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Premature Evaluation: Shoppe Keep

Wares wally

Each week Marsh Davies peruses the scanty offerings of Early Access, stuffs anything halfway valuable down his trousers and legs it for the exit. This week, however, the tables have turned (or, at least, their percentage durability has decreased) as he plays Shoppe Keep [Steam page], a game about building up a retail enterprise in a medieval fantasy land.

Remember gamification? It makes work feel like a game! In most cases, that’s a really terrible, pointless game which crassly manipulates players to dubious benefit. But if we hadn’t already enough reasons to despise gamification’s necrotic touch, then it seems it has had the side effect of birthing a genre of games that feel like work. Of course, games are an ideal medium to playfully explore the sombre complexities and systems that underpin the real world, from simulations of corporate networks or car suspension to the strange psychology of commerce. But I think, more and more, we see games which are no more than the vapid appendage of numbers and accumulation that gamification had hitherto attempted to hammer on to other more worthwhile pursuits - only without the worthwhile pursuits themselves. Shoppe Keep’s premise of running a fantasyland supermarket is a good one - albeit explored before in the likes of Recettear - but it falls short of being a meaningful depiction of the intensely fascinating pressures that actually exist in retail. Though the later parts of the game begin to have the faintest tinge of strategy, for the most part it is an exercise in simple accumulation masked by an awful lot of plate-spinning. Or, given the sort of stuff you sell, plate-armour-spinning.

The construction of an IKEA warehouse is an ingenious and entirely cynical exercise in psychology. It first leads you along a weaving path through its aspirational showrooms. Unless you know the hidden shortcuts, this is a lengthy, tortuous and spatially disorienting experience which bombards you with visions of perfect homes for upwards of 30 minutes. During this journey, you are required to note down long complicated strings of characters attached to anything you might want to buy, and then, much later, select its flat-packed version from the warehouse. This has a number of effects: firstly the process is exhausting and long, and by the time you get to the mercantile parts of the store you just want to buy something - anything - to validate the time you’ve already sunk into this horrendous expedition. The confusion and disorientation you feel is not accidental: it encourages impulse purchases, by incentivising you to pick up items where you can rather than face the impossible task of locating them in IKEA’s warrens thereafter. The dissociation between the constructed object on the showfloor and their anonymised flatpack version makes last minute comparisons or dithersome second-guessing much harder at the point of purchase. Was that really the ideal colour? Do you want to go back and check? Fuck it. Put it on the trolley.

The game divides its challenge between spending your cash on stock orders and the panicky management of your storefront. In first person, you must sweep up the prodigious amount of dirt that customers continuously track in, refill shelves, and reset merchandise that the careless proles have knocked to the floor while bellowing “I don’t care very much!” in a Brummy accent. Sometimes, they’ll buy something, declaring, “I’m as well as can be!” or “You seem like a good mate!” and all those other things that people never say when they’re in shops. Periodically some blighter will try to make off with something, often while belching, and you’ll have to try and zap them with a lightning spell before they get out the door. At later levels, barbarians attack and smash up your furniture, and, once you’ve swept their corpses away, you’ll need to go around with a hammer tapping on your shelves and tables until they’re back up to 100% health. I’m probably making this sound more fun than it is.

Customer pathfinding occasionally breaks in the build I played, and peasants sometimes stopped dead on the shop floor. I can sympathise: while dealing with all the busywork keeps you physically occupied, the lack of mental engagement induces a sort of dismal fugue state. Though you’ll periodically have to order stock in and set prices, there isn’t any sort of robust economic simulation to make you consider these tasks in any depth. The price of commodities never fluctuates, and I’ve yet to detect any appreciable change in demand which might encourage me to modify my shop’s offering. The best strategy seems to be the only one: to slowly build up as broad a range as possible, starting with cheapo potions, working your way up through fancy studded gloves to heavy armour.

Other supermarket psychologists have had success with priming customers with smells and sounds. Aesthetic is important - but it need not be attractive. Costco makes its stores appear basic and unadorned because it is selling customers on the notion of value. If customers perceive the store to be unapologetically spartan, they are more inclined to believe they’re getting a bargain. Pricing is also used to manipulate: someone in the mood to buy a fishcake for dinner might end up being seduced by a supermarket’s three-for-two offer - and, despite the discount, end up spending more with the store than he or she originally intended. The appreciation of perceived value is a real art and it has, on many occasions in retail history, proven a more significant factor in how prices should be set than simple supply and demand.

The game’s interface is comprehensively lacking - cluttered menus jabber at you in different fonts, not all of which seem to display well at whatever unchangeable resolution the game runs at. Some submenus have no means of going back up a level - though it’s hard to tell what’s a bug and what’s just an absent feature. Rather than just typing in numbers, setting prices involves repeatedly tapping the plus or minus symbols to set the percentage of cost price at which you are going to sell. This then becomes the global default (which occasionally and abruptly resets to 0%), meaning it’s a tremendous pain to set individual mark-ups for different items. I suspect this is an indication that such subtleties don’t matter. Customers seem to turn their nose up at anything over 300% anyway, and you’ll have to spend ages darting round the store resetting all the items they’ve knocked to the floor in disgust. You can buy a robot helper to pick things up, but it chooses to stuff collected items in a box rather than put them back on shelves, so you still have to do the work anyway. When buying stock, there’s no easy way to check what quantities of any item you already have, and to inspect your stock which has yet to be shelved you need to scroll through each sort of hat or sword individually, rather than just see a list. You have to pity the game whose UI is so woeful that it actually makes you want to do bookkeeping.

You’ll need new furniture to display your wares - podiums, benches, hat stands, weapon stands, shelves - though the game doesn’t tell you what can go on which thing, and it appears to arbitrarily and non-intuitively restrictive. Basic swords don’t go on weapon stands, but benches - and only on one side of them at that. You can’t move furniture once placed, only delete them and rebuy them at great cost. And you can only buy and place furniture when your shop is closed, which would be fine if I could work out how to close my shop. It has only ever happened once, and I have no idea why - it doesn’t seem to be related to the day night cycle. I found a way around this, however: save the game (by pressing 5 and then M, obviously), quit and reload, and the game restarts in a shop-closed state, allowing you to put everything in order. This strategy has its flaws: the game has, on occasion, simply failed to save and lost me days of tediously won progress.

Look at the sale of Apple’s first iPhone for example. Demand for the first batch of iPhones was large and the supply initially limited due to production constraints. It made sense that Apple could charge a high amount - $600, in fact - and then reduce it to $400 as demand slackened and their ability to produce scaled up. But this proved a disaster. Early adopters were furious that they had been charged $200 dollars extra only two and half months earlier. It wasn’t “fair”. It became such a publicity nightmare that Apple duly caved to pressure and handed out $100 vouchers to every customer who’d paid that initial higher price. Tim Harford’s fantastic book The Undercover Economist Strikes Back gives a good account of Apple’s conundrum as well as many other examples of so-called “sticky prices”. A weirder case still is that of Coca Cola: the price of a bottle of coke did not change for 70 years.

This is annoying mostly because things threaten to become interesting only when you have a chunk of change set aside: in the early days of your business, you are beholden to a pretty linear set of decisions about what to buy, as that is all you can afford. With 10,000 in your pocket, you can expand your shop in one of several directions, double down on your quantity of stock, upgrade to fancier items, or buy more robot assistants to fry would-be thieves. There’s also a tech tree which allows you to add an electric security gate to the front of your store, attract richer customers, or force them to buy two items instead of one.

None of this quite manages to elevate the game from uniform drudgery, however - though I have hopes that it may as the game trundles onwards through Early Access. Currently, selectable “Quests” appear to challenge you to sell specific items, which you were probably going to do anyway at some point. Expanding your shop doesn’t materially change the nature of the decisions you make - of which there are precious few anyway - and by the time you can afford such expansion the tech tree is almost entirely unlocked, very little of which does more than massage numbers behind the scenes. Is there more subtlety to the game than first appears? Does the placement of items, say, make people more likely to buy them? Do customers tend to want things at different times of day? Is there any dynamism to the economy that might make this anything other than a linear accumulative grind hampered by makework? If there is, it needs to be placed front and centre. If there isn’t, it might be time for Shoppe Keep to sit back and take stock.

Shoppe Keep is available from Steam for £4. I played the version with the Build ID 771433 on 12/09/2015.

70 years! It was partly because Coca Cola had hamstrung itself with its own marketing, which had bombarded the public with adverts stressing that a 6.5 oz bottle of coke cost only five cents. Perhaps even more significant was its distribution via vending machines that took only five cent coins. As inflation took its toll over the decades, they had to face the choice between keeping the increasingly inequitable price, refitting all their vending machines to accept other coins, or raising the price to ten cents. But, feeling that the country couldn’t stomach a sudden 100% price hike, they took the diminishing profit margin on the chin. Things got so desperate that the boss of Coca Cola, Robert Woodruff wrote to his hunting buddy US President Eisenhower to beg him to issue a 7.5 cent coin. Eisenhower declined. Coke even implemented a shortlived strategy of adding one empty bottle to every eight in a vending machine, effectively raising the price. After a traumatic decade in the 1950s during which the price fluctuated across the US, the brand managed to unstick itself from the 5 cent coin. I don’t entirely know how you’d make a game out of that, but I’d certainly play it. Well, assuming the price was right.

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