EVE Evolved: The evolution of microtransactions

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EVE Evolved: The evolution of microtransactions
Two weeks ago, the escalating drama in EVE Online saw me drained of my normal enthusiasm as I contemplated the very real possibility that my time in the game I love was coming to an end. While the forums were filled with the most vocal and angry players, discussions with veteran players featured mainly disappointment and a distinct sadness. For those few days spent in limbo waiting for the results of the emergency CSM meeting, I and many of my in-game friends remained a hair's breadth from giving up on EVE entirely.

It was a delicate situation based more on perception and poor communication than intent or fact, and I think CCP pulled things back well with formal statements from both itself and the CSM in addition to an in-depth follow-up press conference. One of the big points to come out of the press conference was that while CCP and the CSM are both confident that none of the future microtransaction plans are game-breaking, the company did not restrict itself to vanity goods such as Incarna clothing.

While the CSM was convinced that CCP planned only to produce pure vanity goods, CCP Zulu was careful not to rule out gameplay-affecting microtransactions altogether. Both CCP and the CSM also talked about "game-breaking" sales rather than using a clearer term like "gameplay-affecting" or "non-vanity." It's reasonable then to assume that in the future we might eventually get non-vanity goods that do interact with gameplay but aren't game-breaking in terms of balance, mechanics or interaction with the in-game economy.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I show exactly why options like selling ships would be game-breaking and then let my imagination run wild as I speculate on possible non-vanity microtransactions for the far future that shouldn't disrupt gameplay.

Out of thin air

In his official statement to the EVE community, CCP Zulu asserted that "The investment of money in EVE should not give you an unfair advantage over the investment of time." This in itself doesn't contradict the direct sale of ships and items normally produced via in-game means. The CSM was also repeatedly assured by CCP that "ships which have different statistics from existing common hulls" wouldn't be listed for sale, but this again doesn't contradict the sale of standard ships normally produced via in-game means.

Although players can already buy anything in the game by purchasing ISK through the sale of PLEX, this isn't the same thing as buying from a cash shop. The key distinction to be made is that items sold directly in a cash shop are generated out of thin air, bypassing the manufacturing process. Selling ships or other items directly would have a knock-on effect to the game by reducing the financial inventive to engage in manufacturing and other forms of gameplay. If you could buy tech 2 ships or technetium (a rare moon-mineral used in tech 2 production) directly for Aurum, for example, the incentive for territorial warfare and the strategic value of systems with technetium moons could be severely reduced.

Player-run markets

In his recent press conference, CCP Zulu agreed that any microtransaction involving items that can be produced via normal in-game means must be arbitrated through the existing player market rather than items being generated out of thin air. Extrapolating from this viewpoint, it's possible that CCP might aim to let players themselves list items on the NeX exchange in the same way Runes of Magic allows players to sell items in its auction house for diamonds. This would be functionally identical to selling PLEX for ISK and then buying the ships normally, but the effort barrier to purchase may be lower, leading to more sales.

While players could only use the sale proceeds to buy other items in the NeX store, conversion back to ISK would be a simple matter of buying items for Aurum and re-selling them on the normal market. A self-balancing secondary market would emerge on which the ship prices in Aurum are roughly equivalent to the prices in ISK. The issue of selling unique ships directly could also be ameliorated by including the lowest player-market purchase of the base ship with the unique skin price. Market manipulation could be eliminated by CCP pre-purchasing the ships from players for Aurum before the skin is announced and then reclaiming that Aurum by tacking it onto the price of the skin.

Feasibility study

The current redeeming system allows players to collect items in any station. If a player-run Aurum market were introduced with a single point of sale rather than a regionalised marketplace, it could be abused to safely transport goods across the game. One possible solution is to introduce safe transport of items as a game mechanic. We could get an Interbus hauling service that moves ships from one highsec system to another but for a hefty price. If a single purchase of that service were tacked on to every ship sold in the NeX store, it would then be fair to allow players to redeem the ship at any highsec station.

The idea of a player-run Aurum store may also make sense from CCP's perspective. PLEX left unused on the market are technically a financial liability to CCP as they can be redeemed for subscription time but the cash used to purchase them has already been received and probably spent. But as the only way Aurum exits the game is when it's redeemed for vanity items that have no direct real-world price and cost nothing extra to produce, the Aurum stockpile may not count as a liability or need to be featured in any financial reports. Having a lot of Aurum sitting around purchaseable for ISK should also drive up sales of microtransaction items among EVE's most prolific traders, who are the people most likely to buy ridiculously expensive limited edition ship skins as an appreciating commodity.

Shortcutting grind

Zulu's statements give the distinct impression that CCP intends to equate an investment of time directly to an investment of Aurum. This suggests that the cash shop will eventually be expanded from vanity items to convenience goods that shortcut grindy gameplay -- a typical strategy that has proven both effective and acceptable mostly in free to play MMOs. EVE has a number of slow or grindy gameplay elements that players would definitely pay to bypass, but the trick is finding those that can by bypassed without providing a competitive advantage.

While skill points train over time, for example, they are not an investment of time as we can't choose to invest more time for more reward. As such, skill points should not be sold for cash. Similarly, as we can't invest more time to shortcut any waiting mechanic like anchoring a control tower, building a ship, clone jumping or acquiring the once-per-year neural remap, those things should also not be sold for cash. Essentially, money should never provide an option that can't be done normally in-game.

Interestingly, this would change if a new grindable option to speed those things up were introduced. For example, if players could perform a series of in-game tasks to unlock a new neural remap or reduce their clone jump timer to 6 hours for a month, it should be perfectly acceptable to also sell those options for cash as time-saving shortcuts. There would be no competitive advantage gained that can't otherwise be acquired through the investment of a little time or effort.

The ultimate microtransactions

During the early drama surrounding the NeX store, I came across an interesting idea on the EVE forum that was quickly buried in the rabble. The idea was to combine the mission-running loyalty point stores with the NeX store, essentially allowing players to buy items in a corp's LP store with Aurum in place of the loyalty points. My knee-jerk reaction was that this was unacceptable, as the LP stores contain things like faction ships and modules. The more I think about it, however, the more sense this idea makes.

Loyalty points are a non-tradeable reward for running missions and so represent an investment of time spent grinding. Items in the store always cost a sum of ISK plus a certain amount of LP and sometimes additional items. Allowing players to shortcut the LP grind with Aurum bought for ISK or cash doesn't provide an advantage over players with the time to grind missions and so theoretically should be acceptable. The simplest form of this could be just selling LP in the NeX store for cash, and it might also be a good idea to let players convert LP into Aurum and so grind their way to any item in the store. This would be similar to how Runes of Magic sells certain cash shop items for Phirius tokens acquired by completing in-game daily quests.

A gray area

The possibility of short-cutting the mission grind brings up the related issue that agent, corporation and faction standings also represent an investment of time spent grinding missions. Selling faction standings was a contentious point in the EVE community after its mention in the leaked Fearless newsletter, but the sale would be mechanically similar to selling LP. The inclusion of LP and standings in the NeX store, while still theoretical, is definitely something of a gray area that warrants further discussion.

Although the primary reward of mission-running is ISK bounties, you could argue that the ability to buy LP disincentivises mission-running the same way that direct sale of tech 3 ships would disincentivise wormhole exploration. Additionally, how much of the LP or standings grind should a player be able to buy off before it becomes an advantage? Skipping straight to level 3 missions or paying to repair negative standings isn't a big deal, but instantly buying the standings required to anchor a starbase in high security space might be.

For now, CCP seems content to roll out only vanity items and CEO Hilmar Petursson has stated the company's intention to work with the CSM on any future cash shop plans. At some point in the future, however, I would definitely expect gameplay-affecting (but not game-breaking) sales like loyalty points and standings to be introduced. I could even see a player-run Aurum market making an appearance in EVE, with the remote (but potentially awesome) possibility of letting players cash Aurum out of the game at a very low rate.

If the market continues to move toward free-to-play games and both DUST 514 and World of Darkness start producing significant revenue through cash shop sales, I could even see EVE Online going free to play one day. In a few years, the MMO market could be completely different; subscriptions may be frowned on, gameplay-affecting microtransactions could be widely accepted and the recent controversy might seem like a very silly debate to have had.

I don't expect that anything in this article will happen until DUST and WoD are on their feet and producing money as CCP is unlikely to mess too much with its primary revenue stream, but I do think the market is ultimately heading in this direction. Interestingly, I'm unexpectedly not intimidated by that prospect. In fact, a free-to-play EVE with millions of active warring players supported entirely by virtual doll-dressing, busy professionals paying to bypass the mission grind and rich traders speculating on limited-edition ship skins sounds pretty damn good to me.
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