Thursday, June 23, 2005

SWG: Population Density

Let's consider one of the most obvious approaches to increasing population density: Merging the servers to generate an increased sense of activity within the game world.

There are two issues here that could generate forum discussion for years:

1. The galaxies (in particular, NPC cities) don't feel as "alive" as they did when SWG launched.

This is just simple truth. Those of us fortunate enough to have been around for the first few weeks after SWG launched remember what it was like: every NPC town, no matter how small, was a buzzing beehive of activity. Even the outposts on the "adventure planets" had plenty of explorers, while every town on Naboo, Corellia, and Tatooine was full of players seeing the sights, learning the systems, and interacting with each other (and with NPCs).

If anything, many places felt too crowded!

This is no longer the case. For many months now, and despite the addition of various combat-only dungeons, Jump to Lightspeed, the Combat Upgrade, and Rage of the Wookiees, the number of players to be seen has dropped precipitously. In many places, it's possible to go for weeks without ever seeing a blue dot on your radar.

This isn't necessarily due to anything SOE did "wrong." SWG attracted a lot of people when it launched simply because it was an online Star Wars game; there was no way it (or any other game) could have retained all those players no matter how great it was. (Could it have been better? I think so, but that's debatable.) The numbers when SWG launched were not sustainable; some reduction in the number of players wandering around was inevitable.

And yet... many places have felt awfully empty for a long time now. And that just doesn't seem right.

2. Although "server consolidation" is a fairly popular idea for restoring that feeling of activity, it has some serious issues that would have to be addressed, and there are other alternatives that could be considered.

The main problem with consolidation is fairness to those on the servers that get closed down and whose characters are moved to another server. (There's also a question of fairness to those players on the server that suddenly gets a whole bunch of new players -- Merchants might not be happy about the additional competition for sales, for example. But these problems are, I think it's fair to say, relatively minor compared to those of the folks who get displaced.)

Let me mention a few examples. (I'll use myself in some of these examples, but that's only because I'm familiar with these issues -- they're not just about me; they're intended to be representative of what would happen to numerous people.)

a. Because I've had the Merchant Advertising 3 skill for a while, as well as a shop and vendors, I happen to have the two top slots for Equipment vendors on the Planetary Map listing of vendors for Radiant/Naboo. I don't get many sales because of this, but I do get some, and I'd suffer financially if I didn't get those sales.

What happens if Radiant gets shut down and all its characters have to move elsewhere? Suppose I move to Kettemoor/Naboo -- do I get the top two Equipment vendor slots on Naboo's planetary map? If so, how is that fair to the person who held those two slots on Kettemoor before I showed up? If not, how is that fair to me?

In general, what happens to the people who've maintained vendors and Advertising 3 long enough to gain those high-level Planetary Map slots in other sales categories on the various planets? How do you divide an indivisible asset in a way that's fair to everyone?

b. Many months ago (before vehicles/mounts) I picked out a nice place for a house and set up shop. It was on a long spit of land between two bodies of water so that players running between Theed and Keren would be likely to pass by my shop. The location isn't as meaningful as a sales tool now that players don't have to run everywhere, but it's still got a very nice view.

If I'm forced to move to another server, what happens if there's already a house on the new server where mine was on my old server? What about the players who jumped on prime spots near Theed and Coronet, and who rely on those locations for business?

How is it right for a player to be "penalized" for having the bad luck to choose a server that gets marked for closure? (And to anyone who shrugs and says "Why should I care what happens to merchants?": when the crafters and merchants quit playing because they lose the perks they worked to gain, who's going to make and sell you that 133t gear you had your eye on at a price you can afford?)

c. I'm not a Tailor, but suppose I were. Tailors depend on being able to customize colors of clothing. So they often need to create each type of clothing in multiple color styles to increase their chances of making a sale. This can result in Tailors having several thousands of units of product on their vendors at a time.

Question: How do you move thousands of items to another server? If players must have all their possessions in their inventory in order to to be transferred, there's no way many players will be able to retain all their existing stock. If, on the other hand, the transfer system allows players to move entire houses full of vendors stuffed with items, how does the system know where to place those houses on the new server? Even if it's possible to develop code to handle this situation, is designing and writing that code really what SWG's programmers should be doing with their time?

This is just a small peek at the kinds of questions that would need to have answers before a server consolidation could happen. In fact, I'll bet I'm not even mentioning the hardest questions.

Which leads me to wonder: although we agree that the galaxies were more fun when they were more crowded, is there some way other than server consolidation that we could make our existing galaxies seem more active? Are there any other ways to reach that goal?

Well, the best way is easy to say: attract and retain more players! No doubt SOE itself would prefer this solution. :smileyvery-happy: But it's probably not something we should count on being able to achieve, even if we knew exactly how to do it.

So what are some other possibilities?

1. Make the planets smaller.

This would work in the same way that decreasing the volume of a gas (while holding its temperature constant) increases its pressure. But it's probably not a realistic option, as it runs into the same kind of "where would stuff go?" questions that server consolidation generates. Plus it's nice occasionally to be able to go where there's not a crush of people; it would be best if we could retain that.

2. Allow players to "rent apartments" in NPC cities.

This has been a very popular suggestion virtually since SWG launched. It would almost certainly increase player activity in NPC cities, which is what we want. On the other hand, unless these "apartments" had to be crafted by Architects, the market for houses would be severely damaged. And if it were possible to have vendors inside an NPC city apartment, the Architects might never sell another house at all.

There's also the point that this system wouldn't do anything to promote living in the smaller NPC cities -- there'd probably be massive lag due to every player not currently in a player city trying to move into Theed, Coronet, or Anchorhead/Mos Eisley.

And then there's that issue of player cities -- what happens to them if NPC apartments become available? If you think there are too many player cities, then you might like the idea of NPC apartments... but what if being part of a player city is important to you? (And I don't just mean those who enjoy the Politician profession.)

Finally, there's the bottom line: is an NPC city "apartment" even possible technically? The occasional comments from various developers over the past couple of years suggest that it's not. For whatever reason, this idea seems to be a non-starter with the developers.

3. Add content to NPC cities that makes it attractive to spend long amounts of time there.

I personally like this approach -- it's more of a carrot than a stick, and it offers the opportunity to the developers to add new content that would directly increase the amount of socialization and community in the game. That would be a Good Thing.

a. One possibility that you and I have both suggested is Player Arenas. Everybody wins with this one: combat players get to bash each others' brains out in a socially sanctioned way (as opposed to randomly dueling in the street); enterprising players could run betting parlors; and everybody else gets to enjoy a spectacle (and maybe make a little money in the process). If we wanted to get silly we could even establish a "circuit" system on each planet that has arenas: In order to be allowed to compete in the Mos Eisley arena, say, you'd first have to win 50% of your matches (minimum of 25 matches) in the Bestine arena, and to compete there you'd have to win 33% of your matches (minimum of 10 matches) in any other arena on Tatooine. You could even have different rules per each arena, or per planet -- maybe gentle Naboo only allows arena fights to incapacitation, while savage Tatooine permits deathblows (and bigger stakes! /evilgrin).

b. Another possibility for increasing player presence in NPC cities would be to offer special benefits to using city facilities. Maybe public crafting stations give a bonus to assembly or experimentation that you can't get using a private crafting station -- how fast would the crafters run to the NPC cities for every item that didn't require a private crafting station or benefit from being cranked out in a factory? You could even give different cities different specialties -- maybe Kor Vella is a great place to make ranged weapon powerups; maybe Moenia is the place to be if you want to make musical instruments; maybe the galaxy's best medicines are crafted in Anchorhead.

c. What about making NPCs themselves more interesting? Currently they either stand around by themselves waiting to give a mission, or stand "talking" with another NPC (and are thus just scenery), or walk randomly about (like RSF troops or droids). This isn't wrong, exactly... but it does seem like a waste of good NPC code. Heck, they don't even run to or away from a gunfight that erupts just around the corner! Why don't NPCs "hear" better?

One of the more entertaining NPC things I've seen recently was a Corellian CorSec operative attacking a police officer. Every time the officer respawned, the CorSec operative would return to attack again. I figured this was a bug... but what an interesting bug! "Why," I wondered, "would these officials be attacking each other? What's the story here?" Why doesn't general faction (i.e., not Rebel/Imperial faction) play as much of a role between NPCs as it does between players and NPCs? Why aren't NPCs doing more interesting things to and with each other, just like PCs do? Aren't there supposed to be a million stories in the naked city? Where are those stories? Why aren't they happening all the time, and just begging players to get involved in those local affairs? Why don't NPCs seem to have goals that they actively pursue and that players could become a part of, rather than being isolated mission-givers? The Combat Upgrade is said to have improved combat AI... what about AI improvements for non-combatant NPCs?

d. As a final suggestion along those lines, I like the idea of there being "bad parts of town," but let's be fair to players -- always give them a way to go around such places, and give them tools for seeing where these places are. In addition to not instaspawning aggro'ing NPCs on top of CL1 players, how about this: Rather than coloring everything green on the overhead map, mark the "bad" parts of town in red. So, you're new to town and you want to know where the "no-go" zones are? Simple: Bring up your overhead map with "M" or "Ctrl-M" -- if you're in a red-colored area, turn around and start running because you're about to get jumped. (On the other hand, if you're looking for a little combat action, the nearest red area may be exactly where you want to go!) And we can improve on this idea even further: maybe the bad part of town is where the less savory mission-giving NPCs live -- if your tastes run to smuggling, spying, theft, skullduggery and mayhem of various types, this is where you'd need to go to find the NPCs who give those kinds of missions.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Creative Crafting vs. Sales Crafting

There's not just one type of "crafter": there are (at least) two.

Some people like crafting for its own sake; they enjoy the process of making new and interesting products. Others take up crafting as a sales game; their interest is in economic competition. Designers need to recognize that these are different kinds of players with different goals who aren't going to be motivated by just one kind of reward.

The "pure" crafters are best described by Richard Bartle's original fourfold typology of online gamers as Explorers, while the players more interested in crafting as a sales game are much more likely to be Achievers. Explorer crafters enjoy playing with the options and features of the crafting system; their goal is to explore the possibility space. Achiever crafters feel satisfaction when they can dominate the market for the sale of the products they produce; their goal is to outcompete other sales crafters on either quality or volume or both.

What this means is that we get confused when we talk about what "crafting" should be like. For an Achiever, whose interest is in accumulating things (like high-end objects and enormous bags full of money), improving crafting means streamlining the production process (more goods produced per unit of time invested) and exposing more goods to more potential buyers (more income per unit of time invested).

But for an Explorer (like me), improving crafting means that the research and design and experimentation and architectural and creative aspects of building new things should reward ingenuity, not time invested. "Crafting" to an Explorer means playing with the rules of a production system, not actually operating and maintaining such a system.

These are two radically different motivations for play. One is about adding to the economy through the creative generation of novel products; the other focuses on competing for scarce resources (recognition as the "best" and other players' money). Confusing the Explorer and Achiever playstyles -- treating them as identical because they're both "crafters" -- leads to bad gameplay and unhappy gamers.

New crafting recipes are a small benefit to both types of crafter, but ultimately they're more important to the Achiever crafter. For the Explorer crafter, once a recipe has been used, the novelty that made it interesting is gone. The Achiever crafter, on the other hand, can happily crank out many units of the new object if it's perceived as something other players might want to buy.

Thus a developer belief that all "crafters" need to remain satisfied are a few new recipes is incorrect, because not every crafter benefits equally from new recipes.

Explorer-type crafters should not be forced to try to play like Achievers. That's never going to work well. Not only does this disadvantage the kind of crafting they're good at -- crafting as a creatively constructive activity -- there's no way they can compete economically with players who'll do anything to beat them. The result can only be to unnecessarily drive away the Explorer crafters.

There's nothing inherently wrong with sales competition, and for those who like that sort of thing, it's a lot of fun. It's also economically useful in a MMOG because it helps to maintain an efficient market for goods. Crafting-as-sales is good to have in a game.

But why must crafting be only about sales competition? Both creativity and competition are worthwhile motivations, so why not design crafting systems that support and reward both motivations?

The alternative is to explicitly design both a production-focused crafting subgame and a process-focused crafting game. These should complement each other. Process crafting would be the means by which new products and processes are discovered through experimentation, and should be required to purchase specialized tools created by production crafters. Rather than being forced to subsidize their work through sales, they might better be supported by some kind of salary, with perhaps an R&D bonus proportional to how often products made from their discoveries are used by consumers.

Meanwhile, production crafting should be designed as an optimization game that rewards whoever can generate the most units of product at the least cost for the most quality. They need new recipes and fabrication processes from R&D crafters (perhaps acquired through a bidding system for recipes and processes where the identity of the R&D crafter is hidden) in order to offer new products to consumers.

This dual-track but unified crafting system would serve all players. Explorer crafters would be rewarded for their skill in discovering new aspects of the crafting system; Achiever crafters would be rewarded for their skill in making things; and consumers would gain access to desirable products.


Side note: My personal preference is actually to generalize crafting as a resource delivery system. Following this perspective, it might be fun to offer four types of "crafting": R&D, production, distribution, and sales. R&D players could design new products and processes; production players could build optimal products and processes; distribution players would act as traders, carrying products as cargo; and sales players could seek to build fortunes by placing buy and sell orders. It might also be worthwhile to define some skills or classes for hunting/prospecting so that players can travel the world supplying raw resources for production -- this would combine the resource game with physical exploration and some PvE combat.

Thursday, June 9, 2005

SWG: Diversity of Crafted Products

(Note: In what follows, be aware that we're talking about crafted products -- that is, we're only talking about the stuff that crafters have permanent schematics for and can make at will if they have the resources. Sales of loot, quest, and one-off schematic items do participate in the SWG economy but don't determine its form.)

To begin with, let's be aware of the fundamentals. SWG's economy is a near-textbook example of what economists call "perfect competition." By definition, this is a market structure in which:

  • Products are relatively undifferentiated (i.e., they lack "diversity").
  • Price and quality information is readily available for all products.
  • There are many buyers and sellers.
  • New sellers can easily enter the industry.
Every one of these is true for SWG. This means that SWG's economy should show many of the effects -- both good and bad -- that models of perfect competition tell us to expect.

In a perfect competition economy there are numerous producers of a few similar (undifferentiated) goods, and many buyers who do not coordinate on what prices they will pay. This should generate intense competition on price, since -- because there are numerous producers, and few other ways to differentiate goods except on price -- we should expect that no one producer or consumer should be able to leverage their size to set prices. Supply and demand will dictate the average price of every item.

And that's exactly what we find in SWG: lots of similar items at similar prices. (With a few oddballs from people who aren't serious sellers.) In a monopoly or oligopoly, one or a few sellers can set prices and everyone else has to follow; in the perfect competition of SWG, if one seller doubles his price, he loses sales because nothing prevents other sellers from offering the same item at a lower price.

This situation isn't entirely a bad thing... if you're a consumer. Perfect competition such as SWG's is good for consumers in at least three ways: 1) it tends over time to depress prices to their lowest possible level; 2) it allows new players to compete in an established market, which insures a constant supply of price-competitive goods, and 3) it encourages producers to try to make the highest quality items (in order to try to compete on something other than price). If you're a buyer, you have to love perfect competition.

But along with the good, SWG also shares the negative effects of perfect competition. In particular, it makes life hard for producers, and in the exact opposite ways in which it's good for consumers: 1) it limits profits (because you can only chase sales by lowering your prices); 2) it discourages success through innovation (because experienced players can't leverage that experience to create new kinds of goods); and 3) it raises costs (by limiting the resources that can be used and requiring that lots of time be spent in finding and harvesting the "best" resources).

The result is that SWG's economy is extremely customer-driven: If nobody wants it, there's no point in making it. This is great for you if you're a combat player, as there'll always be weapons and armor for you at some price, but it takes a lot of the fun out of being a crafter because it basically makes us indentured servants. (Which may be exactly the balance of power that SWG's designers want... but that's another thread.)

So, all this said, it seems to me that the real question is whether it's possible to make the crafting game more fun for crafters without significantly affecting the perfect competition model that makes SWG's economy so consumer-friendly, and if so, how that could/should be done.

Ultimately it comes down to allowing crafters to differentiate their products. The tricky thing about allowing differentiation us that it can move an economy away from perfect competition toward what's called "monopolistic competition": those who are able to make a unique product are able to set the price for that product, so that price may not be a good reflection of actual value. An example of this in SWG would be if I somehow figured out a way to make T21 rifles that did both heat and electrical elemental damage -- as the only producer of such items in a market of many buyers, I could effectively set whatever price I wanted and people would still buy as many as I could make, even though it wouldn't be that much better than a regular T21. (To be more precise, this would actually be a monopoly situation. If I taught a few other people on my server how to make such rifles, then we'd have monopolistic competition. The effect is roughly the same.)

So obviously that's a dangerous road to travel, no matter how much fun it might be for crafters-as-sellers to be able to differentiate their products on something other than price.

But I think there may be a solution. It's twofold:

First, enhance the crafting process to allow crafters some way to differentiate their products on features... but design this new process so that every advantageous new feature comes at the price of a disadvantage. For every benefit, let there be a corresponding and equivalent cost. (Note that you could also allow features that have no benefit -- things like colors and shapes that don't affect utility. These would also help differentiate products, but as they're purely aesthetic they would not need to be countered with a "cost" feature.) I described such a concept in my Crafting: A Blueprint for the Future thread, but there are certainly other approaches possible.

Second, expand the idea of crafting specializations. Currently, any crafter can experiment on whatever attributes are experimentable for any item, but some crafters have more experimentation points than others (humans, for example, which I personally find annoying since that's supposed to be a Mon Calamari species benefit, but never mind). What if this were expanded? Maybe a crafter who learns a particular ranged weapon skill from the Marksman profession gains an additional point of experimentation when crafting a ranged weapon. Maybe learning a Commando skill gives an additional point for experimenting on minimum/maximum damage, while learning a Ranger skill gives an additional point when experimenting on weapon speed. Maybe there's a crafting quest item you can install (permanently) in your datapad that gives a 10% bonus to weapon experimentation but that also imposes a 20% penalty on all Artisan experimentation. And so on.

Between these two changes, crafters would become able to create items that varied on both features and quality, but without allowing any one crafter to automatically become the "best" (and therefore able to dictate pricing). And this would happen because different crafters would make different choices, because these choices would not be better or worse but just different, and because not everyone could make everything.

There'd still be some overachievers who'd feel they had to provide hundreds of every possible combination... but if any individual item could have five or ten or twenty possible combinations, there's no way any one crafter could sell every possible kind of item -- no would merchants remain sane from all the restocking of their vendors they'd have to do. Big PAs that have multiple specialized crafters selling stuff in a mall could come close, but there's no real difference between that and what we have right now, is there?

As far as I can see, the bottom line of implementing these changes is that consumers would get more choice, crafters would have more fun (because the process of crafting would be more interesting), and prices would remain low due to supply and demand forces on different but equivalent goods. Everybody wins, and fiddling with resource amounts or types is not necessary.