A discussion over at Massively raises the prospect of microtransactions popping up in EVE Online. At first glance this is a discouraging prospect, but further thought convinced me otherwise.
Microtransactions are really just a means by which real-world cash can influence the game world. Western MMO players have traditionally seen the danger in this, and can point to various Asian titles in which it’s possible to simply buy success. This tends to rub us the wrong way – we tend to subscribe to the idea that skill and/or dedication should give rise to in-game success, rather than deep real-world coffers.
This is an area that’s evolving very quickly in the western market, however. In the past year or so we’ve seen a couple of games move to unlimited trials while keeping traditional subscriptions around, and three other major titles – DDO (which became a major title in so moving,) LotRO and EQ2 – move to hybrid microtransaction/subscription models. None of the three have what I’d call perfect implementations of the idea, and the one in EQ2X in particular is pretty deeply flawed. But the great hazard of a microtransaction environment – that of being able to buy success – has not yet arisen in any of these cases. So my natural worry over the issue is somewhat tempered.
There already exists in EVE a means by which real-world money can affect the game – the PLEX or Pilot License Extension. This is essentially a 30-day time code to extend your subscription, much as you’d see on a game time card for WoW or WAR or whatever else. They can be bought from the EVE website. The difference here, though, is that the PLEX is an actual in-game item that can be bought, sold or traded – or even looted if one is foolish enough to be flying around with it in one’s cargo hold. The net effect is that you can pay for your EVE subscription with in-game money, or you can buy PLEX and sell them on the open market. The going rate tends to hover around 300 million ISK.
When Incursion kicks off in November it will bring with it a new transaction of a similar type – neural remaps, which will apparently be paid for with the same PLEX codes. This is essentially an attribute respec – and it’s hard to say how often it will be used, since there are a couple other ways to boost attributes in the game already (learning skills and implants.) In principle a paid respec would allow one to tailor one’s attributes to facilitate the learning of specific skill categories. So, for example, you could decide to respec to boost your Charisma, learn a bunch of social skills (the training time of which is dependent on that stat,) and then respec to train up something else. There is a hard cap on how high attributes can go, however, and you get one free remap per year anyway – and new characters get two for free.
So while this appears cheesy and potentially abusive at first glance, I don’t see it as a critical concern, especially if it actually costs 1 PLEX per respec, which is how I currently understand it. I just don’t see all that many people wanting to pay $15 or 300 million ISK for a remap all that often.
There’s also talk of implementing some kind of microtransactions for vanity items. Massively suggests these may tie into Incarna and the new avatars, which implies that we’d see things like custom outfits and maybe avatar special effects or something. This is something I have to confess I would rather not see, at least as simple purchases from a cash shop. What I would prefer is that the store would sell BPOs for such custom items, which could then be copied or manufactured in the usual way by players, thus adding to the depth of the in-game economy (already the deepest of its kind,) and adding new resources to the game like textiles or dyes. In this way (hoc modo,) you’d have your microtransactions and supplemental cash flow into the enterprise, but it’d drive in-game activity instead of providing shortcuts around it.
Custom paint jobs for ships would also be something I think there would be a market for. This is something that’s been talked about from time to time as something both players and CCP would like to see. This is also something I would prefer to be driven by the in-game economy, although I don’t know that I see a logical way to do that within the existing infrastructure.
Don’t forget, too, that CCP has a microtransaction-driven Dust 514 to plan for as well – they’ve already said that it won’t be a traditional subscription game. This is going to interface with EVE in a way that’s not yet entirely clear, although we have a broad idea of how it’s going to work. Can you provide custom uniforms for your affiliated ground troops, for instance?
At first glance, it sounds like all this could be fueled by expansions to the existing economy, with the PLEX as a supplementary way to turn real-world cash into usable ISK. But the PLEX cannot be a universal microtransaction currency – it’d be bad for EVE and for CCP if there were too many in circulation at any one time – remembering that, by the basic laws of economics, the price would go down. It would be undesirable from CCP’s perspective if it became too easy to pay for your subscription with ISK.
We may see something on this front with the launch of Incarna, or with the next expansion (yet unannounced) after that. In any case, however, I’d expect to see CCP moving forward on this front, perhaps in a different way than is being implemented elsewhere. I’m curious to see what spin the most creative development team in MMOs can put on it.