In part 1 of this essay, I described four key differences between real world economies and the economy within EVE Online. Specifically, these are the lack of material decay, the lack of true necessities, the existence of player-controlled ISK printing, and the high labour mobility found within EVE Online. This leads to a naturally accretive economy where money is not truly scarce and incomes are available on demand, where players are far more free to do whatever they want than in the real world.
With those concepts in mind, it is clear that the economy of EVE Online is fundamentally different from any real-world economy, and real-world economic theories and models cannot be assumed to apply in-game. The foundation of the EVE Online economy is player attention, which is the one truly scarce commodity. CCP must provide players with enough entertainment value to convince them to spend their attention on EVE Online. All other in-game value is derived from player attention, whether it is time spent printing ISK or gathering materials.
CCP’s Monthly Economic Reports provide economic data in terms of ISK, which obfuscates our understanding, because the value of ISK varies depending on how many players are engaged in ISK printing, how much ISK they can generate per hour, and how much ISK is circulating in the economy. To understand the true health of the economy, it would be necessary to measure economic activity in terms of player hours spent versus ISK generated or materials produced and destroyed.
If we wanted to rebalance or even completely redesign the economy of EVE Online, how would we go about it? Let me describe two approaches, one more conservative and one more radical. My goal is to identify the thought process that will lead us to a well-designed in-game economy. While you might disagree with me on the specifics of various game mechanics, those are secondary to the question of how we should approach thinking about game mechanics in the first place.
The Conservative Approach
If we assume that CCP will not make any radical changes to the game mechanics, then any attempt at rebalancing the game’s economy must start with ISK printing, because the most time-effective ISK printing activity in the game naturally becomes the benchmark by which the profitability of all other activities are measured. Changing the ISK printed per hour will change the prices of items in the market, but not the number of hours a player must work in order to acquire those items; in other words, it controls price inflation or deflation. Once the benchmark ISK printing rate is decided upon, it is best not to change it or to introduce a more effective ISK printing activity, because this will only push prices up to a new equilibrium while not affecting the material economy in the long-term.
Next, it is necessary to decide how much time players need to spend on acquiring assets. We can approach this from a microeconomic perspective: how many hours does a player need to mine in order to accumulate enough minerals to build what they want? We can also approach this from a macroeconomic perspective: how many total ships and other assets do we want built in the game, given the total aggregate player hours spent in-game?
Either way, it is a function of the rate at which players can harvest materials, and the amount of materials required to build things. If you want to adjust the total productivity of the economy, you adjust the amount of materials players can acquire per hour, for example by buffing or nerfing mining ships or ore yields. If you want to adjust the number of any specific asset in the game, you change the blueprint of the item so it requires more or less materials to manufacture.
The other factors of the economy can be mostly left to the players. Demand for goods will be determined by what ships players want to fly and how often they get destroyed. The supply of goods will be driven by market pressures; as prices continually converge towards the benchmark ISK printing profitability, players switch from harvesting less demanded materials to harvesting more demanded materials. Short term fluctuations in supply or demand will be seen in market prices. Long term player-driven changes will be identifiable in market trade volumes, not prices. Changes made by CCP to the harvesting rate of materials will affect the price per item, but not the harvesting player’s ISK/hr, unless there are non-market factors at play, for example a group of players trying to monopolize a resource at gunpoint.
The Radical Approach
If we assume that CCP is willing to make more radical changes to EVE Online, then all sorts of opportunities open up. First, we need to ask the fundamental, philosophical questions: what kind of game do we want EVE Online to be? What kinds of behaviours do we want to encourage? What kinds of attitudes do we want to reward? As an example, let me propose that there is a general desire for the game to be more dynamic and more immediate, that the game should reward daring action instead of relentless grinding. Let’s say there is a frustration among up-and-coming groups who, even if they are very active in recent times, are unable to gain an advantage over older moribund groups who have accumulated vast stockpiles of resources over many years. From CCP’s perspective, they will have a much easier time attracting new players if the actions of new players can be more consequential and meaningful. Assuming those assumptions are true, allow me to propose an alternate set of game mechanics where what you do now matters more than what you did last year, where power is a consequence of current activity and not accumulated wealth.
Firstly, materials and products should decay over time. Perhaps exceptions can be made at the low end, perhaps a limited quantity of T1 subcap hulls and up to T2 modules per player can last forever, but more powerful assets will have finite lifetimes. This means, if you have a powerful ship, you’ll want to put it to work and extract value out of it before it expires. Second, there should be a wealth tax above a certain threshold. These two changes make it impossible to stockpile wealth and power. Players can still have power, but they have to pay a steep upkeep price for it. Wealth and power become ephemeral, and those players who are most active in a particular moment are the most powerful in that moment.
Given that assets decay over time, naturally you would also remove ISK printing, aside from controlled injections of ISK into the market to maintain liquidity. Otherwise, there would be uncontrollable inflation.
Once those basic mechanics are established, fine-tuning this game is much the same as fine-tuning the old one. The developers must decide how much time players must spend on resource gathering in order to get the assets they want. Additionally, since assets expire, it is necessary to decide how often players must repeat the resource gathering in order to continue to have their assets. Then, it is a relatively simple matter to adjust resources gathered per hour, the manufacturing costs per asset, and the amount of time the asset exists before it expires. These values should be optimized for player enjoyment.
With assets being much more perishable than before, it stands to reason that they should also be far less costly to manufacture. For example, if a mining ship currently has an average lifetime of one year before it gets ganked, but you want to make it expire in one month, then perhaps its build cost should be reduced to 1/12th of the current cost. Any large assets that are intended to grant rare, alliance-level capabilities can be designed so that no single player can acquire enough materials to build one in less time than it takes to expire.
With game mechanics such as these, the most powerful groups in the game would always be those who are currently the most active, and their power would be directly proportional to their number of active members and their level of activity. A group can build a massive fleet and invade someone else’s space, but whether they win or lose, that fleet will decay and their power will wane, opening up opportunities for other groups to take their turn in the conqueror’s saddle.
If you’re reading this and you absolutely hate what I’m suggesting, I understand that this is a very different vision of EVE Online than what we are all used to, and I’m not insisting that we make these specific changes. I am suggesting that we need a more thorough understanding of the economy of EVE Online, by discussing how key fundamental mechanics are different from the real world. Once you have this understanding, it becomes much easier to design the game to conform to your vision, whether or not your vision agrees with mine. I hope that I have provided insights here that allows all of us, CCP and players alike, to get more of what we want out of this game that we all share.