Friday, June 24, 2011

Incarna 1.0: less than the sum of its parts

Where CCP went wrong on 21-June-2011

It seemed normal - the summer expansion for EVE Online, this one was Incarna, the first iteration in the new direct character-to-character interaction in EVE. Even though there would be no new interaction (Incarna 1.0 was just the individual quarters), it was to lay the foundation for the next aspect of EVE, more than just a space combat simulator, a space opera with direct interaction. Oh, and they included the rudimentary Noble Exchange, which ostensibly would enable players to personalize their character (and someday ship) with a new currency in EVE Online, the aurum. There were the obligatory changes and fixes (although not many), and the random upgraded ship (although it seems this was done solely for the login screen). Just another patch day, until a perfect storm of errors led to the "pitchforks and torches" being raised in forums across the internet that discuss EVE Online. Let's hold of on the tangents until later (there are plenty of them), and focus on what is wrong with Incarna 1.0, the so-called summer expansion of EVE Online.

Captain's Quarter(s)

The solitary captain's quarter. Although there are stations built by each of the four major races (and frankly I wouldn't be surprised if there were stations built by the various lineages, but that would be even more challenging), Incarna 1.0 contains a single version of a single station - the Minmatar. Ok, it takes a long time to develop textures and variations of nurnies for variation in 3D environments. However, Incarna has been spoken of by CCP to the EVE playerbase for years. And in those years, we have one hangar (with odd DOF issues) and one hallway, and one room. If Incarna had included the 4 racial quarters, it would have at least been a resonable addition to the production environment.

The blatant ignorance of game lore and playability in the release of the Captain's Quarter. When I started playing EVE (December 18, 2007), I took the time and read every piece of lore in the Chronicles. It helps when answering trivia for Somer Lotteries, but little else, until now. Entering and exiting the pod is a non-trivial experience. But in order to force exposure to the single Captain's Quarter, CCP game designers decided to forgo 9 years of lore and have us appear, fully clothed and clean, inside a room, everytime we dock. It has been suggested many times that the proper immersing experience would be to have a "disembark" option directly above the undock button in the interface, and the hangar view of the active ship (the docked view prior to Incarna) a standard piece of the experience. Disembarking should lead to a choice of clothing, then entrance in the CQ. That seems quite logical, and immersive. Even the bittervets would probably explore the CQ at least once, perhaps dabble in it during "downtimes" if it were optional.

Having new players start in the CQ makes sense - it is an introduction to the game, and a way to find information and learn a process - but forcing everyone who docks to go into the CQ breaks immersion. EVE is not "real" with that one simple choice. Even a dialog when docking (do you wish to disembark) would be better than the current experience, and the choice of not loading CQ (staring at a door) is the biggest insult to the veteran player ever. The bitterest of vets have seen this approach as a ploy to encourage players to start spending money on Noble Exchange items, since the CQ is currently the only place to see your personal purchases in this release.

Reduced functionality. Seleene and others have discussed how the forced experience of CQ reduces the actual functionality of the gameplay, for those of you who for some foolish reason don't read or follow them, gameplay has basically been limited and functionality reduced in the following ways: right click on current ship in hangar, double click on current ship in hangar, drag and drop ship from list to hangar, and more (those three affect my gameplay personally).

Noble Exchange

I'm not sure where to start with this. This particular topic can easily digress into the tangents that occurred around the release of Incarna, but I will try to stay within the actual 1.0 release at first. The handful of items available in the Noble Exchange are outrageously priced. Want a fully fit carrier? Choose between that and a monocle - they cost about the same in ISK. A complete outfit costs more than a faction battleship hull. Oh, and these items are NPC generated only - there is no player created content or material in the Noble Exchange, and (since you are naked in your pod) they are never destroyed during combat (unless you are hauling them around in you hold). So prices. Prices are a bit off, in my opinion. Realize that the "new" player will have about 10 million ISK in their wallet after doing every tutorial mission and the introductory Epic Arc - and then realize to get a pair of custom boots they need more than that 10 million (assuming someone has reposted a pair of boots up on the market at purchase price – which is a bad assumption). Each unit of Aurum (right now) costs about 110,000 ISK, but you can't buy it that way. You can only get Aurum by redeeming PLEX, which cost at least 350,000,000-400,000,000 ISK each (and for that you get 3,500 Aurum). It's apparent that the Noble Exchange is designed to be a PLEX sink, and actually the price of PLEX ticked up during the lead into the release of Incarna - but most of the purchasers have apparently sat on their now bubbled PLEX as the price of the few items in the Noble Exchange are unrealistic. To gain widespread acceptance, users should have been able to buy a few things, perhaps a whole outfit, for less than one PLEX. That would have increased updake of these new, NPC generated items. But pricing isn't the only issue.

The community has brought up again and again how the items in the Noble Exchange are not truly part of the player-driven economy, and their indestructability more foolish than the indestructability of player deployed outposts in nullsec. Well, the indestructability is questionable. According to lore, pod pilots are naked in their goo, so clothing is irrelevant. But the monocle (which offers no ingame benefit and is outrageously priced) would be lost in the depths of space when a pilot is podded, much like the implants in their clone. That is a simple fact. By denying this simple, standardized rule of existing gameplay, CCP has broken their own set of rules for an overpriced vanity item, with no real justification or reason. Clothing in the hold of a ship is subject to the same rules as any other item, the monocle (or any other physical addition to the current clone) should be subject to the same rules as any other addition to that clone (i.e. implants). Secondary to destruction is creation. Items in the Noble Exchange should require some player-created component to make/purchase. Planetary Interaction provides us with a wealth of items that could easily be integrated into the Noble Exchange much as LP store items require Tags/Ships/Modules/ISK for purchase. This at least would integrate the Noble Exchange into the EVE economy in some small way - but for some reason a pre-existing game tool couldn't be replicated for a new game feature to maintain the player-driven experience that is EVE.

These are the two major components of Incarna - a fraction of the first avatar-driven space, and a fraction of the new Microtransational store. Fortunately, the semi-annual upgrade doesn't cost the EVE player any additional money - CCP hasn't started charging for these upgrades on top of the monthly subscription (yet). There is more to Incarna, but those things have been lost in the disappointment and frustration revolving around the two large components of the summer expansion.

Into the fire...

Following the release of Incarna, an internal CCP memo discussing microtransactions was leaked to the public. The timing was perfect for the "I hate EVE crowd" – This fueled an already burning anger after the recent missteps of the Third Party Licensing fees and the discussion of ships in the Noble Exchange. I will not comment on this just yet - I am going to give CCP the opportunity to finish their response to the community, but I, like many other EVE veterans, feel betrayed by the company that makes a game we are passionate about.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thoughts on money...real money part I

I've been digesting the issues CCP has put before the community recently, and trying to determine how bad some of it is. I've posted short twitter comments, but really, that medium doesn't allow wall-of-text exposition, and some of these topics need that.

First up: Microtransactions

This one is rife with trouble, most of it revolving around discussions for a special, skinned ship, the Ishukone Scorpion. This ship would (initially) only be available in the Noble Exchange, which has much of the community up in arms, as this appears to be the first step towards cash for real items, at least to the short sighted. Of course, CCP claimed that they would not introduce items that gave an in-game advantage to this new Microtransaction store, and at first glance this breaks that agreement. Unfortunately, it's a misconception on the player's part. Let's follow the path of money (real money) into EVE online. Right now, there is only one way to "spend" real money on EVE, and that is for subscription time. You can pay a standard monthly subscription, you can buy a Game Time Card (GTC) from a CCP partner, or you can buy PLEX (Pilot's License EXtension) from CCP. A GTC is converted in-game into two PLEX, an in-game item. Today, a PLEX (or a GTC, for that matter) can be traded for ISK, on the open EVE market. OK - that's how money gets into EVE today. Coming soon: Aurum. This is a new way to get money into EVE, I don't know the actual process, whether it's only a PLEX to Aurum conversion, or if you will be able to directly buy Aurum with money through CCP (or third party authorized sites). Either way, this is the microtransaction currency. I think this is dumb, by the way. They just ought to let you buy ISK, and add the new items to the regular market. After all, you can already do that.

As we followed above, when you buy a GTC you can convert it straight to ISK (by selling it to another player) or convert it into two PLEX (which can also be sold for ISK). So you already have a path to convert real money into ISK. That ISK can be used in game to buy whatever items are available on the market, from a single unit of Tritanium to a Titan. Depending on what you buy with your ISK (think +5 implants, or better ships/modules), you can gain an in-game advantage over someone with less real-world cash, because you spent money to get ISK quickly, while someone else has to grind it in game. So what exactly does the Aurum market add besides un-neccessary complexity?

Moving money around in EVE
With the introduction of Aurum, it seems to me CCP is just trying to assuage upset customers who don't realize you already have fairly direct ways of spending real money to "get ahead." After all, Aurum comes from PLEX (you sell a PLEX for Aurum), and CCP has said that you can buy a PLEX with Aurum, so you basically have a second currency for no good reason. After all, PLEX -> ISK -> PLEX is already a proven currency flow, so adding PLEX -> Aurum -> PLEX is actually just an extension of the chain: PLEX -> ISK -> PLEX -> Aurum -> PLEX -> ISK. I see PLEX now as a new "meta currency" between the two main currencies in EVE, Aurum and ISK. So why have two currencies with an exchange? I don't know. But I do know that no matter what is for sale in the Noble Exchange, you will be able to get it with ISK. After all, if you have about 350 million ISK (June 2011) you can buy a PLEX. Now, take that PLEX and convert it to Aurum. Now buy what you want in the Noble Exchange. Turn around and sell it for a profit, take the excess Aurum and convert it back into a PLEX. Sell that PLEX for ISK. Rinse and repeat.

So although I was initially upset about the Ishukone Watch Scorpion (a special skinned ship that would be available in the Noble Exchange), I'm not anymore. After all, if I have enough ISK to convert to PLEX to convert to Aurum I can buy one, basically with my ISK. In addition, once the item exists in game, I should be able to sell it on a contract on the EVE open ISK market, (or buy one the same way), without having to deal with the Aurum/Noble Exchange at all. CCP seems to have done this to create an false wall between ISK and microtransactions, when in reality it's just adding more steps between ISK and new items. Unless, of course, those items can never, ever be traded to another player. But wouldn't that be stupid?

As for the ship itself, it's not functionally special. CCP has said it was a standard Scorpion with a special paint job - but why does that matter? So what if you can only get it in the Noble Exchange? You can take your ISK, convert it to PLEX then to Aurum and buy it. You don't HAVE to spend real money on it. And that brings me (finally) to my question. What's the big deal then?