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‑Central.com 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 EVE-Central.com 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.

 

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