Saturday, July 2, 2011

Potter Stuart and the Purchase of Insurance

The Joint Statement from the Peace Talks is out, and now it is up to each of you to judge whether it satisfies you or not, and whether any of the participants are worthy of praise or blame.

Before I go any further, I want to state, up front, that based on many hours of face-to-face discussions with Arnar (CCP Zulu), Stoffer (CCP Soundwave), other CCP employees, and a final meeting with CCP CEO Hilmar, it is my belief that:

* CCP has kept to the understanding hammered out during CSM5, that virtual goods would be limited to vanity items.

* CCP has no plans (and never has) to implement Pay-2-Win (P2W) microtransactions, be it "gold ammo" or anything similar.

* Arnar, as Senior Producer of EVE, is on record as saying he opposes the introduction of game-breaking stuff like P2W into EVE.

So, given that, why can't CCP just say NEVER when it comes to P2W? My impression is that there are two reasons:

1) The Problem of Demarcation

What exactly is P2W? It turns out to be a much harder than it appears at first glance. CSM had an extensive discussion of this with CCP, both in summit meetings and informally. Nobody could come up with a definition that covered all the possible cases and that would not allow P2W to sneak in the back door.

As US Supreme Court Justice Potte Stewart famously observed about pornography, he couldn't define it, but "I know it when I see it."

The truth is, we already have P2W in EVE. It's called PLEX. Right now, if you have enough money, you can buy PLEX, convert to ISK, and buy yourself as many supercaps as you want, and the pilots toons to fly them.

So the solution isn't as simple as saying "No P2W". It's the much more complicated problem of drawing boundaries on a map where reasonable people can disagree on the nature of the terrain at any given point.

Here's an example: currently, players are given one free neural remap every year, which lets them adjust their character statistics.

Imagine for a moment that instead of making this a free remap, CCP had decided that it should have a cost. Consider the following three options:

A) You can remap once per year at a cost of 400 million ISK.

B) You can remap once per year at a cost of a PLEX.

C) You can remap once per year at a cost of 3500 AURUM.

If you surveyed groups of players about the acceptability of these options (set aside the inevitable bitching that "it should be free" for a moment), I believe that A would be acceptable to the most players, and C to the fewest, and the difference in acceptability would be significant.

Why? Because ISK represents player effort, while AURUM is tainted by its association with monocles.

Yet in reality, all these options are roughly equivalent. If you have 400 million ISK, you can buy a PLEX. If you have a PLEX, you can convert it to 3500 AURUM. And if you have 3500 AURUM, you can buy some clothes and sell them in the market for ISK.

So, even if CCP said "We will NEVER introduce P2W", it is entirely likely that they might propose something that they think is not P2W, but a large portion of the community thinks is P2W. And in those grey areas, future shitstorms lurk.

2) The Problem of Flexibility

Nobody knows what the future of the MMO industry will be. Even the smartest people at CCP admit that they cannot see more than :18months: into the future. So if CCP says "NEVER", they may be faced with a situation a couple of years down the road where they believe they are forced by changes in the market environment to introduce something that many players consider P2W, resulting in accusations of a betrayal of trust.

I pointed out to both Arnar and Hilmar that retaining this future flexibility comes at the cost of not satisfying some of the present community; some players may not return unless they hear NEVER, and the protests may get worse.

Thus, saying "NEVER" is like buying insurance against a business risk, with the premium paid in the future in terms of lost flexibility. The closer you get to "NEVER", the better the insurance, but the greater the cost.

How much insurance CCP was willing to buy was, of course, up to them.

Going Forward

One thing that has become very obvious is that to avoid future shitstorms, CCP is going to have to consult the CSM both more often, and at an earlier stage, in particular when it comes to anything that has even a whiff of being P2W. I can tell you that this was already starting to happen before the current crisis, so despite the communications failures that made things worse (in particular, the Noble Exchange rollout fiasco), I am guardedly optimistic.

As for me, I'm still refining my own definition of porno... er, P2W. Perhaps you can help me with that. But that's a task for tomorrow, right now I need to catch up on about a week's lost sleep.

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray to Scotty my ship to keep.
And if I die before I wake,
No, my stuff you cannot take.