AN ORIGIN STORY
In the April 2014 Devlog Discussion thread, the subject came up of players -- and presumably NPCs as well -- being able to perform clandestine actions in addition to their public actions.
One example would be taking a contract to deliver a valuable item, but secretly instructing some minions to waylay your freighter and "steal" that cargo, which they later deliver to you. Even if you pay a penalty for the delivery failure, if the item has special value for you it might still be worthwhile. Other economic shennanigans might also be possible if you can hide your actions.
In the March 2014 update thread, mcsven described needing to be able to create a fake ID to support this kind of devious behavior. He also pointed out that this could be extended to allow subterfuge in political/diplomatic gameplay as well.
This idea resurfaced in the April 2014 devlog discussion thread, with more emphasis on the point that making it work requires some way for characters to be able to hide some actions ("covert action"). I also suggested that knowledge of actions should matter, too -- NPCs need to be able to understand what it means to discover evidence that someone's been naughty. Providing both of these mechanics lets characters do underhanded things, but also creates a risk of negative consequences if the evidence of those actions is discovered.
I suggested some ideas for that in the April 2014 devlog discussion, but it occurs to me that this sort of buries a suggestion that more people might like to comment on. So I'm copying-and-tweaking that text into its own thread here.
DESIGNING A PAPER TRAIL SYSTEM
Although a false ID might still be useful, I'm thinking that the key component for a skullduggery system is a "paper trail." This would be a game mechanic that, for each significant action involving your character, a historical comment is added to an in-game file.
Some significant actions would be personal -- flew to Star System X, blew up a ship, mined an asteroid, discovered a new planet, etc. Those would generate long-term markers in your personal file. But an important additional class of significant actions would be key interactions with other characters. By logging these interactions, a paper trail is created that contains the evidence of all your meaningful deeds... and misdeeds.
RECORDING SIGNIFICANT INTERACTION EVENTS
The interactions part of this paper trail system needs some rules of play:
1. Every character has a "personal datastore" -- a physical object that contains the record of its owner's actions. Every official organization also has one "corporate datastore" associated with the character who runs that organization, but to which all members of the organization can write and read log entries. Finally, there is a universal "market datastore" that players can access that keeps the logs of all public contracts.
2. When you agree to a public contract, accept a private contract, or delegate or receive a goal, that interaction (including who you did the deal with) is logged to a datastore. (I assume this logging would have to follow similar rules as market trade logging to avoid chewing up too much disk space.)
A log entry for every significant interaction agreement is written to the private datastores of both parties. In addition, the log entry for those agreements may be written to other datastores:
- Public contract: also written to the public market datastore.
- Private contract: no additional logging.
- Delegated organizational goal: also written to the organization's private corporate datastore.
4. Characters who obtain access to a device containing logs of some other character's actions can understand the meaning of that knowledge and use it to inform their own plans and actions.
CONSEQUENCES OF LOGGING SIGNIFICANT ACTIONS
These rules could have several interesting consequences.
Obviously you're not going to order nefarious things using public contracts. Even so, public contract logs should still be usable by NPCs for converting "what is my opponent doing?" pattern info into "what is my opponent planning?" beliefs for strategic competition play.
A log entry for every private contract would be written into the datastores of both parties to the contract. This means that trust matters, and creates motives for betrayal. Can you trust the NPC you paid to do some underhanded thing? If not, what are the odds that they -- and the datastore they carry that contains a record of your actions -- might suffer some unfortunately permanent accident?
Something similar applies in the case of corporate datastores. I imagine this as a single datastore for each formally-constituted organization. Every significant interaction between characters who both belong to the same organization is logged into the corporate datastore. (I'm not sure how LT could distinguish between actions a character takes on behalf of the org and purely personal actions.)
Anyone in the org at or above the level of the highest-level character who did the deal would be able to read normal log entries. And official auditors for whatever legal body chartered that organization would also be able to read all normal log entries. There would, however, be an option for marking some log entries as "hidden." You'd only see those if you're the one who entered it, or if you're the one at the top of the organization.
(Note: I'm suggesting this "corporate datastore" feature because it supports corporate information warfare gameplay. Leaving it out would mean that, if you wanted to fight a corporation, you'd have to hack the personal datastores of multiple characters to try to find one of them with a record of bad behavior. That's not necessarily bad gameplay, but it's probably complicated enough that it would put off some players who might otherwise try this gameplay mode. Putting all of an organization's official actions in one place would promote this kind of gameplay.)
HOW TO CORRUPT AN ORGANIZATION
This implies that there might be two ways to hide bad actions related to an organization: mark dangerous log entries as hidden, and allow "off the books" contracts with characters who aren't in your organization.
Marking log entries as hidden in an corporate datastore implies that the organization itself understands that it's engaging in bad behavior (through the actions of its members acting on its behalf), since the person running the org could read any hidden logs and know who's doing what. If they don't fire your butt most rikki-tik, they -- and the whole organization -- become complicit in your activity.
Off-the-books contracts just become log entries in your personal datastores. This is the route you'd take if you wanted to hose an organization from within, or if you wanted to do something bad on behalf of the org but wanted plausible deniability.
THE ART OF THE HACK
These features combine to create some pretty nifty gameplay possibilities that complement the more overt shooty-bang-bang gameplay.
These could include double agents who get recruited into your organization (not unlike some of the backstabbery seen in EVE Online), or straight-up cyberninjas. In both these cases, enemies who can gain physical access to your datastore (personal or corporate) could try to decrypt it. In the case of an corporate datastore, they could also try to find and crack any hidden log entries. If successful, the damning log entries would be copied to the invader's datastore to use as they choose. Naturally, the owner of any datastore should be able to detect and fight such decryption attempts.
For obtaining access to a personal or corporate datastore, and for finding a specific log entry, I imagine that ThymineC's revised hacking interface might be just the ticket. You'd select the target datastore, then attempt to precisely match the unique frequency of the datastore's security program. When you think you've matched it closely enough, you click the "Do it!" button. If you're close enough, you get access without alerting the datastore's owner. If you're not close enough, the datastore's owner is notified of an failed attempt to hack their system.
If you're successful, then you get to try to find the log you want. And then copying an individual log to your personal datastore takes some time, so you can't just copy everything in one blast. (Just as a gameplay mechanic, I think allowing a hacker to copy all the logs from a successfully hacked datastore would make things too easy.) It might be fun to start a timer running at this point -- take too long to find some juicy information, and the datastore's owner is notified that someone is rummaging through their system.
OBJECTIONS AND RESPONSES
As with any system, this one is not perfect. Some questions I can think of:
1. Josh is not made of time. Implementing this feature might take time away from some other gameplay that more likely players would use.
Possibly true. That's a judgment call for Josh.
2. Many players may never use the "keep track of your significant actions" system. The effort spent on this feature would be wasted for them.
I would address this by finding additional fun uses for logging significant events. For example, it might be cool/useful to see a visual record of all the star systems you've visited -- a playback of this might look a little bit like the end-of-game playback mode from the original Civilization. (You can see an example of that in this video starting at timecode 7:15.)
Even if they don't use their personal or corporate datastores much, more players might find the public market terminal datastore useful for searching for the contracts other characters have offered or taken. But I suspect other enjoyable uses could be found for the personal and organizational databases.
3. Corporate datastores might be overkill. Maybe all that's really needed is logging significant actions to that character's personal datastore, and letting those be the target of hacking attempts.
I'd be open to this as a way to get the important parts of this system implemented. That said, I do like the idea of being able to hack corporate datastores to try to find their secrets.
4. If NPCs can do this, would it be fun to be hacked?
I'm naturally inclined to say "no, I wouldn't enjoy that," so I'd want NPC hacking of player characters to be very unlikely until they've taken actions to harden their datastores against intruders. Then it's a fair fight.
5. What if no hacking minigame is implemented?
Hacking is one way of making nefarious deeds risky. Without hacking, some other way would have to be found to maintain that risk of other characters finding out what you've done. Physically copying another character's datastore comes to mind, but I expect there are better solutions.
So, comments? Am I needlessly generating systems where existing game mechanics are enough? Or are there important systems required to make covert actions both possible and risky that aren't mentioned here?
Is this kind of information warfare too much for LT 1.0?
[edited for clarity/grammar]