Friday, May 27, 2011

The AUR and the Super Carrier

With the coming of micro-transactions to New Eden, I now understand CCP Greyscale's reluctance to take action against the over-powered supercapital class of ships.

It's all about the AUR.

In their latest devblog posting CCP announced how micro-transactions will work in Eve Online.

To break it down:
  1. You pay in AUR for Vanity items (i.e. clothes/accessories for your avatar or that alliance insignia and paint job for your ship)
  2. AUR can only be bought by redeeming PLEX
  3. Vanity items can be resold in game after their initial purchase, but only for ISK

"But Mord," you might ask, "Why do we need a new currency? Why can't I simply buy vanity goods directly with ISK and be done with it? And what does this have to do with supercapitals?"

I'm glad you asked that. You're being particularly insightful today. Bear with me, this is going to be a slightly  round-about trip.

See, the need to use PLEX to buy AUR creates a new, secondary market for the PLEX.

Up until now, PLEX were reimbursed in place of paying directly for a subscription. A purchased PLEX entered the system and, in theory, didn't leave the system until it was reimbursed for play time or used as a donation.

Now, recall back in January when in The Coming Super Carrier Buff I expressed puzzlement over CCP Greyscale's uncharacteristic concern for Super Carrier pilots in the event their wildly overpowered ships were brought back into balance. 
CCP Greyscale seems strangely resistant to the idea of reducing the Super Carriers utility out of apparent concern for the lot of Super Carrier pilots. Simply nerfing Super Carriers, Greyscale said, "imposes a great cost on [Super Carrier] pilots".

Now that's a bit strange.

In imposing nerfs on various ships over the years CCP's policy over the years has been to put the health of the game over the interests of pilots of a class of ship than had gotten out of balance.  Investing heavily in any overpowered ship or technology has always been a calculated risk in New Eden, as such ships are routinely targeted by CCP for re-balancing.  We are all aware that, unlike
Star Trek's Scotty, CCP can change the laws of physics on you.

But, suddenly, crocodile tears are being shed for the poor, poor Super Carrier pilots.

I suggested at the time that there might be a profit motive behind Greyscale's sudden empathy for pilots of a particular ship class. After all, I pointed out, if the ISK needed to finance supercapitals and the expensive modules and implants needed for them are being bought via PLEX, that's money in the bank for CCP. In that case, CCP Greyscale would every reason for keeping Super Carriers and Titans the overpowering, 'must have' ship they remain today.

Some of you, like the Sage of Canada, Kirith Kodachi, correctly pointed out that, in theory, the transaction should be a wash for CCP. 

 "That nets out to about $700 US worth of Plex purchases to buy a bargain-basement priced Nyx in-game. [...] That, my friends, is money in the bank for CCP assuming those ISK are bought through CCP's Plex program."

But those purchased PLEXes can only be used for paying for someone's game time. Thus that 700 dollars replaced someone else's 700 dollars of subscription fees. The only way CCP makes money is if the PLEX are destroyed.

Now PLEX can be destroyed.

Under CCP's new micro-transactions scheme, a PLEX used for AUR exits the system. It cannot be used to purchase game time.

Mind, even before the AUR, CCP was making money on PLEX purchases. But that was money at the margins; PLEX languishing in the in-game speculation market, or keeping subscribers unable to pay in cash in the game.

With AUR, CCP finally has a true PLEX sink that costs CCP next to nothing. When a PLEX is burned for AUR it exits the game and CCP's balance sheets will reflect it as almost pure profit.

Now, notice in the dev blog announcement that CCP Zulu says they will monitor the PLEX market to make sure it doesn't get out of control. This probably means that CCP intends to inject PLEX into the system if their price gets too high or buy up PLEX if the market gets flooded and the price crashes. This is the sort of mechanism a government might use to control inflation or deflation in a market economy and the sort of move I'd expect Dr. E to push.

This is good for you, because it ensures the price of a PLEX won't go completely out of sight. However, it also ensures you won't get crazy-wild discounts on PLEX either. It is exceptionally good for CCP in either event, because it allows them to maintain the PLEX market at a level that ensures an optimal flow of PLEX purchases.

CCP is a for profit company. When CCP Greyscale suddenly breaks pattern and begins to act out of character, a for profit motive is the likely diagnosis.

Diagnosis confirmed. Cha-ching.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gaming on the Chain Gang

Just a quick pointer to a story of interest.

Some of you may have run across this story in the Guardian already. Seems that hard labor in the Chinese prison system can mean more than just making little rocks out of big ones.

Seems the guards in the scheme described in the article had their own little internet enterprise going. After a hard day of work for the state, the inmates were put to work in the World of Warcraft universe, mining gold, building characters and collecting artifacts which the guards then sold for real money. Inmates were given quotas and the shifts were reported to run as long as twelve hours.

Mind, I've known some Eve players on the same schedule, but usually without the mandatory rock-breaking before hand. Plus they usually have the solace of alcohol and no one breaks their fingers if they don't make their ISK quota.

Makes you think, though. Has anyone else noticed how resistant the Drone Russians are to failscades? How they're always up for those alarm clock CTAs? How amazing their fleet participation is? It's like they don't have anything to do but play the game.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sock Puppet

In his latest Eve Evolved column, Brendan Drain over at Massively leaps to the defense of CCP's recent buff to supercapitals

Now, I had pretty well knocked the dust of that decision from my sandals. I'd put the matter behind me and moved on. Normally, I would take the high road; be and let be and all that. After all, I've said my peace on the matter. Water under the bridge. Done is done, right? 

Unfortunately, Brendan linked to my recent Fiddler's Edge post on the matter by way of illustrating the opinions of those with whom he disagreed. Worse yet, he didn't have the good grace to mount a meaningful counter-argument. Now it's personal.

*cracks knuckles*

If you follow Brendan's column, you'll note he gets a lot of interviews with and information from the Eve Online design and development teams. They seem on good terms. He has, as they say, access.

For those of you not familiar with how western journalism works, this sort of access is almost never free. It’s usually paid for by way of an informal tit for tat arrangement. Such arrangements are rarely explicitly laid out and are often cultivated by the source over time. In exchange for interviews, scoops and insider tidbits, the journalist in question is expected to avoid embarrassing the source.

It’s assumed a journalist with the privilege of access will not ask tough questions or publish embarrassing facts about the source. On occasion the journalist is expected to act as a mouthpiece for the source when said source wants to express an opinion or leak information without doing so directly. When bad press about the source does surface, the journalist with access generally contributes to the subject by delivering the source’s side of the story or stands mute, delivering nothing at all.

In short, journalists who get too close to their source become apologists for the source; unpaid members of the source’s public relations staff rather than actual journalists.

They become, as I like to call them, media sock puppets.

I suspect Brendan Drain may have turned the corner into sock-puppetdom.  His language in the column suggests he and CCP have discussed and are of one mind on the subject matter. In expressing their intents with regard to jump bridges and force projection he speaks on CCP's behalf without needing to reference interviews, papers or devblogs. It would also explain why Brendan comes to this subject so late in the game, well after the change has been put in place. This suggests that CCP is still getting a lot of churn from the user base on the subject and Brendan is acting as a surrogate to help them calm the waters.

Besides, sock-puppetdom is the only excuse I can come up with for the tortured logic that comprises his latest column.

A central assertion in Brendan’s argument is that jump bridges needed to be nerfed because they were causing a decline in the amount of PvP occurring in Eve Online.
“One of the strange revelations to come out of the last big CSM summit was the fact that the amount of PvP going on in EVE is declining. A big culprit behind this could be jump bridges, which currently provide a completely safe way to move ships across huge distances.”
Now, Brendan duly supplies a link to the “strange revelations” that underpin his argument. However the provided link leads only to an interview he conducted during the CSM summit and published on January 23 on Massively. In that interview Brendan himself reveals the aforementioned revelations, incorporating them into his questions as givens. In other words, the only source Brendan cites as evidence in support of this assertion is Brendan.   

To the best of my knowledge CCP has not made available to the public the source data or analysis methods used to describe the decline of PvP that has them so worried. Likewise, Brendan provides no data analysis, even at the highest levels, to support the supposed falloff of PvP in Eve Online; the very lynchpin of his argument for hobbling jump bridges.

For the sake of argument, let's give that a pass and accept a falloff of PvP in Eve as a given. Even then CCP and their sock puppet require a second leap of faith from us. Neither CCP nor Brendan has provided any evidence of a causal relationship between Jump Bridges and PvP falloff. In fact there is not, to my knowledge, evidence showing even a reasonable correlation between the two.

Jump bridges have been a part of Eve Online since the Revelations II release in June of 2007. Thus, they’ve been a part of nullsec for almost four years. CCP Greyscale should be more aware of this than most as he authored a devblog entry on July 7 of that year providing clarifications on the use of the “new toy”. 

Now, nearly four years after jump bridges were introduced, we are expected to accept on blind faith that they are suddenly a major contributor to a relatively recent phenomenon. The reasoning on this point is so weak that Brendan is left with nothing to offer the reader but the limp assessment that jump bridges “could be a big culprit” behind the supposed decline in PvP.

In other words, CCP is making a wild-assed guess and Brendan Drain doesn’t have the journalistic chops to call them on it.  

Much of Brendan’s article occupies itself with a discussion on force projection, and argues several times that jump bridges are a component of CCP's force projection problem. However, he dismisses his own point when he states that the nerf of jump bridges has nothing to do with addressing the force projection problem.
"The sentiment that has been ringing throughout EVE's blogging community is that changing jump bridges without changing other force-projection abilities is a massive mistake. However, these jump bridge changes aren't designed to tackle the issue of force projection. They're specifically dealing with a travel safety factor that should never have been built into the system in the first place. Force projection is case for another time and place, and when viewed in isolation, the jump bridge changes look a lot more reasonable."

Having spent the bulk of his column associating jump bridges with force projection, Brendan is now stating that nerfing jump bridges has nothing to do with force projection because the intent of the change had to do with making travel less safe. This utterly ignores the fact that, by Brendan's own definition, altering jump bridges will impact force projection. With supercapital force projection left unhindered in any practical way, nerfing jump bridges has tilted the balance of power even further toward those alliances with the most supercapitals. CCP's intended outcomes are rather beside the point. 

Brendan seems to think that, as long as CCP's intentions are good, outcomes don't matter. In fact the opposite is true.

Brendan seems to assume that the primary reason for using jump bridges is the "safety factor" - to move in safety within an alliance's space. If he or the CCP gang believe that they haven't done their homework. Safety comes from a good intel network that detects and quickly reports enemy gangs so they can be either avoided or expunged. 

While jump bridges can be used for safety's sake, they are more commonly used to reduce onerous travel time within alliance space. This allows players to spend time playing the game rather than dragging ass through 20 jumps in order to pick up new fittings for their Zealot. This change, in and of itself, will have minimal impact the safety of a player while in alliance territory. If Brendan or CCP took the time to survey nullsec players regarding how they use jump bridges rather than simply assuming their suppositions to be correct, they'd know this. 

I've held forth elsewhere regarding the notion that nullsec, by definition, should be less safe than lowsec. Nullsec doesn't mean security can't be had. Rather, it means that the only security you have is the security you yourselves can enforce. That is pure sandbox. 

Finally, Brendan holds that the jump bridge changes are reasonable if viewed in isolation. If jump bridges functioned in isolation, that would be a sensible approach. However, they do not. They are a component in a larger system and changes to them have to be viewed in a systemic context. You can't simply ignore part of that system because it doesn't fit with your desired game play paradigm. 

That's not design. That's called going to your happy place.

I understand the lure of sock-puppetdom. Nobody wants to shred their own meal ticket. If Brendan speaks unpleasant truths in his column to the folks at CCP they may respond by reducing his access. He may no longer be given routine interviews with their employees or be as well received at summits and fan fests (assuming they invite him at all). Reporters and columnists, as much as anyone else, like to be liked by those with access to useful information.

Having access is nice. However one should never forget that it comes at a price that can only be paid with one's integrity.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Zombie Apocalypse

The US Center for Disease Control wants you to prepare for the coming zombie apocalypse.

Really. No kidding.

Please follow the link provided below and make sure you have the recommended zombie apocalypse preparedness kit ready in the event the slack-jawed little brain suckers start shambling down a street or dark alley near you.

Get A Kit,    Make A Plan, Be Prepared.

Yeah, I know. Zombie apocalypses may seem a bit off the beaten track for The Edge. However, the importance of planning for nullsec disasters being the subject of my upcoming post, I thought it would make a nice little lead-in. Besides, zombies notwithstanding, the underpinning message is an important one in light of recent natural disasters.

This has been a Fiddler's Edge public service announcement

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Wild Ones

If you've been reading the dev blogs over at the main Eve Online site, you'll have stumbled across the recent Agents Made Easy announcement.

Some of it is pretty straightforward - consolidation of agent divisions and the related Connection skills. Gone are the 21 different divisions, each with its own balance of varying mission types (e.g., encounter, courier, etc.). In their place we'll find four divisions, each offering a single mission type 100% of the time.

Some dedicated missioners are finding the new order a bit dull sounding and less nuanced than the old and are complaining. And with some cause, I think.  Running missions for entertainment sake got old for me some time back, but I can see how the byzantine nature of the divisions provided something of a puzzle to keep things interesting. What agent to choose and which missions to run will be more straightforward, but that will make grinding missions more of a grind. This change pretty much eliminates "Missioning" as an in-game specialty.

Agent quality undergoes a bit of dumbing down as well. OK, actually quality is done away with in effect. All agents for a given level will be equally easy to access - as though they were -20 on the quality scale. However they will all reward completed missions at the same level - as though they were +20 on the quality scale. So all agents within an given level are as easy to access as a -20 agent of that level, and reward successful missions as a +20 agent. Player status with a corporation needed to gain access to a agents for a given level is all that matters. After that, it's all gravy until you hit the next level.

Now, if any level 4 agent will pay out the same amount for the same mission, this means that players don't have to cluster around a few systems in order to optimize level 4 mission rewards. In theory, this means ninja salvagers and high sec pirates and griefers will have slimmer pickings as the level 4 mission runners spread out across high sec. It should also mean that the market for modules and salvagables looted from NPC wrecks should become more diffused as well, rather than remaining concentrated in a few mission oriented market hubs.

Many existing missioners will stay put rather than go to the time and trouble of moving themselves or their corporation to a new base of operations. However, as they slowly spread out, those mission runners that remain in the current mission hubs will be increasingly targeted - there being fewer targets for the associated pirates, ninjas and griefers. That in turn will apply pressure on the remaining mission runners to seek riches in more hospitable locations. Finally, both mission runners and those who prey on them should be diffused throughout high and low sec. Of course this will mean more danger for those missioners who deliberately avoided the highest quality agents in order to avoid the attendant high-sec pirates, ninjas and griefers.

The net of this is that CCP is making it easier and safer to make money grinding missions in high sec. Meanwhile, remember, they're making it harder to make money by ratting in nullsec. I suspect that these two simple but fundamental changes to the game occurring in close succession is no accident.

CCP appears to be taking action to reverse past policy and move population out of nullsec and back to highsec. Fewer players in nullsec, after all, means smaller alliances and smaller fleets, right? Fewer massive fleets means fewer massive fleet fights. Fewer massive fleet fights could yield benefits in term of fewer lagged systems, which are an ongoing system performance problem for CCP. It might also force more of the small fleet/small gang PvP that CCP Grayscale regards as the most desirable form of play.     

However, while some corporations might move wholesale back to highsec for the easy cash, I think that most of the players presently in nullsec will remain in nullsec.

First of all, it's fairly quick and easy to train up an alt sufficiently to run level 4 missions in highsec.  Thus a player can easily keep a highsec alt to use as a money-maker while his primary PvP alt(s) remains in nullsec. As money making in high-sec doesn't have to stop for nullsec wars, this may actually serve to offset the impact of changes to high-end ratting anomalies in nullsec.

Finally, a lot of players just plain like the dynamic nature of play in nullsec. We like the Eve sandbox in its truest form, the wide-open nature of the game.

There are indications that CCP is trying to reduce the parameters of that sandbox; to make the game more manageable, like a Disney experience or World of Warcraft. Maybe dangling easy money and dumbed-down mission profiles at players from high sec is the beginnings of that. Might even work from a business model standpoint. An easier Eve would retain a higher percentage of first-timers who'd be quick to pay for the avatar clothes, golden ammo and painted space ships that are to be a big part of future CCP revenue.

But a disnified Eve won't be the game for me. Having ridden the wild horses of nullsec, a turn on the merry-go-round won't do.

Here's to the wild ones.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Supercapital Economy

Do you remember back in January - that dusty West Texas town? Where we spent our nights in the little cantina named Lágrimas de Los Perdidos? You'd play the guitar, soft and low, while I shuffled and dealt cards. And sometimes, late at night when the moon went down, young women from the town would slip from their beds to find us there. And they'd step softly to our table, look down at us with their dark and liquid eyes, and ask "Is there anything I can do for you, mister?" And, remember, I would turn to you, just at that moment? And I'd say:

"You know, when CCP nerfs the jump bridges, there'll be no commensurate nerf to Super Carriers."

With CCP Soundwave's announcement earlier today, I was proved right. Again.

I wrote back in January that this would happen. And of course you all know what it means. The reduction in the ability to project force with conventional forces means that the supercapital is more powerful than ever when it comes to projecting force. And conventional ships are even weaker when it comes to offsetting the supercapital "I Win" button.

While not killing jump bridges altogether, there will be a new limit of one bridge per system, as opposed to two per system as is currently the case. While jump ships won't be able to use Jump Bridges in the new order, that will be an inconvenience chiefly felt by Jump Freighters. It won't be a meaningful limit on the ability of supercapital fleets to project power.

Now, the supposed reason for this is to bring on the PvP in nullsec. Pirates like Rixx Javix have the idea that its going to allow their roaming gangs easy kills without having to worry about the posse coming over the hill after them in force. They think new killing fields will be opened up to them, and the mean old nullsec alliances will curb stomp them no more.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If power cannot be projected using subcapitals, it can be projected with supercapitals. And that means it will be projected with supercapitals. While they will intercepted less often by a hoard of battleships, nuisance alliances (i.e., those that don't have a significant supercapital presence of their own) will be baited and then curbstomped by the capital/supercapital fleets which are no longer the rarity they once were. With supercapitals the most effective means of projecting power, these fleets will become even more commonplace.

By decreasing the utility of subcapitals CCP is driving nullsec increasingly toward a supercapital based economy, in which only alliance with deep pockets can afford the price of entry.

So much for making nullsec available to small alliances.

Storm Warnings

While White Noise (WN) and company gain ground in Geminate and Vale of the Silent, a quick look look at DOTLAN shows that Against All Authorities (-A-) is busily knocking at WN's back door in Teneferis

Recall that White Noise picked up most of their Teneferis holdings while participating in the rollback of -A- last September alongside The Initiative, Pandemic Legion and Circle of Two. Later, when -A- and the rest of the Southern Russian Coalition struck back at The Initiative and friends, White Noise took advantage of the situation. With The Initiative on the ropes and IT Alliance hard pressed in Fountain, White Noise opened a second front against Initiative systems in Teneferis. Scooping up Teneferis and Catch systems The Initiative was too weak to defend, White Noise expanded their rental empire significantly with little danger to themselves.

In the three months since IT Alliance fell from power, -A- has been consolidating its hold on Catch and rebuilding strength lost during their forced exile. Now, with the supercapital fleets of both Pandemic Legion and White Noise occupied in an offensive against the Northern Coalition (NC), -A- appears to feel strong enough to take back their old Teneferis holdings, offering White Noise some payback for its role in the invasion of -A- space last September.

As of today, -A- and friends have rolled White Noise from all but the Northeastern corner of Teneferis. By now White Noise renters and non-PvP resources have been relocated to systems well behind the current frontier (note the depth of buffer systems between 77S8-E, the Detroid/Teneferis entry system and the nearest renter system). Detroid, which WN shares with new DRF allies Raiden[DOT], is WN's obvious staging area and launching point for counterattacks, should they occur.  

If -A- holds pat in Teneferis and doesn't attempt to take the fight into Detroid, it's unlikely that White Noise will contest possession of Teneferis as long as things are on high boil in the North. It isn't unusual for the DRF to relocate renters and rely on the depth of their territory to wear down attackers, and then respond in force once the enemy gets bored of grinding away at structures.

If it believes a conflict with White Noise is inevitable, -A- might be looking for a smack-down with WN now rather than later. If -A- adopts a wait and see posture, they will likely face the same coalition of forces presently attacking the NC when WN comes knocking in turn. However, a push by -A- into Detroid now could force WN to detach from the Northern offensive in order to protect their Detroid assets, while the rest of the DRF remained in the North to carry on the offensive. That might allow -A- to bloody White Noise before the remainder of the DRF can get into the fight.

It would be a ballsy move, but it's not one I'd count on. With the DRF having made allies of IT Alliance spin-offs and with Pandemic Legion on their payroll they can field, at last check, 140 supercaps in a single engagement. Remember when 80 supercaps was an unthinkably large supercap fleet? My guess is that -A-, like much of nullsec, might try to follow a policy of security through obscurity; attempting to stay below the DRF radar once the conquest of Teneferis is complete. Time tends to work against large coalitions, and a change in the weather is always possible.

Alas, the DRF alliances have shown themselves resistant to such changes. So, one is left with a few choices. One might hunker down and hold one's patch of nullsec while hoping to escape notice.  One might hope that White Noise will be satisfied with what they've taken so far, their vast appetite for ever more rental properties sated at last; sort of a give-Hitler-Czechoslovakia-and-he'll-leave-us-alone strategy.  Or, one might fight the rising tide.

We'll see if someone not already under threat from the DRF steps forward to ring the alarm and organize the common defense of nullsec. If not, the DRF will likely isolate and pick off potential threats one by one, leaving a few non-affiliated nullsec regions for public relations purposes. Alliances not under the DRF umbrella will either stand together or hang separately, as they say.

So sit back and pass around the whiskey and cigars. It's going to be an interesting Summer.