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May 2, 2010

Echo Bazaar (pt 2, Incentives)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — inky @ 11:46 pm

Here’s my next Echo Bazaar post. If you haven’t played, read the previous post, so you know what I’m talking about. And what I am talking about today is some incentive analysis.

The first thing you’ll probably notice is the stat test rewards are unusual — I didn’t mention the reward being dependent on your level, and indeed it isn’t: it’s a flat +2xp for any test you succeed on, regardless of difficulty. Which means there’s a lot of system pressure to do the easiest tests you can, because the xp reward is the same as on the harder tests and you succeed more often. The system opposition to this is the non-xp reward: you get items roughly worth the value of the test, so harder tests give you more stuff. But, again, you fail more often on the harder tests, so the net result is the same — the higher-difficulty tests give better rewards but not enough to make up for the zero you get from failures. This assumes that the rewards are all perfectly fungible, and that isn’t strictly true; in some case you really do need Deep Amber or Infernal Contracts, and given the effective 50% loss trading via the bazaar, it’s worth it to do a particular test. But generally speaking this isn’t the case.

Another obvious system feature is that it requires more and more xp to gain each level, which affects the effective benefit of items. At low levels, a +1 Dangerous item is almost totally unaffordable, and you could gain a level of Dangerous in an hour anyway. As you go up, though, you’re accumulating money three or four times as quickly, and going up levels three or four times slower, so items become much more worth it. Or are they? Remember that there’s no greater xp benefit from doing a harder test, so the only reason to do a level 11 test instead of a level 10 test is you get slightly more money, which you can use to buy more items, which you can use to do slightly more difficult tests, which you can — what?

Finally, note the only time I mentioned the word “goal” above was with reference to your ambition. The ambition provides one place where the xp and financial economy cross over — to complete the steps of the ambition, you’ll sometimes need to get a stat to a certain level, and sometimes need a certain amount of a particular item (which usually means a certain amount of money). What I didn’t mention is that the ambitions, in their current state, run out long before the main game content does, so you’ll be spending a lot of time without being able to work on one.

All of these issues point to the same thing, which is that Echo Bazaar, as a game, isn’t much of a game. When I say “game” here, I mean basically “an interactive thing in which players can make meaningful choices towards a game-imposed goal”. The first point I raised means that choosing between adventures is generally trivial, that there’s an obvious best choice; the second point I raised means that items aren’t especially useful either, so there aren’t good economic choices to make; and the third point means there is no game-set goal for large parts of the game, just ones the player sets for themselves.

That said, players are good at setting goals for themselves. Most people who play this game will quickly pick up some long-term goals, probably “Max out my main stats!” and “See all the content!” There are also short-term goals, like “Get my Watchful to 10 so I can use this one opportunity card” and “Accumulate 36 Echoes so I can buy an Tasselled Sword-Cane”. But the thing about player-set goals is that the game doesn’t care. This might seem trivially obvious, but it’s got implications. Like, when you finally save up the money and buy the sword-cane, there aren’t any fireworks. The game just says “ok, 36 Echoes deducted, 1 Sword-Cane added”. Similarly with the opportunity card — the game doesn’t realize that it was a meaningful goal you’d worked on for a couple days, as opposed to something you got later in the game when your Watchful was already 10, and it was a trivial move to use the card. And this eventually starts to wear on the player (or it does for me, anyway). Grindy RPGs like this always threaten to break through the veil and stand exposed as a total waste of time, and when the game doesn’t meet you halfway and reward you for subgoals, it’s harder to maintain the illusion that you’re accomplishing something meaningful.

This pretty much covers the basic analysis of the system. Next time I’ll get into a few more subtleties about the existing system, and then start talking about If-I-Ran-The-Circus type fixes.


  1. […] about the game design, with a bunch of suggestions about balancing it for better gameplay (1, 2, 3, 4; possibly more to […]

    Pingback by Text Games That Aren’t Parser IF « Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling — May 11, 2010 @ 2:09 am

  2. Hm…you said there is no reward when you lose but I think your stats increase anyway, don’t they?

    Comment by Touchy — June 5, 2010 @ 2:15 am

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