Going once, Going twice, SOLD!

Gisela couldn’t help herself. She knew the big money was on the big regional exchanges, but she was a bargain hunter at heart.

“Do I hear 25? 25? Anyone give me 25,000? Yes, bidder 15. Do I Hear 26,000? Anyone give me 26? Can I have 26? Yes, bidder 40. Do I hear 27,000? 27? 27? Anyone at 27,000? OK, 26,000 going once, 26,000 going twice. Lot number Alpha three niner, a Mushasi Freelancer sold for 26,000 to bidder number 40.”

Gisela whistled softly to herself. She’d looked over that Freelancer and knew the engines were about to detonate. She made a mental note to be nowhere nearby when ‘Bidder 40’ fired up his new ship. Such was life at the hyper-local planetary auctions scattered throughout the ‘verse.

“And now we have lot Bravo six four. A RSI Constellation. We’ll start the bid at 95,000. Do I hear 95? Anyone give me 95? 95? Thank you, bidder 67.”

Gisela tensed. She’d been all over this Connie. It was beat to hell on the outside and the inside looks like a gaggle of Flo-pets had been living there, but the damage and grime were superficial. All the important parts were sound.

“Do I hear 100,000? 100? 100?” Gisela raised her paddle. “Thank you ma’am,” said the auctioneer. “Bidder 122 for 100,000. Do I hear 105,000? 105? 105? Anyone at 105?”

Gisela held her breath.

“Ok, then let’s try 102,000? 102? 102? Anyone at 102?” The auctioneer peered at his long item sheet and frowned. “OK. Last bid was 100,000. 100 going once, 100 going twice. Lot number bravo six four, a RSI Constellation. Sold to bidder 122 for 100,000. Congrats, ma’am, you probably got the deal of the day,”

Gisela smiled and nodded. A good scrubbing, replace a few of the worst exterior panels, and she knew she’d be able to sell this Connie for 175,000 easy in the center worlds… if she didn’t take a fancy to the ship herself.

My first job out of college I worked for a public automobile auction. I was there a year before it folded, but almost every other Saturday for that year I was working the line, listening to the auctioneer’s call, and getting a front row seat to some of the strangest economic behavior anywhere. You see, we sold “drug cars” at this auction.

For those not familiar with the concept, America’s “War on Drugs” features powerful legal options for law enforcement to seize property used in the commission of drug dealing. “Drug cars” are those vehicles seized from drug dealers by local law enforcement. This was shortly after the days of Miami Vice (No link because if you don’t know Miami Vice, well, you’re hopeless.) where Crockett and Tubs screamed across the screen in cigarette boats and a parade of gorgeous cars (especially that Daytona Spider, may it rest in peace) seized from drug dealers.

The reality was uglier, of course. I’ll never forget we had two 1983 Honda Preludes running back to back. The first was a drug seizure car with 185,000 miles that smoked so bad we had to shut it off on the auction pad. It went for $3,500 under heavy bidding by at least a dozen people. (This was 1992 and, for perspective, the car’s original MSRP was $6,500). The next ’83 Prelude was a one-owner, 95,000 miles and in near perfect condition. The owner wanted $1,500 minimum for it (which was a steal). Only two bidders interested never got it above $750.

Incidentally, this is an example of why predicting economic behavior rarely works. People. Are. Stupid. Those Preludes were the most egregious examples in the year I worked there, but they were not the only one. While I digress here a little (OK, a lot), here’s my point: People love the excitement of the auctions. The auctioneer’s call is their heroin.

If you’ve been following along here at the Economy Blog, you know I’m a fan of handling transactions within the Star Citizen economy via regional exchanges. I think they fit the likely universe fiction, provide a boost to the velocity of money, and enable a wide array of economic interactions you simply don’t see if the exchange is confined to a single planet or installation.

That said, anyone who played Freelancer and Privateer (at least without reading web sites, BBSes, or the dev tester’s book) knows there is some excitement when you uncover great, local deals. This is lost – or at least very much reduced – with regional exchanges.

We should add live local auctions to Star Citizen. (If you didn’t click to listen to Leroy Vandyke’s classic, do it now or you’re going to misunderstand what I mean by live auction.)

Local auctions paired with regional exchanges allow us to have our cake and eat it too. The local auctions would be a fabulous place for players – human and NPCs – to interact. And the creation of a real auction environment – complete with a ‘live’ NPC character calling the auction like the fellow in Vandyke’s classic song – would be a stunning achievement.

Yes, I’m aware piecing together the sound for a decent auction caller would give poor Martin Galway fits, but I think the immersive experience would be worth it. There are also potential instancing issues if the auctions become hugely popular. A live local auction wouldn’t be effortless to create from a coding standpoint, but I think this would be well worth it.*

These auction houses would be hyper local, only selling stuff listed at that auction. Humans and NPCs could haunt them for great deals as an alternative to the regional exchanges. The auctions would take on the characteristics of their specific locales. For example, an auction house on Terra would be quite different from an auction house on Spider – both in the legality of the items and the participants.

Local auctions can also act as needed money sinks in the game. When the UEE seizes a pirate vessel or other ill-gotten goods, they can sell them at the local auctions as the Star Citizen equivalent of drug cars. If Janus hadn’t sprung Tanya Oriel’s Beacon II in the first part of Issue #9, the UEE could have sold it at a local auction!

Money from selling UEE seizure goods to human players would neatly suck money out of the economy. Auction listing fees can be charged for player-listed items. Both sinks would be a nice offset to the many money faucets in the game.

Economics aside, live auctions are great fun. Most lots can be sold in 2-4 minutes, so a 60‑minute auction can handle 15-30 items. If some systems need more capacity, run multiple lanes – one for ships, another for cargo, and a third for weapons. Multiple auctions can be held each day if the supply of goods is that large – which would be great anyway given the global time zones of the Star Citizen player population.

As long as the lots on the auction sheet come up in a predictable order, prospective buyers can decide when to arrive and leave. Even if the auction goes on for three hours, which one might presume would test the patience of any modern twitch-happy gamer, players aren’t required to arrive at the start and stay until the end. Goodness knows that’s never how it worked at any real world auto auction I’ve ever been at.

Local auctions would be a great way to bring an organized trading economy to odd corners of the universe. A regional exchange for pirate-controlled space makes very little sense from a game fiction perspective. A local auction makes all the sense in the world for Spider. I can just visualize what an absolute spectacle that might be with everything from captured ships to slaves coming in front of the auctioneer’s gavel.

Even on worlds like Terra, local auctions would have a place. If some poor soul didn’t pay his/her garage or storage fee, the contents could be auctioned off to reduce the debt. There are all kinds of items where the fiction fits with local auctions better than the regional exchanges.

Pairing local auctions and regional exchanges would be a unique approach for the Star Citizen economy – if done very well, it could be a signature feature of the game economy every bit the match of what we’re all sure will be a revolutionary combat side.

[*Postscript: While I’m obviously enamored with the idea of a ‘caller’ interface for the auction, this idea could also work with a more traditional “eBay” style local auction. This would be much less cool, but certainly easier to code.]

 

Balancing the shopkeeper

“Your spaceship has been destroyed,” said the computer. “And I am terribly sorry but the medical technology does not exist to repair your body. ‘ Pendergast the 391st’s’ next of kin has been notified.”

“That’s it,” Michael shouted at the computer screen. “I am going to uninstall this fracking game. I suck as a pilot and I’m never going to get any better.”

Michael did uninstall, but a couple months later discovered he missed the immersive, vibrant Star Citizen universe. He re-activated his character, Pendergast the 392nd, and started wandering around Terra. Michael loved walking around interacting with NPCs and humans on Terra – it was all so… alive!

When Michael walked past a row of human-run storefronts in the low-rent district, he got the idea: He didn’t need to be a pilot to be a part of the game, he could become an entrepreneur.

“Now to figure out what I’m going to sell,” thought Michael to himself.

Star Citizen is a space combat game. The large, immersive universe containing this space combat game also comes with a game economy. Presuming the pledger population is a fraction of the people who will actually play Star Citizen at launch, that game economy could be quite vibrant and take on a life of its own.

Because humans can manufacture things and provide services, it’s highly likely a successful businessperson would never have to strap into the cockpit to keep busy in the game. This is a little more likely if the game features exchanges covering systems, regions, or races. It’s a little less likely if the exchanges cover only single planets, stations, and installations. (One reason why I favor regional or larger exchanges is they enable non-pilots to contribute to the vibrancy of the Star Citizen universe.)

There are a number of issues with someone who is an entrepreneur but not also a pilot. The focus of Star Citizen is combat, with all the unique expenses and risk that profession entails. Economic balance issues must be resolved so a non-pilot entrepreneur role does not have an easier path to riches. Otherwise, Star Citizen just becomes an elaborate game of Monopoly.

Pilots have significant ongoing expenses, including insurance, munitions, and repairs. Merchants also have ongoing expenses, including storefront rental, cargo hauling, shipment protection, and insurance. The trick is to balance projected profit and loss (P&L) statements for both roles.

Because non-pilot entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to operate without pilots for supply, some of the balance would be enforced by the “silent hand of the market”. On any item a non-pilot entrepreneur sells that has to be shipped, the costs of piloting would be inherently built into the P&L.

Service businesses – assuming they will be in the game – are tougher. Since they don’t actually sell a physical good, they aren’t as beholden to the pilot side of the economy. This is especially true if the service is related more to other non-pilot entrepreneurs than to serving pilots.

There is another issue of balance related to CIG’s business model. From what I can tell at this point, much of the revenue model for CIG is oriented to pilots. Swag and cosmetics for the ship are the obvious examples. CIG needs to make sure non-pilot entrepreneurs have as much need/desire for legal tender transactions as pilots. Legal tender swag sales can be used for internal and external decorations on the storefront just as they are for ships. Want a neon “open” sign instead of a plastic flip sign? Get out your wallet. Want some bling for your office desk? Find that in the real money office furnishings shop.

A basic requirement of the non-pilot entrepreneur is property. A storefront is a requirement to be able to do business with customers – or can be made a requirement in the game coding for everything but certain services (InfoAgent is one obvious exception to this). The storefront requirement makes balancing easier.

There is an old Air Force joke about “flying a desk”. It’s useful to imagine the storefront as the planet-bound equivalent of a ship when determining how to balance non-pilot entrepreneurs.

Square footage rent, property taxes, local business revenue taxes, sales taxes, and property insurance are all obvious money sinks for non-pilot entrepreneurs. In rough areas of the universe, perhaps NPC security guards would be a necessity. The level of these taxes needs to scale according to the success of the business – just like the money sink of buying new ships and better equipment scales to the skill of a pilot.

There also needs to be some sense of progression for non-pilot entrepreneurs. As pilots, you can measure your progression in the game by the ship you fly and modifications you install.

Non-pilot entrepreneurs who want to expand their capabilities also need to upgrade. Just as a pilot buys a bigger/better ships and better modifications, non-pilot entrepreneurs need to be incentivized to buy bigger/better facilities if they want to expand their revenue opportunities.

The final balancing necessary is risk. In a space combat game, pilots are obviously at constant risk of combat and death. That risk moderates depending on the security level of the system, but it never completely disappears. That’s not obviously true for a non-pilot entrepreneur, so the game needs to be balanced to introduce risk for this role.

Thinking literally, risk could be introduced by storefront robberies. Just as a pilot has to invest in escorts and defensive weaponry, risk of robbery would force non-pilot entrepreneurs to invest in security guards and defensive systems.

Thinking not so literally, the risk could be economic. Pilots are at risk of having their livelihood destroyed by other pilots nearly every time they leave space dock. Non-pilot entrepreneurs need to have their livelihoods also at risk on a similarly regular basis. Some of this risk could be “borrowed” from the risk inherent in transporting goods or raw materials. I believe there needs to be more – some special risk for non-pilot entrepreneurs.

Maybe it is only allowing them to deposit the day’s proceeds in the bank at limited times, leaving their hard-earned revenues subject to robbery. Perhaps there is a hacking component where a competing non-pilot entrepreneur could disrupt plants and systems. Maybe a competitor could hire a rogue to spoof an authorized hauling contract and intercept critical raw materials or expensive finished goods.

I believe the Star Citizen universe will be more vibrant with more humans. Recognizing not all humans will excel at space combat – or that (gasp) some humans might get bored with space combat after a while – the more varied the roles for humans in the game the better off we will all be. A non-pilot entrepreneur role allows crappy (or bored) pilots to do something different while staying involved in creating the Star Citizen universe. The trick is to make sure the balance is right to enable this role without taking the game too far away from its space combat roots.

 

Zeus, please

Cummerbund looked out over the field of RSI Zeus racers with some measure of pride. Every single owner was a customer of his race shop, mostly because he was the only shopkeeper in the ‘verse with the connections in the pirate community necessary to keep a reliable flow of spare parts for a ship nearly seven centuries old. Fortunately, space vacuum is a superior preservation medium.

The RSI Zeus was the first space explorer accessible to regular people. Initially available in 2140, it unlocked the solar system. Subsequent variants – along with the discovery of navigable jump holes a century later – helped unlock the universe.

As a beginner rogue, well before he earned the “Dread Pirate” honorific, Cummerbund was rummaging around the oldest portions of Spider and ran across an ancient Xi’An cargo carrier containing human ship hulls he’d never seen before. The technology and materials were so old they were worthless on today’s markets. After some research, he discovered they were centuries-old Zeus class ships.

He largely forgot about them until, decades later, he found himself running Spider. It wasn’t safe for him to be an active pirate any longer, so Cummerbund had a great deal of time on his hands. He remembered that Xi’An cargo ship and in his spare time started restoring one of the Zeus-class ships. He shipped it to his sister’s teenage son for kicks, but the pirate he hired to transport the craft was pinched by the UEE. The UEE put the ship went up for auction as “pirate spoils”.

When Cummerbund heard about the auction price, he couldn’t believe someone was willing to pay as much for a restored 700-year-old Zeus as a brand-new Connie. He restored another one and shipped to auction with the same result.

Shortly thereafter, Cummerbund retired from piracy, sold a third Zeus to finance having his citizenship record scrubbed by a real pro, loaded every Zeus part he could find into cargo ships, and set up shop in the Ellis System near the race course.

He never did find out why there were dozens of Zeus hulks in that Xi’An carrier, or why even today the pirates and explorers he buys parts from tell him they are usually collected in Xi’An space.

Cummerbund, and his few competitors whose businesses hadn’t “mysteriously” been destroyed by fire or other calamity, helped restore enough Zeus-class ships so Murray Cup Racing was able to create a “Classics” division. Every few months, Zeus owners from around the ‘verse would pay to have heavily-guarded transports haul their pricey restorations to Ellis to compete in these events.

“Welcome to the GSN Spectrum Broadcasting’s Racing Channel, this is Richard Petty the 31st bringing you one of our most popular Murray Cup events – the 2945 edition of the Cummerbund Race Shops Zeus Classic 5,000 Championship here from the Murray Cup Racing facilities in the Ellis System.”

Those who have been around since September 2012, a month before the pledge drive started, might remember the “A Ship in Every Garage” Time Capsule entry from Earthdate 2140. At the time, we had no idea the Star Citizen universe would take place some 700 years in the future. This was only the fifth entry in the Time Capsule series, after all.

I’ve never forgotten the Zeus, though. It was really the first ship those of us who happened across the RSI site got to see, so maybe it made a bigger impression than the very “space shuttley” design warrants. But it was love at first sight for me, and I’ve wanted one ever since.

At this point, we are pretty certain humans will be able to own manufacturing and storefronts in Star Citizen. I honestly have no idea whether the economy mechanics will be sophisticated enough to allow an explorer who just happens to come across some wreck of a ship to restore it instead of simply collect it for salvage. I expect the answer to that will be ‘no’, at least at the beginning.

I wrote previously about an idea called “Tweaker Service” where human shop owners well versed in the intricacies of ship system tweaking might be able to sell their services. I know the system I described would be its own little coding nightmare, but perhaps something like restoration of classic ship hulks would not be so bad.

Manufacturing is simply putting A + B + C + D together to get something new. Refined metals, electronics, fuel, and something that goes ‘boom’, for example, are how a human would manufacture a missile for resale. All the component parts of the missile are purchasable or discoverable.

Perhaps the same thing can happen with the Zeus. Seed the galaxy with bits and pieces of the Zeus. When a human collects enough A, B, C, and D then runs them through some manufacturing-like process, he/she obtains a classic ship to race in a Murray Cup event or parade in well-protected space. This certainly wouldn’t be a major part of the economy, but it might be a fun story line after Star Citizen is up and running.

For the record, I’m going to be a hard sell on the idea of humans manufacturing ships in Star Citizen. I don’t think it fits with the fiction and ship sales are going to be an important money sink for the game economy. But for something like the Zeus, whose 700-year-old design clearly makes it a non-competitive toy, I’d make an exception.

Someday, perhaps, I’ll run across a Xi’An freighter full of Zeus parts and be able to cobble them together into a sweet 22nd century ride.