Microtransaction missteps in Eve Online

GDC Online 2011: CCP postmortem discusses studio's first foray into virtual item sales with its subscription-based sci-fi MMORPG, from player protests to premium monocles.

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Who was there: CCP Games associate producer Ben Cockerill showed up at the 2011 Game Developers Conference Online to share lessons learned from the introduction of virtual item sales into its venerable sci-fi massively multiplayer online role-playing game Eve Online.

The introduction of player avatars to Eve Online led to virtual goods.
The introduction of player avatars to Eve Online led to virtual goods.

What they talked about: Earlier this month, CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson issued a public apology for changes the company has made to Eve Online of late, specifically the introduction of virtual item sales that he described as rather underwhelming (emphasis his). Cockerill showed up at GDC Online to detail exactly what went wrong--and right--with the game's virtual item launch.

Cockerill began his talk with a quick history of the subscription-based game, from its 2003 launch to today. While CCP introduced the tradable "Pilot License Extension" in November 2008 (technically a virtual item), the company didn't launch a wider virtual goods model until recently. When the developer introduced avatars to the game (previously players would only see themselves as a spaceship), it believed that opened the door to the personalization and collection display impulses that can help drive virtual goods sales. Given that its upcoming PlayStation 3 shooter Dust 514 (slated for release next year) would also rely heavily on virtual goods sales, Cockerill said CCP wanted to build its experience and expertise in the field with Eve Online as quickly as possible.

To start, CCP looked at how other games handled microtransactions from a behavioral-psychology perspective. One of the things that surprised the team when they looked at other games' virtual items is that they tended to congregate sales around three specific price points, such that there were bargain, standard, and premium tiers. CCP's strategy was to try and position their offerings like a clothing boutique rather than Walmart; they focused on a small number of items with high graphical quality. To enable sales, they also introduced a new currency into the game: aurum. Currently the only use for aurum is to buy virtual items in the in-game store, but Cockerill expects to expand its uses in the future.

The store launched in June with just eight items, and Cockerill said, "We received a lot of negative feedback postlaunch." That adverse reaction included a protest with hundreds of players working together to try to destroy an in-game memorial to make their point. He acknowledged that part of the protest was related to other changes made with the introduction of avatars to the game, but added there was definitely a bit of virtual-item rage as well. The concern among players was that success in the game would eventually become determined more by how much money people spent rather than how much time and expertise they displayed.

Of the eight original items, Cockerill said all but one was in the mid- to high-tier price range. Players naturally assumed the lower-tier range would be neglected going forward, which served to push some of them away. The second wave (and the forthcoming fourth wave) featured more lower-tier options, but it wasn't enough. Cockerill said virtual-goods sellers should release a range of goods at all of their price points to start with, or else they'll face the wrath of the user base. What's more, the team should have targeted the desires of its then-current user base, who cared much more about having virtual clothes for their ships instead of their avatars.

Mistakes aside, Cockerill said the team did get some things right. He pointed to the $65 monocle that players can purchase in-game and said that despite the controversy it generated among players, it was the highest-grossing item for the virtual-goods launch. Additionally, the introduction of virtual items could have unbalanced the game's player-driven economy, but apart from a temporary fluctuation around launch, Cockerill said the game's virtual currency prices have been stable.

Quote: "We learned a heck of a lot in a very short amount of time, which might not have been the nicest way to do it."--On Eve Online's virtual items launch.

Takeaway: Despite player protests and a public apology from the CEO, Eve Online's virtual goods launch was by no means an unmitigated failure. CCP learned a lot about what works and what doesn't and is looking to implement those lessons into its next microtransaction effort, next year's PS3-exclusive Dust 514.

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