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Tonight the Stars Revolt - Notes on an Eve Scandal

A discussion of the Great Micro-transaction Revolt in Eve Online, why it matters to the rest of us, and why Eve and its players aren't quite like any others.

As a lapsed Eve Online player (for non-ideological reasons), I've noticed people on the outside wondering just what the big deal is that has caused players to get in such a furor over CCP's attempt to introduce micro-transactions in the game...badly. To recap: CCP released their latest expansion, Incarna, with a cash shop and an alternate currency, the Aurum (AUR). Aurum are acquired by buying Pilot License Extensions (PLEX) - $20 game time tokens, which are already traded (with full CCP sanction) for ISK, the game's main currency. The prices of the items that have been released so far (including the infamous $70 monocle) made it clear that CCP's budget department need to recheck the definition of “micro”. About the same time, internal CCP documents were leaked which included discussion of expanding micro-transactions to non-vanity items.

Eve  players complain all the time, of course – nearly every change in the game brings some loud, vocal factions of players who dislike it. But this time the rage has gone Titan-sized: in-game protests of hundreds, reported subscription cancellations in the thousands (granted many of them are annual or semi-annual and may not expire for months), even players going so far as to name and shame (and possibly shoot down in-game) the few tens of monocle wearers. So what's the big deal? Other games have introduced micro-transaction stores, including items with in-game bonuses, with far less furor. No one is obligated to buy the items that do exist, after all.

If you're asking those questions though, I suspect you don't have the whole story. There are things in this case that run deeper than their surface appearance, and anyone who runs MMOs and online communities would do well to take a note of them.

If You Say One Thing, You Better Mean it

The leaked document that lit the fuse, which CCP claims was intended only as internal debate and not policy, runs contrary to a statement CCP made at last autumn's meeting of the Council of Stellar Management that items in the micro-transaction store would be vanity only and have no game-play effect. This is the crux of the players' gripes. The fury was compounded by a second leaked email that appeared to contradict the semi-apologetic dev blog that CCP put out in response; the leaked mail from one of the game's producers was encouraging the staff to weather the storm, that the players were so far showing “very predictable feedback” and that they would not be jerked around easily.

Now, here's the thing: if CCP had simply affirmed that they were sticking to their word from the CSM meeting and micro-transactions would be vanity-only, the furor would have been calmed. Instead their responses were vague and weasel-worded enough such as to leave the door open to interpretation. And the players have certainly done that – true or not, in many people's minds, CCP may as well have broken their promise by even entertaining the idea behind their back.

Devs, clear communication with your players is important. Even bad news will be received better if you are honest and forthright about it. We saw this very same thing already this year with Sony and the PSN; we're used to is from big corporate conglomerates but we expect better from scrappy independents like CCP.

Devs, also, listen to your players. No, the customer is not always right, especially in matters of game design and finances, but listen also to who is talking and how many of them, and consider what they're saying and why before dismissing it. You, devs, are not always right either, and you have to learn both when it's right to hold your ground and when you've done something very stupid.

You Killed Me, But At Least It Was Fair

Eve is a PvP culture, harsh, often unforgiving and ultra-competitive, more so than most MMOs. I've got no problem with the inherent idea of a cash shop; I occasionally play Dungeons and Dragons Online  and I've thrown money at Turbine from time to time that way.

However, you have to recognize that Eve is a unique beast. If I buy a nicer sword from the cash shop in DDO and use it to slay kobolds better, I benefit, but other players are only minimally affected by it. If I buy a ship from an Eve  cash shop, and if it's nicer than what I could get otherwise, I'm likely to use it to shoot other players, who may then be mad at the unfairness (perceived or otherwise) of the fact that I paid to win. If the ship is comparable to what exists in the game, it means one ship I haven't bought from the regular market – and remember that most of Eve's market is completely player-driven. Compounded, that has an effect on the games economy, a beast so complex that CCP retains an in-house economist to make sense of it all.

How's that different from buying and selling game time for ISK? Well, not everyone is happy with that market either, but for the most part it seems to be grudgingly tolerated. The ISK circulates in the economy, it doesn't guarantee that the player is going to use that ISK wisely (someone who buys ISK but keeps getting expensive ships blown up is the sort of repeat customer the tycoons love), players with more time than money can earn ISK the normal way and keep playing the game that way, and players with more money than time get to have more fun with the time they have.

Now, me, personally, I'm not so rabidly against useful item micro-transactions, but incorporating them into Eve is not straightforward. It maybe could be done without breaking things, but if there is a solution, I don't know it. It would be nice for me (who is generally resistant to subscription games) if a micro-transaction store allowed CCP to also include a limited free-to-play options in the game...and there's the other shoe dropping. The micro-transactions are on top  of a $15/month subscription, more if you have multiple accounts. DDO and other games with cash shops offer extra enticements for subscribers, but CCP is only attempting to shoehorn it into the existing business model.

In Space, You Can Hear Them Scream

There is more fuel on the fire than just micro-transactions: an apparent trend of CCP falling short of user's expectations. Incarna, formerly codenamed Ambulation, formerly codenamed Walking In Stations, has been on the drawing board for over five years. Incarna was supposed to be huge – full station environments, social lounges, new political-focused gameplay, more player-driven economy, clothes and architecture designed by professionals in their real-life fields. What players actually got were, yes, new character tech, but Capitan's Quarters for only one race, a limited initial clothing selection, and an interface that many feel is more complex and less efficient (to the degree that can be said of any complex Eve UI) than the old station UI. (Remember, Eve, PvP, competitive...and time sensitive). More content is promised...soon. But CCP has a lackluster track record of iterating on flagship features after release. 2009's Faction Warfare, the big epic clash between empires promising player influence in their space and storyline, was admittedly released “pre-nerfed” insofar as its effect on the game world, and has yet to be un-nerfed...or properly balanced. (A shame; FW is particularly dear to me even for its faults). 2010's Planetary Interaction, a mechanic that's supposed to integrate later with Dust 514, is decidedly lackluster in gameplay appeal

There has also been speculation that not all is truly well within CCP. Both leaks were anonymous and not linked to any outside hacker or the like; the logical assumption is that they came from employees., a site for employees to anonymously review their bosses, ranks CCP rather low (granted from a small and self-selecting sample), citing a negative attitude to criticism and disorganized management among other things. The company is also working on two very big and very expensive projects – Dust 514 and the World Of Darkness  MMO, which of course leads to speculation about their balance sheet and any stress from that. Let me say it multiple times just so it's clear, however: speculation, speculation, speculation. The salt cellar is being passed around accordingly.

In spite of all this, I do have a lot of respect for CCP in many ways. I applaud their ambition in game design: Eve and the upcoming Dust are doing things that others in the industry only dream of. I've seen their tech demos from Fanfest and GDC and what they have on display has been wonderful to behold. This weekend in Iceland they will be meeting with the members of the CSM to try and smooth over their differences...although if they had communicated clearly, they might never have had to call the emergency meeting in the first place. I do genuinely want to see the company stay on their feet.

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