EVE Evolved: Do PLEX make EVE pay-to-win?

EVE Evolved title image
Several years ago, the subscription model was king and the mere mention of an MMO selling in-game items for cash was almost enough to cause a virtual riot. RMT was the devil, and players who bought swords or spaceships for cash deserved nothing short of a permanent ban. The past decade of development has changed the MMO landscape and brought in a new generation of gamers with different attitudes. Today's players have grown up with and embraced ideas like the free-to-play business model, microtransaction shops, and perhaps even the idea of buying in-game advantages for cash.

In his latest Free for All column, Massively's Beau Hindman tackled the controversial issue of MMOs selling power for real cash, and his points about EVE Online sparked some pretty interesting discussion in the comments. The crux of the argument was that an EVE player can currently take out his wallet and buy his way into a bigger ship or even pick up a pre-trained veteran character. That's certainly true, but is that the same as buying an unfair advantage and does it necessarily make EVE pay-to-win?

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at why players find PLEX so much more palatable than direct item sales and ask whether the system fits the definition of pay-to-win.

EVE Evolved side imageHow do PLEX work?

The PLEX system started life as a GM ruling that allowed any player to pay for another's game time in exchange for in-game ISK. People had been doing this for months at the time, and there was no real way to police it, so developers decided to support it. With game time code sales no longer restricted to black-market deals, players were free to trade them more securely on the forum. There was some complaint at the time that this was essentially the same as buying and selling ISK, but players quickly got used to the idea because the ISK was coming from ordinary players.

Before long, CCP streamlined the process with the introduction of the PLEX, an in-game license item that represents 30 days of pre-purchased game time. Now anyone can effectively play EVE for free by buying a PLEX each month from the in-game market or purchase ISK for cash by selling PLEX on the in-game market. It's a little funny that the PLEX system came about as part of CCP's war on RMT, as it has now become the template for one of the biggest forms of RMT in the industry. Lots of games now employ similar systems in which players can freely trade in-game currency for cash subscriptions or microtransactions.

EVE Evolved side imageGenerating items out of thin air

EVE players seem to be perfectly fine with the idea of buying ISK as long as it's done through the PLEX system. This is the same playerbase that quit in droves during the monoclegate scandal because of the developer's refusal to answer a question about whether there were plans to sell gameplay-affecting microtransactions. Think about that for a moment. EVE players absolutely will not stand for CCP selling things like ships directly for cash, but they're OK with CCP selling PLEX that can be traded for ships. Does that seem like a meaningless distinction to make?

The subtle difference between the two scenarios above is in where the items come from. Adding that intermediary PLEX step means the ISK or items are sourced from the existing player economy rather than being generated out of thin air. If CCP sold a ship directly for cash, that ship would be artificially injected into the game and so decrease the player-mediated value of the ships already in the game. Even if CCP were to automatically source the ship from the Jita 4-4 market, the ISK used to purchase it would have been artificially injected into the game. Players seem to object more to external interference in the sandbox than the actual act of buying ISK for cash.

EVE Evolved side imageDoes this count as buying power?

It's hard to argue that selling PLEX for ISK isn't buying power. You could say that ISK is just a measure of time spent grinding and that the real measure of a player's power is in his character's skills, but people also sell their pre-trained characters for ISK. You could similarly argue that true power comes from knowing the right people and pulling the strings of alliances and corporations, but enough ISK could open those doors as well. The best argument is that power in EVE is mostly derived from hands-on experience that can't be bought, but even in that case buying ISK is still undeniably purchasing an advantage.

So why don't we care that someone can legitimately purchase his way to in-game riches? It's probably because everything in EVE is tradeable and so there are no purchasable in-game items or perks that can't be otherwise acquired with ISK. One player can drop $17.50 on a PLEX to get some ISK and another can grind level 4 missions or hoover up rocks to get it. Dropping money into EVE is then just a shortcut to cut out some of the ISK grind. But that grind doesn't just disappear into the ether; it's effectively traded to another player with more time on his hands. The net effect is that no avenue of item or wealth generation in the game is devalued or disrupted.

EVE Evolved title image
There's no doubt that the PLEX system lets you pay for in-game power with cash, but what you're actually buying is an amount of work done by other players within a closed game economy. Selling a PLEX is functionally equivalent to hiring someone to grind up ISK for you at a rate set by normal market forces, and that seems to be a much more palatable idea than spawning ships from thin air or selling exclusive cash shop uber death beams.

While it's technically possible to buy your way into better characters and expensive ships, I don't think that makes it pay-to-win as PLEX don't let you buy anything better than existing players have. Guild Wars 2 uses a similar system that lets players sell microtransaction gems on the trading post for gold, and few people would argue that this makes it a pay-to-win game. Neither game gives paying players an advantage non-paying players can't get or forces you to pay in order to be competitive, and those are the things that make a game pay-to-win.

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 brendan@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.