Monday, September 27, 2010

The Deflated ISK

The ISK cost of PLEX is going up.

As most readers of Fiddler's Edge know, a player may purchase PLEX (30 day Pilot License EXtensions) with real world currency. A PLEX  can then be sold in-game by other players for EVE Interstellar Credits (ISK) and used by the buyer to pay for EVE subscription time.

In addition to allowing those players without thick real money wallets to pay for their subscriptions with in-game currency, the buying and selling of PLEX puts a ceiling on the real money value of ISK.

Previously, the ISK/PLEX trade had been fairly steady - running around 300 million ISK per PLEX. In fact as of my last check a month or two ago, a PLEX could be had for around 280 mil in and around the major trade hubs.

As of this weekend, that  price had ticked up to consistently above 350 million.

From an economics standpoint, this means something has gone agley in the world of supply and demand. Either the amount of ISK chasing PLEX has increased, or the number of PLEX available for sale has decreased.

Now, looking tracking backwards along the price history, there's one event that could explain the current (and apparently ongoing) price increase. And that's a change in PLEX mechanics.

Originally, PLEX could only be redeemed in NPC stations. Further, PLEX were effectively nailed to the floor in whatever station they were redeemed. On July 13, CCP put into place a change in PLEX mechanics that allows PLEX to be redeemed in any station, and once redeemed, they can be loaded onto a ship and transported like any other in-game item.

This means that nullsec residents no longer need to travel to empire in order to buy PLEX. PLEX can be redeemed in nullsec, or purchased in empire and flown down to nullsec for use or sale like any other commodity. As 300 million or so isk pile up easier in nullsec than empire, and most nullsec players willing to  pay a premium on key items in order to avoid trips to empire, nullsec is an attractive market for the PLEX trade.

With a sizable portion of the PLEX available for sale moving from empire to nullsec (and therefore largely taken out of the open market) empire buyers must now compete for a substantially smaller pool of PLEX, driving the price upwards. 

"But Mord," you ask, "With the price of PLEX on the rise, won't people who purchase them out of game for real money buy more of them to take advantage of the higher ISK return on their investment? Won't that increase the number of PLEX available and compensate for the nullsec shift of the current market?"

I'm glad you asked.

Normally, you might be right.  However, the initial purchase of a PLEX to sell in-game requires a real dollar investment. As ISK are of no use outside of EVE, and if we assume a purchaser's ISK needs are taken care of at their present rate of consumption, the number of PLEX injected in the game by the casual purchaser should be sticky, i.e. resistant to change. A person spending $36 per month for two PLEX that net 600 million ISK is unlikely to increase his PLEX purchases to net the additional 100 million ISK.

In fact, as is common in deflationary markets, the opposite is true. Said person will often hold off making the purchase - waiting for the price to rise further in order to optimize the return on his $36 investment - as a result driving down the value of the ISK relative to real world money even further. Which, of course, causes the person to hold off spending dollars for PLEX even longer. And so on.

Meanwhile, players who are unwilling or unable to pay for their EVE subscriptions for real dollars are price inelastic - if they wish to play EVE they must buy PLEX regardless of how high the ISK price goes.

Now, this would seem to be a bonanza for sellers of PLEX.

However, nobody wants to spend all their time in EVE grinding ISK to pay for play time, only to have no time (or decent ships) in which to play. If the price of PLEX continues to rise, a tipping point will be reached. Then the subscription base will suffer as the new PLEX underclass votes with its feet and finds another game.

As I often say, people don’t pay CCP every month for a bummer. They pay to have fun.  No one should lose sight of that.

Particularly CCP.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Gamer Grrlz

An ongoing point of discussion in the Eve blogosphere is the Gamer Girl. The video below has been making the game blog rounds, so I thought I'd inject it into the Eve Blog Pack's sphere of influence.

Gamer Grrlz Video
I'll confess, I've been surprised by the response of a few women in my own corporation to the image of the Gamer Girls presented in the video. Of course, I am an ancient creature as online game ages are measured - a paleo-digital man.

So, ladies of Eve, let me know what you think:  Is this a Gamer Grrl anthem, just some creepy otaku-boy fantasy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hit 'Em Where They Ain't

Beyond the effectiveness of Supercarriers working in tandem with armored HAC gangs, the post-Dominion engagements have demonstrated that a dynamic, flexible approach to strategic thinking is a new essential when contesting nullsec sovereignty.

In effect, you don't always need to meet the enemy to beat the enemy.

Looking at the conflict between Against All Authorities (AAA) and Circle of Two (CO2), Legion of Death, Pandemic Legion, et al, it's interesting to note what a very long way Teneferis and Catch are for Legion of Death (LD) from their properties in places like Etherium Reach, the Kalavala Expanse and Malpais.

With LD's main strength in terms of ships and pilots is occupied with the conquest of Catch and Teneferis, those forces are not immediately available for defending LD assets in their established sphere of influence.

In fact a week of wandering around Etherium Reach showed a lot of well heeled Carebears larding on the fat while their pvp brethren are off storming the AAA castle.

Now, these Carebear systems represent income for LD and Red Alliance.  Disruption in that cash flow falls under the heading of bad news for both alliances. Further, if those alliances are engaging in RMT, loss of those systems means a real money loss for the landlords; money that pays for the forces presently dismantling AAA. 

QBZO-R was of particular interest as it contains the only ice field in the entire region. Interstellar Alcohol Conglomerate, a vassal alliance of the Russian Coalition (RUS) holds sovereignty. It and a number of other corporations have operations in system. One POS (planet VIII, moon 17) includes a set of manufacturing arrays, including an extra-large array that can build Orcas as well as t2 and t3 ships. It can be assumed that the blueprint drop alone from that tower would be a rich one.

Further, the Carebears in QBZO-R are not terribly cautious. I spent a few days in system watching traffic and scanning ships and anomalies. While my presence kept them from mining the ice belt, they quickly became bored with hanging out at the POS and took to ratting and mining the anomalies - not knowing I observed them doing so at close range on several occasions.

The region's main trade hub appears to be in R-6KYM (a Red Alliance system) at RA Terror Drone station. It has a very active and extensive market, well stocked with almost any ship, structure, mod or resource one could want. There are two other markets showing significant market activity, including RA Meltdown in TP-RTO (Description: "Here there be CareBears") and DIZaster Prime in D-IZTA. A threat to any one of the three would likely force RUS to withdraw forces from newly conquered territories or the AAA front in order to defend their financial interests.

Of course, RUS could simply allow the systems to fall with an eye toward taking them back later. However, that would result in the loss of renter corporations and industrial infrastructure that would take significant time to rebuild. Further, leaving their renters and vassals to the wolves would damage RUS relationships with those entities.

Nobody wants a landlord who can't be bothered to show up when the toilets start fountaining raw sewage - which would pretty much be the analogy if AAA or their sympathizers opened up a second front on the Carebears in RUS's supposedly safe industrial heartland.

An enfilading attack against lightly protected RUS industrial interests wouldn't even have to involve taking systems.  As the Mittani points out in one of his recent blog posts:
One of the more interesting workarounds to the whole SBU/TCU rigmarole has been using mass-scale griefing tactics to essentially harass the victim entity into giving up their territory and cutting a deal to evacuate.
 A complementary tactic in support of mass-scale griefing is dropping Sovereignty Control Units  in unclaimed systems. In combination with griefing, this gives an outward impression of weakness on the part of the landlord alliance, which in turn will drive industrial renter and vassal alliances to hedge their bets by removing valuable assets from the area.

Even if the landlord alliance does respond to these tactics, the attackers do not have to respond  by meeting force with force.

Multiple SCAs and other assets can be put in reinforced mode, forcing the defending alliance to guess where the attackers will strike, or distribute their forces in an attempt to defend multiple targets. In the latter case, feigned attacks can draw off the defenders main strength while the attacker strikes them elsewhere.

The current combat era is seeing a drift away from the classic battleship fleets of the Pre-Dominion era. The current trend appears to be toward greater density of firepower - smallish 'boutique" alliances with an unusually high concentration of Supercapital ships, capable of bringing an enormous amount of firepower to bear using a relatively small number of ships.

While such alliances are capable of taking huge swaths of territory from their more tradition-bound neighbors, it remains to be seen whether they can hold it once the mercenaries move on and their allies turn from conquest to collecting vast piles of isk. Their very success may be their undoing as, the more territory they have, the more territory they must defend.

Faced with defending their newly won empires against agile enemies on many fronts, the same fleets may find themselves overworked, outmaneuvered and unable to keep the quick tempo of insurgent tactics.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

If Real Money Trading (RMT) is a song often sung in New Eden, the refrain to that song is "CCP can't do anything about it.". Fleet Commanders on the take, or RMT brokers whose wallets get fatter every time a Supercap is sold in-game, sing it gleefully. Residents of New Eden getting raped by the aforementioned glee club, or those concerned that these tossers are in the process of driving EVE off the edge of a cliff, sing it with an air of resignation.

One very disturbing reason given for this fatalism are the persistent rumors that there are CCP employees taking RMT money in return for inside information.

If true, this would provide RMT organizations with a an unfair advantage in terms of intelligence - up to and including the ability to intercept in-game communications. More ominous than the developer side of the house is the admin side of the house. If RMT can buy someone in CCP who has access to user account data, one can get real world leverage. I've heard both scenarios are true.

Further, insider information could help RMT organizations avoid detection, providing critical knowledge as to how to cover their tracks and disguise RMT transactions as legitimate. It could even provide them tip-offs of  RMT detection methods and ongoing CCP sting operations. Given the amount of money involved, gaining access to this knowledge would be a reasonable course of action for RMT elements. 

To some extent, this is a problem of CCP's own making as the internal CCP environment makes it vulnerable to people willing to throw money around in order to gain insider knowledge.  

Game developers tend not to make much money. As the dream job of a lot of high-school and college kids there's a constant supply of low-cost talent banging at the doors. It's one of those professions long on prestige and short of income. It's the sort of life that's great when you're young and willing to live three or four to a flat with your fellow developers. However, when you get a bit older, tired of living like a college student, and start thinking about grown-up goals like a spouse, family, a home of one's own, et al; you find prestige doesn't spend too well.

CCP pay is reputedly low even in the gaming industry. That makes their employees vulnerable to temptation when "a friend" in-game starts waving a few thousand euros of RMT money under their noses.

Making the situation worse, I understand CCP developers work on year-long contracts. This is good for CCP in that they avoid the structural costs associated with actually hiring their developers. However, it's bad for CCP in that their developers have limited buy-in to EVE or the CCP brand. When the relationship between employer and employee is clearly defined as a short-term business transaction, employee loyalty is unlikely to follow.  By holding them at financial arm's length, CCP constantly reinforces the message to these employees that they are hired help and not part of the CCP family. Subsidized lunches, employee cookouts and memos about team spirit from HR are not going to change that equation.

Under those circumstances CCP employees may well have greater loyalty to their "friends" in the player community than to CCP.

There is, as yet, no smoking gun that points to CCP staff being on the take from the EVE mafia. However, given the money at stake, the incentives involved, the persistence of rumors, and their modestly paid employees,  it would be foolish of CCP to not consider this a reasonable possibility.

There are actions that can be taken to ensure the integrity of the game and those who have their hands of the game's levers. Some of them involve careful oversight and honest reporting on the outcomes of that oversight. Some of them involve giving CCP staff an honest stake in the future of this game in particular and CCP at large. RMT remediation actions, such as detection via data analysis, RMT organization infiltration and sting operations should be undertaken by agents outside of CCP so RMT entities cannot be tipped off by CCP insiders on the take. 

It is critical to EVE's future that the citizens of New Eden have complete confidence in the integrity of the men and women behind the scenes and in ultimate control the game. For that to happen, CCP has to ensure that those who watch over EVE are, themselves, watched and above reproach.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The CareBears Who Killed Atlas

There's been a lot of speculation as to why Atlas Alliance fell from the full blush of strength to it's present state so abruptly.

The most common theory is that Bobby Atlas micro-managed Atlas to death; that his inability to delegate decision making led to an inflexible organization incapable of functioning effectively in his absence. As a result, this theory goes, during key events leading up to the invasion of Atlas space by Legion of xXDEATHXx, Red Alliance, White Noise (aka the Russian Coalition, or RUS), critical decisions were not made due to Bobby's lack of attention to Atlas.
This may have been a contributing factor. But, I'm not buying it as wholesale cause.

The more I look into it, the more convinced I become that Atlas Alliance was laid low by Real Money Trading (RMT) and Atlas' own CareBears.

The Atlas Invasion was not fought over old grudges, e-honor, or the reclaiming of "traditional" territories. It was a battle over Titan-class ships and the CareBears who build them. It was a fight over money; real money, and the future role of that money in EVE at large and nullsec in particular.  

Bear with me a moment while I lay a little groundwork.

As I wrote in Money Comes Whithal, there are a lot of ways to make real money via EVE Online. Currency trading is the most common. Selling characters or in-game items for real money outside the context of the game is another.

CCP's PLEX sales program has been effective in putting a ceiling on the value of in-game currency (ISK) at roughly $70 per billion isk. However, that success has been at a price. It's driven real money traders to focus on sales of user accounts, characters, and other more lucrative in-game items in order to extract their dollars from EVE online. In the latter category, the best money is made on in-game items that are scarce, expensive and (most importantly) a means to making even more money.

Super Capital Ships, Titans in particular, are the jewel in that crown.

The skills, resources and time needed to produce Supercaps make them a high-ticket item to start with. Further, Supercaps can only be made using a Capital Ship Assembly Array (CSA), which can only be deployed in a nullsec system by members of the sovereignty-holding alliance. What do you need to conquer and hold nullsec space? Super Capital Ships. The more nullsec systems you hold, the more Supercaps you can make.

All of the above have driven the RMT market for Supercaps skyward. At present, a Mothership runs for around $1000 on the RMT market. A Titan? $7,000. A Titan-ready toon to fly that new ship? That'll bring in another $1,000.

Given the current level of demand, and assuming it takes eight weeks to produce a Titan, just ten CSA's can generate $35,000 in real dollars every month. The buyer, of course, has to pay in-game isk for the ships matching roughly their build cost in order to hide the real money transaction from CCP (Yes, selling in-game items for real dollars is against EULA - the EVE User Licensing Agreement), which means the resulting RMT dollars are pure profit. And that's just the tip of the RMT iceberg.

According to my sources, a piece of that money goes to the leaders of the CareBears who do the building.  Some of the money goes to the middlemen - the brokers and the people who manage the black market infrastructure. The alliance in charge takes a big cut as well, and that money flows down to pay alliance leadership as well as key fleet commanders, corporation heads and spies.

Getting back to Atlas Alliance:

At the onset the invasion of Atlas Alliance space by RUS and Pandemic Legion, Bobby Atlas ordered a halt to the single Titan in production and put a stop on any new Supercap production. This directive was ignored by the Supercap producers who appear to have actually ramped up production. By the time Atlas surrendered a number of Supercaps were near ready for sale, and RUS seemed very well informed as to how many in-production Supercaps were available to be claimed as part of the surrender terms. Surrender terms under which Atlas surrendered not the Supercaps, but the right to buy them from Atlas producers.

Yeah. You heard me. Atlas lost and the terms of surrender were that the Atlas Supercap producers got a massive payday, while the Atlas Alliance rank and file got screwed. Bobby got the blame, both deserved and undeserved.

In a convo released by The Mittani, Bobby Atlas accuses his lieutenants of cutting a deal with RUS in the interest of the Supercap producers, at the expense of the rank and file Atlas membership. I think that's precisely what happened, and I don't think it was an accident on the part of Bobby's lieutenants. One of the most shocking parts of the convo is that, with the Alliance falling around their ears, the main concern of said lieutenants is that the Supercap producers are paid.

Now, my sources tell me that Atlas was one of several alliances that had banned RMT by its member corporations. Assuming this is the case, Bobby Atlas would have cut a number of his Supercap producers off from a steady flow of real-world cash.

Funny thing about cash. People like it. People get used to it. When you take it away, they get angry and start working out how to get it back. If they can't get around you, they may try to remove you.

Assuming Atlas' RMT ban was  genuine, I believe some of those Supercap CareBears decided that it was easier to remove Bobby Atlas than to pack up and relocate to RMT-friendly space. I think some back room conversations took place, some Atlas higher-ups were bribed and the rest, as they say, is history. I may be wrong in some particulars, but that's the direction the evidence seems to be pointing.

Pernicious stuff, money. 

Now, if EVE-ON or PC-Gamer or some game hardware manufacturer wants to sponsor an alliance or corporation for marketing purposes I don't see a problem provided it's all in the open and done in accordance with the EULA. However, RMT isn't legitimate money. It's gotten by breaking EULA, and players who take dirty money are, by extension, dirty. They drive a cycle of demands on nullsec and the players therein to generate ever more real money income for themselves and their backers. They turn the course of EVE from an entertainment for the many to an income generator for the select EVE "professional".

Once upon a time, way back in May, I wrote:

People don’t pay CCP every month for a bummer. They pay to have fun.
While that may not be true for the professional EVE player, it's still true for the rest of us. Unchecked, the real money mill nullsec is in the process of becoming will not be fun. Feeding the maw of the money mill will get old quickly. One day, perhaps soon, the recreational player will take his subscription money and recreate elsewhere.

And that's an unsustainable business model for CCP.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


My office door opened and I looked up as Jenny, my research librarian, stormed across the room to the supply cabinet. She began rummaging through the shelves, tossing aside pens, pads and sundry office supplies.

I went back to sharpening my writing quills. After a few minutes Jenny stopped her search in obvious frustration.

“Silencers,” She demanded.

“Hmmm?” I answered without looking up.

“Silencers,” She repeated. “Where are the goddamn silencers?”

“Next to the staplers,” I answered

I looked up and saw her screwing a silencer onto the end of her .40 caliber Sig Saur semi-automatic.

“Is someone feeling a little cranky?”  I asked.

“Huh,” She spared me a disapproving glance over her spectacles. She reached up to the cabinet’s highest shelf and pulled down a pair of .40 caliber magazines. She slapped one into the Sig, and dropped the second into her purse. She pulled back the slide on the pistol, cocking it, and strode back toward the door.

“Bad commute this morning?” I ventured.

She stopped and turned on me, waving the pistol in my direction as if wagging a disapproving finger at me.

“Don’t you start with me, Mister. If I’m upset, it’s totally your fault. I can’t believe the shit you bring into this office.”

“Time out,” I said. “First of all, stop waving that cannon around. Secondly, what’s all my fault?”

She glanced at the gun in her hand, rolled her eyes.

“Sissy,” She set the SIG down on the desk.

 “The EVE mafia.” she said.

“The what?” I asked

Her eyes narrowed.

“The. EVE. Mafia. Remember? Real money trading? Virtual black markets and payola? Shadowy conspiracy threatening to destroy your cartoon game thingy? The blog post you're spending way too much time writing?

Well, you’ve brought them down on us. You and that stupid article you’re writing.  Two of them were waiting for me out by my car when I left for work this morning.”

“They threatened you?

“No, they insulted me,”

“How so?”

"By threatening me without trying to bribe me first. What do they think you’re paying me?"

“So they did threaten you.”

“Barely,” she sniffed. “Let’s just say that twenty hours a day playing EVE is not good for your muscle tone.“

She looked down at her hand. “I think I broke a nail. And one of them bled on my new jacket.”

"I’ll pay for cleaning,” I offered.

"Damn straight you will,” she said. She picked up her handgun and turned to leave.

“Jenny,”  I said.

She turned, one hand on the door, and regarded me with a raised eyebrow.

“So you’re OK?”

“Of course,” She said.

“And not worried about the EVE Mafia?”

“Pffft!” She said with a dismissing wave. “As if.”

“Then why…?” I pointed at the gun in her hand.

“Oh, this?” she said, holding up the Sig as she stepped through the door. “Mouse in the ladies room.”