The negative impact of RMT and its associated problems is felt in every popular MMO, and EVE Online is no exception. The direct balance issues inherent in allowing players to buy ISK with cash are just the tip of a very unpleasant iceberg. Players who buy ISK from shady websites and services are the reason that the rest of us have to put up with spam-bots in popular chat channels, rampant account hacking, and macros taking up a disproportionately large cut of EVE's in-game resources and server load.
In this week's EVE Evolved, I look into the problems caused by RMT, why macro-farming operations have become so wide-spread, and what CCP has done to combat this growing problem.
The problems that RMT causes
The MMO market has been moving more toward microtransaction-based payment methods over the past few years. Arguably, buying in-game currency directly is the ultimate form of microtransaction -- everything you can buy in the game becomes an item in a cash shop. This has a big impact on games based significantly on resource acquisition, making RMT particularly desirable in EVE. Territorial wars often come down to a matter of which side can afford to sustain major losses. What use is it killing an enemy capital fleet when the alliance leader can take out his credit card and absorb the loss to his bank balance?
As bad as the above scenario may sound, it's important to keep in mind that you can never buy victory. At least if someone buys his way into EVE or uses real-life money to replace war losses, he can still be defeated repeatedly through normal means. That problem pales in comparison to the other problems connected with RMT. Much of the ISK sold through RMT services comes from hacked accounts and macro-farming operations. In addition, the massive influx of ISK that wouldn't ordinarily be coming into the game has an inflationary effect, increasing prices and thus reducing the buying power of an ordinary player's income. To top it off, most popular chat channels and solar systems are filled with spam-bots advertising their illicit ISK-selling services.
The macro situation
ISK-farming has been a hot topic for discussion in the EVE community lately, with the revelation of how prevalent the problem has become over the past year. To provide a completely scalable farming operation and so produce untold billions of ISK, ISK-farmers tend to use infinite resource streams like ice asteroids, respawning asteroid belt NPCs and repeatable missions. For as far back as I can remember, EVE has been the target of sweatshop mission-running and ice-mining operations. During operation Unholy Rage, over 6,200 farming accounts linked with RMT were banned and a major blow was dealt to the sweatshops. Since then, the ongoing battle between CCP and sweatshop farmers has continued. Unfortunately, sweatshops aren't the only groups farming ISK for sale.
With their ability to work 23/7 and tiny running costs, automated farming macros have become a lucrative business. To avoid being caught in the act and reported, a huge number of farming operations target underused areas of nullsec. When farmed correctly, the asteroid belts in nullsec can provide a free infinite stream of high-bounty battleships to kill. Since Dominion, this situation has gotten worse with the introduction of infinitely respawning cosmic anomalies provided by system upgrades. Many major alliances rent areas of their space out to smaller organisations and won't ask questions about how the space will be used or where all the ISK for rent is coming from. This makes nullsec a prime location for macro-farmers.
A legitimate way to buy ISK
As part of operation Unholy Rage, CCP introduced a fairly effective countermeasure to the growing RMT problem. PLEX, or 30-day Pilot's License EXtensions, are in-game items created by redeeming EVE game time codes. PLEX can be sold on the in-game market to other players, who can then redeem them for game time. This gives cash-rich players the ability to effectively buy ISK without resorting to shady ISK-selling services. As a handy side-effect, it also allows cash-poor players with plenty of ISK to effectively play the game for free.
Of all the problems described earlier in this article, the most disruptive ones seem to be solved by the PLEX stystem. Buying ISK via PLEX doesn't contribute to the proliferation of spam bots, the mass-farming of resources or the rampant macro-ratting in nullsec. Since the ISK that players buy through PLEX is acquired in-game through ordinary means, it also doesn't contribute to the rapid introduction of ISK into the game and so hasn't got the same inflationary pressure on the value of an ordinary player's ISK.
PLEX – a positive compromise
To be effective in counteracting RMT, PLEX must provide a legitimate and desirable method for players to buy ISK. In that sense, they are a compromise as cash-rich players can still buy their way into the game. Alliance leaders with deep pockets in real life can feasibly pump as much cash as they want into the game to help turn the tide of war in their favour. On a more personal level, a rich player can even buy an older character with ISK and shortcut much of the game's skill training process. Despite this, and because players would buy ISK even without a legitimate method of doing so, the PLEX system solves enough problems to be a very worthwhile system.
If the EVE forums are anything to go by, most players do want to help fight against RMT, ISK-spammers, macro-farmers and other such disruptive influences on the game and its development. CCP has provided players with an alternative and safe method to buy ISK. Providing CCP makes good on its promise to educate players in the existence of PLEX and the problems associated with the use of other RMT services, the only people left using illicit sites will be those looking for a better deal despite the risks and unseen consequences. Those people have absolutely no excuse.
The past few years have shown beyond doubt that there are players who want to buy ISK. Whether it's a regular ISK-injection to shortcut the grind or an infrequent spend to replace an unexpected loss, some players want to play EVE with additional microtransactions. PLEX offer a way for these players to buy ISK without the risk of being banned or the certainty of contributing to account hacking, mass farming and ISK-spamming. Operation Unholy Rage began with a major blow to the producers, and yet we still have a major RMT problem. We can only hope that the next phase of CCP's plan involves taking out an unholy rage on the buyers, because without them there is no RMT industry.
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.