Tuesday, August 31, 2004

SWG: Inventory Encumbrance and Transport

I wouldn't mind a having a real "encumbrance" feature implemented... but this isn't one. The change that's been implemented appears to be just an inventory limit change.

A real encumbrance system would mean that light objects require less room in your inventory than heavy objects, and that small objects take up less room than large/bulky objects. In what universe does it make any sense that a single Bantha doll chews up exactly the same amount of inventory space as 100,000 units of Lead?

If the developers implemented this kind of true encumbrance system, they could remove the ability of players to carry vast quantities of heavy and/or bulky objects... as long as they also gave us new travel container types that are capable of holding these heavy and/or bulky objects, and let us attach these new containers to mounts, to vehicles, and to multiplayer ships when Jump to Lightspeed is released.

Suppose we define one standard Inventory Unit (IU) as the size and weight of one unit of water, then define the size and weight of all other in-game items relative to this standard, then that would determine how much of anything a particular container could hold.




Saddlebag I

small mounts

500,000 IUs

Saddlebag II

medium mounts

1,000,000 IUs

Saddlebag III

large mounts

2,000,000 IUs

Trunk I


800,000 IUs

Trunk II


1,500,000 IUs

Cargo Bay I

SoroSuub yacht

4,000,000 IUs

Cargo Bay II


15,000,000 IUs

Using the numbers I've suggested above (which are just off-the-cuff suggestions), the smallest travel container (Saddlebag I) would be able to carry five 100k stacks of water, or perhaps nine 100k stacks of gases, or two 100k stacks of medium-weight metals. To haul a lot of the heavier/bulkier items you'd need a larger travel container, plus a bigger mount or vehicle on which to put that container.

Where this would really come in handy would be in allowing players to specialize in shipping services for other players. We'd need other rules to insure that you could safely let someone else carry your stuff around for you (for a fee, of course), but an encumbrance system like this one would be the foundation of a true cargo hauling feature in SWG.

Not that I expect anybody else would want such a thing....

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

SWG: Jump to Lightspeed: Asteroid Mining

Here are some ideas I've come up with for asteroid mining that I'd like to see included in Jump to Lightspeed at some (relatively soon) point.

I know there are a number of objections to allowing asteroid mining in JtL (including that the developers have said it won't be in the original release), so I've tried to address most of these issues in the list below.

1. Ten big space sectors should offer plenty of room for mining. If there's at least one asteroid field per sector, that's good; if there are multiple fields in some sectors, that's better. If asteroid fields are also large enough to have thousands of different-sized rocks, that's perfect.

2. It might be desirable to limit the use of space resources to schematics for ships and ship components. This would prevent people who buy the JtL expansion from having an advantage over those who don't and who are thus restricted to the ground game. Alternately, allow space resources to be used in all crafting -- what's the point of an expansion if not to get people to buy it because it gives them valuable new abilities?

3. Limit the impact of asteroid mining on the overall economy by requiring the use of ships with specialized cargo holds (inventory containers) whose sole use is carrying resources mined from asteroids. (If your ship is destroyed, you lose some or all of whatever is in your cargo hold.) Two other ways to minimize the economic impact of asteroid mining would be to make asteroid mining dangerous (see item 4), and to cap the total number of resource units that can be harvested (see item 12).

4. Space should generally be somewhat dangerous, what with natural hazards, NPC pirates, and factional NPCs (and possibly Space Monsters). The two "badlands" sectors should be even more dangerous. Resource quality should tend to improve with proximity to danger -- not 1:1, but often enough so that the risk vs. reward relationship is reasonably strong. Note that this also helps limit the impact of asteroid mining on the overall game economy by keeping the number of miners low.

5. Require a "mining rig" to mine resources from asteroids. This is a device that attaches to a ship in place of a weapon, modifying the appearance of that ship appropriately. This will distinguish mining ships from non-combatant ships (although pirates might look for ships with mining rigs!), and would improve the game experience by requiring players to make interesting choices between firepower and commercial abilities.

6. An even simpler approach might be to dispense with the mining rig concept altogether and just let the player sample from the nearest asteroid. The player would simply have to imagine that some kind of drilling rig is in use, but as this is pretty much how the ground game works now (other than the surveying/sampling animations), players are already used to it. The advantage of this approach is that it eliminates the need for new art resources (the mining rig image) to be created and programmed.

7. It would be nice if asteroid mining generated a unique animation similar to ground-based sampling/surveying.

8. Ships have to attach themselves to an asteroid to be able to mine it. (I'd say let ships land on asteroids, but that functionality is probably not in the initial combat-specific edition of JtL. OTOH I see no reason why we can't expect to be able to bump up against objects in space even in the initial release of JtL, so a very primitive form of "docking" to asteroids for the purpose of mining should be simple enough to implement. Naturally, there might be a bit of math involved in making sure the player's ship remains tangential to the asteroid's surface while taking on the 3-D motion elements of that asteroid and its rotational motion. But of course programmers live for solving that kind of challenge. )

9. Requiring players to be present to mine resources from asteroids allows reuse of the existing "sampling" UI, minimizing the new UI code that would otherwise have to be written.

10. Minimize crowding by restricting individual asteroids to one miner at a time. Alternately, base the number of active miners per asteroid on the size of that asteroid (assuming the sizes of asteroids vary appropriately).

11. To keep things simple, give each asteroid its own random percentage for all current space resources. Or if more "realism" is desired, calculate resource percentages just like on the ground (except in 3-D) so that the asteroids nearest the highest percentage location have the best percentages, but others farther away have decreasing percentages.

12. As yet another alternative, consider setting a total number of resource units for each asteroid when new resources are spawned. Furthermore, let mining operations on a particular asteroid actually "use up" all the resources on that asteroid as they're mined. Rather than players sitting in the same spot for days, you'd have miners constantly moving through asteroid fields, which would be a lot more interesting. Running out of asteroids with "good" resources shouldn't be a problem as long as space is full of asteroids (compared to the number of miners) and resources shift often enough. It would however still help limit the number of space-mined resources, thus minimizing the impact of these resources on the overall game economy.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

SWG: Jump to Lightspeed: Freighters +

AngryHoopJumper wrote:
Two words: For a hypothetical JTL 1.1: "Ram Scoop".
With this attachment (slight performance penalty to ship movement, small/medium/large attachments available depending on size of ship) and skill (skill-point cost a'la Surveying), your ship becomes its own harvester. For every minute you spend in space, your cargo hold accumulates resources - say, gas. For every bad guy you blast, you can fly through the debris cloud to harvest other resources, such as metals.
I like it. I'd like it even more if ships needed fuel, which could be purchased or scooped from planetary oceans or from the atmospheres of gas giants (with appropriate purification). But even if we're just talking regular resources, it's a neat idea.

One question that comes to mind is whether space would work (in, presumably, a 3-D mode) like planetary surfaces, which at any point could offer 20 or more resources in varying percentage availabilities. If space worked the same way, how would you pick which resource you were getting? If you didn't have some automatic rule (such as "whatever resource is most prominent"), you'd have to add a UI to let the player choose which resource to scoop.

As for scooping metal from destroyed ships... I had a whole concept of a /salvage command built around this idea (SWG: Jump to Lightspeed: Summary of Ideas, SWG: Jump to Lightspeed: Proposed New Skilltrees, etc.) way back when. But then we found out that ships never really get destroyed; you just wake up in a cloning center with an entire ship in your datapad that needs some dings knocked out. *blink*

I wouldn't mind if someone could find a way to weasel salvage operations into JtL anyway, though.

AngryHoopJumper wrote:
Balancing is key here: You want the rate at which a space-based player to harvest goods to be comparable to that of a Small/Medium/Heavy Harvester. If he's flying through near-empty space, he only gets a few hundred units an hour, as he's slurping hard vaccuum. If he's passing right through a star, or bounces too close to a supernova, it could end his trip real quick, but it grants him the equivalent of being on a 90%+ concentration. If he's after metals, he can grind away on asteroids for a safe (but slow) resource extraction rate. Or he can take on PC or NPC opponents -- and get loot worth more than "1 unit of steel" like in the land game.
In whatever form it's delivered (if we ever get it), this is true, and in two ways.

First, space shouldn't offer resources at a faster rate than you could get on the ground.
Second, it might be interesting to tie resource harvesting rates in space to the level of risk you accept to get those resources. On the ground, your harvesting rate is determined by the size and number of your harvesters... but what if harvesting in space requires your active presence?

That would allow resource spawning to be controlled more dynamically, so that the "best" resources spawned in the most dangerous places. My personal concept of space harvesting is more about mining than scooping, but ultimately collecting space resources should involve not being able to fight while harvesting. That presents an interesting decision for a prospector -- how long do you keep tapping that rich vein of ore when you know that at any second a band of Evil Pirates might appear over the gray horizon of the asteroid on which you're crouched?

Hello, Mr. Adrenalin!

Monday, August 23, 2004

SWG: Jump to Lightspeed: Freighters +

RealTic wrote:
there should be a way to make an easy buck. But there also needs to be a level with high risk that comes with a high reward. Random is good. I played Earth and Beyond for some time, the trade system in that game got stale very fast...Why? Because the best way to make cash on trade runs was to run the same route over and over again.

There needs to be a few ways to do it. The easy/low paying way to the very hard /high paying way.
That's basically the point I was trying to make. There has to be enough price stability in the low-risk/low-paying cargoes for new players to be able to survive, but there also needs to be enough price randomness to allow for the high-risk/high-paying cargo runs that can make a player wealthy (and legendary). The high-risk cargo opportunities should be rare, and they should fail to pay off more often than not -- the frequency needs to be just high enough so that every now and then there's a story about some individual player who got rich, but not high enough to materially affect any galaxy's economy.

One new feature that might help accomplish this could be space-based resources -- basically, asteroid mining. If certain resources necessary for building starships or ship components could only be found in space, and if the spawning of those resources was properly controlled (through spawn rates, spawn locations, NPC/creature guardians, etc.), that would allow an extremely dynamic supply-and-demand system of the type we're discussing.

A good dynamic economic system with prices determined by supply and demand would allow both the common low-risk/low-paying and the rare high-risk/high-paying cargoes that could make space commerce a viable gameplay option.

The fact that this would probably include and improve the ground-based economy as well is a nice bonus.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

SWG: Jump to Lightspeed: Freighters

In my series of essays on SWG: Space Commerce I talk generally about how interesting economic gameplay could be supported in space alongside the combat gameplay. Here, I'd like to get into the specific question of how freighters might be used to support space-based economic gameplay using the features of Jump to Lightspeed (JtL) as a starting point.

First, I should reiterate that I don't mind at all that combat is well-developed in JtL. In fact, I'd have disagreed if it hadn't gotten a lot of developer attention. Space combat is an important part of Star Wars.

But it's not the only important thing that happens in Star Wars! Combat should have gotten the bulk of developer attention, but not all the attention, not even in the initial release. Yes, people fight in the Star Wars movies and books... but that is most certainly not all they do. Watch any of the movies -- any time there's a scene with a town or city, the screen is filled with people trying to make a few credits.

Combat is a key part of the Star Wars experience, but commerce is also crucial. That's why SWG's developers deserve praise for the excellent crafting system they created for the SWG ground game... and it's why they deserve some criticism for failing to offer meaningful features supporting commercial gameplay in JtL.


Now, having said that, I'd like to try to distill the points mde by most of us who want space commerce down to the fundamentals. After giving this a lot of thought (you might say I've been at it for several years), I think I can identify three game features that must be supplied by the developers of a MMOG for player commerce to be interesting and fun enough to succeed:

1. Freighters can carry more cargo than fighters.

This one is simple: If fighters can carry lots of cargo, then everyone will fly fighters and there'll be no way to distinguish the purely commerce-oriented player from the combat-oriented player. And a valuable part of the commercial experience (call it a roleplaying issue if you like) will be lost.

2. Players can readily discover commodity prices in other places.

Also reasonably simple to understand: If you can't determine which cargos might be profitable -- if every trip is a completely random, high-stakes gamble -- then most players just won't ever do commerce. There must be some degree of price stability that allows players to learn what tends to sell well in particular places.

How this is accomplished isn't as important as that it's in the game in some form. You could do it purely through players leaving "Want Ads" on an appropriately-enhanced Bazaar terminal. (I call these Shipping Terminals.) Freighter captains could read these ads and gamble that they'll be the first to ship the requested item to the player asking for them.

A slightly less social but possibly more interesting approach would be to offer some players (Merchants, most likely) the ability to read reports on Bazaar statistics over, say, the most recent week. In this way you could see that over the past week, the best-selling item on Tatooine or in Kor Vella has been Non-Ferrous Metals with a high SR. With this information, you might decide to speculate that this would still be valuable. Then you could check to see where this kind of material is selling in large amounts for the least number of credits. Armed with this information, you'd be able to buy X number of units of this resource, then hire a freighter pilot to haul it to a Shipping Terminal at the appropriate destination. The interesting part of this approach is that it uses the profit motive to get players to move resources from where they're produced to where they're most needed (using average purchase price and volume as indicators of need) -- by helping the economy do better, Merchants could help themselves as well... and free up freighter captains to do freight runs instead of being cargo speculators themselves (though they could certainly do both if they spend their skillpoints accordingly).

3. Commodity prices must change over time.

When Freelancer is played as a single-player game, commodity prices don't change much. If you repeatedly haul Diamonds to New Tokyo, the price won't vary. But then it shouldn't, given that you're the only player in the game, and that the game "ends" when you quit playing it.

In a multiplayer game, commodity prices must change over time. Not only are other players also affecting the supply and demand of commodities with their commercial activities, this activity goes on constantly -- possibly over RL years if the game is successful. If prices don't change somehow, then every player can identify the most profitable trade routes and just run them over and over again. Boring!

So prices have to fluctuate somehow. Depending on how clever the programmers want to be, they could simulate trade activity by NPCs, semi-randomly creating shortages and gluts of various things in various places. Or if you have enough real players, simulating NPC commerce might not be necessary -- the commercial actions of players might be enough to affect prices in meaningful ways. If the residents of Moenia are willing to pay a lot for Organics with high OQ and PE, and a bunch of players start shipping that resource to Moenia, then that should lead to an excess of supply, which lowers demand, which lowers the average price, which makes some other commodity wanted somewhere else more valuable, and freighters change their course to service the new demand.

The value of a fluctuating supply-and-demand price system in a MMOG is that players can't all get rich doing the same thing over and over, but instead must actively check the markets (see item #2 above) to make decisions about dynamically-changing trade routes. What might be lucrative this week could be near-worthless to you next week (but could be great for a new player), and vice versa. This leads different players to have different gameplay behaviors, and also leads individual players to change their gameplay behavior over time... and both of these consequences are good for a multiplayer game.


The good news is that SWG is tantalizingly close to offering all three of these necessary features. (Close enough that JtL Lead Designer Cinco Barnes thinks that players will spontaneously choose to engage in commercial behavior in JtL despite the absence of developer features to validate that kind of gameplay. I disagree, but I could certainly be wrong.)

To a significant degree, item #3 is already in the game -- resources in SWG spawn and despawn in different places with different attribute values. This creates a fluctuating supply-and-demand system for raw resources. (This week the best Fiberplast is on Lok; next week it might be on Naboo.) It doesn't do much for manufactured items, however, so that's one area that could be improved, but at least resources have adaptive pricing.

Item #1 is also substantially in JtL, as this expansion offers ships in which items can be stored. If "freighters" in JtL provided some kind of cargo-carrying advantage over players using personal inventories to carry items in starfighters, then that solves #1. But even as it is, #1 is substantially acceptable in JtL as it's being implemented.

That leaves item #2 -- a way to discover prices for specific goods in specific places. One obvious way is just to fly there... but by the time you get there to learn that they want X, then fly around to find X at a sufficiently low price to make a profit, then fly back to where you want to sell it, chances are good that someone will already have beaten you to it. Enough frustrations like that and players just won't do this kind of thing. This is where I disagree with Cinco Barnes -- I think the game needs to provide a specific feature to help players discover prices. It shouldn't do all their work for them, but there has to be some game feature that offers players a reasonably good chance that their risk in buying some commodity and transporting it elsewhere will turn a profit.

Honestly, I think it's that we're so close to having a full-bodied space commerce system in JtL that is so frustrating!

Maybe the players who want this kind of advanced gameplay in SWG will be willing to wait for it... assuming some other online game that does this kind of thing brilliantly doesn't come along before then, of course.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

SWG: NPC City Resource/Crafting Specializations

I've been focused on getting cargo routes between planets in JtL, but there's no reason why it wouldn't be even more useful to think about this in terms of inter-city cargo routes.

The concept is basically the same -- to let different areas specialize in different things, so as to create local markets where some items are relatively inexpensive and other items are relatively pricey. And the result of this would be to promote more active trading of goods between cities (instead of everyone clustering in Theed and Coronet starports).

So in addition to intercity trade routes (and kudos again for a clever idea), I'd like to suggest the following change: Give bonuses to crafting and selling certain kinds of items in specific NPC cities.


We know that players will try to maximize advantages, so giving NPC cities bonuses to crafting and selling certain kinds of items will encourage players to craft and sell items in those cities.

That's a plus in a couple of ways: first, it moves some players from Theed and Coronet, which would both make NPC cities fun again and cut down on lag in Theed and Coronet. Second, it would improve the "feel" of the game to know that if you want a great pistol (for example), then the best ones are made and sold in Moenia; if you want foods that offer the most useful stat increases, they're made and sold in Mos Espa; and so on. Players would travel from place to place (and across the planets, which would also help sell units of JtL) to buy the best items.

This would be a useful change by itself... but where it really gets interesting is when it's combined with the idea of intercity cargo routes.


Suppose the resource generator were tweaked so that the best resources to make various items were never found near NPC cities that want those resources for crafting. In other words, what if the best resources and the best cities for using those resources were always in different places?

I think this change would strongly promote the use of planetary trade routes. If (for example) Kor Vella crafters can make and sell the best composite armor, but the Intrusive Ore that spawns near Kor Vella tends to be lousy for making armor, then you'd see those cities (NPC or PC) near the best Intrusive Ore locations using the planetary trade routes to ship the good stuff to Kor Vella.

Monday, August 9, 2004

SWG: SWG's Economy vs. Real-World Economy

Can SWG's economy (or the economic model of MMORPGs in general) be made more effective versus real-world economic systems such as that of the United States?

Before we start making value judgments ("better" vs. "worse"), it seems to me we ought to have a better idea what the differences are between SWG's economy and the US economy.

First of all, though, we need to consider an objection: SWG's economy is virtual, while the US economy is real.

Some very smart people disagree, arguing that the economies of virtual worlds like SWG are in fact quite real. In the first place (they argue), even inside SWG you've got people trading money and goods and services. They're assigning values to in-game objects and to their time, and making exchanges based on those valuations... which means that what goes on in SWG is a real economy that just happens to trade in virtual items. Even though the economic activity takes place inside a virtual world, the activity itself is real... so the economy is real.

The other response to the "it's not really real" objection is that since in-game SWG property (characters, objects, credits) can be sold for real money externally to the game, at real and quantifiable exchange rates (e.g. 100 SWG credits per 0.01 US dollar), these things are in fact "real property," making in-game economic activity perfectly real.

So for the purposes of this discussion, let's assume these folks are correct, and that it's not utterly ridiculous to compare a real economy to one that only exists on a few servers. What are the differences?

An Astromech Stats article [2008/05/16: that article has long since been flung into the memory hole by SOE] illuminates how money is created and destroyed in SWG. The term "faucet-drain economy" is used to explain how money enters and exits the system.

Interestingly, this isn't terribly different from how the US economy works. When the developers set the rough amount of a particular mission payout, they're in essence letting players "print money." Watching the amount of money that gets created in SWG and tweaking the typical mission payout accordingly is not radically different from calculating M1, M2, and M3 based on the financial instruments actually in use and directing the responsible agency to print either more or less money within the next fiscal period, based on how the money supply is believed to affect key economic indicators (inflation and unemployment rates being the two biggies).

If we like, we can think of mission payouts being set by the Emperor's Exchequer. This isn't the direct control of the money supply that developed capitalistic nations use, but it's similar to a very socialistic system in which the government gives money directly to workers in return for performing certain tasks. (FDR's invention of the WPA, CCC, and other federal work-relief agencies to stimulate the US economy during the Great Depression is a good real-world example of this kind of economic system. Whether "FDR = Evil Emperor" is a question I leave to others.)
2. SWG has no central authority capable of taxing, borrowing, lending, and spending.
Although we might think of mission payouts as coming from the Empire, the Empire doesn't make those payments from an internal treasury whose contents come from taxation (or some other form of wealth appropriation).

In a real economy, the central government actually holds the money that it takes from workers (and from other sources such as tariffs) and redistributes that money through various projects ranging from the broadly applicable, massive and necessary (national defense) to the focused, small and trivial (a $20,000 grant to a private institution). In SWG, money appears from out of thin air, then goes nowhere when fees are deducted from specific in-game activities and economic transactions (maintenance fees, travel fees, etc.).

The main difference here is that there's no one person or agency in SWG setting economic goals that affect all players. In SWG, you're pretty much the master of your own economic fate -- whatever money you want, you can make it without "government" interference or even influence.

3. SWG has no central institutions to set lending rates and guarantee deposits.

If a government agency sets the goals, a central bank is what determines the specific actions intended to achieve those goals.

The US has the Federal Reserve Bank to set the prime lending rate, which is then used by other lending banks for setting their own interest rates... but SWG has no lending banks. Consequently there's no (relatively) easy way in SWG to obtain large amounts of capital as in the real world. That wonder of modern finance, the fractional reserve banking system, is unnecessary in SWG because banks don't hold player savings and make loans from a percentage of those savings.

4. SWG does not allow the creation of new intellectual property.

The only things you can create in SWG are those things the developers have explicitly built into the game. That's not a knock on SOE; this is just how things are. SOE has chosen a business approach that assigns real-world property rights (including the rights to this very message on SOE's official forum) to anything "created" by users of SOE systems (such as SWG). As a result, you can't make money in SWG by coming up with new content or a new idea (as you can in the real world).

The MMOG "Second Life" by Linden Labs, by comparison, explicitly asserts that players who create new in-game content (by using SL's script language to program new objects) actually own the real-world rights to that content. This is much closer to the way that developed nations legally protect a creator's copyrights and patents, and thus promote the creation of new forms of intellectual property.

It will be interesting to see if SL prospers economically as a result, where the SWG economy languishes because it offers no similar incentive to in-game innovation. Sure a lot of money gets made in SWG... but how much more could be made if invention were supported and encouraged?

5. Money is easy to acquire in SWG.

The main reason why we don't have or need S&Ls in SWG is because money is so ludicrously easy to obtain. Run a few missions, harvest a few desirable resources, and you've got the seed money you need to go up the appropriate skilltree to take even more lucrative missions or harvest even more resources. This dramatically reduces the degree to which participants in an economic system have to depend on and work with each other.

That's probably necessary in a MMOG, where most people want to play their game on their schedule without needing anyone else's support. But it does cut down on any reason to create the group institutions (corporations, banks, governments) that we develop in the real world to support and promote advanced economic activity.

6. SWG does not support organized labor.

By "organized labor" I don't mean unions -- I mean that all crafting in SWG can be done by one person. There are a very few items that as a practical matter wind up being "crafted" by two people: one fighter to get the schematic and any special components as loot drops, and one crafter to actually build the item. But by far most items in SWG can be built by a lone individual with the appropriate skills.

By contrast any advanced economy depends on organizing the labor of specialists. You can build hugely complex systems (such as the manned lunar landings of the Apollo program) if you properly organize the efforts of thousands of individuals with specialized skills. SWG's rules are "unrealistic" in that individuals can create certain complex objects that would (in the real world) require coordinating the work of many people. Despite this there are still many, many possible kinds of things that can't be crafted in SWG because there are no structural rules in place that allow players to organize themselves into business institutions (such as the corporation or limited liability partnership).

7. SWG does not support player contracts.

In the Real World, you and I can sign a contract that says you will give me X if I give you Y, and the legal system under which that contract is signed will support and require that both of us uphold our side of that contract.

Other than the Secure Trade Window, SWG has no such "general contract" feature. You and I might agree on some long-term deal, but because there's no in-game system that requires compliance with economic agreements, there's nothing to stop either one of us from hosing the other.

Consequently a huge amount of economic activity that might take place in SWG never happens, because players have no reason to trust that other players will hold up their end of any bargain.

A Player Contract system with automatic enforcement of terms would allow SWG players to trust each other (because they trust the system to uphold their rights under "contract law") enough to open up more in-game economic activity.

(For more -- much, much more -- on this subject, please see my Player Contracts essay.)

OK, enough for now. Those are some of the biggest differences between the US economy and SWG's economy.

So do these differences make one of these systems "better" or "worse" than the other?