Sunday, August 19, 2012

Do You Take Coupons? : EQ & City of Steam

I miss Everquest's vendor diving. It was an entire game in itself. If you're looking for sandbox gameplay and emergent behavior, look no further. Was there any other MMO that had it?

For anyone unfortunate enough to have missed out on this most excellent of MMO pastimes, vendor diving is what happens when NPC vendors don't just pay good coin from their infinite funds for your rat ears and rusty daggers, they put those same ears and daggers back up for sale. These they price according to some arcane system of their own devising.

Mmm Mites. And plaguey too.
The fun occurs when their prices fall wildly out of kilter with what a player might call "the going rate". Many were the amazing bargains to be found by a diligent diver. An item that passed from hand to hand for thousands of platinum pieces in the EC Tunnel or, later, in Luclin's Bazaar might turn up on a vendor in some out of the way location marked down to a few gold, waiting to be snaffled by some lucky passer-by or picked up in a scouring exercise by a player who made a practice of searching for just such an opportunity.

With a crafting system built around the acquisition and consumption of huge quantities of raw materials almost entirely obtained from killing and looting creatures, even the most innocuous and uninteresting body part could fetch hundreds of times its nominal value when sold back to a player desperate to raise his skill in baking or tailoring. An hour spent judiciously searching the scores of vendors in Qeynos or Freeport or, later, Plane of Knowledge could net enough wealth for a savvy new character to bootstrap herself into twinkdom. I used to make characters on servers where I'd never played for the sheer fun of doing exactly that.

Start at the left and go round. See you back here in two hours.
Every server reboot, patch or simple zone crash reset all vendor stock so the bargains just kept coming. After a patch the Planes of Knowledge and Tranquility resembled meadowland on a sunny spring day as flocks of players flitted from vendor to vendor like bees from flower to flower, if bees were greedy, grabby gnomes and flowers rapidly filled up with discarded detritus amongst which might shine the occasional diamond. Perhaps seagulls on a council tip might be a better analogy.

Add to this already rich field of enterprise a whole substrata of complexity including prices that varied by faction, charisma and location. Observe that vendors chose not to display everything they had to sell, keeping some of it out of sight in some notional store-room from which they could be induced to restock if you bought them out of something else. Mix in Barter, whereby players could automate their buying through the Luclin Bazaar, creating a ready market for many commodities and rare items that functioned as de facto player-created quest generator.

Someone always wants Spider Silk

With all this, Everquest's multifaceted economy was at one time arguably a bigger, more complex and certainly more strategic game than the adventuring game which, Tardis-like, contained it. No subsequent MMO has ever come close to matching it in this respect, something for which I was once obscurely grateful, having been driven close to exhaustion by the sheer overwhelming task of keeping up with the possibilities day after day.

That was long ago, though, and I now I miss it. I eagerly scour the supply chain of every new MMO for something that recalls, if only mildly, that glorious edifice of enterprise. Ryzom has a neat trick of using NPC vendors as salesmen for player-made goods. Guild Wars has a bourse system for collectibles, dyes and crafting materials. FFXI has a fascinating Blind Auction mechanic. WoW and Rift each have wandering vendors who have to be found before they'll sell you their special goods. And then there's City of Steam.

At first I thought I'd found in City of Steam the game that would bring back diving. Unfamiliar as I was with the items and the processes, it seemed to me for a while that I could see my loot re-appearing on vendors after I sold it. Sadly, I was wrong. City of Steam does nevertheless have an interesting and complex system of its own that could develop into something compelling.

Here I must issue a caveat: not only is this still alpha and anything could change, but I don't claim to clearly understand the system as it stands. I posted on the forums for clarification but apart from one helpful reply I learned little. This, then, is the system as-seen. I stand more than open to correction.

Vendors in City of Steam sell specifics - armor, melee weapons, ranged weapons and so on. There are also some general vendors that sell odds and ends which may or may not have uses further on in the development cycle. At the base of each vendor window are three pieces of information:

Shop Will Restock in ...

This is a timer displayed in minutes until the last minute, when it displays in seconds. I think the full duration is a standard 18 minutes but there may be variance. It tells you how long the shop will display its current list of goods. The display timer doesn't tick down (I would like to think it will by the time the game goes Live) so you have to open and close the window to see it progress. If you do so you will see that it proceeds in real time.

At the top of the list of items for sale are several "unique" items. That's to say items that the vendor only has one of to sell, this time around. When someone buys one, it's gone until the shop restocks. When that happens, however, the same item is not guaranteed to re-appear. A different one-time item could take its place.

Most of the items vendors sell are available in infinite quantities. I think the little loop symbol next to them is actually the infinity sign although it's too small to be sure. As well as the unique items, some shops also have other items limited by quantity - 10, 15, 20 etc. As the timer ticks down the shop could go out of stock of these but I think it will always restock them in the next round.

Shop Prices 

This is a percentage. It appears to represent the current discount offered by that particular vendor. If it says 85% then an item with a base price of 1,000 shillings would be on offer for 850 shillings.

This percentage varies throughout the duration of each Restock. I have no idea what causes it to change. 

Player Sales

This is also a percentage. It appears to tell you how much you can expect to get for the items you sell, in relative terms. If Player Sales is showing as 19% and you sell the vendor an item for which his base price would be 1000 shillings he will pay you 190 shillings for it. This percentage also varies and again I have no idea what drives the changes.

Paying attention, Funcom?
All three of these variables appear to be discrete to each vendor, which opens up a potentially massive area of economic metagaming wherein knowing which vendor to sell what to when could make a huge difference in your income. Whether managing or even micromanaging vendor sales becomes a routine part of gameplay, a niche hobby or has no take-up at all will depend a lot on how crucial wealth is to gameplay, something that can never be predicted in any game until it goes Live. Oh, and there's also a fully functioning Broker system for players to buy from and sell to each other. It has all this in alpha. And it all works.

Both the imaginative scope and the attention to detail in every aspect of City of Steam are impeccable and the level of ambition is astonishing. I hope they have as clear an understanding of how to generate real wealth from the game as they evidently have of how we should generate imaginary wealth within it, because this is one game I would like to see not just survive but prosper.

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