Friday, March 8, 2013

Starflight II: Rooting for Trade

Buying from the Tandelou Eshvey.

My most anxiety-filled moments in the last three Elder Scrolls games are not when I'm fighting dragons or dremora, trying to close Oblivion Gates, or trudging through ash storms. No, they are, rather, the moments when I'm overloaded with equipment that I want to sell, and I've exhausted the economy of whatever town I'm in. I've got 300 pounds of excess equipment, and I wipe out the cash reserves of the general store with a single necklace. I mean, seriously, Bethesda: that's what you had to be practical about? I can stop in the middle of combat and eat eleven cheese wheels, but I can't possibly sell all my loot to one shop in one day because that would be "unrealistic."

Starflight II manages to introduce some of this tension through its trading system, which essentially guarantees that you always have goods waiting to sell. On various planets, I've found a huge variety of minerals, lifeforms, and special goods--copper, titanium, tungsten, gold, fruits, vegetables, medicines, silver, cloth, books, lead, iron--and my crew is now engaged in a compulsive and ultimately fruitless quest to once--just once, for god's sake--return to starport with an empty hold.

Unlike the original Starflight, this game's starport has no interest in generic trade goods and metals. Instead, I have to find trading centers on various planets throughout this section of the galaxy. Some of them are run by sophisticated space-faring species, some by primitive stone-age species (Interstel apparently doesn't have an equivalent of the Prime Directive). Each sells, and is willing to buy, different goods, and each has a slightly different position on bargaining.

To get into the thick of the trading dynamic--which seems to occupy a big part of the game--let's take a step back and review what happens when you visit planets, which isn't terribly different from the first game.

Either by using the map or through simple exploration and luck, we come upon a star system:

And flying into the star, we move a level down in scale and are presented with the planets orbiting the system as well as the "spectral class" of the star, which in this game is essentially a seven-step scale from coolest (M) to hottest (O).

K, the class of this particular star, is second-coolest, and the "ecosphere" reading tells me that all four planets have a chance of sustaining life. The planets are color-coded by type, including molten (red), rock (brown), ocean (blue), frozen (white), and gas giants (violet). As you might imagine, I can't distinguish between red and brown or blue and violet, so I end up having to personally check out all of them.

When you maneuver over a planet, you're given the option to orbit it with the SPACE bar, at which point you can switch from the navigator's "maneuver" screen to the science officer's screen to "scan" the planet. The scan tells you the mass of the planet, what portion of it is covered with life, on what portion is found useful minerals, the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere:

This is clearly a gas giant, not a water planet. There's no life--and it can't sustain life--but it's got a good mineral density, and it might be worth landing to do some mining. But wait, let's check out the analysis:

Landing would be a very bad idea. At 15 times normal (Earth) gravity, my ship and crew would be crushed the moment I entered the atmosphere. And even if that wasn't a factor, the "very violent" global weather would mean I'd probably lose a crewmember or two while trying to find minerals.

Moving onto the next planet, I find a small one with a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere and gravity about three-quarters of Earth normal. The hydrosphere is ammonia, so it can't sustain life, but it's got a decent mineral density, including silicon, tin, and gold. And no global weather to endanger my crew. It's definitely worth a mining stop. I switch back to the "captain" menu and order a landing.

The game gives me a set of crosshairs where I select the landing site from a Mercator-projection map. The colors on the map represent the altitude of the terrain, but other than not wanting to land in water (the game will allow it, but there's no point, since there isn't any stuff there), I don't really have a good handle on what type of terrain to choose. It might matter for the availability of minerals and life; I think I've noticed a slight correlation between higher altitudes and availability of minerals and lower altitudes and the proliferation of life forms.

After choosing the location, you "descend" and disembark from the ship in your ATV.

This sequence is kind-of cool, but it gets old after a while.

At this point, you tool around the planet in your ATV looking for mining sites, life forms, trading centers, or whatever the planet supposedly offers. As you do, you have to keep an eye on the ATV fuel (which decreases depending on factors like the terrain, the atmospheric thickness, and the gravity) and ensure that you don't get too far away from the ship. Running out of fuel sucks: you have to abandon your ATV, walk back to the ship (risking damage from weather along the way), and go all the way back to starport to buy a new one.

When you find a mining location, you go into the "cargo" menu and pick up the metals. In the case of the image above, I managed to find 9.3 cubic meters of gold within a few kilometers of the ship. As you gather minerals and life forms, you have to watch the cargo capacity of the ATV and make periodic return trips to the ship to unload it.

I'm going to be on this planet for a while.

A few other things can happen while you're moving about in the ATV:

  • You can encounter life forms which you can try to capture. If they're hostile, you may have to shoot at them a few times with the ATV's weapons first. Some of them will preemptively attack you and injure crew members, though I managed to buy a "shield" against such attacks.

  • On inhabited planets, you can encounter groups of natives wandering around on foot or in vehicles. There doesn't seem to be any productive way to interact with them.
  • If there's any global weather, you can get stuck in storms and have crew members injured.
  • If it's a trading planet, you can come across trading centers, described below.

On a planet with minerals, plants, and a trading center.

Occasionally, while exploring planets, you'll get lucky and find an uninhabited one with a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere, a water hydrosphere, temperate weather and climate, and near-Earth gravity. When this happens, you can "log" the planet as one ripe for human colonization, which nets you a hefty reward back at starport, generally exceeding the trade value of minerals and lifeforms acquired over hours of exploration. However, these planets seem few and far between.


So once the ship starts to groan with the weight of its cargo...'s time to find a trading center--or, more specifically, a series of trading centers--to offload it. Fortunately, the Humna Humna, the ambassadors from this region of space that humans first encountered, provided us with a map showing planets willing to trade. These planets are orbited by "trade beacons," which transmit "cultural data" about the species that live there, including what special items they'll buy and sell, and their overall approach to trade.

The trading centers themselves are scattered around the planet, and you don't get any data on where they are, so you just have to land and hope you find one. This generally hasn't been a problem for me.
Certain planets want certain special goods. The Lieu Vadish are looking for "sticky fruit" and will sell "delightful fungus chews," for instance. Some of the traders won't sell their more advanced artifacts unless you sell them something they particularly want. But for the standard stuff--metals and generic trade goods--whether a particular planet will buy them seems to be a roll of the dice. The Humna Humna on this planet are interested in my silver, promethium, magnesium, and molybdenum, but none of my other stuff:

The price in the far right column is the default price they'll pay per cubic meter, but there's a lot of room for bargaining. Depending on the culture, I can usually sell for 20-40% more than they originally offer through some bartering. But if you haggle too much, they'll lose patience and cancel the trade. As far as I can tell, you can immediately re-initialize it, with no penalty, but perhaps there's some subtle mathematics going on when you annoy them.

One of the things that surprises me is how many species are willing to buy life forms that live on their own planets. You could do robust trade without even leaving the planet by just driving around in the ATV and collecting native creatures.

So what's the point of all this trading? In a word: money. You need it to fully train the crew; fully equip the ship with cargo pods, weapons, armor, and shields; and most importantly, to purchase Shyneum, the fuel that makes your explorations of the galaxy possible. Through trading, I've managed to train all my crew members in their primary skills and decently (if not completely) outfit the ship. All of this better prepares me to deal with alien species and start on the quests.
The first species encountered.
As to those quests, I'm starting to get some clues from the aliens I've encountered during my trading career. The region of space in which Interstel built the starport belongs to a species known as the Tandalou, who are fighting a civil war between two factions: the Eshvey and the Eshvara. They both worship something called Thdok-Bryg-Ahhh, and amongst their florid pontificating, it's tough to determine the precise cause of their schism. But it appears that something was stolen from them--probably by the Spemin--and they each blame each other. I'll cover aliens and dialogue on my next posting on the game.


  1. Definitely laughed out loud at eating eleven cheese wheels in combat. So true!

  2. Indeed. So much cheese! Nary an extra pound!

  3. Is "blue and violent" a typo or an intentional jab at some of the raging planets you can come across in this game?

    In the next paragraph, there is a typo: "tellls." I'm not trying to nitpick or be a pain, just helpful. :)

    In the first Starflight, I did find that minerals are in much greater quantity in the mountainous areas.

    I've never played this game, but with some deliberation, I've decided to experience it for the first time through your eyes.

    1. It wasn't deliberate. I did that both times I typed "violet" and only saw/fixed it for the first.

  4. There is a design decision hidden in all the trading, can you guess which one?
    From what I remember from playing the game, it is not worth dealing with any mineral below gold.

  5. **My most anxiety-filled moments in the last three Elder Scrolls games are not when I'm fighting dragons or dremora, trying to close Oblivion Gates, or trudging through ash storms. No, they are, rather, the moments when I'm overloaded with equipment that I want to sell, and I've exhausted the economy of whatever town I'm in. I've got 300 pounds of excess equipment, and I wipe out the cash reserves of the general store with a single necklace. I mean, seriously, Bethesda: that's what you had to be practical about? I can stop in the middle of combat and eat eleven cheese wheels, but I can't possibly sell all my loot to one shop in one day because that would be "unrealistic."**

    Yes I've noticed this. "Yeah, hold on Mr Draugr Overlord, Imma stuff 10 pounds of cheese in my face while we fight, I'll pay for it tomorrow in the outhouse, but for now FUS ROH DAH!"

    1. It was just a dumb mechanic. You've got the character making soup and somehow carrying it around in his backpack; foods that aren't useful in any recipes and that heal 1 hit point--why would anyone take them?; and the absurdity of mowing down on unlimited victuals at any point during combat. I don't understand what they were trying to add to the game.

    2. Some players do roleplay challenges where they always eat and sleep each day. There are even immersion mods to force you to do this.

      Also, food can actually help a low-level mage. Yes, I would eat a 7 course meal in the middle of combat when low-level.

    3. Is there a mod that makes eating take time where you can get interrupted by getting hit?

    4. There were ones like that for Fallout 3, I don't know about Skyrim as I play on Xbox, so I only look at the Skyrim Mod Nexus when I want to suffer and feel lame for playing Vanilla.

    5. You play Skyrim on the X-box? And you call yourself a geek?

    6. As do I. Skyrim is a pleasure to play on a huge screen (I have a 60-inch), and every time I try to hook up a PC to it, I get all kinds of video issues that take forever to solve. I also don't like playing with a mouse and keyboard from the couch.

    7. Oh, I'd prefer it on PC, but mine has trouble running fallout 3 on decent settings. I don't currently receive a paycheck, and won't until I start grad school at the start of May. (Hey, Chet, want to race and see who can finish their Ph.D. first? I'm just starting my M.Sc. so you've got a hell of a head start....)

      Anyway, on $15,000/year I can't really justify a gaming computer. Heck, I'll be losing access to Skyrim all together as I've been playing my brother's copy of it on my Dad's xbox.

    8. Late to the party here, but you can put together a decent gaming PC for about $270 with AMD's A8/A10 APUs (CPUs with graphics card built in). Here's a site that'll help:

  6. I think the correlation of minerals to altitude was hinted at early on in the first game. The idea, I believe, is that: high altitudes => mountains => rock => minerals.

    Conversely, low altitudes might be more hospitable to life due to warmer weather, denser atmosphere and/or greater proximity to water sources.

  7. You think it would be wise of your science officer to figure out the gravitational influence the planet will have on the ship _before_ the navigator plots the orbital trajectory. But I guess that's why I'm not being paid the big space bucks.

    1. My hypothesis is that violent planets always have gravity too high to land, so most players could figure it out without bothering to orbit and scan. Alas, not me.

    2. I was thinking less about gameplay and more if you were actually trying to navigate a starship into a stable orbit. The mass of the planet you're attempting to orbit would be something you would want to know. Seems like the game just had it a little backwards and my joke wasn't all that funny.

    3. And yet, four years later, I laughed.

  8. I've been looking forward to you getting to this one. Starflight 1 and 2 are in my top 10 list of favorite games.

    Your suspicion on the correlation of altitude to findings is correct. Better minerals at high altitude, more life forms at lower.

    And to give a small bit of trading advice - don't buy too much of any 'special' items until you know if you have a market.

  9. How do you "land" on a gas giant, seeing that there's no land?

    The original Starflight wouldn't even let you try. Did this game change it?

    That landing sequence was freaking awesome at the time. It really broke down the terrain as you went down. It's showing off the fractal world generation process.

    1. I imagine you would get into a cautious orbit around it and scout for floating continents or islands -- just because the atmosphere is mostly dense gas or liquid doesn't meant there aren't any solid bits. :)

      Not that I'm saying "landing" on a gas giant doesn't make me do a double-take. But I think saying you're going to "land" is more referring to the routine action of taking a spaceship closer to a planet.

    2. I ... could be wrong about the floating islands, of course. Probably wishful thinking.

      Reading further on the subject, it's more like gas giants slowly become more and more dense the closer you get to the core -- so at some point you could, *probably*, have your ship be forced to slow down to halt in a thicker part of the gas giant's atmosphere, where you'd be moving through molasses but are essentially "landed". My impression from Wikipedia and other sources, take it with a grain of salt.

    3. I think all the gas giants I've found have had such high gravity that they'd crush my ship, so perhaps you never can land on them. But the game DOES let you try.

  10. You and your other commenters have it right in terms of the colours, altitude and their effects on what you'll find on the ground. I'll just point out that the green (on liquid planets) and teal (on frozen planets) are also good indicators of low-lying life-bearing terrain. Darker versions of those colours are a bit too low and close to the oceans though.

    You'll find that dwellings stay roughly where they are on planets, so if you find one in one spot, you're very likely to find it again in that place (plus or minus a few degrees latitude/longitude) on your next visit.

    Also, when trading, "S.T.V." stands for Standard Trade Value, like an independent valuation of what that item is really worth. I think you could be bartering better if you factor this in to your offers, but as you've found, there's a limit to how far you can push it.

    1. Ha! "Teal." Good one.

      Thanks for the tip on the STV. I'll give it a try and see if it makes a difference when making fairly high offers.

    2. I did think my comment would be pretty silly given your colour perception, but I thought I'd point it out anyway!

  11. If you visit the same planet twice, do they want the same things each time? If so...sounds like it is time for a spreadsheet!

  12. Actually, you touched on a valid strategy for trading, Canageek. Usually, a planet's wants and prices are fairly fixed within a given range. If you're diligent about recording, you can come up with some lucrative routes.

  13. The trading system has a not-very-minor exploit; once a deal is made that is THE price of the item for that visit. If the Tandelou Eshvey (for example) are both willing to buy and sell cobalt, then you can offer to buy the stuff at, say, 20k per cubic meter. They'll immediately accept, and therefore you have to make good on the deal and spend 2000 SP on 0.1 m^3 of the stuff. But you can now turn around and sell your 400 m^3 of cobalt (plus the tenth you just bought) at that same 20k price.

    Mind, getting taken to the cleaners awakens a fierce hatred in your trading partner; they'll eventually refuse to trade with you and I know of no way to get them to let you back in. As trading with certain alien races is necessary to win the game, you can presumably make your game unwinnable doing this.

    On the other hand, if you use this method to offload the trade goods you start with you'll never need to worry about cash for the rest of the game.


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