Art of The Deal: Trading Games Don’t Understand Trade

Trade! Buy low, sell high. Tradey trade trade. Is that intro length? Good. Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about trading in videogames, and why it’s always rubbish.

Here’s the setup for every trading game in history: you’re a fledgling merchant setting out into the world or galaxy with a modest ship with an empty hold, relying on your resourcefulness and/or shocking lack of ruth to carry you to global domination. It’s a marvellous fantasy, and one that speaks to even the least capitalistic of us, as it can be completely non-violent, and even beneficial to the world.

Sure, in reality the complexities of economics and human behaviour make for countless abuses and atrocities in the name of profit, but there’s plenty of room to make an honest living in many trading games through mutually beneficial agreements. They can often have their cake and eat it too, as piracy can be a fun challenge and a valid excuse for guilt-free action sequences.

The problem, though, is that in practice, I’ve yet to play a trading game that was about trade.

Take the strategy genre. We’ve a regular history of seafaring profit-seeker sims. You know the sort of thing – series like The Patrician, where you send a lone cargo ship to buy cloth in England and flog it in Denmark, and repeat until you can afford a more expensive route – ivory from West Africa, say – then repeat that until you can buy another boat, and so on, and so on.

If you’re lucky, there’ll be more to it than that. Merchant Prince, for example, encouraged you to bribe senators in return for a government position like Admiral or General, allowing you to use the navy or army for yourself, gain popularity, or simply screw with your rivals. Or perhaps you could buy a heap of cardinals and have a go at being Pope instead. The Guild had you advancing your social status, romancing NPCs or indulging in political or criminal skulduggery. The Patrician let you invest and build, manipulate markets, and own the means of production before that phrase had been coined.

All these ideas are very promising, but they only highlight what purpose the ‘trade’ part of each game serves. It’s grind, is what it is. It’s the old RPG treadmill, with money and ships instead of XP and Swords of +1 Elven Sneer. The goal isn’t to exchange goods and agreements; it’s to joylessly toil at gathering money until you can buy your way to the fun part of the game. The fun part might be infrastructure-based, building up farms and factories to suit yourself, or it might be logistical, focusing on directing your fleets to make the most efficient routes. Or it might be political, or open combat, or mildly Sims-esque dynasty building. But it’s all, well, not trade.

Oh, logistics and infrastructure are elements of trade, sure. But focusing on them means you’re simulating a business, not the act of trading. Not the art. Colonization showed an early hint of something more interesting. There, trading with the natives was a case of asking what they wanted, respecting their wishes and fears, and judging how much you could push for a better price without annoying them into calling the whole thing off. It got even better if you opened up trade with rival Europeans. A friendly relationship with the Incans could net you enough cheap silver to crash entire markets back home, raking in huge profits.

Colonization is very much an outlier, though. In every other example I can think of, the player is just a manager. You’re the guy staring at spreadsheets, not the savvy negotiator wringing a sale out of a social call.

Take Arona Daal, the loveable, borderline criminal wheeler dealer in Startopia. As a station manager you can make a decent profit from selling off resources, but through Daal the game gives hints at a more fun way of life. His stories of adventures and clever, often dodgy deals are a delight, not just because they’re charming but because they make the world sound like a real place where things happen as a direct result of his haggling and dumping cargo and using his wits to turn an unlikely profit.

It’d be fun to play as Arona Daal, out there in space using your wits to survive and to thrive. So what’s the reality of Elite-alikes, where you’re the captain of a vessel doing a job like his? Where the world or galaxy is no top-down map to shuffle icons across, but a huge open thing to explore personally, docking in at space stations, mining, taking potshots at pirates who try their luck?

It’s more bloody grinding is what it is, only now you have to do the sodding driving too. You’re not making deals at all, you’re just moving columns of numbers around. Generic Cargo A sells for 5 currency units more in Dock B. What cargo? Who’s buying it and why? How much do they need it? Do they need anything else? Irrelevant. There’s just a big number in one of the cargo columns, so you click on it. That’s not trade, damn it.

Trade is about people, about judgement and intuition and communication and negotiation. Imagine Only Fools And Horses if instead of Delboy’s patter, we got “Rodney! I bought 25 Electronics in Brockley for 5 currency and sold them in Bermondsey for six currency. This time next year, we’ll have enough for a marginally bigger van!”. Or how about if instead of deciding exactly how to get past a gang of bandits in an RPG or shooter, you brought up a spreadsheet of encounters and clicked on the ones you could afford. That’s how we treat one of the fundamental concepts of human civilisation.

The criminally under-recognised Hardwar made some progress toward a better implementation of trading by naming every NPC pilot and giving them preferred activities, vendettas, and a basic sense of reason – pirates could be seen carrying out lawful work if they needed it, and would only attack if you had a worthwhile cargo. You could fight back and they wouldn’t necessarily hold it against you if you subsequently gave up and dropped your goods. And those goods were actively bought and sold by other flyers, much as in X3 with its gigantic, complex economy allowing you to build factories that dynamically altered AI behaviour.

The latter made a token effort to a social world of trading, with named characters on every ship and station, but was too large and lacking in personality to make it stick. More successful was its random mission system, where you could contact people on stations and sometimes ships who’d offer odd jobs ranging from “bring me 10 space wolf anuses” to “Blow up my rival” or “recover my ship”. But both lacked lack the cut and thrust and sense of human relations that a real trader ought to have. In all my many years, I’ve seen that in a slim handful of games, and curiously none of them were about trade. Instead, they were about trust.

It’s Neptune’s Pride that got this right. There’s no formal trade. No pre-arranged system to automate the whole point away. There’s no currency, no fixed value or even averages, and things are only worth what they’re worth to a given person at that moment. Swapping resources or favours wouldn’t have you humiliated because you paid more than some standard amount – if you feel you got a good deal in the circumstances, it was a good deal. And above all, the whole process depends on trust that the other person will hold up the bargain, even if they’re not your ally. That trust is key, even when the goal is solitary conquest.

A positive trading relationship is about more than cold calculations of profit. Cutting ties or altering a deal has consequences, and affects how we play and how the game pans out. In my first bout of Neptune’s Pride, I was a loyal ally to an early partner even as it became clear he was going to win. Then he aggressively accused me of plotting against him, which I categorically had not been, but of course immediately began doing, leveraging my good reputation with most of the other players.

With a few savvy exchanges of technology and terms, I allied absolutely everyone in a co-ordinated attack that wiped my accuser out almost overnight. Had there been a formalised one-click marketplace instead, none of that could have happened, because the systems would make it untenable, and because I’d have probably got bored long before it came to pass.

For these relationships, we need resources with a purpose and direct negotiation with the player. Creating AI that could convincingly take that role is a tall order, making multiplayer the obvious answer, and indeed it’s the multiplayerest of genres that provided the closest experience I’ve had to being the roving trader character: a survival MMO.

DayZ has, of course, turned these almost universally into Advanced Dickhead Simulator, but on a whim I tried out a “survival” server of the Just Cause 2 Multiplayer mod last year. The huge, beautiful island nation of Panau, with all the NPCs replaced by players fighting and looting boxes hidden all over the place. Trade wasn’t a consideration in its design, but there were a tonne of resources, most of which were quickly consumed, a gigantic, dangerous world full of vehicles and places to build and hide things, and dozens of players either too dense to appreciate Panau, or driven too cynical by the pointless rampages of the former. After lucking into a meeting with one of few friendly and positive players, I set up as a trader. Cargo runs? Buy low sell high? Bring me ten plot crystals? Nope.

Heading south I spot a chopper that Appa has been looking for. I sell him its location and wait while he collects, but that leaves the boat he arrived in stranded. So I offer to deliver that plus some ammo to him in return for some walls and a spare box (picking up a trusted passenger on the way, who agreed to buy and park a moped for me later). The walls are for an ally who’s expanding his base, and the box is for Yoyo, who’s sitting on some batteries for me. I drop off the boat, carry out my deals, do a bit of scavenging for more stuff, and help out some newbies in return for remembering my name in future.

Then it’s time to take my new moped back to camp, drop off my spares at a friendly stash, and catch up with public chat, where someone’s asking for a long-distance taxi. I ask for details and decline, as it’ll be too risky by land and my boat is unavailable. I’m still at camp when the call comes in for a vouching: someone on my network (we used a secret radio frequency, known only to trustworthy traders and builders) wants to know if they should deal with Appa. “He’s good! His English is a bit stumbling but he’s honest. Hey, do you still have that two seater boat? I need to borrow it for something…”

I spent weeks like this, despite the bugs, frustrations, and constant, pointless ganking by boring idiots playing a one-sided deathmatch like they could in a million other games (I took pride in being perhaps the only devoted player who never once killed anyone). Eventually it, and not a little harassment, got to me, but it remains a great memory, and I’m saddened that the experience remains so rare.

MMOs are the obvious genre for a game to truly nail what makes trade work, but with the partial exception of EVE Online, no devs or audiences seem to be interested, and every offering seems to court either the traditional WoW ground, or the adolescent torture fantasists who ruined DayZ. In Wurm Online, I helped dig someone’s farm in exchange for a few nights’ shelter, but like most RPGs, Wurm’s progression system makes 95% of goods worthless, much as MMOs with auction houses tend to.

Perversely, systems that are designed to facilitate trade with other players often make it irrelevant, while single player RPGs typically have a “Barter” skill but no actual barter, and end up doing it for you. Everything just exists to be liquified, with no relative or fluctuating value. Game markets know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

I don’t know what the answer is – to somehow invoke human behaviour while simultaneously screening out human internet behaviour? – but I know what it’s not. It’s not more spreadsheets and it’s not more grind. We naturally want to swap things and make deals and feel clever by turning a situation to everyone’s advantage, but when all you have is an electronic auction house, everything looks like a Buy It Now. To quote a great business leader: human behaviour is economic behaviour. Let us be human.

From this site

85 Comments

  1. jellydonut says:

    Two words: EVE Online.

    There are no other games simulating trade, because there are no other games with a functioning virtual economy. Only Eve has the critical components necessary to actually simulate trade.

    • Sound says:

      Yep. Eve, hands down.
      Yet this article barely mentions it. What gives?

      • Cinek says:

        EVE is such a specific case that it bears little to no relevance to the rest of the games.

        • gentlehosen says:

          How is it not relevant though? I fully understand that it’s a niche game for a very specific market, but half the game is basically the exact type of trading talked about in the article (with the other half being political nonsense).

      • Sin Vega says:

        My main problem with EVE is that it’s more about spreadsheets and levels and distracting meta-game stuff than roving and dealing.

        • lordcooper says:

          First off, Eve doesn’t have levels, your involvement in the meta is up to you, and as a longterm player I don’t have a single spreadsheet. The arguments you’ve put forth make me think you’ve either never played the game and are basing your opinions on what you’ve heard, or that you tried it briefly and bounced off before finding a place for yourself.

          Eve is about whatever you make Eve about.

          For some it is indeed spreadsheets online.

          For me it is currently about hunting players in expensive ships and profiting from the loot, making money through social engineering / scams and helping newbros out with both advice and starter funds. It used to be about growing my corporation, negotiating diplomatic matters with other wormhole corps and leading my corp in fights against them. SOme day it’ll be about that again.

          For others Eve is about the political meta. They create propaganda, recruit, trade entire regions of space for reasons ranging from defence to ensuring a steady supply of people for their alliance to fight. They negotiate, bribe, blackmail, call in favours etc.

          For one guy called Chribba, Eve is about being literally the only person the game that *everyone* trusts completely. He acts as a third party for hire, overseeing trades of valuable (sometimes even unique) goods and providing a escrow services for less traditional contracts.

          For the members of Signal Cartel, Eve is about the public service of mapping the ever shifting maze that is wormhole space so others may move more freely across it.

          Some focus almost entirely on solo and small gang pvp, training for regular tournaments that have incredibly valuable prizes. Some command fleets of 500 people on a regular basis whereas some are content to be one among those 500.

          I could play for another decade and continue typing for the next few hours. Neither would allow me to tell you what Eve is about. It’s a different game for everyone who plays, my experiences will have been very different to the next guys. All I feel comfortable in stating as fact is that if someone can’t find an objective in Eve or finds it boring, that’s almost always a reflection of them being directionless or boring.

          Hopefully I’ll see you in space some time :)

          • Alfius says:

            You missed a trick not following that perfect write up with your referral link. So here’s mine: link to secure.eveonline.com

            KarmaFleet is recruiting.

          • lordcooper says:

            Nah, I’m just classy enough not to spam referral links everywhere.

            As for large newbie friendly corps, I’d probably recommend Pandemic Horde over the others at present. And I’d recommend finding a small group that share your interests over that.

          • Alfius says:

            That us in the Imperium through and through, classy mofos.

            For reals though, Horde is a perfectly decent place to start out as a newbro, I’d rather you came to KarmaFleet though because then I wouldn’t have to violently explode you.

            Small group stuff can be great with the right corp. Playing with a tight group of RL friends is probably even better. Failing that, starting in a big organisation is the way to go – get a taste for as much of what the game has to offer as possible before choosing to branch out and specialise if that’s your thing.

          • Chirez says:

            Personally my problem with EVE is that it contains people, and people are universally horrible. Your main points are entirely valid, and I agree, but there is one other kind of person who will not make friends with EVE and that’s the kind that doesn’t make friends. For the a- or anti-social it has little to offer.

            I just want to fly. But I can’t, because some asshole will shoot me. Guaranteed. Every time.

          • DFX2KX says:

            EVE has trading as a mechanic, but not really as an art to the same degree.

            While I COULD have gone into the system chats to shop around for a Hurricane while I was playing. I didn’t bother, it was a lot easier to just fly a shuttle to Jeta and pick one up for four million flat (which was actually a decent price). The game’s sheer size makes such a personal exchange a bit uncommon for the average player.

        • Sound says:

          First, LordCooper’s input is 100% correct.

          Second, I have no idea what you’re talking about with levels(which I assume you mean to be skill points). Those never significantly limited me, in my years in Eve. Knowledge and real experience was my only barrier. It’s really an elegant system, and it’s only gotten better over time.

          And third, there are ways to accomplish trading that are either spreadsheet heavy, spreadsheet light, or spreadsheet free. I’ve personally done all three. It’s possible to head to the big market, load up what’s comparatively cheap, and then ship the goods out to somewhere where things will sell for better… At the risk of venturing into unsafe territories, because that’s precisely what makes it profitable. All without using spreadsheets. The catch is that you’ll still end up referencing prices on a 3rd party website though, because there’s just way too many items to track yourself. These sorts of catches are inevitable if you want a good trading simulation.

          Another catch is this: The less work you put in, the less profit you get out. Because you actually have opponents, who are just as smart as you. Which seems to me more like a feature, if you’re looking to better simulate trade. This is what drives some people to spreadsheets – to create a competitive edge. But it’s not always necessary.

          Really, the most valid critique I’ve seen is that it’s highly social, which is a big turnoff if you’re not looking to deal with people. Or if you prefer a relaxed, steady conveyor belt of tuned challenges and wins, spoon fed to you by an AI.

    • Amake says:

      Ah yes, the subtle game of buying high and selling low to get more time to fly out and shoot pirates. I miss it sometimes.

    • po says:

      EVE is also rather unique among games in that it has a good balance between ‘faucets’ and ‘sinks’.

      While players bring resources into the game via mining and loot drops from NPCs – providing for the supply part of trade – there is also a much larger sink than is found in other games, that also ensures constant demand: A proportion of player’s equipment is actually destroyed when they lose in combat (and the rest vanishes if their wreck isn’t looted).

    • Boozebeard says:

      Did you read the article?

    • Smaug says:

      Exactly, the article mentions the most genuine and complete trade game with actual functioning economy and diplomacy and does not elaborate, what gives?

    • Jazoray says:

      Eve doesn’t have a functioning economy.

      In a real economy, there is consumption, investment, waste, and all that.

      In real life, i can buy a coffee, consume it, and be a happier human being because of it. And that may lead to an increased quality of life for me and those around me. because coffee allows me to be a more productive citizen. While being productive, i help others make things, that even other people need.

      in eve, all you can do is grind ore into spaceships.
      The only consumption takes place when a spaceship blows up.

      you dig up ore, make it into a spaceship, someone blows it up.
      how is that a functioning economic cycle?

  2. SVW says:

    Besides EVE Online, I think that Ultima Online, at it’s best did have well-functioning trade. Probably due to people wanting items for more than just functional reasons, eg. housing decoration and such.
    I once led a mining guild a minor shard, succesfully undercutting the ore-market.

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      Ah, Ultima Online was great. The scope was quite narrow, since the most profit was in the mining/smithing sector, and was quite competitive. I went for the mining for long enough to get enough money to be able to wander around with decent gear and explore.

  3. roboczar says:

    Games like Patrician and other “buy low/sell high” games are simulating a “deep” market, where there are always buyers and sellers for your goods, which is generally how markets work in real life in regard to commodities and other relatively high turnover goods. The kind of goods that are cost effective to move by ship/caravan, etc.

    The truck and barter of “dealmaking” is mainly a fantasy except when you are talking about trading goods in “thin” markets like, for instance, pieces of art, unique luxury goods, real estate, etc. That’s where you get the “face to face” deal, because there just aren’t enough sellers and buyers to reliably set a market-clearing price for the goods, so there is a low amount of information available to both parties, requiring negotiation.

    So it’s not that these games don’t have “trading”, it’s that they don’t replicate the type of trading where there aren’t many people buying and selling, and where personality and the ability to read others becomes important in setting the price and closing the deal. If you’ve got a game where you’re moving mass amounts of goods by ship, you’re, at best, simulating selling to a broker or market maker at the dock, who has a set price that he charges for the goods that will get him a profit margin when he sells to local businesses.

    • klops says:

      Yeah… Those were my thoughts also, although I liked the article and would like to see that personal deal-making more in games where it suits them.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Thank you! So it’s not just me, then. It’s well-written, and there’s definite wisdom in there, but it’s not so much “Why aren’t there more games with trading?” as “Why aren’t there more games that let me argue with people about maybe doing each other a favor?”.

    • alh_p says:

      +1
      I also enjoyed the article, it’s engaging and an interesting perspective, but it seemed like the author doesn’t know what trade is… Or has read about it in novels, but not done it.

      Also I wanted to point out that one man’s grind is another’s fun. e.g. the slow growth and expansion of a trading empire in EU4 – with all its expanding risks, relationships and fleets to manage can be really satisfying. But it can also be laborious.

      Trade, as the author understands it, is predominantly grind too: running a boat taxi and delivery service? How is that not going to become repetitive? I suspect what was more satisfying about the JC2 experience was doing all that with other real people DESPITE the dickheads, and the measures taken to protect it all from them.

      Frankly, maybe the lesson for why the JC2 experience didn’t last is also that it’s bloody hard work and it wears thin after a while – unless you actually have to do it for a job…

      • Banyan says:

        Yeah, in a large economy commodities and many other items are effectively fungible. Or in less precise terms, buying a cow in a society of 100 people is a highly personal activity. Being one of 100 people all trying to buy 1000 cows likely means you treat each cow as identical. If you’re playing a trading game where you’re dealing in commodities, aka tons of iron ore or breadfruit or circuit breakers, it would be ridiculously unrealistic to pretend that your product is a special snowflake. The only time skill in trade should be in situations of real scarcity,aka having the last 10 circuit breakers within 100 miles, which admittedly games typically do a bad job of simulating.

    • mazurek says:

      In addition I find it silly that the article chooses Patrician of all games as an example of a ‘grind’ trading game, then goes on to enumerate features of other games that Patrician already had!

      Let’s look at Patrician III, in my opinion the pinnacle of the series and one I sunk the most hours into:
      bribing senators in public baths – check
      getting married for money – check
      surrendering goods to pirates – check
      taking dogdy quests in taverns, taking risks on uncertain deals – check
      criminal skullduggery, weapon smuggle – check
      progressing on social standing – check
      sabotaging your rivals – check
      and the list goes on and on. You could hire a pirate, or become one. Join a convoy (and lose time and competitive edge), form one (and get paid for protection), or fly the jolly roger and raid a convoy yourself. Hell, you could even sack a city if you had the resources and acumen to pull that off (and avoid later prosecution).

      Arguably this is all a bit quest-y, but the breadth of the game was phenomenal, and it still stand out among its peers. The most compelling aspect for me (and one that could be only realized after some investment into the game) was how your trading shaped the world. If your winter convoys run on time and delivered meat and clothing, cities would prosper, their populations expand. If you focused on high-end luxury items only, or ignored some regions completely, there would be starvation and disease outbreaks, leaving your workshops and timbered houses deserted. Even though you were just a Patrician, you could undertake public projects like building wells or hospitals, to the benefit of the city. And the approval of hanseatic cities was how you ultimately progressed in social status in the end game, only when recognized as a benefactor you could be elected to become Lord Mayor of a city (shaping its defences and land trade routes) and ultimately Alderman, the Fleet Master of Hanseatic League, and start your very own town. If the purpose of trade is to create value, Patrician III demonstrated it like no other game.

    • Babymech says:

      Entirely this. How do comments get highlighted in red and pinned to the top? This one deserves it.

  4. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    The other thing that can help in trade is outrageous luck. Okay, I’ll admit it, I just wanted to channel the spirit of Marsh Davies and share the story of the merchant Timothy Dexter. From wikipedia:
    link to en.wikipedia.org

    “He was inspired to send warming pans (used to heat sheets in the cold New England winters) for sale to the West Indies, a tropical area. His captain sold them as ladles for the local molasses industry and made a good profit. Next, Dexter sent wool mittens to the same place, where Asian merchants bought them for export to Siberia.

    “People jokingly told him to “ship coal to Newcastle”. He did so during a miners’ strike at the time, and his cargo was sold at a premium. At another time, practical jokers told him he could make money shipping gloves to the South Sea Islands. His ships arrived there in time to sell the gloves to Portuguese boats on their way to China.

    “He exported Bibles to the East Indies and stray cats to Caribbean islands and again made a profit; eastern missionaries were in need of the Bibles and the Caribbean welcomed a solution to rat infestation. He also hoarded whalebone by mistake, but ended up selling them profitably as a support material for corsets.”

    Skillz.

    • klops says:

      The modern equivalent could be selling bottled water to people who live in countries where tap water is cleaner.

      • klops says:

        Or not actually. Your examples make sense.

      • froz says:

        That must be very hard to understand to all the people who have no taste. When you buy tea, it doesn’t matter to you how it tastes, as long as it’s “clean”?

        • klops says:

          Good point! I generalized too much and haven’t traveled in that many countries. In my country, the bottled water (plain water, not aromatized or bubbling, etc. that is different) does not taste better than tap water – at least in the areas I’ve lived in and at least by the studies I’ve read. And that’s not only _my_ experience since in the studies I’ve read the tasters have not made much difference between tap water and bottled water.

          • froz says:

            Well, ok. However, taste is very subjective, everyone can have his/her own opinion and it’s not like you can tell them they are wrong because there was research on that :p. Regarding the studies you read – was the tester group just random people? There could be a study saying that randomly selected group of people could not tell any difference between 5$ wine and 50$ wine. Certainly that doesn’t mean that everyone who’s buying 50$ wine (or more expensive) is acting irrational and should stop?

            Anyway, I was thinking about my own situation of course. While tap water here is certainly drinkable, it’s not as good as bottled water I buy (which is mineral, meaning it’s from underground, not from natural spring, it usually is a difference). Sure, there is bottled water that I would say is tasting worse then tap water, but some people may disagree.

            There is piping involved. Again, this depends on your specific situation, but if you have ever seen how pipes look inside after several years, you might understand that it’s disgusting for some people. Additionally, in many places with old piping you are going to have some extra iron or maybe other things in the water, from corroding pipe. The water might be fine at one point, but not that fine at another place.

            To sum it up – maybe I just had bad luck, but I did try drinking tap water several times, here at home and abroad, including some places that in theory had very good tap water (small town on greek island that had mineral tap water) and it never really tasted as good as my bottled water.

            Ahh, the joy of discussing tap water on gaming website :D.

          • klops says:

            :D Offtopic conversations can be interesting as well. Horisontal instead of vertical, or something like that.

          • RegisteredUser says:

            Tap water has the issue of the pipes it runs through.
            Lead is bad because lead, zinc and copper have now also been proven problematic in higher volume consumption and plastic comes with its own contaminants, which brings us to bottled water: Plastic bottles come with BPA (hormonally active, can have estrogen like effects, not so nice if you are male and cherish having erections) and other chemical unknowns and glass bottles are heavy, expensive and rare to get close by.

            There is poison in everything these days and pretending like its just about the water rather than also effects from its transports is very shortsighted.

  5. Ironclad says:

    there was a kickstarter a little while back that might interest you: Sol Trader. link to soltrader.net

    Still in development so I take a wait & see approach. Relationships with other npcs (of the non-bioware type) seems to be the norm.

  6. Captain Joyless says:

    The picture from Merchant Prince 2 really takes me back.

  7. namad says:

    if you want to experience “real” trading try some multiplayer dominions3/4. items and gems and cash and territory all go for a variable price depending on strength of position national advantages and just the specifics of diplomacy that game.

  8. slerbal says:

    Your article made me realise that if someone did focus on the kind of trade you are talking about it would be something I would actually enjoy instead of avoid at all costs as I do with pretty much all types of grinding.

    Good article Sin! I enjoyed reading that :)

  9. aozgolo says:

    I recall playing a rather obscure indie MMORPG called Darkfall Online. It was an open world always-on-PvP Full Loot on Death with focus on clan warfare and owning a limited number of cities and hamlets. Most people were all about the clan warfare or the endless ganking, and you could never really trust anyone in it.

    I opted instead to take advantage of the naval system, massive ships and sea monsters and taking to the high seas where firing a cannon was all about aim and didn’t have 10 hidden stats that governed how well you did.

    Well I took my small clan and holed up in a neutral city (read: completely unprotected) and we spent our days chopping wood and mining. Boats need a lot of wood, but they also need a rare ‘ingredient’, an astrolabe, dropped from high end monsters, and also a shipyard, an extension only available in player cities.

    My small clan of admittedly unseasoned followers were not the stuff of city sieges, killing powerful monsters for rare loot, or storming towns to use shipyards. We had to rely on our wits. So we harvested tons upon tons of wood, stone, half of which was banked for building our fleet, the other half we sold, often in public chats, avoiding high risk deals (trade ganking was a very real consequence). We bought astrolabes with the money we sold off, sometimes we’d buy full ships too. But we still needed a harbor to build.

    I allied with a clan that owned a rather large island, in lieu of direct payment we worked out a deal where we would serve as naval support. We could use their cities and harbor to build ships and weren’t required to fight their wars but we could provide transport for them via our ships and also warn them of invaders prowling their waters. It was a good deal that lasted us a good long time.

    I love the aspect of trading things that may not have a physical weight, making deals that serve mutual interest rather than simply buy low sell high.

  10. ZippyLemon says:

    Runescape had a very pleasing trading economy before they introduced an auction house.

    Then they started Oldschool Runescape, set before the auction house. They patched in a “Trading Post”, which let you put things up for sale at whatever price you wanted. Other players could see your price, quantity, your server, and whether you were online, and could send you a message directly if you were online.

    This was a great compromise, but then they patched in the auction house again because the playerbase voted for it. Aaaaaand boom, all the soul vanished from the game a second time.

    Philistines. Philistines everywhere.

  11. Wicked Fox says:

    I hear you. I’ve always fantasized about a game that let me be an independent merchant. Either the wandering Spice and Wolf-style or the brick-and-mortar-welcome-to-my-shop variety would be lovely.

    • emertonom says:

      There’s “Recettear: an Item Shop’s Tale,” but honestly it falls for a lot of the grindy tropes mentioned here. A decent idea, mediocre execution.

  12. frightlever says:

    I think there’s negotiating (which is what the article is about rather than trade. You can negotiate until the cows come home but there’s no guarantee it’ll lead to a trade.) associated with most MMORPGs, just not necessarily within the confines of the game.

  13. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    I really like your Fools & Horses analogy. I think this sums up the general grind approach in gaming perfectly. Why don’t games let you become biwwionaires overnight? Why do you have to slog to get there? I’m not saying provide shortcuts to the top, but at least have more dramatic ups and downs, or at least several very distinct world views to play from, to provide some variation to the game.

  14. spec10 says:

    I believe Star Wars Galaxies had some of that “real” trading feeling fueled by a player driven economy.

    • Premium User Badge

      Kemuel says:

      Definitely. I played a good year or so of Galaxies almost exclusively as a Tailor with a vendor set up inside my guild’s shopping mall. The fact that shopping malls even came to be speaks of just how much that game got right, even if the economy was horribly hyperinflated on most servers.

    • Press X to Gary Busey says:

      Indeed SWG. I played a master ranger right before they killed the profession and after a hunting trip I usually made deals with crafters through the chat or just shouting what I had in stock outside a space port rather than listing them in the bazaar.

  15. ArchRylen says:

    There’s Recettear. A good portion of the game is figuring out what will draw people in, how to meet their needs, and how far the buyers will stretch. It is definitely mechanical, but meets a lot of your goals until the system old.

    • Sin Vega says:

      Recettear is a great call, I feel foolish for having overlooked it. It does undermine itself a little with the bonus multiplier system, but the haggling sections were great, and running the shop was great fun.

  16. Heliocentric says:

    Trading in videogames isn’t rubbish.

    Trading in single player games is rubbish, because the AI is rubbish.

    A deal cut in a multi-player game? That is just as complicated a scenario as any real life trade, with the associated “nah, I’d rather steal it” if bartering goes on too long.

  17. Palladian says:

    I cannot recommend Europa Universalis IV highly enough for its approach to trade. It’s still at the macro scale, admittedly, and there’s a bit of the spreadsheet thing this article understandably complains about, but when you’re invested it’s extremely exciting.

    In EU4 you play as a nation so it’s slightly different to most of the examples cited here, but that allows something which should be fundamental to all trade to be explored – namely, it’s competitive. If you’re dispatching merchants to influence the direction of trade you’re denying it to other powers. Moreover, the skeleton of the system is basically comprehensible to anyone with some knowledge of history: the Caribbean is a metaphorical goldmine, trade in the Mediterranean is initially the most important but the focus moves north later and Indian and East Asian nodes become vital about 1700.

    I love it especially since it’s pretty much alone in simulating a particular economic philosophy as regards trade, namely mercantilism. Basically the idea of the mercantilists was that there was a finite amount of wealth to be gotten out of trade and it wasn’t really ‘generated.’ The objective was to have the ‘balance of trade’ in your favour at any given time.

    It’s an amazing instance of a real system in Early Modern Europe working astonishingly well as a game mechanic. I’ve noticed in my 300~ hours of playing, too, that trade is divided into nodes and a country’s borders never line up exactly with the borders of these trade nodes so you’re given an incentive in a very natural way to go to war over trade disputes.

    It makes me as someone qualified in history despair that so many games use a particular period as a skin over familiar RTS/RPG/Action mechanics.

  18. 5parrowhawk says:

    No love for Dwarf Fortress? The haggling remains one of the better-realized aspects of that game, complete with the tension of possible missed opportunities.

  19. Premium User Badge

    TheDefenestrator says:

    This is a really interesting article, but I was thrown a bit by the mention of “space wolf anuses” in the middle. I’m now imagining hunting down members of one of 40k’s less gentlemanly space marine chapters and harvesting their anuses in order to deliver them to some interested party for an unknown purpose. That would be an interesting narrative hook to base a game on, at least.

    Wait, are the progenoid glands in the anus? Because that would change my image of the setting by a lot…

  20. valrus says:

    “So what’s the reality of Elite-alikes, where you’re the captain of a vessel doing a job like his? Where the world or galaxy is no top-down map to shuffle icons across, but a huge open thing to explore personally, docking in at space stations, mining, taking potshots at pirates who try their luck?”

    While it’s not the answer to all your trading woes, Sin, you should really give Nomad (1993) a playthrough if you haven’t already. It’s a sort of Star Control II/Starflight-type game, with an open world and an emphasis on (but not a requirement to) trade. You start with something like ten chocolate bars and a single piece of information and trade your way up, with a dozen alien cultures that just value different things. (Not just having different modifiers on the dozen standard commodities, but only being genuinely interested in maybe 10% of the hundreds of items, and maybe only trading with you once they already like you for other reasons.)

    The trading system isn’t mechanically deep — I don’t think it represents an economy — but that’s kind of the point. It’s not really a game about balancing risk and reward to eke out an N% profit; you’re more of an anthropologist and information trader. But because of this it tells what is (to me) more compelling space trading stories. “I gather they have really good shield boosters for trade but what would this alien value in exchange?”, “I don’t even speak their language, but maybe I can bluff my way through to a trading relationship”, “I didn’t get any good trades this time, but I got a good lead on an archaeological site”, etc.

    It strikes me as being up your alley in general; I think you’ll be able to look past the rough bits and find the unusual depth — unusual because it’s deep where most games are shallow and shallow where most games are deep.

  21. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I was reminded a bit of the diplomacy system in Medieval II Total War (probably because I’m playing it a lot nowadays). There is a bit of gauging involved when making a deal with another faction. Previous actions influence your trustworthiness, the skill of the diplomat and your relations with that faction (and whether you ar at war with one of their allies, for instance) all matter.

    It’s certainly not as good and involved as it could be, but I was pleasantly surprised it was there.

    • Premium User Badge

      Joshua says:

      Total War in general does a good job at this, with people judging their willingness to trade with you or develop lasting peace between you based on all kinds of factors: Their trust in you, their trust in their surrounding factors, relative power between all their neighbours, and so on. This system mostly goes to waste, though, as in the older Total Wars war between all factions is inevetable, esp. in Shogun 2. Rome 2 and Attila’s biggest change in the formula is that your military allies’s provinces are now part of the victory equation, although it does introduce other conditions, such as developing provinces and having a large standing army, to compensate for this. It’s super lovely.

      Oh and Sin? Great article!

  22. Uncaring Cosmos says:

    Bah and fiddlesticks! The trade portion of Merchant Prince was not mere “grind” until you got to the political level. It was the joy of exploring new lands and discovering new cities. Captaining a little boat round the Horn of Africa to discover the Spice Islands was part of the fun! When you had established a trade route, the grind of trading back and forth could be automated.

    Your main objection seems to be that not enough games include a sort of “Del Boy minigame” where you haggle with merchants in the local bazaar over the price of bales of wool. However, I don’t see a problem with economic simulations abstracting that sort of detail. It doesn’t make an economic model less “realistic”, nor does it constitute “badwrongfun” – it just avoids the grind of a thousand Del Boy minigames everytime you dock in a port.

    Now, don’t get me wrong – I would pay good money for a Del Boy simulator. But that kind of granulated detail has its place, and in a “trade empire” game I think it’s in the diplomacy mechanics (e.g. high-level negotiations with rival trade families) rather than giving us a social simulation of every single transaction. Abstraction actually helps us avoid grind, here.

  23. Unsheep says:

    …aaaand another click bait article by RPS.

    • LionsPhil says:

      No, another SEO’d title by RPS. It has content behind it consistent with the title. It’s an opinionated editorial, not a “thwack the beehive for views”.

      • Sin Vega says:

        I wrote the title, and it has nothing to do with “SEO”, which can fuck off. It’s called what it’s called because that’s what it’s about.

    • Dicehuge says:

      You have a very peculiar idea of what constitutes clickbait.

  24. LionsPhil says:

    I always read Arona as more of a CMOT Dibbler than particularly profitable. “Bank balance” feels like the wrong kind of escalation and progress for a game built around those lines; it should be the contacts you have, the favours you can call in, your ability to get back on your feet and into business when all your material assets just got impounded (I guess the early Moist von Lipwig is another Discword character that comes to mind). If you want a narrative conclusion to work for, let it be some major deal or scheme that requires this support network to pull off, with a payoff big enough to retire on, not some slow-boil incremental growth.

    • Sin Vega says:

      This is a great point. One reason I was able to play that survival server without killing anyone is that I started to build up a reputation and making friends, simply by being nice to people instead of murdering on sight. As a result, when there was a particularly bad day of griefing idiots pointlessly blowing up my stuff, I was able to pick up the pieces by calling in a few favours.

  25. Czrly says:

    I really think you could make a great 4X with a proper market. Consider this…

    Basically, your “production” does not yield any stock-piles. Instead, it influences the market. Producing a good increases liquidity and lowers the price of that good – not just for you but for everyone. Producing buildings and units costs relative to the cost of the parts. Your nation’s “wealth” (currency) is increased based on the consumption of goods that you produce – consumption by anyone. If you produced the good, however, you’re paying the money to yourself so it is essentially free, even if the rate is market driven – this makes production a dominant strategy.

    A major mechanic is the buying of physical stock piles and futures because certain goods (for argument’s sake, “steel +1”) are required to build an army so building an army will naturally drive the price sky high. Unfortunately, stock-piling “steel +1” would also give an indication that you intend to build an army and make your neighbours wary. If you were also growing herds of horses and stock-piling long, straight saplings, they might know to build a force to counter some knights carrying lances.

    … but it might be a bluff. Or you could be building a railway instead.

    The “fun” would come from the interplay between these basics and sanctions and embargoes, buying futures, growing monopolies. Piracy! The possibility that your friendly neighbours might defend your territory against an aggressor because you’re typically peaceful and they enjoy the cheap food that you provide through your farming empire! The option to stymie someone’s plan to build the first wonder by sniping gold-mines through clandestine means – zero-liquidity in the gold market means they can’t buy it for any price. Delaying someone’s economic victory by tanking the sugar market through over-supply. OPEC-style agreements to maintain the cost of a good at a certain level.

    This would be so much better than the usual 4X formula!

    • Sin Vega says:

      Alpha Centauri soooort of touches on a smll part of that. I had a game where I provided protection for the university (they had no or token forces in several cities, and were apparently content to let my armies fortify there instead), which I was happy to do because they regularly gave me free technology. It’s rare that any alliance in a strategy game feels genuine and truly mutual.

      But yeah, seeing that extended along a more complex economic axis would be interesting.

    • Behrditz says:

      Have you looked into the game Offworld Trading Company? It has a couple of these things, but on a smaller scale.

  26. Zeroebbasta says:

    Nice article! I’m actually making a game about being a travelling merchant, so this discussion gave me plenty of ideas.

    Working with rpgmaker, I won’t be able to make a complex AI, but I’m trying to build the setting before the trading system. I want each city to have a different culture and preferred goods, with various fractions dealing in different stuff – and I very much like the idea of trading items for other kind of favours.

    Any suggestion is absolutely appreciated! My aim is to make something with the atmosphere of Spice&Wolf, and a gameplay inspired by Sunless Sea.

    • ArchRylen says:

      I’ve thought about using Ventor Vinge’s Deepness in the Sky. Fleets of ramscoop ships trading technology, skills, and highest quality machinery across the decades. Returning to a system after centuries away and seeing how they changed. Could be cool.

  27. khamul says:

    I’d love to see a game set in the Merchanter novels by C J Cherryh: Rimrunners, maybe, or Merchanter’s Luck.

    In the novels, there’s a real sense of an unstable economic ecosystem: stations, governments and pirates, all with alliances and dependencies that don’t always go where they seem to. And threaded through with families and people all with their own objectives and codes of honour, sometimes changing the course of the system.

    It’d be great to be a trader in a game in that kind of setting – where not asking the right questions, or running the wrong cargo to the wrong place could start a war, or get your ship seized.. or win you the biggest profit of your life. If you’re comfortable with the price.

  28. ZombieFX says:

    What about: Offworld Trading Company

    link to store.steampowered.com

    You trade to victory.

  29. rustybroomhandle says:

    Cutesy French MMOs Dofus and Wakfu have a fairly decent trading system.

    There are no gear drops, so all items sold are either raw materials or crafted items. When you craft items or gather materials, you can either put them up for sale in batches at the various stores in town, or you can set your player up as a shop, which will remain open while you are logged off.

    Sale prices are decided by players and tend to reach some kind of equilibrium based on the supply/demands of any given server.

    In addition you can put your crafting services on a roster, so players can request things crafted that they themselves supply the materials for.

    Raw materials do “level” in that some things need higher level players to collect than others, but the way crafting is structured, there seems to always be a use for materials at all levels.

  30. HigoChumbo says:

    I actually loved the trade aspect of Anno 1404, although it might be a bit in the group of “automated” games you are denouncing.

    That said, it is very sanboxy and the expansion brought multiplayer in, so the human bartering factor was there if you found a few friends to endure its extremelly long games with you.

    In this game ther were proper motuvations for your actions other than “kewp grinding your way up”. One of your rivals might for instance have the monopoly of a resource vital for your population, your economy or your military, and you’d have no option but to accept whatever price he asked, or raid his trade routes and storehouses, or be forced to invade to capture the production factories.

    It’s too complex to explain here, but I’d absolutelly recommend everyone to just try it, specially if you got friends to join you (the whole package goes for around 3 euros in Steam sales).

    If only it allowed more than 4 human players and the combat systems were more interesting…

  31. NephilimNexus says:

    In the original Asheron’s Call (yes I’m that old) I actually made a living as a fletcher. All I did was make arrows & dumping all my experience points into being better at making arrows.

    Of course that meant I was stuck in the newbie areas forever, but luckily crafting wasn’t limited by your location – just your supply. So as I progressed & was able to work with materials outside my own foraging range I started trading with other players (Auction house? What’s that?) for materials needed for my craft. And yes I actually made a profit… usually.

    Funny thing is that I soon noticed other economic specialists out there. My friend had a character who was basically a miner/lumberjack (remember, this was AC1, long before that combo was a troupe of MMOs) who paid gold to party leaders to let him join parties far beyond his own fighting skill so as to be able to safely ply his trade in areas he otherwise couldn’t get to.

    And of course the original player driven economy MMO for old farts like me was SWG, where Merchant was an actual Profession. Same story – find a rich deposit of unobtanium someplace covered in nasty critters, so bribe a band of mercs to clear them out so you can set up a giant harvester to clean up. Later craft those minerals into a new set of high-end weapons to sell right back to the same mercs. Now there was a living economy like no other – not even EvE matched it in terms of being 100% player driven economy (Hint: EvE has NPC buy & sell orders seeded throughout the game to ensure prices & supplies for minerals can’t be manipulated too much, but shhh, don’t tell anyone!)

    The real failing of modern MMOs to have any kind of trade system is, as the author pointed out, partly because of the Auction Houses but mostly it’s because the stereotype of the modern MMO is that there is only two levels: Max and Noob. Noobs run automatic bot programs to grind to Max and Max isn’t interested in anything except raiding and collecting uberloot/bling. Therefore, the market for anything other than uberloot/bling is completely non-existent. Not that it matters, because another stereotype of modern MMOs is that loot drops are always superior to crafted items anyway, so why bother?

  32. Niruto says:

    Railroad tycoon 2 was the funniest railroad simulator because it had an underlying economy.

    Goods moved by themselves from sources to sinks (and some sinks turned the goods into other goods).

    So you needed to pick the containers as far and efficiently possible, or you lost the cargo and his value dropped.

    Also, as more cargo reached the same place, his profit fell down.

    Is sad that it had not a random map generator. You could only play a campaign.

    I still want a better railroad simulator, where track design and economy are more realistic, so careful planning enables “impossible” achievements.

    • Behrditz says:

      Are you familiar with OpenTTD? Its an open source game based on Transport Tycoon deluxe, and it does have a map generator.

  33. TheAngriestHobo says:

    One easy way to significantly improve trading in persistent online worlds would be to mirror real-world distribution of natural resources. In real life, if I want to buy industrial supplies of lithium, I go to Chile, because that’s where I can find massive, easily-accessible deposits of the stuff. However, most online games either zone resources by difficulty, distribute them equally across the terrain, or zone them by (relatively common) biome. None of these are ideal situations, because they don’t allow for resource disparities between groups.

    Haven and Hearth came closest to the ideal, I think. In that game, resources were region-specific, and different regions yielded different qualities of each resource. Consequently, certain villages grew strong by simple virtue of geography – much like the real world. I’d like to see someone take that idea and run with it… it would make for some great trading and fun emergent scenarios, in the long term.

  34. Premium User Badge

    Captain Narol says:

    I love trading in games, so far Elite (the first one !), Eve Online and Uncharted Waters are the games where I enjoyed it the more…

    For me, the fun is indeed to find the best places to buy and sell high, but in a changing world where prices are evolving over time making old trading routes obsolete after a while so that there is always an impulse to go find new ones !

  35. w8m1rrr says:

    Good article. It is true in most cases that trading game are far from being realistic and i was happy to see that you included great EVE online there as an exception. Although i am really surprised that there is nothing about business simulation games like Virtonomics which has great trade/retail simulation. I guess those games are just not famous at all and this is sad because they got it right. link to virtonomics.com

  36. db48x says:

    A Tale in the Desert had (has?) a nice trading economy, with no mechanical support to automate it away.

  37. DeadCanDance says:

    I’m not surprised capitalism II wasn’t mentioned. Then again, it’s SinVegas writing…

    • Sin Vega says:

      Heavens! I haven’t played every game in history! What a disgrace!

      Oh wait, I remember playing both of them now, and … nope, not really relevant. Business management simulators, not trading games of either kind the article is about. You gonna close that ellipsis, you big wuss?

  38. warenhaus says:

    nice article! Just wanted to confirm: Hardwar is criminally under-recognised.

    The atmosphere! the soundtrack!

  39. edgepixel says:

    Hardwar, oh yeah! Hardwar felt real. Hardwar had atmosphere is spades.

  40. microtogo says:

    A good article about the real values of trading. I would love a good trading game where life matters as much as relationships.

    EVE Online is mentioned as an example of the biggest and best, but it is a game of no real consequences or balance. Pirate players can easily group with very cheap ships and kill without any meaningful consequences. They will rinse and repeat with a 60 minute timer or another disposable character. There is no cost to being bad in that game.

    If a game has no consequence for being bad, like permadeath (loss all progress and stuff, buy a new account type of thing), it is unbalanced and ultimately not worth time playing.