Monday, October 19, 2015

Some Pros And Cons On Selling Skill Points

Thanks Team Size Matters for keeping me from playing video games this weekend!

On Thursday, CCP released a dev blog announcing a plan to allow players to withdraw skill points from their characters and sell them to other characters on the open market. As expected, a firestorm erupted as long time players announced their immense ... dissatisfaction with the plan. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, but I want to go about the subject in a less emotional manner. So I spent the weekend brainstorming and came up with the following list of pros and cons for the proposal. Of course, some may not agree with how I label a point, but I think a little bit differently than the average EVE player. But I do think the list is relevant to the discussion. Hopefully you will agree.


When I look at all the positive arguments for instituting the change, they all center around attracting and retaining new players. From a business standpoint, such an effort makes sense. I still believe that CCP is racing to get EVE Online in a state to market to new players before the release of Valkyrie. The recent new player skill point buff was part of that effort and the skill point purchase plan is a continuation of the plan. With those assumptions in place, here is the logic supporting the change.

First, many potential players are scared off by the thought of not having the capability of catching up to established players. Forget the fact that EVE is not a level based game and advancement is measured differently by many players. People who have never played EVE but have played different MMORPG's like World of Warcraft don't know that. They can only go by their experience. In level-based games, new players can catch up because veteran players are often stuck at the level cap for months or, occasionally, years.

I speak from first-hand experience. At my new job, I spoke with someone who liked the idea of EVE. He even brought up the monument in Reykjavik and thought the fact that I had my characters' names on it very cool. Yet, he doesn't want to start playing because he will never catch up. Sorry, but visiting the character bazaar doesn't count.

With the plan as currently proposed, new players will definitely have a chance to catch up to veteran players:
Characters consuming a Transneural Skill Packet will receive the following amounts of unallocated skillpoints, based on the total skillpoints trained before consumption:
  • 0 – 5 million skillpoints = 500,000 unallocated skillpoints added
  • 5 – 50 million skillpoints = 400,000 unallocated skillpoints added
  • 50 – 80 million skillpoints = 200,000 unallocated skillpoints added
  • over 80 million skillpoints = 50,000 unallocated skillpoints added

Veteran gamers used to level based games may not even find the reduction in skill points over time as strange. Usually gaining levels is much easier when a player begins compared to when approaching the level cap, so the reduced payouts kind of make sense. But the reduced payouts definitely allow new players to partially catch up with effort.

Visiting the forums over the years, I read many newer players complain that EVE does not allow faster advancement for performing in-game tasks as in other games. These are not players who want a handout, like just giving all new players 5 million skill points. For these players, if making ISK results in faster skill point gain, I think we will see them flock to running missions in high sec. Many will consider that a negative consequence, but I believe new player retention will increase with such a carrot dangling in front of many players.

Some veteran EVE players will not like to hear this next reason, but many players today expect ways to purchase advancement in MMORPGs. Perhaps the most famous example is Blizzard selling level 90 WoW characters for $60 USD. EVE has its own version of the boost in the Character Bazaar, but purchasing a high level character is typically much more expensive. But let's face it, many players think people buying level 90 characters in WoW are pretty lame. Do you think such players will want to purchase a character off the bazaar?

But many players will purchase items that give temporary experience gain boosts. The introduction of the Transneural Skill Packet gives EVE Online a similar item.

Guild Wars 2 Experience Boosters
For example, in Guild Wars 2, players can visit the cash shop and purchase items that will grant them increased experience gain for two hours.

An additional benefit to the selling of skill points in bundles of 500,000 is that the character bazaar should become less popular. The dev blog concluded...
"Oh, and one last note on the Bazaar, it won't go anywhere for now. It still offers something unique and valuable so we don't see a need to remove it. We just think this is our best route to providing a better skill trading experience."
I would feel much better about the selling of skill points if the system resulted in the end of the Character Bazaar. I understand why CCP created the Character Bazaar. But I'd like to see the resources CCP uses to police the bazaar used in a more productive manner. My guess is so would CCP. If our favorite Icelandic game developers also turn out to make more money from the microtransactions of selling skill points in 500K increments rather than relying on character transfer fees, so much the better.

Another feature common in other MMORPGs is the ability to respec a character's traits. Up until now in EVE, any skills trained for are trained permanently, mistakes and all. Some may call the Transneural Skill Extractors and Transneural Skill Packets a very clunky (and very expensive) way to perform a respec. As tempted as I was to list the respec possibilities of the new mechanic as a negative, I placed the respec possibility as a positive feature.

How could a new player utilize the skill packets? Let's use my corporation, Signal Cartel, as an example. We are an exploration corp that flies throughout New Eden poking our noses everywhere we can fly. We also recruit new players, but they have a problem because of some of the long training times to learn skills like Covert Ops IV.  Using 4 of the skill packets (2 million skill points), a new pilot could wind up with the following:

  • Racial Frigate V
  • CPU Management IV (required for Cloaking)
  • Cloaking IV
  • Electronics Upgrades V (required for Covert Ops)
  • Covert Ops IV
  • Astrometrics IV
  • Astrometric Acquisition III
  • Astrometric Pinpointing III
  • Astrometric Rangefinding III
  • Archaeology III
  • Hacking III

Not only does this list of skills give a good base for a player to fly a covert ops frigate, but only comes out to 1.8 million skill points, leaving 200,000 skill points for core skills. Of course, the new player has to learn how to fly the ship, use probes, and play the hacking mini-game, but that is easier in a tech 2 frigate. Also, the new player probably needs to buy 1 PLEX, if not 2, thus spending either $20 or $35 USD, depending on the cost of the skill packets, to learn the skills. That could prove a turnoff to some people, who will wonder why they need to pay extra money whey they are already paying a monthly subscription.

Finally, I read a lot of complaining about the last item I view as a positive. Many veterans don't like the fact that they will no longer know how strong a new player is just by looking at the "Show Info" tab while scrolling through local. But as the feature is designed to benefit new players, not veterans, having a little bit of the fog of war make risk averse PvPers hesitate to attack new players is, overall, a good thing.


I listed a lot of good points to the changes. What do I see as the new system's drawbacks?

The first is a bit philosophical. New Eden is a cold and unforgiving universe. Should the game allow players to reverse, and even profit, from mistakes. For instance, I trained Defender Missiles to 4. Should I have the ability to shed those plus another 400,000 skill points and, after paying CCP some Aurum, turn an in-game profit? Personally, I'll keep the mistake on the books as a reminder of how some things look better than reality. Who knows, perhaps CCP will even take the skill out of the game and refund me the points.

The next argument against the plan is that the buying and selling of skill points promotes the perception that one can buy power (sometimes referred to pay-to-win) in EVE. Is that really the message CCP wants to convey to new players? The way that some players try to push new players to buy PLEX to fund their initial ships, modules, and skill books is bad enough. But with the sale of skill packages so clearly intended for new players within their first month or two, I think new players potentially will see even more information telling them they need to spend $20 or $35 to purchase ISK in order to purchase the skill packets. And yes, I am making the assumption that the majority of new players will not figure out how to make copious amounts of ISK running level 2 missions in high sec. Quite frankly, if in my first months of playing EVE, someone told me I needed to spend real money on top of my subscription in order to compete, I would have unsubbed and walked away from the game.

In a similar vein, I have a real problem with purchasing skill points that I don't have with purchasing ISK using PLEX. Players can buy power in EVE using real money. They can purchase ships, modules, ammunition, implants, blueprints, and the list goes on and on. What do all of those things have in common? All of them are destructible. What's not destructible as long as one does not fly a tech 3 strategic cruiser? Skill points. 

New Eden is a cold an unforgiving universe. Sure, a player can purchase power using real life cash. But up until now, that power was temporary, as other players could take the purchased power away. Giving players the ability to buy skill points with real world money changes that equation. Perhaps I'm alone, but I have a real problem with the concept that players can purchase permanent power in EVE with real world money.

Even skill point loss caused by losing a tech 3 strategic cruiser will turn into just a minor inconvenience as one can pre-purchase skill packages to replace the skill point loss immediately. Of course, in order to optimize the skill package use, players may begin to create Tengu or Loki alts and shed all unwanted skill points to keep the skill point losses to a minimum. In effect, with enough funds, whether from the personal wallet or a corporation or alliance's ship replacement program, the mechanic designed to balance tech 3 strategic cruisers turns into a speed bump. From all the complaining I hear about Slippery Petes, Tengus don't need to receive another buff. Hopefully the tech 3 ships will receive a rebalance soon.

My next concern deals with the leadership of some corporations and alliances. The trend in today's EVE meta is to shy away from kitchen sink fleets and to run specific fleet doctrines. Currently, if an alliance decides to change its fleet composition, the fleet commanders have to wait for the alliance members to train the skills to fly the new ships properly. But once the skill packets go on the market, they may expect their members to rush out and purchase the necessary amount of packages to immediately get the skills to fly the new doctrine. Please don't tell me this won't happen, because we know it will. Saying that only bad corporations and alliances will do so won't refute the argument, because we know EVE has a lot of bad corporations and alliances.

So is what's good for fleet commanders and alliance leadership necessarily good for the line member? Not if the line member is PLEXing his account and is only looking to squeak by in a given month. What to do, follow the commands of his alliance's leadership, or stay subscribed for the next month? Perhaps even worse, the line member may feel pressured to purchase some Transneural Skill Extractors from the cash shop and do a field expedient remap that causes the player to lose hundreds of thousands of skill points. The situation is even worse if the player had to purchase Aurum using real life currency in order to do the remap.

I don't think alliance's are unreasonable in telling their members what to train for. I do oppose alliances making their members spend real world money in order to acquire those skill points, however. And if members are purchasing extractors with real world money because those are the instructions from their leadership? When I played WoW, I hated when my guild instructed all of the paladins they had to respec to holy. That only cost gold. Having to do a respec that costs real world money? That's insane. And when (not if) that happens and word spreads that kind of social pressure is common in EVE, many potential players won't want to give EVE a chance.

Finally, I want to address a bit of game design. A few years ago, CCP decided that players should make their ISK actively playing the game and not through passive means. Ice belts were altered in order to at least limit, if not outright end the practice of AFK ice mining. Data core farming was nerfed, with the data core supply shifted toward the factional warfare loyalty point stores. With the addition of skill point sales, CCP is introducing a new source of passive income. Sure, the players who sell characters on the Character Bazaar also engage in a form of passive income, but the sale of skill packages is probably a more accessible activity for the common player. While the Aurum requirement should somewhat limit the practice of keeping a clone farm for harvesting skill points, I foresee a healthy market for skill point packages. While many players will welcome a new form of passive income, I can't help but think the move is somewhat of a defeat for CCP.

Looking back on this post, I don't think I reviewed the topic as dispassionately as I originally planned. I do think I managed to address most of the arguments, both for and against the proposal, that I thought of over the past few days. I'm pretty sure that the sale of skill points is a done deal and that now all we are discussing is how to make the system better. But one can't really hold an intelligent discussion without looking at all sides of the issue. I know I missed a few relevant arguments, but I think I made a good start at looking at CCP's plan.

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