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EVE Evolved: Third-party development

Brendan Drain
Brendan Drain|@nyphur|June 19, 2011 6:00 PM
When EVE Online was first released in 2003, it was a primitive beast from a small indie studio operating out of a tiny office in Reykjavik, Iceland. Although EVE has been expanded over the years, not all of that development has come from creator CCP Games. EVE players routinely step in to fill gaps in the game's functionality through the development of third-party applications, websites and tools. Early apps like the EVEMon skill planner were very limited in what information they could access about a player's character, but with the introduction of the EVE API system, a huge wealth of information became available.

Since then, we've seen a resurgence of third-party app and tool development, producing impressive apps like Capsuleer and Aura for the iPhone. We've also seen some incredibly useful websites like the ICSC jump planner suite, gambling site SOMER.blink and the Dotlan EVE maps with regularly updating statistics. Most app developers work on the projects in their spare time, and until now they've relied on donations or advertising revenue to keep up with server costs or keep development worth the time invested. As EVE is CCP's intellectual property, it's illegal for anyone to make money from it without the company's permission. This week, CCP released the first draft of a contract that would allow developers to monetise their apps, but the proposal was not received well by the EVE community.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at third-party app development and what's wrong with the proposed deal.

The Capsuleer project

When the iPhone first appeared on the market, EVE players PyjamaSam and Roc Wieler set about building the ultimate EVE app for it. Capsuleer started as a simple skill training monitor and eventually evolved into a whole suite of tools to keep track of your EVE life on the move. After years of hosting servers for the program and absorbing ongoing development costs, the two developers sought a licensing deal with CCP that would let them sell the app.

The original plan was to move advanced features like market transaction tracking to a premium subscription service and use some of the money to help port the app to other platforms like Android-based phones and the new Windows phone. Talks with CCP stalled, with the company announcing plans to eventually create a deal that all app developers could take advantage of. Although CCP now intends to get this deal in place by the summer, it comes far too late for Capsuleer, which shut down in early October of last year.

Price point

When the first draft of the proposal went live, we found out that a commercial license to sell EVE apps and tools would cost developers $99 US per year. Players were instantly enraged at the fee, and assurances that the cost could be lowered did little to calm them. What really annoyed people wasn't the size of the fee but the fact it was there in the first place. Ninety-nine dollars per year is in line with Microsoft's and Apple's development fees, but even with dozens of major app developers, that income would be a tiny drop in the ocean for CCP. If the fee is that inconsequential, why charge it at all?

CCP clearly doesn't need the actual money from the licenses and has not yet explained where the fees would be going or why they're being charged. All we've been told so far is that the license fee would "partially cover expenses from this initiative" and that "$99 is the lowest that we estimated that we could reasonably go and still justify the cost of the service." What we haven't been told is why the service will cost CCP $99 per developer per year. Given that the service is a passive contract, it's not clear why $99 per year is the lowest reasonable fee and why CCP couldn't reasonably absorb those costs itself.

Non-commercial and in-game services

People who currently work on apps, tools and websites for free have voiced severe disappointment at the proposal. A free non-commercial license is available for anyone using the EVE IP and not making a profit, but this doesn't extend to cover ad-supported or donation-supported developers who typically barely break even on running costs. Under this proposal, putting Google adverts or a donate link on an EVE fansite would require a commercial $99/year license. This would create a massive barrier to entry that would force the developers of those tools to fund ongoing costs from their own pockets, charge users an ongoing fee or shut the projects down.

The most ludicrous part of the proposal is that people who receive ISK donations or payments will also need buy a commercial license. This reverses a fundamental policy about trading certain services freely for ISK and the freedom of accepting ISK donations for creative efforts. That open policy has been the basis for some incredible emergent gameplay, allowing players to make in-game professions from their real life skills. Web development, programming, music parody, graphic design, video editing and even server administration have all been turned into in-game profit-making ventures. This part of the proposal is unlikely to go forward, and the final contract will almost certainly exclude in-game ISK payments from the commercial license requirement.

Non-profit development

The crux of the problem seems to rest in CCP's definition of a profit-making entity. Most of EVE's free websites and tools incur ongoing server costs that are paid for in part by donations or advertising. The ICSC jump planner would require a commercial license under the new system because it uses advertising to help pay the server costs. Battleclinic and other killboards would suffer the same fate, and the developers of tools like EVE Fitting Tool and Dotlan maps will have to stop accepting support donations or find a way to pay the license fee. Those are not profit-making enterprises, and their creators should not be charged for the privilege of providing EVE with an invaluable resource.

Ex-CSM Dierdra Vaal was quick to point out the absurdity of the arrangement, stating that since EVE University is funded by in-game donations and has a public website that uses the EVE IP, it may require a commercial license. Chribba, the creator and host of EVE-Files, EVE-Search and other tools, emphasized that the price of the license wasn't the issue. "This is not about the $99," he wrote in response to the devblog. "This is about how you want to charge me because I want to do something for the community out of my free will." Worthwhile endeavours like EVE Radio and EVE-Files currently barely support their ongoing server costs with advertising and donations.

Final thought

When I first heard that CCP would begin letting us monetise third party apps and services, I was genuinely excited. I thought, perhaps optimistically, that paid apps would get access to special premium API functions like changing skills, sending mails and joining corp chat from outside the client. I've always looked forward to the possibility of selling EVE apps and to all the new tools we'll see created as a result of properly incentivised development. EVE has a resourceful and talented community that has worked for years to make the game better, and it will be incredible to see what people come up with when there's money in it for them.

The proposal released this week was intended to enable people who want to make a profit using the EVE IP, but it would accidentally kill off most non-profit websites and apps in the process. While it's honestly surprising that this proposal made it into the public eye in its current state, CCP Zulu assured players that everything ca be changed based on player feedback. Zulu told players that no system would go into place "Until we have a license that meets our needs and your expectations." We can only hope that the concerns players expressed this week are all taken into account when the next proposal draft is drawn up.

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.