Death, Ships and the Economy
After we decided to green-light the player-driven economy, we had some decisions to make about how it would impact and change the other systems. It’s big, and its tendrils stretch throughout the game, touching almost everything. In most cases, this is pretty minor stuff, quick decisions that we can make on the spot and move on. It’s not a tough call to say, for instance, that players will be making the different types of ammunition; it’s not hard to plan out which towns need auction houses.
And then there are the ships. There’s capturing them, there’s building them, there’s losing them. Our original plan, where certain ships were lost when sunk, made a lot of sense in a world where the ships were supplied by the game at a fixed cost. It didn’t make as much sense in a world where every ship represented an enormous investment by player manufacturers and shipwrights. Even worse were the consequences for pirate ship capture; any ship could be duplicated endlessly among pirates, at no cost to anyone and with no real penalties. This isn’t scary in a world where ships are easy to come by, but under the new economy it’s unacceptable.
It was no better in the other direction, either. Without any kind of real penalty for being sunk or captured, ships would only ever leave the game world if their owners scuttled them. Shipwrights wouldn’t be rewarded for their tremendous efforts, and new players seeking to become shipwrights would never be able to break into the market, due to lack of demand. Once you had your ‘ideal’ ships, you’d be set for life, as long as those ships weren’t the kind you lost on death. And, given the resources required to build ships, why would anyone use any other kind of ship?
So back to the drawing board—or the spec review, in our case—we went. What emerged from our discussions was a much simpler solution than the original concept of valid ships. When you’re sunk, or you’re defeated through a boarding action, you’re still returned to the nearest friendly port, ship intact, just as before. However, your ship loses one point of Durability.
Every ship has a number of Durability points attached to it. For many ships, this number is quite large; your first few ships, when you’re just starting out, will likely have dozens of Durability points. For higher-end, more powerful ships, the number is smaller. We’re still discussing just how much smaller, and we’ll be tuning those numbers extensively once we’ve released the system to the beta testers, but my ballpark guess is less than 10, and for the very powerful ships of the line, less than 5.
When your ship loses a point of durability, that point is lost for good. When your ship loses its last point of Durability, the ship is destroyed, and you’re sent back to port to take command of one of your other ships. If you’ve lost all your ships, you’re provided with a ‘basic’ ship that’s roughly appropriate to your current rank, but less effective than any of the available player-crafted ships appropriate to your rank. This basic ship has one point of Durability.
This system also covers piracy more consistently. When a pirate captures a ship, the loser suffers a point of Durability loss, as usual; the pirate now has command of a ship with one point of Durability. We’re discussing options for giving high-rank pirates the ability to capture more than one point of Durability at a time, but generally pirates will be able to seize any ship, and sail it around until they lose it.
We’re retaining the concept of the ‘invalid’ ship (although I’m racking my brain trying to think of a better term than that), but in a more limited sense. Only the high-end naval line ships will be ‘invalid’, and all that will mean is that pirates sailing them will be vulnerable to PvP worldwide. Whether or not you lose a ship on being sunk is a function of the ship’s Durability, not your pirate affiliation. And we’re not talking about half the ships in the game; we’re talking about the small handful of very powerful, rare warships.
Another system that warranted a hard look after the economy plan was put into action was the drydock. In the original conception of the drydock, you could take command of any ship you owned from any port in the world. In the simple economy, we had a clear distinction between ‘commodities’, or things you simply sold, and ‘outfitting’, or things you used. To prevent the obvious exploit of moving commodities across the world by switching ships, we took away all your commodities when you switched ships. It was a pain to switch from merchant hauling to fighting, since you had to clear out all your cargo each time, but the alternative was to allow massive price manipulation by playing musical ships.
In the new economy, though, we can’t distinguish between commodities and outfitting. Anything can be sold at a profit. Nothing is useless; everything has a purpose somewhere in the economy. In that world, if we take away everything you could sell at a profit, we’d be stripping your ship bare every time you docked; if we didn’t take everything away, you could make a killing teleporting a big hulking merchantman from one auction house to the next, by sailing your tiny, fast schooner.
We talked about this for a while, and then we came to the obvious solution: We gave ships persistent locations. That means that when you put in at Tampa, and switch from your schooner to your brig, your schooner is still in Tampa. When you arrive in New Orleans, you can’t switch back to it. If you want to use your schooner, you’ve got to go back to Tampa.
This means we don’t have to do a thing to your cargo. We just leave it in your ship’s hold, where you can retrieve it later. It means we don’t have to consider whether you’re moving an item in order to sell it, or moving it in order to use it. It also means that ships themselves are at risk on the open sea; if you want to use your brand new super warship on a mission that requires you to sail through dangerous parts of the open sea to get there, you can’t just teleport your ship to a port next to the mission.
However, one of my personal pet peeves is when games make me do boring travel so that I can play with my friends. What if I’m a merchant operating out of the Windward Islands, and I’ve got a hold that’s absolutely stuffed with oak that my guild needs at its shipyard, pronto, and then my friends log on and say ‘Hey, we want to go try that mission in the Gulf of Mexico again’? Should I have to sail my big hulking merchant ship to the Gulf coast where I’ve left my frigate? They’re waiting for me, and it could take me a very long time to sail a cargo ship that far.
We’ve got a number of ideas for solving this problem, but here’s what we’re doing for our first attempt: When you’re in port, talking to the harbor master, you can see all your ships throughout the Caribbean. You can pick any ship, even one not in your current location, and you’ll be teleported to the port where that ship is located, and put in command of it, leaving your previous ship behind. You can’t bring anything with you, as all your cargo stays with the ship; it’s just you, your clothes, and your winning smile.
This means you can go out on missions with your friends off the coast of Cuba, and when you’re done fighting for the evening, you can put in at Havana and jump back to your merchant ship in Trinidad, or your cutter you keep in Barilla for helping out new players. You aren’t penalized with long travel times for being interested in both the economy and the combat missions.
We’re not completely convinced we’ve thought of all the possible problems with the teleport-to-ship mechanic, so we’re going to inflict it on our beta testers for a while and see what shakes loose; we’ve got backup plans. Assuming it doesn’t explode in our faces, I’m pretty happy with the gameplay options it will provide, and the economic problems it will solve.
We still needed to think about differentiating cargo types, though. Rusty’s newest piracy mandate is: “Pirates need to be able to loot ships in PvP.” The other side of that issue, of course, is that it’s a terrible game experience to go out in your ship with your amazing quest-reward outfitting that you won from a very difficult mission, and then some pirate comes along and takes it from you. This led us to think about cargo that could be stolen versus cargo that couldn’t. We decided to distinguish between ‘secured’ goods, that aren’t lootable and aren’t lost on death, and ‘unsecured’ goods, which are lootable and go to the bottom when you lose your ship.
Secured goods are special pieces of outfitting, high-end mission rewards, your user content customization items, and so forth. Unsecured goods are nearly everything else. We’re still discussing where to draw the line in outfitting; some of us favor making all outfitting secured, and others only want mission rewards to be secured. Again, we’re going to inflict it on the beta testers and see what they think, and then make the decision.
This puts serious risk into mercantile activities, gives pirates the incentive to board and loot merchants, and gives navies a reason to patrol and keep their waters safe. It also makes surrender more attractive as an option, because losing part of your cargo is certainly better than losing it all if you’re sunk.
So, between the new Durability mechanic, the notion of unsecured cargo, and the persistent ship locations, we’re ironing out the biggest wrinkle in the new economy. Ships will become commodities themselves, merchant commodities will become a much more fluid system, and ship construction will be the ultimate crafting for the master merchant.