The Specific Problem of Game Ecology

The UO Ecology Problem
First Raph Koster's posts on the ecology system planned for UO, first, second, third. Now the problem is, I think, best summarized by a commenter named Derrick over at Hardcore Casual. Let's take a quick look at what he says.

... You see, the reason these things don’t work on the large scale is, quite frankly, that the players ruin them. People suck.

In these systems, from a player/armchair designer perspective, it’s easy to say “This is what I’d like to see”, to design a masterpiece of a virtual environment.

The reality, though, is you need to be absolutely cognizant of “How can a large group of players, acting out of nothing but pure malice, cause this system to fail?”...

This problem is one that needs answering in the conceptual "NPC ecosystem" I implied in my last post.

Why Not UO Ecology
Our friend Derrick gives a very specific reason why the UO system of ecology fails against griefers. "The fundamental problem is one of consequences. Until a game is designed in such a way as to remove anonymnity and the lack of real consequences, people will act like utter asshats." Well, in this instance, I actually don't think the flaw lies with the players. Rather, I think there is a very fundamental flaw with the resource ecology itself.

The UO ecosystem was an open system. Things entered the system and exited the system, even worse players were given control of one of those opening. It was such in an attempt to mimic real life ecosystems, but that doesn't mean that our game, Skies of Mondea, needs to attempt something similar. In fact we can fairly easily close off the vast majority of the system.

Our System
For the sake of simplicity we'll start with a five layered social system top to bottom, with three resources and one currency. The social layers are detailed in this image. There will be a finite number of NPCs, a finite amount of money, and a finite amount of one of the resources. This third resource will be essential to the construction of Superheavies. One of the remaining resources will be fuel, which can be sold to NPCs, but the NPCs will automatically gather enough of to meet needs if not. The last resource would be aluminum which is required for all construction projects, again NPCs will gather enough to meet their own needs if they haven't already bought enough from players. In both of the latter cases, the NPCs will pay less for anything beyond their needs, and once filled to carrying capacity will simply stop buying all together.

Now the social hierarchy is self perpetuating, to get a taste of it, let's look at the original example of a flight deck attendant.

Our theoretical attendant exists on the labor strata so long as he makes between 20k and 50k. Now if he does not receive tips and drops to 20k he immediately search for another opening in labor level jobs that does not match his current one, same job different ship or different job on any ship including the same one. Failing that he falls into the poverty class. That sounds awful, but if the regulars of his region tip him decently there isn't any reason a bunch of random griefers would be able to force him to drop. So long as his regulars still pay him enough to stay above 20K, the griefers actively not tipping is no more damaging than all the players who've never seen them passively not tipping.

Now if he raises above 50k, he will move up into the pilot/crew strata. At this strata he can become a transport pilot delivering between carious shops, be a shop pilot opening a special shopping ship up near the initial ship, or get a job as a crew in another superheavy ship. His job on the deck will be filled either by a job hunting labor or be filled by someone from the poverty strata. If the pilot/crew strata is saturated and they cannot maintain enough sales from a shop, enough traffic in their transport and/or there are no open crew positions then they will soon fall back into the labor strata and seek a job there. Failing that they move down into the poverty strata. So if griefers were attempting to instead promote our flight deck attendants, they could only really effect those individual attendants without a truly massive effort across the board from nearly all players which would end the instant they ran out of money.

The system will always defend itself. There can only be so many wealthy, so many middle class, so many pilots/crews, so many laborers, and no matter how large the disruption, others will enter to fill the vacuum, or simply and inevitably fall to the bottom. By this mechanic the system cannot be gamed to cause significant problems for other players. On the other hand, on the level of an individual NPC players can do irreparable harm or exceptional good.

However, on the systemic level players as a total force are capable of removing the bottom of the strata. In order to increase the need for crews and laborers you can build superheavies, however these are based on one of the limited resources meaning you can never build enough to leave no labor for anyone else. (It also means any time an account lapses to the point of deletion, is permanently banned, or for any reason deleted, the superheavies associated with it will be taken and put up for auction.) The sheer difference in money between the rich and everyone else, though, means that while players could technically destroy it as a strata, by making only players rich and then "tipping" it all off to the lowest stratas, it would take a concerted effort of an extremely large proportion of the players and could only really "damage" those actively taking part.

Oh and I've already thought of player based inflation. Have a number of slots for player characters on the server hard capped. Then make an equal number of positions with a code tag of "young pilot" that do nothing but fly around all the time. When a player joins, you remove one of the young pilot positions so that they fall back into the laborer strata and drop an npc in the poverty strata (starved to death, how sad). Whenever a player is deleted a position opens in the young pilots, is filled by a laborer, and a new person comes of age in the poverty strata. When the number of total player positions on a server is stressed, it's time to open a new server and probably think about closing off access to that server all together.


  1. Interesting, however you were talking about ethics and morality. If I can only interact with people in positive ways (give tips), then this really doesn't bring up ethical issues. If I can interact negatively (steal from NPCs), then you re-introduce the same problems found in the UO ecology example. What if another person keeps stealing from an NPC I like and want to enter into a higher economic strata? What if some griefer just steals from all NPCs, sending them all to poverty?

    This also raises the question of why players would care about the economic standing of an NPC. What does tipping a flight deck attendant enough to allow them to afford a job as crew do for me as a player? What's the gameplay effect? Without a some meaning in terms of gameplay, the system seems hollow.

    Addressing these two elements will make the system much more complex.

  2. I'll get back to you on that, really. Just need to sort some stuff out.

  3. I am amazed! The moment I don't take a daily look at blogs you post really cool stuff, and it is even related to my beloved Ultima Online.

    I think there is a problem with the player slots. You are right that limiting them so that players cannot have alts for everything, like I did it UO with my specialist crafter that everyone actually had.

    But take a look at EVE, the more serious you play, the more accounts you have... many have two, CCP even marketed this as bundle offers called the "power of two"...

    One account and few slots per game only would be my ideal, but it is hard to enforce, and actually who wants to spit a paying customer into the face.

  4. Well, it's not really about the number of characters a player can have on one account. It's the number of player characters total that can exist on any given server.

  5. I came up with an answer to Brian's question much later, it was surprisingly simple. All you need is a chance to get to know npcs as personalities with circumstances, families and concerns. We know them personally, we become interested in their success. We don't need other players to be the boogeyman, the person failing is in and of itself a boogeyman. You can then generalize out that for every npc you grow close to and help, there are others out there that nobody grows close to and nobody helps.

    NPCs are by default a voiceless population, with the players being an entitled class. There isn't any need, then, to make them true equals since we already have a genuine ethical dilemma without including that.