Saturday, November 8, 2008

CSM - 2nd edition.

I've hinted before at my views on the CSM, and on CCP's agenda and handling of the thing being more than a little ambiguous, but nonetheless, the second CSM representative ballot is worth a few lines of commentary.

Launched in the wake of the 2007 BoB/T20/Kugutsuman scandal (along with IA), the CSM was initially pitched as council of ombudsmen whose establishment was supposed to restore the userbase faith in CCP's business ethics, and convince players undue interference from staffers in in-game disputes, as well as GM/Dev to player cronyism/collusion were not only a thing of the past, but even in times of yore had seldom been a factual truth.

Before the first CSM went live, however, this part of the pitch had been mercifully dropped, probably because the practicality of a semi-random bunch of players — selected on the basis of forum popularity and alliance player count — auditing a R-POW operator for potential maladministration is a can of worms even CCP isn't clueless enough to not foresee exploding in their face.

CSM was thus re-branded as a plebeian consultative council of sorts, whose defined role is to relay players' concerns, prayers for changes and improvements to the game (yet strictly in-game, as it has been made clear that any discussion by the CSM of price policies, business model, community management or work ethics are off the table).

The unstated expectation on CCP's part is to draw CSM reps into the inner circle of fanbois, and leverage their assumed 'street cred' for community PR as user-friendly agents of the Ministry of Truth, since any word typed with a CCP staff signature on the forum is automatically cursed with an aura of half-competent weaselry and DoubleSpeak.

Of course, the fun begins with CCP, voters, CSM candidates and past representatives all holding different sets of expectations about the CSM purpose and capacities.

Most 0.0 alliance players don't give it a second thought and will vote with the party line (if any), reading the CSM election for what it is, ie an opportunity to buy their faction's champion a seat at the table, and a chance to represent them on a select metagaming battlefield.

Some of the wide-eyed n00bs to the EVE political game will eagerly vote for whoever ressembles them most, or seems knowledgeable, or competent, or cute, and will waste their voice like a tree-hugger gay negro commie at an Alaskian ballot.

…and most of the players simply won't vote, because they don't care or don't trust the CSM to be of any influence, unless decide to play along and cast a voice in favor of a 'safe' public figure, such as Chribba or Morning Maniac (neither of which is on the roster for this election, just examples).

Interestingly, although the most prominent warring factions are somewhat represented by candidates bearing their colors*, very few alliance leaders have taken the plunge by running themselves, or even officially endorsing a candidate.
BoB leadership, for example, is nowhere to be seen, but possibly via a couple of their famed pets.

Whether this should be interpreted as a fear of embarrassment over a possible failure in a popularity contest, a strategic choice of running with candidates who enjoy plausible deniability against accusations of partisan bias, or as simple disenfranchisement or disavowal of the CSM as a whole is left as an exercise for the reader.

As for me, I voted with my army of alts, and I didn't spread the love much across contenders.
My understanding of the model is that the CSM is of some minor relevance at this stage, and can possibly have a marginal positive influence in pointing problems and solutions to the dev team's attention, yet mostly based on the interpersonal quality of the connection any given CSM representative will be able to build with his council mates — and more importantly with select CCP staffers.

The CSM is basically an officially endorsed lobby club on every other topic, with just as much influence as the feudal approach of CCP to the matter allows, and it brings absolutely nothing to the community on the issues of accountability, fair governance, and drunk driving in the conduct of business… not that I'm saying it should, while I feel for the poor souls who delude themselves in that hope, assuming that level of candor is to be found among the voting player base.

* The NC has more than a few runners, and goons have no less than 7 declared candidates in the race, out of a total selection of 43.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ghost training — Winter Expansion !

Well, not really, just a minor update, but it's what all the cool kids do nowadays, so I figured I'd make it look big, too.

Over two weeks since the asinine planking of Ghost Training, and the whine thread is still going strong, having now broken the 180 pages and 5400 posts mark, and plowing ahead at a steady pace.

How CCP managed to turn the most fanatical fanboi userbase into an army of bitter ex-wives will probably win them another "Special" paragraph in the history of R-POWs… never has the irony of the Crowd Control Production brand been so biting.

What should happen happens, people consolidate their accounts, drop alts and switch from $$ to playmoney because they simply don't want to commit to the game publisher's future anymore.

The financial impact must slowly start to be perceptible, as accounts reach the end of their subs and don't get renewed, and it will only get worse, if my own sample is any indication: I've slated 6 accounts for hibernation already, but since some are well-fed, only two will show on CCP's stats as missing before the end of this month, while the rest are to limp till jan/feb on their prepaid subs, until they go to sleep more or less permanently.

Is it really because of Ghost Training ?
Only indirectly in my case.

Really, don't start a rescue playmoney fundraiser on my behalf just yet: as long as general inflation follows the price of GTCs at an acceptable pace, I'll keep making more than I need to feed whichever accounts I feel like keeping alive.
My position is a favored one, as I'm only dropping what could be called spare accounts so far: old ones that aren't really used on a regular basis but you keep alive for variety's sake or sentimental reasons.

I'm not shutting those down because I lost the ability to Ghost Train them, as I barely ever used the feature but by accident (letting an account lapse until I try to log it on and figure it's inactive, or EVEmon blinks stupidly while trying to sync on it), and a couple times during a week-to-month vacation from EVE.

I'm shutting those down because I don't really have a use for them right now, when CCP is building up for their own private financial crisis inside EVE without fully realizing it, and I'm bracing myself for the crash — all my accounts run on GTCs.

At current GTC rates, 6 accounts amount to 1.5b ISK savings monthly, which I hope will suffice for me to ride out the predictable raise of GTC for ISK prices as the GTC offer/demand ratio plummets in the next couple months — until inflation (and my revenue) catches up (if they do, which is unsure).
This trend of GTC ISK prices rocketing up as an isolated commodity can only be accelerated by an increase in RMT'ing, as people get pressured to get the most ISK for their buck to pay for their GTCs, compounded by the risky nature of RMT'ing and the foreseeable hysteria of CCP USSS over it, which should fuel the urgency to make the most of what amounts to a capital crime in EVE world (bannable offense).

Will I be selling my 'dead' accounts ?
No… at least not yet.

There's no real reason to think they may lose ISK value as the average SP count raises, since the character category hit the hardest by Ghost Training removal (growth wise) is the high-SP specialist population.

Fewer people will train new dread pilots without Ghost Training, for ex, considering their very limited/specialized role compared to the huge time sinks involved in bringing a toon from a very good sub-capital skill-set to a lousy capital one.
[This alone is a serious issue, as new players are once again getting the shaft while old timers like me benefit from an historical edge of accrued benefits, now boosted further by an artificially raised barrier to entry.]

Most of my accounts host at least 60m SP spread across 1-2 chars…
Any specialty depending on leaping wide training-time gaps to see any progression is likely to shrink in relative numbers, as proportionally fewer characters embrace those careers.
If anything, my semi-useless veteran toons will be worth more in a few months, after the panic fire sales, when the offer of high-SP chars starts dwindling and people realize they should hold onto what is essentially becoming a non-renewable resource.

What does that mean for CCP's revenue ?
Well, not much… on a micro-scale.

6 accounts worth of GTCs dropping is just 105$/month of revenue loss, arguably a drop in the ocean ; yet CCP just lost my (and I suspect a few others') most profitable drop in the ocean.

I'm disabling accounts that used to translate into near-zero server load (mostly skill switches, and the occasional ride around the block), and am now only contributing to CCP's operating costs with accounts that generate an above average load on servers (capital pilots crashing nodes, mass traders with bazillions of market orders, builders/researchers hoarding up to 66 slots of S&I worth of queries per acct, etc.).

You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

There's a saying in the service business that the best customer is one that pays his fee and never uses the service. True to themselves, CCP is making sure to drive those customers away before any other.

Also in true CCP fashion, and after enough clue-by-four has been applied to their chewy parts that they start having problems sitting comfortably, they show how good they are at taking a hint, coming clean and learning from their mistakes by reintroducing the 30d GTCs to he game in the most convoluted (yet brilliant, as stated here) way.

They're now halfway through fixing the very first crater from the GTC bombing, but went for the wrong half: bringing back 30d GTC subs without a price correction to match regular 1-month plans, and/or bundling some form of hooking susbtance with it (shameless plug) will not break the spiral of doom acceleration.

People still lack an incentive to spend their money on GTCs rather than RMT, and notwithstanding Oveur being happy-happy with his catchphrase about in-game trade of ETCs supposedly "Cramping down on RMTs style with a kill and a smile", this claim unfortunately has about as much substance as a Sarah Palin speech on monetary economics.

Looking at the horse's teeth (because it's a damn pricey horse).

The one thing that makes in-game ETC trade sexeh and worthwile is it magically 'materializes' time (the ultimate postmodern commodity) into a transferable token.

From the horse's mouth, about the new in-game ETC trade:
  • Lower barrier of entry for exchanging ETCs. Everybody can do it easily in-game [True]

  • ETCs now use a transparent and efficient market, our very own EVE market [True, yet filler]

  • Fights price fixing--one of the single most complained about issues with the current secure exchange [True and false, this is a blown-up issue, with a real fix to an unreal problem]

  • Opens up for a larger supply, lowering the ISK exchange rate in the long run as anyone can exchange their ETCs more easily [Blatantly false due to inherent scarcity of ETCs in a seller-led market configuration]

  • Enables you to create corporate Contracts for your members in exchange for Pilot Licenses [True, and sexeh as hell]

  • Empowers you to recruit new players on trial into your corporations with Pilot Licenses [True, and sexeh as hell]

  • Allows you to give someone a "free beer" (I like this part) [I like it, too — although it only repeats the two previous pitch points.]

  • Cramps down on RMTs (Real Money Traders) style with a kill and a smile [delusional at best, see below]

  • It‘s pure awesome [Is that supposed to make a point ?]
What's pure awesome is how easily one can foresee RMT'ers not caring one bit about the in-game trade of ETC.

The simple and only influence ETC trade has over RMT is to inform the top and bottom of the exchange rates vs $$.
  • ETC ISK price/time: portion of in-game revenue devoted to paying for game time.
  • ETC $$ price/time: $$ <-> ISK exchange rate indexed on CCP GTC price.
Last time I checked, a 60d GTC was going for about 500m ISK, which translates in 250m ISK per 'EVE month' (30d sharp period), and was selling for 17.5$, giving us a CCP exchange rate of 14.286m ISK/$, or 0.07$/million ISK.
Meanwhile, $->ISK by RMT shops is in the 28.57m ISK/$ range, or 0.035$/million ISK.

As long as RMT'ers can offer a significantly better $->ISK exchange rate to their customers, that's revenue that will evade CCP's wallet — with a kill and a smile.
To bring those exchange rates on level, and hope to break the back of RMT shops, the in-game price of the 30d ETC would have to climb to 500m, bringing the daily in-game upkeep cost of an account to 16.67 million ISK.
…all that, assuming the RMT'ers don't fight back by offering more ISK for a $ than they do now.

As explained earlier, I agree with Oveur that the ISK price of GTCs is likely to go up, hard, and I imagine in CCP's Economia FantasyLand they're betting on it to reduce the gap between state-approved exchange rates and black market, thus driving ISK buyers away from RMT'ers.

Although CCP's hardline-free-market advocates going all USSR on exchange rates is quite funny, it's nonetheless naive and doomed, knowing most RMT shops currently buy a billion ISK for around 22-25$, and reap at least 30% profit (accounting for in-game overhead such as banned accounts etc.), doing nothing but arbitrage — I have a hunch RMT shops won't close doors before their $ gross is cut by at least half, and they can bank on the desperation of ISK-for-$ sellers to take some of the margin heat by consenting to lower buying prices from RMT shops, down to 10-15$ per billion.

Welcome to HooverVille Online™, Reykjavik county.

16.67m ISK/day turns EVE into a pure grinding game for those people who depend on mundane hunting-gathering PvE to make a pixel living, if they can even scrounge it anymore.

Not only does the grind detract from player enjoyment (and thus motivation to keep playing), but such a radical raise of the in-game cost of upkeep (with no matching boost on average in-game income) is the best way to drive the consumer economy down the crapper.

The foreseeable impact of this is a reinforcement of austerity patterns in consumer economy, with people living hand-to-mouth, cutting on all non-necessary expenses and looking harder for any ISK-saving opportunity.
Thus putting the RMT exchange at a comparative advantage, despite a possible reduction in price gap between ETC and RMT.

En route to oblivion, double time !

Eventually, CCP's scroched-earth economic wizardry will indeed hurt RMT'ers , to the extent that less ISK overall is burned by a reduced number of active accounts, but if that's CCP's idea of a solution to RMT, we're facing a solid enough case of killing the patient to get to the disease to warrant a very formal: WTF?!

My guess is RMT'ers may bring the fight to the in-game ETC market before then, and corner it by leveraging their huge ISK liquidities and the worsening scarcity of ETC offers.
That opens juicy opportunities for price fixing on a meta-scale, and I foresee RMT'ers offering ETC+ISK bundles in their OOG online shops soon enough — at prices that will have CCP scratching their heads in disbelief.

That is, of course, unless CCP comes up with a yet-another brand of medecine, but what could it be, one must wonder ?

ETC — in game trading (and other, less important stuff).

One word: wicked.

Listed on the Quantum Rise expansion features page is a little gem, right at the bottom, that probably will have more impact on the EVE universe than any of the other over-hyped stuff in this expansion (bar the underway server yaardware improvements): in-game ETC trade.

The same feature is covered at length in Oveur's latest devblog (a devblog is CCP's 21st century idea of a .plan entry, as copy-proofed by the Ministry of Truth).

Those with a memory better than a fruit fly's will remember the hot issue of ETC/GTCs and their relation to RMT and CCP customer retention discussed in this article, followed by a proposed fix for the Ghost Training feature (nice work of NewSpeak on retro-naming this feature, which I forgot to mention at the time, btw.).

Sadly Ghost Training isn't rezzed, and that's a shame, but IG ETC trade is just brilliant and I hate myself for not having brought it up.

The general idea of a better integration with the in-game trade is sort of obvious, and I sniffed this could plug in nicely as a new category of in-game contract (with the upcoming improvements in that area), but the idea to turn time into an actual tradeable token, as in Item is freakin' genius: it talks directly to the Oh shiney ! part of the brain that has people jump like poodles through every cool marketing hoop, and I salute this with the topical humility of one who lacks that kind of vision.

I'd go into detail on other stuff in Quantum Rise, but sadly there isn't much to say about this expansion: the fact every "feature" has to be re-hashed three times, and still needs screenshots thumbnails as filler to barely make up one screen page says enough about the anemic nature of this release, which reeks of "We don't have shit to show guys… — Well, it's this time of the year, we gotta slap that WinterXpansion! sticker on something: gimme whatever's planned for next hotfix, that'll do."

On second thought, there's so little content in there that I can cover it in a few lines:
  • Weapon grouping: Cool stuff usability-wise, and the servers will certainly love the drastic cut on transactions and to-hit virtual dice rolls.

    Oh, also movable HUD (that's the blinky thing in the bottom center of the screen), and cycle timers on weapons/mods. Well, no, it wasn't there yet.

  • Certificates: I haven't looked into those in depth, but they look promising from a usability standpoint, could help people find their way more easily in the mazelike skill tree, and may be a nice recruitment/HR management tool for corps if integrated in the job advertising system.

  • Medals: OK, I'm not the target audience for eye-candy, so I'm not overly excited about this, but I suspect the people who fancy pixel trinkets won't get an orgasm over this either, because from the screenies, those medals are 1996 cheap-ass, butt-ugly, and about as exotic and exciting as a forced vacation in a Swiss Postal Services retirement home.

  • New Stargates: Seriously, that's it ? I'm at a loss for words. They look cute, but c'mon: last time an EVE expansion was about eyecandy it was this.

  • Alchemy: Short version, crappy moons can now yield a crappy amount of yummy stuff (with much waste and effort), whereas high-end moon reactions used to be the exclusive of a happy few top-tier moon owners in select regions. Not a bad change in itself, but the kind of band-aid half-assed fix that I fear will delay a much-needed overhaul of the PvE resource distribution on TQ, so not exactly a win either.

  • Orca: 1 year old semi-smart design finally hits the live server, yelling all the way down: "I swear, I'm not just filler !". Certainly not a game changer, but why not, although it could break further the already gimped Rorqual.

  • Bombs: now cheaper. That's it, move along people.

  • New music tracks: They could be absolutely entrancing, but I wouldn't know. Like 99% of EVE players, the first thing I do on a fresh install is to disable audio. I feel sorry for the poor guy writing tracks nobody ever listens.

  • Improved travel: Already released for what it is: a load balancing fix getting Jita and other traffic jams out of your autopilot, more or less. Welcome to 1998 and onboard GPS in your 33rd century Warship, at last.

  • Assembly Array Upgrades: I've been checking those on SiSi, and I won't comment yet, because they're really a balancing/tweaking type of job, and I want to believe that's still a work in progress (or expect the same entry to make for another glorified Feature ! in the next pseudo-Expansion).

  • Speed rebalanced: See Assembly Arrays above, very much still in the oven, and certainly a controversial one, no matter what CCP comes up with. Tweaking speed, tank or DPS in EVE is like pushing a new fiscal plan in meatspace: half the population will hate your guts no matter what, so I'm not about to shoot the ambulance until this is stamped as Gold.
Although none of those features are inherently bad, and in fact are actually nice and welcome, they file for the most part under cosmetic fixes and/or solid cases of stuff that should have been in the box, and while they would have found their rightful place in an expansion worth its salt, they definitely don't make for one on their lone self.
One has to wonder if CCP has hired people from Microsoft OS/Office division as product line managers.

To be fair, Oveur's devblog (mentioned above) hints at more ongoing changes and additions, and I'm not saying CCP is slacking. More likely I suspect the semestrial expansion model isn't exactly suited to the kind of material they're hammering right now, and — as often with CCP — the dooming part is less in what they bring to the game than in the way they bring it.

Here, new content that would be a very nice bag of cookies if released as a Thanksgiving Bonus Patch only looks pale for being wrapped in the overblown package of a Winter Expansion it simply can't fill.

And yeah, I haven't posted much lately, neither here or anywhere really, but it's not for lack of motivation, just information overload and other stuff to do in meatspace.