I've been playing Fallout 3 again recently. It's still a good game. One of the aspects of the game has gotten me thinking though. Quite apart from the quest lines and the normal course of bartering you can turn in certain items you find scavenging the ruins of DC for a reward. Let's take an example:
Sugar Bombs have a listed value of 5 caps, which means that the various eateries in the capital wasteland will sell them to you for six to eight caps, depending on how many points you've put into barter. Murphy, a ghoul in Meresti Station, will buy Sugar Bombs from you at 15 caps per (more if you talk him into it). So quite apart from scavenging, whenever I'm at a bar trying to parlay a battered suit of Raider Badlands Armor into a stimpack or two I pick up any Sugar Bombs they have on hand.
There are a number of other turn-ins. The Brotherhood of Steel will give you 100 caps per pre-war book (nominal value of 1). Walter at the water processing plant in Megaton will give you 10 caps per piece of scrap metal (nominal value of 1) and Winthrop in Underworld will trade chems direct; 5 pieces of scrap metal for 1 Stimpack, Rad X or Radaway. There are more, but those should suffice for the current discussion.
Back to the Sugar Bombs for a moment. If they're generated at one point (let's assume that a different scavenger brought them in and sold them off). You can make a profit just by knowing where you can buy them and where you can sell them. Arbitrage.
Given how much time I spend in game keeping an eye on things I can buy one place and sell another, couldn't you get rid of all that stuff with Super Mutants and raiders and so forth and just make a game about buying stuff one place and selling it another? Oh, right, that's what the Escape Velocity series was all about. And come to think of it, EVE Online. Except they tend to junk it up with random spaceship battles.
Let me clarify for a moment; I love gunning down super mutants and blowing up spaceships and such. It's just that I can name a dozen games where you have spaceships trying to blow each other up; Escape Velocity is the only one I can think of with that sort of trading.
So why is that? Well, that sort of thing gets boring after a while. Supposing you find a good route. You land, fill up your hold, take off, fly three star systems over, land, sell everything off. Buy something else, take off, fly back to the first system, sell everything off. Repeat. You get to see numbers go up, but that's not much of a reward for a mechanical task. You also get to upgrade your ship, which is a case of "I can make the numbers go up faster", unless you're also branching into space combat. That gives you a whole range of potentially interesting upgrades, which makes the Escape Velocity games work.
Its' still the trading system that makes them unique though. And I don't want to make a game that's just a copy. So we modify the trading. In particular, we automate. Instead of physically transporting the goods from one system to another, you hire someone else to do it. You establish a trade route, which then gives you a certain profit each time your captain completes it, and then you move on trying to find another.
At this point we've got a puzzle. Or at least the wherewithal to build a puzzle. Once you find the best trade routes it's essentially solved. You can increase the life of the game and also make it
closer to life if you change the efficacy of the routes over time. Winthrop in underworld might finally get enough scrap metal, and offer a lower bounty. Murphy has a pretty small operation, and might only be able to process a certain number of Sugar Bombs. If we make the value of certain runs time dependant, you have to keep an eye on them and redirect your caravans when they stop being profitable. It's still a puzzle, but a trickier one.
From here we could make this into a full on game. We'd need a way for several players to interact, or a way to keep it interesting for a single player. (At this point it pretty much has to be a video game; it's entirely too time consuming to do all these calculations with a physical game.) We'd also need to strip out the references to Fallout or Escape Velocity; it's all right borrowing mechanics, but taking from someone's creative side might engender a law suit. In any case, we've got plenty of games being designed right now, so I feel comfortable leaving this idea to simmer where it is.