Monday, October 28, 2013

SOMERblink, A SOMER Clone, And GTCs

When writing about illicit real money transactions (RMT) I know I will get some things right and other things wrong.  But I really thought I had read the EVE Online End Users License Agreement (EULA) and Terms of Service (ToS) correctly last Monday.  Both DNSBlack's and SOMERblink's model of converting in-game assets and currency for real world cash were clearly RMT unsactioned by CCP.  How could I get that wrong?  Everyone from FunkyBacon to James315 have pointed it out before I wrote about SOMERblink's model.  But as events over the past week showed, I did.


The SOMER ISK for GTC model - Courtesy of FunkyBacon

Following DNSBLACK's apparent sale of a character (the "sale" of his main was a troll), other players decided to follow suit.  Many threads were locked on the EVE Online forums but the one by Katarina Reid met the requirements to not only stay unlocked but open to conduct business.  Katarina contacted me and I was able to ask a few questions and get the story behind the fire sale.

Katarina is a player who started in 2009 who was on a break from EVE.  Seeing the drama over the entire SOMERgate affairs, Katarina decided to contribute to the drama while at the same time trying to point out that SOMERblink was engaged in RMT.  When I asked, she told me, "Come on, they [SOMERblink] get half a trillion for prizes then they get these rewards.  Then I find out they have made alot of ISK with this ETC thing.  I like drama in EVE so at the moment I get real money and drama."  But she isn't necessarily planning on leaving EVE for good, as she's planning to keep 6 billion out of her initial 300 billion ISK in order to fund a career in faction warfare.  Assuming, of course, she's not banned for RMT.

She also didn't expect to get this far in the process.  "I thought I would be stopped before I started. I was thinking I get stopped then take down SOMER but I have not."  Katarina was very open about the entire process.  First, she petitioned CCP to see if the ISK for GTC purchase did not break any rules.  After waiting a week without receiving a reply, Katarina then made a provocative post on the EVE Online stating her intention to sell her in-game assets for real life money.  She even showed her post to a friend, who thought the post should be reported for violating the rules of the EVE Online forums.

When the post was not locked, she proceeded further and put in an affiliate link for the game time code reseller Shattered Crystal into her post.  She sent me an update around 0230 EVE time today (2013.10.28) on how she's doing...
  • Click-thrus:    986
  • Tier 1 sales:   116
  • Total balance:  $395.31
  • I get $1.75 per 60 day ETC i have sold some 30day ones but $395/$1,75 = 225 60 day ETC's which makes CCP $7800 so far.
  • I have spent all day near my computer dealing with stuff till i sleep so 3 days at 16 hours a day to make $395 so $8.22 per hour.

In fact, with reports that Shattered Crystal was out of time codes, she attempted to become an affiliate of Markee Dragon.  However, that did not work out.  According to Katarina, "Markee Dragon doesn't want to work with me until CCP says it's ok.  But when I asked about SOMER he said he couldn't talk about another affiliate."

I asked why she chose Shattered Crystal to do business with and whether she had contacted any others.  "SC is where I bought my ETC's when I started," she said.  "Payed $200 or more, got a character, and played mainly free since. I've put apps in with others but just 'cause SC was out of stock after I done 37 ETCs."

I also asked what she thought of CCP's response to her efforts.  "Well, their response is none yet. The top brass are meeting about it. But that does show they can't tell if it's RMT right out."  Thinking about the effects on the game, she continued, "I thought this would be bad in the long term for EVE. I have been thinking you get all these ebay sales, and, well PLEX is to stop people buying ISK from RMT.  What if this is to stop vets cashing out [via] RMT?  The more I look at it the more I don't know."

Of course, since this is EVE Online, I had to take the idea that this was a troll very seriously.  But after contacting both Shattered Crystal and Markee Dragon, I feel pretty confident that Katarina is telling the truth.  Let's take the response from Markee Dragon first.  On Sunday I received a reply from Marcus Eikenberry, the owner of Markee Dragon, which was similar to what Katarina reported:
"We have some questions about everything as well and so we feel that it is best to not comment on anything until we know more.  I can say though that CCP does not dictate who we have as affiliates.  That is up to us.  CCP has never attempted to influence us in any way as to who we work with.  :)"
I'm pretty sure that Katarina is not a native English speaker so I can't discount the possibility of a misunderstanding in translation about CCP allowing Markee Dragon to have her as an affiliate or not.

The reply from Shattered Crystal was a lot more comprehensive.  I spent a good portion of Saturday night and into the early hours Sunday exchanging emails with the Chief Operating Officer of Shattered Crystal, Dennis Hutchinson.  I initially sent an inquiry to Shattered Crystal describing what Katarina was doing along with her affiliate link.  Mr. Hutchinson not only confirmed that the link was valid but that, "As far as I can see he is doing nothing different than one of our previous affiliates, ."

When I pressed him for an explanation, Mr. Hutchinson first pointed me to point 2 of the EVE Time Code Bazaar rules, "Any form of ETC trading outside of the CCP created system is not permitted or supported by CCP." As I had also asked if he knew if CCP had approved of SOMERblink's "purchase GTCs, get ISK" promotion, he included that in his explanation...
"We are an authorized reseller so when the affiliate gives isk incentive to buy from us he is using the official ETC system. Shattered Crystal affiliate ###### and somer are doing the same thing. Somer gives blink credits which you gamble at a 20% loss to get isk, Shattered Crystal affiliate ###### leaves out the gamble part. It will probably be a few weeks until any official response is made by CCP, although I understand they are meeting about the situation. Anything that stops Shattered Crystal affiliate ###### scheme may do the same for somer.  Somerblink has run for years and CCP has done so much with somer they just never got ask to make a direct decision about the incentives." [affiliate identification number edited out by me - NG]
Personally, I disagree that the rules of the Time Code Bazaar override the EULA and ToS, but Mr. Hutchinson is the one with the 7 years experience dealing with CCP in a business to business relationship, not me.  From everything I see, his explanation does fit best with the observable facts.

As determining the size of SOMERblink's operation is interesting to many people, I asked Mr. Hutchinson some questions about that.  He was pretty forthcoming.  First, he set me straight about the amount of GTCs sold by the Markee Dragon website.  He told me that the total of 1 million GTCs sold quoted in the community spotlight included sales from Shattered Crystal, which Marcus Eikenberry founded.  The community spotlight was about Markee Dragon, aka Marcus Eikenberry, not Markee Dragon the company.  I had been erroneously using that number to estimate the amount of GTC referrals that SOMERblink was sending to the Markee Dragon website.  Mr. Eikenberry had left Shattered Crystal following a divorce early in 2012.  One million GTCs in 18 months probably didn't happen.

Another thing that Mr. Hutchinson told me was how much SOMERblink made from affiliate fees.  SOMERblink was an affiliate of Shattered Crystal from 29 September 2010 to 9 May 2013 and made approximately $135,000.  From looking at the records during this time, Mr. Hutchinson told me that the referrals from SOMERblink accounted for approximately one-third of all of Shattered Crystals sales (not profit) across all products.  That includes game time codes, other cash cards and even copies of games for games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2.

Of course, estimating the volume of sales is difficult.  For most of the time, SOMERblink was receiving a standard 5% commission on all referrals.  But near the end of SOMERblink's time as an affiliate of Shattered Crystal, Somerset Mahm began asking for a bigger and bigger commission.  My guess is that Mr. Eikenberry, knowing what type of volume SOMERblink could drive to his site, engaged in a bidding war.  Mr. Hutchinson told me Shattered Crystal let SOMERblink go when the asking price was 8% of the value of a GTC.  That is probably a good guess as to how much in commission fees that SOMERblink receives from Markee Dragon for each GTC sale.

So, given this information, how much real life cash is SOMERblink making per billion ISK given out for purchasing GTCs?  These factors have to be accounted for:
  • An 8% commission means SOMERblink receives $1.60 for each 30-day GTC and $2.80 for each 60-day GTC sold.
  • SOMERblink gives out 200 million ISK for each 60-day GTC and 100 million for each 30-day GTC sold.
  • SOMERblink gives out a 200 million ISK bonus for every 4 60-day GTC sold.
  • The only way to cash out is to win blinks.  The house pays out an average of 80% of money bet.
Take those factors into account and SOMERblink makes between $14-$20 per billion ISK given out.  That ranges from the prices I see on some forums dedicated to RMT all the way up to the lowest cost commercial RMT sites I monitor, which currently is $17.64/billion ISK.

So how many GTCs does Markee Dragon sell due to SOMERblink's referrals?  Hard to say.  A conservative estimate is to take the average number sold while SOMERblink was an affiliate of Shattered Crystal.  That is probably between 2300-2400 60-day time codes per month.  But since that includes when SOMERblink was first starting out and doesn't include all of the media buzz put out by CCP, I would estimate no more than 3000 60-day time codes per month.  For those of you doing the math, I'd caution against sensationalism and suggest using a more conservative number like 2700 60-day time codes, which come out to around $7500 per month.  I'll let those with the inclination to make spreadsheets figure out all the permutations, but I should point out that if SOMERblink is only receiving 5% of sales, which is highly unlikely, they will only receive approximately $4700 per month.  The difference between 5% and 8% is huge.

Hopefully CCP will take steps to resolve the situation relatively quickly.  Mr Hutchinson's estimate of CCP needed a few weeks is disheartening, but Katarina's story of waiting over a week before conducting sales does give home that a decision will come sooner rather than later.  But the fact that a Katarina can conduct her business at all is an indication that something is wrong that CCP needs to fix quickly.


  1. $4700/mo = $56,400/yr, $7500/mo=$90,000/yr. Not bad money for building a website. And if all your volunteers are paid in ISK then it works out even better.

    After due consideration I want to withdraw my objection to CCP giving Somerblink (30) of the IW Scorpions. It's clear that given the everyday scale of the money flowing through Somerblink those ships wouldn't amount to more than a few extra bucks for coffee.

  2. Thanks for getting some numbers which aren't sensationnal or plain invented .

    Never thought that so many people would buy GTC's, even with the Somer Credits incentive. My next GTC will be from Katarina if she still is in business :-P

    Can't wait for CCP's answer to this xD

  3. Both Katarina and Poetic have engaged in RMT. Do you think both cases are equal and should be be against the tos/eula?
    I find one of these despicable while the other gets nothing more as a shrug.

    1. They are not equal in that Poetic, if he really did sell his PLEX for money, violated the EULA/ToS. Katarina, even though I believe she is violating the EULA/ToS, apparently isn't in CCP's eyes. And since CCP is the ones enforcing the rules, their opinion is what matters. Unsanctioned RMT is always worse than sanctioned RMT. Now if CCP will just change the rules so that Katarina's method can't be used anymore.

      Also, I have to caution everyone that Poetic's story sounds fishy to me. eBay has a rule against selling virtual goods like PLEX on their site. I'd need to hear exactly how he got around that prohibition before I believed it. I'm considering Poetic's story just like I considered the story that DNSBLACK was selling his main character; a troll until proven otherwise.

    2. Ebay rule enforcement isn't necessarily consistent .. a lot of it requires actual complaints to be filed, but the proof does need to be presented beyond a face value statement.

    3. the funny thing with poetic is if he really did just screw over his buyers, and ebay decides to care he could end up much more screwed in the real world than he is thinking. that 1300 could go away very quickly, and i for one am hoping on that

    4. About eBay's prohibition on the sale of virtual items, I'm not sure if its still the same now, but people were getting around that rule by offering the virtual items as a bonus to a physical item purchase (i.e. a paper clip). That was enough to satisfy eBay's rules, and still allowed the sale of virtual items. That may have changed in the last while though for all I know (I don't deal with eBay anymore these days).

    5. You can also get a refund from ebay/paypal. He needs to send you a item tracked else he has no case and paypal give the money back. If he sells you a paper clip with free plex. Just send the paper clip back tracked to get a refund. Its the same with character sales on ebay.

  4. Every day I just laugh more and more, quite sadly, at the obvious fact that CCP has one set of rules for the typical player, and another set of rules for the favoured class.

    To suggest that the null sec cartels are not RMT'ing using whatever scheme they have devised is ludicrous. Why would anyone think that Somer-Blink is an isolated case of CCP looking the other way at RMT operations.

    1. That might be the real underlying issue. Favortism.

      Myself I'd actually be for an officially sanctioned RMT so long as it's controlled by CCP, is equally accessible to *all* players and does not require joining the good old boys club or going through favored 3rd parties (GTC resellers, etc.) taking a cut.

    2. BTW, you did a terrific job of research and fact finding on this one Noizy

    3. @Dinsdale - Have you ever considered creating your own blog and gathering evidence for everyone to see? You could even go through my blog and find things like the post where I posted a screenshot of a null sec corp advertising for botters to operate in its space.

      I'm not suggesting this as a troll. I'm truly interested to see what you would come up with.

    4. @NoizyGamer...The damn website just ate my reply to regarding your suggestion about my own blog. Will try again tomorrow. For all your efforts, you certainly deserve an answer.

  5. You guys make me giggle. Goons have been RTMing for years.Only now do you all get mad about SOMER legal RMT (of sorts). You have to pay to get into goons by way of the SA forms/website. They then give you free ISK to start you off in game and they also give you FREE 500m ISK carrier skill books. #TweetFleet I Have known this for years. But only now does everybody wake up to the RTMing

    1. You got me. I admit it. I never cared about whether anyone did illicit RMT before everyone started jumping on SOMER. If I had I would have written posts like this a long time ago...

      I guess I'll just have to make up for lost time.

  6. Your posts are interesting, but tbh it somewhat baffles me why so many people get hinged on the RMT. PLEX and GTC/ETC are already RMT, which most people are fine with.

    So then we get the distinction which you make between sanctioned RMT and illicit RMT. The "somer" system being a mix of the two where via the construction you get ~80M illicit RMT on your ~600M sanctioned RMT money.

    But why should we as players dislike illicit RMT? If we look at communications from CCP it's because illicit RMT is facilitated by hacking accounts and botting. However, via somers system the illicit RMT is fed by gambling people. Not by the above listed methods of acquiring ISK.

    Now some people claim that somer also gets used to "launder" ISK, as such enabling these underground activities. Which may or may not be true. However the kickback has zero influence on this. The site could run 100% without the 100M blink credit kickback.

    So in the end, while I fully understand the situation as far as I know. I fail to see why people are getting upset about this.

    Now you do make a very valid point in that people can use a variant of this to cash-out their in-game assets for real money. Which is something CCP will have to look at. But again, it's hardly detrimental to the player base. I also don't see how established illicit RMT'ers could make use of this new system, since it hinges on the GTC sales. I would find it unlikely that more traditional RMT operations would like to share their profits with CCP and GTC resellers.

    As Somer making a potential RL profit from this. All the more power to him and kudo's to CCP for creating a platform where 3rd parties can build a business on. While perhaps still somewhat novel, it's certainly not unique. For instance with the game DOTA2 many of the items players can buy are made by 3rd party artists who get a cut of the sales made on the item. And beyond video games it's everywhere, just look at facebook or twitter or any other platform that invites 3rd parties to create their business around their service.

    I again fail to see why people think this is a bad thing? I'm not saying you hold this opinion. I'm not trying to put words in your mouth. But in posts and comments about the Somer issue it's a common thing people tend to find objectionable.

    1. "PLEX and GTC/ETC are already RMT, which most people are fine with."

      RMT can be a two-way street. A player paying CCP cash for a virtual good is one thing. A player paying another player cash for a virtual good is another thing. If CCP were to facilitate that in some official capacity, the marketplace they would create would be subject to sundry regulations, differing by country. This creates a giant headache. (Take a look at Planetside 2's European distributor, ProSieben. Players who created their account through them instead of Sony directly don't have access to purchase player-created content because of all the red tape involved with European regulations.)

      I think isk for cash is ok, mainly because it has limited application. The most "cash" I can make (or rather, save) by selling my isk (a.k.a. purchasing plex on the market) is the cost of a monthly subscription. So there's absolutely no incentive to for me to sell more than 600 mil isk per character per month.

      From Noizy's numbers, it appears as though Somer is selling MUCH more than that. Somewhere around half a trillion isk per month ($7500 total earnings / $15 per billion isk). When you have an unlimited incentive to cash out, it leads to detrimental gameplay. All of a sudden, the real world price listed on killboards actually means something because there is a real opportunity cost. Get a frigate exploded? That'll be $0.25. A T1 cruiser? $0.50. Mackinaw ganked? $3. HAC? $4. A faction battleship? $15. Carrier? $25. As if people aren't risk averse enough already, it will just get worse. That's not good for the health of Eve.

    2. People ask "why is gold/ISK/gil/plat selling bad" a lot. That's understandable because most game companies don't come right out and tell you. I know Blizzard does, but that's about it. I've been planning on writing why I personally think illicit RMT is bad for the MMO industry, but all of this type of stuff keeps happening. I'm on vacation now so hopefully I'll get the chance to write some basic information on RMT soon. But I really want to grind out SoE LPs!

  7. I'm sure this will pop in your inbox nosy ---

    Apparently CCP has decided the issue ... official announcement soon.

    1. Obviously I was wrong in making a distinction between RMT where all profit goes to the seller and RMT where CCP gets 90% of the profit.
      Now we can all sleep soundly and focus on what is wrong with Rubicon instead.

  8. When it comes to RMTing this situation doesn't count because ETC is a sanctioned method of converting RM to ISK. Any money that SOMER gets in the agreement with shattered crystal/markee dragon LLC. (As an affiliate acct holder my self, I can say that the base is 5% though it would not be out of the realm of possibility for that to increase if enough traffic is generated) is taken from the company's profits from the sale. (They prepay for these anyways... CCP has had their money from the PLEX you just bought for like a month now)

    When it comes to incentives for link clicking, I still think it is fine. Somer is offering pseudo-ISK. They are offering credit in their system, which people can use to attain ships, PLEXes, and other assets with odds at 1-10 (10%) minimum. Meaning that in the smaller "blinks" you have a 10% chance of winning, and in larger ones (for like caps) you have 1-20 (5%) chance of winning . (Percents are PER TICKET)

    Basically what it boils down to is SOMER.blink is rewarding you for using their service and helping them out. You buy a PLEX and can get 500m (ish) so why can another player not give you 200m for buying it?

    1. Because according to CCP, what SOMER was doing with its promotion is against the EULA. They sent an email to all the GTC resellers stating that is the case. But that is Wednesday's post.

  9. I think that the point everyone seems to miss is that CCP isn't responsible to anyone except CCP. They are not a government which needs to pretend to be consistent or fair in the application of any laws or regulations.

    So, if they choose to interpret the EULA one way today for one player, and another way tomorrow for another player, that is entirely within their rights, and they really don't owe any explanation to the players.

    Clearly, SOMER is allowed to continue because it has demonstrably contributed to CCP's revenue stream. That, in the final analysis, is what EVE is all about for CCP.