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.

 

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