Interview: CIG’s Jake Muehle on the player economy and doing crimes in the Star Citizen universe

    
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We’re zooming on toward CitizenCon tomorrow, when Cloud Imperium will deliver its annual live showcase of the state of Star Citizen – and drop the requisite tantalizing nuggets that tease the future. Ahead of the event this weekend, we spoke with Star Citizen Systems Designer Jake Muehle all about one of those recently buffed game systems that’s near and dear to the hearts of many MMORPG players: the economy. Read on as we chat with him and get the details on the player economy, trading mechanics, trading guilds, shady deals, the black market, rep systems, piracy, and making it in the Star Citizen universe as a merchant player. We even asked him about drugs. Yep, it’s definitely a Friday on MassivelyOP.

Right now, life in Star Citizen alpha is either about killing other players, killing NPCs, or hauling boxes. Can you give us an idea on what other peacetime pursuits are coming outside of shipping missions?

Systems Designer Jake Muehle: That’s really a simplification of what you can do in Star Citizen today. Currently, we have dedicated missions and multiple other activities that we see thousands of players engaging in every day. This includes freighting, bounty hunting, cave exploration, hand mining, and manual resource gathering–all intertwined through all our law system. We have many examples of active community members who go out and create their own gameplay, which is an exemplary demonstration of the mission that Star Citizen set out to do in the first place. For instance, we see players rallying to race, fly fighter escorts for their merchant friends, participate in destruction derbies and more.

Currently, any player can request and provide services for a price with the Service Beacon system. Service Beacons are an essential component to interactions in Star Citizen, and they already support Combat Assistance, Escort, and Personal Transport. We have lots of plans to expand on what Service Beacons already offer and improve this interaction going forward.

One of the big things that we’re working out is exactly how to implement the ability for players to trade directly between themselves. There’s still UI work to get this ready, but when it comes online, it will have seismic effects on the Star Citizen Universe.

Player-to-player trading combined with the already existing Service Beacons can be used for things like Player Advertising for the sale of their goods or services. We expect to see players putting up Service Beacons to signify that they want almost anything, be it goods, transport, help in combat, etc. Players will get the assistance they request and be connected to players who can provide them these services…for a price.

At its core, the Service Beacon system is intended to make opportunistic entrepreneurs out of every player with the desire to do so. For example, if you have a player with loads of fuel, they could set up a spontaneous gas station in a remote location and charge prices for players who need fuel.

Can you give a general idea of how the player economy of Star Citizen will look? Has the team done any planning in this direction recently?

Absolutely, we’re constantly looking at this and even have dedicated economy design in our Austin office. Star Citizen is a big game with a lot of teams, and the economy is the glue that makes all of this content blend together.

Both NPCs and players will have a significant effect on the economy, with NPCs picking up the jobs that players are unwilling or unable to accomplish. This merging of NPC activity and player activity actually goes pretty deep- a player that puts out a signal for help might not know whether he was helped by an AI or by another player, for instance.

With NPCs picking up the slack of the economy, we can leave players to experience what they want to while still feeling like their actions have an impact on the Persistent Universe. For all the critical economic tasks, NPCs will always be present to make sure that things don’t become too imbalanced.

How will trading work in Star Citizen? Will it be mission based, involve a board where players can fulfill orders, or is there something different in the works?

In the short term, we would want to allow players to trade amongst themselves, enabling the transfer of money, items and goods. We’re already seeing players using Service Beacons as impromptu money transfer, but we have plans to expand this to a more convenient player-to-player interaction.

Players already band together for difficult content, and we expect to see more of this as it becomes easier and more convenient to exchange money and goods. For instance, high-risk traders with a cargo hold full of expensive, high-profit cargo already pair up with other team members in fighters who provide escort. We aim to expand this emergent gameplay and make it really rewarding for players to band together naturally.

As for “mission boards,” there’s actually quite a lot of complexity that goes into what player-offered services you might see at any location. For now, we’ve implemented Service Beacons for players that alert the vicinity what services you require. Star Citizen is a game about self-reliance and opportunity, so players will have to consider who comes knocking when you broadcast that your ship is disabled or you’re trying to transport a load of very valuable goods. Piracy is an integral part of this game, and the player will have to take the defensive precautions necessary to protect themselves.

What can you elaborate on regarding trading professions and trade gameplay? Has the team considered what being a merchant looks in the mid-tier or endgame?

As with every aspect of the game, our plan is to provide an extensive toolset that allows every player to craft their unique solution to any given problem. Essentially, you’d be making choices on how you acquired goods, how much you sold them for, and how much risk you’re willing to take in both acquiring and selling.

In Star Citizen, we don’t have dedicated “classes” like you see in other RPGs. Player activity is really a multi-dimensional spectrum of activities, paired with what kinds of equipment any player might have at their disposal. The more equipment or ships available to the player, the more options and solutions they have to solve a problem. In reality, players will take part in many aspects of Star Citizen without ever “declaring” a class.

Of course, certain ships are better-geared towards specific activities than others. It’s this diversity that makes which ship you purchase such an interesting choice! Players have a very broad spectrum of ships to choose between, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and trade-offs.

Without dedicated classes, our idea is to reward specialization of ships and equipment. Players who find a niche in the economy will be able to get their hands on a ship that fills a role better than most other ships. Mid and end-game merchants will have a fleet of ships at their disposal, and will be able to choose the perfect craft for any particular activity.

Will starting as a trader or merchant be guided (as in players get directed to an NPC) or will players simply get into the Star Citizen economy right off the jump?

We have lots of plans to help the new player in Star Citizen. We’re always talking about ways we can improve the new player experience, so that players can be on-boarded into the rules of the game. With the game evolving so quickly over the last few years, it didn’t make sense for us to concentrate on the first time user experience (and give experienced players hints and clues that might nudge them into a new area of gameplay). Today, systems are beginning to crystallize and we plan to spend more time on this in the future. That’s not just for merchants and trading, but for everything.

Ultimately, our aim is to onboard players in a way that makes sense for both our fiction and our players. The first tier of onboarding is simply enabling players to help other players This is done via Service Beacons that can send out your need for help with a given task, and offer payment in return for that work. Beyond that, we’d incorporate this same flow with NPCs that will sign up new players for various trades.

You won’t start out with the entire responsibility of a massive merchant, but over time you will gradually move farther and farther into this specialized role while you learn the ropes and accumulate skill. Of course, you’d always have the ability to choose at any given moment to simply stop and start out for yourself.

There are a number of ships in-game or in the works that seem to be aimed at mercantile pursuits, but not everyone is willing to shell out hundreds of real-world dollars for them. How important is having the right ship to playing as a merchant? Will those who only start out with an Aurora MR be effectively locked out?

There will always be a path for players to earn a living, no matter what ship they have. Some ships will earn money at faster rates than others, but accelerated earning power is exactly the kind of progression that players will end up making in Star Citizen. We’ve recently added in the ability to use in-game currency to both buy and rent ships in-game. This gives players the ability to try a number of ships and establish their own playstyle before pursuing the work to accumulate enough in game currency to buy them outright.

As far as small-ship trading goes, there’s a big difference in profit density of goods, or the amount of money you can make in a certain volume of materials. It’s the difference between having a pickup truck full of lumber vs a pickup truck full of gold. Both materials have value, but for the same volume the gold is vastly more valuable. This same principle applies in Star Citizen, where both legal and illegal goods can carry a lot of value in a small volume of space. Small ships like the Aurora can still make money while trading, proportionate to the risk they’re willing to take on.

Of course, ships that are specifically designed for merchants will carry some advantages for that trade, as one might expect. These dedicated ships may have better “presentation” or advertising ability to run true shops, vs just selling something out of the trunk of your Aurora. You would also be able to set up multiple shops on some of the bigger ships, with a variety of goods. Like a moving “space mall.”

Finally, it’s important to remember that many of the bigger ships will benefit from (or even require) multiple players (or, eventually, NPCs) working in concert, which means there will be lots of situations where you don’t need to own a particular ship to experience what it has to offer.

Will there be tools to let players form fleets that identify as a mercantile/trade fleet? Can players run a shipping company or a manufacturing business?

Of course! This is exactly the kind of player-generated content we work to encourage. Players will always have the option to choose whatever activities they want to participate in, and a focused, concerted effort by players is bound to be more successful than a loosely structured org with no real mission statement. We already have a lot of player-run organizations that have created their own robust and detailed backstories and plan to fill a specific economic role in-game.

Again, there aren’t any game-defined “roles” or “classes” for players–each player will forge their own, unique identity in Star Citizen. “Fleet Commander” is not a game-specified career path as much as it is a player-driven role, using the tools we provide them to influence the universe. Such a role would delegate tasks to NPCs and players alike, coordinating efforts to protect and deliver important materials to specific locations across the Persistent Universe, just like a real company.

What’s in it for the criminally-minded Star Citizen player? What sort of things can those who take out space trucks get in terms of earning aUEC?

As stated before, Piracy is a very central element to the Star Citizen universe. Illegal activity is punished much the same way as it is in the real world–players will have to pay fines, serve jail time, or go to extensive lengths to avoid being apprehended by the law. If a player is willing to deal with these consequences, there’s nothing stopping them from stealing other player’s goods, equipment, or even ships.

Going the “criminal route” is simply a player determining whether breaking any given law is going to be more profitable, more efficient or even simply more fun. As long as the economy, our law system, etc. all work systematically, our universe should understand that there might be a situation where pirate activity spikes, and then react by dispatching authorities to that area. There will certainly be times that criminality is more profitable and efficient, but the system is armed to push back on that activity.

Just like with merchant orgs, players are free to create their own player organizations focused around piracy. It’s important for players to remember that there’s “no honor among thieves,” so building yourself into a pirate boss may also put a giant target on your back from both players and NPCs, lawful and unlawful alike.

What about the seedier side of trade like drugs and other contraband? Will there be ways for players to form a black market that doesn’t revolve around Jumptown and GrimHEX?

Selling illicit goods like drugs or stolen goods are just as much fair game, with similar consequences to piracy. Of course, punitive action for trading in black market goods has a lot more variance than piracy: Some jurisdictions don’t care about illicit drugs, but everyone tends to care about having their loot stolen.

For every decision you make it’s always important to remember that there is an outcome, and that outcome might be better described as a consequence if you run into the law or get caught.

Eventually, black-market trading will be able to occur everywhere, with a large spectrum of risk and reward. Players will even be able to convert dedicated merchant ships into their own roaming black market, choosing to park in a location that balances the risk of being apprehended by the law with the most lucrative trades to highly restricted jurisdictions.

Typically, jurisdictions with lax restrictions on contraband won’t offer you nearly as much money as will an extremely strict jurisdiction with harsh penalties for being caught. It’s up to the player to decide how much risk they want to take on, and it’s our job to make sure the reward always matches up with the risk.

How does the team balance being an above-board trader and being a pirate in terms of making both pursuits equally lucrative? Will one end up being more rewarding than the other?

For both lawful and less-than-lawful pursuits, high risk will equal high reward. There will always be pros and cons to both sides and there will always be opportunities for high risk / high reward scenarios in both lawful and unlawful trading.

The idea is to allow for players to make their choices, and live with the consequences…but not permanently. If you’ve lived a long life as a hardened criminal, it will naturally be harder to clear your reputation and get back in good standing…but still possible. Players who aim to stay “grey” may not get to the more rewarding or difficult tiers of gameplay on either side of the law, but their flexibility to dip into and out of criminality will allow them to move with the market and profit off of its various fluctuations. Neither side will be more “powerful” than the other all the time, but as the market fluctuates in various locations it might be more advantageous to be on one side of the law or the other for that particular scenario.

How do you balance player risk and reward? Do you think the reputation system is enough of a deterrent, or will there be additional systems like bounty hunting in place?

The reputation system isn’t designed to be enough of a deterrent. There’s a whole host of systems in place that will add on top of the reputation system to deter players from taking some of those less-than-lawful risks. For example, security ships that scan for registered criminals, prisons, ship impounding, and criminal ratings that would prohibit you from joining certain organizations or taking on select missions. If you’re a pirate, it’s gonna be pretty tough for you to join the lawfully abiding Transport Guild.

The key is to have modulation, so when the risk or reward for something gets unbalanced, the system reacts and brings it back into line. There are lots of situations where there might be little to no risk but massive reward, but it’s key that such easy money wouldn’t last forever. For instance, it might be initially profitable to exploit a new mine with valuable materials in a secure area, but the market will drive both players and NPCs to that same location until the profit from such an activity is in-line with the rest of the economy. We never want the game to feel static, so the idea is to create a system that responds to player actions systemically and keep players on their toes.

One easy way we have to modulate risk and reward is through our shops. For example, legitimate shops won’t purchase stolen goods, meaning you’re pushed into a narrower path to liquidate your loot into in-game-currency. Areas that accept illegal material might be farther away, give lower prices, reside in more dangerous areas, etc.. It’s another way in which we’re able to push back on behavior.

Do you think adding mercantile features will make the Star Citizen alpha a more violent place?

Star Citizen is naturally a violent place. We’re talking about a universe where the ambulances have military-grade weaponry strapped to their hull. You don’t see that in a society where everything is peaceful.

The goal is to make life in Star Citizen exciting, rewarding, flexible, and logical. All the mechanics we put in aim to increase the breadth of experiences that players can engage in, while still encouraging them to work together as much as possible. Crime and crime-prevention will always be central to Star Citizen conflict, and piracy starts with a well-laden merchant ship…

In the end, it’s always exciting to see how players use mechanics and features in the game, and what kinds of stories come out of it. Economy features going forward won’t be any different.

Dang, that was thorough! We’d like to thank CIG’s Jake Muehle for absolutely going to town on our questions and delivering the goods to our readers like a true trader. Don’t forget that CitizenCon kicks off tomorrow; you can watch the stream from Manchester live starting at 8 a.m. EST Saturday morning. And hint hint nudge nudge, we think econ players are gonna like it…

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Dankey Kang

Fantasy: You can be whatever you want, do whatever you want; live the life you always dreamed.

Reality: I just spent 4 hours pointing this mining gun at rocks and then some asshole ganked me, stole my ship and all my loot.

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Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

Spot on. Also, MMOers want routine. What he’s saying about the economy is specifically that routine will be routinely disrupted. I don’t believe they will achieve what they’ve set out to do though, because their players will always be attempting to subvert or cheat their way around mechanics. A good portion of their playerbase are openly cheaters, hackers, malcontents, and ne’er-do-wells.

MMO players want a way to make money that is repeatable so they can maximize their profits, not do a job and then have to spend hours finding another thing they can do because their last thing doesn’t work because too many people are doing it. None of what he said interested me because it actively goes against what I want out of an MMO when trying to make money lol.

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Kero Kero

You want a chore simulator? Just play mobile games.
A lot of games have dynamic economies and players adapt every quickly.

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Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

First off, what a great interview!

How many times have we heard these answers though? So many devs offer these pie in the sky design systems. We’ve heard so many people over the years make lesser claims and not a one has ever delivered on what they’ve promised when they’ve promised something too good to be true.

Jake’s slinging MMO feature snake oil. I won’t believe it when I see it because it’s never going to go down like this. Will the game’s systems be robust? Heck yeah. I’ve heard politicians promise less when trying to get elected though lol.

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Nosy Gamer

The question for potential space truckers is, will those who want to create a freight service have to compete with NPCs for business? If so, that means that CIG will effectively put a cap on how profitable an activity is. The reason this is an important question is that if NPCs compete with players for business, CIG can effectively stop players from taking up certain activities in the game.

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Vicarious Fan

the easy solution would just be make the NPC freight take 2 to 3 times as long and cost more.

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starbuck1771

NPC’s are not that competitive. I guess you’ve never played a Chris Roberts game before? You may want to check out Freelancer. They sell at a standard price and their convoys/haulers are an easy target for pirates and competition.

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Kero Kero

You trade convenience for quality and reliability.
Maybe it’s easier to find and initiate, but much less likely to be successful.

It’s likely to be a poor choice outside of extreme safe zones or low risk trips.

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ichi sakari

GG Chris, thanks

Desktop Screenshot 2019.10.24 - 15.45.15.96.png
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Xenosystems

Nice article.

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Zero_1_Zerum

When I got my ship in the Kickstarter, many, many years ago, I really wanted to be a Bounty Hunter.

I envisioned working my way up from my tiny Aurora in game, earning in game currency by playing the game, and buying bigger ships, so I could go after bigger bounties.

It’d be the only PVP type content I’d ever engage in. I’d want to be able to capture or kill other players, get paid for it, and either impound or sell their ships and cargo.

I’d specifically go after griefers and trolls. The type of people that try to make my time in other MMOs miserable, because it’s “fun” for them, and they don’t care about my fun. I’d have my revenge!!!!

I hope Star Citizen does implement some sort of Bounty Hunting system….if it’s ever done and does come out.

Cyclone Jack
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Kickstarter Donor
Cyclone Jack

3.9 (Q1 2020) is scheduled to have the initial implementation of Bounties, both PvE and PvP.

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Natalyia

You can get paid for killing players with crimestats right now. Once you hit a certain level, the game issues an in-game bounty for you that anyone can collect on. It doesn’t pay an awesome amount, but it’s not peanuts either.

NPC bounties also exist – and can turn out to be for miscreants in rather large and impressive starships at the higher payscales.

What’s coming up is an expansion of that, and (eventually) better rewards (usually) for bringing the target in alive. :)

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rafael12104

Great interview!

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Toy Clown

I’ve always been interested in how Star Citizen was shaping up and they don’t disappoint! The game is a Roleplayer’s dream.

The only reservations I have is how much pay-to-win will be part of the game since ships with the best features and gold-making ability are through the cash shop.

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Natalyia

Cool interview – and as for the hint hint, nudge nudge, there’s this on the schedule (last presentation before the closing finale)
“Building a Dynamic Universe – Learn how Star Citizen will create and balance systemic content for entire star systems with a live demonstration of the Universe Simulator

Tony Zurovec, Jake Muehle”

A presentation with Tony Z is always worth a watch if you’re interested in Star Citizen, and I’ve had my eye on this one since the schedule was announced.

masterblaster0
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masterblaster0

It’s wrong to call it a pre-alpha, CR has repeatedly said the game has released, albeit in a state more like early access.

It’s great that CIG like to explain what they intend but this is what they have been doing since 2012 with the delivery not really matching the words.

Perhaps by the end of the next decade all the above will be in the game?

Cyclone Jack
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Kickstarter Donor
Cyclone Jack

Seeing that the game is still missing numerous core features, I think its safe to say we’re still in the Alpha phase. :)