Human manufacturing

They said he was crazy, but Big John was certain he was on the right track. He just needed to piss off the UEE enough so the pirates would accept him. He felt bad for the first few Merchant Guilders he pirated, but pretty soon it became routine – a means to an end. Several dozen kills and some narrow escapes from Bounty Hunters later, he was an accepted denizen of Spider, the Cathcart system’s den of thieves. Then it was time to talk to the current pirate leader about his crazy idea…

“Jobe, you’re as much of a leader here as Spider has,” said John. “I need to hire you and a dozen of your best pilots for a special escort mission.”

“Damn, Big John,” Jobe replied, “What the hell do you want a dozen pirate escorts for?”

When Big John shared his plan, he hoped Jobe’s eyes bulged at the audacity of it and not because Jobe was thinking a Starfarer Gemini outfitted as a munitions manufacturing station would be too much of a prize to resist…

In the February 22, 2013 edition of WingMan’s Hangar, CIG’s Chris Roberts confirmed human players would be able to perform manufacturing. This confirmation was “something new” for those of us very much interested in the Star Citizen economy.

I was initially worried humans might be allowed to manufacture ships. Since human ship manufacturing would remove one of the most reliable money sinks in the game, the consequences would considerably complicate the task of balancing the Star Citizen economy.

I started to write this blog entry this morning under the guess what humans would manufacture were in-game consumables and perhaps ship modules. When CIG’s Ben Lesnick dropped into chat this afternoon, I had a chance to ask. He said nothing was “set in stone”™ yet, but humans would most likely be manufacturing consumables and wouldn’t likely be manufacturing ships.

Whew, and yay!

Having human manufacturing opens up all sorts of cool roles in the game. It makes the coding orders of magnitude more complex, but CIG doesn’t seem to be shying away from that at the moment. What remains to be seen is how integrated human roles are throughout the entire supply chain.

To manufacture a missile, for example, one can imagine the required materials. Refined metals, refined fuels, electronics, and refined materials that go ‘boom’. With that list of components, it isn’t too terribly hard to start imagining the supply chain that goes with it.

Refined metals require raw ores and refining capability. Humans could fill both roles or simply sell raw ore to NPCs with refining capabilities.

The same thing for refined fuels. We already know from the 24-hour telethon the Starfarer can be outfitted with refining capability so it can collect gases and refine them into fuels on the run. I’d expect that refining equipment to not be cheap – and the Starfarer isn’t likely to be a cheap vessel either – so one would expect both gas miners and gas refiners as separate human jobs.

Electronics are a little less obvious. They could come from salvage and/or be manufactured by humans from certain ores. I’d expect electronics manufacturing to be a high-dollar enterprise dominated largely by NPCs at the beginning because of the expertise involved. It may be a permanently NPC role depending on how much control CIG wants over this industry.

For the “things that go boom” portion of any missile, it might require tricky refining of certain mined gasses and mined raw ores. From a fiction standpoint, it would make sense for the UEE to want some controls, meaning NPC involvement or at least high dollars for the necessary manufacturing equipment.

Just making a missile, therefore, necessitates a ton of different human roles in the game economy. Such variety is a good thing.

Big John in the fiction up top has what is either a great idea or a really stupid idea. He’s going to set up a munitions manufacturing shop in the middle of pirate-controlled space. He ought to be able to charge a premium for his wares, assuming he’d be one of the few dumb/smart enough to serve that clientele in their own backyard. Pirates, by their nature after all, have a transitory view of “agreements”.

(Incidentally, I have NO idea whether someone might be able to get their hands on the UEE militarized Starfarer Gemini. I also have no idea whether munitions manufacturing can be done from a ship.)

I wrote the fiction to underscore the fact location is everything. Manufacturing facilities are likely going to be attackable. Locating in UEE-policed space will be safer, but there are certainly going to be more competitors. Locating closer to the raw materials will be cheaper, but those materials may well be sourced in less protected space. It’s a balance that ought to make manufacturing in Star Citizen much more amusing than it might otherwise sound.

Not for the first time, I’m glad we exceeded the $6 million pledge mark to trigger the development of the tablet application. CIG has been pretty mum on this, though comments from Chris Roberts and Lead Designer Rob Irving lend weight to my suspicion – that the tablet app will be integrated with the game economy.

I expect Star Citizen industrialists will be able to buy and sell goods on the tablet application. I also think they will be able to contract for things like hauling, bounty, and protective escort services. If I’m right, that means pilots will be able to use the tablet application to troll for business and accept contracts they can execute when they are back in front of their PC.

Very cool.

Complexity

Lines. Katarina hated lines. It had been like this ever since the Vanduul took out all the fuel refineries in this sector of space in retaliation for the UEE opening direct negotiations with the Kr’Thak. Every time she had to refuel, she sat in line for hours. Bored stiff, Katarina flipped on the vidscreen.

“New United News Anchor Tom Grunick here with Sloan Sabbith, UEE economist. Ms. Sabbith, can you explain the impact of the fuel shortages on the sector economy?”

“Tom, first off, thanks for having me. The UEE is shipping in fuel and UEE Citizens are first in line, so they shouldn’t see any disruptions. This sort of emergency response is precisely why UEE Citizenship is so valuable. The UEE is committed to…”

“Lying tramp,” Katarina shouted at the screen as she slapped the off button. “Always spouting propaganda. Effing ‘economists’ don’t know nothin’. I’m out here wasting time sitting in line when I could be earning money. This nonsense is disrupting my economy.”

I spend a fair amount of hours in the chat room. I hear complaints all the time along the lines of, “Why will it take so long to deliver the game?” I’m sure most of those people are just trying to be funny, but then it’s only five or so months since Chris Roberts debuted his vision for Star Citizen and Squadron 42. When the flight combat alpha starts later this year, and the final game is still 18 months after that, I expect folks will be asking this question more often.

Those of us who’ve ever worked in a software development atmosphere probably have a better appreciation for the massive task in front of CIG. While I was excited to see the funding campaign exceed all the stretch goals, I have to admit I winced at the additional workload each successive funding milestone added to CIG’s plate.

Since I’m focused on the game economics, I’ll use the game economy as an example. We have only hints about what roles – NPC and/or human controlled – will be a focus for the game, but working through just one of the likely economic roles reveals the hugely complex task CIG has in coding a real economy for Star Citizen.

In the chart below, I walk through all the economic roles involved in the single task of a pilot acquiring fuel for his/her spacecraft. It’s pretty stunning, actually, the sheer number of economic roles necessary. These are not presented in any particular order.

Explorer/Prospector Miner/collector Refiner
Hauler (multiple stages) Wholesaler Retailer
Security Ship seller Module seller
Mining/collecting equipment Refining Equipment Advertising
Maps Fuel storage Real estate
Equipment repair Ship repair Insurance
Auction house Medical services Taxes
Search & Rescue Bounty Hunters Contracts

That’s not an exhaustive list, but it is still 24 separate roles or processes that have to be coded. Some are simpler than others, but several of the roles are at least as complex as this list. For example, ship seller and module seller have enormous trees of their own. So do haulers or Bounty Hunters for that matter. Once you start mapping the economic relationships, things get darn complicated.

CIG can make some of this easier, ironically enough, by coding most of these roles for humans and allowing Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market” to control things from there. Writing the tools and allowing humans to figure out the rest – combined with excellent monitoring tools and clever balancing – could help. Unfortunately, most of the necessary balancing tools require NPCs to perform those tasks humans aren’t handling efficiently.

So, we’re back to the necessity of CIG doing some heavy duty coding.

CIG spent most of January building their team and the physical infrastructure. February appears to be mostly about figuring out the 100,000-foot level overview of the task, filling coder roles, and building the software tools necessary to accomplish the huge task ahead of them. Because the economy is so tightly woven with the combat game play, I expect we’ll start learning more about CIG’s plans for the economy this spring.

In the meantime, I hope pledgers recognize the enormity of the project and give the CIG team a break – particularly when the inevitable timeline delays arise.

 

A Star Citizen contract system

“I shoulda stayed behind the bar,” Lance thought to himself as he drifted amongst the wreckage of what used to be his 300i. Lance pressed his rescue beacon, a probably useless gesture since he was floating just 100m from the business end of the Vanduul Scythe that fragged his ship. Lance eyed the Vanduul pilot and keyed the pod’s transmitter, “OK, toad brain. Now what?”

To his surprise, the Vanduul pilot responded by spinning and hitting his afterburners. Lance saw a blip appear on his pod’s proximity display about the same time he heard the distinctive sound of a Behring Judge missile streak over his head and disintegrate the Scythe.

“Looks like you could use a ride,” boomed a voice over the escape pod’s speakers. “You can wait for the UEE to eventually get here or I can ferry you back for 10,000. Contract?”

Lance was immediately glad he paid the doctor in his more recent MedBay visit to install one of the new MobiGlas implants in his left wrist. Last time he was in this situation, his MobiGlas was floating in the wreckage of his ship and he had to wait a half day for UEE to arrive because he had no way to pay.

Lance thumbed his MobiGlas implant to accept the contract and replied, “Contract… and thanks, friend.”

No player is going to get very far in the Star Citizen universe without transacting for business. Ship, gear, fuel, maps – a spacefarer’s life isn’t cheap. There are lots of folks out there who are more than happy to take advantage of the unwary, NPCs and human characters alike.

I’ve written before about economic friction, highlighting as one source of economic friction the inability to reliably exchange goods or services. One solution for the Star Citizen economy is the creation of a contracting system. This is no small coding task, I’m aware, largely because a robust contracting system has to be able to handle all manner of transactions. Some can be identified in advance, but the human influence on the Star Citizen economy means economic transactions will occur in unexpected formats. Coding for the unexpected is always tougher.

The obvious base requirement of any contracting system covers the offering and the payment. Some allowance for contract expiration (time) is also going to be necessary. Things get a little difficult after that.

Take a shipping example. A shipper contracts with a cargo hauler to deliver 600 ton of Mixed Oxides from the Kellogg to the Killian system. As everyone knows, MOX decays in transit so the value of the contract varies according to how long it takes the cargo hauler to get there. The contracting system, therefore, has to be flexible enough to allow for variable payments depending on time. This will be a common feature necessary for any perishable cargo – whether it be isotopes, foodstuffs, or slaves.

Bounties provide another example. A particularly brazen pod-killer may have a dead-or-alive contract on his or her head. The contract interface would need to be able to handle one payment if the target is brought in alive and able to be put to work in the Kellogg system’s QuarterDeck PrisonWorld generating victim compensation income. A lesser payment would be earned if the bounty hunter were only able to provide the perp’s dead body.

Some contracts, particularly the more illicit kind, might work off a percentage basis. The owner of 5,000 ton of artifacts salvaged from the Hades system might want to pay a cargo hauler friendly with pirates 10% of whatever the items can fetch in the Nul system. This means the contract system not only has to allow for percentages, but be smart enough to link the cargo‑hauling contract with the commodity sale contract value in order to complete all legs of this transaction.

If the Star Citizen economy only allows transactions in Galactic Credits instead of exchange of goods, this would make things easier. I’m not certain eliminating barter will work – even if it would be possible. After all, barter can be accomplished merely by two pilots sitting nose-to-nose in space and jettisoning cargo pods.

One might think contracts are too much bother, but I strongly disagree for a number of reasons:

  • Contracts will reduce griefing. Without a contract, an unscrupulous cargo hauler can simply accept cargo and then deliver the goods somewhere else. That blows back into multiple other players and could cause quite the nightmare. While a contract doesn’t prevent this behavior, it allows verification that this behavior occurred and in-fiction processes (UEE enforcement, bounties, etc.) can be engaged as controls.
  • Using contracts creates a “track record” for the character. Fast, effective cargo haulers can charge a premium for those “must deliver by deadline” goods compared to less experienced or speedy haulers. Loss of this “track record” for a character could also make character death more meaningful.
  • Contracts enable proper insurance premium costing and loss payments.
  • Contracts are probably the only way to properly track the value of services inside the game for purposes of monitoring the economy.
  • Contracts are the best way of tracking the flow of goods and services (not just gross volumes) for purposes of managing the economy. Geolocating contract execution and completion also allows the CIG economist team to track common trade routes.
  • If there is a contract system, it opens up another line of business for Bounty Hunters aside from hunting ship/character killers. Bounty Hunters can go after haulers who divert cargo in violation of their contract.
  • Paperwork always helps when support teams are asked to settle disputes. Paperwork is also required for any in-game judicial or dispute-resolution system. A contracting system provides that paperwork.

There are many more examples, but these should provide some sense of how a robust contracting system can help players, smooth game play, and provide a rich source of data for CIG’s economic team.