The Capsuleer's New Clothes

Yesterday, CCP Games announced that they will experiment with offering more skins for ships in EVE Online. Effective with the Rubicon 1.2 patch, to be deployed on March 11, players may spend Aurum in the Noble Exchange (NeX) store to purchase blueprints for eight new paint schemes on selected standard ships.

Don't like the dull green and bronze of your standard Incursus? Get the skin for the Aliastra Edition and enjoy your sporty new red, black and grey paint job, instead.

Don't like the dull green and bronze of your standard Incursus? Get the skin for the Aliastra Edition and enjoy your sporty new red, black and grey paint job, instead.

Or do the same for your boring old Hyperion and make it look like an assault weapon with war paint applied.

Or do the same for your boring old Hyperion and make it look like an assault weapon with war paint applied.

In addition, CCP is also making available a new skin for the Federation Navy Comet faction ship as a purchase in the CONCORD Loyalty Point store - the Police Pursuit Comet. (The return of the Comet police car - woop woop!)

"Pull over! You're under arrest! Do you know how fast you were going?"

"Pull over! You're under arrest! Do you know how fast you were going?"

The Problems with Unlimited Free Expression

According to the dev blog, CCP intends to monitor the popularity of these new ship skins, in order to decide whether to devote more development resources towards offering increased options for custom ship skinning. The blog post explains the technical challenges at a high level, indicating that a more comprehensive ship skinning capability would require some serious programming investment.

Lukas Rox describes in a short post how changes to a few graphic parameters could produce new color skins for ships. (The pink Tristan 'CCP Punkturis' Edition is an amusing example.) Changing ship colors appears to be relatively easy. The problem is how to scale this in the game graphically. Imagine a battle on the magnitude of the recent giant furball in B-R5RB, with over 7,500 ships on the same grid, but with the added component of each ship sporting its own custom paint job. The servers would not only have to process the actions of thousands of players, but also transmit data on the multitude of different ship designs to each client, so that they can be rendered correctly.

Well, at least you'd be able to check out the pretty paint schemes while waiting an hour for your last command to execute. That is, until the servers melted through the floor and everything went black. :-)

[UPDATE: Both T'Amber and Kelduum Revaan tell me that my concerns about scalability of customized ship skins and their impact on performance are exaggerated - see their comments below. They are more knowledgeable about these aspects than I - and I sincerely hope they are right.]

The dev blog also explains how offering customized ship skins would impact the in-game market, as every design must be listed currently as a different type of ship. Under the current system, if CCP Games allowed each player to customize their own ships, the markets would soon be overwhelmed with countless variations of the same type of ship. Though I am sure that the "Neville Smit Atron SuperSport XL Edition" would be ultra-popular, it will sadly never be seen in the markets of New Eden.

Given the implications that more flexible options for ship skinning entails, one can understand CCP Games' caution about offering such functionality, and they are wise to approach this in a limited fashion.

This is a test. This is only a test...

CCP Games is monitoring the reaction to the new ship skins, for more reasons than you may suspect.

CCP Games is monitoring the reaction to the new ship skins, for more reasons than you may suspect.

Unfortunately, CCP Games' provision of a limited number of new skins is not a valid test of the potential popularity and demand for flexible customization of ship design. As my fellow EVE University colleague and Professor, Seamus Donohue, pointed out, "I'm concerned that what's offered in the DevBlog is NOT a relevant test case to gauge interest." I agree with Seamus' perspective.

This is not the first time that CCP has provided variants of existing ship skins. In fact, they've been doing it for years. Look at the variations of the common Gallente Catalyst destroyer, introduced in the Retribution update in winter 2012, for example:

They are all the exact same ship, with different hull colors and markings. Surely, CCP can see how many pilots have purchased these variants, and how many have been lost in combat. They already have the information they need to determine the relative interest in different ship paint jobs. The only significant difference with the newest ship skins is how they are being provided to players - through the NeX and CONCORD LP stores.

So, is CCP really testing the popularity of different ship designs? Or is it actually a tentative re-examination of the potential value of new micro-transactions - for new ship "clothes" instead of clothing and accessories for pilot avatars? I suspect it is a really more of the latter.

Remember "Greed is Good?"

In the summer of 2011, CCP Games examined the potential of virtual goods in this internal newsletter, setting off a player firestorm.

In the summer of 2011, CCP Games examined the potential of virtual goods in this internal newsletter, setting off a player firestorm.

Anyone who remembers the Jita riots in the summer of 2011 understands why CCP Games is being extremely cautious about re-approaching the matter of micro-transactions for virtual goods in EVE Online. When the NeX store first became available in the Incarna expansion, initial prices for vanity goods were absurdly high (e.g., monocles costing about US$70). This was a grave enough sin, but even worse was CCP's initial refusal to rule out micro-transactions for items that could provide in-game advantages - a "pay to win" model. That led to large-scale rebellion by the player base and an exodus of enough subscribers to cause CCP Games to re-think their strategy, back away from micro-transactions, and ultimately issue an apology to subscribers.

To CCP's credit, they learned from the NeX store debacle and adapted, refocusing on spaceships and producing a string of solid expansions, improving many aspects of core EVE Online gameplay. But make no mistake - CCP has never completely given up on the idea of generating incremental revenue through the sale of virtual goods in EVE Online. The sales of new ship skins through the NeX store is a hopeful re-dipping of a CCP toe in those ever-enticing waters.

There is No Grey

In March of 2012, I attended a panel discussion at Fanfest in which the future of micro-transactions was discussed. CCP Unifex, who was then the Executive Producer for EVE Online, was one of the moderators. Still stinging from the player uprising of the previous summer, he hesitantly asked what kinds of things players might want to see in the NeX store.

A couple players asked for special items, like buying CONCORD passes to improve their security status, but this was immediately shouted down by most of the other attendees. "No micro-transactions that provide player advantage!", was the general cry of outrage from the majority. (Interestingly, a version of that idea was later implemented successfully in the "tags for security status" feature in the Odyssey update.)

"Isn't that sort of a grey area, though?", Unifex asked. "That's a pretty limited kind of advantage."

I recall answering, perhaps a bit too menacingly, "There is no grey. This is a black and white issue. If you cross that line, or even try to blur it a bit, the players will see what's happening, and you'll have Jita riots all over again."

I recall that the CCP devs moderating that panel looked very dour at that point.

Don't Fear the Micro-Transaction

Since that Fanfest event two years ago, I've thought a lot about the sale of virtual goods in EVE Online. I conclude that there are two reasons why expanding their availability in the Noble Exchange and/or LP stores, would be a good thing.

Prestige Buyers

Many people buy luxury items simply to display their wealth and success to others. These are the people who don't hesitate to buy an outrageously overpriced golden monocle from the NeX store. They do it to set themselves apart from the crowd, because few others can or are willing to make such a purchase.

I can afford a monocle, so I am undoubtedly richer than you, peasant.

I can afford a monocle, so I am undoubtedly richer than you, peasant.

I have no problem with these kinds of micro-transactions, as long as they do not provide any in-game advantage. In fact, I think the game could benefit from having more high-priced vanity items in the NeX store. More choices in markets provide more opportunity for traders to meet specialized demand and make a profit. Items that encourage players to earn more ISK so that they can afford luxury items and display their social status is another strong motivator for in-game activity, and thereby, create more content for other players. As a result, luxury items can enrich the EVE Online experience for everyone.

A few ship skins that are high priced in the NeX store might not be a bad thing. It would give one more option for the rich luxury buyer to consider. There is a reason that some people drive ridiculously expensive sports cars, when much more affordable transportation would do the job quite adequately - maybe even better. EVE Online should provide more options for this kind of buyer.

There are also players who simply enjoy collecting things, so they can get bragging rights or show off their extensive set of possessions to others. I confess that I am one of these people. I love collecting one of every ship, for the sheer pleasure of being able to say, "Oh, I have one of those", whenever any particular ship is mentioned in corp chat. Like many EVE Online players, I'm a little obsessive-compulsive, so I am driven by a need for completion. For example, I must have all six variants of the Catalyst destroyer in my hangar - or else I would simply feel unfulfilled. Yes, this is weird.

But it also means that I will be among the first in line to get all eight of the new official ship skins from the NeX store, as soon as they become available. And I suspect that I am not alone in this desire. The success of CCP Games' test will depend largely on mildly neurotic people like me, who get misty eyed about the idea of adding yet another vessel to their precious collections.

Affiliation Buyers

These are the players that CCP Games is missing with such a limited degree of ship customization options. Their current test will ignore this group - and I suspect that it is far larger than the prestige buyers.

These are players who want to display their association with a group. To that end, CCP needs to add the ability to display corporation and alliance logos on ships. Even better, what if each alliance could also develop their own paint scheme, which could then be purchased in the NeX store by members of that alliance? The opportunity to fly in a fleet surrounded by your corpmates, with all ships displaying the colors and insignia of your common bond, would be a powerful sight.

The need for affiliation is a strong motivator for many people, and would provide a huge incentive to purchase items through the NeX store which display one's chosen group to others. In addition to ship skins and logos, items reserved for certain alliances or corporations would be very popular, I am sure. At the Fanfest panel discussion mentioned earlier, two members of the Gentlemen's Agreement alliance asked for top hats, monocles (the traditional glass kind) and bow ties in the NeX store, so that all of their pilots could dress their avatars in the style of their alliance mascot. Is this a silly idea? Yes, of course it is. Is it fun? You betcha, and a lot of players would buy their unique "uniforms" just to show they belong to a particular corp or alliance.

CCP Games is missing the real opportunity with micro-transactions in the NeX store. In addition to providing affordable options for customizing avatars, it should also cater to players' desires to demonstrate their prestige to others and to display their affiliation with their chosen corps or alliances. Players would pay good money for both.

Keeping It Real

The coding and performance issues that CCP Games described in the dev blog are very real issues, and potentially difficult barriers to realization of fully customizable ship skinning capabilities. But if they are making development resource allocation decisions based on the very limited availability of new skins in the NeX store, they are not seeing the full potential of a more comprehensive configuration solution.

Is this the future of EVE Online?

Is this the future of EVE Online?

Even if they were able to develop a fully customizable "paint shop" feature, CCP Games would still have to exert control over what kinds of content would be suitable for ship skins. Otherwise, the game will quickly be overrun with "Hello Kitty" hulls. Or, more likely, other images far more vulgar.

While developing a system that provides some exclusivity of ship skin designs within a corp or alliance, and thereby catering to players' desire for displaying their affiliation, sounds like a cool idea, it may not be practical. Nevertheless, this is a design point that CCP should keep in mind.

I hope that the test of new skins available through the NeX store and CONCORD LP store is successful, and that it encourages CCP Games to devote more resources towards a more flexible ship skinning system. But even if the current test doesn't produce the numbers that CCP hopes for, I hope they bear in mind that it only represents part of the potential audience for more flexibility in ship customization options. They may miss an opportunity to make micro-transactions work as they should in EVE Online - and thereby miss the chance to develop a strong revenue stream for their company.

Fly safe! o7

UPDATE: Paul Oosterman is running a survey on EVE Online ship customization, here - complete it if you wish to contribute your opinions.