IV – More Money Less Problems: Monetization versus Skills Development in EVE

I knew an EVE player once who had to quit in order to focus on real life for a while – the way he put it, “EVE is too complicated, so I thought I’d go to med school instead.” 

There’s a kernel of truth in this.  Playing EVE at a high level does require extraordinary amounts of memorization, recall, conceptual analysis, and muscle-memory.  These things are not probably not needed in quite the same degree as practicing medicine, and (for most people) playing EVE is cheaper than getting an M.D.; however, practicing medicine is about life and death, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that playing EVE is far more important than that.

To put it simply, EVE Online is the hardest videogame ever made.  Or, if not the hardest, it is at least the most complex. 

Borrowing a term from sports scouting, we can think about a player’s “floor” and “ceiling” in terms of skills and ability.  If you haven’t heard this before, basically a player with a “high floor, low ceiling” is someone who at least won’t be terrible (high floor) but also is unlikely to be the next superstar (low ceiling).  In contrast, a player with a “low floor, high ceiling,” might have major injury or character concerns that could cause them to wash out completely (low floor) but extreme athleticism and potential to be an all-time great. 

Most professional sports are designed in ways that allow for this skills expression – they do not limit the expression of a player’s ceiling or hold up their floor.  A nice comparison would be between whiffle ball and baseball: essentially the same game, but having the ball set up on a stick raises the skill floor by allowing anyone to hit it, while also lowering the skill ceiling by reducing the distance a really good batter could reach, or by eliminating the difference in hit-rate between good and bad players. 

Some videogames do this and others don’t.  One key example for me is the transition from the three-round-burst of the Battle Rifle in Halo 3 to the single-shot DMR in Halo Reach.  While ostensibly the same weapon for newer players, the Battle Rifle’s three-round burst could potentially hit multiple targets in one burst, which the DMR could not; conversely, the BR could also miss and only do 1/3 or 2/3 of its damage.  The transition to a single-shot weapon effectively lowered the skills ceiling, by disallowing advanced players from killing multiple enemies in one shot, and raised the floor by making every shot full damage, as long as it hit at all – and, notably, lowering the ceiling in a competitive game is also the same as raising the floor, because it reduces relatively the possible gap between the best and worst player in the game.  As a pretty serious online Halo player, I found the transition infuriating, as it just erased a skill I had spent over a year perfecting, a skill that gave me a distinct edge in most games.

As part of EVE’s single-shard, sandbox design, it does shockingly little to raise the floor, and allows for a breathtakingly high ceiling.  Part of this is simply because there is no matchmaking system keeping the best and worst players apart.  In this sense, floating in space and munching asteroids is definitely nothing like going to med school; but pushing the limits of what can be done, forging your own way into the rarified air of EVE virtuosos, is, relative to the videogame world, almost comparable[i]

But this skills expression makes EVE harder to monetize.  In the same way that the language of the Death Popup is fundamentally at odds with the nature of permanent loss in EVE, some of the standard videogame industry monetization practices are fundamentally at odds with the high-ceiling, low-floor world of EVE. 

This week, we’re going to look at how CCP is financially incentivized to dumb down the game.  I’m going to draw both on the discussion about monetization in Post III and on the framework around Skills Development from Post II.  If you haven’t read those yet, you might want to check them out before continuing!

Let’s return to the baseball vs. whiffle ball comparison.  If you were struck out by a pitcher in baseball, you might think about adjusting your swing angle, your timing, your eye placement; you and your coach might analyze a pitcher’s body language to see if they’re broadcasting what kind of pitch they’re going to throw ahead of time, or try to memorize the sequence of different pitches to find a pattern.  In other words, you are presented with a problem (not hitting the ball) and try to solve the problem using skills, such as your swinging technique, and memorization, such as the pitcher’s body language or pitch order.  Solving this problem, however you do it, makes you better at baseball.

In whiffle ball, odds are you hit the ball immediately, because it is just sitting there in front of you.  If not, there is a minute degree to which you could think about your batting technique, but for the most part this would be time wasted.  The highest indicator of success batting in whiffle ball would not be your skill, but the number of chances you had.

Now imagine that in both cases, you’re offered to pay five dollars per swing to get extra swings.  In baseball, you’re just as unlikely to hit the ball on the fourth or fifth swing as you are on the first three, assuming you don’t adjust your skills in between: the primary limitation on your success is your skill, and the primary way to succeed is by improving your skills.  However, in whiffle ball, where there is less ability to solve a problem with skills, you are substantially more likely to benefit from spending the money to get the extra swings.  In this case, specifically because baseball is harder, you get more value per dollar buying extra swings in whiffle ball.  Another way to look at this is that the best way to solve the problem in the more complicated game is by… solving the problem – whereas the best way to solve it in the simpler game is to buy the solution.

This is something the videogame industry understands very well.  The article I relied on heavily for last week’s post states:

“In a pure skill-based game, players may often identify methods of gaining an advantage over the system, by honing their skills or developing new strategies, such as memorizing the game’s challenges and obstacles (e.g., learning where race opponents tend to be positioned on the track, finding optimal routes to objectives, and so on) (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). However, in a monetized game, there may be very few, if any, other options available to the player that will bypass or affect financial obstacles (e.g., price of items) and for this reason these types of systems are often referred to as ‘paywalls’ (e.g., a racing game with the requirement of spending real money on virtual fuel to drive the car). Thus, players of monetized games cannot ‘strategize’ to win but instead must decide between making in-game purchases or not playing at all…”[ii]

In short, all games present players with challenges – that’s the whole point – but if a game has a high skill-ceiling, we can solve that problem with skills, and solving that problem makes us better at the game, whereas in a game with a low skill-ceiling, we can only solve the problem with our wallets. 

EVE Online contains both aspects of this dichotomy.  Because it is an open world, players can move freely between high-ceiling and low-ceiling activities.  This feeds directly into the example of skills development I used in Post II, in which the high-ceiling activity of smallgang PVP is harder to scale across multiple accounts, whereas the low-ceiling activity of big-fleet PVP is much easier, and therefore much more important, to scale across multiple accounts: but the same player could easily drift between both playstyles.  Using the above quote from Unfair Play?, we can now look at this from another angle: big-fleet PVP is easier to paywall than smallgang PVP, because the only way to contribute more is to subscribe more accounts.  CCP is thusly financially incentivized to push players towards the lower-ceiling gameplay of bloc PVP.

The era from 2015-19 is widely regarded as the darkest days for EVE, and I wholeheartedly agree.  This period saw, above all, a profound and fundamental culture shift from one that prioritized in-game achievement to one that prioritizes in-game assets.  We can also say that this was a period in which CCP pushed players towards low-ceiling, high-scalability gameplay, such as AFK Rorqual mining[iii].  This was in line with gaming industry logic as a whole, which states that one human solving their in-game problems by getting better at the game on one account is not worth as much money as one human solving their problems by subscribing many accounts, scaling their assets horizontally.

The important thing here – and something I can’t say forcefully enough – is that we shouldn’t demonize players for playing the game in any way.  That’s how a sandbox game works.  Existing in this universe is why you would play EVE, and whatever you do after that is your decision, and there are no wrong answers.

However, while it is vital not to blame the individual player who chooses to run twenty mining accounts, it is also important to point out that the game would be better off if they could make twenty times the money off of running one account very well: they would be learning skills and getting better at the game, becoming attached not just by the Cost-Sunk Fallacy but by the drive to keep improving.  Of course, the game would not be better off if it folded due to low revenue, so we have to accept a balance.

Phantomite has brilliantly expressed another example of lowering the skills ceiling to allow for more scalability, in how old cap-compression carriers have been traded out for local-cap FAXes[iv].  These are expensive assets, both in terms of the vessel itself and the advanced characters it takes to fly them.  From a financial perspective, CCP made a very good move by simplifying the process so that pilots could run three or four FAXes instead of one carrier.  But this is also like taking an MLB pitcher and making them play whiffle ball – many of them would decide to take their skills elsewhere.  And over time, many advanced EVE players have quit for just this reason[v].

So, where does this leave us?

If you’re waiting for a big opinion at the end of this one, you’re going to be disappointed.  I’ve already expressed my biggest opinion, which is that more humans running fewer accounts but with higher skills-ceilings is healthier for the game in the long run.  I also understand that you can’t just wish customers up out of the blue, and I accept that it’s fair to try to maximize your profit off of existing customers, within reason.

The central thrust of this post is just an observation, not an opinion: per current industry logic, making EVE a better game is also making it harder to monetize.  Making EVE a simpler, less unique game, is making it easier to monetize. 

The really complicated part is that, despite overall trends, the entire server doesn’t get more or less complex simultaneously for everyone.  New Eden is a space where some players get to hit whiffle balls and others have to bat against Babe Ruth.  That can be areally cool phenomenon.  It means putting in the work to be Babe Ruth has huge rewards, not just in terms of in-game assets, but in a real and lasting sense of achievement.

Originally, I started on a longwinded explanation of why a game with a large gap between skills floor and ceiling is better than one with a narrow gap, but I don’t think that’s needed.  Suffice it to say, in a well-designed game, a fair game, an engaging and rewarding game, a good player will beat a bad player almost all of the time.  Moreover, playing any good game should make you better at the game.  Those are the core principles of any competition.  That’s also the reason you can watch competitive Poker, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find competitive Go Fish. 

The challenge for CCP is to strike a balance between maximizing profits off of existing customers without limiting their intake of new customers: to keep the skills ceiling high for existing players while lowering the floor for new ones.  They know that already.  And in fact, despite half a decade of sacrificing long-term health for immediate profit, I think they’ve recently made fantastic changes in this regard, be it from the ESS rework requiring PVE players to learn new skills to maximize profit, to the industry rework doing the same for builders; abyssal modules have also hugely increased the skills-ceiling for theorycrafters, and introduced dynamic choice-making when building a ship.  Clearly, there are plenty at CCP that share my view.

But if they decided to go in the other direction, like they did from 2015-19, they would be doing so from a profound position of informational asymmetry against their playerbase.  If this post has done anything to level that playing field, I’d be thrilled.  The challenge for players is to be aware of when CCP wants them to play baseball and when it wants them to play whiffle ball, to spend their money accordingly, and to be aware of whether their path in-game is keeping them engaged by growing new skills or by tying their brain chemistry to their ultimately meaningless digital assets.

Work Cited

Daniel L. King, Paul H. Delfabbro, Sally M. Gainsbury, Michael Dreier, Nancy Greer, Joël Billieux, “Unfair play? Video games as exploitative monetized services: An examination of game patents from a consumer protection perspective.”  Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 101, 2019.  ISSN 0747-5632, (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563219302602)

[i] A lot of this is tongue-in-cheek, and I don’t want to discredit those who work in medical fields by taking this comparison too seriously (especially while those in medicine just spent a year and a half fighting COVID while the rest of us stayed home and fought each other’s spaceships).  Of course playing a videogame is not as hard or complicated as saving lives.  But, to take another example, as someone who plays two instruments at a professional level, I am constantly astounded by how good really good EVE players are, in comparison to great musicians.  I play EVE at a pretty high level too, and I often think someone like Lussy Lou is as much better than I am at EVE as Victor Wooten is at the bass.  Is Lussy as good at EVE as Victor Wooten is at bass?  No.  That’s not really possible.  But the fact that we can even make the comparison is insane.  Think about it that way: it’s not that these things are, in reality, comparable, but rather that the comparison that jumps to mind does tell you a lot about the reality.

[ii] Unfair Play?  Section 4. Discussion.

[iii] For non-EVE players: in a hotly debated and still quite controversial change, during this period CCP introduced the Rorqual as the new end-game mining ship, able not only to mine about 10x as much per ship as the previous alternatives, but also to do so with almost zero actions per minute.  This allowed the ships to be scaled, with some players running dozens simultaneously.  The subsequent damage done to the economy resulted in a now year-and-a-half long period of ‘scarcity’ to rebalance the economy. 

[iv] Pando’s FC Chat Episode 53, starting at about 94:00 – https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/k6wnd9/fc_chat_53_captator_phantomite/

For non-EVE players… sorry.  This one is pretty damn complicated to explain in short.  I used to fly on the cap-compression carrier fleets, and I remember sweating bullets while on them.  Suffice it to say that if you can’t succinctly explain end-game gameplay to non-players, it’s probably a good thing for the game’s ability to teach skills!

[v] This claim is at once anecdotal and almost indisputable.  I have personally known dozens of very advanced players who invested thousands of dollars and hours into the game who quit during the 2015-19 culture shift, because they found their wealth of skills useless in the new, simplified game.

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