Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Why there ain't no sparkly ponies in EVE
After the first wave of outrage against Blizzard selling $25 horses, some people started wondering how we got there. How did we arrive at a situation where Blizzard not only has the idea to sell a mount for $25, but also gets hundreds of thousands of players buying one? The reason why people are asking that question is that deep in their heart they know the answer, and they don't like that answer at all, because it doesn't reflect nicely upon us as players:
We started out with a game in which people played and were rewarded with virtual goods for playing. That over time evolved into a situation where we valued the virtual rewards more than the gameplay leading to it. People began to minmax, to "optimize the fun out of playing", trying to get to the reward in the fastest possible way, regardless of whether that way was fun to play or not. And the developers saw that, and said: "Well, if you want only the virtual reward and not the gameplay, we are quite willing to sell you that directly!". In short, the players are as much to blame for this than the developers or "greedy" managers.
Now I'm certainly not immune to the draw of virtual rewards. For example I ran heroic dungeons with my level 80 characters until they were fully or nearly fully equipped with emblem of triumph gear, and then stopped when the only thing to look forward to was minor upgrades or long grinds of emblems of frost. But in other situations I'm quite capable of heading down the least efficient route, trying to have more fun at the expense of getting less rewards. I'm generally a slow leveler because of that.
Knowing well the two paths, I quickly realized when playing EVE that the "playing for rewards" path is not the EVE way. In fact, if EVE teaches you anything, it is to be not too attached to your virtual goods, because you are quite likely to lose them. Seen like that, the real time skill advancement system of EVE makes more sense: There is deliberately no link between gameplay and advancement, so you don't play for the rewards. Of course that design philosophy has different problems, like people not being so motivated to play if there are no character advancement rewards connected to it (aka the "EVE Offline" problem). But it does have the advantage that people are less obsessed with the rewards, and more interested in the gameplay. Thus no sparkly pony in EVE: It would be difficult to imagine CCP selling virtual items, like an extra sparkly space ship which is then just going to be a prime target for gankers.
The fact that "having" something isn't as important as how to get there also changes the perspective on RMT. It matters surprisingly little how many million ISK you have. It is how many million ISK you *make* that confers a certain status towards your fellow players. Many EVE players are quite generous towards new players, handing out advice and items or cash. Of course you quickly learn not to depend on that, that container flying in space labeled "free newbie items" might well be a trap, and have a cloaked ship close to it, shooting you down for "stealing" from a can that doesn't belong to you when you dare to take something. But ultimately opportunities to make money are more than plentiful, and if you don't constantly get shot down in low sec space you are likely to always have enough money.
And if you have enough money, you also have all the items you could possibly use. There is no such thing as bind-on-pickup rewards in EVE Online. Yes, you can shoot down a pirate and find a useful module in his wreck. But you'll find the same module on the market, and as long as you don't have exotic skills at high level, every module you can actually use is something mass produced and relatively cheap. Thus when you get shot down and lose all your modules, none of them is irreplaceable, and you don't need to kill raid boss X again and be lucky with the random loot drop to get the item you want, you can simply buy everything in the auction house somewhere. Thus EVE rule number 1: Never use anything you can't afford to replace when you lose it.
One consequence of that is that people in EVE are less attached to their virtual belongings. Spinks asked in a comment whether veteran EVE players were "hardcore" and looked down on newbies. I didn't get the impression. You are far more likely to meet an elitist jerk in the trade chat in WoW, where recently I observed somebody organizing a raid with a 5128 gearscore minimum; why such an exact number? Because that was exactly the gearscore he had, and everybody having even 1 point less was obviously a clueless n00b. EVE players tend to be less boastful about their "gear", because who knows whether they still have it tomorrow.
While it is interesting to play a game with such a very different basic design philosophy, I'm not ready to declare the EVE model as "better" or "worse" than the reward model. Maybe some people who are currently sprouting doomsday scenarios of how we are all going to have games with no gameplay and only rewards for cash should play EVE for a while to see how the other extreme looks. Because the "getting rewards for playing" model has some huge advantages, and is easier accessible for most people. And even in a reward-based game, rewards for cash aren't likely to take over and displace gameplay. Just imagine Blizzard had not released one $25 mount, but a dozen of them simultaneously; would they have made a dozen times more money? Most probably they would just barely have made more than with the single mount. The "buying rewards" business isn't all that scaleable, and it requires there being a big game that people actually have fun playing behind it to work at all.