction of the Star Citizen universe makes the experience that much more immersive.

One central premise of this blog is a vibrant in-game economy is essential to the success of Star Citizen and a Cloud Imperium financially stable enough to deliver on its long-term vision. I believe a Star Entrepreneur Academy would be an integral part of creating a vibrant economy and a financially successful CIG.

 

Commodity Futures Exchange

I’d been watching SSN feeds for weeks, tracking Vanduul attacks on UEE’s major fuel supply lines. I spent the last three days setting up trades across a bunch of different accounts – some with my money, some with money I begged from friends and family. This was going to be my big score – my ticket to fame and fortune as a fuels commodity trader. All I needed was a call from my cousin on the UEES Paul Steed. The Steed was tasked to stop the Vanduul incursion just short of the last major intact fuel supply route to the central planets. If the Steed failed, fuel prices would skyrocket and I would be rich. When my cousin sent word the Steed had to pull back, I plowed every cent into fuels futures and waited for SSN to broadcast the news. When they did, prices skyrocketed into the close. I’d just bought a round of drinks at the Blue Horseshoe Bar for the crowd when SSN ran a story about some punk who discovered a new jump point into a new system – a system just 3 jumps from the central planets and filled with multiple gas giants capable of producing epic quantities of fuel. When the markets opened the next day, all I could get was fractions on the credits I spent. I turned nearly a million creds into 10,000. What am I going to tell my family and friends?

Economic friction from having to find another player to conduct trade is often dealt with via the creation of auction houses – centralized places where buyers and sellers (again players or NPCs) can bid for goods and take delivery upon completion of the sale.

A commodities futures exchange is something different. Instead of transacting for physical goods, buyers and sellers in a futures exchange transact in contracts for delivery of a commodity. The contracts are for a specific quantity and a price. The commodity in question is probably not even obtained yet because the contracts traded on the exchanges are for future delivery. You never have to be physically present at a commodity exchange because the only thing exchanged is money for contracts.

The primary benefit of a commodity futures exchange is price stability for both producers and consumers. Producers can lock in a certain sale price months in advance of actually producing the goods. Consumers can do the same. This level of predictability can insulate an economy from short-term price spikes since both producers and consumers can lock in prices on the types of raw materials typically traded on these financial exchanges.

Coding such an exchange in the Star Citizen universe would not be difficult. Any number of existing vendors have trading systems designed for use in real exchanges. These systems can work and live on any operating system and attach to any database. The database work is not complex and neither would the interface as this has all been done before.

Creating the operating rules is where the difficulty comes in.

For example, perhaps the biggest decision in creating a commodity futures exchange is whether to allow “leverage”. In a real-world commodities exchange, the buyer doesn’t immediately put up all the money necessary to acquire the goods. They put up anywhere from 1% to 10% of the value, with the remainder due only when the contract is executed at the specified future date. This makes the cash required up front much less onerous on the consumer while providing a little advance income for the producer.

Should “non-physical” participants be allowed? A non-physical participant in an exchange is neither a producer nor a consumer of the good being produced. Their advertized function is to add liquidity in the market by buying and selling the contracts for a profit. Under this theory, their liquidity helps smooth the flow of transactions and reduce volatility. However, they also compete with real consumers on the bid side, driving up prices. They can also compete with producers on the ask side, driving down prices.

Should “short selling” be allowed? Where most financial market transactions are “buy low and sell high”, a short sales is “sell high and buy low”. A short sale starts by borrowing a contract from someone who owns it already, usually for a small fee. The short seller sells that contract, hoping to buy it back at a lower price later to return to the real owner. Short selling is also, in theory, designed to improve liquidity for the purposes of smoothing prices.

Should derivatives be allowed? Instead of buying the contract, you could buy an option to buy the contract at a future date. That option is considered a “derivative” instrument. That may sound odd, but derivatives are a very significant part of our real-world commodity markets.

There are some significant advantages coming from having a commodities exchange with these features. Trading is made easier by not having to transport goods from the mining location to an auction house and then to the distribution location. They can simply be moved from the mining location to the distribution location. The certainty of price from forward-dated contracts can be important for both producers and consumers. Allowing non-physical participants expands the number of roles available to players, potentially adding a meaningful new method for economic gain without the need for piloting or to set up an in-game shop. Stories about the in-game financial markets would help with overall immersion.

That all sounds great. The disadvantages would have been much more difficult to explain if we weren’t currently living with those disadvantages in the real world.

Allowing non-physical participants creates an opportunity for manipulation. This is particularly true when combined with short selling and the leverage typically involved in derivative instruments. The St. Louis Federal Reserve published a report (PDF) showing about 15% of the price of oil in the 2004-2007 period was due to speculation by non-physical participants. Matt Taibbi in chapter 4 of his must-read book Griftopia about how the America economic system nearly collapsed in 2008 provides additional color.

I believe commodity exchanges could be worthwhile as long as care is taken to choose the best parts of this financial market construct. Limiting leverage, disallowing derivatives, and banning short selling would seem to be easy places to start that would also simplify the coding requirements. Whether or not to allow non-physical participants is a harder question. My answer would be “not yet, if ever” given what I’ve seen of their effect on real-world commodity prices.

It may be the only thing that can be reasonably borrowed from real-life commodity exchanges is the virtual aspect. Separating the exchange of money from the exchange of goods would absolutely reduce friction and risk since every transaction would then involve only two shipping points (source and destination) instead of three (source, auction house, and destination).

 

The Exploration Economy

When the drunk in that Haven dive bar kept blabbing about ships just disappearing in the Xi’an’s Shaanxi system, I figured he was telling old stories of Xi’an/UEE border skirmishes. Then the bartender told me he hadn’t heard of any Xi’an ship firing on a human vessel in months. I figured the chance was next to zero the Xi’an hadn’t charted a jump hole in Shaanxi given its proximity to Titan’s UEE ‘science’ outposts. I went anyway, figuring maybe the interstellar gods recently decided to decided to plunk one down. When my sensors finally detected the hole, I was – as my Great (x5) Uncle Sinclair used to say – so far off the beaten path it would take two bloodhounds and a Ouija board to find me. I’d never seen readings like that and, sure enough, it was the roughest ride I’ve ever had in the dozen holes I’ve charted. Truth told when I popped out here, the cockpit was smoking and I was just happy not to be sucking vacuum. That lasted the 60 seconds it took for the nav computer to figure out ‘here’ was so close to the central planets. Then I was happy because I knew I was going to be very, very rich.

One of the beauties of the Star Citizen universe is the potential to make money in a wide variety of roles. Combat fans can be bounty hunters, mercenaries, or pirates. If you like making something out of nothing, gathering fuel or mining minerals is probably your calling. Trading goods, servicing ships, hiring out as crew – all are likely to be viable ways to make significant sums on the Galaxy Server.

Perhaps no role in a space game is quite so romantic as the explorer. Despite days or weeks of doing little more than staring at sensor readings, the explorer’s life isn’t boring. Top-end sensor equipment isn’t cheap, which means explorers are tasty prey for the opportunistic. Being on the galactic edge all the time means you’re always running into Xi’an, Vanduul, or Banu ships – or other explorers more than willing to take you out to eliminate competition. Woe to the explorer who skimps on speed, shields, or firepower for their spacecraft.

The pay is likely quite handsome, however. Finding a jump hole saving travel time for a lucrative trade route will bring big dollars from the mapping companies – who turn around and sell those nav pack updates to hundreds of thousands of other pilots.

The fame isn’t bad, either. Find a jump hole and you can name it. If there is a new system at the other end, you can name that, too. (With CIG’s blessing on the names, of course).

I expect there will be sponsored missions for explorers just like there are for mercenaries and merchants – maybe even an official “Explorer’s Guild” in the game. The game’s AI or even human players could contract with explorers to chart asteroid fields or planets for useable minerals. When new systems are discovered, it will be a literal land rush to figure out how to make money – and explorers will probably have NPC and human customers willing to pay for that information.

I expect the lump sum paid to explorers for finding new jump holes and new systems will be among the largest payouts in the game given the economic potential and rarity of the finds. On a credits per hour basis, who knows where exploration will fall. But when an explorer does make a find, it will be a happy payday.

I do have one significant concern about the exploration economy, however, connected to CIG’s steadfast support for the modder community.

Let’s say I create a private “exploration server” of the Star Citizen universe. I dial down the combat settings to make combat very rare. I make ships and powerful sensor equipment cost next to nothing. I dial up the speed of those ships by a factor of 10 and increase sensor strength by a factor of 100. With my private server thereby optimized for rapid exploration, I would be able to locate new jump holes and systems much more rapidly than would ever be possible on CIG’s public Galaxy Server.

Once I have the coordinates of a new jump hole or system from my exploration-optimized private server, I could log into my separate character on the Galaxy Server and travel directly to the exact point of discovery – no days or weeks of searching and no relying on tips from drunks in dive bars. Just a direct path to significant cash payments and my name plastered all over the public Galaxy Server.

This will be a problem CIG has to solve. Simply randomizing grid locations for new jump holes isn’t enough. Even knowing that new System X is connected to existing System Y via the exploration-optimized private server gives the operator of that private server a huge advantage over people who stick with the Galactic Server. As GI Joe always says, “Knowing is half the battle.” That’s never more true than when exploring.

My guess on the way CIG will handle it is to give mod server admins the power to create their own “hidden” systems and jump holes, but update “official” new jump holes and new systems only after they are found on the public Galaxy Server. This might not be popular with modders who want to keep perfect private replicas of the Galaxy Server, but I believe it is necessary to preserve the integrity of the exploration economy on the public Galaxy Server.

Providing mod server admins the tools to populate their server with hidden systems and jump holes of their own design is likely to be a common request anyway. Doing so is a win-win, fulfilling that modder desire and maintaining the exploration component for private servers without “giving away” lucrative locations on the Galaxy Server.