Retaining immersion with system-limited exchanges

It was a big galaxy, and Fred certainly had the money and time to travel. But, he was a homebody. “Why travel six jumpgates to visit the Torreele Mega-Mart.” Fred remarked to anyone who’d listen, “when I can buy the same vac-packs here on Goss I?”

Fred played his part in the local economy. He retired from running a major Aegis Aerospace manufacturing plant and hung his own shingle. “Don’t Get Dead, Repairs by Fred,” said the sign on his repair hangar. “Named by my grandson,” Fred told everyone who visited his shop.

It’s pretty clear CIG has decided inter-system communications won’t be instant in the Star Citizen universe. Chatroll comments from CIG folks, interviews given by Chris Roberts, recent fiction, and even the Writer’s Guides have all outlined a communication system that breaks down over distance – or at least has to travel in delayed burst packets to get from one solar system to another.

This has huge economic impacts, obviously. It means exchanges will be no larger than a single solar system. After all, you can’t have a regional exchange when price and transaction information takes 30 minutes to travel between systems.

I understand why CIG chose this. It’s much easier to code, though it will increase economy management and monitoring complexity on the back end. The contract module will be much simpler. NPC behavior is easier to model and control, too. Given CIG is staring at a huge task list, it makes perfect sense why they’d chose the shorter path.

The biggest drawback to system-level exchanges are they greatly encourage players to break immersion by Alt+Tabbing to third party web sites. CIG’s chosen communication standard makes price information for adjacent systems unavailable in the game. This does not mean those prices will be unavailable to players. It only means players will Alt+Tab to view those prices on a third-party website set up by enterprising Star Citizen fans.

Anyone who has played EVE is very familiar with this. If you haven’t played EVE, head over to EVE‑ and check out their offerings. While the data are not perfect, the EVE experience indicates any serious Star Citizen economy participant will use similar sites before risking space travel and profits.

Sites like cannot be stopped, of course, so CIG has to figure out ways to entice players to retain immersion and not Alt+Tab out to third-party sites.

I’ve already written about one strategy – the local live auction (Going once, Going twice, SOLD!). Price data from a local auction ages rapidly, to the point it would be useless after only a few days – longer if the local auctions are heavily populated by NPCs with narrow price guidance, shorter if the local auctions are dominated by human players.

With predominantly human participants, auction prices are highly variable. They depend on supply and demand conditions persisting only for the length of a single auction. Coding NPC auction participants will be a matter of some art. Not only will they need to have boundary ranges for bids, those ranges will need to be sensitive to the number of participants in any given auction, the number of different sellers of a particular good, and the number of bidders for a particular good. Then you have to toss some randomization factor in so bidding against NPCs doesn’t become completely predictable and, well, gameable.

I originally envisioned local auctions as a way to encourage local commerce in a regional exchange system. They can help entice players to remain immersed, however. The imperfect price discovery (and demand ruled by human frailty) I described in the original blog post could be a powerful tool enticing players to retain immersion. A well-designed local auction house system would have a nice side benefit of making third party price site less reliable, reducing immersion-breaking Alt+Tabbing.

Limited-time local specials are another strategy. Every system will have its own commercial media, all of which will carry advertisements. Our friend Fred could, on a slow afternoon, advertise 20% off engine repairs for that afternoon. If you’re in the system, you’re going to be able to take advantage of this offer. If you’re not, you won’t. The short duration of this sort of limited-time local offer makes price data less useful on any third party site due to lags in updating.

CIG will have to do more to monitor “economic alts” under the system-limited exchange approach. One way to defeat the game feature of hiding prices via slow communications is create an alt account and place that character on another planet. I expect any serious player to have many economic alts, one on every major trading planet.

CIG, for many reasons including economic reasons, will need to control (prevent) trading between alt accounts. It’s game breaking, for example, to allow a Citizen alt to share the same goodies (ships and money) with a Pirate alt. If a player’s alts can do commerce with each other, it breaks most of the rationale behind system-limited exchanges. There wouldn’t be any price discovery risk, just travel risk.

There were always going to be third-party websites specializing in Star Citizen economic information. Even with a galaxy-wide exchange, sites would spring up with hints for the most profitable trades. CIG’s apparent decision to use system‑limited exchanges doesn’t change this.

Given CIG’s desire for players to retain immersion, I expect much of the early thinking about the game economy design to revolve around strategies to keep players in the game instead of Alt+Tabbing out to get their economic information. Making certain those features don’t just end up being annoying will be a significant balancing act.


Advancing as a manufacturer

Jodie was unreasonably excited to get home from work and log into Star Citizen. She’d been busy over the last few months creating quite the manufacturing empire for herself. Her kids were quite amazed whenever she showed them messages from customers raving about how cool it was they could buy (and especially repair) ship armor plating from the plants she purposefully located at the edges of the galaxy.

Jodie found her market niche by supplying and servicing ship armor well away from the galactic core. It was rougher where she was, for sure, but the location of her plants saved her customers hours of space travel and they were more than happy to pay a premium for that convenience.

Jodie was excited because she’d finally earned enough credits to get her first Basilisk-brand armor manufacturing machine. She’d been dealing in lower-end brands all this time, turning away far too many wealthy clients who preferred Basilisk’s equipment. With the delivery today, she’s not only be able to start selling Basilisk armor, but repairing it.

I’m not sure the Star Citizen community has really internalized the implications of CIG’s design decisions around character advancement. Theirs is a bold decision representing a rather dramatic departure from what players are used to. The very interesting outcome of this design is the human player, and not the player’s character, is the repository for any sort of advantage gained from playing the game.

While most folks are focusing on scope and graphics when they call Star Citizen “ambitious”, in my opinion those things are much easier compared with figuring out how to convince players they are advancing in the game without having any skill trees or character advancement.

It’s been a while since I did a blog post, but I assure you it’s not because I haven’t been thinking about the game’s economy. It’s certainly not because of a lack of news on the economy. Over the last month, aspects of the game economy have become clearer – particularly regarding manufacturing. Only today, an interview of Chris Roberts in PC Gamer provided rather breakthrough insights into how the economy will be fashioned.

I’ve been thinking quite a deal about manufacturing. I’ve read about the failures of other games who attempt manufacturing or crafting. Most of these failures revolve around flaws in the advancement path of the human entrepreneur. Essentially all other games require the human to advance along a manufacturing skill tree by making certain quantities of lower-level goods. This requirement means production is done to advance skills, not to make a profit. This results in the market being flooded with low-end goods with no profit. In a nasty little feedback loop, this makes it very difficult for any player new to the game to advance.

Star Citizen does away with leveling, however, since the character has no attributes to level. And while there may be some physical or mental skill involved in manufacturing a player could perfect via repetition, I rather doubt it will take much repetition before that’s figured out.

Yet gamers are programmed (excuse the pun) to seek advancement. Heck, humans are programmed to seek advancement. If all a human in a manufacturer role can do is create the same widget over and over and over with no prospect for advancing anything other than their bank account, that’ll soon get pretty dull.

So how to enable players to advance without character advancement or skill trees?

We know from the excellent Ship Component Document there are different grades of ship equipment – and not just in terms of what fits on a hardpoint. There are also manufacturers of differing quality. Some of these names (ASD, Klaus & Werner, MaxOx, Talisman, Basilisk, and Behring – to name a few) have appeared in the game fiction already. I imagine there are dozens more.

So let’s use these gradients to provide advancement and differentiation to the manufacturing role.

The most accessible (cheapest) manufacturing equipment would be the base-class equipment from the least-prestigious manufacturer. For example, the cheapest laser turret manufacturing equipment might produce Class One SpaceMart laser cannons. Presumably, the lower quality and performance of the SpaceMart brand would provide lower margins and (being entry level) have a fair amount of competition.

To advance as a manufacturer, you’d want to build a higher class of laser or a laser of the same class from a more reputable manufacturer. Since manufacturing is not skill-point related in Star Citizen, the only way you would advance is by earning enough money to either modify your manufacturing machine’s AI to enable the equipment to produce Class Two SpaceMart laser cannons – or maybe earn enough money to buy a whole new manufacturing rig to produce a better brand such as Klaus & Werner.

There are a couple of important points to consider here.

First, you’d need profits in order to “advance” to “better” production items. This means you can’t just grind away to get there via producing a specific number of units like manufacturing works in most other games. If you produce 10,000 SpaceMart lasers and the market will only bear 5,000, you’re going to take a loss and not be able to advance. The Star Citizen economy design is not going to spawn some NPC to take those excess lasers off your hands just because you made them.

The second is any particular human player may neither want nor need to advance. If the profits are fine making Class One SpaceMart lasers, why advance? Perhaps this particular human manufactures only to support his/her racing habit. Or exploration habit. Or pirate habit!

One of the other things we now know about the Star Citizen economy is stuff wears out. Stuff also needs to be repaired. While I absolutely expect we’ll be able to do our own repair work, I also expect there will be a market role for repair specialists. It makes a great deal of sense for the people manufacturing a specific item to have a specific expertise in repairing that item –not because of repair task repetition (no experience tree, remember) but because they have specialized equipment in their plant.

I propose pairing the advancement in manufacturing equipment with advancing on the repair side. Here’s how that would work: If you have equipment to manufacture Class 4 SpaceMart laser cannons, you’re going to be able to do a better job (on average) repairing Class 4 SpaceMart laser cannons than someone without that equipment.

However, and this is important, your Class 4 SpaceMart laser equipment won’t be as efficient in repairing a Class 1 SpaceMart laser cannon. The repair will probably be better than someone without any SpaceMart manufacturing equipment – but not as good as someone with Class 1 SpaceMart manufacturing equipment.

Why would this be important? One of the reasons you want to enable economic advancement is to make “economic room” for new players to the game. By linking repair performance to manufacturing equipment level, you create a little more room in the lower economic rungs than you otherwise might.

Additionally, linking repair to the presence of the manufacturing machinery tends to have localization benefits. Manufacturers will tend to locate themselves wherever raw materials are easiest to procure or “trade hubs” where humans in the game tend to congregate most (think Jita in EVE). Manufacturing, absent arbitrary plant location rules, doesn’t benefit from being spread out to the edges of the galaxy. You can always locate centrally and ship your product to the distant edges. Additionally, customers can fly in to buy their brand new parts.

Services like repair are completely different. A smart repair service provider is going to want to locate on the edges – after all, that’s where equipment is most likely to be damaged. As a repair shop, you want to be the only repair ship in any given system. The price you can charge is much higher.

Linking manufacturing with repair, therefore, will tend to cause the manufacturing role to be much more distributed across the galaxy than one might otherwise expect. Broader distribution means players new to the game can also find market niches by locating themselves smartly like Jodie did in the bit of fiction atop this post.

I freely admit I don’t know all the consequences of having no character progression or skill trees in Star Citizen. Every time I focus on a new economic role, I start wondering how the humans playing that role will advance absent a skill tree. It’s quite mind opening, actually, and presents an enormously entertaining creative challenge.