Friday, September 12, 2014

EVE and RMT

There's a new blog banter out, #58 - Money:
The SOMERBlink fiasco from last summer and then again this summer... resulting in the service's ultimate shutdown has opened the floor to the discussion or monetization of services once again. 
Do you think CCP was right in its reaction? Was SOMERBlink justified in trying to monetize its service via plex sales kickbacks? Was it true RMT or grey area RMT? 
More generally, where is the line to be drawn when a service attempts to monetize in order to offset costs and/or make a profit? Is asking for donations in Real Life cash too far (I realize CCP considers it unacceptable right now)? Selling non-EVE trademarked goods acceptable? Asking for money to pay for efforts in setting up EVE meetups? Should these all be scrutinized? 
And should you want to dig deeper, should players be allowed to reverse redeem plex for cash? Does this already not exist in programs like Plex for fanfest packages or video cards? Is it right?
About Somer

First off, I am not that interested in Somer.  What they did was RMT, but the RMT per se was not the heart of what they did wrong.  RMT is fine if done with CCP's blessing.  (I.e., PLEX, fanfest packages, video cards, etc.)  Somer did not have CCP's full and knowledgeable permission to do RMT.  They tricked CCP into a sort-of permission to do it, and that is a very different thing.  It's one thing to trick someone with inferior or equal power; you can sometimes get away with it.  It's another thing to trick the hand that feeds you.  It was a stupid ploy.  Then they compounded their error by breaking EULA in several ways.  CCP did the right thing.  Nobody wants a subordinate that tries to scam and refuses to accept the rules.

Why or Why Not RMT?

Now let's talk in more generality.  Why is RMT banned, anyway?  Presumably, because its downsides outweigh its upsides.  But what are the upsides?  You don't hear people talk about that very much.  Let's look at both sides.

Why RMT?

There's a very interesting scifi element in Neal Stephenson's recent scifi novel Reamde (sic).  In the book's near-future world there is a MMO called "T'rain", which features full RMT, by design.  Indeed, the RMT is said to be among the reasons why the game is such a fictional success.  Legions of third-world gold farmers make a living by playing T'rain.  They are the low-level farmers (literally) in the game; it's their real-life full time job.  Rich Westerners play the game as a game, paying subscriptions, and are in effect the aristocrats of the game.  Each one has a horde of farmers working beneath him.

T'rain aristocrats are paying for three things that are affected by RMT: a living world, dominance, and status.  Let's look at each of these, and see how it is related to RMT.

First, T'rain is a living fantasy world that is full of actual people, not just simulated people.  (It also has a lot of computer-controlled baddies for PVE purposes.)  All the scutwork -- mining, farming, woodcutting, etc. -- is being done by characters in the game.  Everything is simulated down to the geology of the virtual world.  So, the world feels real.  Think about the difference in feel between an ice anomaly, and a level four mission.  In both, the grid is full of ships.

Second, just as in EVE, the T'rain aristocrats are the guys who get to run around and have adventures, many of which include fighting each other.  When you fight, someone wins, and gets the thrill of dominating another real human being.  Compare PVP in EVE to PVE.  The same thing applies: killing people is thrilling.  Losing is crushing, but for most people it does not depress you as much as a win elates you.  So, you ride the rollercoaster.  And note that in T'rain, there are "peasants" -- the gold farmers -- who presumably players can kill if they want a cheap win.

Similarly, presumably in T'rain if you want to hurt someone you can go and kill his peasants, Game of Thrones style.  Think of the difference in EVE between ganking and PVE.  In both you are shooting ships which in effect cannot win.  But ganking is typically fun; real tears are generated.  Compare the staid predictability of PVE.  Dominating a computer-played static fleet -- a fleet which is designed to allow you to beat it -- ceases to be fun after a while.

Third, the T'rain aristocrats get the thrill of being actually high-status in the game.  Human beings crave status perhaps as much anything else; they'll sacrifice a lot for it: money, sex, their very lives, even the lives of their children.  It's a very powerful motivator.  In most games the player is high status in the game's asserted fiction; for example, he's a "Jedi knight" and everyone knows that "Jedi knights" are high status supermen.  But the player in most games does not in fact have actual status in the sense of having actual human subordinates.  At best he has NPC subordinates; and after a point they do not tweak our status circuits.  By contrast, in T'rain, you could pay for actual status -- that is, having human subordinates -- and get it.

So, in summary, T'rain hits on a lot of the same buttons that EVE does.  But it does some things arguably better: a better simulated world, and higher status for its paying players.  Of course, we should keep in mind that T'rain is fictional.  I think the elements above would be successful in a real-world game.  Some of them are in EVE!  But it's trivial to assert in a story that your game is a worldwide smash hit because of X.  It's another thing to write an actual popular game, and yet another that a real game is popular because of X.

So, there are reasons why CCP should forget about monopolizing RMT and let people do it.

So why not allow RMT?

Why Not RMT?

Of course, CCP does allow very generous RMT: that's what PLEX is.  (Ref: my old post on EVE's Amazing AIs.)  But PLEX is uni-directional: money goes in; it never comes out.  What about opening up the other direction?  Of course, CCP should profit from it.  They might set up a online currency exchange: a modest "tax" on exchanges of say 10% seems like it should extract a lot of profit from the practice while still being low enough that black-market RMT is minimized.

One huge reason why full RMT might be a bad idea is real world laws.  If you hold someone's money for them, you are a bank, at least arguably.  And therefore arguably banking regulations should be applied to you.  I have certainly seen this mentioned in the RMT context.  I don't know how applicable it really is.  But if it is, I can certainly see that allowing any RMT might be prohibitive costly.  But let's ignore this reason for now and concentrate only on reasons related to game design.

One reason why people think that RMT is bad is that it makes it hard to earn ISK.  I discuss this with Gevlon in the comments of this post.  I make the point that ISK incomes would not collapse totally; they'd just drift down towards the global minimum wage.  (Really the minimum wage that obtains in places which have good internet access and sufficient population.  Today that is probably China.)  At the time, I computed 14m ISK/hour as that level; that was with PLEX around 500m.  The rate today would be somewhat higher, more like 20m ISK/hour.  This may not seem great to a wspace or null person.  But there are many people today earning less than that in highsec.  Highsec's safety counts for a lot, for many players.  So, there is definitely a viable game left even after all higher-profit work is professionalized.

Now, it should be apparent that in opening a competition between people all over the world to "play" EVE as a job, you open up competition and will drive wages down, at least somewhat.  A Chinese peasant may compare a job mining veldspar in EVE to, perhaps, working as a street-sweeper, and decide that he can survive on less than minimum wage.  The work is much more pleasant.  So wages would probably be a bit lower.  Still, the estimate is fine on that end.

Another thing that would happen with full RMT is that PLEX would go up quite a bit.  Consider a Chinese peasant playing EVE to make money.  He finds that they can rat in nullsec for 60m ISK/hour.  So he and a friend get an account and rat with it all day in shifts, perhaps 20 hours per day, six days per week.  Over a month, that's 33.6b ISK.  From that, they need to buy one PLEX to run the account; PLEX cashed out beyond that earn them minimum wage.  But their mininum wage is on the order of $112/month; if they can cash out a PLEX for $15 legally, then they'd need 15 of them to pay just over minimum.  16 total.  So we see a valuation of 2.1b ISK/PLEX.  (Perhaps not coincidentally, PLEX are just about 2b ISK on the Chinese server, although they pay about half as much for PLEX.)

So what's the problem here?  The problem is that everyone becomes risk averse.  That is because everyone has the possibility to extract real cash from the game.

Now, there's no problem in farmers becoming, or rather being, risk averse.  The Code to the contrary, pure farming is a viable play style.  And farmers already are famously risk averse.  They'd be perhaps bit more so with the ability to cash out, but really not that much.

It's the rest of the players that would have their incentives changed much for the worse.  Currently, it is relatively easy to earn more than PLEX.  So people pile up ISK with nothing to do with it.  For those whom ISK is not an end, but a means to more pixel violence, lots of ISK will eventually mean they fly more, or they end up up-shipping, flying more expensive ships.  They are more capable and also more fun to blow up.  Thus, everyone benefits.  And people stay in the game, because the spaceship violence is compelling.

Consider an EVE in which losing a "$1000" Titan really is losing $1000... and suddenly, you won't see many Titan pilots.

By making the accumulation of ISK easy, and having nothing to spend it on but spaceship violence, CCP induces lots of spaceship violence in their game of spaceship violence.  And that's a good thing, because lacking spaceship violence nobody would play EVE.

But What About PLEX-for-Vidcards?

So, the point of disallowing cash-out-RMT is to make sure EVE stays fun, which is what happens when there's nothing better to do with ISK.  But what about all those methods of trading PLEX for real stuff mentioned in the banter?  Video cards and fanfest packages, etc.?

Well, those do give players an outlet for ISK, and so they should have the effect of reducing the amount of pixel violence going on.  But on the other hand, at least arguably by handing out things related to EVE, you cement fan loyalty directly, and keep them playing because they like the game more.  So, I think it's a wash on the "fun" factor.  And also, it's a clear win to the extent that many of the people using these offers are not PVPers.  They're not going to do anything with the ISK in any case.

There is also the point about professionalization.  By allowing cashout in any form, CCP reduces the amount players can earn in game, because people will do extra farming to earn ISK for cashout.  But so long as CCP keeps the amount of cashout relatively small and unpredictable, this is not a real problem.  "Relatively small" here is relative to the global minimum wage.  Allowing cashout of a PLEX per month is insufficient for anyone to live on.  Unpredictable just means that you cannot come to rely on that income.  Also, cash per se should not available; rather, goods or services, ideally services that are not salable.  This makes it more difficult to live on cashout opportunities.

5 comments:

  1. When I read REAMDE I was immediately struck by the comparison to EVE PLEX. Seems I was not the only one ocming to this conclusion.
    Currently reading 'The Diamond Age'.

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  2. I think the risk aversion problem could be solved with ship balancing, but at a cost to player retention. I believe (I may be completely wrong) in the past a Titan was able to kill a HIC by fitting tracking mods because guns did not factor in signature. Its doomsday weapon was also aoe. This made a Titan useful for something besides bridging, holding sov, or low risk ganks. Super carriers could launch small drones. A dreadnought could launch drones. "Real fights" had Battleships and serfs flew frigates.

    Maybe CCP moved in the direction they did, because they don't want a pay to win game, or they think that a pay to win game is a short sighted strategy. Maybe more people will pay to play RvB's style of Eve than PL's?
    Could this be one of the causes to rising PLEX prices? Why sell a PLEX if it only increases your ability to win by a small margin?

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  3. first, i've tried plexing my characters back during the ice mining heyday (and being unemployed) and it was stupid easy to start adding more accounts for effectively free (more plex, but hey, why not my computer can handle it and eve's mining career is built for just piling on the alts)
    secondly, most of the time over my decade of playing this mmog i've subscribed via CC and looked upon purchasing plex to translate into ingame isk to be cheating...or at least foolish (in the sense if one cannot make the isk yourself, you're lacking the knowledge to properly utilize the isk you just bought)
    Thirdly, I have come to realize that sometimes i'm able to play eve for free, although that happens rarely since it takes a bit of grinding (aka time i don't have since i have a fiance and a fulltime job)...and sometimes i need to purchase isk since i have the knowledge now, just not the isk.

    I don't feel guilty about either anymore.

    So...having said all that, what would i think about a hypothetical situation where i could quit my job and make money by doing things online? i'd say "hell yes!" ...that be awesome. I already make minimum wage and have had pretty much all my life...silly me for not taking higher education.

    How much could i make? let's say i make 100m isk/hr easily. I'd need 4 characters to mine ice. that's 4 plex. Okay, no problem, i'll be raking in the isk to buy plex to reverse redeem for real life cash anyways, so yay the more the merrier, right? My days of drudgery are over! yay

    let's see now...in a month i could probably play 12hours a day for seven days a week before GF aggro escalated to murder. before that happened i'd make 36b isk a month. weee...minus the 3.2b isk for keeping 4 accounts plexed, i'd have 41 plex to reverse redeem for $$$$$

    615 bucks a month? hmmmm...that's more than welfare! yay! oh wait, i have a real job that rakes in more than twice that for half the time spent. I play eve like at least 4 hours a day anyways, without worrying about having to grind grind grind.

    Is it attractive to me? tempting to work in outer space professionally. The idea itself is seductive...what would my wage be? At 2,520 hours per month for 615 bucks my hourly would be $4

    erm...what?

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    Replies
    1. wait. i suck at math. it would be 25 cents an hour. HAHHAHAHAHA fuck that. really?

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    2. wow...ahah...okay, so i really really suck at math. that's $2.5/hr oh man, that's hilarious.

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