On Trade Design

An Aside
It’s that time again when I get to talk about stuff that’s going to be in the next release. This time, though, I’m going to talk about it a little earlier in the dev process than I’m usually comfortable with. Why is that? Well, for one, I’d like to talk about it. It’s fun! For two, waiting until it was mostly done would mean this blog post would come out a week or so before the actual release, and I don’t think anybody wants that.

In short, instead of talking about the actual implementation of something, we’re going to talk about the design and the motivations for why things are going to work a certain way. This also means that things almost certainly won’t work exactly as described here, because implementation gets in the way of finely crafted theory on occasion. Consider yourself warned!

Now, what was I talking about? Oh, right, trade. The trouble with trade is that in its most basic form, it’s boring. You go someplace, buy some stuff, go someplace else, sell whatever you bought, hopefully make a profit, and then repeat that until you have enough credits to do something that’s actually interesting.


A trade run can still be fun, though, and it is fun to roleplay being a trader. It’d just be nice if there was more to it than shipping rocks from Point A to Point B, forever and ever – it’s the repetition and lack of choices that gets you.

One approach is to liven up the travel aspect, and we’ll certainly try to do that. By itself, though, that’s not enough – the player has incentive to optimize the “fun” out (since fun generally also means risk), and if there are many choices of trade routes, they’ll eventually succeed at it and start shipping rocks in a nice, quiet backwater.

The main problem is caused by having easily repeatable trade runs, so let’s just take care of it at that level. The economy will work in such a way as to make most (if not all) trade runs unprofitable by default.

Why does this make narrative sense? There’s a race-to-the-bottom in the profit margins for safely shipping rocks, and that’s before you factor in faction-affiliated cargo fleets that don’t even have to operate at a profit. Frankly, if you think about it, it *wouldn’t* make sense for easy profit to be available for shipping food or some such, under normal circumstances. Not of the magnitude the player would be interested in.

The way for the player to make a profit in trading, then, is to take advantage of extraordinary circumstances – a short window of opportunity that they can exploit in various ways.

These opportunities are caused by events. Something happened, the player found out about it, and now they have some choices to make. Let’s take a look at a simple event: a sudden food shortage.

Why did it happen? Maybe tribbles ate all the grain. Less excitingly, maybe one of the Hegemony accountants made a rounding error somewhere, and it had a cascading effect.

What happens? First off, the affected world suffers the effects of the shortage – in this case, reduced population and perhaps also reduced production, for as long as the event lasts. Second, a nearby world or two that has sufficient food will send out trade fleets carrying food.

What can the player do? They have several options:

  • Ship food to the world in question, make a profit, and help keep the world in good shape
  • Attack the incoming trade fleets, take their cargo, sell it for even more profit (and potentially extend the duration of the event, to boot)

If reasons exist for the player to want the world with the food shortage to suffer (say, it belongs to a faction they’re hostile to, or they just want it to become decivilized so then can raid it more easily), they could even effectively blockade it and extend the shortage as much as possible.

More involved events are easy to imagine: a blockade by a hostile faction, increased piracy in an area, a plague outbreak. The key is for events to have a limited duration, and to offer some choices to the player. Events can have an impact far beyond trade, too, which offers some interesting hooks for future development.


Information Gathering
It’s crucial to have a robust method of providing information to the player about what’s going on in the Sector. Not only will that contribute to the feeling of a living world, but events will do absolutely no good if the player doesn’t find out about them.

Most of this information will come in the form of “news reports”, with events having an importance that determines how far away the player can be and still hear about them. A food shortage at a core world? You’d hear about it halfway across the Sector. A food shortage at a small mining outpost somewhere? If you’re not in the same system, you’ll probably never know.

This kind of filtering is necessary to avoid overloading the player with too much information about what’s going on. Even so, getting events to happen at a rate that feels “right” is going to take a lot of playtesting.

There’s also an intriguing possibility here: getting information about an event before it actually happens. A comm sniffer installed on a relay, or sources inside a faction’s command hierarchy – something that gives the player a heads up that an important event might happen soon, putting them in a great position to capitalize on it.

This is all important enough to warrant a dedicated tab in the UI. How the player gets information about stuff going on outside what they can directly see is a big deal, and, once again, affects far more than just trade.

Dev Update
So, how much of this stuff is actually done, you say? I’ve put together a pretty solid standalone prototype of the economy system that drives shipping and prices for a given market supply/demand configuration, and it seems to produce the kind of results you’d want/expect. It’s not actually hooked into the game yet, though – hence “standalone prototype”.

In the meantime, David has been designing new star systems and adding them to the game – we’ll need more than just a couple, for trade and events to really mean something.

I’m going to tackle the new information gathering mechanics next, since they’re central to everything else and it’ll be a lot easier to test events and such with a system for getting information already in place. The next blog post I write will probably be about that, or I might end up going into more detail about the nuts and bolts of the economy. I was thinking of doing that here, but the post is already getting pretty long, so I’ll hold off on that.


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