Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Free-to-Play Mode: Not the End of the World... Maybe

CCP dropped a bombshell today with the announcement that they were introducing a free-to-play mode operating within the same universe as the rest of us play Eve. Before we all start biomassing or grabbing our pitchforks, let's dive into some of the consequences (including very good ones) and some essential modifications that will be needed.

First, let's dig into the details:

  • Subscribed accounts (ie. all of us playing today), will be considered "omega clones" and have the same full functionality.
  • Free-to-play accounts will be designated "alpha clones" and have severe limitations on sp use and training, capping out at around 5 million sp (an eligible skill list is included in the devblog).
  • Skill extraction will not be allowed for alpha clones.
  • Alpha clones will only be able to train the skills for their particular race (ie. Amarr characters can only train Amarr skills).
  • There is no current plan to limit concurrent logins between alpha and omega accounts, but CCP is going to look at this.
  • A subscribed account that lapses and becomes an alpha account will only be able to use skills on the alpha list; effectively, that other training is put in limbo and will not confer any bonuses until it's subscribed again.
  • Alpha clones will earn sp at a reduced rate compared to omega clones.

Suffice it to say, this is huge. But not, I suspect, as huge as people believe. In general, I think this change will be a net positive to the gameworld, if CCP makes some small adjustments.

I admit, my first reaction to this was, "What the f***?" However, as I pore over the details and think about it more, I'm kind of excited for the possibilities.

Eve clearly has a new player retention problem. The game is incredibly complex and requires hours of time just to get used to the controls, let alone understanding how the mechanics work. Even 21 days, the typical length of a trial account, isn't sufficient to really scratch the surface of what Eve offers. As a result, we have thousands of new players who quit after their trial. Sometimes, they give it another go months later or with a new account. This might happen several times before someone decides to subscribe.

This free-to-play option clearly seeks to address that by eliminating the barriers preventing players from logging in and engaging with the game. It's goal is to get more people in the gameworld, experiencing a sample of what it offers. A player in the game can learn to love it. A player unlogged and unsubbed will learn to love something else.

In a game where players are the content for other players, this is a very good thing. More people flying through space means more people for the paying customers to shoot. More folks agree with this, and many complaints about recent changes (particularly around input broadcasting, unlimited skill queues, and capital changes) have cited the declining PCU for support of their positions. Everyone agrees that more people in space is better than fewer people.

The key in accomplishing this with a free-to-play model is to provide breadth of experience without de-valuing the value of a subscription. In that sense, I think CCP mostly hit the mark here.

First, we have the skill limitations. Locked to race-specific skills and some support skills, no alpha clone player is going to be able to stand up to an omega character of any decent age. Not only do the restrictions limit players to T1 cruisers and below, but they also prevent any T2 modules of any kind. Those bonuses add up quickly, and assure that with even numbers or even at 2:1 odds, the fully-skilled subscribed players using T2 modules will dominate.

And, really, that's quite fair. This free-to-play model is clearly meant to give experience, not success. Alpha clones are not going to have parity with subscribed accounts. To be efficient, to win, to achieve, or to maximize will require a subscription. Clearly, the value of a subscription is being maintained here, while still addressing that core barrier to new player retention.

A Crowded Universe

Already, some players have raised some concerns about certain applications. One of the big ones is: what if we have tens or hundreds of thousands of alpha-clone players running around screwing things up?

Ultimately, the desired end state of nearly every Eve player is to have space teeming with players. Thousands of them, every system populated and busy. A crowded universe bursting at the seams with people to interact with.

It shouldn't matter whether the player involved is paying for the account or not; the way they interact with you is no different in either case. You worry about you; let them worry about them. Individually, whether Eve is worth your subscription depends upon your valuation. If you play now, you're paying in some way now (be it with PLEX or money), so obviously the game is worth it to you. Would you really put yourself back into a box by pulling your subscription and playing with only about 5 million sp and a single race? Would that really satisfy you?

I didn't think so. For the subscription, you gain advantages: full skill tree access, ability to fly multiple races at your leisure, no cap on effectiveness or mechanic-limited ability, and the freedom to use skill extractors. Whether another person is playing that same game shouldn't be a factor in how you play yours. If it is, I'd argue that's a measure of jealousy, not a cost-value consideration.

But, let's say jealousy IS your concern... you want to get more than the other person. Let's go back to that desired end-state universe, a game filled with players. With free-to-play, your relative strength and likelihood for success is vastly higher; all F2P players would be far behind you in skills and mechanic-based ability. Without F2P, you might be in the middle of the pack.

What about finances? "F2P players aren't contributing resources to the development of the game!" Yet, the costs of new development are fixed regardless of whether 30,000 or 130,000 players are logged in. If the variable costs get out of hand (customer service, new server requirements to manage more connections), CCP can just shut off alpha clone access.

Besides, as Gretzky said, "I miss 100% of the shots I don't take." Those F2P players are going to be interacting with the same game you are, and making the same cost-value analyses you have. I suspect a good number of them will, if given longer access to the game for free, start to become more familiar, comfortable, and engaged with the game and convert over to paying accounts. In the long-term, I suspect this application of F2P will improve revenue and the amount of resources available for development.

Needing Some Tweaks

That said, while I am intrigued with this development, I do see some consequences that require further consideration.

For instance, CCP stated, "We don’t think clone states will have much impact on suicide ganking or other harassment in high-sec. But, we will be paying very close attention and if this becomes an issue we can pursue options to improve the situation such as turning safety’s on for Alphas in high sec or making changes to the allowed skills list."

Sorry, mates, but ganking is absolutely going to be a problem. It's naive to think otherwise.

Allow me to rephrase the problem this way: With alpha clones, I'd have two options to build an army of suicide gankers. First is to create a new trial account every couple weeks, quickly train up gank characters (with skill books that cost less than a single fit), and biomass them before they reach -5.0 security status. Second, I could use alpha clones without having to go to the trouble of creating new accounts. Option B is clearly easier, and will be the preferred way of doing things. Fewer login names to remember, and all that.

That, in itself, is actually cleaner, reducing new account spam that makes it harder for CCP to accurately gauge player retention. But, it's concurrent logins that trouble me.

Right now, a player cannot log in both a trial account and another account from the same computer at the same time. Without a concurrent login cap, there is nothing preventing one player from logging in a full ganking fleet of alpha clone accounts himself and going to town. If faced with the opportunity to reduce your hassle and manage ganks on your own, wouldn't you do it?

Adding a concurrent user login restriction - either allowing only one alpha account to be logged in at a time, or allowing no dual-boxing with an alpha account - would cause much of that problem to disappear. Ganking alpha clone accounts would replace ganking trial accounts, but the limitation would avoid personal armies from operating independently.

Is that an unfair change? If the goal of F2P Eve is to provide additional time for players to become familiar with and enjoy the game, I think it suits nicely. The new player can still engage in ganking, but does so in a limited manner in keeping with the objective of providing experience, not excellence.

Even with that change, though, the current iteration still involves some challenges. Certain kinds of characters could still be spawned in ways that actually diminish the number of subscribed accounts. First are the Jita traders, loot sellers, scouts, and characters used to check market prices. These characters generally require virtually no skills, and serve to provide eyes in various areas. Why pay for an account populated only by characters you use for information-gathering purposes? Is there a way to adjust the plan in a way that prevents this without cutting the market trading experience out entirely? I'm not sure. I don't see a way to exclude throw-away scouts, though.

Faction warfare pilots have expressed a lot of concern over the effect an influx of alpha clone pilots might have on their gameplay. I'd argue that the concurrent login limitation would largely remove the negative effects. Yes, FW space would become more populated, but it'd become more populated with low-level pilots feeding kills, not presenting a significant threat. If it does appear to be a problem, then CCP can tweak the LP payouts downward for alpha clones to prevent them from being viable sources of farming.


Overall, I'm fairly intrigued by this idea as a means of encouraging lapsed or new players to re-engage with the game. $15 a month is a sizable investment for uncertainty, and I for one would rather have a player in the game being a target than being logged out. Any time CCP makes logging out an optimal strategy, they lose doubly, both in terms of engagement for the first player and content for another one.

When I consider what Eve could gain - lapsed and new players being able to get a "free hit" of Eve to encourage them to subscribe, more time for new players to become familiar with the game without unbalancing the value of a trial account, and more players buzzing through space - I see potential. The cost - the fact that someone, somewhere in the gameworld is playing Eve without having to pay the way you do - comes more from jealousy than anything else.

If you're looking for game-breaking pay-2-win features, I think there's a much stronger case to be made for PLEX, the character bazaar, or skill injecting than the threat posed by F2P mode.

I'll be curious to see how this all occurs. For the moment, put me strongly in the camp of, "Let's do it with a concurrent login restriction." I look forward to having more people to shoot.

1 comment:

  1. "Let's do it with a concurrent login restriction." sounds fairly reasonable...