Toldain Talks

Because reading me sure beats working!


Toldain started as an Everquest character. I've played him in EQ2, WoW, Vanguard, LOTRO, and Zork Online. And then EVE Online, where I'm 3 million years old, rather than my usual 3000. Currently I'm mostly playing DDO. But I still have fabulous red hair. In RL, I am a software developer who has worked on networked games, but not MMORPGS.

Friday, June 24, 2011

When No Doesn't Mean No

Eve Online recently launched its latest expansion Incarna. As part of the expansion it introduced a microtransaction market, through which players can purchase items by spending a currency known as Aurum. Aurum, as I write this, can only be obtained by purchasing a PLEX, the same ingame item that can be redeemed for play time, and instead redeeming it for Aurum.

The market is thin, and mostly consists of vanity items, boots, skirts and, of all things, monocles.

As it turns out, Incarna introduced full-body 3d avatars for the first time to EVE. However, in the game as it is today, these avatars are only used in your Captain's Quarters, which can only be occupied by you. So, it seems, nobody can see these vanity items, with one exception - monocles. To add insult to injury, the real world cost of said items is pretty stiff - upwards of $50 to $80. There are no low priced items, and nothing that seems functional.

As if this weren't enough, a copy of an internal newsletter (with the title Fearless) was leaked to the general public. This particular issue was titled "Greed is Good?" and had a picture of Gordon Gekko on it. On page 7 is a pro-con debate on having microtransaction items available that enhanced gameplay in Eve Online. You can download it here.

Kristoffer Touffer is described as "a driving force in CCP's game design department" Kristoffer says

I would like virtual goods sales in EVE. In fact, I’d like to sell a lot more than vanity items. Does this mean I’m an evil capitalist that, unless stopped, will cause the entire company to catch fire and be buried at sea by a secret team of Navy SEALs?
Let’s hope not, although that’s the impression I get sometimes when interacting with our customers. There is a pretty overwhelming perception amongst EVE players that these changes are bad. I think they’re brilliant, but our players
don’t. We’re going to face an uphill struggle, and the reason many of us never talk about this publicly is that we’d be burned at the stake by the players.

Kristoffer gives an example of what kinds of things he'd like to see sold in game:

I’ll give you an example of something I think provides value to our customer, which I’d like to sell. Right now, you can store 50 personal fittings on our servers. That’s more than enough for the average EVE player, but for a subset of our users, it’s too small a number. Why not be able to add more storage space for a small amount of money? You’d even be able to upgrade it multiple times if you needed and permanently add this benefit to your character, making it even more valuable. And you know what? If you don’t like paying for this, you can always buy a PLEX off the market, and never have to get your credit card out. I think that’s pretty goddamn cool, and I’m not entirely sure why that makes me Hitler to some EVE players.

Which touches my first question: Why have Aurum at all? Why not just make everything ISK based? You can already buy ISK in game from CCP by buying GTCs, converting them to PLEXes and selling them on the market. I have a guess at why they introduced Aurum: So they can sell it or give it away directly eventually, and set their own price for it, rather than letting the market decide, avoiding in-game market arbitrage as well.

On the same page, John Turbefield is described as a "Renowned master of spreadsheets and works his Excel magic in the Research and Statistics department". He is "worried that the rules are changing:"

Virtual goods sales can be positive in certain circumstances. However, when you introduce something that can create an imbalance where others can’t compete with their spending power, you inevitably decrease their satisfaction with your product. As such it is essential that a game is designed from the ground up to incorporate any major virtual goods sales that fall outside of this. PLEX (and time codes before that) work extremely well as they not only largely replace a black market for ISK, but provide substantial benefits to other players in the form of offering additional subscription options. The negatives caused from the ISK for real money trade such as hacking and botting are reduced as their profitability declines. PLEX differs from typical virtual goods sales because we allow players to pay their subscriptions this way using in-game currency.

To me, virtual goods sales are far less appealing when the gameplay is affected and they aren’t replacing a black market. When we’re adding additional things into the game that enable users to gain an advantage over other people for real money in a way they simply wouldn’t be able to if we hadn’t done so, then it becomes an issue. I feel that if people have already paid a subscription fee then unless there is a good reason for the overall community to introduce a gameplay-affecting virtual goods
sales (such as with PLEX), then gaining an in-game advantage isn’t justifiable. More revenue is of course an aim, but making our customers feel like they are being ‘double billed’ to be able to play on the same level as others is just a step too far.

The most visible example of another game introducing virtual goods sales is certainly LOTRO. It is worth pointing out though that they made almost everything microtransaction based and at the same time removed subscription fees. Because other games with very different communities and very different gameplay styles are able to do something it doesn’t mean we can do the same thing with the same levels of success. EVE is a far more complex game with significantly more social interaction, which changes a great
deal about how you can approach virtual goods sales. While it’s true that others, such as Blizzard have gone down the microtransaction path, they have not implemented any gameplay affecting items. They also do not offer a microtransaction to gold conversion as we do with PLEX. [Actually, Eve offers a gold to MT conversion, not the other way -toldain]
I don’t oppose the concept of virtual goods in the case of vanity items, merely in cases where the monetization of items impacts the balance of the game.

Well, that was kind of long, but I wanted you to really get the argument being made. John touches on the idea of "double-billing", which is pretty important to overall sentiment. He also tries to explain something that puzzles me as well.

CCP already sells currency within its games, via the PLEX mechanic. ISK can be used to buy things that enhance your gameplay, and gain an advantage with. I've heard players respond to someone complaining about how long it took to earn enough ISK to buy a carrier with, "Sell some PLEXes!"

Furthermore, characters can be bought and sold for ISK. So if you want an "endgame" character, capable of flying Titans, let's say, you can. Buy a crapload of PLEXes and buy both a Titan and a character who can fly one. Be careful that its in space where it's safe to log on, though.

Ok, so why are the playerbase so upset? First, players, because they are people, really resist change. And they are wary of being ignored because that's what big companies do, right?

However, the worst is yet to come.

On page 9 of the same issue of Fearless Scott Holden writes an article called "Delivering the goods: virtual sales in Incarna" Scott Holden is described on Page 3 thus: "As Director of Content Design, Scott works from the Atlanta office overseeing all content for the EVE property; he regularly shuttles between our offices and his homeland of Canada."

CCP is in the process of adopting a virtual sales model for its game products. While this model has
always been intended for World of Darkness and DUST 514, you may be wondering how this will
work in EVE Online. Specifically, how will this new strategy unfold in Incarna?

In short, it’s the same in Incarna as elsewhere: we give players the means to buy stuff in addition to their base subscription, offering things like new “nano-paints” that allow one to customize ships while docked; new articles of virtual clothing, tattoos, and other avatar customizations; tokens for customizing Captain’s Quarters and so on. Not all virtual purchases will focus on customization: some will simply be new items, ammunition, ships, etc. that can be purchased outright. The devil, as always, is in the details.

You don't have to read much further than this to get the picture. New items, ammunition and ships? The player base of Eve is not naive. They've seen other games. The MT items are always just a little bit better than the normal items. Ammunition and ships really hits Eve players in the gut. Put this together with the perception that the current items are really overpriced and what is the prediction that a reasonable player will make?

Currently one round of T2 ammunition costs something like 200 ISK, depending on just what kind. That's less than one cent, probably that's 100 of them for a penny. My math may be wrong, but it's tiny, when put in terms of Euros or USD. Will that be true of the MT version of ammunition, which you know will be just that much better than even faction ammo?

But that difference is really really important to Eve players. A battle could turn on that difference, and losses of billions of ISK could turn on that battle. So of course they would have to buy it, regardless of whatever insane price is charged through the MT store. Either that, or quit playing the game. So when the Director of Content Design for Eve says, "we're going to sell ammo and ships", that seems like a done deal, doesn't it?

The player base has been very clear that it doesn't want this, as is evidenced by Kristoffer Touffer's remarks shown above.

Many of the players I've met in 0.0 are pretty much all-in when it comes to playing Eve. They have multiple accounts. They play long hours. At least one appears to be logged in all day long while at work. They play so much that they fall asleep at the keyboard. And now the feel that CCP is trying to squeeze more blood from that turnip. As I write this there is a serious rage on the forums and some sort of protest flash mob in Jita 4,4.

Every aspect of Eve is PvP. Even the most carebeary (careberry?) of carebears is enmeshed in economic PvP. There's competition and cooperation. The competition is what makes the cooperation so delightful. So even the non-hardcores sense that the game would be deeply changed by what Mr. Holden suggests, strike that, he didn't suggest it, he flat said "it's happening".

Holden goes on to describe another item contemplated for sale through MT, faction standing.

One other service we’re looking at is selling faction standings. We want to offer convenience for a price. As an example, your friend might give you free tickets to see her band play simply because the two of you are friends; meanwhile, other fans have to pay for a ticket because, well, that’s how it normally works. The more noteworthy the band, the more those friendships (and thus the tickets) are worth. If that doesn’t seem quite an accurate analogy, think of it like this: you can develop a friendship by “spending” your time, or you can pay to get the same benefits that friendship would otherwise allow. (I’m sure you can think of a few other situations where one might temporarily “buy” services otherwise gained only through social interaction.)

Wow. Just wow. He's comparing (correct me if I read this wrong) what they want to do to prostitution, and saying, "That's why we should do it!" Do you seriously believe that people like this, as opposed to merely tolerating it? And why they might not want to see it intrude on their precious leisure time, fantasy world? Do you have a shred of empathy for those players who play Eve because they can buy PLEXes with ISK, play for free, and still remain competitive? Can you understand why players might prefer a game where their ability to play the game matters rather than the size of their bank account? If you can't, you should be fired immediately, do not pass Go, do not collect 2 million ISK. No "Director of Content" should be so clueless about what players want in their virtual worlds.

Imagine you had ground missions and spent tons of ISK on building faction with the Caldari. Now all that means nothing, and you feel like a sucker. Is this what you want to have happen to your game? I don't.

What makes this much, much worse is the fact that CCP said, to the Council of Stellar Management that there would be no gameplay-affecting items available through the MT store. Pretty much at the same time Holden was writing this, I think. Mr Holden clearly believes that it will blow over and players will drop their opposition over time. Why do I know that? Because he says so:

First, we don’t want to glut the virtual market with too many offers right out of the gate. Instead, we want to provide a steady stream of digestible goods and services over a long period of time, allowing cus- tomers to sample and purchase as they get used to the new model. We want to cater to long-term customers who will gradually acquire a taste for our wares.

It's never pretty to see someone openly plotting a seduction. Or is that the right word? Do you really think we'll get used to that in time, or that we'll go away only to be replaced by other people who don't care? Will we embrace ships, or merely be so beat down that we won't put up much of a fight. Scott, "no" really, really means "no".

There's another paragraph he writes that's nearly impenetrable. I'll reproduce it for you.

Regarding the notion of “virtual sales in Incarna,” though, I’d like to elucidate one point before closing: Incarna cannot be considered a product distinct from other parts of EVE. Incarna and “flying- in-space” (and in due course DUST 514) are merely aspects of the EVE Online experience; in virtual sales, as in development as a whole, we must all adopt this way of thinking. Thus, we will not and cannot focus on virtual sales only within the In- carna environment, nor build that environment around such sales; rather, we will effect a universal strategy of micro-sales throughout the EVE experience. So, as a play- er, while you are inside a station, you will find gameplay that links to other aspects of the game and that also presents you with virtual purchasing opportunities — just as you will while you are in space or on a planet fighting as a DUST merc.

I've been in the corporate world for years, and can usually translate corp-speak. But this kind of has me baffled. Could this mean he was thinking of Dust514 (which will be F2P) when he said "ammunition"? No, because he said "ships", too. Maybe this is just cross-selling.

Eve as it stands, drives away the instant-gratification crowd. I will never forget an exchange I witnessed in the noob channel on my first night playing Eve. Someone asked, "How long does it take to skill everything up and go PVP?" The reply was "Twenty years!" To me, that felt good. It felt like I had found a home. But selling stuff like ships via MT? That's instant gratification land, and would be a massive change to Eve.

It's as if just anybody could have fabulous red hair, just by dropping some cash, rather than cultivating one's style over the course of 3 million years.

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Anonymous Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

One comment: Here's a company where getting scammed in the game is not against the rules, and even allowed. So, you're surprised when they compare something to prostitution and don't find it to be a negative? :)

It's also kind of unfortunate that this was "leaked". Often developers discuss a design topic openly to get information. It might be that design issues are discussed with direct, declarative statements in the company culture. "Not all virtual purchases will focus on customization:" might really be a suggestion. Hard to say how an Icelandic company's culture affects the discussions.

Ultimately, the backlash against this can't be avoided. Someone, somewhere is going to think any change is outrageous. We'll see how things develop and, perhaps more importantly, how fast CCP backpedals on things.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Sara Pickell said...

Your also taking as rote someone who was completely ignored in the actual implementation as we have it. Paragraph 3 is literally him suggesting the polar opposite of the current pricing structure.

Paragraph 4 as well, so far I haven't heard of any conversion taxes for the items from the market, perhaps I'm wrong on that point.

And you can't translate his last bit of corp-speak because it isn't corp-speak. He's saying that the fundamental design layer of all three sections of eve, walking-in-stations, flying-in-space, fighting-on-planets should be considered part of a single unified design. This sounds like more of a stump speech than anything else, he has something he wants to convince people of but hasn't had much luck so he figures speaking from a position of more absolute authority will help get the point across.

This is why you don't read internal memos of these sort. You have no idea who he was talking to or why he was taking the stance he did. It's quite possible he has no influence on the MT design, but feels strongly in this direction.

"we must sell our units of virtual currency" - "First, we don’t want to" - "Instead, we
want to" - "we will most

If you pay attention, the times when he gets the most technical and becomes the most confident he uses the least strong language. The last one was a strong contender for answering a problem he clearly understood well and he used his softest language.

Hell if you get the mental tone right, it sounds a lot like satire... Holy shit, I think it is satire... Wow... just... wow.

10:59 AM  

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