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[Project: Gorgon Official News] Vendors!

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There’s a million ways that vendors could work. After days of playing around with them, I feel like I’ve tried all million permutations. I am well and truly sick of thinking about it. So let me write about it some!
What Do I Display For “Value”?
When you examine an item in the game and you see its “Value”, what do you assume that means? Is it the cash you’ll get if you sell it? Is it the price for a brand new one? Is it something else, maybe a general idea of its value?
I decided that for Gorgon, the displayed value is the exact amount you can expect to sell it for. If you want to buy an item from a shop, it will cost 2x or 3x that value. But buying stuff is relatively rare compared to looting or crafting something. So it makes more sense that the value be relevant for the most common scenario. But I’m open to ideas about why that’s not as smart as it seems.
Variable Vendor Purchase Rates? Meh
If you played in pre-alpha 2 you may have noticed that vendors had random buying rates… some NPCs would buy for 1/2 value, some for full value, some for 2x value, all sorts of things. They were just placeholders (and buggy ones at that.)
But the idea was that different vendors would have different rates… some would buy weapons at great rates, others would give you a great rate on fruits and vegetables, etc. This is a pretty classic element of older MMOs. But after I set it all up, it felt “meh.”
It’s very tedious to sell your loot if vendors have wildly different rates. I found myself having to write down who would buy what for how much, so I could efficiently figure out where to sell stuff. Writing stuff on paper? Unacceptable! A sure sign that the game isn’t helping you enough.
I’d also thought it would be fun if some vendors just gave you great rates across the board. Like deep in a dungeon there was a vendor that buys stuff for 2x times its inherent value. This turned out to be a terrible idea: I immediately felt the need to go visit this guy to sell anything of major value. So I’d just obsoleted all other vendors, and made the best vendor really hard to reach.
But my goals were reasonable. Let’s look at those for a second.
Why Do Vendors Need To Be Different At All?
In many modern MMOs, all vendors buy all items for full value. It’s convenient and painless. Why am I screwing this up and adding annoyance? Lots of reasons:
  • Vendors are NPCs. And NPCs each have different personalities… or at least, different likes and dislikes. It makes sense that a vendor who loves swords would be the best one to sell your sword to.
  • A big part of the game is befriending the NPCs. You have a “favor level” with each one, which starts out at Neutral (or Tolerated, or maybe even Hated, depending on racial relations)… then when you do favors for them, give them presents, and so on, their Favor Level goes up and up until you’re Friends, Close Friends, or even Best Friends. This needs to make sense for vendors — if you’re best friends with a shopkeeper, shouldn’t they give you a better deal on their specialty items?
  • Vendors are also going to run consignment shops. You can give them stuff to sell on your behalf. For this idea to work, there needs to be differentiation — reasons to go one place instead of another. If a player is looking for a sword, they should intuitively know to search weapon shops. They shouldn’t have to worry that maybe the sandwich vendor might have an even better sword for sale. So the game should help guide players to different vendors for different stuff.
Value Caps
What I’ve settled is “caps” on purchasing rate. Say you try to sell your magic potions at Joe’s Sword Shop. He’ll give you full price for them… but he won’t go above 500 credits. If you have a 1000-credit potion, you can sell it to him for 500, or go over to Betty’s Potion Hut. Betty has a much higher cap for potions. However, she won’t give you more than 500 for a sword.
This seems very similar to a multiplier (where Joe gives you 10% extra for swords, while Betty gives you 20% extra for potions, etc.) But it’s actually a lot less annoying because you never have to wonder if you’ve found the “best” vendor. Either they’ll give you full price, or they won’t.
This makes a relatively painless workflow: I just go down main street and hit the five major vendor shops. When I’m in the weapon shop, the GUI puts little warning icons overtop the stuff I won’t get full value for. So I can kinda brainlessly click down the list.
It’s not completely brainless, but I don’t want it to be. Otherwise you wouldn’t have any reason to befriend vendors.
Better Caps For Better Friends
As you become better and better friends with the weapon shop keeper, his cap for weapons will keep going up. So you have very obvious incentives to befriend shopkeepers and do favors for them!
There’s some annoyance here, of course. If a newbie finds a super rare sword, they might not be good enough friends with any NPC to get full price for it. They’ll have to store it for later, or sell it at a loss. But that’s okay.
It’s okay because it’s directed: the goal is clear (become better friends to get higher sale caps), you know how to achieve the steps (do favors for him), and you know when you meet your goal (he buys your item for full value). That’s good gameplay.
Keep in mind that favor levels aren’t a tacked-on part of the game. Almost all the quests in the game are presented as “favors” that you do to make NPCs like you more. So you’re already going to be raising those Favor Levels for other reasons — getting new recipes, learning new skills, and so on. This just extends Favor Levels to vendors in an intuitive way.
Occasional Inconvenience
So I’ve been playing with this system and it works okay. It’s not as annoying as it might sound. Selling your junk is pretty efficient.
But sometimes you will need to trek far away to sell stuff: luxury goods. Most vendors won’t give you more than $500 for a painting, but the art collector will give you $8000 for it, so you’ll end up storing your unusual items and periodically visiting these distant vendors.
Why do this? It comes back to what I talked about a while ago: by allowing a small amount of pain, I get big dividends in emergent behavior:
  • This directly rewards player knowledge, without making it feel like memorization. You’ll naturally come across the art historian, and when you find an expensive painting, you’ll remember him. MMOs have removed a ton of this sort of player knowledge in order to streamline their game. But it actually feels good to use your game knowledge. Taking it all away actually robs players of enjoyment.
  • These vendors are in new places that you wouldn’t often travel to otherwise. This encourages you to move around more. Remember that I don’t have tons of level ranges, so the game doesn’t constantly shove you from zone to zone as you level up. Instead, you find your own path through the game. These vendors are one reason why you might go someplace new.
  • In small doses, distance and delay also breeds opportunity. If the painting vendor is far away, or you aren’t good friends with him yet, maybe it makes sense to sell your painting to another player instead for 80% of the value. With a few other mechanics like this, there might be enough gameplay for player “traders” to have fun… without dramatically penalizing everybody else.
The trick is not to go overboard, and that just takes experimentation. For instance, right now I have a painting collector in one town and a poetry collector somewhere else. That might be too annoying, and they might need to combine into one Art Collector. I’ll have to see how it goes.
The Pain of Compromised Design
This sort of post is hard for me to write because I know it won’t make anyone super happy. It’s a compromise. People who want to focus on group-monster-stabbing are going to gripe about any extra annoyance while selling.
And players who want to immerse themselves in the world will want more systems. Always more! In order to get real trading gameplay, I’d need price fluctuation — why don’t I make vendor caps fluctuate based on how much stuff the vendor has bought that day? (Because that’s annoying as **** for everybody except hardcore traders.)
It’s all a compromise. Most modern MMO designers swing the pendulum very far toward the “convenience” column, even though that removes some of the crunchy fun for lots of players. They’re afraid you’ll leave if you experience even a tiny bit of annoyance. I trust you a bit more — I think my target audience is willing to put up with a little annoyance in exchange for more depth.
And I feel like this is something I’m well equipped for. I love the crunchy game systems, but I also have severe ADHD. So I have a tendency to implement crazy schemes and then pare them back until they aren’t too annoying. I can be my own target audience for this stuff, which is really convenient.
But I’m also expecting to make a ton of changes when you guys get into the game. I hope I end up attracting enough players who like these game mechanics and can help me guide them to the sweet spot. Because when other players iterate on your ideas, you often realize it’s not a pendulum at all — instead of being a trade-off between annoyance and emergence, there’s often some little tweaks that let you have your cake and eat it too.
I’m still working hard toward getting the game open for you to play in. Sorry for the delays! But it’s still coming, and I’m looking forward to it!
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