Thursday, September 1, 2016

First Thoughts On EVE Online Going Freemium

CCP is busy making sure the November update is worthy of an expansion name. Monday's news of a revamp of the fleet boosting system was dwarfed yesterday by the news of the implementation of a freemium business model.

Before proceeding, please watch the video above and read the dev blog describing the plan in its current state at a high level. After that, my first thoughts on the feature may make more sense.

The business model is not free-to-play. People, including those in the gaming media, are calling the plan a move to make EVE Online free-to-play. I would call the business model a hybrid, with the presence of a subscription combined with an option to pay the subscription with in-game currency. The introduction of the clone states adds a freemium element to CCP's monetization policy. Massively Overpowered's Justin Olivetti described the freemium model back in April:
"'Freemium' is one of those terms that makes you feel dirty just saying it, as if you’ve invoked a curse to raise long-dead pets. Its use in video game business isn’t much more sanitary, to be honest.

"This model is more easily understood as a beefed-up trial. You can play the game for free… up to a point. With freemium titles, there’s a hard wall that frugal players will inevitably hit, forcing them to decide whether to pay money to proceed, stay at a certain level or in a certain area forever, or to quit entirely. This model’s bait-and-switch methodology, even if clearly promoted, tends to put players off, which is probably why it’s not as much used in MMOs these days."
As I considered CCP's move toward some sort of free-to-play element for EVE over the last 8-9 months, I feared CCP would move toward the Electronic Arts/Bioware model for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Instead, I think the model is more like Blizzard's implementation of unlimited play for characters up to level 20 in World of Warcraft. CCP's move allows for more interaction with the game world than Blizzard's, so hopefully very few players will feel betrayed by the EVE Online experience.

Make factions great again. One of the criticisms of EVE is that the factions don't really matter. A player can spend a lot of time on character creation only to feel the time was wasted. But for the freemium player, deciding which faction to choose makes all the difference in the world. Minmatar pilots can only fly Minmatar ships, Caldari on Caldari ships, and so on.

CCP achieves two positive results by locking characters to their faction's ships. First, the player's choices are limited. A lot of new players are overwhelmed by the selection of ships and modules available in EVE. By limiting the number of ships, CCP limits the number of choices a player has to make. For example, an Amarr character only has to worry about how to armor tank. Hopefully, the player never is tempted to take up shield tanking on that character.

The second result is that the four factions are basically turned into what other games refer to as classes. I know in other games, if I don't like the first class I create, I just re-roll and try another class. The same can now happen in EVE. Let's say that the new alpha player doesn't like armor tanking ships that fire lasers. Instead of just quitting, he may instead choose to reroll as that pet class Gallente pilot that uses drones. At the very least, CCP may see more players hang around longer than the two hours we heard about at Fanfest this year.

Learning new skills should change. I'll admit this next point is possibly wishful thinking. The dev blog states, "Alphas [freemium characters] will also train skills at a reduced rate compared to Omegas [subbed/PLEXed characters]." That suggests to me that CCP plans to change the training rate itself.

If CCP is adjusting the training rate, why wouldn't CCP just remove attributes altogether? And if attributes are removed, then the devs could also remove learning implants. Forget about ensuring that Alpha players always learned at a slower rate than subbed players. I think a lot of veterans would rejoice at the removal of learning implants.

I should add one other possibility by removing attributes and a move to a constant rate of learning skills. A staple of most MMORPG cash shops is the experience point potion. EVE has a version of that, the cerebral accelerator, that we see given out as prizes in events. I could see CCP introducing cerebral accelerators to the New Eden Store at a future date.

Does not wreck the economy. I think the ship and skill selection available to Alpha clone pilots will mitigate most of the negative effects a large influx of new players not playing money to CCP will have on the in-game economy. Because the non-paying players are limited to tech 1 frigates, destroyers, and cruisers along with mostly tech 1 modules, we will not see the new class of players running level 4 missions or incursions. We may see veteran players running massed fleets of Ventures hoovering up asteroid belts, but that's an issue of EVE players taking advantage of the rules, not new players trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

I should add I can see one place where botters can take advantage of the alpha accounts. Distribution missions only require industrials running around in high sec. If botters are abusing the distribution missions, we should notice a big decline in the price of implants.

I should add a paragraph for those engaged in skill point farming. Since the Alpha players are limited to around 5 million skill points, alpha players cannot use skill extractors. They can use skill injectors, which may come in handy if a player wants to roll a new character and doesn't want to wait on training some core skills.

Limiting abuse. If anyone can find and exploit a weakness in a game's mechanics, it's EVE players. A quick look makes me think CCP did an okay job figuring out where veterans would have incentives to create a lot of accounts to gain advantages. For example, I don't think a market trader will spend a lot of time with characters that only have Broker Relations II, Marketing II, Trade III, and no ability to learn Accounting.

On the other hand, a lot of people are concerned that high sec will see roving gangs of multi-boxed ganking ships running wild. The solutions I see most often are limiting the amount of Alpha accounts players can log onto at one time and that Alpha accounts cannot set their safety to red. While not mentioned in the dev blog, I would not doubt that at the very least the safety setting recommendation will make it Tranquility in November.

If you are not playing for the content, you are the content. Let's face it, CCP is not allowing people to play their game for free for altruistic reasons. The developers need to attract more players to the game to make the game world feel more alive.

Average number of players logged in, August 2016
Back when I started playing EVE in August 2009, Tranquility averaged approximately 30 thousand users logged on at any one time. In August 2016, the figure was only 19 thousand players. The drop in activity is noticeable, with many long time players demanding that "something must be done." A lot of those players spend a lot of money on EVE. The business term for those players is "whales". Keeping whales happy is a smart business strategy for online game publishers. As EVE is in large part a PvP game, additional players means others to fly with and, perhaps more importantly, fly against.

Too soon? I thought about writing a post about how EVE Online was going to go free-to-play, but I thought I still had plenty of time. I thought CCP needed to do two things before making an announcement. The first is almost complete pay off the technical debt the company had incurred due to the previous coding practices in the early days of the game. I figure with citadels and associated structures almost complete that the first requirement is met. But I also thought that the New Player Experience needed another overhaul.

Games basically get two launches. The first is the official launch. The second is the free-to-play launch. EVE really needs to present its best face in November, which means having a really good NPE. CCP only has once every 13 years to make a good first impression, so they need to make this one count. I'm a bit afraid that the NPE is not ready for prime time. Right now, I'm hoping that CCP Ghost will unveil something incredible at EVE Vegas. If not, the launch of the new business model could fizzle really badly.

Those are my first impressions of the CCP dev blog announcing the Clone States and the new business model. Hopefully I was not too pessimistic, but I am a bit nervous about the whole thing. One things I do know. I'll have plenty to talk about at EVE Vegas this year.

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