EVE Online Economics And Game Design
The depth and scale of the EVE Online economy often sees it touted as the most interesting and robust economy in all of gaming. When considered along with the rest of the game and it’s hyper-competitive nature, the realization of just how complex the economics of internet spaceships can be becomes clear. Even in a wider audience when the discussion of EVE’s economics plays like a one-note band.
The type of emergent gameplay that CCP has spent the last decade building into the EVE experience is reflected in its economy more than anything. With almost everything in the game being partially produced by players, there is no doubt that the economy is as much about the transfer of wealth and assets; as it is as much about player interaction. Every day, traders, resources gathering operations, manufacturing, and out-of-game services all have some impact on the game and it’s players. The nature of the best is best conveyed in broad terms when talking to a wider audience which is what I’ll attempt to do here.
I am of course no economist myself, so I will focus mostly on socio-economic aspects rather than econometric analysis, neither is this intended as a guide for industrialists or traders. Instead, this discussion of the EVE economy can offer some insight to readers of all playstyles.
To begin the analysis of an economy, one would first look at the sectors of production, i.e. agriculture, industry and services, and which role they have in the economy. When considering these things, it’s obvious that the agricultural side is irrelevant to players. As NPCs buy and sell all but one of what could be termed “agricultural” products; the only exception being Livestock, which is used as a precursor to other products. Here we see the first evidence of demand driven economics. Players only utilize the products which allow them to enjoy their time playing the game. Of course different players have different styles, creating some economic variance; but the overreaching theme is one of utility. Players have no interest in features that don’t actually contribute to the game itself in some way. This is evidenced more so by the recent announcement by CCP that would be removing Industry Teams from the game. As they are an underutilized feature.
This does bring up an interesting point about the nature of the EVE player. Remember how I described it as hyper-competitive, well that sentiment is true doubly so for the economics of the universe. Players will seek out any edge they can to squeeze out an advantage over other competitors.
This then leads into what are the main economic sectors of EVE. First up is industry, or the manufacture of items and associated activities. All of the different roles within a typical economy are in some way represented in EVE. And in every case, the pursuit of player engagement and enjoyment is the ultimate goal. Of course bearing in mind that it’s a fact of life in EVE that the competitive nature means you WILL get blown up by someone else. And accepting and mitigating that outcome as best as possible is part of the game.
The gathering or purchasing of resources is the first step in the chain. And as is true of the rest of the game, someone has figured out a way to make money from their agency as a middleman. Some simply providing a service locating valuable resource sites and sharing that information. The more complex the resource chain, the more valuable the resulting resource as usual. The difference in EVE is that there are always going to be the players who try to break the system in some way. In the real world, a company can’ hire a group of mercenaries to interdict their competitors supply chains, in EVE this si encouraged.
The actual manufacturing works as it does in most other games. You need the resources, knowledge (in-game blueprints and skills), and time to be able to produce an item. And the planning and market analysis is left to you as well. A shrewd player aware of the needs of his market can become rich very quickly in EVE.
The service sector is present in the EVE economy but not as significant as industry by far. Most services are in fact part of other aspects of the economy or the game as a whole. Red Frog or PushX offer a service, but they are actually doing third-tier industrial work for hire. Mercenaries offer their skills for ISK as well, but they are involved in warfare, not economic activity in the purest sense. A few actual services do exist, like Estel Arador Corp Services or Chribba’s supercapital broker service, but while they fulfill important roles they pale in comparison to the vast amounts of ISK turned around by industry every day. One place where services play a significant role is inside larger player organizations. There are diverse third-party services which are provided by individuals or groups for the alliances they work with. Those can be forums, spreadsheets to make industrial activity easier, killboards and more. As long as those services are not provided on the open market they do not directly contribute to the economy though. In that way they are similar to domestic work like childcare and house-cleaning done by parents. They do influence the economic framework but are not part of the volume of goods bought and sold on the markets.
Agency and The Pursuit of Fun
To begin with – just like in any economy – each player is also a consumer. Some more so than others. The players who focus mostly on PVP may have alts doing industry or trade, but their main role is to buy and destroy goods. If the industrial sector provides the fuel and the motor, it is those PVP players who buy the vehicles and burn the fuel.
The only true exception to this entrepreneur rule are the true wage-earners. Those who provide some service but receive a direct or indirect payment for their agency. Mercenaries are the most prominent examples. Those players who engage in an activity and are often provided ships as payment are another example. The most interesting facet of this dynamic is the way in which emergent gameplay has been pushed forward as players develop. The CFC “PaP” link system- a way for players to earn ISK for fleet participation, is an excellent example. Only players themselves have created mechanisms of wage-earning. Again that shows just how far the influence of players on the economy can go.
Recapitulation And Outlook
At this point we have a general idea of the structure and agents of the EVE economy. A few interesting implications become apparent even at such a basic level of analysis. There is a notable absence of subsistence level production and trade. Nobody needs to eat or drink to stay alive and agriculture is therefore virtually non-existent. There is also not really a labour market as such. Players may be selected for corporation or alliance membership based on their skills to fit and fly ships, but that is only a very limited form of labour and can only be fully classified as such if the players in question earn their ISK primarily through PVP. Another glaring absence from the EVE economy is the lack of a financial sector. There have been some initiatives to set up banking services, but they eventually all turned out to be scams or ponzi schemes. Unlike in the real world, EVE players have completely lost trust in financial institutions and consequently ignore them.
Game Design According to EVE Players
This all paints a very interesting picture of the player themselves. That despite all of the difficulty and steep learning curve, they soldier on. The dedicated EVE player is a somewhat rare breed in gaming.
The world of gaming today takes four forms most of the time. I’ll discuss them in the order of how commonplace they are, starting with the most common form of game design in the modern age. I will say that the examples I use below are by no means meant to illustrate all games, there will always be outliers.
The first being a “theme park”. This game ushers the player along a set path with no deviation or true freedom from game mechanics. Sometimes even trying to disguise this fact with the illusion of depth and choice. Linear gameplay and level design, no interesting mechanics and an overall narrow scale is the order of the day here. This style of game design applies across genres. From MMOs like World of Warcraft, to pretentious train wreck “games” like Beyond Two Souls
The second form is the profit over fun style. This is the model of the micro-transaction laden mobile gaming market. Creating an illusion of engagement for the player, and placing arbitrary goals and restrictions meant to suck them in. Then once they begin playing, the mechanics of the game arbitrarily limit resources in such a way that the game becomes “Buy these resources so you can have more fun faster.”. But no matter how much money or time one pumps in, the promised fun never materializes. This is the hamster wheel of modern game design. And is undeniably the worst way to design a game. The idea of paying to experience something that isn’t objectively fun is a waste, and it’s spoiling an entire generation of gamers.
The third form is a game design element that has existed for decades but is slowly seeing a resurgence in games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. These games rely on story telling and character arcs to engage players. Gameplay mechanics themselves are often very simple and easy to grasp. There is little freedom outside of narrative and plot choices that change the experience. What some would see as restrictive and small scale can actually help a game if the story and characters are strong enough to stand on their own without gimmicks.
Then there is the fourth form. (Why do I suddenly feel like I’m discussing Super Saiyan levels from DBZ?) This is the idea that within the game, player is free to do as they please within reason. The model of these rare gems of gaming is giving the player a basic understanding of the game and it’s mechanics, and then drop kicking them off the cliff into an amazing experience; one that blends the mechanics and overall narrative with player freedom, aiming to create an experience that the player will actually enjoy. The mechanics are often very complex and difficult to master, adding to the experience for a fan of these games.
And this is where EVE comes in, as well as other games like Dark Souls.
The mantra of these games feeling an awful lot like “You’re having problems? Get good fucker!”. To players of the other styles of games this is often a jarring experience and they are sent crying back to their mommy and daddy to play Roller Coaster Tycoon Mobile. To players who embrace it, all the arduous time investment is in the pursuit of one thing, fun.
An EVE player – no matter their socio-economic role within the game – can be equal with all others in that goal. There is no arbitrary restriction on resources or industries. No limiting access to areas for players based on skill point levels. Everywhere that’s accessible to players, is available to every player. There is simply the matter of getting there. That being another matter when everyone wants to shoot you.
And as one would expect the most traveled areas are those with not only the largest congregations of active players, but also the highest possibility of as EVE players put it “creating content”. This usually involves some form of shooting or getting shot at.
Some might say that this is actually restrictive, that every action the game is done ultimately in service to PVP, but that criticism falls short when one realizes that it’s simply the mechanics of the game at work. The large-scale meta gaming, organizations, and out of game services all do serve PVP in some way. But no other game has come close to EVE in terms of the engagement the players feel regardless of what they’re doing. Is it always balanced and perfect, no. But then again, no game ever is. And that’s part of what makes it fun. Being the underdog and winning makes victory that much sweeter.
The concept of players practically running their own in game economy nay sound like madness to some game developers, but it’s exactly what CCP wants. Giving players the freedom to pursue content within the game using whatever ways they choose.
So in closing, the economy and the interactions of players within it may be one of the most maddeningly complex and infuriating in gaming at first glance. But it’s all in pursuit of fun, so there’s is always an incentive for players to engage in some way and try to break it. This will be the topic of the next part of this series on EVE economics. How some players break the game, and how others feel about it.
o7, Fly Safe
ISKMogul is a growing video game publication that got its start covering EVE Online, and has since expanded to cover a large number of topics and niches within the purview of gaming.