Saturday, June 25, 2011

EVE Online Controversy: A Less "Clever" View

There's a protest going on in the virtual universe of EVE Online right now. Players are gumming up in-game trading centers and engaging in acts of protest.

There are also a number of online venues reporting on it:
PC Gamer: EVE Online Players Protest Against Monocle Prices/Microtransactions. Lasers Involved.
Escapist Magazine: EVE Online Players Flip a Lid Over Virtual Clothing
Kotaku: Furious Over Microtransactions, EVE Online Community Explodes with Rioting

Unfortunately, with this sort of reporting I don't think the message the players are trying to send is getting anywhere. The writers are too clever by half, and can't seem to be bothered to understand what the trouble is actually all about (or--they think their readers can't be arsed, so why bother explaining?)

I'm going to try to be a bit less clever and a bit more accurate, however. Hopefully I'll manage both.


I'm not an EVE player, never have been. I play and have played other MMOs, but not this one. I've got no connections to the devs, CCP, and I don't even personally know any players I'm aware of. I don't run a mag or site where I expect to groom CCP as a potential advertiser. I'm about as disinterested a party as you could ask for.

I found out about this from an article linked on Hacker News, and saw what appears to me to be a disconnect between the reports and the reality. So I decided to write this.


OK, here's my interpretation of the deal.

CCP, the company behind EVE Online, has added the ability to buy in-game items with real-world money. This is already done in other games, so what's the big deal?

1. EVE has an internal economy based on player-developed content.
2. While bought items are presently for looks only, CCP has telegraphed that game-affecting items will later be sold.
3. The linkage between real-world money and game objects affects the value of the in-game money and objects.

In detail:
1. Players spend a lot of game time, paid for with game subscriptions, often multiple game subscriptions, to develop content which they can then reproduce and offer to other players through in-game mechanisms. Note that this goes beyond the usual "crafting" skills found in many games, it's more like the ability to fashion items in Second Life or a MUSH (as opposed to a MUD.)

By offering items chosen for their popularity to be offered by the game's developers, CCP is entering into competition with their own players within the game's economy. Even when the items offered are purely cosmetic with respect to gameplay. And in violation of their own earlier statements about their desire for a player-dominated game economy, issued to encourage players to generate content. Which expands CCP's game without CCP spending money to do it, in fact, players are paying to develop content for CCP. Now CCP is treading on those players.

2. Internal documents have been leaked and acknowledged which pretty well state that player sentiments and game atmosphere be damned, if selling game items brings in money, then the floodgates are open. The ability to purchase items will be expanded to include things that affect gameplay as well as purely cosmetic items.

Which means you can win the game (A) by playing, or (B) by buying yourself a brass ring. If (B) shows sufficient profit, then closing down option (A) to maximize those profits may well follow.

3. When the in-game, player-created, economy becomes linked to the ability to buy game items with real-world money, then the immediate effect is almost certainly going to be in-game inflation coupled with the devaluation of player-created content. This is true even for the purely cosmetic, even if an advance to sales of non-cosmetic game items never happens.

Basically players who create and sell in-game content are in the same position of business owners who have had the government enter their line of business. Doubt about the future of their product is created. The entity that controls currency and the business environment is not going to be subject to market controls like a normal competitor. All of the private company's investment in product development, marketing, corporate image, etc. is now destroyed.

The EVE situation is a bit less dramatic than the real world situation, but the analogy holds.

The Future

The players involved in the online protests are hoping to get either a reversal of the offending changes or a strong commitment to limitations to item sales from CCP that will reaffirm the player economy in the game.

From what I see, they aren't upset about the cost of cosmetic "vanity" items in the game. Though they may feel it's silly too spend the money, that's not their real beef. Treating it as if it is is disingenuous.

It's really about a company wanting to take a product sold to customers under one set of precepts, sold in a way to get customers to invest deeply in the product in both money and time, then change the rules suddenly to support a different business model that undermines those precepts--while trying to act as if it's otherwise to avoid losing the customers who are paying today's bills.

The only real hope I see for the protesters is if the real-money sales fail to support themselves. If the upset player choose not to buy items themselves, and convince enough of their fellow players that they shouldn't buy as well, then they'll probably get a hearing from CCP. Otherwise, the money from monocles will speak more loudly than they.

I especially welcome comments from EVE players on this article. Am I understanding the comments I'm seeing in your forums correctly?