Monday, August 1, 2011

Trade, once again

This is the second post in response to the comments posted here.

Dàchéng encouraged me to blog on this:
I'd like to see more development of your very interesting ideas on hauling goods over trade routes. You touched on it when discussing travel here, and developed your ideas here, where I pointed out that the actual hauliers would get ganked by bandits, or bored by repetition, or both. You followed up on that here, pointing out that the repetitive nature of travelling trade-routes could be soothing rather than boring.

All the same, I think there's some fun missing, from the haulier's point of view. I understand that you may not want "action", but some other enjoyable or interesting activity has to take its place (I like your idea that just building tension can keep hauliers interested).

The point about trade is that it is more than just the process of trading. I wrote before, in one of the posts you linked, that it is impossible to make hauling goods short-term fun for most players. Hauling goods can be safe / dangerous and short-range / long-range. That's it.

There are a few interesting decisions involved, but the real reason I want trade is not because trading is so much fun. Let's face it: For most people trading isn't as much fun as fighting anything.
I already argued that it's not a good idea to make trading any more action-oriented. My point is that trading is fun for a few people and, optimally, safe short-range trade can be relaxing for some players, just like a daily quest. Not really exciting.

The real reason I want trade is because it is fun for all non-traders. They are the majority.

Imagine a huge fantasy world. One were geography matters. No teleports, two-digit amount of hours required to go from one end to the other. Gameplay-wise each big city and its environment acts like a traditional server. But you can leave this 'server' and can go to another city. (Clarification: It's a completely open world. But most of the environment is empty of players).

The short-range trade is mostly safe, but long-range trade is dangerous for PvE and PvP reasons. Now, imagine we put some magic-deflecting material into the game. It can be mined in just one mine. What happens is this: near the mine this material is rather common and rather cheap. But in lands far away it is very expensive.

Why is this good? Because it offers diversity! The magic-deflecting material changes the balance of the entire game. Warfare between player factions is completely different near that mine than far away from it. Now imagine lots of other items that are area-specific, like that ore from the mine.

The world becomes alive! You can explore the different areas as a player and learn about them. Sure, you can also learn about them on the internet, but to experience them you need to visit these areas. Just like in any good fantasy world, materials from far away are expensive and in combination with other materials from other far places powerful.

The world becomes an interesting place. You can learn about this place. There's even different balance depending on where you are in the world! We replace some finely-tuned gameplay fun (WoW) with an interesting place to explore and interesting interactions between players in an often un-fair, unbalanced world.

This design contradicts todays industry-standard of finely-tuned gameplay loops: the idea that you first make the first 10 seconds fun, then the next 5 minutes, etc. Instead, it enthralls the players with the promise of adventure and exploration that drives them forward!

If you ask me that is what has driven players forward ever since the first leveling game. That finely-tuned gameplay isn't unimportant, either. But we all know how boring finely-tuned daily quests are!

Abstractly speaking, we don't introduce one finely-tuned pattern into the world that players can explore, but many patterns that interact and thus create new patterns. This interaction of patterns happens via the players. Thus we trade one finely-tuned pattern for many, much more interesting, patterns. This is (passively) player-generated content.

A player-run economy with trade is invaluable for this game. Not because being a trader is so much fun, but because adventuring in a world with trade and traders is so much fun.


  1. Trade routes could be made interesting with vehicles. With the right fuel/maintenance cost and cargo space they could be viable for trading, but overpriced for other play styles. As a pleasant side effect armored cargo vehicles would allow a single player to hold off a group of players. Which is convenient since trading isn't the most popular activity, and this would allow a smaller number of players to meet the goals of trading.

  2. Point (2) really appeals to me from an aesthetic point of view, but the problem I have is essentially "soloability". In other words, it seems it could easily ruin the game for the average non-trader if resources important to that player suddenly become unavailable or unaffordable.

    In a thriving world this is not a problem as even small markets will be filled by entrepreneurs looking to capture revenue untapped by the big players. But its unrealistic (and bad) in my opinion to design a virtual world that requires a large active player base in order to function at the most basic level (see Rift).

    Do you think it would ruin your vision if you incorporated NPC traders to run the show in the absence of a large player base? These NPC traders would still have to operate according to roughly the same laws as player traders (e.g. they wouldn't have an infinite supply of ready cash), and the NPC-trader-AI would be intentionally poor so even new traders would be able to compete effectively against them. But at least it would prevent monopolies and mitigate the small population problem.

  3. I agree that there are ways to implement a few interesting decisions for traders, Jesse. But the point remains: most players don't want to trade. They just want to play in a living, breathing fantasy world with traders. And that isn't impossible. In fact, it's easy, because even if only 1% of the players would like to play trader, it's enough. You just need to make the trader powerful enough and find ways for them to spend the money they earn. WoW demonstrated how easy it is to get money out of the economy with useless veblen goods. So I am not worried about too much money accumulating in the hands of traders.

    John Andrew, I agree that soloablity is important. I think there are ways to maintain it in face of trade. For example you can have a very slow item power progression and make basic equipment so common that it is cheap. The high end goods should be goods that groups of players want (siege warefare).

    You are right in that for that to work you need a functioning market - without monopolies. But unlike in real life, the 'government' of MMORPGs is actually quite powerful and can prevent monopolies from happening. Usually even a few traders are usually enough to make a market work.

    If NPC traders are necessary then they are a necessary evil. They also demand a lot of design and balancing work. I think that enough players would like to play trader - 1% of player base is probably enough.

    Especially at market hubs monopolies are highly unlikely, I think. If some guy has a monopoly somewhere in the outer regions of the game's map, it's not a bug, but a feature :)

  4. I think trading is not the important point in this post. The important point is that some resources are only available far far away.

    The world described could also exist without trading where you have to travel yourself to far lands if you would like to get their advantages like having to visit the dwarven world, which takes two digit RL time from your normal place, to improve your sword. And, of course, you couldn't carry 20 swords with you to get them all improved.

  5. Yes, and no, Kring.
    The dynamic with which the resources are available far away is important, too. To be able to gather a few friends and escort a big shipment of resources to a place where they are expensive or in need is as valuable as the fact that some players in your guild offer to do just that if you pay them. Or the fact that for a time, after a big shipment, prices drop.

    In fact, as soon as you have resources in one place that are not available in another and the capability to carry and trade them, trade happens.
    Look at WoW and the (classic) crafting patterns. People would fly around the low-lvl areas, collect these patterns and then carry to them to Orgrimmar to put them into the auction house.
    Even a game with such a rudimentary trade as WoW, has trade happening. It is the natural and easiest way to make some things rare in some places and plenty is other places.

    Connected with a player-run economy, it also allows players to act at revenue-maximizing prices. That is, the price at which most players are willing to give/take the resource. That's (almost) impossible to achieve in a planned economy. And it is the reason for D3's RMT. Trade and in-game economies are not just flavor and features. They accomplish important gameplay functions.

  6. Now I understand you. You aren't, per-se, interested in trading and trade-routes at all, you are interested in the effect (on non-traders, primarily) of different availability of goods in different places.

    In that case, it is sufficient to go with John Andrew's suggestion and make trade items available from NPCs at differing prices and quantities, depending their distance from the "source"; or go with Kring's suggestion, which is to make players visit the source if they want its benefits.

    I see that all this can have interesting consequences for the world, even with no haulage involved (other than invisible NPC haulage).

    However, we already can see a little of that in Azeroth. Traders already haul goods from the Alliance AH to the Blackwater AH, and from the Blackwater AH to the Horde AH, and vice-versa. The "interesting consequences" of this are in fact not all that interesting, mainly amounting to a small amount of trade in pets and cooking recipes. The price of linen cloth in Orgrimmar is more than double the price in Stormwind (in many realms), but the world of warcraft is not really a much more interesting place because of it.

    It could be argued, though, that the rarity of more sought after items, such as ilvl 278 gear, is why so many people are in the Firelands now, helping the elves to make another monumental mistake.

  7. Now I understand you. You aren't, per-se, interested in trading and trade-routes at all, you are interested in the effect (on non-traders, primarily) of different availability of goods in diferent places.

    I am interested in a living, breathing world. A world that has the capacity to change; and thus allows me, the player, to learn.

    Selling goods via NPCs at locally different, but fixed prices is boring as hell.

    I want a world in which I can locally buy up all the iron that the smiths need to forge pick axes that the miners need to mine magic-deflecting ore, that would allow the smiths to forge equipment that could be given to NPC guards to defend against my clan that relies mostly on magic.

    I want a world with simple, yet deep mechanics that create interesting patterns to explore and experience. A player-run economy is such a simple, yet deep mechanic.

  8. Selling goods via NPCs at locally different, but fixed prices is boring as hell.

    I agree that NPC traders would be a necessary evil either way, but I definitely wasn't proposing the above as a viable NPC trader.

    A real NPC trader would not have the cash to just buy anything you brought to her. And the price would definitely not be fixed because even the most rudimentary AI would have to adjust prices based on current prices in the remote location where they planned to sell such goods. The AI wouldn't have to be very good, it could be simple and predictable, but I do think that I could develop an implementation that would be interesting.

    Ideally, in the presence of player traders, the AI traders would have a very difficult time competing as they would be unable to afford to buy trade goods outright and would only be able to obtain raw materials in small quantities as NPC gathering would be roughly inversely proportional to player gathering.