EVE Evolved: Does skillpoint trading make EVE pay-to-win?
The inability to grind for skillpoints has been a common complaint among today's prospective players, who believe they'll never be able to catch up to veterans no matter how good they become at the game. Those complaints may soon be silenced, however, as CCP has announced plans to let players extract skillpoints in unwanted skills and sell them on the open market as Transneural Skill Packets. You'll be able to respec your character by extracting skills you don't use and re-assigning their points to other fields, and players who grind their way to riches will be able to buy skillpoints to boost their characters. The player reaction to the announcement has been oddly mixed, with over 150 pages filled with doomsday predictions on the forum but more cautiously optimistic responses from the EVE blogging community and subreddit. So what's the big deal with selling skillpoints, and does it make EVE pay-to-win?
In this edition of EVE Evolved, I look at EVE's skill system, what will change with the introduction of the Transneural Skill Packet system, and whether this makes EVE pay-to-win.
One of my first ever articles for Massively-of-old back in 2008 was a look at pervasive myths about EVE's skill system, most notably the idea that new players can't catch up to veterans. Those who started playing over a decade ago now sit atop a 150-200 million skilllpoint pile, but EVE is not a linear progression treadmill and skillpoints don't convert directly into power on the battlefield or success in the game.
A new player can invest less than 20% of the training time a veteran has by getting all of the appropriate skills for a task up to level 4 and still have 80% of the veteran's bonus. That extra level a veteran might have trained will provide a 3-10% bonus to a particular task, module or ship ability, but in actual EVE gameplay that tiny difference is far outstripped by other factors. The outcome of PvP, for example, usually comes down to the number of ships on each side of a fight, the strategies employed, and the actual experience of the pilots.
There's also a limit to the number of skillpoints that can be actively in use at any given time. If you're hoovering up Veldspar in a mining barge, your millions of skillpoints invested in other ships, combat drones, and dozens of other things aren't being used. That means a newbie can pick a particular ship or role in EVE and can "catch up" to be as good as the veteran player in a matter of six months to a year. A 200 million skillpoint character is likely using less than 20-30 million skillpoints during a fleet op, so a 30 million skillpoint character could be literally on par with his adversary despite the several year head start he has. EVE's skillpoint system is essentially shallow and wide enough that you can only invest so much in one ship or role, and so what veterans really have is choice between more roles.
Like many players, my initial reaction to the devblog on transneural skill packets was highly negative. If other players can buy skillpoints then all that time and money I spent subscribing when I wasn't particularly active in-game feels like it was wasted. Realtime progress is the only truly limited quantity in EVE right now, and the idea of getting in now so that you get a head-start on future players was one of the reasons I signed up in 2004.
If you can always buy your way to any goals you have with ISK or cash, then it feels less important to subscribe and train passively. As a veteran player though, I've long since run out of useful skills to acquire and now train things I don't need or throw obscenely long level 5 skills into the queue just so that I don't waste training time. I even routinely ignore an empty queue for weeks at a time and sometimes suspend my main account and play on an alt because skill training is just not that important once you have everything you need.
Players can already buy fully trained characters on the Character Bazaar, so all this new system does is make that purchase more granular and gives players control over where the skillpoints go. Where the head-start argument makes sense though is in updates that introduce new skills, as I believe nobody should be able to buy their way to an instant level 5 in whatever new ship class or activity is introduced. This would have been a really big deal back in 2005 when everyone was slowly training toward capital ships, and if something similarly monumental were to be introduced in the future then I'd like to hope people couldn't buy their way to the head of the queue. As a protective measure to keep the new expansion rush in effect, I think newly released skills shouldn't be able to receive injected skillpoints until enough time has passed that the skill could have been trained passively.
Part of CCP's reasoning for adding skill trading is that it will help new players, but this implementation obviously only helps the rich. Existing players who have made it big in-game will be able to shortcut the skillpoint curve, increasing the gap between mid-level players and total newbies. If new players want to do the same, they'll need to inject some money into the game by buying PLEX for cash and selling them on the in-game market. The players extracting their skills will also be spending Aurum on the extractors, which they'll have to either buy directly for cash or obtain through PLEX conversion.
It's clear that the main outcome of this system will be to increase the demand for PLEX, which is money in CCP's pocket. I'd also expect subscriptions to rise as people reactivate lapsed alt accounts to use as skillpoint farms. Those are not necessarily a bad things, as we all want to see CCP succeed and we know that EVE's subscriptions have dropped lately, but it's disingenuous to pitch this as helping newbies when it's really about farming whales.
The one big positive thing this will do is to nullify the argument that you can't catch up to the veterans, as someone who becomes very good at EVE will abe able to grind their way to the top. Players who have invested cash in their characters may also be more willing to stick with the game in the long term and integrate into the community, so skill packets may increase the barrier to exit. And since the skillpoints have to come from existing characters, it's a closed system just like buying characters via the Character Bazaar. The one thing I would like to see to help new players is a cheaper version of the skillpoint extractor that just extracts skills into your unallocated skillpoints to let people respec without creating skill packets.
The forum thread in response to the skill packet devblog has reached over 150 pages, and many peoples' initial reactions there were negative. We've heard complaints that this devalues the subscription time spent by veterans, or that it's a pay-to-win scheme that will ruin the game. The thing is, EVE has always been a hypercapitalistic dystopian universe in which players and corporations can and do buy their way to the top. We've even been able to turn cash into in-game money safely and legitimately through game time code trades since around 2006, and sell them on the market as PLEX since 2008.
If buying in-game currency or skillpoints from other players for cash is your idea of pay to win, then EVE has been pay-to-win for almost 10 years. It also follows that Runes of Magic was pay-to-win in 2009, Star Trek Online went pay-to-win in 2011, World of Warcraft went pay-to-win with Guardian Cubs in 2011 and WoW Tokens back in March this year, RuneScape became pay-to-win with bonds, and Guild Wars 2 launched as a pay-to-win game. This is what MMO business models look like today, and evidently western gamers are absolutely fine with it as long as the in-game currency isn't being generated out of thin air by the dev studio. As long as one real person pays the cash and trades it for another real person's in-game money that was acquired through normal gameplay, apparently everyone's happy. The PLEX scheme has been so successful in that regard that other MMOs continue to pick it up and run with it. If you aren't willing to support a game that allows that kind of trade, your options for a good MMO today are shrinking rapidly.
Like many players, my initial reaction to the idea of trading skillpoints was that it felt like a pay-to-win scheme and could end up sparking off Monoclegate 2.0. When I really thought about it though, I realised that we already have most of this system in place with PLEX and character trades. We don't lose much by letting people break those characters down into small packets and sell them on the market, but we do get some pretty cool things as a result:
- We'll be able to respec by extracting skills we don't use and injecting the skillpoints for use in other things.
- We'll be able to instantly build new alt characters for particular purposes instead of waiting for a month or more of training time.
- Corporations can start offering recruits skillpoints as rewards for signing up or for fleet participation.
- Pilots who want to join a fleet but can't use the alliance's pre-fit ships will have the option of instantly skilling up in them if they have the ISK.
- Players will finally be able to improve their characters through active play, not just expand their wallets.
The one big thing this doesn't tackle is the impenetrability of the skill system for new players who don't want to spend cash on PLEX, but I think that's a separate problem with the skill system and new player experience that definitely warrants an article of its own.