Fixing The Economy

The weeks leading up to the release of the Clockwork Empires teaser trailer were focused on putting together visual polish and gameplay situations to fit a desired narrative. This all looks very pretty but it doesn’t develop the substance of the game — now, we return to substance: the economy.

(Well, at least I am. Other people are working on other stuff which is also cool. But I get to indulge in this post now because it’s my turn! So let’s get some adorable little icons going to liven things up… )

There's more where these came from, believe you me.

There’s more where these came from, believe you me.

Although we’ve all got input on the design of the game, in broad strokes we’re putting the responsibility for design/implementation of particular areas of mechanics on individual people. Daniel, for example, made himself an advocate for developing character personalities and relationships (see also: his posts about such things asย relationshipsย &ย event knowledge). Meanwhile, I have a passion for, paraphrasing Nicholas here, “optimizing transfer of goods between two grain silos in Ukraine” so, naturally, I’m taking on the role of advocate for economic matters in Clockwork Empires (see also: my posts on loading bays, and going way back, industrial logistics). Putting together a (first draft) of a (vaguely) working economy is my task for this week.

Terrible Plans.

Oh yeah, that’s the stuff.

Economic Games

Our first challenge is to create an entire economic infrastructure, from top to bottom, out of whole cloth. No gradual evolution from previous economic systems is possible, because there is no previous economic system. Each interdependent piece must be materialized simultaneously and in perfect working order; otherwise the system will crash out before it ever gets off the ground.

CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Centauri Monopoly”

One of my favourite pieces of design advice (taken from a pen & paper design podcast, of all things) is that the stats — in the RPG sense — you provide to a player indicate to them very clearly what the game is about, regardless of what you say the game is about. Eg. If your game is about growing stronger, then strength should be a stat. If it’s about nobility or hope, why aren’t those stats? It need not be that direct. So in other words: Why would your game try to pretend to be about something that isn’t part of the game mechanics?

The act of putting a bunch of complex commodity production chains into Clockwork Empires makes the game, in part, about learning and optimizing complex commodity production chains. This holds intrinsic fascination to people of certain personalities (hi!) but it can get really messy really fast if handled poorly and could well alienate players whose focus is more on something like narrative, combat challenges, or characters.

To provide a specific example: although Dwarf Fortress’s painfully detailed steel production system is really cool on an intellectual level, it’s probably not a good idea for us to replicate it. ( …without certain, ah, optimizations.)

The idea of steel in the game is cool: it’s like a better version of iron. And players are used to this idea of upgrading the materials of items, eg. Minecraft, Terraria, WoW, etc. A player investing capital and resources to create a more advanced material is also really cool game mechanic because it takes mastery of this commodity production chain to unlock more complexity in the form of advanced contructions, vehicles, and weapons that require steel. Having overcome the hurdle of making steel, a player can be presumed to be able to handle the complexity that’s introduced with choices it unlocks.

But returning to that first step, we can’t assume that all players have read the Wikipedia article on how steel is produced, about various states of iron and flux and the role of carbon and so on. This knowledge insofar as it means anything to the game must be contained in the game’s UI and, further, it must be accessible enough for a player to stumble upon and learn ‘naturally’ (not buried in a “help tome” or something).

How exactly this works out for every category of commodities in the final version of Clockwork Empires is not something I can answer now, this is just an example of the concerns I’m taking into account as I develop a first iteration of the CE game economy. Ultimately it will be testing and iterating design that determines how it works but I’m doing my best to guess at what would put us as far ahead in that process as possible (while also not overwhelming the other major aspects of the game, yes Daniel, characters for example).

The Labour Theory of Value

Speaking of — commodities need to have some sort of value. Some are ‘more expensive’, some are ‘less expensive’. But we’re not using a cash economy here as-such* because, as said, if we give the player a stat it’ll make the game about that stat. A cash economy simulation is a fascinating concept but it’s a bit abstract and absolutely not what Clockwork Empires is about: we want everything to be extremely concrete. A character is a little person you can see on the screen; Your wealth is that pile of planks, iron plates, cogs, tools, tinned bread, and moonshine.

(* Abstract cash values may have a role in the game, but that’s outside the purview of this blog post. Work with me here.)


I don’t know about you, but this stuff gets me really excited.

So Daniel asked me, essentially, “Can you express the value of every commodity in terms of how much work it takes to produce?”. And I said, yes I can comrade — you can see the number of character ‘jobs’ required to make a commodity in the 5th column, though that value doesn’t take an awful lot of factors into consideration. Still, what this does is provide an idea of how “advanced” in the production hierarchy a commodity is, and this gives a hint to us about how much complexity the player must master to attain the commodity in question. And this provides an indication of where we ought to push and pull the design: For instance, one should generally not hide anything too deep that’s required for not having all your characters starve to death. But something that, say, gives a chance of awakening Cosmic Horrors should take a bit more effort to unlock.

I could ramble about this for quite some time but I’ll wrap it up here — my task today is to figure out how to make mines let people mine instead of setting people on fire (which they’re, unfortunately/hilariously, still set to after we got the teaser trailer footage captured).

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33 Responses to “Fixing The Economy”

  1. Grant says:

    As a pen-and-paper RPG podcaster myself, I’m quite curious to know which podcast you’re referring to in the fourth paragraph. There are a lot of good ones out there!

    I’m looking forward to seeing how those “awful lot of factors” you’re knowingly leaving out at this stage factor in to the design process and the resulting commodity production chains. I could see some utility (har har) in calculating the labor or utility value for commodities dynamically, especially if there are multiple paths to a particular product. That comes up in Minecraft a lot, especially with production-centric mods: You’ve got a longer or slower or less-efficient production chain available to you initially, but as you make progress in other areas, that production chain tightens up.

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    • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

      I seriously couldn’t remember the podcast but your comment prompted me to go and dig up where the heck I heard that bit of advice. And I found it!

      From “Master Plan” ( ) I *think* the show I was referring to is Master Plan #4: Questioning Mechanics ( ), but it might be one a bit after that. I swear, it was somewhere in there. Or possibly another show I was listening to at the same time? Hmmm…

      And it comes back to me that I was listening to this while we were making Dredmor and it is, in part, what lead to the idea of replacing boring stat names (“strength”, “dexterity”, “intelligence”) with stat names that implied a more, hmm, dubious heroism like “burliness”, “stubborness”, and “caddishness”.

      And, dude, I have lost many hours to Tekkit (on the suggestion of someone from the comments to this very blog, damn them!).

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      • Grant says:

        Master Plan is definitely a good one. That may be a point we should talk about at some point. We focus much more on storytelling than mechanical design, but picking a system that correlates to the story you’re telling is an awfully good point.

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      • Ryan Macklin says:

        Woah, Master Plan #4? That’s an old one ๐Ÿ˜€ I should probably relisten to those sometime, and maybe make some new eps where I respond to my old thoughts.

        Thanks for the Master Plan love. I’m (slowly) putting out more, and I hope y’all enjoy them.

        – Ryan

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        • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

          No no, but thank /you/ for providing the insight which lead to some pretty important breakthroughs for both Dredmor and my thinking surrounding game design in general.

          And thanks for stopping by; It’s really cool to get a response right from the source.

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        • Cuthalion says:

          And I suppose I’d better check your podcast out… I’ve heard of it before, but haven’t added it to the feed stable.

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    • Cuthalion says:

      Oh, hey! I listened to that podcast! Then I stopped getting new episodes and assumed it died. Following your name link has made me realize I should’ve double checked the site long ago. New feed address inserted, downloading the last 7 episodes now. ๐Ÿ˜›

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  2. Lawrence Growe says:

    Just when I think you gentlemen cannot possibly get more awesome you manage to astound me yet again.

    This time by quoting CEO Morgan.

    Please tell me Clockwork Empires is going to have sentient fungus. PLEASE.

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  3. You ivory tower intellectuals must not lose touch with the world of industrial growth and hard currency. It is all very well and good to pursue these high-minded scientific theories, but research grants are expensive and you must justify your existence by providing not only knowledge, but concrete and profitable applications as well.

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  4. SangerZonvolt says:

    I like how gold is “usefull for creating inflation”

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  5. Essence says:

    “So in other words: Why would your game try to pretend to be about something that isnโ€™t part of the game mechanics?”

    This is why I love you, David.

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  6. Bropocalypse says:

    I would like to see a “Persnickett’s Expansion” that expands economic chains well beyond what people of normal inclination would be comfortable with.
    I’d be all over that.

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    • Tyler says:

      You can never go wrong with having a way to make salted beets in rancid fungi effluvium, which is only consumed by six destitute savages of far flung norsica and can only be made in quantities of tons.

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  7. Kaidelong says:

    Do you have right to use that portrait of CEO Nwabudike Morgan, CEO of the Morganites? Have you no respect for Firaxis’ intellectual property!? Is this the example you wish to set for the people supposed to buy your games?

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  8. cturner says:

    “You can see the number of character โ€˜jobsโ€™ required to make a commodity in the 5th column”

    *You* are the fifth column, comrade!

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  9. Coaldust says:

    One sane way to handle issues like “making steel is hard” is to only require the player to gather the base material, and perhaps make a suitable crafting station (e.g. a forge, because making steel on the kitchen table or in a sawmill doesn’t make sense), and then it just works.

    This represents the “units” (as in little controllable people in game) knowing how to make steel. After all, managers rarely know how to do the work the people they manage do, and even if they do they don’t lead them by the nose through every single step.

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  10. Mike says:

    I’m starting to truly fall in love with that game!
    Or… maybe with that excel spreadsheet ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  11. Maxumym says:

    Just when I think: “These guys can’t get better than this”, you up the ante again.
    I am so looking forward to this game, I hope I manage to get into the alpha testing somehow.
    Also, have you though about implementing a “Clockworpedia” of sorts, like in Civilization?

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    • Tyler says:

      That might be too close to the clockworkipede that will undoubtedly destroy all towns as soon as steam and cogs production is increased.

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    • Grant says:

      You know, there’s a good idea in here. Given that one of the conceits of the game (as I understand it) is that you “fail upwards”, gaining promotions as each colony disappears amidst bloodcurdling screams of Fun and agony, a semi-persistent tech tree would make a lot of sense. You have to make discoveries on your own, but once you’ve made that discovery you know how to get back there when you start a new colony. Once you’ve researched steel production, you can always look ahead in the tech tree and see how to get there; but you’ve got to get there at least once on your own.

      It’d be nice to have some other hints along the way, of course, but that suits the oeuvre of the game quite nicely and provides a small sense of progress as you learn the game, despite occasional outbreaks of Fun.

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  12. musteline says:

    i love this me wants more now

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  13. Shannon says:

    Just an observation: if Steel Tools takes steel ingot, plank, and Metalworks; and steel ingot takes ingot of Iron, fuel, chalk & Refinery; and ingot of Iron takes ore of Iron & Refinery… then wouldn’t the 5th column of Steel tools be more like 6 or more (Refinery, iron ore, chalk, fuel, Metalworks, and plank)?

    PS. Love your direction and can’t wait to get my hands on the game!

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  14. Eric says:

    Interesting. This reminds me of Wonderland Online’s crafting system where there’s a HUGE amount of materials and intermediate products (Seriously, check out its item database! ). I was wondering about the extent of the workflow of Clockwork Empires.

    Also, will there be certain raw materials that can only be obtained from the inevitable otherworldly creatures, whether by killing them or by their obviously toxic/corrosive secretions?

    I look forward to this game’s completion.

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  15. Ruigi says:

    If what I’m reading about this post is correct, are you saying that CE will not have a money system?

    If every colony is a semi-autonomous collective, I can’t understand why they’re worried about communists.

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  16. Astaldaran says:

    perhaps it will be more of classic mercantislm system; if you want money then you mint it yourself.

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  17. Rowanty says:

    I just found this game and I am incredibly excited. As an economist I’m extremely excited to see where you go with this. Very much looking forward to future posts in this vein!

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