I can’t believe we survived that furball. There I was, getting a snack from the galley when the proximity alarm shrieked into life. I hadn’t even made it to the cockpit when the first shots from a trio of Vanduul fighters hit my shields. I screamed at Bob to get into the turret and started jinking my poor Connie all over the place while slapping shields to max. We got lucky the third pilot was clearly a rookie – I mean Bob and I are good, but three Vanduul fighters is a bit much when I’ve got my Connie configured for cargo runs. Fifteen heart-pounding minutes later, we were tractoring Vanduul wreckage into the hold to see if any parts were salvageable. I’m crossing my fingers, ‘cause we’re banged up and the only refit shop I can find in this system is damn pricey.
There are a few obvious necessities for a working game economy. There has to be currency, there have to be goods/services, and participants have to be in proximity with each other to make the exchange. Any game economy with those three things will succeed on some level.
But this blog is not about creating any old game economy. It’s about creating a game economy as vibrant and unique as the graphics, story, and game play of the Star Citizen universe will be.
If I say the word “friction”, you probably think of the physical aspect. Namely, drag caused by interaction between objects or an object and its environment. Friction is the enemy of smooth and efficient operation because it robs objects of momentum and increases the force required to otherwise accomplish the same goal.
Friction as an economic concept is similar. It’s a net drag on an economy, increasing costs for producers and prices for consumers. Friction in an economy is as bad as friction in the mechanical world.
In the snippet atop this blog post, our pilot is experiencing economic friction (“search friction”, technically). He can only find one shop to repair his damaged Connie and the shop is expensive. It’s unlikely there is only one refit shop in the system given a Star Citizen universe of 100 systems and a several hundred thousand players. Our pilot’s problem is he doesn’t have the right information before he makes his purchase decision.
That lack of information is one common friction in game economies. What vendors are located in this system? Where can I get the best price for recovered Vanduul parts? Who’s selling fuel at the lowest price? Where might I get the best price for this cargo in my hold? Which refit shops carry the missiles I prefer?
We go to great lengths to avoid advertisements in our real life, but the fact is those advertisements reduce friction in the economy. They allow us to make better economic decisions because they provide information. If our pilot could pull up a map for the system and that map had advertisements from in-system vendors, he’d know that first refit shop he found wasn’t the only one. The resulting lack of friction means he will likely pay a lower price.
It works for the vendors, too. Operating a proper refit shop is expensive. The higher volume you do, the better off you are. You can buy parts in bulk for lower unit costs, have a better parts inventory to reduce service time, and gain more experience on a wider variety of ships. More customers, if you treat them well, also mean more referrals. The ability to make your services known to potential consumers pays big benefits.
I’ve used the easiest example of economic friction (“search friction”), but there are others:
- Lack of a reliably secure way to exchange goods/services for currency
- Inability to obtain information on the reliability of your counterparty
- No mechanism for adjudicating and/or enforcing contracts, laws, and regulations
- Imbalances in the supply chain like lack of cargo carriers or lack of producers
- Not enough or too many providers of the same good/service (competitive friction)
I could go on, but then I’d just be giving away too many of my future blog posts…
Some aspects of game economy friction can only be solved with attention early in the design stage of the software architecture. For example, it would be exceptionally difficult to apply unique identifiers to every physical item in a game universe in beta. That sort of database and rule structure has to be an inherent part of the game economy engine. If you want to stop exploits and properly track your economy, however, unique identifiers are necessary.
Other aspects can be managed with finer applications of the “Hand of the Game Developer.” Creating more NPC cargo carriers to relieve economic bottlenecks would be relatively easy for any developer who gave more than just a passing thought. NPC/player fleets to break persistent blockades would be another example.
One of the biggest early design needs is the creation of an Economic Dashboard for the Star Citizen game universe. Viewable by the CIG team, the Economic Dashboard is one big data dump of the game economy. Its purpose is to monitor the economy for friction and stability, allowing CIG to intervene if the economy starts tipping towards seizure our outright failure. The Economic Dashboard can also be a prime tool for cheat and exploit surveillance.
I wanted to start with the concept of economic friction because it is really the launching point for many of the subjects I will address in this blog. If this seems a little too theoretical for your tastes, don’t worry. I’ll certainly be writing blog entries proposing specific solutions that should get the comment section going…