Commodity futures trading! In space!

Advance warning: Once again I tease you with ideas that I will never implement.

I basically don’t allow myself to write computer games. It’s in the category of things I could probably do well but don’t consider would be a good return on the effort it would require me to invest in it (obviously your priorities and skills may be different than mine so this will be different for different people). This doesn’t stop me occasionally pondering ideas for them though.

One off the ideas that I keep coming back to which I find really tempting as a concept is a 4X game in a realistic gravity simulation of a solar system.

To be clear: I think this is actually a terrible idea. It’s really hard to implement, and I think most of the things that make it hard to implement would also make it annoying to play (pathfinding in a gravity well is a super hard problem).

But recently this concept butted into a few other concepts that had been bouncing around in my head and I’ve come up with a game concept I actually quite like. I’m not sure if it’s good, but it’s fairly elegant and it sounds like it might be fun.

The inner system is a place of wonder! A civilization of light and splendour! Trillions of people living in the lap of luxury. The secret of immortality is theirs, all the space they could ever want on the orbital habitats! Endless bounty and machines which serve their every whim!

Unfortunately, you’re not in the inner system. You’re stuck out here in the dark. On this rock.

The thing about that wondrous inner system civilization is that it takes a lot of raw materials to fuel. Most of those are mined from asteroids, like the one you and your team have set up a mining camp on. You’ve been planted here with an autofab, a basic mass driver and catcher setup, and a honking pile of debt. You need to pay off that debt and earn the extra million solar credits required to buy yourselves citizenship before you get too old for the rejuve process to work.

It’s cool though. This asteroid you’re on is resource rich.

Of course, with your current gear it will take you approximately three thousand years to mine enough of it to pay off your citizenship. I guess you’ll just have to buy some more mining gear.

I’m sorry, it costs how much?

The concept of the game is simple: You have an asteroid full of resources which you can mine at a certain rate. You can sell these resources to the inner system by firing them out of your mass driver. They will pay you money. Once you make enough money you win.

But there’s a catch: Your infrastructure is horribly underpowered to make enough money in the time frame you need, and if you buy the new fancy infrastructure that you need to mine at a sensible rate you’ll be so far in debt that you’ll never pay it off. It’s almost like it’s an exploitative system designed to keep you constantly working for the benefit of others.

Fortunately you have this autofactory you can use to improve your infrastructure.

Unfortunately that new mining drill you need requires tungsten, and you’re flat out of tungsten. The inner system will of course sell you tungsten for a, uh, modest fee.

But that other asteroid mining colony over there turns out to have a surplus of tungsten. They’d probably sell it to you for a lot less…


The mechanics of the game are as follows:

There are a large number of different resources (energy, iron, water, carbon, tungsten, etc). All of these are available to buy from or sell to the inner systems. Generally speaking they will sell to you at about ten times the price they will buy it for (with energy being the only exception. They’ve got a sun right there. Energy is the one thing they’re not short of).

Your asteroid will produce a variety of these depending on its composition and your infrastructure. Some will be produced straight from the asteroid, some require other things – e.g. you might produce oxygen and hydrogen from water, or processed silicon from sand.

You can sell them directly to the inner systems, but you can also put quantities of them up as being available at a certain price. Other asteroid mines can them buy them from you.

So far so basic commodities trading. The difficulty comes from the fact that moving things between orbits isn’t free, or fast.

Each asteroid has two important pieces of cargo transfer infrastructure: A mass driver and a mass catcher.

A mass driver lets you transfer cargo at a certain relative velocity. A mass catcher lets you catch any packets that come sufficiently close to you. Naturally both can be upgraded to increase speed and range.

So in order to send cargo to another asteroid you need to fire it in a way that gets it sufficiently close to that asteroid. The computer will work out all the details for you, but you still have to consider the transit time. Sometimes it will be faster to go via other asteroids, though they will of course charge you a fee.

This is the first part of why this is basically a futures trading game: At any given point the commodities you’re purchasing are really commodities being delivered to you at some significantly later point in time.

Importantly, because you’re all on different orbits with different periods and eccentricities, the distances between asteroids is changing constantly. That asteroid that is currently your neighbour might not be your neighbour again for another three years. Better pick up on that surplus while you’re here because it will become harder and harder to find.

Getting things to and from the inner system is a lot easier. You just have to get them inside the 1 AU orbit. Similarly things sold to you from the inner system will be fired at high speed from the nearest convenient point on that orbit, so will generally arrive quite soon. You may be getting ripped off this way, but at least you’re getting conveniently ripped off.

The original conception of this game was much more complicated (there was all sorts of stuff about population dynamics, research, etc) but I find the pared down version quite appealing.

One of the things I like about it is that there are a bunch of different available strategies: You can do the industry power house thing, but you can also just pump a lot of resources into your mass driver and catcher and act as a clearing house for the rest of the system – if it will cut half of the travel time off shipping their cargo, people will generally be willing to pay your fee. Even without that you can still play the trading game – if your orbit crosses two other asteroids with mutually beneficial surpluses then you can assist them by buying from each and selling to the other at only a modest markup.

You’re very much all in this together against the exploitative inner system, so you might as well help each other out as you trade. At least, you are as long as you ignore the fact that the peak economic output of a single asteroid is still not enough to afford citizenship in any reasonable amount of time.

Maybe you don’t want to be too generous to your neighbours after all.



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