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… )
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 as relationships & 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.
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.)
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).