Phil Hartup on videogames

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Digital destitution: what happens when you lose real-world money inside a game?

Games like <em>EVE</em> can result in players suffering big financial losses in real-world money. As in-game purchases become more common the problems of balancing what can be bought against what can be worked for will only become more complicated.

A battle in EVE Online, a game which has always had loss at its heart.

Historically games have often been played for very high stakes. From the gladiators of ancient Rome and their primitive version of snooker using tridents and eyeballs, to the early forays into dressage by medieval knights armed with lances charging into each other, competition has often meant risks. One benefit of a video game has always been that your avatar can take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on your behalf. You want a violent, brutal death match? No worries, your character in the game can get shot down like a dog and be back on their feet seconds later. The typical failure state in a game, your avatar getting killed, is by default not a problem, especially in multiplayer games. But is there a case that this isn’t the best way to go?

EVE Online is a game that has always punished failure harshly, but never more than now as ships and combat fleets get larger and more expensive. Big battles have often made the news and the recent battle of B-R5RB took this to a higher level. Thousands of dollars of virtual spaceships gone up in virtual smoke.

The monetary conversions vary by a lot, the product of a sort of mathematical game of Chinese whispers, with each stage increasing the margin of error. Somebody with a degree of knowledge will estimate the average value of the ships lost in the in game money (ISK), this figure is extrapolated across the total known losses, and then converted to real money based on the value of a thing called a PLEX, which is an item bought with real world money, currently costing £16.99, which can be redeemed for a month of game time or sold in the game. While the value of a PLEX is fixed in real world money, it varies in game. At the end of all the mathematical acrobatics you get a sum in real world currency which approximates the value of the losses albeit with a margin of error potentially so large you might be better off simply writing the loss off as “big”, “really big” or “oh the humanity” and calling it a day.

In this case, what made the battle interesting was not the number of players rather it was the class of ship many of them were fighting in; titans. Compared to your standard huge EVE battle this would be like seeing a tyrannosaur and a triceratops squaring off in the car park of the Dog And Duck. This was the battle that EVE had been waiting for ever since the titan class of ship was introduced.

My own time in EVE is over and I don’t plan to go back, but even I kept an eye on a Twitch stream, a Twitter hashtag and bunch of forum and blog comment threads over the twenty hours or so that the fight went on, even though it ceased to be an actual contest relatively early. Whether you play or not the idea that players are using ships that cost as much as a second hand car makes such confrontations intriguing. Seeing the reactions from both sides when it becomes clear who will eventually win is also interesting, who will lose their cool, how will it be spun, what will the fallout be? For a glorious moment, in the right kind of light, EVE starts to look like this wonderful hybrid of Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Flies.

Loss has always been at the heart of EVE and in many ways it is through this notion of loss that EVE has managed to stay newsworthy despite never really having a broad appeal. With the best will in the world EVE is a game in something of a funk. Subscription numbers are up, but the number of accounts logged in at any one time hasn’t changed very much for a couple of years. This is a good sign for an MMO as long in the tooth as EVE, but it doesn’t indicate a game that is really growing or broadening its base either. EVE needs these marquee battles to inject drama and scale into it a lot more than it needs peace, quiet, and brotherly love between spaceship captains.

The problem for EVE is that these high stakes battles are all but unique. B-R5RB was the only battle approaching this scale of losses ever fought and it is likely that we will not see another like it. The oft quoted rule of EVE: Online is that you don’t fly what you can’t afford to lose, and it is very likely that nobody, other than the victors of the B-R5RB battle, will ever again be able to afford to lose tens of thousands of dollars in super-capital ships and titans. The sheer scale of the loss creates a disparity between victor and vanquished that may never be closed. It would take the destruction of hundreds, even thousands of enemy craft to cancel out the loss of a single titan. The gulf in costs is evident if we look back just a few months to another huge battle, 6VDT. The two battles involved a comparable number of players but the destruction of B-R5RB cost around thirty times more.

This escalation is the real weakness in the EVE Online loss system. If you beat your opponents badly enough you’re not going to see them again until they’ve rearmed. If they have to rearm with ships that each take over a month to build, you might never see them again. If the biggest warship class in the game was the battleship, as it was for a time, battles would be less decisive but you would get more of them because players and alliances could outfit a fleet quicker.

EVE is the best example of the regimented model of permanent losses. You earn in game money, you acquire parts and resources, you equip your avatar, you fight with it, and maybe it blows up and you lose those things that you brought to the fight but anything you held back, that stays yours. Other games such as Ultima: Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea have also gone down this path with varying degrees of success. The key to the losses in these games is that you can plan for them because the means to replace those losses is if not fixed then at least predictable. You don’t go back to square one if you lose, you go back however many squares you decided to commit.

The alternative model to these games is that employed by games like Day Z. Day Z is a game based upon scavenging and survival and it differs from EVE by having no regular currency or trading system and no reliable, repeatable method to acquire resources.

In Day Z you cannot simply work in order to get the best possible equipment and the most powerful weapons, it doesn’t work like that. You might find a dead player ten feet away when you spawn, and they might have all the weapons and provisions you could want, or you might find nothing but tins of beans until you starve to death for want of something to open them with. No matter what you have in your inventory you are still a very fragile character and anybody with a gun can be a threat to anybody else. The random element and the easy come, easy go nature of acquiring supplies mean that the game is not stifling. You might get more wary the longer you have been alive, but to retreat from all possible risk means death from starvation or thirst. Even if you stash resources they are never truly safe.

One game series that has combined elements of both these loss mechanics successfully for years is Counter Strike. You get money before a round starts, you buy gear and guns which you will lose if you die, but you can also take guns from the dead. So you have both the ability to plan what you can equip for each round, plus the chance to find a free weapon. Although the system starts afresh with every new match it adds an element of strategy as the rounds play out. The loss mechanic here is simple, balanced and engaging, one of the key elements to the long term success of the series.

Punishments for failure can be a great way to increase connection to a game, but they must be approached with care by developers. As in-game purchases become more common* the problems of balancing what can be bought against what can be worked for will only become more complicated. A game has to be very good indeed for a player who has been knocked down to be willing to pile into the fray once more, especially if their losses amount to a lot of time or real money.

EVE Online has shown that its model of painful losses is viable in the long term. Meanwhile the story of Day Z, from a mod for a very niche game to the flagship of a growing genre, has shown that permanent death and loss is not only something that players will tolerate, it is something they will actively seek out. Time will tell if these game mechanics ever make the jump into mainstream console games and the big budget AAA releases, but one thing is clear, the niche for games that are not afraid to punish the unskilled and unlucky is big and it isn’t going away any time soon.

*The term micro-transaction has become somewhat inappropriate. There is nothing micro about the amounts of money that games are starting to fish for in the pockets of their customers.