The Caste System

CCP's development team has been on a roll this week. On Monday, they announced changes to fleet boosts, which was big news. But today, they followed up with an even bigger blockbuster announcement: a free-to-play (F2P) option for EVE Online.

In summary, CCP will introduce a new type of player option in November, known as an "Alpha clone state". An Alpha clone will be not be able to exceed 5 million skill points, and their access is limited to designated skills within one racial faction (Amarr, Minmatar, Caldari or Gallente). Alpha clones will be able to fly Tech I frigates, destroyers and cruisers. And they will be absolutely free.

Monthly paying subscribers will be known as "Omega clone state" accounts, and will continue to operate exactly as subscriptions do today, with no access limits on skills, ships or modules, and no cap on skill points.

In effect, staring in November, characters in EVE Online will fall into one of two castes: those in paying subscriptions ("Omega clones") with unlimited in-game freedom, and those in a F2P status ("Alpha clones") with limited in-game options.

Though I mentioned it only in jest on Twitter, on further reflection, I can foresee EVE Online players making a firm distinction between the two castes - the serious EVE players and the "filthy casuals".

Embracing the New Caste System

Reaction to the F2P announcement has been generally positive. This surprises me, as the F2P option is a very significant addition to EVE Online's long-standing monthly subscription model. But after reading the dev blog post carefully, I also find myself embracing the idea.

When CCP first introduced micro-transaction options for ship skins and avatar clothing in the Incarna update, it led to the largest and most visible player uprising in the history of EVE Online. Players feared that CCP was sliding away from subscriptions towards a F2P model, financed by purchases of in-game advantages - generally called "pay-to-win" or P2W - and made their displeasure known by unsubscribing in droves, and by staging a massive in-game demonstration in Jita. As a result, CCP management apologized and backed away from a change in their business model - until now.

BegunTheCloneWars.jpg

And yet, the clone states announcement, which neatly blends a limited F2P option with an unlimited subscriber alternative, has been well received by the usually cynical EVE Online player base. This is because it includes no P2W micro-transactions, and because it strives to complement, rather than replace the established subscription model.

The potential for a flood of new players into the game has many established veterans buzzing excitedly, as this could provide a whole new level of content development. It will also look good for CCP to get their online player counts back up to pre-2013 levels. At first glance, the two-caste system looks like a potential win for both CCP and players alike.

Troubles in Paradise

While the potential for attracting new and lapsed players into EVE Online with a no-cost but entirely playable option sounds good, I have a few concerns:

The old Omega clone wonders where all these Alpha clone pilots came from...

The old Omega clone wonders where all these Alpha clone pilots came from...

  • First, the potential for abuse by suicide gankers is huge. While CCP minimizes this risk in the dev blog, I think this is extremely naive, or just fanciful wishful thinking. Of course some people will use Alpha clones to instantly create fleets of gankers. This is going to cause a lot of havoc in high-sec space. CCP says they will monitor this and perhaps force safety switches on for Alpha clone pilots, if ganking gets out of hand. Personally, I wish they'd do so from the get-go, and encourage PvP-seeking Alpha clone pilots to find their fortunes in low-sec, null-sec or w-space, where it would be welcomed with enthusiasm.
  • Second, the opportunity to use Alpha clones for Venture-flying no-cost mining hordes is a significant problem. I can see these descending on asteroid belts like locusts, devouring everything in their path. The value of minerals could drop precipitously, and throw the EVE Online economy out of whack in a hurry.
  • Next, I worry about the success of the Alpha clone option. Let's say this plan is wildly successful, and waves of new players rush into the game. They will soon all hit the wall of our less-than-wonderful new player experience (NPE), and our retention rates will still be as low as they are today. CCP Ghost and his team is working to improve NPE, and help new players find their niche in the game more easily. Wouldn't it be better to let them finish this work, before opening the floodgates and bringing in the unwashed masses? In this regard, the Alpha clone state option seems a bit premature.
  • Finally, and most importantly, I worry about what this means to CCP's business model. The intent appears to be to encourage more players to try the game and then upgrade to an unlimited Omega clone subscription. Also, CCP stands to make more income from more players buying injectors, ship SKINs, avatar clothing, etc. But I've not seen many games offering F2P that didn't also offer P2W purchase options - is this CCP's intended monetization strategy? Will they eventually offer intermediate clone states between Alpha and Omega (e.g., Beta, Delta, Gamma....) with different levels of accessible skills, ships and maximum skill points? There is a longer-term plan, I am sure, but those details remain hidden to us. I worry: is this just a clever first step towards slowly and insidiously seducing us into a completely F2P/P2W business model?

That final concern sounds like an incredibly crazy conspiracy theory, wrapped in a few layers of tinfoil, I admit. But CCP is full of very clever people, and they learn from their past mistakes. They've never completely let go of the idea of wealth generation from micro-transactions. While this F2P Alpha clone option sounds very attractive, I can't help but raise an eyebrow in suspicion, and ask myself: What really is going on here?

Bring In the Clones

Despite my concerns, I generally like the F2P Alpha clone option, as it stands today. With a few minor tweaks to protect good gameplay, I think it could be great for EVE Online, and for our passionate community. We'll soon get used to flying in a New Eden with two distinct castes. I will be watching the numbers of new entrants to the game after this option is opened in November.

It would be fun to welcome a large number of new pilots to New Eden - I hope it works as intended and indeed comes to pass, as planned.

Meanwhile, I've donned my tinfoil hat and am keeping a watchful eye on you, CCP Games.

Fly safe! o7