Prosperous Universe Preview - Prosperity Comes Through Complexity
Developer Simulogics certainly doesn’t make compromises. Calling their games “expert games” and describing Prosperous Universe as a “space economy simulation”, you know to not expect an easy ride. As if this wouldn’t be already enough of a niche market by itself, Prosperous Universe is delivered as a browser game - in 2019. Yet, the game, which is currently in its so called first access phase, has quite a lot to offer to those who are willing to dive into a sterilely presented but deep, complex and fully player-driven economy.
The player-driven economic system is certainly the unique selling point of Prosperous Universe. Most commodities are produced by long production chains that involve several companies, aka players. Since it’s a space sim (without any war), trade happens across the whole universe. Only the most basic resources can be extracted directly from a planet without any inputs besides the workforce and the investment in the necessary facility. Everything else need other materials, which you either produce yourself or buy from exchange markets on different planets, where you can place your buy and sell orders.
Depending on the business that you want to start, there are different starting planets to choose from. You can also pick from different starting packages, fitting to your envisioned profession. I for example decided to try my luck in carbon mining. To do so, I was recommended to start on Hortus, a fertile planet with lots of water reserves. Speaking of recommendation, you really shouldn’t start the game without watching the (altogether about one hour long) video tutorials or reading the handbook first. There is a lot you can do wrong, especially in the beginning, and if you for example build the wrong starting infrastructure, it means that you have to reset your company, because you simply can’t become profitable.
With the package I received, I could build my base with two farmsteads that produce basic agricultural products and an incinerator that transforms them into carbon. I quickly realized that water was my only input so far. Now there was a decision to make: Should I regularly buy water from others or build a very expensive rig myself? With the prospect of becoming self-sustainable, I chose the latter. However, being on a planet that is full of water, you can buy it so cheaply that it takes weeks or months until that investment is amortized. These are the sort of decisions you have to make all the time, also when you try to expand your production chain towards more complex products. You will never be able to produce everything yourself.
At the beginning I was trying to sell my produced carbon and excessive water directly on the market of my home planet. It’s easy to do with no transaction fees. But over time prices plummeted, which is not surprising when you are selling those goods on a planet that is anyway full of it. Therefore it is possible to load your space ships (you start with two) with these goods and sell them on the market of a different planet, where there are no natural deposits to produce these commodities. Naturally, demand and prices are much higher there, but space flight needs fuel, and fuel is expensive too. The faster you want to go, the more fuel you need. Since that wouldn’t be already complicated enough, each market belongs to a different faction, with different currencies. So to buy on different markets, you first have to exchange currencies. Even there, the exchange rates are entirely driven by the offers of players.
If your head is already swirling, don’t worry. This is the point where I will stop with describing the spiral of complexity that Prosperous Universe has to offer. Nevertheless I wanted to give an impression of how many things there are to consider in this game and how one decision leads to the next one. Still, with the help of the tutorials it is possible to dive into it step by step without feeling too overwhelmed. It’s this complexity after all that lets you spend much more time with the game than would be necessary by the pure interaction alone. In case you haven’t already guessed, since Prosperous Universe is a browser game, everything happens in real time. It can be tedious when a production process takes a whole day, but at the same time this means that smart decisions are much more important than being online all the time. You can even queue your production tasks in advance to keep the production running.
For a browser game the interface is quite powerful, despite its sober look. You are able to arrange all the necessary information in different tiles and popups to fulfill your individual needs. There is so much different information available that in some rare cases you will even have to enter certain commandos to view it. Ambitious players will still find its limitations at some point. I started to do certain efficiency and profit calculations in my own spreadsheet and I know of other players that do the same. It speaks for Prosperous Universe though to create that sort of commitment.
Despite my enthusiasm for the game, it’s way too early to make any predictions about its longevity. As already mentioned, Prosperous Universe is currently in its first access stage. That means that there are still regular resets and only players who bought a license for this first access are currently able to play. Later on, the game will be free to play, but there will also be the option of monthly subscriptions for premium features. At this point, it’s not clear what they will contain. The developers claim themselves that they will always do their best to “steer clear of pay-to-win and in-game purchases”.
The limited number of players during the first access phase shows the drawbacks of a fully player-driven economy. While in the beginning intergalactic trade was easy with the fuel that every player received as part of their starter package, the economy slowed down visibly in the meantime. Fuel is scarce; therefore there is less exchange between the star systems. Even with heavy losses that some players are willing to take to provide the necessary inputs to allow the economy as a whole to reach higher technological levels, it seems that without a critical number of players it is almost impossible to advance. There seems to be the need for a constant flow of fresh capital from new players for the economy not to crumble. There are certain goods that are offered and bought by the system (at ridiculously high, respectively low prices), but this doesn’t seem to be enough of a solution. Also, right now there are not enough incentives to actually jump to a higher technological tier when there are no other players who can make use of the products produced there. It will be interesting to observe how the markets develop once the player number significantly increases.
Despite these problems, the developers seem to know what they are doing and are in constant exchange with the testers to tweak the shortcomings in the economic system. The core functionality around production and trade works already very stable and tons of expansions (corporations, ship building, politics and so on) are in the pipeline. Therefore I remain hopeful and will certainly continue to observe this interesting project. I only wish they would release a mobile version as well. While I get that the serious gamer audience that is targeted with Prosperous Universe is playing a lot on PC, it would be nice to be able to set a selling order or send a ship while being on the move. The current interface is definitely not made for playing in a mobile browser.