Economic implication of permanent character death

[Note: This was written before CIG published "Death of a Spaceman" and clarified the death mechanism in the game. As noted in the comments below, even Chris' tome on death leaves some economic questions unanswered.]

Nomad banked right, but with nearly every system out she knew it was a useless maneuver. That other pilot wanted her dead. She already ejected her cargo and offered to pay the pilot to spare her ship, but no response. Nomad punched out just as her engine exploded.

Five seconds later, Jennifer watched as the opposing pilot detonated Nomad’s escape pod. “Well, shit,” Jennifer thought. “I was really attached to that character. Nomad was one spunky chick and she’s out of medical repair options.”

It’s likely going to be 2015 until we see the full release of Star Citizen. This is worth mentioning given the heated discussions on the site forums since a brief comment on character death made by Cloud Imperium Games’ Chris Roberts. There is a great deal of coding and gameplay balancing to happen over the next two years.

In an interview with the Coalition of Christian Gamers (CoCG) posted on YouTube, CIG’s Chris Roberts talked about how character death might be handled in the game. And while I believe most folks on the forums misunderstood or are blowing the comments out of proportion, his comments caused quite a stir.

Handling death in a game is not a trivial choice. The more “painful” death is to a player, the more likely the player will be very careful. The “death penalty” in any particular game is a matter of much debate and discussion among players, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in Star Citizen since CIG has committed to developing the game openly with community input.

“Permanent Death” is one way to handle death in the game. Under the definition I use, permanent death means the player loses his/her character, all the goodies earned to that point in the game, and has to start over from zero. Very few games feature this severe of a death penalty.

During the CoCG interview, Chris Roberts indicated the CIG team was exploring the idea of a modified form of permanent character death. Chris said that any character dying in game would be medically repaired. After a few deaths, those medical repairs would require some cybernetic implants. After a few more deaths, or perhaps a certain number of deaths in a short period, that character would become medically unrepairable and permanently die.

The character’s goodies wouldn’t disappear, however. They would be “willed” to a next of kin. The player would continue with the same goodies, just with a different character. In this type of death penalty design, dying in game wouldn’t mean the player had to start over from scratch – but it might mean the player would have to develop a new character from scratch.

This has serious economic system implications. Or at least it could, depending on CIG’s implementation of this concept.

As a reminder, Star Citizen has something akin to a reputation system called “citizenship”. If you have a high citizenship level, you have an easier time getting help when being raided and certain perks in policed areas. You may also be more of a target in rogue areas. Conversely, if you have very poor (negative) citizenship, you’re going to have trouble traveling in any unpoliced area and be welcomed in rogue areas.

Does a dead character’s citizenship transfer to the next-of-kin? If not, relationships nurtured (with the authorities or rogues) over many hours of game play would have to be re-created. This could be a real issue for players, especially casual players who don’t devote all their waking hours to the game.

Do a dead character’s contracts pass to the next-of-kin? As discussed in other posts, contracts are going to have to be an integral part of any functional economic system design. If contracts die with a character, that will make for some interesting issues. Let’s say a player took two shipping contracts and picked up both loads, but in different vessels. While delivering Contract A in his/her Constellation, the player’s character dies. Does that mean Contract B dies, too? If that’s the case, the player just got whatever he/she picked up in his/her Freelancer on Contract B for free. Hardly fair to the contract counterparty.

To pair the above two issues, how would it be handled if the loss of citizenship status due to character death prevents the fulfillment of a contract? A rogue who picked up a transport contract to rogue space is going to get jumped instantly if he/she shows up there with a shiny “noob” citizenship level. “Wait! I used to be…” will be muffled by blaster fire and the sound of an exploding ship.

Then there are Guild memberships. In Privateer, membership in the Merchants’ or Mercenaries’ Guilds weren’t cheap. We can expect the same from the various Guilds in Star Citizen. Would Guild memberships pass to the next-of-kin? If not, this might also have an impact on contracts.

The biggest economic implication of this death penalty approach revolves around the character’s name. If I die in the game, is my next-of-kin named “Eidolonius the Second” so the friends I’ve made in the game recognize me instantly? Or will I have to explain to everyone I meet that “I used to be Eidolonius before that WingMan dude ganked me.”

And what if I’ve had multiple characters die? “Well, you might have known me as Eidolonius. No? Tracer? Nomad? Tigger? Eeyore?” That would obviously get really old, really fast.

For the loss of a character to mean anything, I fully expect there to be some things that don’t get passed down to the next-of-kin. Citizenship and Guild memberships are obvious ones as they, at least theoretically, only affect the player. Voiding contracts would be problematic, though some provisions could be made for voiding only contracts not in the process of being filled.

I worry most about character renaming. Economics in any situation, real world or game universe, are about relationships. If character death requires renaming, this could have an unintended adverse impact on the economy because it would clearly make maintaining relationships more difficult.


Time out for my current job

Hey y’all…

It’s a little unlikely you’ll see anything here on the economy blog until next weekend at the earliest. One of my busier business trips of the year is here. That’s the bad news. The good news is it’s supposed to be 60 degrees and sunny in San Fran while I’m there.

Take care and keep the vacuum on the outside of the hull.


Economic Dashboard

Joss was bored and looking for a new FPS to play. He hit up his friends, and everyone came up with the typical names except for his friend Josie. “Try Combat Arms,” said Josie. “It’s free to play so I’ve been meaning to check it out.” Interested in what the gameplay looked like, Joss did a YouTube search and came up with page after page after page of hacking videos. It was clear there was quite the commercial enterprise selling hacks for Combat Arms. Playing hacker-infested games was marginally entertaining when he was 10 or 11, Joss thought to himself, but not anymore.

Savvy developers, like CIG, develop their game with prevention of hacking in mind by making smart decisions about what game resources are server side versus client side. This goes a long way towards addressing the problem, but it isn’t enough given what’s at stake. The Star Citizen universe must be monitored for evidence of hacking.

I (obviously) believe Star Citizen is as much about the economy as space fighting – perhaps even more about the economy if CIG is to create a durable universe populated by hundreds of thousands of players. The health of the Star Citizen economy must be monitored so the “Dungeon Masters” at CIG can make the necessary tweaks and prods to keep the economic system working smoothly.

Monitoring for economic health and for detection of hackers are related tasks.

CIG needs a robust “Economic Dashboard” to not only keep tabs on the game economy, but to detect cheating. Coding for nearly every aspect of Star Citizen needs to incorporate “hooks” for the Economic Dashboard, which means designing this sort of system needs to be an early priority for the CIG development team.

In 13+ years of working with the stock market, I’m familiar with how economic monitoring systems work. The typical professional trader in my business has 3-6 screens at their trading “turret”. The screens visually depict the heartbeat of the stock market. At any given moment, the best traders can tell at a glance what is positive, negative, and unusual amid the billions of transactions taking place between the opening and closing bells each day.

Creating an Economic Dashboard for Star Citizen is, from my perspective, largely reinventing the wheel.

Creating a robust monitoring system requires every economic “thing” in the Star Citizen economy to be individually identifiable. Every physical item that can be bought or sold needs a unique serial number so it can be tracked. At the most basic, this prevents item duplication hacks and leaves a trail for investigating questionable transactions. Contracts for services need similar serialization. Correctly designing the serialization protocol benefits the Economic Dashboard as the protocol can make it easier to group certain related economic items into “classes” – fuel, ores, modules, and certain services come immediately to mind. A simple 4+10 (class+item number) alphanumeric serialization system would likely suffice.

With this incorporated into the game code, following the game economy for stability and cleanliness (from hacks) becomes easier because the baseline data are there. It also means CIG’s economy managers and system security staffs have all future options open to them. If this baseline capability is not in the code, then it must be slapped on after the fact – a messy, nasty job that is unlikely to ever work quite right. Incorporating data collection into the earliest versions of the code enables adaptability for the monitoring systems.

The Star Citizen Economic Dashboard will morph over time as CIG learns more about the game economy and potential holes for hackers. Below are a few initial ideas for what the Economic Dashboard should display:

  • Current price and historical price trends for every physical item “class” tracked in the game. One set of data for completed transactions and one set reflecting quantities and prices from whatever trading exchange system (if any) is included in the game.
  • Current and historical trends for quantities and values of a list of standard contract types (bounty, exploring, shipping, etc). The data should discriminate between completed, offered, and in progress contracts.
  • Current and historical trends for every contract and physical good class transaction showing whether it was NPC/NPC, NPC/human, or human/human.
  • Most of the above sorted by planetary system
  • Players sorted by bank account size
  • Players sorted by speed of account balance change
  • Players sorted by number of transactions per given periods (hour/day/week/month)
  • An alert system for known violations (e.g.: duplicate items)

I could go on, but you should get the idea from the above examples about what I mean when I say “Economic Dashboard”. The above items would be displayed at CIG HQ in the Star Citizen equivalent of a professional trader’s turret. One or more CIG team members would be responsible for watching the data flow to detect problems with the game economy and/or potential security problems.

Creating this capability early in the process has other important advantages, including providing data to govern NPC economic actions. I’m also excited about the game content possibilities.

Once the data are gathered, it’s no trick for CIG’s developers to make a subset of the Economic Dashboard available to players. If CIG hires the right personnel, the same CIG staff responsible for monitoring the economy can create economy-related content, contributing greatly to immersion in the Star Citizen universe. The content can even be used as a game economy management tool in cases by highlighting certain areas underserved by human players.

The key is the early incorporation of tools for monitoring the Star Citizen game economy – which is why I’m writing about it a year before we even see the space combat alpha. If you have other ideas about what should be tracked by the Economic Dashboard, please let me know. One of the best parts about Star Citizen is the ability to tap into the “hive mind” of the 10,000+ subscribers to improve upon our ideas.