Ships of the Line
Recently Eve Online experienced a conflict, which, to my mind, is best represented metaphorically by mousetrap fission. In the linked video, a person drops a ping pong ball into a contained space filled with 138 additional ping pong balls on primed mouse-traps. The resulting cacophony is best enjoyed in slow motion. The cascade of released potential energy becomes a ballet of furious activity. If you think of each of those mousetraps as an exploding space ship, probably one that someone spent a lot of time or effort acquiring, then you begin to get the gist of the Eve-nt that happened in the game.
By the way, Eve Online developer CCP, that "Eve-nt" thing is a freebie. It’s all yours. You’re welcome.
The fallout from this battle is hard to measure, because there’s not exactly a bank that will exchange your Eve currency of ISK into actual money that can be traded for goods and services in the global marketplace. Still, even as the battle was still in the thick of its angry bee-hive tempest of laser beams and wreckage, news sites across the web reported hundreds of thousands of real-dollar equivalents being burned away in the cold night of this virtual space. CCP’s own final report suggests that a rough equivalent of $300,000 to $330,000 worth of virtual property had been obliterated in the onslaught (source: PCGamer).
It wasn’t so long ago that any game-related transaction resulted in a physical thing owned, a cartridge or a disk or something that you physically manipulated to trigger the experience contained on the data within. You walked into a store, handed over money and walked out with a box that often contained an instruction booklet and maybe a little trinket or two along with your game. Looking back, I have to admit those kinds of buyer-seller relationships just feel fundamentally more comfortable to me.
Things are very different now. In one obvious sense, the idea of buying and owning games in a strictly digital format is almost commonplace, which makes the purchase more like that of a service transaction. Just as you might pay for a concert or a movie, where you walk away not with a tangible product in hand but instead the experience of the service provided, games are ultimately just some virtual life briefly lived in exchange for your dollars.
If we're being honest, expectations in consumer relationships have been being recalibrated since even before digital delivery services. EULAs since disk-based programs back in the '90s have tried to insist that we never owned anything more than access licenses to the content we thought we'd just bought. According to the lawyers, that 3.5" floppy was just your access card to a world that the publisher still fully owned.
The line has moved further and further back on what we will actually receive for what we pay for. Beyond redefining what "ownership" is, the overall trend has been to deliver less for the initial investment and save the difference as a commodity to sell later. Even to the point where, now, we pay for our own time. You could arguably look at a game like EA’s recent mobile Dungeon Keeper abomination, where the idea seems to be you have a choice to either give away unreasonable volumes of your time for free to an overbearing and greedy game model, or you can buy your own time back at a substantial and apparently unpredictable price. The fact that there are monetization models for a recreational product based on the premise of being slightly less annoying if you shove money into its cavernous maw is, honestly, a trend I don’t fully grok.
I realize that I am casting it in a way that is not, shall we say, "impartial," but it is a very different way of thinking about what you receive as a gamer for the money you spend. And it seems hard to argue against the idea that game companies are getting better and better at parting you from dollars with increasingly fewer tangible results.
I think, by extension, of vanity-item micro-transactions, and I don’t honestly know how I feel about them. Arguably the identity and life lived within a virtual community is a real and motivating thing. After all, GWJ is in its own way a virtual community and some people clearly feel connected to that community. We exist on people’s willingness to support this arbitrary thing through our annual donation drive, and what is delivered in response aren’t tangible or corporeal benefits. So, why should it seem so odd if someone in a virtual community wants to spend $50 for a cool hat or pet? Like any community, there is a desire to be an individual within that environment. It makes sense.
It just seems like the more we delve into these models, the more illusory the benefit and result of an ever-increasing investment. To wrap back to the beginning of this story, and those hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of spaceships that were lost: What resonates with me is not that those are now virtual assets that are gone, but that they were real dollars that were essentially gone the moment they were bought. The fact that there is an exchange rate in place at all, and that it can be used to describe what occurred, says to me that we have adopted a level of comfort with exchanging dollars for artificial gain that I just don’t feel comfortable with.
It would be fair to accuse me of simply not recognizing that, like any active market, the dynamics of the relationships at play here are in a constant state of change. Arguably, a steady reinvention of the customer/publisher relationship is a healthy thing that ensures companies are constantly trying to innovate their models to adjust for the ever-changing realities they face. Recent trends around Kickstarter and paid early-release games arguably fit under this heading, and while I see arguments out there that it just represents greed or an abuse of the historical transactional relationship of paying money and receiving a finished good in return, I do also see the other side.
People want to support the things they believe in, and until now that kind of community feedback and level of collaboration between developer and gamers simply hadn’t been explored. In this PC Gamer article Everquest Landmark Director of Development David Georgeson puts it like this:
"It cracks me up," says Georgeson, "Because, sure, that’s one way to look at it. But the other way to look at it is—let’s say you were a huge BMW fan, and you had the opportunity to buy a pass that let you actually go in and sit with the car designers and make suggestions on the next car line. Would you pay for that? It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing."
I realize it’s all just different points across a wide spectrum, and that my comfort with owning a digital copy of Civilization V or my comfort with “selling” the website as a service to contributors who want to support what we do is only a matter of degrees from buying (and losing) a spaceship in an online game. But, in any practical analysis of a spectrum where there is a point that feels clearly within the realm that feels acceptable and another that does not, the question really is just about where in the gray space between one feels the line should be drawn.
For me, I guess I’m reaching a point where the line must be drawn here.
[[This week's Maximum Verbosity topic comes to us from forum member Garrcia and his support during our 2013 donation drive. Along with providing the topic, he also gave me some great ideas in working through a first draft. Thanks Garrcia!]]