Automation in Tradewars 2002
Last night I wanted to sit down and try to see what automation offers the Tradewars 2002 experience. As an old-school player, this was an abhorrent thought, as the enjoyment of TW2002 depends on the decisions that are made on which sector you’ll be moving to, keeping notes about where stations are and what they sell, and self-mapping the universe. Also, as a long time MMO player, I’m not a fan of min/maxing or racing to the end game, so I wasn’t too keen on the idea of helper apps that strip away the convention of the game in some kind of headlong rush to financial success. But I figured since this was a personal server, seeing what these apps were about wouldn’t be so horrible, just so I can say that I did.
The first thing I needed to do was to get TWXProxy running. This is an app that sits between your telnet client and the server stream. Rather than connect your client direct to the server, you connect TWXProxy to the server, and then connect your client to TWXProxy (hence…proxy). This app collects data from the stream and makes it available to you from the telnet console, things like last known station resources and a kind of textual map of the known universe. I had to set the listening port to something other than 23, and then set up a new PuTTY profile to connect to Localhost on that custom port to get it to connect.
Next up was SWATH. This is a custom telnet client that features a sidebar on the left of the window that you can use to track info like current sector, the number of turns you have left, your cash, what’s in your holds, and you ship stats. It has a toolbar across the top to allow access to common functions, and a macro toolbar along the right side for custom commands. I set up SWATH to connect to TWXProxy, creating a kind of “super group” of automation and information.
The primary use of both TWXProxy and SWATH is for script-automating “tedious” tasks — the basic TW2002 game, in other words. I wasn’t sure what kind of scripts TWXProxy came with, but SWATH’s evaluation version comes with a few. I opted to check out the “trade pair” script, which allows you to automatically buy specific goods in specific quantites from a specific station and sell at a different one.
Using TWXProxy’s last known station report, I found a station that had a 100% saturation of Equipment. That meant they were full up and would take lower payments in order to get rid of their excess. My home station was buying and was lacking in Equipment, so I could get a good price there. I had twelve cargo holds and set up the trade pair to buy twelve Equipment from the original port, and to sell twelve units at my home port.
The script takes care of everything: the haggling for the lowest price, the buying of the goods, the movement to the next system, the haggling for the highest price, and the selling of the goods. It then heads back to the origin and starts over again.
SWATH’s eval mode only allows for limited script use, so I quickly ran out of time, but I had already increased my net worth from 1300 credits to 33000 credits in under five minutes. That would have taken several days to do by hand, and all of it would have been tedious.
Is this cheating? Online games specifically ban macros like these because by and large they are considered to be hacks. Obviously, the TW2002 community doesn’t care, as I think it’s kind of expected that people are using these. So much of this game is really just busy-work: moving between sectors, porting and trading, manual note-taking and mapping; rinse and repeat. Back in the day, I would say that this was part of the allure. You had a kind of tactical decision to make: keep to the local safe road and slow profit, or venture forth in search of a far-flung and more lucrative trade route.
After my run, I headed to the Starport and banked 10k of those credits, bought more holds and more fighters (the Ferrengi are particularly aggressive in this game for some reason). Thing is, even at 33k credits, I didn’t have enough to upgrade my ship. It was about all I could do to afford the eight extra holds and the 50 new fighters, and still have some cash on hand to continue trading with. 33k is not a lot of cash in TW2002.
Thinking about it now, though, the trade pair script works until it’s no longer lucrative to maintain that route. You will deplete the stock of the origin station, and will eventually saturate the buyer port, and that that point those two stations are basically useless as a pair until they replenish their stock (which is based on the server settings). At that point, you’ll need to find another trade pair. And then another. And then another. If you’re playing on a server with a lot of other people, all (or most) of whom are using these kinds of scripts, then you’ll be fighting one another for complimentary trade pairs, and possibly helping to unbalance the commodity market in the process.
So while scripting takes the tedium out of the old school method of playing, I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing. The game was designed to self-correct gregarious trade by forcing players to move about while stations restock. That encourages exploration. While on a higher level this also encourages “rotation” between trade pairs, having more people in the game could interrupt that rotation, adding chaos to the best laid plans.
Because this is a low population server (very low…currently me and one other player), I’m not super concerned about the ramifications of this kind of behavior. Even if all six concurrent player slots are active at once (although there’s room for 200 total players), I don’t think we’ll have any “famine” conditions. Right now it’s PvE, and the players are getting their asses kicked. Building up cash, upgrading, and fighting back against the AI is actually the core conceit of any modern MMO anyway.