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.