Turn Alpha Safeties On

Ever since CCP Seagull's announcement last week of a forthcoming free-to-play (F2P) option for EVE Online, current players have expressed concern about potential abuses of free Alpha clones. CCP's Team Size Matters has heard these concerns, and issued a follow-up dev blog about it, which acknowledges them:

Probably the clearest point to emerge so far has been a request to limit simultaneous log on for Alphas. The concern here is obviously justified as swarms of free alts could potentially have any number of negative effects on the game. That said, there’s significant complexity here, especially on the technical side. We are exploring options to address this and also consulting our security and customer support team, as most of the negative behavior would depend on multi-plexing or automation, both of which are big no-no's. But, when you guys say you will find ways to break it we believe you, so, we’re looking at our options and will update you when we settle on an approach.
Coming in a close second is suicide ganking and other forms of high-sec harassment. As we mentioned in the Q and A, we know we can use the safety system to ensure there won’t be a problem if we need to, but we still aren’t sure if that will be necessary. This write up does a good job showing why Alpha Clones may not make ganking more prevalent. It’s a tricky topic and we look forward to talking it through with the CSM as well as watching more of your feedback over the coming weeks.

Noobman's analysis of potential use of swarms of Alpha clones by suicide gankers, linked in CCP's dev blog above, is a well thought-out dissection of the viability of the idea. In short, he dismisses it as unfeasible. It's hard to dispute the math and his clear explanation of the mechanical challenges of such a scheme.

But he conveniently ignores the real problem of using Alpha clones for ganking. The issue isn't that players will assemble hordes of free Alpha clones for use as primary ganking weapons, it's that veteran gankers will use Alphas to supplement the already formidable weapons and methods they have honed - at no incremental cost.

The Gangster Gift

Imagine you are a gangster, and you've acquired and upgraded your beloved handgun several times throughout your illustrious career. You now possess a very formidable weapon, for which you've practiced and developed skills to deadly perfection.

Along comes a gun dealer who offers you a free pistol. It's only half as effective as your preferred primary weapon, and it may jam or misfire from time to time, but it's absolutely free, and guaranteed to add another one-third to one-half the firepower to your attacks. And it costs you nothing, except a little more time practicing how to shoot with two hands.

No professional criminal would say no to this. (Besides, it looks more bad-ass to shoot things with two guns, anyway.)

In short, each Alpha account provides every ganker with the opportunity to improve their effective firepower by 30 to 50 percent, at no cost.

To be fair, one might argue that if professional gankers replace subscribed characters with Alpha clones, it would result in a practical reduction of damage per second (DPS) for each ganker. Today, a serious ganker uses multiple characters on separate accounts, each trained to optimal skill levels and equipped with Tech II level weapons. But each subscribed account costs real-world money. If the ganker replaced one or more subscribed accounts with F2P Alpha accounts, they end up with less overall firepower at their disposal, as the Alpha clone accounts are limited to Tech I skills and weapons.

But this situation is easily remedied. All the ganker needs to do is start multiple Alpha accounts to make up the difference. Serious gankers already know how to operate multiple characters simultaneously. They only need to practice using a couple more accounts, and voilà, they have an equally effective ganking squad at their disposal - at one-half or less the current real-world cost.

Limiting Simultaneous Alpha Accounts

Noobman suggests a practical solution for this: "Restrict the maximum of Alpha accounts running at the same time to one or two." And CCP acknowledges in their dev blog that they are reviewing this option to reduce the risk of Alpha swarms controlled by single players.

There are two problems with this suggestion, however. First, the most unscrupulous gankers will find ways to circumvent such an obstacle. Simply do a Google search on "spoof IP address" and you'll see a variety of ways to do so. Even CCP acknowledges in their follow-up dev blog that identifying players using multiple simultaneous Alpha accounts will be a significant technical challenge.

Second, even limiting the number of Alpha accounts operating simultaneously to one or two, as Noobman suggests, still results in a big buff to ganking firepower, in general. For ganking pilots who heretofore have been flying individual subscription characters, complementing their main character's firepower with an extra F2P Alpha sidearm or two will be too useful to resist. In fact, it will likely become a practical requirement.

The Inescapable Fix

If limiting the number of simultaneous Alpha accounts isn't a practical solution, what should CCP do?

One easy option is to increase the effective hit points (EHP) of gankers' favorite targets - industrials, freighters and mining ships - by 30 to 50 percent, to equalize the Alpha clone increase in DPS potential. But even I, as a peace-mongering high-sec industrial-focused space hippie, find this idea disagreeable.

I support ganking in high-sec, and I think it should remain a part of EVE Online. Having risk for flying one's ship in space, no matter where, makes the game more interesting for everyone.

However, at what point of additional risk do high-sec based players - who represent at least half of all subscribers - decide to go inactive or leave the game altogether? The significant buff to ganking that Alpha clones provide will obliterate the current balance, and threaten to drive a lot of subscribing players out of the game.

Trying to offset the Alpha ganking dynamic by buffing EHP of industrials, freighters and miners could backfire and swing the pendulum of advantage too strongly away from gankers, and upset the current equilibrium. That's not a good outcome for anyone.

The issue isn't how to balance DPS vs. EHP, it's whether it is good to increase the number of losses in high-sec to gankers.

Rather than tweaking the DPS/EHP balance, it makes more sense to simply lock Alpha clone safeties on. This protects the current balance in high-sec, and preserves ganking as it is today. Further, it avoids the messy technical challenges of limiting the number of simultaneous Alphas, which is problematic for the reasons previously described. It's a neat, clean solution that maintains the balance of the status quo.

The downside of this is that F2P Alpha clone players will not be able to participate in ganking activities. But Alpha clones already have many restrictions - no access to Tech II modules or ships, no cross-training into pirate ships, no cynos, no cloaks, etc. These restrictions were established, by design, for a very good reason: to preserve the tenuous balances in EVE Online gameplay. Why should Alpha effects on ganking be any different?

Seeing the Light

I hope that CCP will realize how Alpha clones will affect the current ganking dynamics in high-sec, and decide to lock safeties on for Alpha clone pilots. To be honest, I am not optimistic about this. The current CSM, composed of virtually all null-sec residents (except good Steve Ronuken) and which includes several acknowledged gankers like Noobman, will most likely advise CCP to allow Alphas to gank. Reading between the lines of CCP's two dev blogs on Alpha clones, it appears that they lean in this direction.

As a result, I expect that when F2P Alphas become available in November, gankers will waste no time flexing their buffs on as many targets as they can find. CCP will monitor ganking activity, see it rise precipitously, and then implement a half-measure like restricting the number of simultaneous Alpha accounts. But this will prove to be ineffective, for the reasons previously described. Meanwhile, a significant number of high-sec residents could turtle up and go inactive, or just give up and leave.

The smart move is to maintain the current high-sec subscriber base, with little effect on the expected influx of new Alpha F2P pilots, by turning the safety on for Alpha characters. But it may be later, rather than sooner, before CCP realizes this. Meanwhile, things might get very messy indeed for high-sec in November.

Fly safe! o7