The Goonswarm

Paul Raven @ 14-07-2011

I’ve lost the attribution note for where I found this piece, so apologies for the lack of source (it’s been sat in my Evernote inbox waiting to be read for a couple of weeks now), but given Monday’s mention of EVE I thought it well worth dragging out into the sunlight, even though it’s a few months old. So: gamer blog Rock Paper Shotgun did a long interview with an EVE player known as The Mittani – CEO of Goon Fleet, the Something Awful forum’s in-game clade – shortly before his election as chair of the Council of Stellar Management, which is CCP’s mechnaism for enfranchising EVE players as stakeholders in its long-term development, and it’s well worth a read.

If you’re thinking “why would I want to read an interview with some MMO ubergeek?”, I hazard to suggest you’re making a category error; The Mittani is more than just a player of games, he’s the figurehead and autocratic leader of a virtual corporation comprised of over ten thousand real people… and that corporation has, it would appear, engendered a significant cultural shift in the imaginary galaxy where it resides, as well as in parts of the real world in which that virtuality is embedded. He is shamelessly cocky yet also disarmingly modest, and talks more common sense about leadership than the vast majority of the biz-speak hucksters that the blogosphere teems with.

I’m not suggesting you need to admire him, or even like him. But I’m saying with certainty he’s a fascinating character. A few snips to tempt you with:

RPS: So what happened to Band of Brothers?

MT: I, uh, disbanded them.

RPS: What? How was that even your choice?

MT: At the beginning of the second stage of the Great War we had a defector from the executor corporation of Band of Brothers who thought that we were cooler guys. Basically he thought that his alliance was full of assholes, because their leadership structure was full of guys who wanted to be in “the most elite alliance in Eve”. Whereas Goonswarm, a lot of the time, were bad. We had a lot of newbies and no pretentions.

The disbanding itself was covered by the BBC. Ordinarily when you have a defector you do smash and grabs, just getting the other guy to steal everything that’s not nailed down and come over to your side. Now, I was still just the spymaster at this point, and I was sitting there in my office and I had this brain fart – with the access that this guy had, he had the authority to kick out every single corporation in the alliance and then shut down his own corporation, thus disbanding the alliance, which has the impact of disabling all the sovereignty defenses in their region. This had never been done before. All of a sudden I was like, “Holy shit! I can do this!”

Also, at the time Goonswarm owned half the galaxy. We controlled all of these regions, but as soon as we disbanded Band of Brothers we abandoned everything and all moved into what had been their territory. Over the course of two very bloody months we purged them and took all their space.

RPS: You hated them that much?

MT: Well, this goes back to the T20 scandal and these people declaring us a cancer on Eve. The entire Great War took four years, so yeah, maybe we were a little vengeful.

[…]

RPS: Do you think the Great War happened because you guys needed something to keep you entertained?

MT: No, it really was a bitter grudge war. They took it outside of the game. When they invaded Syndicate space it wasn’t a retaliation, it was them saying that Goons are bad human beings. …one higher up at Band of Brothers said “this is as personal as it ever gets”. And then it came out that one of their leaders was a CCP developer who was giving them items, which ignited a huge firestorm of controversy. You had these elite players who were the paragons of the old guard telling everybody, quite literally, “We’re better than you”, and then it turns out they’re a bunch of disgusting cheaters who are being given some of the most valuable items in the game by the developers.

RPS: What’s next for you guys?

MT: People ask us that a lot, but we don’t plan more than a month or two in advance… we do scheme a lot, because thanks to our spy network, we know what the other alliances are doing. But fanfest usually brings everything to a crashing halt. The game gets really boring around fanfest, because everyone’s planning on coming here.

We are griefers. If nothing is going to happen then we’re going to try to find something that screams and bleeds and poke at it.

[…]

RPS: Do you feel like expanding on what you said as we were walking over here, about Eve being a terrible game and that it’s the players who make it interesting?

MT: Well, I suppose since I’m going to be on the Council of Stellar Management and I’m probably going to be the Chairman I should probably clarify that.

Eve, for Goons, is fun because we play with Goons. By itself, it’s a game where you have to jump through a lot of hoops to have fun. I think all the small fixes CCP are doing at present are good. Eve players make fun of World of Warcraft a lot, but if you look at what Blizzard has done ironing out all those flaws and annoyances, it’s a tremendous achievement. Eve’s learning curve is vertical, and full of spikes, and the beautiful side of Eve is the image of it that players have in their heads.

The best analogy for Eve is this: 1% of the time, when you take part in a massive fleet fight, or take part in some epic espionage caper or something, it is the most fun game you will ever encounter. 99% of the time you’re just waiting for something to happen. But it’s that 1% that hooks people like crack cocaine. I mean, you don’t get interviewed by the BBC when you win a WoW raid.

RPS: For my money, Eve might be the most fascinating game in existence today. But that doesn’t stop it from being interminably boring as well.

MT: Right. I mean most Eve players are stuck in high security space mining, and a lot of the core PvE in Eve has you sitting there are watching three grey bars slowly turn red.

Lots more interesting stuff in there, not least of which is the revelation – not entirely surprising in retrospect, I suppose – that CCP has its own in-house professor of economics. Wow.

I really need to stop admiring this world from afar and get my hands dirty, don’t I? Are there any EVErs in the Futurismic readership who’d be willing to show me the ropes?


The Vanity Riots: weird goings-on at EVE Online

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2011

My from-a-distance fascination with EVE Online continues to grow*; its complex and anarchic political and economic scenes make for fascinating headlines, and it strikes me as the best extant model for the economically distinct synthetic worlds of the future. Ars Technica has a two-page piece on a recent EVE flap wherein the developers, CCP, started making an assortment of “vanity items” available for sale within the game. The economic set-up in EVE is complex, permitting money to flow in from meatspace as well as encouraging in-game trading, and players kicked off an extensive campaign of (in-world) disobedience and protest, thinking that CCP had handed a naked advantage to players who were financially better off in the reality outside the game.

Pretty much a carbon copy of meatspace protests over poorly-explained new laws or policies, which is interesting enough. But the second page has an innocuous-seeming paragraph that leapt out at me as being more astonishing than it appears:

EVE Online is one of the few games which has a formal player organization to speak for the customers of the game, called the Council of Stellar Management. The members of the CSM are democratically elected, and they present the concerns of players to CCP in order to keep everything running smoothly. As players continued to disrupt the game and CCP began to take a beating in the court of public opinion, the CSM was flown to the company’s offices in Iceland in order to discuss the issue of microtransactions.

Think about that for a second: not only does EVE have an elected player council, but said council was flown in to CCP’s HQ at CCP’s expense to sort things out. That’s a company that takes its userbase very seriously indeed.. As the Ars piece points out, this is at least partly due to necessity, but that necessity s a function of the freedom and engagement with the synthetic space that CCP has permitted since the start. I wonder if we’ll soon see more businesses that are not only this close to their clientele, but who genuinely understand that closeness as the foundation of their model… it’s a big step in the direction of cooperatives, which might make for a fine replacement for the increasingly-untrusted corporation in a world where nation-statehood is losing its grip.

Additional virtual worlds news, via Terra Nova: a Chinese insurance firm has started to offer what may be the first insurance policies to cover against loss or theft of goods in virtual worlds. As Castronova points out, insurance for intangible goods is nothing new… but intangible goods that only exist in a certain walled garden in cyberspace? That’s a new development.

[ * Yeah, I know, I should probably just sign up for an account and try it out, but I know how prone to addictive behaviours I am, and I have work that needs doing that won’t be much helped by my attempting to explore an anarchic virtual star-cluster. Unless someone wanted to pay me to write the story, that is. Hmmm. ]


Metaverse bank chairman does a runner with the cash

Paul Raven @ 16-06-2009

Starship screenshot from EVE OnlineYeah, so we’re all tired of hearing about crooks in charge of banks shafting their depositors and borrowers at the same time… but this story’s a little different, given that the bank in question exists in the virtual universe of science fiction MMO EVE Online.

That’s not to say no real money was involved, though; RMT, or Real Money Trading, is one of the few things frowned upon in EVE‘s laissez-faire economy, but it still takes place – and as such there may be a lesson for real-world economists in the story:

Because players often do not have the interstellar credits — abbreviated to ISK, also the official abbreviation of the Icelandic kroner — they need to expand their fleets, an enterprising player created a bank that would accept deposits and lend to players who would pledge assets, like their spacecraft, as collateral.

The bank was a success. According to its Web site (yes, it has one), Ebank accumulated about 8.9 trillion ISK in deposits in 13,000 accounts belonging to 6,000 users. That was far more than it was able to lend out — there were around 1 trillion ISK of loans.

Somewhere along the way Ebank’s top executive, who went by the online handle Ricdic, apparently got greedy. According to CCP, he made off with deposits, which he then sold for real cash to gamers on a sort of black-market exchange separate from Eve.

CCP kicked Ricdic out of the game. And Ebank has temporarily shut down while its board of directors (yes, it had one of those too) tries to sort out the mess. Depositors, meanwhile, appear to have pulled 5.5 trillion ISK of deposits.

It’s not clear how much of that virtual money was embezzled and now needs to be found, somehow, by Ebank. But if the Eve chatter is accurate, it could amount to 10 percent of deposits withdrawn. That could wipe out whatever capital was used to finance Ebank’s loan book. As in the real world, that would spell insolvency.

[…]

As in the real economy, the customers could be tempted to appeal to a higher authority — Eve’s creators. That would probably involve appealing to the Council of Stellar Management — a body of nine members chosen by Eve players to represent them in discussions with CCP.

But the word from Reykjavik isn’t likely to comfort Ebank’s depositors. Eve’s creators at CCP — which employs its own economist and philosopher — take a laissez-faire approach, leaving most such matters to the game’s users to sort out. Unlike the Icelandic government, which allowed three local banks to nearly bankrupt Iceland with unchecked expansion, CCP is determined not to encourage entities to become too big to fail.

This is similar to a nasty incident in Second Life a while back, but SL’s banks are governed by US banking law, and so Linden Lab takes a much more hands-on approach to its economy.

It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out; it’s easy to dismiss the travails of a metaverse bank as irrelevant, but as they become more complex (not to mention valuable in real-world terms), metaverse economies may become a valuable testing ground for alternative economic theories. Anything that helps us avoid another real-world clusterfuck has got to be worth keeping an eye on, right? [via MetaFilter; image by Pentadact]


Recession-proof business models for online games

Paul Raven @ 16-04-2009

Coory Doctorow’s latest Guardian column looks at the ways in which MMO game designers are trying to make their virtual worlds immune to recessions and other external economic pressures. In a nutshell, it’s all about creating a partly isolated arbitrage economy that leverages the meatspace disparity between the cash-rich and the time-rich:

Seen through this lens, a “game” is just a bunch of applied psychology that makes kids work long hours to earn virtual gewgaws that adults are trained to desire. In this “Free to play, pay for stuff” world, kids are alienated from the product of their leisure by a marketplace where the game-company skims a piece off of every transaction.

The psychology of this is fascinating, since it all only works to the extent that the game remains “fun”. One key element is that skilled players (eg, kids) must not feel like the rich players are able to buy their way into positions of power. Game devs are advised to sell defensive items – shields, armour, dodging spells, but not offensive ones. A skilled player will still be able to clobber a heavily armoured rich player, given enough time (and skilled players have nothing but time, by definition), but may quit in disgust at the thought that some rich wanker is able to equip himself with a mega-powerful sword or blaster that gives him ultimate killing power. No one wants to play in a game where one player has an “I win” button.

(Just as a side note, I find it quite endearing that Cory has taken so naturally to British slang like “wanker” and “can’t be arsed”.)

While we’re on the subject of MMO economies, though, I might just mention EVE Online again. Not only is it unique in the connection between its in-game currency and the economy of its ‘home’ nation of Iceland, but in the staggeringly huge degree of obsession that its most powerful players can develop.

… consider that the game has both legal and illegal channels for real world income to bleed into the game. You can spend your hard-earned money on an in-game item called a ‘PLEX’ which can be used to add two months of in-game subscription time to a character, and then sell these PLEXes on the in-game market for in-game currency (isk). If you’re rich in-game and poor in reality, you can play EVE for free by simply purchasing PLEXes; if you’re rich in reality and don’t have time to make spaceship money, you can sell some PLEXes and buy as many spaceships as you feel like. Of course, many players go outside of the established CCP-sanctioned system and buy and sell both currency and characters on the black market of eBay; a substantial sum of hard currency can be earned by a diligent eBayer, and it is an accepted belief among many EVE players that some people are making a day-to-day living off selling isk.

And that’s nothing – read the rest of that report for stories of players spending literally thousands of dollars of real-world money on EVE campaigns, planning to sabotage the power lines to the real-world houses of other players in order to weaken their factions at the crucial moment, and more. No matter how many new worlds we build, we take our weird human flaws and foibles with us.


Iceland’s economy is dependent on imaginary space pirates

Paul Raven @ 10-04-2009

EVE Online screenshotCourtesy of Jamais Cascio, here’s just another reminder of the fact that we live in a very strange world that gets stranger by the day. Point in case: the wrecked economy of Iceland is less real that that of the online space RPG EVE Online:

The in-game currency of EVE Online is the ISK. That’s right, the Icelandic króna. And where most multiplayer games have attempted to ban the translation of in-game assets to and from real-world money, EVE Online has not only permitted it but actively embraced it – so much so that daily speculation on world/game financial leverage is conducted openly on the official game web boards. As a result, the EVE Online ISK has remained fairly stable against virtually all the real currencies of the world for a few years now, fluctuating but not spiking, not crashing. There are people out there making an income, a real-life income, just handling the trades on the “floor”.

All of which is to say: Iceland has collapsed so thoroughly that at this point, it’s only economically viable export may very well be an internet spaceship game, and that internet spaceship game’s króna is for all intents and purposes a more real and valid and valuable currency than the actual country’s actual money.

Strange stuff is afoot in the Global Village, no? [image by Psycho Al]


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