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Economies, Battles, Oh My!

It's been a little while since the last newspost, although there have been some interim emails, posts and other things to relate some of our progress. Today I'd like to touch on some of the upcoming changes to the economic structure, as well as a few other things.

The VO economy was implemented very simply, some five years ago, to allow people to discover dynamically changing trade routes between our 135-odd stations and profit from them. The process of discovering these routes and using them was "part of the fun", but also made trading more inaccessible to new people. Additionally, for reasons of stability, we implemented such a simplistic economy that there was only a limited amount of tweaking that could be done on the development side.

This has been changing, over the last several years. We've moved a lot of data out of static Lua tables and put it directly into the database, to allow for more dynamic modification. As of this week, we've been making some fairly significant changes to the granularity with which items may be defined, per-location. For instance, as of the recent past, the best that we could specify for any given item was a min/max price value, price drop per unit sold, and demand increase over time. That is per item, across the entire galaxy. We did not have any way of specifically making an item more valuable at a particular station, or regional location. The original thinking was to simply align where given items would be sold, and then let the demand value increase allow for profitability that would generally increase as one went further and further away from the place of the item's manufacture. Again, in the early days we "kept it simple" for implementation reasons and to be sure the economy would generally work, which it did for a number of years (somewhat inflated price values and the mass-trade issue notwithstanding).

However, the political/economic map of the galaxy has changed over the last few months, with the introduction of Nation Border Defenses, and even more powerful Capitol defenses, that make it more difficult for pirates to attack traders and miners in a large area of space. I have maintained all along that it was my plan to drive more traffic to grayspace (unaligned space), by creating more lucrative routes to and from those locales. After all, a lot of our content revolves around "danger", the danger of a transport traveling through grayspace territory, and therefore hiring combat escorts. The danger of pirates lying in wait to take on major convoys at significant risk, because the rewards are so high. So on and so forth. A lot of our current gameplay stems from this, and a lot of our future gameplay will as well. We don't require it of everyone, it will always be possible to mine or trade in "safer" locations, but the rewards will be much smaller.

Unfortunately, for the last few months since I made some sweeping adjustments to the economic system (removing mass-trading and increasing the prices of ships), I haven't really been able to make "lucrative trade routes" to specific grayspace locations, due to the technical limitations of our implemented system. Plus, the last few months have had a number of major distractions from planned "forward progress", like making sure server capacity was up to par for the holiday promo, some issues with Border Skirmish and other bugs that always seem to crop up when least desired. Plus, we've dropped in some "experimental" implementations of other features that needed testing (like fogging a few sectors), which I think gave the impression that that was our development direction; actually we had implemented that stuff long ago, but not gotten it together to start testing it (which is needed, for future widespread usage).

At any rate, as of this week we should be able to try some new trade route modification, which will be more specifically lucrative for those traveling between nation space and deep grayspace. Other routes and changes and things will come as we test and utilize the improved back-end, and also as we develop more elaborate "route visualization" tools for us to use in fine-tuning the economy. With some luck, several new routes will debut in this evening's release. Don't expect everything to be perfect, I will be shooting from the hip on some numbers, and we'll have to see how they shake out.. after all, this is the first "hand-tweaking" of this sort of route.

Now some of you may say something like "But what about the fully dynamic system? Where supply and manufacturing and demand are all tied together?".. this is still our long-term goal. The frightening thing about a completely dynamic system, for a game designer, is the degree to which it may get out of hand. Now any dynamic system we create will of course have bounds, but these bounds have to be defined at some sane level to make sure the economy doesn't oscillate too wildly, but also provides the desired gameplay ramifications. Determining this "sane level" is basically what I'm doing now. I will hand-tune a lot of the static economy, such that we can use this data to implement a really solid fully-dynamic economy. The geography of the economy, as it impacts gameplay and is viewed by the lens of in-game galactic politics, is really the important factor to tune here. This will become especially true as we expand on the resources available to mine, the usages of the minerals and ores (in Manfacturing aka crafting), their contentious locations and the impact that all this has on the greater "War" between the Itani/Serco, as well as minor "hotspot" conflicts between corporations or the Hive. Thus, the bounds have to be set intelligently to take all this into account.. that we want people to be able to sell a lot of "Widget X" at deep grayspace stations, to push those particular kinds of lucrative routes, and that therefore that station's consumption must be artificially higher.

Making more trading-related tools available, for traders and miners, has also been a recent focus of ours, and will continue. I have to walk a fine line on this.. I want to make trading and mining and such as accessible as possible to new people. But at the same time I don't want to destroy the sort of "trading exploration" we've always had, where people would discover new routes. Of course, our more organized guilds have all this stuff down to a science, but still, the balance lies between making stuff "easier" while not making it "too trivial". For this reason I made the new Jettison-menu trade helper only limited to the local System. We will probably be adding more features down the road, such as possibly making the Commodities menu on any station list the best sell price for any given item, within 1 system (ie, the current system and whichever are adjacent). So one can see both the items and their purchase prices, as well as a relatively-nearby trade destination. But, again, trying to make this easier without making it too simplistic.. further feedback on the Suggestions forum is welcome.

Non-Economic Development

I don't want to give anyone the impression that the FF/Faction system redux is not also moving forward, as well as fixes and expansion to the Border Skirmish and so on. We implement things in parallel, some developments take longer than others, or have cross-dependencies, and our timing is based on a mixture of priority (need) and development convenience / unpleasant reality. The Factional stuff is still coming, we are still moving on that. We're currently in the process of re-examining a lot of the weird little ad-hoc rules in the faction system and potentially getting rid of most of them, while also finding better solutions to their original problems. Re-working the Radar will probably be the next Big Thing before we formally turn off FF. The "Newbie Sector" stuff is actually mostly finished, but requires fine-tuning and further extensive testing before we roll it out, for what should be pretty obvious reasons (other Galaxy changes, like removing the extra turrets in Verasi, will happen at the same time). Regarding some concerns over Factional mutual-exclusivitiy: I will make everyone aware of Factional exclusivity ramifications well before it happens (at least two weeks, and I'll send out an email). We will have some work-around options available to people, like switching player faction if need be, and the like. We want the transition to be as smooth as possible.

Border Skirmish needs a lot of work, we know. I expect we'll be re-examining that fairly soon (and not Soon(tm)). We've been trying to nail down some highly sporadic bugs related to the general "Skirmish" stuff, each release has added new debugging tools in one area or another, so please keep telling us whenever you run across Border or Hive Skirmish related problems. We would really like to nail down these issues before we expand on the gameplay.

There's also some other cool stuff knocking around in development, but I think this newspost is long enough for now, so I'll save that for a future one. As always, thanks for your support and help. We also appreciate all the people who have nominated us for several categories of MMOSite 2008 Readers Choice Awards.

Please keep up the feedback and the bug reporting. If it seems we haven't acted on a bug, please keep reporting the issue, we will get to it. We aren't ignoring the problems, just juggling development the best that we can. Take care all..

- Incarnate