EVE Online clothing causes microtransaction debate

The first part of EVE Online's long-awaited "walking in stations" update, Incarna, finally launched last week. However, it's been greeted by a lot more teeth-gnashing than developer CCP had anticipated. The microtransactions for Incarna's paid cosmetic "vanity" items proved to be not quite so micro, putting into question CCP's approach to paid content in the space MMO. A pair of digital boots might cost only $5, according EVE News 24's conversions from virtual currency to real-world money. But a shirt can go for $17, and a virtual monocle is a staggering $61. While players can, of course, choose not to buy these cosmetic lovelies, a leaked CCP newsletter indicated that expensive clothing was only the beginning. The May 2011 issue of CCP's internal newsletter Fearless (available from EVE News 24) posed the question "Greed Is Good?" In the issue, employees made a number of cases for and against microtransactions in EVE, console FPS tie-in Dust 514, and CCP's mysterious World of Darkness MMO--but mostly for. focalbox The Fearless issue spoke of selling new items, ammunition, ships, and faction standing with through EVE's new microtransaction currency. It also proposed that Dust 514 "will operate under a virtual good sales model," as it won't charge a subscription fee like its PC elder sibling. As well as cosmetic options, it mentioned the controversial idea of selling better weapons in Dust. Cosmetic options, practical items, and bonuses were all mentioned for World of Darkness. It's worth bearing in mind that the ideas mentioned for EVE, Dust 514, and World of Darkness would also let players buy these items with virtual currency earned in-game, but Incarna's natty threads have hardly been cheap so far--and that's only for purely cosmetic items. Since the leak, EVE senior producer Arnar 'CCP Zulu' Gylfason has denied that the article outlined concrete plans. "The opinions and views expressed in Fearless are just that; opinions and views," he wrote in a blog post on Friday. "They are not CCP policy nor are they a reliable source of CCP views as a company. The employees who submitted articles to that newsletter did exactly what they were asked to do, write about theories and opinions from an exaggerated stand." Gylfason attempted to address complaints about price, with an analogy likening virtual clothing to real world-jeans:
Look at the clothes you are currently wearing in real life. Do you have any specific brands? Did you choose it because it was better quality than a no-name brand? Assume for a short while that you are wearing a pair of $1,000 jeans from some exclusive Japanese boutique shop. Why would you want to wear a pair of $1,000 jeans when you can get perfectly similar jeans for under $50? What do other people think about you when they see you wearing them? For some you will look like the sad culmination of vainness while others will admire you and think you are the coolest thing since sliced bread. Whichever it is, it is clear that by wearing clothes you are expressing yourself and that the price is one of the many dimensions that clothes possess to do that in addition to style and fit.
While one can see the logic, the analogy was perhaps not the best response to an already-irritated community. Virtual worlds have, by and large, been vaguely utopian places, with everyone able to get everything--if they have enough free time. While those pressed for time and money to spare might welcome an outlet for real-world capitalism, it's not necessarily the norm, and evidenced by the community's reaction, remains a controversial issue. Gylfason apologized for the post over the weekend. "I let my frustration take charge of me, fueled by emotions that had built up due to a breach of trust we at CCP have been experiencing over the past few days," he said. "I know that sounds ironic considering those are the exact same feelings you have been having towards CCP." He denied that premium ammo would be sold in EVE, reiterating, "In Fearless, people are arguing a point, which doesn't even have to be their view, they are debating an issue. This is another example of how information out of context is no information at all." "I see it's clear we need to strengthen the deep mutual trust and respect that's been so unique and descriptive of our relationship," Gylfason wrote. He revealed that EVE's Council of Stellar Management, a body of elected players, is now being summoned to Iceland for an "extraordinary" meeting at the end of June to discuss and address the past week's update, and to "assist us in defining and iterating on our virtual goods strategy." Council chair 'The Mittani' has already expressed his opinion in his latest Sins of a Solar Spymaster column, pointing the finger at short-sighted and blunt communication from CCP. (On a tangent, Fearless confirms that World of Darkness is still in pre-production and its gameplay not yet finalized. Bad news for those looking forward to the MMO.)

The notorious issue of Fearless

Whether Fearless represents CCP's future plans or not, it does offer some valuable perspectives on the spread of microtransactions and paid content in online gaming. "We have strong evidence that selling performance enhancers, in moderation, works," wrote CCP's resident economist Eino Joas. "Korean developers have capitalized on performance-enhancing items for a long time but it took a leap of faith from the people developing Battlefield: Heroes to show that the same principles that work in Korea apply for the western market as well. While there was loud outrage when the free-to-play Battlefield: Heroes made certain weapons far more difficult for non-paying players to get, EA has since said that it had very little impact on the number of players and increased profitability. Kjartan Emilsson made the argument that those with real-world hobbies often choose to spend large sums of money on their pursuits, increasing their engagement with it and even defining their identity. This, he said, can increase player engagement--if one is careful.
A balanced approach should acknowledge consumerism as a powerful game design tool (amongst others) that we need to get familiar with and that should be used carefully and with respect it create more enjoyable experiences and stronger identities for our players. If successful, this will result in their increased emotional attachment to our product and services for the benefit of all. If not, we run the risk of sucking our customers dry and leaving their shriveled corpses by the side of the road to the benefit of none.