Thursday, October 22, 2015

Understanding the Skill Point Revolution, Part 1

In case you've been AFK mining for the past week, CCP awoke the EVE community by announcing its plan to create a system for extracting and selling unallocated skill points. This inspired an extraordinary threadnaught--223 pages and counting. As you can see from the first pages of the threadnaught, CCP's announcement triggered an intensely hostile reaction. The CSM was told about the plan in advance, so several CSM members were prepared to jump in and reassure everyone that they had told CCP it was a bad idea. Other notable members of the EVE community, ranging from Chribba to Ripard Teg, expressed their displeasure and/or disbelief.

As time went on, some players began to realize how the ability to reallocate and buy skill points would work to their advantage, so there was more of a debate and less of a unified howl of outrage. Nevertheless, it's fair to say the community reaction has been very negative overall.

CCP's plan represents one of the most significant changes to EVE in the game's 12-year history. Today I'll write a few words on how the change will affect EVE gameplay and, later, its impact on highsec and the New Order.

I. It's a big deal.

Advocates of CCP's plan have pointed out that players can already sort of buy skill points through the Character Bazaar. Indeed, when CCP wrote its devblog, they wrapped up their proposal in an extended comparison to the Character Bazaar. This was an effort to downplay the importance of the change by saying, in effect, "There's not much new here. It's just an improvement over the old system."

The Character Bazaar had a lot of problems that will be corrected by the new system: With the Bazaar, you can only buy what's for sale, not necessarily what you want. You might find a character with some, but not all, of the skills you're looking for. The character may have a sordid reputation (corp thief characters are often sold), which you'd inherit. You need to reserve a character slot for your purchase, which usually entails deleting some other character. And worst of all, the character is one that someone else made. You can't rename the character. To make room for it, you might need to remove a character to which you have a sentimental attachment. The Bazaar is also run through a cumbersome, out-of-game system.

To those who oppose the selling of skill points, the Bazaar's disadvantages amounted to a feature rather than a bug. The Bazaar was designed by CCP to deal with inevitable, illicit character trading, as PLEX dealt with illicit RMT. Because of the Bazaar's flaws, the vast majority of EVE players don't use it. Some EVE players, such as those with many accounts or capital/supercap characters, exchange characters through the Bazaar as casually as they change their socks. But the vast majority create their own characters and train them up, even if it takes a long time to learn the skills they want.

Thus, buying experienced characters was possible for those who wanted to do it, but the practice was kept within certain limits. That's why the community never responded to the Bazaar with great protest.

With CCP's skill point selling plan, the constraints of the Character Bazaar will be gone. The comparisons between the two are misleading; they're as different from each other as iTunes is from radio.

Once it becomes possible to buy/reallocate skill points for your own characters, it will be done everywhere, all the time. It's a much bigger change to the game than PLEX. People who don't want to spend more real money on EVE can grind isk; you can't grind time. If you want your character to pilot a new kind of ship, or if you want max skills for something, you'll no longer need to wait weeks or months for it. In the past, waiting was something EVE players had to do. Once it's no longer required, it's hard to imagine people being willing to wait for very long at all anymore.

Need skills to fly a doctrine ship? Did CCP nerf the overpowered flavor-of-the-month that you finally finished training skills for? Finally got a new character for something, but don't have skills yet? Did something you've never used before suddenly get a buff? Spend some isk/money, problem solved. For those still comparing the new system to the Character Bazaar, think of all the times you've had to wait for skills to finish training, despite the existence of the Bazaar. That's why this is different.


II. It's about making money for CCP.

Is it a good thing that people will be able to buy skill points? Everyone will benefit from the new system; there are few people who will never be tempted to buy skill points at one time or another. Thus, if you don't like the idea, it's a matter of taste and game design philosophy. If your taste and philosophy are opposed to buying skill points, you're not alone: Until now, CCP absolutely agreed with you.

Those who have played EVE for a long time know that CCP has always been very stingy with skill points. Over the years, players have frequently begged for free skill points to compensate them for server downtime, etc. CCP's response has always been, "Set a long skill to train." On rare occasions, such as when they reimbursed skill points for the deleted Learning Skills, CCP granted players unallocated skill points. Otherwise, they have been very, very reluctant to touch the system.

Why the change? Money. CCP is feeling the need for it, and they can probably make quite a bit of it with the new plan. Everyone knows about EVE's falling subscription numbers. We're also familiar with CCP's crushing failures whenever they've tried to do anything other than EVE. A few years ago, they sunk millions of dollars into the development of Incarna (technically a part of EVE, but really not), which became vaporware. They sunk millions into World of Darkness. Vaporware again. Millions more were spent on creating Dust 514 for the PS3. Although CCP proudly announced that Dust's revenues per quarter exceeded its expenses (i.e., it was "profitable"), that didn't mean that CCP didn't lose millions from the game's initial development costs.

We may be able to add Project Legion to the list of CCP's failures. Project Legion was CCP's plan to port Dust 514 onto the PC. It was announced in 2014 at a Fanfest event. Compared to the Red Wedding, the announcement infuriated Dust players, because they felt it effectively marked the abandonment of the Dust console community. Apparently the public relations disaster was all for nothing, as rumors are intensifying (with help from the CSM) that Project Legion will be vaporware, too.

Given this context, EVE players have understandably (and correctly, in my view) read CCP's about-face on skill point selling as an effort to cash in. In other words, it's about the health of CCP's finances, and not at all about improving the game. But aren't the two connected? Players have long argued that when CCP makes money, that's good for EVE, because the money can be used to develop more EVE features--despite CCP's history of throwing away money on failed projects.

Enter CCP Terminus, who wrote a very interesting reply to these concerns on the threadnaught:
"CCP is a company, not a product and it is the goal of any company to outlive any one product they create. If a company relies on a single product for the entirety of their revenue, this is not possible. At some point the product will be replaced, even one as long lived as EVE Online. If that's the only thing making us money, the company collapses at that point and a lot of people lose their jobs.

"While I don't see EVE going anywhere any time soon, it makes perfect sense to branch out in to other projects, to hedge bets against the future. The current projects in the works like Valkyrie have a lot of promise and hype, while at the same time having a much smaller development budget that EVE does right now.

"Any losses incurred from past projects are already taken care of. This new feature is not being developed to compensate for them."
In other words, those losses have already been replaced written off.


III. Everyone benefits, but some benefit more than others.

So far we've established that this is a significant change, and that its purpose is to boost CCP's revenues. We haven't considered whether this is a good change. That depends on your perspective. If the very idea of buying skill points isn't to your taste due to game philosophy, then obviously it's bad. Otherwise, you'll benefit, but relatively more or less than others.

Historically, there have been two roads to power: Pure numbers, and elite PvP skill. Obvious though the concept may appear, it wasn't until Remedial created Goonfleet that anyone tried to use pure numbers to gain power. (Goonfleet is the same organization that became today's Goonswarm Federation.) To Remedial we must credit the idea of putting a huge number of newbies into cheap ships and swarming the enemy. Otherwise, battles were won by fleets with the most expensive, skill point intensive ships (which equals elite PvP skill, according to conventional wisdom).

The wealthiest alliances with the pilots who had trained up combat skills ruled the day. Then the Goons rose up and overthrew them. Eventually, EVE players began to complain that numbers ruled everything, and that there was no counter to blobbing. Actually, there was a counter: the same expensive, high-SP fleets that players have always used to defeat larger numbers. However, the complaint was made by alliances that didn't actually possess expensive, high-SP fleets, but for some reason believed themselves to be elite anyway, such as Against ALL Authorities. Regardless, there continue to be elitism-based alliances, such as Pandemic Legion and others who can win battles when outnumbered (sometimes).

With CCP's new plan, we must consider a third group: Wealthy, low-SP alliances. Typically, if an alliance has a very large number of pilots with dubious amounts of combat skill points, they're poor. Wealth and skill points tend to go hand-in-hand. Old players take their accumulated isk and skill points and join elite alliances to avoid the inconvenience of losing battles. Even so, we can imagine a group with a lot of money that also has a lot of new or low-SP players in its ranks. Such a group would benefit enormously from a system in which wealth could be used to purchase skill points. Their large number of low-SP newbies could be instantly transformed into a mass of max-skilled doctrine ship pilots, all more or less capable of pressing "F1" and thereby being indistinguishable from their elite PvP bittervet opponents.


I wonder if you can think of any groups like that?

In the days following CCP's announcement, TheMittani.com published three different editorials on the skill point selling controversy. The first editorial, CCP Looking at Selling Your Skill Points, criticized the community's resistance to selling skill points and praised the idea. ("...the initial, knee-jerk negative reactions are largely just that: knee-jerk reactions...") This was followed by You're Wrong: Skillpoint Trading is Good, which criticized the community's resistance to selling skill points and praised the idea. ("...while a a lot of the people complaining about this are dressing up their objections in moral principles, the truth is that they're wrong. Drastically, hilariously wrong.") Finally, The Benefits of a Skillpoint Economy criticized the community's resistance to selling skill points and praised the idea. ("...the majority of this reaction is a shallow, emotional knee-jerk to change...")

Next time, we'll consider how the change will impact new players, highsec, and the New Order.

To be continued...

21 comments:

  1. Thanks James. I needed to see the proposal and arguments clearly put, and you've certainly done that.

    I found it odd at the time, that TMC put those articles out so quickly one after the other, when there appeared to be not much new to say.

    Looking forward to the next part.

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  2. Another well written and thought out post. Well done! I see you are not missing the education part in your CODE quest for a better EVE. Posts like this is why so many of us who are not members of CODE support much of what you are trying to do. Looking forward to part 2 of this informative post.

    BB

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    1. Er,no. However, I do hear "What's up,Doc?" numerous times a day in RL due to my occupation.



      BB

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    2. Your occupation? Are you a rabbit IRL?

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    3. Rabbit herdsman. I know you guys don't have them in the rest of the world, but here in New Zealand it's a huge part of our economy.

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  3. Squee! I've been waiting for the Supreme Protector to tell me my opinion about this! :D

    -Galaxy Pig

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  4. My personal feelings: skill points are not the same as having actual skill. When PLEX was announced there was a massive shitstorm over how players would fly expensive ships they hadn't earned... Then people saw what happened to someone who tries that.

    People will skill up to massive ships they shouldn't be flying. They will be eaten alive and learn how foolish they were. And we will get entertaining stories/killmails to read.

    It's the ciiiiiircle of liiiiife....

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    1. Knock it off with your reasonable talk. Can't you tell this is an angry mob?

      In all seriousness, though, it's the F1 monkeys getting into Tengus (or whatever other SP-intensive fleet ship becomes FOTM) more quickly and abusing meta shifts even faster than we do now that people are worried about. That's a positive IMO, however, as blatantly abusing unbalanced mechanics and ships while helicopterdicking in CCP's face and shitposting on forums is the fastest way to get an abusive ship rebalanced.

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  5. I saw a comment, not sure if its accurate, but it said to buy a month of sp will cost like 12 billion isk. Seems like it would be cost prohibitive to buy a really large amount.

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  6. You know, you guys should be honored that I actually logged in to interact with you guys.

    Now, to the point. I fully support the use of PLEX to do neural remaps and SP reallocations. However, I do not like or support the idea of buying/selling SP on the open market. It turns new characters into vets even though they have only started playing the game.

    And what's to stop abuse in the system? Like myself, many players have multiple accounts. You could have characters training on 3 accounts and then sell the SP on two of them to to the third. As we have seen in the past, and with members of the NO specifically, people find creative ways to push the boundaries of game mechanics, sometimes as far as to abuse the game mechanics or even uncovering exploits.

    Just saying.

    This is a bad idea.

    BM.

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    1. The actual mechanics don't quite allow for that in such a direct manner. There's a diminishing returns mechanic in place to put a soft cap on SP transfers. At over 80m SP, transfers are only 10% effective while still costing the full cost. Not to say that you couldn't make use of them, but it's meant to be prohibitively expensive to do so.

      As far as exploitation goes, I'm sure that someone will find a way to hilariously break the intended design of this whole thing. Such is the way of the Eve playerbase.

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  7. "We're also familiar with CCP's crushing failures whenever they've tried to do anything other than EVE. A few years ago, they sunk millions of dollars into the development of Incarna (technically a part of EVE, but really not), which became vaporware. They sunk millions into World of Darkness. Vaporware again. Millions more were spent on creating Dust 514 for the PS3. Although CCP proudly announced that Dust's revenues per quarter exceeded its expenses (i.e., it was "profitable"), that didn't mean that CCP didn't lose millions from the game's initial development costs.""

    Classic CCP.

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    1. Valkyrie is gonna be big. It might be *huge* if CCP can get it bundled with VR headsets. I'll be surprised if it has any serious longevity, though.

      I have faith that they'll break the cycle.

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  8. I'm not super opposed, to be honest. I'd like to be able to sell a month's worth of skill training for a month's subscription. My characters are pretty much at a point where additional training is pointless. Having another player pay for my skill queue time is agreeable to me.

    I think we've reached the point in the evolution of the playerbase that any balancing besides the objective strength of various ships is meaningless; all balancing decisions should be made assuming that cost and SP are no barriers to entry at all.

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  9. You're pushing very hard on this issue 290, you okay?

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    1. Haha. I just thought several comments in this thread were worth replying to. James dropping the Realtalk™ elevates the level of discussion in the comments to the point where even BM isn't incomprehensible.

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  10. meh seems made up

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    Replies
    1. If you want to troll effectively you need to actually read the post first.

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