Sunday, October 18, 2015

Strip It Down and Sell It for Parts

I’m going to start by focusing on the positive.  I’m sitting on 27 PLEX, and after about a week of the price sitting at 1.2 bil, they’ve crept up 20 mil in the past couple hours.  More importantly, we’re seeing spread compression – the buy and sell prices getting closer – as both continue to rise, suggesting that the price will only continue to increase.  Indicators are great for my profits!

"We can take it out as easily as we can put it in!"

The reason, of course, is the Exploring the Character Bazaar and Skill Trading dev blog.  In a nutshell, CCP is announcing a new NEX store item that will allow players to extract 500,000 sp from their characters and sell it, as a unit, on the market.  Effectively, this allows players to trade sp to each other, drawing down their character’s stock in exchange for isk.

This, in and of itself, isn’t bad.  Players have been asking for a means of eliminating sp for skills they don’t use (though, admittedly, this attitude tends to be a result of vestigial thinking back from when clone levels existed).  But added to this sp transfer is diminishing return.

Once your character has more than 5 million sp – a paltry sum equaling around three months of training – injecting transneural skill packets results in the reduction of the amount of sp you actually gain.  This loss is 20% for up to 50 million total sp, and becomes increasingly onerous as your total sp increases.

Why This Solution?  Why Now?

When I learned about this skillpoint trading proposal after work on Thursday night, I felt like I had missed a whole month’s worth of context.  It came out of nowhere and solved no pre-identified issues.  The character bazaar seemed to be working perfectly fine, and the act of shopping for a new character was an intimate, complicated one that involved a lot of factors, all building to a purchase of a set of characteristics bought as a singular whole.

But when you widen your gaze, it’s much easier to understand the rationale.  Eve players are old.  Very old, in fact.  Because characters are able to be traded on the character bazaar, a great many characters – tens of thousands – have been training skills continuously for a half-decade or more.  The history of Eve is, in many ways, the history of CCP adding new skills and ships to constantly demand more sp, racing against the “end game” at which point players have literally nothing new to fly, train, or do.

As a result, even when players leave the game, the characters they cultivated can continue to live on, a stark contrast to many other games, for which players quitting equates to lapsed, stalled, or stagnant characters as well.  With shortcuts – purchasing high-sp characters that allow them to fly ships and do things they couldn’t do for years if locked into their existing characters – players reach the point where they’ve “done it all” much faster than they otherwise would.

Isk can be destroyed.  Players leave.  Ships are rebalanced and offer new experiences.  Standings can be lost.  Security status is fluid.  Only skillpoints endure in perpetuity.  Much as the in-game universe of New Eden has a problem with immortal capsuleers who are forever immune to the consequences of their actions, CCP has a skillpoint problem.  They endure, and are beyond the company’s control.  And it’s shortening the life of a player, as they can access content faster than generations before them.

At least, they will be up until this change goes into effect.  The secret to CCP “gaining back” those skillpoints lies in diminishing return.

Sure, if a character below 5 million sp injects a transneural skill packet, they can directly transfer sp without any loss.  One player loses 500k sp, another gains it.  It’s a simple transaction, and allows new characters of existing players to gain up to 10 packets’ worth of sp almost immediately.  That’s the equivalent of about three and a half months.  It’s not that big of an advantage.

On the other end of the spectrum, injecting a packet above 50 million sp results in a waste of at least 60% and as much as 90% - a ridiculously high level that sends a very clear message that sp transfer is not for established characters.

The vast majority of transfers are likely to happen in that 5-50 million sp range, which conveniently represents the range where players are most likely to find an extra 500k sp particularly useful.

I’m sorry, 400k.  After all, every time a player injects a skill packet, 20% are removed from the game forever.  At the prospect of adding an extra 400k sp immediately, I’m sure demand will ensure a sufficient supply of skill packets to keep a high daily level of sales.  That adds up to a large skillpoint sink.

And, let’s keep in mind that aurum will be used to purchase the transneural skill extractor.  And any way you cut it, the costs of extracting all of the sp for a 90-mil sp character, for instance, will be far, far higher than the 2 PLEX necessary to transfer a character currently.  To move 85 million sp, you’d need 170 extractors.  To break even, the cost of the extractors could be no more than slightly over 14 million isk each (based on a 1.2 bil PLEX price).  A 100 aurum token has a buy/sell split of 75/199 mil, so that price is likely far, far too low, and I don’t see these extractors costing less than 100 aurum.

Plus, the other restriction – a floor on sp extracting that sits at 5 million – means that each character will never drop below 5 million sp.  CCP has also said that they aren’t planning on getting rid of the bazaar “for now”.  But what about the future?  I can’t see both sp trading and the bazaar coexisting forever.  Regardless, the result will be a large number of fully siphoned characters with no inherent value.  Effectively each one of these characters is another 5 million sp removed from the game, as well.  Any way you cut it, this proposal results in a significant removal of sp from the game.

Balancing the Equation

As players increase their skill points and start to reach the “endgame”, CCP’s reaction in the past has been to release new ships that require even more skill points.  They did it with carriers and dreads, with strategic cruisers, and with titans.  They’ve rebalanced the skills needed, and added additional prerequisites.

CCP has started to realize that the result of all of these new skills is an ever-increasing gap between older and newer players, the latter of which found they needed to train for almost two years simply to get the skills widely considered “necessary” for PvP.  In the past couple months, they’ve offered additional sp to new players and are seriously considering removing attributes (and their negative effect on maximum skill training speed) from the mix.

But, part of me wonders if the diminishing return of skill trading is a necessary half to the equation that began with CCP allowing us to sell whole characters.  After all, allowing players to sell a character is a great feature and benefit to players that gives them what they want in a way that maintains the consequence and ramifications of character actions.

If you can preserve sp from player to player like that, doesn’t it require some sort of balancing to reduce that sp available to players as well?  In fact not having that mechanism simply accelerates the Skillpoint Problem and shortens the time between creation of that first character and bitter vet unsubbing.  I can understand both the desire and need to address it.

This represents a dynamic shift in how CCP is addressing this problem.  After all, there are two ways to solve for players forever retaining and increasing their sp – giving them more goals, or taking some of those skillpoints away to create an equilibrium.

In economics, you have the prisoner’s dilemma, where two people are independently given choices which encourage them to make selfish choices that influence each other.  But, in so doing, they end up diminishing the overall potential of their gain.  This is CCP’s version of a prisoner’s dilemma.  You can inject sp, but in so doing, you’re reducing the total pool available, and serving as a sink to the system.  Repeated thousands of times and in conjunction with players who simply unsub and never touch their characters again, it represents a significant dip in overall sp in the game, which helps mitigate that sp problem.

I’m sure they have stats on the total amount of sp on all active characters, all characters who logged in in the past six months, the average sp per player, etc.  And I’m sure they know exactly how much sp they would need to drain to make an impact on the problem.

Speculators, You’re Already Too Late

At the beginning, I hinted at this causing upward pressure on PLEX prices.  Anyone expecting relief from the price of PLEX should pretty much give up hope at this point.  This feature will be another significant demand-side effect.  PLEX reaching 1.5 bil isn’t unreasonable.  Buy now, while you can.

But, as players take advantage of this sp-siphon, you’ll start to see fewer and fewer valuable characters for sale on the character bazaar.  We’re likely to see prices for characters who have both plenty of sp and solid faction standings – the last non-buyable aspect of characters – increase as fewer and fewer “whole packages” remain.

That Awkward Feeling

While I get the rationale behind this change – eliminating skillpoints from the game – I’m uncomfortable with the way the dev blog sought to spin it.  It focuses the advantages of creating modular characters, and suggests that CCP is doing us a favor by allowing increased flexibility by trading sp “without having to part ways with an entire character.”

The marketer in me recognizes a great narrative built from a clear messaging hierarchy, but I also recognize an obvious spin attempt when I see it.  In reality, this change serves CCP’s interests, and dressing it up as if it’s a service they’re providing to players stretches the obligations of marketing to “tell only the best parts of the truth”.  The giant elephant in the room – that CCP is going to take in more fees for this and help mitigate their skillpoint problem – is ignored.  Sure, it’s written elegantly, but a solution to a problem no one knew we had was bound to raise questions.

Plus, I’m still uncomfortable by players across New Eden carving up their characters and selling the parts for profit.  It feels anti-immersive.  Sure, buyers are in the position of being able to augment their alts’ skills (let’s face it, most mains are going to be well over that 50-mil rationality threshold) instead of having to sell them and buy new ones.  And yeah, this is going to improve players’ ability to customize their characters.  But on the other hand, to the seller, they’re effectively reprocessing their characters piece by piece, stripping them into component parts.

Having sold characters before, I worry that even if I tear out the sp of one character, it’d diminish my connection to my others.  The human psyche can’t devalue one item without also devaluing everything of its kind.  For a company with what by all accounts is a diminishing player base from a weakening of player engagement with the game, I’m not sure this is the right move.

At the very least, even if you buy a character on the bazaar, you’re buying it whole, with all of the consequences and benefits of its history and activities staying with it.  There’s a culture, heritage, and identity of that character.  This change seems to move it into a world of chattel for sale.

And it certainly makes me uncomfortable.


  1. As someone with less than 20 mil SP on my main I welcome this change for selfish reasons. I will very likely buy FC V, and Jump Cal V as well, simply because those 2 skills would otherwise take months for very little gain. Looking at CCPs benefits for this change is interesting though, thank you for a well written analysis.

  2. Very well written. A side i definitely did not take into account until now, but your right, this is probably the driving force here. It's a big change, and change makes people feel uncomfortable. I think a lot of the knee jerk reactions to this announcement was just that initial feeling before they were able to sit down and think about it rationally for a while, and to understand it.

  3. I agree with a lot of this, but I have to take a bit of issue with the following passage:

    "I’m uncomfortable with the way the dev blog sought to spin it. It focuses the advantages of creating modular characters, and suggests that CCP is doing us a favor by allowing increased flexibility by trading sp “without having to part ways with an entire character.” The marketer in me recognizes a great narrative built from a clear messaging hierarchy, but I also recognize an obvious spin attempt when I see it. In reality, this change serves CCP’s interests, and dressing it up as if it’s a service they’re providing to players stretches the obligations of marketing to “tell only the best parts of the truth”."

    Obviously they're going to try to put forward any new feature in the best light they can, but I think it's quite a bit too strong to dismiss that framing as *only* 'spin' or 'narrative'. As a player I agree 100% with the idea that the ability to transfer skillpoints without transferring characters is a valuable service. I suspect I'm in the minority, but I would never use the character bazaar, despite being in its prime audience of a relatively new player who could really make use of a middling-sp bought main to jump-start my eve career. My character is *mine*. I pondered his name for several days before I made the account to be sure I had something I would be happy with long-term. I spent several hours poring over all of the outfit options and other details that nobody else will ever see and fiddling with that portrait that nobody ever pays any attention to. I'm no roleplayer, but I still couldn't use a character that I didn't create, it would just seem wrong. From my point of view the value of being able to snag a few extra SP for my main is far more than mere marketing spin, and I don't think it's fair to describe it as only that.

    1. Same here. RP-wise and immersion-wise, I could never buy a character. I even hate having a transport alt, as I am thrown out of the imaginary narrative I like to think of, and reminded I am just playing a game.

      Of course, more logical/scientific/pragmatic players probably don't feel that way. Being a Sci-Fi game, I would tend to believe there are more pragmatic players than dreamy ones out there :)

    2. Really good point. I would never sell Talvorian or Valeria. Oddly, though, as my different characters do different things, I start to build a sense of who they are and a narrative about them. Surprisingly emergent!

  4. I think this feature could actually add to the supply of PLEX. Right now if new players buy PLEX to sell for ISK so they can buy expensive ships they are told they are wasting their money. In the future when a new whale joins the game and wants a quick boost he can use PLEX to buy both expensive ships and the skills to fly them. Of course without the meta skills to fly them he'll still burn in a fire.