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

Let us be human

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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.

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Who am I?

Sin Vega


Nocturnal remembrer of ancient oddities and curator of unlikely treasures. When not destroying roguelikes with her laser eyes Sin can be found muttering to basils and probably moving house again.

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