Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Alphas And Level 4 Missions: A Match Not Made For New Eden

In a somewhat surprising development yesterday, the latest security developers' blog announced CCP's plans to gate level 4 missions behind the paywall.
"As part of the fight against abuse of Alpha accounts by those involved in botting and real money trading, the EVE Dev Team have been looking at what Alpha characters currently have access to in New Eden.

"As we discussed initially in the New Year security update, the team were considering placing level 4 and 5 courier missions behind the requirement to have Omega clone status.

"After investigating further, the decision has been made to place all level 4 and 5 missions behind the requirement to have Omega status, to assist the fight against RMT and botting.

"Of course, we are aware that mission running is only a part of the issue, we’re also investigating more ways to reduce the abuse of alpha accounts.

"The changes to level 4 and 5 missions will be arriving on Singularity in the coming days, and are scheduled to go live with the March release."
All I can say is, "Wow!" I didn't really expect this move. I didn't even expect CCP to remove the ability of Alpha characters to do level 4 distribution missions. Perhaps I should take heed of words I published four years ago on why RMT is bad for MMORPGs:
"The final impact that RMT has on online games is an increased cost in operating the game. Or, as Dr. Castronova put it, 'an increase in service provision costs, relative to the costs of a hypothetical counterfactual game in which RMT did not happen.' These increased costs represent not only the additional customer service staff required to handle complaints from regular players about the activities of those involved in real money trading operations, but for the additional staff required to handle criminal activities committed against the game, such as hacking accounts and credit card fraud."
CCP has limited manpower to throw at the botting and illicit RMT problems. As CCP Falcon, the community manager for CCP, explained on the EVE Online sub-Reddit about how CCP currently bans bots:
"It's a pretty manual process right now, but solid automation is in progress.

"It's all about trying to keep the number of false positives to a minimum so we don't screw with genuine players.

"It happens from time to time, but we're trying to get better at resolving it as fast as possible."
By restricting the access of Alpha accounts to level 4 missions, CCP is telling the world that the detrimental impact of bots is not worth the number of legitimate players attracted by the missions. The big question is, "Why?" I would love to see either a dev blog or a presentation at one of the player gatherings on the CCP 2019 World Tour breaking down the behavior of Alpha players.

Some might think taking level 4 missions away from Alpha characters is a group punishment that is unfair to players who play by the rules. Perhaps that is true. But the developers could have made much more draconian changes. CCP Falcon laid out a different course of action that would have delighted a large number of players:
"Taking my CCP hat off would mean also taking a break for the reality that resources to tackle botting are of course finite, and no other online game in existence faces the challenges we do when dealing with it because of the nature of how the game is built with a completely player centric economy.

"CCP Grimmi and CCP Peligro take a horiffic [sic] amount of shit from people for no reason, when truth be told they're working their ASSES off constantly to try to sift through reports. A big part of what I'd do would be assiting [sic] them by making life harder for people who're trying to screw with our game and giving them more resources.

"Bear in mind that I'm also not a game designer. If I was, you guys would hate me even more than you do now, because EVE would be one of the most savage games in existence.

"With that in mind, taking my CCP hat off completely, some of the biggest steps I'd take for both botting and account security (if they were simple and workload wasn't an issue):
  • Place every hull larger than a cruiser back behind the requirement for omega status.
  • Place every weapon larger than medium back behind the requirement for omega status.
  • Place T2, augmented and faction drones behind the requirement for omega status.
  • Keep cross racial training for alphas, but place hulls that require a blend of racial spaceship command skills behind the requirement for omega status.
  • Make NPC AI far more aggressive toward drones and fighters, and more unpredictable in general.
  • Build an intelligence system that was separated entirely from the chat system from the ground up that required active user input to remain up to date.
  • Local would become more akin to old "Region" or "Constellation" chat - here's a list of people roughly in your area, if they choose to show themselves.
  • Look at creating incentives and gameplay to keep people active during activities that are often done AFK (mining for example).
  • Quadruple the headcount on the Security Team with a couple of programmers and four more security analysts.
  • Make 2FA mandatory for all accounts that have any roles that give access to pooled assets or ISK.
  • User option to permanently disable extraction on a character or account basis.
  • Account based rewards for first time enabling 2FA and cumulative rewards every quarter for keeping it active.
"I'd also go full scorched earth. You bot? You're screwed? You harbor botters and receive dirty ISK for them, we empty your wallet. Don't have enough ISK to pay back what you got illegally? Your keepstars and corp assets start vanishing. Zero tolerance. You collude in harming our game and community, we level you. Cut and dry.

"That said, this whole post is based on the caveat that there were no limitations on what we could do. Some of this is really not realistic, even if I'd like to see it personally."
Regular readers of The Nosy Gamer probably realize that if CCP implemented most, if not all, of the ideas on CCP Falcon's list, I would probably do a happy dance while reading the patch notes. I don't see a pullback on Alpha ships and equipment on the horizon, but I could see the improvements involving two-factor authentication making an appearance in the future. Also, I would definitely disable extraction on my characters on all my accounts.

I spent so much time discussing CCP's announced plans that I neglected to analyze what the changes could mean for other areas of the game. But that's okay. I have plenty of time to come up with ideas in the next two to three weeks.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Rising Price Of PLEX - An Alternative View

In the age of Electronic Arts, I understand why some people worry about a big company coming along and buying your favorite game. EA doesn't have the greatest record about trying to milk every last penny from customers, and they are not alone. So when Pearl Abyss announced it had purchased CCP Games in September 2018, many players feared the worst.

The genesis of this post came from watching Talking in Stations on Sunday and a discussion of a video claiming that Pearl Abyss was somehow manipulating the in-game RMT token markets to try to maximize profits. Matterall's co-host Carneros, a long-time game industry veteran who has worked on both EVE Online and the Everquest franchise, rebutted the claims, saying that the purchase was too recent for decisions by Pearl Abyss to appear in the game. My thoughts were a bit different, as higher in-game ISK prices, all other factors remaining equal, results in lower real-world currency sales of PLEX. I first encountered the idea at Fanfest 2014 and have espoused it ever since. The more ISK a buyer can get per PLEX, the less PLEX the buyer needs to purchase. Buyers, for the most part, purchase in-game currency to obtain a specific goal, not just to have a big pile of ISK.

After the show and aftershow, I tracked down the link on the forums to the video. When I saw the video was created by Shipwreck Jones, my interest picked up. Shipwreck Jones is a serious YouTuber who has put out quality content for over a year. This wouldn't be his first video expressing concern about the Pearl Abyss sale, so I wanted to watch. I managed to do so before he took the video down.

Price of Omega time, in-game currency
Just looking at the market data, one could make a reasonable assumption that something happened when the sale of CCP to Pearl Abyss occurred. The sale was announced on 6 September, and from August 2018 to January 2019, the average price of 30 days of game time (500 PLEX) purchased with in-game currency rose from 1.379 billion ISK to 1.687 billion ISK, an increase of 22.3%. But hold on a second. Doesn't the price of PLEX always increase? Yet, the average price of 500 PLEX decreased 17.2% from December 2017 to August 2018. So, something happened in September 2018 when the sale of CCP was announced, but what? As Sherlock Holmes might say, "The game is afoot!"

A daily instead of monthly look at PLEX
I decided to look at the daily average price of PLEX to spot any trends. The low price occurred on 3 August with an average price of 2,675,506 ISK, a drop of 16.5% from the beginning of the year. The price then rose to 2,870,000 ISK on the day of the announcement of the sale and 3,103,080 ISK on the day the sale was finalized, 12 October. The day before the Valentine's Day sale last week, the price of a PLEX had risen to 3,680,181 ISK, or a rise of 18.6% since PA assumed control of CCP.

While the period before the sale to Pearl Abyss saw a lot more sales volume spikes than the period after the sale, I couldn't tell for sure. That lead me to an RMT token directly tied to PLEX, the Multiple Pilot Character Training Certificate (MPCT). The MPCT allows for training a second or third character on an account for 30 days, a very useful ability, especially for skill farmers. In addition to buying an MPCT directly off the market, players can purchase this form of game time by acquiring 485 PLEX and buying the item from the New Eden Store using the PLEX.
MPCT Certificates sold at a discounted rate in 2018
I was a little surprised by what I found when adding the price of 485 PLEX to the graph along with the average price of MPCT Certificates. The numerous sales CCP held throughout the first nine months of the year before the sale to Pearl Abyss was finalized kept the price of the MPCT very low compared to the baseline price found in the cash shop. But after Pearl Abyss took control, the sales, except for the one on Black Friday, ceased. On 10 February, the sale price of the MPCT matched that of 485 PLEX.

I could go on with a graph about skill extractors, but the price of the item required to create skill injectors is so closely linked to the price of PLEX (the normal price is 700 PLEX for a pack of 5) that including another graph is overkill.

So, is Pearl Abyss the second coming of EA and guilty of ruining the New Eden economy in pursuit of all the filthy lucre the company can haul back to Anyang, South Korea? My verdict is no. In fact, with the lack of sales since acquiring CCP, the developers are leaving very light footprints in the sandbox, at least where the business model is concerned. I did not attempt to judge the changes in the game over the past four months, but my feeling is that those also are not having a big impact on the economy. Given that the prices are rising due to the developers recent laissez faire approach, one could fairly make the argument Pearl Abyss is responsible for the change.

However, my theory on why prices are rising is a bit different. I would concentrate on the fall in price of the RMT tokens between December 2017 and August 2018. During that time, CCP was courting Pearl Abyss as a potential buyer, even inviting Robin Jung, the Korean game maker's CEO, to Fanfest last year. As part of the effort, CCP would have tried to boost sales as much as possible. One of the tactics would have been holding a lot more sales than normal, similar to what the graphs in this post show. Of course, increasing the amount of RMT tokens like PLEX and MPCTs in the game world would have a deflationary effect on the EVE economy, or at least the RMT tokens themselves. Once the practises ended, the economy took a few months to return to normal.

I should add one last point before signing off. Most publications listed the sale price of CCP at $450 million USD. In reality, only $225 million was guaranteed, with up to an additional $200 million in deferred, performance-based payouts still awaiting distribution. While we don't know the terms of the deal, I can't imagine that revenue targets for EVE were not included in the deal. So, the next time some sort of money grab is suspected in EVE, consider if the culprit is our new Korean overlords or perhaps someone trying to get a piece of that $200 million still dangling out there like a carrot on a stick.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

After Its Best Quarter And Year Ever, Activision Lays Off 8% Of Workforce

In an ideal world, the talk after Tuesday's Activision Blizzard investors call would center around video games. The fact that the company announced it would refocus on key games would highlight the news. Fans of Call of Duty, Overwatch, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Candy Crush, and Diablo would rejoice and Activision announced it would increase the headcounts working on those titles by a combined 20%. Others would cry as beloved games like Heroes of the Storm seem destined for maintenance mode, if not worse. The fact that, except for the next Call of Duty coming out in the final quarter of 2019, the company has no major releases scheduled just means gamers have to go someplace else for new games until the next WoW expansion comes out in 2020.

But we don't live in an ideal world. The headlines instead proclaim the greed of Activision Blizzard. Of course, whoever came up with the script for the call needs to be slapped upside the head. So does Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotic for not calling for revisions. When he leads off with the fact that the company set records for revenue in both Q4 2018 and for 2018 as a whole, then points out those figures didn't meet expectations, that was a bad sign.

What gets investors excited doesn't necessarily translate to glee in gamers. Refocusing efforts on existing money-making games leaves those wishing for new games or a revival of old franchises disappointed. But in the coverage of the call I watched on YouTube, I didn't see many, if any, point out the expected drop in revenue for 2019 of 13%. That's right, with Bungie taking the Destiny franchise in the recent divorce and no WoW expansion expected until 2020, revenue is going down. Something fairly expected by gamers is a "WTF?! OMG!!! Activision is DYING!!!!!" moment for investors.

So what did Activision Blizzard do? First, it announced a 9% increase in the dividend payout this year for those who own stock at a certain date in May. Next, the company announced it was going to conduct a buyback of ATVI stock; $1.5 billion worth over the next 2 years. And finally, as expected, the company is conducting an 8% reduction in its workforce, starting in the U.S.

A point I have not heard mentioned is the stock buyback. If Activision Blizzard can spend $750 million a year on buying back stock, why can't it afford to keep the 750-800 people it is tossing out into the streets? According to a statistic frequently thrown out when guessing development spending on games like Star Citizen, one employee costs approximately $100,000. So while the company is saving $75-$80 million in employee costs, it is spending 10 times that amount on a stock buyback?

I'm rather old and can remember the series of events with investor lawsuits and the passage of laws that incentivize corporations to maximinze short-term profits, even if the results lower profits in the long run. The days a publicly-held company could try to ride out a bad year, knowing sales would improve the following year are pretty much over.  If a company's leadership doesn't do everything in its power to maintain stockholder value, expect an incoming lawsuit. Raising dividends? Check. Billion dollar stock buyback? Check. Employee layoffs? Check. And then people wonder why gamers hate investor types.

At this point, I'd tell everyone to hate the game, not the players. Except, I need to address one more issue. The hiring of Dennis Durkin as the new chief financial officer at the beginning of January. To gamers, the optics of a suit making $15 million while Activision Blizzard lays of 750-800 people is bad.  To me, the fact that Durkin's bonuses are related to meeting operating income and earnings per share targets is worse. What's an easy way to move toward those targets? Why, lay off 750-800 people. Of course, that's good news to investors.

Admittedly, I am not Activision Blizzard's target audience. The only game in their portfolio that even interests me is World of Warcraft, and in the state that game is in, I have better things to install and use up space on my hard drive. Also, a multi-billion dollar, publicly owned corporation is going to play to the investors. Cutting headcount before a known 13% drop in revenues is just a smart business play. But seriously Mr. Kotic, what happened to making good games? Don't you have confidence in your staff anymore?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

One EVE Online Resolution Accomplished

I wrote about how I play Elder Scrolls Online and thinking of switching for that game to Final Fantasy XIV last week. But my main game still is EVE Online. The difference between EVE and all the rest is that EVE is a hobby while the others are games. While I leveled my templar to within 50,000 XP of level 47, I did some interesting activities related to EVE over the weekend.

On Saturday, I took a break from housework and ESO to talk with someone about a project he is working on. Given my expertise, I think I can say the subject touches on real money trading and the black market. I'm kind of anxious to see the finished product. But I won't ruin the surprise.

Sunday I appeared on Talking in Stations. Be on the lookout for the episode because the episode featured CCP Fozzie talking about moon mining. Well, that was the main feature, and Matterall brought a lot of smart people with experience on the subject, like Goonswarm's Tuzy, Brave's Dunk Dinkle, Pandemic Legion's Elise Randolph, and Skill U's Elite Anon. With talk of the news of the day, we wound up discussing all the things. Afterwards, CCP Fozzie answered questions on the TiS Discorse server for 45 minutes or so and Matterall may publish the Q&A as well.

Tuzy is a director in GSOL, Goonswarm's logistics arm and responsible for maintaining The Imperium's vast infrastructure in space. I got the chance to ask Tuzy about the price of moon minerals before the show. He thinks the market for T2 components will become very volatile within the next 2-3 months. Volatile meaning big price increases. During the stream, Tuzy and Dunk had a disagreement, with Dunk maintaining that the existence of large stockpiles of moon goo were a myth and that the prices on the market should remain fairly stable.

I get the feeling Dunk is a lot more concerned with his local prices than with the price of products in far away Jita, although I think he still needs to source some of his construction material from New Eden's premier trade hub. Still, with experts telling me that the price of T2 materials will either stay the same or increase, I figured the time had come to fulfill one of my New Year's resolutions.

The materials finally gathered
After the stream and the Q&A session, I decided to make a trip to Jita to buy what I needed, with side trips to Dodixie and Rens to pick up a couple of items listed for cheaper in those places. I took my Mastodon, the Minmatar Deep Space Transport with a 62,500 m3 fleet hangar, a 5000+ m3 cargohold, built-in warp core stabilizers and a formidable tank.Did I mention I souped it up to have a warp speed of ??? AU/second with my character's implants and a sub-11 second align time? And of course, I fit a cloak for those times the MWD/cloak trick is absolutely needed while traversing space. People make fun of me for using the ship to haul tritanium around. I guess a billion ISK worth of T2 components is a more worthy cargo.

With as many jumps as I took, I'm a bit surprised I didn't see any Macharials out and about sitting on a gate. The only issue I really had was with space. I filled the fleet hangar with giant secure containers and it turns out the capital jump drives take up 10,000 m3 of space each. Fortunately, packaging up 10 of the containers only takes up 3000 m3, so I placed them in the cargohold and was able to fit everything in with a few thousand m3 of space to spare.

Finally have all the components
Of course, I did something stupid. After reaching the low sec station I wanted to build in, I dumped the T2 components into the station container I used to store all my Marshal items, opened up the industry interface, and discovered I was short 250 units of Tungsten Carbide Armor Plate. I checked my list and sure enough, I had only purchased 18,500 units even though I had entered 18,750 in my spreadsheet. I then went to Fuzzy Steve's website and found someone selling the parts for only 500 ISK over Jita price. At that point, I was more than willing to pay an extra 125,000 ISK in order to avoid over 30 extra jumps, so I switched to my Prowler and zipped off to Nein to grab the missing materials.

Normally, I would end the post with a screenshot of the ship in space. I have to make an exception in this case, as I only have one pilot capable of even sitting in the ship, and he was doing something somewhere else. Plus, I still need to fit the ship, and undocking a defenseless Marshal doesn't seem a wise move. So instead, I'll post the bonuses:

Black Ops bonuses (per skill level):

  • 125% bonus to ship max velocity when using Cloaking Devices
  • 10% bonus to Warp Scrambler and Warp Disruptor optimal range
  • 20% to Stasis Webifier optimal range
  • 10% bonus to warp speed and acceleration

Gallente Battleship bonuses (per skill level):

  • 5% bonus to Large Hybrid Turret damage
  • 7.5% bonus to Large Hybrid Turret tracking speed

Minmatar Battleship bonuses (per skill level):

  • 5% bonus to Large Projectile Turret rate of fire
  • 10% bonus to Large Projectile Turret falloff

Caldari Battleship bonuses (per skill level):

  • 5% bonus to Heavy Missile, Cruise Missile and Torpedo Launcher rate of fire
  • 10% bonus to Cruise Missile and Torpedo flight time

Amarr Battleship bonuses (per skill level):

  • 5% bonus to Large Energy Turret damage
  • 10% bonus to Large Energy Turret optimal range

Role Bonus:

  • Can fit Covert Cynosural Field Generator and Covert Jump Portal Generator
  • No targeting delay after Cloaking Device deactivation
  • Cloak reactivation delay reduced to 5 seconds
  • 75% reduction to effective distance traveled for jump fatigue
  • 10% bonus to security status gains from destruction of non-capsuleer pirates while flying this ship
  • Armor Repairer and Shield Booster effectiveness increased by a percentage equal to 10x pilot security status, with a floor of 0% and ceiling of 50%

The one pilot I have capable of flying the Marshal, however, has all racial battleships trained to 5 and
Black Ops trained to 4. Plus, security standings of 5.0, so I also get the max benefits from active tanking.

The Marshal hull alone sells for slightly over 4 billion ISK, making the ship the most expensive thing I own in EVE. Given that I prefer flying frigate and cruiser hulls, I may never take the ship out of a station after I fit and move the ship from its current location. But I will have completed at least one of my New Year's resolutions for 2019 and a goal I set for myself in late 2017.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Starting To Climb Off The ESO Wagon

One of my New Year's resolutions wss to reach max level in Elder Scrolls Online. I reached level 45 over the weekend and know there is a long slog through a different leveling system once I reach level 50. But do I really want to grind that high? The story really isn't that great and the combat is a bit off. Either that, or I put too many skill points into crafting and need to use the free respec scroll I received a couple of levels back to refocus my character. I'm mainly slogging through the game because ESO is one of the big MMORPGs that I probably should play through.

Another reason my attention is drifting is due to the coverage that Square Enix' Final Fantasy XIV Paris Fan Fest garnered over the weekend. I recall playing FFXIV for 30 days just to see what the game was like  With the next expansion, Shadowbringers, scheduled for a 2 July release, I think I will put ESO aside at that time to give FFXIV a real try.

Why Final Fantasy XIV? First, like Elder Scrolls Online, FFXIV is part of a beloved series of video games that I never got into. I tried Final Fantasy 15, but I don't really like console games. The controllers are just too awkward to use. Plus, I know that Square Enix knows how to make MMORPGs, with Final Fantasy XI doing well, even in "maintenance" mode.

Another reason is the graphics. ESO has some pretty bad textures on characters and I understand that was intentional. In fact, I hear that players grumbled about the characters looking too good. I guess really bad graphics and the Elder Scrolls series just goes together. If I recall FFXIV, the graphics were really pretty, and that was before I bought a computer able to run an Oculus Rift. I wonder what they look like now.

One other thing that I'd like to experience is the story in FFXIV. Playing through ESO, I know a main story exists. Somehow, I seem to have lost the main questline. My time is spent wandering the map looking for quests. The questlines I find are nicely put together, but I don't really see an overall pattern. I wonder if the same is true in FFXIV.

I don't plan on dropping ESO right away. My subscription is due for renewal next week and I plan to purchase another 90 days of ESO Plus. But my time in Tamriel is coming to a close. I started my current playthrough in May 2018. I reached level 46 last night and still find the game engaging, although I don't have the urge to play every day. Honestly, I never did. But getting a year out of the game I think is pretty good. Not as good as EVE (9 1/2 years) or EverQuest 2 (3 1/2 years), but still pretty good.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

In Search Of Metropolis Distribution Bots

After a few days of a polar vortex (what Canadians quaintly call "spring") rolling through town and playing with plumbers, I was ready for some EVE. I woke up Sunday morning to a tweet indicating some fun in my old stomping grounds in Metropolis.
And I mean old. When I left Eve University, I took my things and set up shop in Arlek, a system 9 jumps away from both Rens and Hek. More relevant to today's topic is that I spent a lot of time doing missions with Eyfr and Co. and Republic Parliament in that area back back then in order to get the standings for jump clones. Also, when I was streaming my experience with the fancy, cinematic NPE a couple of years ago, I explored how a week old Alpha pilot could start doing level 3 distribution missions in the area. So I pretty much knew what the suspected bot operator was doing.

This bot operator wasn't as blatant about his operation as the Illinfrik botter. I was able to identify 9 bots flying Badgers with a typical distribution mission fit. Five of the bots were flying out of the Republic Parliament station in Ridoner. The other four were split between a pair flying from the Pator School station in Orduin and the remaining two flying from the Eyfr and Co. station in Elgoi.

A pretty good plan to at least spread out the activity so the traffic doesn't stick out on Dotlan. Except for Ridoner, no real chance for a traffic jam on the undock to occur, and certainly nothing on the scale of Illinfrik.

Still, the signs were all there. First, the characters were all Caldari flying Badgers in Metropolis. The race of the characters matters, because all 9 characters were created on 19 January between 13:16 and 13:56 EVE time. The two Elgoi bots were created at 13:16 and 13:20, the Orduin bots at 13:36 and 13:38, and the Ridoner bots between 13:50 and 13:56. Why would nine 2-week old characters come all the way from The Forge or Lonetrek to run distribution missions for Pator School and Eyfr and Co.? I'm picking on Pator School specifically because of its loyalty point store. I might go back and raise my Pator School standings in order to use the services of a station in low sec cheaper, but that's about it.

What linked the characters together was the dates they all joined their own personal corporations. That's right, the new big thing, now that the war dec system has changed, is for bots to form corporation named after themselves. The format of the name is [Character Name] Corporation. All nine characters joined their personal corporations on 20 January at 12:54. All nine characters. Almost like the controlling person used a script.

Of course, I did scan the Badgers, not only for the fittings but to ensure that I knew which station's agents the bots were doing missions for. I mean, I could have just sat on a gate and tag bots that way, but I figured reporting a bot at the undock of the station it is using makes the job of whoever investigates the bot report at CCP's job easier. Sure, Aden and I reported the bots hours apart, but since the bot report doesn't allow for comments, that's the best I can do with the tool.

Due to the plumbing issues and a few other things, I pretty much spent all my time in a Slasher following bots around reporting them. So I have an idea inspired by the last Security dev blog. Instead of selling police SKINs for the ships most used in botting, how about some police SKINs for the T1 frigate hulls the interceptors are based on? Like the Slasher.