EVE Evolved: Alpha Clone economics, bragging rights, and restrictions
Rise's success came as no surprise to me, as I've done similar experiments with small group PvP and I know just how effective cheap tech 1 cruisers can be. I recently showed how free users could be nearly as effective as well-trained subscribers in the same ships, and yet the myth that they will be simply cannon fodder for the elite pervades the comments sections in articles throughout the web. Developers have said that they intend for free play to be a viable long-term play style, and it should be possible to extend the system in the future. We may even some day get specific challenge clone states for those who want bragging rights or hardcore clones with permadeath.
In this edition of EVE Evolved, I debunk the myth the alpha clone system is an endless trial, examine the potential impact of alphas on both EVE community culture and CCP's financials, and look at a few ways the clone state system could be expanded on.
When CCP first announced Alpha Clones as a free to play option, people immediately started comparing it to the endless level 20 trial in World of Warcraft and similar schemes in other MMOs. These schemes are designed to give you a small taste of a game in the hope that you'll sign up to a subscription, and they're typically highly restrictive in order to prevent abuse. Trial users in most MMOs can't send messages to other users, have restricted or no access to player markets and auction houses, and can only participate in a small sub-section of the game's content. They're just trials you can play through at your own pace, but if you want to participate in the "real" game you'll need to subscribe.
In every way that matters, EVE's upcoming alpha clone option is not an endless trial. There are no restrictions on how you communicate with players or engage in the community, and you can access the same market as subscribers with no limit on how much ISK or assets you can have. You can participate in endgame gameplay such as territorial warfare, and can even have success in solo PvP if you know what you're doing or can learn the ropes from existing players. Though you're restricted to tech 1 cruiser sized ships and below, this isn't the same as being limited to a low level in other MMOs and you're not going to just be wiped out in one hit by a subscriber with a bigger toy. Most importantly, EVE players will be able to switch back and forth between a subscription or free to play state and continue using the exact same characters.
If there's one message CCP was trying to get across clearly this weekend about alpha clones, it's that they're intended to be a viable long-term play style rather than just a stepping stone to a subscription. A portion of the playerbase is expected to be composed of active free players who might not buy anything at all but who contribute to EVE's value by making the game more populated and interesting. The content in EVE is the players, and the servers certainly have more than enough capacity to handle a flood of free players after the latest round of upgrades.
The economic argument for a free tier in EVE is a little more complicated, but actually really interesting. There's been a definite downward global trend in MMO subscriptions over the past few years, and even giants like World of Warcraft have felt the squeeze of premium free to play games taking over the market. There's a substantial portion of the online gaming community now that flits between dozens of free-to-play and buy-to-play games based on their moods or available gaming time, and for these players a subscription would be a distasteful commitment and a pressure to get their money's worth each month.
The up-shot is that these players seem more willing to make micro-payments in a game that they're enjoying, so I suspect that alpha players may end up buying cheap skins from the store and indulging more heavily in skill injectors than subscribers, and they may be more willing to convert PLEX into ISK than to use them to subscribe. Even if they farm the ISK in-game to buy skill injectors and skins without giving a penny to CCP, they'd also be indirectly contributing to net PLEX purchases by other players and so would be financially helping EVE. The argument that you can contribute to a free game with your attention rather than you cash usually doesn't hold water, but with EVE's PLEX and Aurum systems it's actually valid.
Watching CCP Rise's videos of his alpha clone facsimile stealing loot from gatecamps and getting some tense and very close kills in PvP was an eye-opening moment, not because of what he could accomplish (I've always loved using cheap T1 cruisers for PvP and know how effective they can be) but because it's a really tempting challenge that I could see others reproducing. I'm reminded of Ricdic's Rags to Riches scheme back in 2008 in which he started a new character and tried to make a billion ISK in 30 days purely through market trading.
I expect alpha clone challenges to become a big part of EVE's community culture in the coming months, and stories of alphas succeeding beyond expectations will become a regular occurrence. There will be some very real bragging rights to be had from getting virtually any kill using an alpha clone character; it's one thing to kill someone in PvP using the best ship and fittings you can afford, but there's a special satisfaction that comes from knocking a 250 million ISK ship on its rear end using a couple of 10 million ISK cruisers. As you're limited to tech 1 frigates, destroyers, and cruisers, it'll be very easy to maintain positive ISK efficiency and practically every kill will drop enough loot to replace your entire ship.
In the clone state roundtable discussion yesterday, CCP indicated that it's open to extending clone states with other options. An alpha clone's free-to-play status won't be visible to other players in-game, for example, but developers are already considering extending this system by adding a special clone state that does show up on killmails for those who want to rub their target's nose in it. This would have to be a special opt-in clone state if it were to happen, and that opens EVE to some even more interesting options.
One of the possibilities CCP entertained during the roundtable was a hardcore clone state with full permadeath, something that devs had mused on in the past but have never managed to make a solid game design case for. If optional clone states are implemented and can be selected on character creation, suddenly a hardcore character becomes very easy to implement. It could have all the same restrictions as an alpha clone but have a faster training speed than normal instead of a slower speed, and if it's ever podded then the character would be forever locked or biomassed.
Personally, I think CCP should add a microtransaction in the store that permanently upgrades an account from alpha clone state to a slightly better beta state with access to things like battlecruisers, strip miners, and tech 2 weapons. Alphas have had to be restricted to T1 cruisers because free accounts create an infinitely scalable system and giving them access to some skills would cause problems in the EVE economy, but this wouldn't be the case if you had to pay a few PLEX or a few thousand Aurum for the upgrade. Players are already limited to 1 alpha account logged in at a time and it's against the EULA to bypass this with a VPN, so why not let alphas upgrade a little?