Playing to Pay: PLEX in EVE Online
Don’t you wish that you could pay for an MMO with in game currency? Player A says I’m an epic level elf cleric, I’m leader of the top guild on my server, and if I want it to stay that way I fork up $12.99 every month! If you’ve reached the pinnacle of achievement in an MMO, do you really want to keep paying for a game you already bought just so that it can stay that way? Of course, subscription fees are necessary to keep online games alive after purchase. Servers cost money, GMs cost money, and developers cost money; games don’t just keep going on their own. That being said, gold farmers have existed since the time of Ultima Online. And player B here is willing to pay more in order to spend more time playing the game, and less time grinding in the game, so he gives money to the gold farmers so that he can do his thing. And the gold farmers figure that there are lots of Player Bs out there, and so even though it’s against game policy and very annoying, they become gold spammers. Its not good for anyone. So why not help player A meet player B in a way that is sanctioned by the game and amicable to both players, without involving unnecessary (and annoying) third parties?
I’m pretty sure this isn’t news to most of you, but for those unfamiliar with PLEX, let me catch you up. I’m going to start from the beginning. EVE online (which is not an acronym but often has all caps anyway) is a Sci-fi MMORPG set in space where you pilot various spaceships (one at a time) and do whatever you want (really). Eve is famous for having only one main server (called tranquility) which boasts 300,000 players, 40,000 of which are online at any given time. They play together, there is no sharding, no server transfers, and so the only way the devs make money is through the game and subscriptions. It has a player run economy, is rife with scams (which are allowed, as long as game mechanics aren’t violated, and don’t expect the devs to have any pity for you), and makes 300 person raids in other MMOs look like an office party with their 1200 man fleet battles.
Of course, for anyone who has tried to organize 25 people for a raid once a week, trying to get 600 people to work together must seem like it requires military levels of discipline. EVE players are called some of the most dedicated gamers around, but I’m not sure that’s true, as I can’t think of any stories of EVE players that have starved or neglected children. So dedicated, maybe, but not to crazy extremes.
So what is PLEX? PLEX stands for Pilot License Extension, and it represents 1 month of game time as an in game item. It can be purchased from websites, or in game, and costs 14.95 euros. It can be traded, it can be bought and sold on the in game market, and it can be destroyed. Let that sink in for a moment. I can come up to you in a game, and destroy something you bought with your money. Now, arguably, in any game, any time you destroy an item owned by another player that represents an expenditure of in game time, (which is equivalent to money) by that player. PLEX is different. PLEX is different, because if you are paying for your game with PLEX, someone else in game can actually stop you from playing. This isn’t getting camped, greifed, scammed, hacked, or anything else the devs will reimburse you for.
But it’s a great idea right! You play a game, and spend some of your in game money, and get game time! An end to gold spammers, because now in game money and real money have a conversion rate, and can be traded legally, without ruining the in game economy! With the small risk that, if you fuck up, you’re going to lose the most valuable in game item you have ever lost. If you want to keep playing, you’ll have to pay double this month. And that’s what happens, it’s part of the game.
So that is PLEX in a nutshell, now on to the meat of the issue: if this kills spammers dead, and has the potential to make developers more money, why hasn’t every game done this? Why can’t I buy Hero Time on the WoW auction house, or Soul Protectors from a Vendor in RIFT? Why doesn’t every game with a subscription fee allow free trade between its virtual currency and real money? The four main reasons boil down to gamer relations, addiction, asthetics, and the pernicious influence of casuals.
Gamer Relations) Other games are for babies. I figure I’d get this out of the way now. The CCP devs (the makes of EVE) are notorious for not giving a shit. If you are scammed, suicide ganked, camped, or stalked (in game, once it goes RL these guys get serious) CCP will tell you in the most polite terms that you signed up for this, HTFU (harden the fuck up, they made a music video about it). In WoW, they let a bunch of people who used an exploit in their code to get a one-time achievement title that was available to only a select few people per server, keep the title (look up Scarab Lord). This shows a different mentality between developers. Blizzard wants to keep all its players, and will always make the least controversial move. It has 11 million players to keep happy, and it wants them all to keep paying. Of those 11 million people, you have a lot of casuals, who will leave if they think that things can just be taken from them, especially by other players. And so that is the limbo that Blizzard does, bending over backward to ensure that real PvP is minimized to protect the casuals. Any item that isn’t attached to the player via a chain can be lost, deleted, or scammed off of them. Scamming in any game is pretty common, the difference between games is how the GMs react. In EVE, the GMs will tell you to go read up on scams so you don’t fall for the same trick twice. In WoW the GMs will give you back your item/money. Its that simple. And so adding this item without a strict we don’t care policy will result in a huge number of petitions coming in, and a lot of players saying I accidentally traded away 10 months of game time for 10 copper, H3LP PLOX HE IS A HAXORZ. Every mis-click, mis-trade and mis-tell would suddenly become a GM concern. Can you say 5 hour ticket times?
Addiction) Other games don’t want to reward you too much for playing. Know what an Everquest Widow is? You’re reading a game blog, yeah you do. EVE, according to its infamous Zero Punctuation review, is a game that rewards you for not playing in reference to the skill training, which levels up in real time, and doesn’t care if you’re logged in or not. So EVE doesn’t really care if you show up for grind today. Additionally, EVE’s leveling system is fairly non-linear. You could NEVER train up you ship skills and play the market, or specialize into smaller ships, never even flying larger ones, so that you make a better scout. Training up all the skills would require 7 years to do, so don’t even bother. Progress is measured differently. And so EVE doesn’t reward you for time invested in game and doing nothing else with your life. Some other games do. So a game that would reward you for playing by essentially saying that The more you grind, the more money you save! would make addicts out of anyone who figures that just a few more gold and I’ll save 15 dollars. And vice versa, gamers addicted to an MMO could waste their money buying up in game gold and not having to grind any up at all (of course, they might be doing that already with illegitimate gold farmers).
Asthetics) It ruins the atmosphere. EVE put PLEX into the game in a way that made sense to the game. What would RPers in WoW do if they woke up one day and the Warchief was saying Please give me American Dollars so you can buy this in game item that keeps your account working for another month! It would be awful. Would RIFT really benefit from an angel appearing and telling you where to enter in your credit card info? Maybe it could be glossed over, but the magic will be lost. EVE was able to do it because EVE already had a built in web browser, no suspension of disbelief was shattered I assure you. Other MMOs would need to minimize out, ask you for your credit card and so on. It would look and feel trashy. And adding an in game interface would still make it look like you were entering in your credit card info into the worlds worst security system ever designed. Would you type in your credit card info into a text box when there are a bunch of goblins running around blowing stuff up while you’re doing it? Just ewwwww.
The Pernicious influence of the Casual Gamer) Casual players are SUCH BABIES!! Can you imagine what WoW would look like if you could buy in game time with gold? The gold farmers would all be dead, but in their place would be everyone else, who are now indistinguishable from gold farmers. The best places to grind up gold would be constantly over-run by anyone smart enough to check online for the best gold/hr. Gold sinks would become larger annoyances than ever before as now they could potentially cost as much as a month of game time! People wouldn’t want to pay their own repair bills and would demand re-reimbursement during raids. Every silver would be scrapped over, people would roll need on everything just so they could make a quick copper. Guild leaders would turn into spreadsheet keeping administrators (Just like in EVE!) and casual players would be instantly alienated by the amount of out of game work it would take to maintain the new social structure. Without casuals, most MMOs would die instantly, their bread and butter gone. Any MMO built on casuals will be unable to transition to a serious game without losing a substantial portion of its player base, or by establishing playpens for the casuals (*cough* battlegrounds *cough*). That is a pretty bleak what if scenario for the rapid stratification of players that one sees when a game creates room for a group of players that can maintain their account (or multiple accounts) via playing the game more efficiently.
And so my critique of PLEX was not as intellectual as I had hoped it would be. But the point is this: making in game currency worth money makes the game into serious business. EVE happened to have the optimal set up for this, thanks to its exclusively hardcore playerbase, but no other game can really boast that. EVE was a game that thrived without casuals, and where noobs either brought themselves up to speed, or left 6 days in to their 14 day trial. CCP Soundwave, one of the lead developers for the game, is quoted as saying Welcome to EVE Online – Here’s a Rubix Cube, go fuck yourself in reference to EVE’s UI. Other MMOs try to be inviting, and show players pretty pictures, and epic battles, and fill their heads with stories of legends and heroes who fought the monsters that they are fighting now. Hell, some of these games even have tutorials that aren’t 12 pages of single spaced text! But then again, if we just tried to please casuals MMOs would all have Bejewled in them. OH GOD.