Thoughts on Whatnot
Fixing PlanetSide 2's Population Flow with Economics
August 08, 2017

PlanetSide 2 Map

The other day, I logged into PlanetSide 2 and was greeted by the above. The TR were being pounded on all sides with over 200 players at the base neighboring the warpgate while the NC and VS, despite having a large number of connections, only had one decently-sized fight going, and it was far smaller than anything on the TR front.

Much has been written about trying to fix the issue of population flow in PlanetSide 2, and much has been attempted already. Adjacency, the lattice, continent locking… All of these were done to try to fix this basic problem, and some of them have helped at least to some extent, but the problem still exists, and attempts to change ‘the meta’, such as construction, have actually made it worse again.

And then, while I was attempting, yet again, to get through Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, it hit me.

PlanetSide 2’s population flow doesn’t work because PlanetSide 2 is a centrally planned economy.

Wait, what?

You’re probably wondering what in the world PlanetSide 2 population flow has to do with economics. It’s pretty simple, really. Lionel Robbins, a distinguished British economist, gave a nice, clean definition of economics:

Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses.

In PlanetSide 2’s case, there are a number of resources that this could apply to, but the primary one here is players or, rather, player skill, a distinction that makes a difference because individual players are not equal. Skill is both scarce and has alternative uses. Anything a player could do in the game is an alternative use of that player’s skill, right down to simply showing up to a different fight.

The problem here is, as has been stated on quite a few occasions, one of incentives. Why should players show up to fights where there aren’t enough players?

Early on in the game’s history, they simply didn’t show up. Any territory could be captured at any time, and zergs would just move around the map avoiding each other because there was no incentive to actually fight. To try to prevent this, adjacency and lattice were added, one after another, but this caused a new problem in the form of stalemates while still allowing zergs to sometimes avoid each other, especially if there weren’t enough players on a continent. Again, in an attempt to mitigate the issues, continent locking was added, but this caused still more issues as it annoyed both players who were enjoying the fights and those trying to find smaller fights.

All of these attempted solutions, however, are somewhat akin to price controls, and suffer from many of the same problems inherent to price controls.

Before I can explain why, I first need to do a quick rundown of the role of prices in an economy. Prices, to paraphrase Dr. Sowell, are a communication network. When there’s a shortage of a resource in an area, meaning that demand is exceeding supply, prices on that resource rise, which in turn incentivizes selling that resource there. When there’s a surplus, on the other hand, prices fall. People looking where to buy and sell don’t need to know that there’s a shortage here or a surplus there; just by looking at the prices they can determine which to do where. What’s particularly important about this is that the amounts involved that create a ‘surplus’ or ‘shortage’ are not absolute. Often, more of a resource is necessary in one area than in another.

In Soviet Russia, prices were set by a series of central bodies. Unfortunately, this failed miserably due to the simple matter of the economic calculation problem. Essentially, it just wasn’t physically possible for a small group of people to coordinate decisions usually made by every single member of the population. For example, at one point, the price of moleskins was raised by the government. As Soviet economists Nikolai Shmelev and Vladimir Popov put it:

State purchases increased, and now all the distribution centers are filled with these pelts. Industry is unable to use them all, and they often rot in warehouses before they can be processed. The Ministry of Light Industry has already requested Goskomtsen [State Committee on Prices] twice to lower purchasing prices, but the “question has not been decided” yet. And this is not surprising. Its members are too busy to decide. They have no time: besides setting prices on these pelts, they have to keep track of another 24 million prices.

O.K., but wasn’t this about PlanetSide 2?

In PlanetSide 2, the situation is very much the same. The game designers have set a fixed price, in the form of XP, and thus certs, on player skill. This price is more or less uniform. No matter where you go in the game, the most it varies is in terms of defense and continent population bonuses. When people respond to this uniform price by, inevitably, going to where they can get the most points with the least effort, various systems have been thrown on top to force players to do what the price system is telling them not to. But, like actual price controls, or like the threat of a Soviet gulag, these measures don’t work. Not completely, at any rate.

Now, unlike in a real economy, and unlike in Soviet Russia, PlanetSide 2’s designers have a number of major advantages over normal central planners, but two are of particular importance. One is that all data is available to the system at all times, and the other is that player skill is the only scarce resource that’s really that important.

In a real economy, even if it seems theoretically possible to solve the economic calculation problem by simply throwing more people at the task, this still doesn’t work because prices only have meaning relative to each other. If you wanted to coordinate 24 million prices, you’d need not only enough people to keep track of those numbers, but you’d also need them to coordinate every single one of those prices with every single other price.

In PS2, this problem is simplified by the fact that there’s only one resource. However, that resource still needs multiple prices set for each of the various regions in the game, and for each task that needs doing in each region.

So, what’s the solution?

There are two solutions.

One is to attempt to come up with a method for automatically adjusting prices, which may actually be possible in PS2, unlike in a real economy, but this still has a number of major issues. In particular, what’s to stop everyone just swarming from one highly priced job to the next? Sure, some people certainly won’t simply because they don’t want to bother leaving the fight they’re at or because there’s a need for medics and they’re flying a Liberator, but too many people might, and the system is likely to need a lot of fine tuning. Waiting for the devs to update the system probably wouldn’t be quite as destructive as waiting for the Soviet government to update prices was, but it would still be annoying.

The second solution, on the other hand, is to simply remove the devs from the picture. Institute a free market for player skill.

You’re insane.

Yeah, probably. I’m writing messages to myself in headers in a blog post. But hear me out.

The idea’s actually been proposed by the devs themselves before, although to a lesser degree. Essentially, this is the mission system, phase 2. In the original proposal, the idea was that players would be able to post missions, e.g. ‘Kill tanks in this area.’, and players would temporarily get an XP boost from following the mission.

My idea is similar, but with a bit more oomph to it.

In this plan, players would have access to a faction-wide job board. Any player could, at any time, post a job to this board. The job could be pretty much anything: ‘Capture this base within this time-limit.’, ‘Destroy this HIVE.’, ‘Take out this Sunderer.’, etc. When posting the job, and this is the really important part, the player making the post would offer however many of their own certs as they wanted as payment for successful completion. Players, squads, or maybe even outfits, could then apply to take on this job, and the certs would be transferred from the offering player to the players that accepted it. No new certs enter ‘circulation’; the hired players simply get the offering player’s certs, which are then split up amongst the hired players in some manner. However, as a bonus for the offering player, if their faction locks a continent, they get double the number of certs they paid in total for all jobs on that continent that were successfully completed.

Now, this plan’s got a number of potential issues. For one thing, tying the reward for paying for jobs to continent locking may make the risk of posting jobs too high. After all, the employers of two factions will lose all of their ‘investments’ when a given continent locks. But this is just an example; the point is that by allowing players to control the prices for skill using their own ‘money’, the system could adjust dynamically on a constant basis.

Another potential problem is that of defense. Currently, defending a base is very poorly defined. If the enemy flips a point for just a couple of seconds and then you flip it back, congratulations, you defended the base. Worse, if they never flip the point, the game doesn’t even consider it having been a battle at all. To this end, I would recommend simply not having base defense missions. If jobs can be posted to, for example, destroy all the Sunderers in a region, then that would probably cover defenses pretty well.

Yet another, although much simpler, problem is spam. What’s to prevent people from just throwing tons of 1 cert jobs up onto the board, cluttering it up? Fortunately, this could likely be solved in a much simpler manner. In a real economy, the price control known as a ‘minimum wage’ is an effective way of destroying the entry level job market. In this case, however, it could be used to effectively prevent spam by much the same mechanism. An ironic usage of what is normally a bad economic policy, perhaps, but a likely very effective one.

I still think you’re insane.

Well, I don’t really expect this to get implemented, of course. I don’t know if anyone else will think this is even a decent basis for a good idea, which is why I’m writing this up in the first place. Even if people do like it I doubt that the devs have the time for the heavy-duty UI work that this would presumably require. But please, let me know what you think.

Or, if you really want to go nuts with this whole thing, how about a bit of faction flavor? Implement the above idea, but only for the NC, have the TR use an automated price-adjustment system, and have the Vanu do something alieny. Maybe they could just get certs at random or something…