Caveat emptor is lazy game design

EVE Online is one of those sandboxes I wish I could love. It’s in space. It’s pretty. It’s got partly open PvP. It has neat races and backstory. It has crafting. It has harvesting. It has an awesome trading system, and distance matters. You can make money from players just by moving products across the galaxy. In short, it theoretically has all of the things an obsessive trading gamer (like yours truly) would want.

But the game ultimately flops with the vast majority of gamers. Its failure lies in part because the gameplay itself is interminably boring and cold; the interface is dated and irritating; there’s no way for you to freely fly your ship or detatch from it to walk around on space stations and planets (yet); crafting and harvesting are tedious; and there’s an almost-insurmountable divide between veterans and newbies — with rare exceptions, the people who hop into the sandbox first get to control it until they quit. And when people say EVE is Spaceship Spreadsheets Online, it’s not meant as a compliment. The game is intentionally, proudly obscure.

Perhaps the real problem with EVE lies in its open PvP sandbox, which for obvious reasons attracts a sizable number of “hardcores” with whom you really don’t want to hang out — angry, misogynistic, racist, violent young men who revel in this chance to be e-thugs. Not everyone falls into this category, of course; some studies note that most EVE players never even venture into the fully open PvP areas, just like few UO players leave Trammel. But it’s a loud and vocal group that shapes the feel of the game, and it’s easily seen in the gender statistics, which report a female population skewed to under 10% — compared to something like WoW (40%) or other games in which women make up the majority. (Not coincidentally, the comment thread attached to that article is a perfect demonstration of the astonishingly sexist and anti-female attitudes common to EVE, leaving no one confused about why women or effeminate men avoid such an environment).

But there’s another element of the online thugosphere attracted to EVE, one which aids in the game’s poor reputation among all but the most hardcore posers and genuine sociopaths: the scammers.

This past summer at Massively, we covered several large scandals and scams in the EVE community, and frankly I was mildly ashamed at how we penned the perpetrators’ dirty deeds with barely concealed awe. Grief-play — such as the sort encouraged every year by an event like Hulkageddon (the goal of which is to destroy as much player property as possible) — is seen as not just part of the game, but a critical factor in making the game feel gritty and edgy. Scamming, especially the kind of long-cons that require months or years of preparation and deception, is looked upon as a great feat of skill.

Victims of such in-game crime (is there any other word for it?) are dehumanized and mocked; those who object to such behavior are met with scorn and insults, usually referencing one’s masculinity or lack thereof. Yet we’re not just talking about getting ganked and having to run back to your corpse in World of Warcraft, losing nothing but a few minutes of your time. In some cases, individual EVE characters have been known to be murdered for over a thousand dollars’ worth of PLEX, which is an in-game currency that can be exchanged for game-time. Yes, you can see where I’m going with this now. CCP, the Icelandic creators of EVE, have deliberately assigned a real-world value to an in-game commodity — this in an age when most game companies stand staunchly by policies ascribing a real-world value of zero to in-game pixels, for legal reasons. In fact, CCP even have a forum wherein they allow players to trade PLEX (purchased with real money) for in-game currency, and they have several times accepted an exchange of ISK to PLEX, which has then been converted to real money for donation to real-world charities.

In the most recent scandal to blanket EVE Online, a single swindler made off with a lot more than a thousand bucks. See, in EVE, all of the banks and investment houses are controlled by the players. Players can make use of various guild (corporation) tools to check the power of any one person, but because this is an all-online venture, it’s relatively easy to scam your fellow board members. This particular scammer employed a secret second account to purchase just enough shares in his corporation that he could seize control and abscond with over $45,000 worth of ISK (presuming you turned it into PLEX). I just need to say that again. Forty-five thousand dollars.

Now, if I stole $45,000 worth of investor money or perpetrated a scam on any other internet company and stole virtual goods, I’d go to “prison.” Digital pirates and investment swindlers are despised! Yet this guy robbed hundreds of players of items worth real money and is being cheered as some clever anti-hero.

Thus we have a game in which you can be killed legitimately and scammed illegitimately for virtual goods that have legitimate real-world value. And yet to CCP, all of this is perfectly legal. CCP have always claimed non-interference in this sort of thing. Oh sure, they employ a full-time economist to monitor the game and advise on policy relating to various systems, and he’s happy to interfere in the game market. But when it comes to cracking down on scamming, CCP tell their customers, “Caveat emptor.”

And you know what? There’s a certain amount of logic in that lazy stance. I wouldn’t want to hire dozens of extra staff to protect my customers from themselves, either. How much easier is it to just say, “I am sorry, I cannot help thee, farewell,” and walk away, fingers-in-ears? Then again, I bet the girl who lost a thousand bucks’ worth of PLEX didn’t resub. I bet a lot of the people who’d invested in the corporation that lost 45,000 USD have left for new games, too. CCP didn’t profit from those situations. The only people who win are the scammers.

Other companies are aware of this problem and allot staff to keep legitimate customers happy. SOE’s Star Wars Galaxies, another sci-fi sandbox, is plagued by scammers who use lotteries to part fools from their coin. The con-men fill lottery bags with junk instead of the promised prizes, and then they make off with billions of unsuspecting gamblers’ credits. When a few players compare their winnings and someone figures out there never was a payout, SOE GMs descend upon the scene in a flurry, return the money, and ban the fraudster. I’ve seen it a dozen times just on Starsider alone. Why do SOE interfere? Because they recognize that their game mechanics prevent players from receiving justice any other way, and because cultivating the belief that the staff care about the customers is essential to player retention.

CCP, on the other hand, merely shrug and suggest that if you’re robbed or defrauded, you should form a coalition to hunt down the perpetrator and kill him repeatedly, or scam him right back. They believe (or prefer to maintain) that they’ve given the players sufficient tools within the game mechanics to make their own justice, to take matters into their own hands. That’s interesting from a cowboy kind of perspective, but it just doesn’t work in reality, and it’s the worst mistake that a company hosting a sandbox MMO could ever make. Players don’t have complete control over their surroundings. They can’t get information about who’s running what secret alt accounts. There is no accountability. New or casual players lack the social and financial resources to seek anything resembling revenge, and justice is simply not possible — there’s no court system in EVE, and even if players tried to make one, they have no actual power to force the accused to show up, let alone accept any verdict or punishment. There’s no way to make a thief return money, nor serve a prison sentence. Heck, there’s no way to even make him log into the game period. He can easily just get a new account and wipe the slate clean, starting over with a nice pot of billions and billions of ISK. It’s not even frontier justice — it’s even more limited. The only people who can fix this problem are esconced in CCP’s comfy Icelandic offices.

“There’s no safeguard against stupid,” lamented one of my guildies, referring to the victims, as if to absolve CCP or lay blame with the investors, but he missed the point. Investing money — the mere act of it — is not a stupid act in the real world. You can invest poorly, in which case your investment might fail legitimately on its own merits or on the incompetence of its managers. That’s hard luck, but it wasn’t the investing in and of itself that was foolish, it was your poor choice of investment target. But if you invest in something that turns out to be fraudulent at its core, or someone physically steals the investment fund, that’s a crime. Period. A government will intervene. You have legitimate recourses (none of which requires you to hunt down and murder the perpetrator). A legitimate market is built on voluntary transactions, on everyone’s approaching every deal with full access to relevant information. Even minarchist philosophers would argue that the primary purpose of (and one of the few legitimate uses of) government is to protect against fraud.

Granted, a real-world government does use a measure of force to deal with fraud, and you could argue that CCP are just suggesting that players do the same thing within the game mechanics. But CCP are more responsible for the way their game works than the government is for the way the world works — which makes it that much more unacceptable when CCP interfere even less. They could implement systems to help players avoid fraud or to deliver justice to perpetrators, and the company choose not to, thereby effectively making such scams legal. They have failed to construct even the most basic economic and judicial safeguards, the kind necessary to actually keep real free markets free. In doing so, they have created an underclass of players who have no recourse for compensation; they ensure that only those established players with pre-existing resources are entitled to justice. Most of us do not sit for this in the real world. Why would we sit by when CCP abrogate their obvious responsibilities, especially given that CCP lost any right to claim non-interference when they hired an economist to tweak the gold sinks and spigots, then gave their in-game goods real-money values?

In other words, CCP have set up a model, determined what is possible and not possible within that model, let it run a bit, realized it’s broken and messy and inconvenient, and shrugged and let it keep running, all while hypocritically telling the player, “Caveat emptor.” This annoys me on multiple levels. It makes the game something that isn’t worth sinking any money or time into. It gives people a very skewed idea of how markets and governments actually work. Gamers aren’t known for their scholarship on such topics — must we make it worse? And lastly, it’s just terribly lazy game design. Without CCP’s bungling, EVE could be so much more.

Ultimately, I reject EVE not just because of CCP’s lazy game design, mismanagement, or catering to pricks, but because of the game itself. The truth is that EVE is, at this point, an old game, and it’s overpriced for the current market. It’s competing with a lot of games, older and younger, many of which do what EVE does but better, and most of which do things EVE has no hope of doing (even if Incarna really does release next summer as promised). Incarna is too little too late, and the game has too many problems that Incarna won’t solve. Why suffer all EVE’s annoyances and frustrations when I could play some other sandbox or themepark or sandpark game, games with actual customer service and no tolerance for abusive game systems? That doesn’t mean I think EVE will fail — there is always going to be a contingent of angry little boys who want an old-school PK game (and a much larger contingent of mature high-sec people who don’t want that, but who nevertheless do want to be associated with that type of hardcore gameplay). EVE won’t fail, just like most games never fail. They just keep puttering along in profitable mediocrity.

If you were looking for joyful escapism, look elsewhere. EVE, unfortunately, is just a exercise in reality.

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  2. […] to scam each other in EVE Online through trickery and lotteries and so forth (as I chronicled in Caveat emptor is lazy game design). Most MMOs, however, have strict rules about scams and lotteries. World of Warcraft placed a […]

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