Planning Quests and Trading

April 7th, 2010| Posted by Andy Korth
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Scott and I have been chatting a bit about economic simulation trading games. DrugWar style trading games are popular in space- buy low, fly somewhere else, and sell high. Sometimes, as you buy and sell goods, the prices fluctuate. But I got to thinking about what is intrinsically fun about these systems and figured we could improve on them.

Trading is often looked at a means to an end. Players will engage in it as a way to make money even if they don’t enjoy it. The players that do enjoy it consider finding the good trade routes to be the fun part; it’s a bit of a discovery. Theoretically, the execution of the trade could be fun, evading pirates to get to the place to sell the goods, but I’ve never seen that work out. (I’d love some examples if anyone has some). Instead either the risks were way too high and the rewards were small, like in Eve Online, or most routes were basically riskless, like in Escape Velocity. I guess this is compounded by the fact that the ships with sufficient cargo space to trade profitably also were nearly weaponless and too slow to really evade any enemies in a fun way. Anyway, once you found the profitable path, you’d mindlessly repeat the route, not really generating any fun.

So our ideas centered around making trading into a mechanism that was fun by itself. How could we make something like trading an active action that feels like a minigame?

A few possibilities include:

Players killing pirates and other ships can occasionally collect special items that can be sold somewhere in particular for pretty good profit. So you can farm these faction ships and get a decent profit per hour. These might include killing pirates for the “Bavarian Flu Antidote”. If you mouseover this item (or something) it will direct you to the planet of Bavaria, where the antidote sells very nicely! In this case, you can probably figure it out planet it’s from given the name. You’re basically unprompted here, but there’s still a clear thing to do.

We can also do lightweight quests involving item exchanges. You might stop at a station where a man says he’s looking for some Belgian Crystals. You don’t have any, but the spot is marked on your map. Later when you find the Belgian crystals, you’ll know where to deliver them later. This is much more lightweight than traditional quests: “Start text at a location, specified action, return to location, quest completion paragraph.”

I am also still thinking about other mini-game like activities (although I think thats a poor way of explaining what I have in mind). I wouldn’t want to actually incorporate a separate puzzle game into the game, but something we can integrate with the game itself. I’d love to hear more ideas of tightly integrating trading and quests into the action of the game.

  1. Sarolite
    April 7th, 2010 at 21:00
    Reply | Quote | #1

    I’ve played those games, and it’s true, after a while it’s pointless. Once you save up to purchase the ship that fits your playing style (cargo vs weapons, etc), there’s really nowhere for that money to go, so it’s silly to amass huge sums of money, but there’s nothing better to do. Your idea of custom ships may negate some of that, though.

    How about some sort of politics subplot? You can funnel your spare funds at that level (or any time, I suppose) to politicians/planets/etc that would legalize something neat for your ship. Of course, it’s a game of chance whether your “donations” payoff, and what exactly you’d get access to- some sort of ideological bio of possible recipients would be in order, but not a direct “donate x to get y” relationship.

    How about running a whole fleet of ships? How about quests that you need to have certain passengers to complete, as well as cargo (thinking Firefly)? Trade embargoes and camouflaging yourself with enemy flags/markings to bypass them? Setting up a base of operations on a rented space to reduce operating costs by stockpiling fuel or growing food (thinking Crusoe)?

  2. James McNeill
    April 7th, 2010 at 21:45
    Reply | Quote | #2

    I’m having trouble thinking of any games I’ve played where the trading was a truly fun aspect. I’ve been mulling over this problem as well; don’t have much worth reporting yet. The ideas you’ve got sound all right.

    Are you carrying cargo speculatively, like medieval tinkers bringing salt, spices, silk, and metal goods to villages, or are you carrying a specific cargo for hire from point A to point B, like sugar or tea from the colonies to Europe?

    Actually, that gives me an idea: what if you can be a roving supplier of services, not just goods? You outfit your ship with gadget X, which then allows you to perform jobs of type Y. Maybe there is a consumable Z involved in fulfilling these missions as well. A dumb example: you install a crop-dusting sprayer and a supply of pesticide on your ship and visit agricultural worlds. Ideally these mini-games would involve using your ship in an interesting way, so that executing the jobs is a fun diversion that hones your general skills.

    I suppose the old standby of asteroid mining is in this category. Asteroid mining could definitely be spiffed up: it could involve bombing specific points on the asteroid to split open faults, for instance, or attaching a low-thrust rocket to the asteroid to gradually shift it to a target orbit. You might need to put miners on it and periodically resupply or defend them.

    It seems to me that, in business, a lot of the interest is in coming up with deals that are attractive to all parties. There is a lot of playing with prices to factor in people’s speculation on what will happen in the future. Airlines hedge gas, for instance, locking in prices when they think they’re good. You could imagine, for instance, laying out an entire cargo run ahead of time by communicating with all the stations along the way. You’d commit to a schedule and be paid according to how well you are able to fulfill it, so you’d be gambling on your own future performance. I think this might be more fun than trying to remember where all the buy-low/sell-high places are as I fly around. However you need good information about your capabilities and what you can expect to encounter along the way.

    I also imagine that there is a spectrum between low-volume/high-margin jobs and high-volume/low-margin jobs. So if you have low capacity you have to take the small jobs which are risky but hopefully offer big margins. Then as you get bigger you find that the jobs with the large capacities are lower margin, so there’s a tapering off of profitability (like the RPG experience/level curve). It seems like in order for the high-volume jobs to stay interesting the gameplay would need to shift in some way, though; either by shifting the emphasis to financial wizardry, or by automating the cargo runs with subordinates. This may be wildly out of scope for what you’re doing though.

  3. James McNeill
    April 8th, 2010 at 07:53
    Reply | Quote | #3

    One more idea and I’ll stop. You could make trading into a transport network optimization thing. Rather than carrying cargo yourself, you gradually buy a fleet of trading ships and assign routes to them. An increasing share of the ambient traffic would be yours, and there’d be associated missions. For instance there might be obstacles that you could go out and clear to open up more direct routes, or pirates might capture a ship and start selling off the cargo (bit by bit) so you’d go out and rescue it. (This would be more fun, I think, than pirates simply destroying your ship.)

  4. Andy Korth
    April 9th, 2010 at 11:41
    Reply | Quote | #4

    Thanks for the great ideas, James. Scott and I have been discussing and thinking on these and a few other ideas from another forum we frequent (http://www.idevgames.com/forum/showthread.php?p=157429#post157429). You guys both had some good ideas about the trading system. I think the idea of hiring fleets to trade on your behalf as you escort them should capture the fun part of trading without the bookkeeping that Muskrat mentioned or just the general tedium of comparing prices everywhere you go or traveling a known good trade route.

    I’ve been thinking about your services idea, which I like a lot. It’s hard for me to come up with more ideas in that vein though. I could see something like crop dusting working as a sort of target of opportunity- it’s not a mission that you pick up from a person, fly to, complete, and return.. Instead you might be exploring and just come across a field in need of spraying. You can spray it right there, and are immediately rewarded (the farmer calls you on your ship radio and deposits come cash, or whatever). Same for exterminating huge insect pests in asteroid belts. Even rare asteroids might just be something you could happen across. And when you see it, you’ll stop to pick up the ore.

    So they are lightweight mini-games that exist within the game itself. You use your shooting and piloting skills to complete them (so we don’t have to code new mechanics). I guess the places where I’m unsure about this sort of thing are if these are something the player would want to, or be able to, seek out and do if they want to get some money. You should get an achievement for doing all of the crop dusting missions, etc- that definitely makes sense for the completionist people. I’m not sure if we should have a mechanism to say “find the closest crop dusting mission” or not. I’m also unsure if they should be something you have to prepare for by equipping special stuff (Because you’d miss opportunities to do the crop dusting without the dusting equipment). Or you could just shoot the towering weeds growing on the surface of the planetoid.

    Thanks for the great ideas, James! Keep em coming!

  5. Andy Korth
    April 10th, 2010 at 08:25
    Reply | Quote | #5

    @Sarolite
    Hey Sarolite! Good to see you again, sorry I was late approving your comment, I didn’t see it in the queue. Sometimes they auto-approve, sometimes not.

    Your comments about having too much money in a game got me thinking. It definitely happens in a lot of games, and novel uses for money are a good way of handling it. Play made “housing”, or in this case, space bases, are another great solution. We have some plans for allowing the player to build things in the world while keeping scope under control, so we’ll see how that goes.

    I also like the politician idea because it takes the game’s most expensive purchases and turns it into a bit of a minigame. It becomes a much more interesting way to spend your money. I have some vague plot ideas so far for the game, and I’m not quite sure if/how political themes might fit in, but the same idea can be adapted into another form. The obvious one would be funding research programs at the local university planetoid. Then there’s also potential for throwing in a mission or two related to the research.

    Once we get around to talking about creating a base of operations for the player, we’ll be back for more ideas!

  6. James McNeill
    April 13th, 2010 at 08:44
    Reply | Quote | #7

    Good point about making sure the player doesn’t ever have enough money. I’m playing Fable 2 at the moment and money is just a bit too readily obtainable in it. They calculate income from player-owned property based on elapsed realtime (I think in an attempt to discourage renting the game for a weekend), so if you invest early in real estate and play a little bit each night you’re set.

    Player-owned bases can be good. In Fable 2 you can own just about any property. I think you get discounts from stores you own or something like that, but due to the loose money I’ve never cared. In Might and Magic 4 (I think?) there was an extended series of missions that involved constructing your own castle. There were half a dozen or so NPC towns that provided services for varying prices. When you finally got your own you had enough experience to appreciate the benefits it offered. The same idea was resurrected in one of the Elder Scrolls games; I think it may have been Morrowind. I don’t recall it having quite the same impact there; if memory serves it is because the castle was effectively just a big treasure chest out in the wilderness. It was not well situated and it didn’t really do anything other than hold your stuff.

    Regarding mission types, the key I think is to get interesting bits of core gameplay worked out and then come up with excuses for training the player in the finer points of that gameplay. In Sly 3 we took that to the extreme; I remember that we decided it would be fun to have car races against killer robots on roller-coaster style tracks, so we put it in and then cooked up some sort of crazy reason why you needed to do that.

    Rendezvous with moving targets might be interesting, especially since you allow for such a wide range of velocities. There are lots of reasons why you might want to do that.

    Another potentially interesting bit of gameplay might be stealth: enemy bases have rotating sensor beams, say, but you have a radar-absorbent side of your ship that keeps you invisible as long as you have it facing the radar when it sweeps over you. Or you might have to time your rocket firings to coincide with being in someone’s blind spot.

    A spectroscope might make an interesting tool. Pointing it at a light source would yield a spectrograph, and the game would train you how to interpret those. Different types of rockets might have different signatures, for instance. Planetary atmospheres would have evidence of agriculture and/or industry.

  7. Andy Korth
    April 14th, 2010 at 09:57
    Reply | Quote | #8

    A sort of realtime income generator is a strange and interesting thing to put in a game. There are a lot of web games that run based off a real clock- so you play for 5 minutes every day. That works great for those sorts of games, since they tend to run ads and they’re basically guaranteeing themselves repeat visitors for long periods of time.

    Animal Crossing did a lot of realtime based gameplay. As a result, you probably wouldn’t play for more than an hour or so a day, since you had to wait for things to regrow, etc. That kind of ties in with today’s Psychochild blog post about addiction and moral game design ( http://www.psychochild.org/?p=927 ), setting time limits for people to play responsibly, etc.

    There’s always more opportunity for more expensive stuff, particularly for aesthetic changes, like outfits, etc, but I could see it being difficult to balance when a casual player might only play a few hours a week and someone who’s playing 8 hours a day for a week or two.

    I do really enjoy the experience of owning property, so space bases would definitely fulfill that. If owning a shop gives you a discount, that’s something players will definitely appreciate. It’s also fairly easy to implement.

    A spectrograph is a particularly interesting idea. I could see it as something you pickup halfway through the game, and then you could use it to track down “hidden” things. Certain spectrums of non-visible light could be associated with different phenomena that you could discover. I think the general idea of getting an item to discover previously invisible things is a pretty tried-and-true gameplay mechanism.

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