CCP sure does, and at GDC this week, the company reflected on some lessons learned from its introduction of virtual goods to EVE Online. Associate Producer Ben Cockerill from CCP games offered a candid look at what the team learned through both player response and market data. While the initial launch of virtual goods in Incarna sparked a fierce objection on the forums and even in-game protests and riots, things have settled down quite a bit, and CCP seems confident that it is headed in the right direction now.
Read on for a look at why virtual goods were introduced into EVE Online and what the team has learned so far.
While EVE Online is traditionally a subscription-based game, Cockerill explained that the MMO moved closer to a free-to-play model when PLEX was introduced in 2008. The addition of purchasable game time created a symbiosis between time-rich and time-poor players. The time-poor players want to get into the game quickly, and they're willing to spend money to catch up. Meanwhile, time-rich players have lots of currency lying around and don't necessarily want to pay to play. As a result, PLEX opened up a secondary game market that benefits both parties, with CCP, rather than a less-trustworthy outside third-party, reaping the revenue. He added that the most popular PLEX bundle is $104.97, showing that gamers are willing to spend a lot of money on their hobby.
But it wasn't until the launch of Incarna that players actually saw virtual goods added to the game, and there are two reasons why. First, Incarna brought about the introduction of avatar-based gameplay, and that opens up a new focus on player expression and customization. Second, DUST 514, currently in development, is an MMOFPS that will be in direct competition with EVE, and it will launch with virtual goods. The team needed knowledge and readiness for DUST 514, and a good way to accelerate the learning process was to implement it in EVE.
The team looked at other games' virtual goods markets and examined their pricing strategies in particular. Cockerill explained that it's hard for players to assign value to items unless they have something to refer to, so CCP used that to figure out its prices. Overall, CCP wasn't looking to sell a lot of items; instead, it was aiming for high graphical quality. In other words, the company wanted to be an upscale clothing boutique rather than a Walmart.
In addition to the virtual goods, CCP added a new currency called Aurum. Cockerill explained that originally, the relationship just revolved around PLEX and ISK, but now, a third point has been added as PLEX can be converted to Aurum. Right now, Aurum is only used to purchase virtual goods, but the team plans to build on that and allow it to be sold for ISK, completing the cycle once again.
The launch of the virtual goods market was, to put it mildly, not well received by the players. As Massively readers probably recall, there was a lot of negative feedback both on the forums and in the game. He showed the 1500 player-strong force trying to destroy the war memorial in Jita as just one example of the players' disapproval. He added that the protests and riots weren't due only to the existence of virtual goods, but they definitely did play a major role. Cockerill noted that one major concern from players was the idea that the changes were the beginning of a slippery slope, and that the game would change from one where skill and friends decided victory to one where money was the deciding factor. But as Cockerill discussed, PLEX already touched on that issue because players had been using it to finance their operations. Some players poured thousands of dollars into it but were still defeated by more-skilled players. Likewise, the team believed that Aurum, like PLEX, wouldn't change things in-game.
As for the lessons learned, Cockerill said that initially the team rushed to get the virtual goods market up and running, and it launched with a mere eight items. On top of that, only one item was available at the lower end of the price scale (and one, the monocle, at the other end), leaving players to wonder whether everything would be in the mid-to-high price range. In the second wave of additions, the team included four more mid-range items and one at the high end, but this time, the devs added more items that were on the lower end of the price range. By wave three, CCP had added another six items to the lower end, showing that it is intent on fleshing things out and adding a better variety of priced items overall. Cockerill quickly added that in wave four, the team plans to continue adding more inexpensive items.
The lesson, he said, was that CCP should have released all of its price anchors initially. Next, he admitted that the team lacked organizational readiness, so it scrambled to put key people and processes in place to handle the negative player response.
Lastly, he said that one key misstep was that the team didn't aim at the desires of the current playerbase. CCP put items in the store that focused on the avatar-based gameplay of Incarna, but that wasn't the current player type in EVE. The thousands of players active in EVE were used to ship-based gameplay, and as a result, they were less interested in non-ship-based cash-shop purchases. Cockerill said the team should have focused on adding cosmetic ships to the store, and that's actually at the top of the list to get into the game soon.
Cockerill finished by revealing which item was the highest grossing asset for sale in EVE. That's right -- it's the infamous monocle, priced at $65. Why? Cockerill speculated on a few possibilities. First, it's a cool item and a prominent asset that does look impressive on the avatar heads that have always been in game. But he feels it's also somewhat popular because of the controversy surrounding it. If you dock wearing one, there's no doubt that people will fight you, and for some, that's a reason to buy it.
Overall, the team learned a lot in a short time about virtual goods in EVE Online, and while the process wasn't exactly smooth-sailing, Ben Cockerill is confident that CCP is now able to balance the sandbox element with a solid market.
GDC Online 2011: CCP on virtual goods in EVE Online
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