While the forum thread on Skill Trading continues to grow to immense proportions – 189 pages and counting – reactions are still strongly negative, with most players expressing disgust, flat outright rejection, and naturally some threats to unsubscribe. Business as usual for CCP who seem to be growing increasingly thick-skinned, incurring this reaction more and more frequently.
Sadly, the EVE community doesn’t have a history of being right: while the Jita riots and summer of rage stuck down the notion of any further avatar gameplay, it also suppressed CCP’s ahead-of-the-curve first iteration of micro-transactions, a feature now incredibly commonplace amongst the gaming industry and growing within EVE as more SKINS and apparel go on sale. The first devblog on Captain’s Quarters foreshadowed the rapid development pace that has been well received, but the community uproar may have had its part in delaying the realization of this new pace for another 3 years. Technically DUST 514 could have been avatar gameplay, but CCP developed that for a entirely different platform as if their core community had strongly suggested they weren’t remotely interested in such a title. These days, EVE players are baying for updates on Project Legion and when they can first-person man-shoot in the EVE universe on the PC.
Iteration and Innovation
As Set’s Chaos and Arrendis have elaborated, a skillpoint economy is nothing new. Skill points have been traded in various forms for years now and, until this new feature was proposed, there was no strong movement for this to be addressed. Only confronting the idea of evolving that market has thrown this into question, suggesting the majority of this reaction is a shallow, emotional knee-jerk to change rather than having any deep consideration to the issue. Questioning skillpoint trading means questioning not just the character bazaar, but also PLEX. PLEX was another feature ahead of its time, enabling equitable exchanges between players who have too much time or too much real-world currency on their hands, while also pulling double-duty legitimising a form of digital item trading in a way that discourages RMT and criminal exploitation of the game. But its real genius lay in the fact that it did nothing to directly distort the in-game economy. A sale of PLEX on the market merely moves ISK from one player to the next; the fees involved actually turn the market exchange of PLEX into an ISK sink. Furthermore, as PLEX could only be obtained by purchase, this ensured that every hour of gametime in EVE is paid for, if not by one player, by another.
Skillpoint trading is no different. Every skillpoint in the game will remain the result of gametime being consumed, the only effects of skillpoint trading will be to rearrange existing skillpoints between characters, in some cases acting as a massive 90% sink on the amount traded when applied to characters with high skill points. More than that, the use of Aurum to enable this process ensures that the value of skillpoints remains high, especially given the sheer amount of supply the market will enjoy from day one, contrasted with a dubious amount of demand. Skillpoints gained through subscription fees and time will always be the cheapest and therefore the most valuable skillpoints you will ever earn. Trading skillpoints also remains a choice: for those who add personal value to the idea that their character is ‘all-natural’ or ‘self-grown’ into their skills, the ability to trade skillpoints does nothing to undermine that. The whole furor also throws into question the generally held wisdom that skill points don’t matter as much as people think they do; it doesn’t take a huge amount of training to be good in any one ship or area and high levels of skills offer only incremental increases for growing amounts of skillpoint investment. Past a certain point, lots of skillpoints means generalisation far more than a distinct, strong stat advantage. Piloting skill, fitting, and who you fly with are much bigger deciding factors than Level V in Medium Railgun Specialization.
Like the Character Bazaar, trading of skillpoints is not pay to win, but pay to advance faster. Traded on the open market, an enterprising new player now has even more choices about what to do with their new-found ISK and no longer stall waiting a static amount of time for skills to cook to advance into a different hull. Of course Manny’s Law applies- big alliances and veteran players, with their established wealth and experience are always better placed to weather negative changes and exploit positive ones. Manny’s Law is merely an observation, not an argument against new features. The real consequence here is this granular nature makes the game more accessible. The biggest barrier to entry is that learning cliff and the daunting sense that everyone in the game is light-years ahead of you when you start out and there’s no way to catch up. The diminishing returns on applying skillpoints cements this feature as very much intended to accelerate a new player’s entry into the game that isn’t spending 10 PLEX to buy a moderately skilled character.
A Smoother Learning Curve to Where?
With such changes including a new potential revenue stream, combined with the risk involved if the hostility of players continues, it makes sense to take greater stock of the health of the game, the company, the market, and how these changes fit in. Ever since 2010, the MMO market has experienced some interesting changes. The older, bigger MMOs saw downturns in their populations and steady decline over the years, despite the overall MMO market continuing to increase both in size and in revenue. Subscription MMOs in particular have fallen out of vogue, with the majority of newer titles launching as free to play and even some older ones making a switch. CCP also didn’t do themselves any favours making a sci-fi game, a subject matter that is far more niche than fantasy. The fact that EVE has endured after so long is a testament to continuing to win a battle harder than most and filling a niche other titles struggle to capture.
Eve-offline.net documents EVE’s population over time and it would appear that, at least until 2014, CCP managed to buck that trend despite general market forces. However, since then, there has been a degree of decline. While PCU count can be used as a measure of the overall game’s health, it’s not a very solid metric by itself- it doesn’t account for unique players or total unique accounts logged in over a longer period. Also changes such as jump fatigue reduced overall mobility, shifting from a tendency for a few big wars that tend to attract everyone from all over into huge server-crushing fights to smaller, more distributed conflicts that may spread themselves more evenly over both the universe and the day. However, the best indicator of EVE’s ability to continue on into the future is the fiscal health of CCP, who are rightly coy about releasing any data about subscribed accounts and PLEX purchases. As much as the staff at CCP may love the game and the community, they have themselves, families, and investors to feed.
The corporate outlook for CCP is not that bad. The ability for the company to bounce back from a monumental failure like the cancelled World of Darkness suggests a strong, robust core business. Continued diversification with more promising titles such as Valkyrie and Gunjack suggest a certain grim determination to not stop taking risks and continuing to innovate and diversify, actions essential to the survival of any company in the long term. Even EVE is getting a whole new server cluster, a massive investment and commitment to the future of New Eden. The MMO market and the gaming market in general is rife with opportunity and growth, which CCP can take advantage of if they play their cards right.
A Bigger Slice of Pie
So how does a more granular skillpoint economy help CCP earn more money? The benefits to smoothing out the new player experience will help the vital first-year period which seems to strongly decide whether a player will stick with the game or not. The potential added revenue from the Aurum involved in extraction of skillpoints I suspect will be incremental as much as the change is an incremental evolution of an existing market.
The real benefit is the overall gradual shift towards serviced-based income and what may well be part of a prelude to going free to play. The risks are big, though- these strong reactions are bound to be having some impact in terms of players unsubscribing and there must be a temptation to have the cake and eat it too when you end up in a place with high service income and subscribers simultaneously- why cut off one income stream when two are going strong?
The answer is to move forward. No matter how people feel about free to play, the market has demonstrated that it is highly competitive. It’s not too hard to understand why: a free to play game puts no burden on new players picking up the game at will or coming back to it when they feel like it. It opens the game up to territories for which your subscription fee might not translate into a fair, affordable price. EVE in particular benefits from this as, once you’re playing, the in-game market is fair and not divided by our terrestrial territories.
You don’t have to hound new players to convert to subscription at the end of a trial period, nor give them false hope that they can be one of the few newbies who manage to earn enough ISK to play for free. Returning players could be tempted back with a small trickle of skillpoints to non-paying characters, if they need tempting back at all with no cost to play. The giants of the market, games such as League of Legends or World of Tanks make less than $5 a month per user, some lower than $1.50 a month, and yet this low individual income multiplied out by large populations result in huge overall revenue.
A Better Game
More money for CCP means a healthier game, which means finding one of those sweet multiplicative spots between population and income per player. The challenge of free to play is that there is a valley between here and there that must be crossed and there’s no guarantee that the other peak is higher. The prospect of a transition to free to play cannot be an easy one: do you wean off subscription prices gradually or just convert all paid time into PLEX, hold your breath, and hope to float? Valkyrie and Gunjack are part of the answer here: big successes with these titles may give that slack required to take such a risk. And it is a big risk- players and CCP alike need to be prepared for missteps and failure and be ready to roll with some punches attempting such a transition.
The truth is that the EVE community is over 12 years old now and it needs to grow up a bit. For a community that’s known for enjoying tears, it can be incredibly emotional and salty when confronted with big changes and risks concerning the future and the fundamental nature of the game. A few short weeks ago the community was buying pizza for the whole company; a CCP employee would be rightly confused if they wondered whether they are hated, loved, or doing the right thing when facing the kind of reaction this proposal received. To that, all I can say is that these extremes are evidence of passion, a thing that seems rare for a gaming community in such numbers. A whole other market of games exists out there and every negative voice is a voice that cares and is afraid for the future of a game that they love. That passion is a sign to press on, to ask for some faith and some slack to prove that it is for the better.
CCP’s new attitude to work cadence enables them to take bigger risks, fail, and recover in shorter order. Failure is not a badge of shame if you can fail fast, recover, and learn something from the process. Failure is how we learn. The community needs to temper its passion with trust in a company that needs them more than they need it, and with patience for experimentation and unintuitive changes that have the potential to be better for everyone if given the chance. We should appreciate just how communicative and involving CCP are in making changes, that they are willing to stick their necks out early and endure such rash reactions with the hope that, within the storm of feedback, people are pointing out flaws they may have missed and making constructive criticism on how to make things better.
Skillpoint trading is yet another innovation that sets CCP apart as true pioneers, challenging the norms of what many other MMOs take for granted. A free to play EVE with an open, player-driven market on which every single element of the game can be manufactured and exchanged is a game even more unlike any other, one all the more accessible to old and new players alike, and one we can be proud to be involved with.
This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by danikov.