The Counterintuitive Economy of EVE Online

2021-01-20

Header art by Major Sniper

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series dealing with EVE Online’s Economy. Look for part two soon. 

Part 1: EVE Online Isn’t the Real World

Many aspects of the EVE Online economy superficially resemble real-world market economies, which might tempt us to try using real-world economic theories to understand the game. But EVE differs from the real world in fundamental ways and misunderstanding these differences can lead to mistakes. Here in part one, I explain a number of these key differences, discuss the implications for the in-game economy, and make some recommendations for both the developers and the players. In part two, which will be published later this week, we’ll will discuss how we might rethink or even completely redesign the EVE economy.

No material decay

In the real world, we are constrained by the second law of thermodynamics, where all concentrations of energy are constantly dissipating into the surrounding environment, unless we counteract that process. We must keep eating food to survive and machines need fuel or they don’t move. Anything that is at a higher energy state than its environment tends to rust or break or otherwise decay over time.

The second law of thermodynamics doesn’t exist in EVE Online. Your character doesn’t have to eat and ships don’t burn fuel, except in special instances. There’s no corrosion, wear, or tear, and thus you don’t spend resources repairing your ships, aside from combat damage. Your assets stay in pristine condition indefinitely.

Implications

The in-game economy has a natural accretion bias that doesn’t exist in the real world. 

Why isn’t capital proliferation a problem in the real world? Because the lifetime upkeep costs on a big navy ship is many times higher than the build cost; Eventually the cost of repairs will outpace the cost of building a new ship. If a real-world navy doesn’t regularly build new ships, its current fleet will eventually fall apart.

Contrast this with EVE. If you build a ship and leave it in a hanger, it just stays there forever. This applies not only to ships, but to almost every asset. Players can just keep adding to stockpiles and they grow and grow, but nothing ever decays.

Recommendations for CCP

We need to be careful when suggesting we add material decay into the game, because having everything break and fall apart on their own is kind of depressing and probably not fun gameplay. Some game designers (like Bethesda) have, however, built entropy into their games, and those games remain wildly popular. On the other hand, infinitely accreting assets is a problem. First, the database keeps getting more bloated, and second,  newer players can’t compete against vast amounts of legacy wealth.

If the goal is to prevent an ever-increasing disparity between the wealth of new players and veterans, then material decay should apply to the endgame of big capital ships, powerful Tech 3 and faction ships, and to the enormous stockpiles of materials and ISK. You’d probably want to give players some way to save a limited quantity of assets, maybe letting each player choose 10 or 20 lower-end ships that never decay. The maintenance costs don’t necessarily have to be severe to be effective; even a modest upkeep cost will make players think about trimming their stockpiles.

Recommendations for players

If players want to exploit the lack of material decay to their advantage, it’s as simple as harvesting resources like crazy and stockpiling Everything. Resources can be translated into power and CCP is paying for the storage. World War Bee perfectly demonstrates the power of stockpiled wealth, with the Imperium enduring a defensive war far longer than any other group have previously managed to do, drawing on their deep stockpiles to keep churning out ships to throw into the fire.

No Necessities, Only Luxuries

Without the second law of thermodynamics, there are also no economic necessities in EVE Online. In the real world, you have to constantly find food and shelter just to survive. In-game, you don’t have to do anything. Players gather resources and build stuff not because we have to, but because we bring with us our survival instincts from the real world; we enjoy hoarding resources and combating threats.

Implications

To understand the economic implications of this, we need to consider how real world behaviors differ between necessities and luxuries. In the real world, if people are unable to acquire necessities, they turn to desperate actions like stealing, rioting, and banditry in order to survive. In contrast, if people are unable to acquire luxuries, they might get angry or depressed, but they generally don’t do anything drastic. Currently, CCP is trying to tweak the EVE economy, and their guiding mantra states that “Abundance breeds Complacency and Scarcity breeds War.” If EVE Online were a necessity, this might be true. But EVE Online is a luxury; it’s entertainment. If the game provides an abundance of entertainment, you’ll play more. If the game has a scarcity of entertainment, you’ll go look for entertainment elsewhere. In EVE Online, abundance breeds hedonism and scarcity breeds disengagement.

Recommendations for CCP

CCP needs to sell subscriptions and PLEX, or else the company dies. To achieve that, they need to make people want to play EVE Online. Every change they make to the game should be focused on this.

Recommendations for Players

Just do what makes you happy. If playing EVE Online doesn’t make you happy, it’s time to step back and reassess how and why you’re playing this game.

Player-controlled ISK Supply

In EVE Online, the players choose when and how much ISK to add to the money supply, for example via bounties for destroying pirate NPCs, and selling Triglavian red loot and Sleeper blue loot to NPC buy orders. The ISK generated in these ways simply adds to the ISK in circulation. Mechanisms for removing ISK from the money supply are also controlled by players; players choose when to trade (and thus incur transaction taxes), when to buy blueprints, when to cash in their loyalty points, etc. Historically, ISK sinks have not kept pace with ISK generation.

Real world governments do not allow people to create money at their discretion, because doing so would cause them to lose control of the money supply, and thus lose control of inflation. High inflation incentivizes people to buy whatever they can as soon as they can, because everything will become more expensive later. Such panic buying can result in acute shortages of essential goods. In order to avoid excessive inflation, governments have to tax excess money back out of the economy. Curiously, ISK printing in EVE Online does not appear to cause inflation in-game, the reasons for which will be explained below.

Implications

One major consequence is that the market is forced to compete against these non-market sources of ISK. Imagine a simplified game where players could choose between mining and ratting. Ratting earns 50 million ISK/hr, and all players are trying to maximize their profit. If ore prices go up and players could earn more than 50 million ISK/hr from mining, people will switch from ratting to mining, increasing ore supply and pushing prices back down. If ore prices go down, people switch from mining to ratting, reducing ore supply and pushing prices back up. 

What that means is, as long as consistent ISK printing activities exist in the game, supply and demand have no lasting effects on market prices. The ISK printing activity becomes the benchmark by which the profitability of all other activities are measured. The market responds by changing the quantity of goods traded, not the prices. This is why there is no apparent inflation, except for items that are not generated through in-game activities, most notably PLEX. Also, for any given amount of player labour, less entertainment value is produced than if ISK printing were not available. This is assuming that player entertainment revolves around players blowing each other up. The reason is that ISK doesn’t build ships, ores and other harvested materials build ships. Thus, any time spent printing ISK is not contributing to ships or structures being built, which means there is less stuff for players to blow up. If ISK printing didn’t exist, people would have to sell their harvested materials in the market to earn ISK, which contributes to ships being built.

Recommendations for CCP

In principle, there’s enough ISK circulating in the economy for the market to function, and all ISK faucets and sinks can be removed. However, if the game doesn’t have material decay, that would accelerate the accretion of materials, while stopping the accretion of ISK, leading to the uncontrolled deflation of prices. Thus, removing ISK printing must be done in conjunction with the addition of material decay. Also, removing all ISK sinking game mechanics will still leave the ISK sink of players quitting the game, which removes the ISK on their accounts from circulation. Thus, there’ll still need to be some controlled ISK faucets to maintain liquidity in the market.

If CCP doesn’t remove ISK printing, then they should carefully design game activities to control how much ISK is printed per player hour, and who gets to participate in this activity. If we want to de-emphasize ISK printing and make gathering materials for income more meaningful, then every activity should generate the same modest amount of ISK/hr, no matter its difficulty or accessibility. Activities should be differentiated by their material rewards, not their ISK rewards.

Recommendations for Players

Individually, the best way for players to exploit ISK printing is to skill into whatever the best ISK printing activity is available. Given that the market prices of harvested materials will converge towards the ISK printing benchmark, that activity will, on average, be the most profitable activity unless CCP changes the game mechanics. Short-term fluctuations in market prices may temporarily allow higher profits via material harvesting, but prices will eventually return to the benchmark equilibrium as other players change their activities to adjust.

High Labour Mobility

In EVE Online, it is much easier to “change jobs” than in the real world. You learn skills passively in the background, so all you need to do is buy a new ship, travel a bit, and you can go straight into ratting or mining or exploring. In the real world, changing careers is far more costly. Getting educated in the real world is full time work, so you take a massive income cut while you retrain. Moving in the real world is much more expensive and time consuming. Your old work experience would be mostly irrelevant, so you’d have to climb the career ladder from the bottom again. 

Furthermore, players in EVE Online never really have difficulty finding “employment”. Some activities are limited by local availability, such as exploration, mining, and combat anomalies. Other activities, such as mission running and abyssal deadspace, provide infinite secure income. This is completely unlike the real world, where stable, well-paying jobs are scarce, and few people are in a position to give one up.

Implications

One major consequence of EVE Online’s high labour mobility is that players don’t have to engage in price competition in the market. For example, if you’re a miner and ore prices are falling, you don’t necessarily have to lower your own prices to compete. You can just as easily quit mining and go do something else. This is not something you can realistically do in the real world, which is why real world prices respond more to supply and demand. The ease of finding income in EVE Online gives players a high degree of economic security, which means you can’t force players to take a pay cut and expect them to keep doing the job. It is up to CCP to design game activities that players want to participate in, or else the players can just disengage at no cost to themselves.

Recommendations for CCP

Firstly, CCP needs to understand that players can and will respond very quickly to changes in the game, especially the veteran players who have a lot of skill points and isk. If you make a change to the game and nothing seems to happen in the economy, it’s probably because that change wasn’t well-designed, or else the players have adapted in a way that wasn’t obvious. 

More broadly, the philosophical question is: what degree of labour mobility is the most fun for players? The game is less frustrating if players are free to do what they like, but making the game too frictionless reduces the sense of progress that a player feels. One option for reducing labour mobility is an accumulating proficiency bonus for time spent on a particular activity, which decays over time. This will make it temporarily costly for players to change activities, making the decision to do so more consequential.

Recommendations for Players

The way for players to maximize their own labour mobility is to skill into multiple high-income activities, and keep the requisite ships in nearby stations ready to go. Having multiple income activity choices protects the player against any changes to the game that might negatively impact any one form of income activity, and it also allows the player to more rapidly respond to any new opportunities for income. For newer players who don’t yet have enough skill points to master multiple income activities, the best activity to skill into first would be the benchmark ISK printing activity.

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Comments

  • Rammel Kas

    Decay just leads to busywork. Much like blackout and no chat. And we have seen that players simply vote that out with their feet. Bad idea. Try living in a un-cored citadel for a week and see how it is. Like… really. Try it. You’ll get the point where your game immersion breaks soon enough.

    Also how the actual fuck are you going to sell that running repair to coalitions with their distant strategic dreadnaught caches? Some of which can remain in an NPC station quietly waiting for the right set of conditions which may only arise 5 years later? And they DO NOT visit them that often so as to arise no suspicions. You are literarily writing whole tranches of active very VERY long term and big scale warfare out of the book if you give CCP that idea.

    I can somewhat agree with your rejection of the scarcity breeds war nonsense CCP are rabbiting on about without being in… like any actual EVE war themselves… in like… years. Except it’s not hedonism much as it’s just ambitions and personality conflicts of the in game personas meeting in slow motion train wrecks. There is a long term contest to see who is “better”.

    The idea of controlling what some term “velocity of ISK” has merit in keeping the only true standard of PLEX. in check. That price tag for the month has been accurately identified by true economic experts as a stumbling block, and to their credit CCP have reinstated tight price band control on the price of PLEX in ISK. They also generally avoid in-game value discounts except on rare holidays. But they have somewhat fallen off the wagon with the corollary of that argument. It isn’t the ISK so much as the hours of discretionary time you want players to put in. And that is where the whole scarcity thing has people making for the door. You do touch on this. But I don’t think it accurately describes the severe risk of walking down the smooth cobbles of another blackout.

    Trying to just control ISK is an extremely brave little risky game to be playing. Since we do have that ISKPLEX transaction and a finite PLEX supply PER MONTH with limited discretionary time (and now the artificial influence of COVID) you cannot ignore the TIME.

    January 20, 2021 at 9:00 AM
    • Noob Rammel Kas

      Exactly. The most valuable commodity in eve is not isk, or plex, or ore, or capital ships – it is TIME.

      And as an aside, I simply can’t see how introducing decay in any fashion would NOT completely crash the market as everyone dumps every hull except the 10-20 they can exempt on the market in order to preserve their capital by converting it to isk/plex.

      January 20, 2021 at 4:14 PM
      • ViperRum Noob

        The most valuable commodity anywhere is time. When you run out of it…the rest of us put you in a box, then in a hole in the ground (or we burn you into ash and put in an urn).

        Given this, ISK creation is not unlimited. People will do create is so long as Marginal Benefit > Marginal Cost. Once those reach equality….you stop. So a guy might log in and create ISK for a couple hours. Another might do it for 5 – 6 hours. But there is a limit.

        And with things like black out which changed the cost side we saw that yes indeed players who created ISK responded. They cut way, way back. Some even left the game. Result…a whole lot less ISK entering the game. It that had been sustained we’d see deflation and that’s Bad™.

        January 23, 2021 at 10:38 AM
  • Elthar Nox

    Really interesting! This reminds me of when I played Ultima Online about 20yrs ago, a far simpler economy but with the same problem. Let me explain.

    There were 25 tiers of armour with “Titan” (ironically) being the rarest and most expensive. But as more people learnt how to mine titan ore and craft titan armour it’s valued dropped from about 1mil gold (almost double the price of armour 1 tier below) to around 500k. The issue was the same across all tiers of armour. The issue…armour never decayed. People kept it forever and kept repairing it over and over.

    The solution was to create a repair economy. Instead of just “Blacksmithy” players required a new skill “Arms Lore” to repair armour. And to restore it to its original strength required Ores AND some gem stones. IIRC it was around 10% of the original ore cost to repair to full strength – nothing huge, but still having impact.

    Maybe the market for repair and maintenance could be a useful addition? To keep Battleships to Titans in a fully repaired state they require maintenance. Nothing excessive, but you have to “Perform Maintenance” before you undock and that requires some resources or maybe Repair Systems that are crafted by players using resources.

    In Ultima this simple change rescued the economy from recession.

    January 20, 2021 at 9:06 AM
    • Alaric Faelen Elthar Nox

      A big part of it is the ease of PvE once you ‘figure it out’ much like how you say mining Titan ore became passe.
      In Eve, losing ships in PvE is almost unheard of. You can sink a bunch of isk into a ship, but from there it is basically immortal. It’s only an isk-sink once but will likely never be destroyed and print isk as long as the player wants.

      January 20, 2021 at 4:22 PM
      • Elthar Nox Alaric Faelen

        Yeah I agree with you. And repairing damaged ships & modules is really easy. I wonder if your modules could be destroyed during combat? That would be interesting (and reflective of sci-fi! “Cap’n the warp core is offline!”)

        January 20, 2021 at 5:06 PM
  • Alaric Faelen

    It’s counter-intuitive that for many people- interacting with PvE is at best a necessary evil. That we play the game specifically to reduce how much we have to play the game. Between min/max fits, running a pile of alts, AFKing, etc- the win condition for PvE is making the most isk while playing the least Eve Online.
    I saw joining a null sec bloc as a path to free myself from Eve’s notoriously bad PvE. With SRP all I need to do is PvE enough to buy a few doctrine ships initially- then I can coast on SRP. So Eve drove me to find a situation where I could actually play the game a lot less, but concentrate on the parts I think are fun (PvP).
    It’s a weird dichotomy that the best way to play Eve is to find a way to play it LESS.

    January 20, 2021 at 4:18 PM
  • Alaric Faelen

    I don’t like the idea of decay. It doesn’t take into account use. It would make sense for industrial ships and miners to break things fairly often. Ships that are constantly used for PvE but will never die due to min/max. But as a PvP line member in an alliance, I keep a good number of ships so I can jump into anything an FC needs at the moment. So fining me for that is simply in the way of me engaging with the game.
    It puts a lot of pressure of the market to have everything stocked if people have to buy ships right before use and it’s worse if they have to assemble ships rather than get them pre-made off contracts. None of that improves the game. It just creates busy work and stress when you need something on short notice.
    I don’t think decay would add game play to Eve, nor improve what is already there. It’s not an isk-sink so much as it is busy work akin to the million click borefest that is PI.

    January 20, 2021 at 4:33 PM
    • Simon Chui Alaric Faelen

      The problem isn’t people keeping ships they actively use, the problem is massive stockpiling being too easy with no costs. That’s why I suggest allowing each character to have a number of ships that don’t decay. How may fits do you keep ready to go per character and how likely are FCs to ask for them? I suggested 20 ships, but if you think more is needed, I have no objections to a higher number. The bigger the stockpile, the more strategically powerful it is, and thus the harder it should be to maintain.

      January 20, 2021 at 10:27 PM
      • Noob Simon Chui

        Except the horse has left the barn on that.

        That gets introduced and every surplus hull any competent player owns gets dumped on the market immediately after, which would absolutely crater the market.

        January 21, 2021 at 1:47 AM
        • Simon Chui Noob

          It would crater the market for exactly as long as it takes for all the excess hulls to decay. Once all the excess ships are gone, prices will recover. And the good part is, unlike the current scarcity, everyone will know exactly how long the disruption will go on for, because the hulls will have a clear expiry date.

          January 21, 2021 at 10:37 AM
      • ViperRum Simon Chui

        I have a ton of ships….spread all over the game universe. Moving them is a pain in the ass. So I rarely use them. I haven’t trashed them because trashing them actually takes time and I’d rather do other things with my time. You are making way, way too much of this accumulation thing. And you fail to account for destruction and that ships do use up ammo and other consumables.

        January 23, 2021 at 10:43 AM
        • Simon Chui ViperRum

          I’ve only written one essay on accumulation. CCP, on the other hand, keeps adding more and more mechanics where NPCs destroy more stuff, try to encourage players to destroy each other’s stuff, and now to make players harvest less stuff. CCP thinks accumulation is a problem, and their solutions kinda suck, because they don’t address the root cause of the problem. I didn’t write this essay because I want my stuff to decay, I wrote it because I want CCP to figure out the changes they want to make faster and more effectively, so the game will suck less.

          January 23, 2021 at 11:19 AM
  • Guilford Australis

    CCP has three problems:

    (1). EVE is already universally recognized as a miserable grind. Introducing new mechanics to make life even more difficult for players merely reinforces that. While some of the new mechanics suggested might help ‘balance’ the game’s economy from a purely theoretical standpoint, they would likely further unbalance it from a gameplay standpoint. Most significantly, the changes proposed – and any other changes that might contribute to some Platonic ideal of economic / resource balance – would infuriate players and possibly motivate some or many to leave the game.

    (2). CCP already spends what seems to be a ridiculously disproportionate amount of time and development energy on ‘balancing’ the economy and resources while ignoring years-long, massive, fundamental imbalances to the basic way the game is played. Does anyone truly believe CCP spending even MORE time on the economy and resources is good for the overall game balance given that reality?

    (3). Plenty of other MMOs have player-driven economies that the developers don’t feel compelled to upend every few months to achieve ‘balance.’ And you know what? Those games work just fine, and the players aren’t repeatedly burned because the developer nerfed all their stuff, made their favorite activities unprofitable, and spent years making the game less fun so that the in-game economy could be more lifelike.

    January 20, 2021 at 11:07 PM
    • Simon Chui Guilford Australis

      But other MMOs do upend their economies on a regular basis: they raise level caps and introduce new tiers of items and more difficult enemies, all the players grind up to the new cap and the old stuff don’t get used any more. Eve is not like other MMOs, the in-game tech levels are far more static, and tech 1 ships are in the meta after all these years. It would be an effective way to counteract accretion: every year release new ships and structures with better stats that completely outclass all the existing ships, so there’s no point for players to keep any of the old stuff.

      January 21, 2021 at 12:54 AM
      • Guilford Australis Simon Chui

        My first and second points were the most significant ones (which is why I listed them first and second).

        As for your observations about level caps and gear in other MMOs, I’m just not going to wrangle that. Somehow FFXIV manages to work without Square Enix continually nerfing the rewards of PVE activities and making existing items useless (since they can be sold on the market to newer players). Tons of endgame-tier players have stockpiled massive troves of overpowered items and resources, and it doesn’t ruin anyone’s experience. Square Enix has achieved nearly universal acclaim from its playerbase for balancing the game through new content rather than nonstop nerf-trains and frustrating BS new mechanics that increase annoyance while decreasing rewards, yet CCP has achieved nearly universal irritation from its players for endlessly nerfing everything in EVE to achieve the ever-elusive and esoteric ‘balance’ (while ignoring massive fundamental imbalances in the basic gameplay).

        (And your argument implying that the value of items in EVE being relatively more static isn’t correct. Ask anyone with a Moros or some Drakes stockpiled from 7 years ago how static those items have remained in value. Or an FC who likes to run Assault Frigate or HAC fleets how well those hulls traded on the market four years ago when they were useless, and how much they’d be worth if CCP nerfed the Assault Damage Control. CCP already has plenty of tools to ensure that ships do NOT remain static in value and to discourage stockpiling them).

        January 21, 2021 at 3:03 AM
        • Simon Chui Guilford Australis

          Regarding the value of things, I’m only considering economic value, and I’m saying their isk price on the market divided by the isk per hour of isk printing tend to equal to their material cost divided by the rate of materials harvested per hour. Introduction of more effective forms of isk printing would raise prices, while the introduction of more effective forms of material harvesting would lower prices. These changes are not the result of player driven price competition; in the absence of changes to the game mechanics by CCP that effect isk printing or material harvesting per hour, changes in demand will be matched by player driven changes in supply.

          January 21, 2021 at 10:31 AM
  • ViperRum

    “Real world governments do not allow people to create money at their discretion, because doing so would cause them to lose control of the money supply, and thus lose control of inflation.”

    Except they actually did allow people to control the money supply via commodity backed currencies. In the 1800s in the US gold or silver or both backed the currency. And the gold/silver came from people mining. If those people “struck it rich” and the supply of gold surged, then the purchasing power of the dollar fell and mining for gold became less profitable. Similarly if mines started playing out and gold supply of gold was not keeping up then the purchasing power of the dollar went up and looking for more mines/gold became more profitable.

    January 23, 2021 at 9:56 AM
    • ViperRum ViperRum

      And while we do not have depreciation, which is what the author is describing with “decay”. We do have destruction. Destruction in the game takes the place of depreciation. I have lost 282 ships since I started playing on my main alone.

      And IRL, we have this thing called interest. It is what we pay for capital. And guess what the payments to interest account for depreciation. That is the interest rate is higher than depreciation…otherwise nobody would invest in capital. And over time, wealth can accrue just like it does in game. In fact, in game we do not have well developed financial markets so it is actually harder to acquire assets. That is I cannot just park my billions in a well diversified portfolio and let the ISK roll on in. I actually have to do something to acquire more ISK. And it is hard to put all of that ISK to work.

      This is why wealth inequality it a “thing” in many stable and developed economies. If you can can save and then invest your money, over the long haul it will grow. And you can kind of guess by how much using the rule of 72. Divide 72 by the average interest rate an it will tell you the doubling time for an initial investment. Invest at 6% you’ll double your investment in ~12 years. So if you put say $10,000 into an investment and wait 36 years it will double 3 times or be $80,000. Yeah things work faster in a video game…but FFS it is a video game. It would suck if it took 36 years to afford some of the more fun and interesting ships.

      January 23, 2021 at 10:07 AM
    • ViperRum ViperRum

      “One major consequence is that the market is forced to compete against these non-market sources of ISK.”

      The stupid just keeps on rolling here. ISK printing *IS* a market activity. You are trading your time for ISK.

      “Ratting earns 50 million ISK/hr, and all players are trying to maximize their profit. If ore prices go up and players could earn more than 50 million ISK/hr from mining, people will switch from ratting to mining, increasing ore supply and pushing prices back down. If ore prices go down, people switch from mining to ratting, reducing ore supply and pushing prices back up.

      What that means is, as long as consistent ISK printing activities exist in the game, supply and demand have no lasting effects on market prices.”

      No, you just literally described the effect of prices. The price of ores goes up, so people stop ratting. But then the money supply shrinks and the supply of real goods goes up. Prices thus go down. In the end, you move towards an equilibrium where some people mine and some rat.

      January 23, 2021 at 10:32 AM