Clearly, I Am a Genius

I've been anxiously awaiting a dev blog containing clarifying details on the imminent Alpha clone "free to play" option, to be available in November, and it came out today. The impact of Alphas on EVE Online was clearly a principal focus of the conversations at the recent Council of Stellar Management (CSM) summit meeting.

I've written previously in this blog about the potential negative effects of Alphas on the game, especially for increasing the likelihood of ganking in high security space. Originally, my suggested solution was to lock safety switches on for Alphas when flying in high-sec, but after thinking about it further, and reading some useful ideas from commenters, I softened my position, and came to the conclusion that if multiboxing with Alphas was prohibited, then any potential adverse impact would be acceptably minimized.

I urged the CSM to plead with CCP Games to limit Alpha players to the same restrictions as those currently imposed on free Trial Accounts, which would prohibit simultaneous log-in of Alphas with other accounts, including Omega paid subscription characters.

Lo and behold, today's dev blog reveals that this is exactly what CCP intends to do.

Clearly, I am a genius, everyone on the CSM reads my blog, and they all agree with my irrefutable and flawless logic.

You're all quite welcome, folks. (/me bows)

Impressed with CSM 11, so far

I must confess that after the results of the CSM 11 election were announced at Fanfest last April, I was highly dubious that they would be able to represent any interests except for those who play in null-sec space. Every CSM 11 representative lives primarily in 0.0, except for good Steve Ronuken. I expressed my cynicism quite pointedly in this blog, and frankly, gave up hope that anything useful for high-sec, low-sec or wormhole space would arise from CSM 11's efforts.

When CCP announced the F2P Alpha clone concept, I despaired that the CSM would turn a deaf ear to the woes of peace-mongering industrial-loving space hippies like myself, and I envisioned hordes of Alphas freely ganking every high-sec target in sight. I figured the CSM would push for unlimited multiboxing and multimixing of Alphas and Omegas, since the value of potentially infinite and free utility characters in null-sec would be immense.

But CSM 11 has surprised me by being entirely reasonable and balanced, as shown in their discussions in the summit minutes, and now, in this dev blog. In a way, I'm a little disappointed - the bittervet in me was looking forward to an entire year of whining and gnashing of teeth. Alas, it appears that CSM 11 actually does care about the majority of us who play outside of 0.0 space, and I must now graciously acknowledge their sound thinking, and extend kudos to them all.

A well-conceived plan

The degree of reasonableness and thoroughness to which CCP and the CSM have considered the potential implications of Alpha clones is apparent from refinements described in the dev blog. The Alpha skill set has been tweaked to prevent Alphas from using Entosis Links, farming planetary interaction bases for free, abusing Tech II ECM jammers, or fueling starbases. They will now be able to mine gas, use a single jump clone, and employ drones effectively. These are all good changes, and indicate how well CCP and the CSM are thinking this through.

CCP acknowledges in the dev blog that there are still some uncertainties associated with Alpha clones, but that they will monitor their use and make adjustments, if needed. If ganking proves to be an issue, despite the multiboxing limitation, CCP will lock Alpha safeties on in high-sec. If Alphas are abused for skill points farming, they may intercede there as well. It appears that CCP and the CSM have considered a variety of contingencies.

On to EVE Vegas, baby!

After reading this dev blog, virtually all my fear about Alpha clones has abated, and I now feel very confident that their impact in November and beyond will be almost entirely positive for the game. To be honest, I really did not think I would feel this way a couple months ago.

I'm now looking forward to my trip to EVE Vegas at the end of October with great optimism and enthusiasm - something I've not felt about EVE Online since April.

Fly safe! o7

Changing My Mind (a little)

When free-to-play (F2P) Alpha clones were announced by CCP last week, I wrote a post exploring their potential abuse by high-sec ganking pilots. In that post, I urged CCP to lock safeties on for Alpha clones in high-sec space, as it seemed the only reasonable way to ensure that veterans would not use them for free incremental advantage.

I commented further on the Alpha ganking issue in a follow-up post, which asked people to remember that EVE is not only a PvP game, and that effects of new features (e.g., Alpha clones) need to be evaluated carefully in light of the game as a whole.

Reader reactions to my last post have been.... well, let's just say they've been an interesting mix. Some enthusiastically agreed, many had opinions that wavered between support and concern, and a couple taught me new things about the creative use of profane language. This is what happens when you dare to publish an opinion about EVE Online - you generate a broad spectrum of expressed perspectives.

This diversity of reactions is exactly why I started writing this blog - it helps me see the bigger picture, and learn new things about our beloved game, EVE Online. So, even though I have had to withstand a little verbal abuse from critics emboldened by their shields of anonymity, the feedback has been very educational and enlightening, on the whole. So, a sincere thanks to all of you who sent me comments, tweets and emails with your ideas and opinions.

I've learned a lot over the last week. And as a result, my original position on the Alpha safety locking issue has softened, with some qualifications. In short, I've become more open to an alternative approach to handling the Alpha ganking issue, and I'd like to explain why.

The Alpha Ganking Debate

My fellow blogger and EVE media personality, Ashterothi, posted a link to my post on Reddit, and it generated a huge spike of interest. (Thanks, Ash - much appreciated!)

CSM member Mr. Hyde posted an interesting comment there, in support of locking Alpha clones' safeties on in high-sec space:

The underlying goal of Alphas is to give NEW PLAYERS a free opportunity to experience enough of EVE at their own pace to convince them to go Omega and subscribe. Sensible limits as to what they can access are part of this experience:
(1) as a safeguard against abuse by existing players, but
(2) also to clearly show that going Omega will unlock the full potential of the game, without ruining the core game experience of EVE that will hook them into subbing.
So when taking feedback and evaluating what limits should be placed on Alphas, we need to see if the proposed limitation furthers these goals.
Is limiting Alphas from participating in high-Sec ganking going to achieve (1)?
Clearly yes. Existing players know enough about this playstyle and the associated mechanics to potentially exploit it. Given Alpha clone skill restrictions, do I think this will really give high-sec gankers substantially more power than they already have with existing alts? No. But for the sake of quashing any unforseen potential for abuse and distracting from the real focus of Alphas, I am fine with safety limiting Alphas in Hisec.
Is limiting Alphas from participating in high-sec ganking going to achieve (2)?
Yes. We are not going to fail to hook an ACTUAL NEW PLAYER by limiting their ability to suicide gank haulers in high-sec. Whether you like it or not, this is something that is perfectly acceptable to put behind the paywall and subscribe if you want to participate in. It is implausible to think that by limiting this type of PVP to Omegas only, that we are somehow doing a massive disservice to newbros and ruining the core EVE experience that will encourage them to sub. They can train into a t1 cruiser and go kill a titan in a huge fleet battle in null, they can fully participate in our player economy and make billions if they are smart, they can FC a fleet and be leaders if they want to; no one is stopping those things.
So TLDR I don't buy veiled attempts to allow existing players to abuse Alphas under the guise of "this won't let them experience EVE and they won't sub because of it".
(If only EVE Online players were more passionate debaters...)

(If only EVE Online players were more passionate debaters...)

This was, I must admit, a little surprising. I honestly did not expect any of our current CSM to support ganking restrictions on Alpha clones.

On the other side of the issue, supporting the unrestricted Alpha ganking camp, Jin'taan, another CSM member, published an article on Crossing Zebras. Here's a pertinent excerpt:

... [Regarding]the possibility of ‘safety locking’ Alpha players to either yellow or green, to prevent expected abuse from highsec gankers. This is something I don’t necessarily disagree with, but I feel that it has significant downsides that need to be addressed, and is somewhat based on assumptions that aren’t truthful.
... Think about what the game loses by turning off ganking on Alphas. Not just from a real level, but from a perception level, from the mythology of EVE level.
EVE has long been seen as a game in which you can do whatever you want, and that there will be consequences for your actions. Not just by the players, it’s the general view of people who don’t play the game on it. There’s the whole ‘nowhere is safe’ and ‘only fly what you can afford to lose’ mantras, which are seared into newer players by veterans. What does it say to these new players if we restrict them from trialing aspects of gameplay, no matter how niche a part of the sandbox it might be?

As I suspected, it appears that CCP is leaning towards allowing unrestricted Alpha clone ganking, if CCP Rise's comment in the aforementioned Reddit thread is any indication:

I just wanted to chime in here and say that from our side, the idea that 'EVE is a PVP game', and some of the associated logic you mention, really has nothing to do with our position on this, or on anything as far as I know.
Instead, our driving principle for the Alpha design is to try and give the best EVE experience we possible can to Alphas, and only draw lines in cases where 'an unworkable or unsustainable imbalance in the game's cycle of gathering, building and destroying' (as you very nicely put it) becomes inevitable.
The only reason we haven't already committed to a limitation related to suicide ganking is that we aren't necessarily convinced that it does create such a pronounced imbalance AND we know we have a good tool to respond if it turns out that imbalance does emerge.
But! As the follow-up blog said, we are still in the thick of discussion and final touches so lets see what comes from the summit.

So, the door to locking Alpha safeties is still open, but just barely, and I suspect it will be likely be closed at the CSM summit meeting next week. I'm resigned to the likelihood that Alphas will be ganking in high-sec in November. But I may be alright with that, if certain limits are maintained.

A Reasonable Alternative

In his CZ article, Jin'taan hints at a possible alternative restriction for Alpha clones that would work well for limiting potential abuse (emphases mine):

...Assuming that accounts can be locked to one Alpha character per session, this gives us the worst case scenario of a ‘free’ alpha alt to any Omega ganker. Personally, I would prefer to limit Alphas as the only client able to launch, but that’s due to the usefulness of having free alts in other areas (specifically FW Griffin & T1 logi alts, though I’m aware there are other use cases which are degenerate). If this is implemented, your worst case scenario goes as follows: a veteran player will be able to have a sub-optimal gank alt to try out the playstyle, whilst still being vastly inferior to a subbed player. This is almost exactly the same situation as currently exists with trial accounts...

There are several important points to highlight here. First, Jin'taan recommends limiting players to one Alpha per session - no multiboxing of multiple F2P Alpha characters allowed. This is a good idea, as it will prevent individual players from assembling hordes of multiboxed Alpha clone ships to wreak havoc. But then he makes, but immediately dismisses, a very important suggestion: limiting Alphas as the only client able to launch.

In other words, if you launch an Alpha clone character on your client, you would not be able to simultaneously launch an Omega clone at the same time, or vice-versa. Jin'taan points out that this would limit the usefulness of F2P Alpha as supplemental alts by veteran players, and so he discards this idea. But I think this is a mistake.

The intended purposes of F2P Alphas, as Mr. Hyde emphasizes, are to entice new players to try the game, and to encourage inactive veterans to return, both with a no-cost but limited play option. I do not believe that CCP intends to provide Alphas as a means to supplement currently subscribed veteran players with free utility characters, which could be used for intelligence gathering, logistics or EWAR support, enhancing ganking firepower, or other purposes. The likelihood that these utility F2P characters, existing only to support an existing subscription character, would ever be converted into subscribing Omega clones is nil.

This is why CCP currently disallows free trial account characters to multibox with subscriber account characters, as Jin'taan points out. According to CCP's policy statement:

...A trial account may only be logged in as the sole account on the computer. Being logged into a trial account will prevent any log ins to other accounts on the same computer at the same time, independent of their account status. It is also not possible to log into a trial account when logged into another account on the same computer. 

Without this limitation, veteran players would make free trial characters all the time, to support to their highly developed main characters, but with no potential financial return to CCP.

So, why should CCP treat F2P Alpha accounts any differently than the current trial accounts?

A Fair Compromise

The main concern that I described in my post was that gankers would use F2P Alphas as a no-cost firepower enhancement in support of their Omega clones.

I am not terribly worried about all-Alpha teams of pilots banding together to gank people in high-sec. As CSM representative Noobman very competently explained in his Reddit post, relatively large numbers of Alphas in T1 Catalysts would be required to gank successfully. Frankly, if that many individual Alpha pilots can organize into a large enough swarm, I say all the more power to them. But I don't think many new players will do this, and veteran gankers would prefer to use their more powerful highly-skilled Omega characters, if forced to choose between them and less effective Alpha characters, even if the latter is free. But I can easily see veterans gankers gleefully adding no-cost Alphas to their fleets, to multibox in support of their subscribed Omega characters, for the free 30-50 percent bonus in firepower.

If they could do so today, I am sure that many EVE Online veterans would be creating trial accounts to establish free support characters to supplement their mains. But since CCP has banned simultaneous log-in of trials and mains, the risk of doing so is extreme.

Will CCP and the CSM come to a reasonable compromise on Alpha clones, during the CSM summit in Reykjavik next week?

Will CCP and the CSM come to a reasonable compromise on Alpha clones, during the CSM summit in Reykjavik next week?

By banning simultaneous log-in of free Alpha and subscribing Omega characters by the same player, CCP would simply be extending the same policy that they have in place today for free trial and subscription accounts. Such a policy would make the concerns that I expressed in my post irrelevant.

To be candid, I would still prefer to see safeties locked on in high-sec for Alpha accounts, but if CCP wants F2P Alpha accounts to be able to sample the wonderful world of ganking, then safety-locking is not a workable option. In that case, treating Alpha clone accounts with the same log-in limitations as on the current trial account policy seems to me a reasonable compromise:

  • An Alpha clone account may only be logged in as the sole account on the computer.
  • Being logged into an Alpha account will prevent any log-ins to other accounts on the same computer at the same time.
  • It is also not possible to log into a Alpha account when logged into another account on the same computer. 

Even with these limits in place, miners and haulers will have to be more diligent about watching for hordes of Alphas buzzing around, but that should be fairly rare. (If it turns out to be more common than expected, then CCP always has the option to lock safeties on in high-sec, of course.) The current state for veteran gankers would be unchanged from the status quo, which is good. And F2P Alpha accounts would remain true to the purposes for which CCP intended - as an effective introduction to EVE Online for new players, and as a no-cost incentive for veteran players to return - and not as a free incremental advantage for veteran subscribers.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of decisions that CCP and the CSM make next week in Reykjavik.

Fly safe! o7

 

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