People spend their lives in the rational pursuit of value, by maximizing self-interest. That’s a statement most people find they can agree with. Many a school of thought is basically built on this very statement.

The devil is, as usual, in the details, and today, we’re talking about values, fun, risk, reward, and conflict drivers.

Details are tangly. There is no clear agreement on the "rational" part, for example. It is no secret that while people may in fact endeavour to be rational, not everybody actually manages to pull the rational decision making process off. Many of those who are otherwise quite capable of it will instead employ one or another effort-saving strategy that is not guaranteed to produce the most rational outcome, but mostly works to keep them where they are. Others will instead make random choices, base their decisions on hunches, and other stimuli for which they cannot produce a logical chain. It remains an open question just how often this really happens in general, and whether statistically the summary result still works out close enough to what treating everyone as rational would predict.

But the biggest disagreements ever have all been over the concept of value.

An economist will say that ‘value’ is the equivalent of resource usage, and frequently stop at that. Sociologists will point towards Maslow’s Pyramid at the very least. But we’re dealing with a virtual world,1 which, all by itself, shapes the concept of value for both of these views.

Just what is ‘value’ for players of a game? Let me rant on about The Mantra a bit, because it’s actually at the root of this issue — "Risk vs. Reward". People, particularly on Eve-O forums, are very fond of repeating it like it explains everything and presents an unshakeable truth. Which it doesn’t. I like tripping up students by asking them to explain the fundamental concepts they’re using when answering an exam question, it immediately separates those who understand what they’re talking about from those who are mindlessly copying the textbook.2 This is one of those cases.

Just what is, in Eve, risk, and what is reward?

The obvious answer CCP appears to subscribe to most of the time3 is that "ISK or rare items are the reward, chance of losing ISK or rare items is risk." Many, many players seem to vocally defend this point of view. It is patently wrong in practice, frequently including the practice of the selfsame players who proclaim it.

It may come as news to some people4 that money in general has no intrinsic value. In fact, there’s no such thing as intrinsic value, since all values are in fact assigned by people and exist nowhere outside the intersubjective culture field — dollars are worth something because there are people out there who want them, and space money is little different. It’s muddled a little, because there are things out there that NPCs will sell for ISK regardless of whether players want ISK or not. But then, everything rests on the value of those things themselves, which players only want insofar as they can extract utility out of them. Even utility itself is not really intrinsic to an object, as it only arises when someone knows what to do with the object to satisfy a need of theirs.

So what are the needs of players in a multiplayer game? That’s where one pulls out the Maslow Pyramid, and tries to apply it. The first thing we should notice is that players do not come from a vacuum, somewhere outside of the game they typically have lives, however full or bland they might be. These lives are normally sufficient to obtain at least the computing hardware required to play Eve, and possibly social experience sufficient to learn to use it, an Internet connection, and quite a few other things without which playing Eve cannot be imagined. As a result, for any given player, any specific step in the pyramid might end up being skipped entirely, because they do not actually expect to use Eve to fullfill the needs on it.

Climbing this pyramid we get something interesting:

  1. Physiological needs. — For a player, who has a separate context for their life to sustain them and their playing activity, that would be the subscription itself — and the time resource to make use of that subscription, both of which are directly related to the game and yet come from outside. ISK can, in fact, serve this need through purchase of a PLEX, however, that depends on someone else who needs the ISK for something else. This only exists because playing time is such a limited resource for many of Eve players, that for many people, spending it on extracting ISK out of the environment is simply irrational, and is only balanced by other considerations.
  2. Safety needs. — Safety in an online game is complicated. On one hand, little, if anything, in the game can harm the player directly, except maybe tear extraction measures which can inflict emotional distress at best. (Emotional distress, however, can be ascribed a monetary equivalent, as any lawyer will tell you.) Discounting meta-griefing, which is only possible if the player lapses in maintaining a certain level of online hygiene, the player is as perfectly safe from the start as he gets. His Eve character, however, is about as unsafe as they get, unlike in most other MMO games — a character cannot engage in pretty much any activity except station trading without being exposed to danger, and even station trading involves fierce competition which can easily destroy any progress he makes. This need is only satisfied by accumulating sufficient resources to cushion risks — not flying something you cannot afford to lose.5 ISK provides a major means at this stage, it is one of the key resources.
  3. Belonging needs. — I spent a lot of time talking about trust and it’s importance in Eve already. Being in a group suitable for your tastes either makes or breaks your Eve experience, and what’s interesting, is that while you can exchange trust for ISK — either through numerous benigh means, or through simple corp thievery — ISK will typically not buy you much trust.
  4. Esteem needs. — The first big branch in the tree of needs, which splits with the chosen Eve careers. Below that point, everyone’s needs in Eve are roughly the same and universal, whether actualized in Eve or ignored in favour of actualizing them in the outside world, but everyone has their own brand of self-esteem, which greatly depends on the company they picked, and what the resulting reference group values. For some groups, it will indeed be their wallet balance, but for quite a few more, it will be killboard statistics, and there’s no end to ways how people might wish to keep score, if they even do that in any kind of measurable fashion. You fulfill this need when you feel competent at what you’re doing, and at this stage, the most typical use for ISK is keeping you in ships and out flying.
  5. Self-actualization needs. — That’s where it dissolves completely into haze. The most typical means of self-actualization in Eve will involve affecting the way other players play the game. ISK can be a powerful lever to do that, but just as often is completely irrelevant to this kind of goal. The goal at this level of the pyramid is the elusive "fun", which means so many different things for so many people. For an interesting discussion of what fun is, you can watch this enlightening video — which makes the apt point that while some things are known about fun,6 they don’t really allow us to objectify it anyway. In Eve, quite naturally, social domination through application of power is an important part of "fun", but definitely not the only possible source of it.

As a result, ISK is valuable to the player, but only in certain ways, defined on what the end goal the player sets for themselves along the way to extract fun — and most of the activities typically seen by players as "fun" will not actually be ISK-generating in any significant way. Mining is particularly notable in that it is an ISK-generating and resource-generating activity that is seen in one of two ways — as something relaxing to do to satisfy your OCD and slip into automation mode and forget about the day’s troubles, or as something you don’t essentially do, because it happens without your intervention while you’re watching a movie, generating the ISK you need for something that actually is fun — which is exactly why you like it. Most other PVE in Eve is typically described in a very similar fashion — few people run missions because they’re challenging, and those don’t do that for long. Very quickly they become repetitive,7 and are seen as a dead-end in an Eve’s player evolution by those who know better for a reason.8

Very, very few people actually see their wallet balance as their personal highscore, and even those that do, typically see it as a stepping stone towards fulfilling the self-actualizing need for "fun" through some other means. Even such a noted trader as Gevlon, who has a sustained reputation of playing games for their trading potential, does not set earning all the possible ISK in the game as the end goal — he declares his goal is to exert social influence using that ISK as leverage, because simply earning ISK is not sufficiently challenging nor fun.

Very plainly put, ISK is not by itself fun nor relaxing, and therefore is not the real "reward". What fun or relaxation earning ISK gets you only works up to a certain point and may or may not be the kind of fun you are actually seeking. In the majority of cases, earning ISK is not unlike a penance for having fun, and it’s no coincidence that the penance for having fun in a hostile manner is also a PVE activity. That beside the no less interesting fact that ISK is subject to expanding returns.9 The more ISK you have, the easier it is to turn into yet more ISK.

Likewise, the other component, "risk", is highly dubious. Like with value, there is no intrinsic risk associated with any given activity in Eve. It is quite possible, given sufficient skillpoints, to complete a Level 3 mission with a fast frigate, and that presents far more risk of losing the ship than doing that in a battlecruiser. This frigate can in fact be exactly as expensive as the battlecruiser, if you like, though it doesn’t have to. Most of the risk in PVE activities comes from player inexperience and character being insufficiently advanced for the task, and rapidly diminishes once these factors are eventually taken away — you simply stop losing ships to NPCs. If rewards were in fact directly proportional to risks involved, newly created characters attempting tasks beyond their advancement level and winning would have to be rewarded proportionally higher than players experiencing lower risk at same tasks, which is pretty obviously nonsensical.

At the same time, the highest risk PVP activities are almost never rewarded neither directly nor adequately to the risk, and yet they are still practiced. It should be obvious that the whole concept of "risk" needs some rethinking.

In short, the whole mantra actually makes no sense. Well, unless you accept that penance for having fun is good for the soul, which I think sensible people should not do.

Now, how this applies to conflict drivers… It has been a common statement by CCP in particular that the universe is this way because they wish people to fight over resources. I.e., the universe is set up this way to deliberately provoke conflict, which would imply that CCP recognises that "conflict in Eve is THE source of fun." — it just forgets, sometimes, that ISK and other resources are only the route towards fun, while chasing the volatile player-dominated ISK economy around. There are some very interesting thoughts as to the origin of that concept. The concept itself appears sound.

It just doesn’t work anywhere as well as it should in theory, and this is because the disconnect in values declared by the population of Eve, the values they actually hold, and the values the CCP thinks they hold.

There’s a lot of research detailing how exactly conflicts start, which I won’t bother to cite here, as one could do that for an entire semester.10 The interesting and relevant part in our case is twofold:

  1. Social norms actually arise out of competition for limited resources as a means of overcoming that competition and settling into a routine arrangement. That arrangement eventually gets codified and constructs an established social order.
  2. Resource shortages are actually not the most important nor frequent causes of conflict. Ideological and cultural differences typically take precedence.

That, of course, refers to the ‘real’ world. MMOs are, once again, different by virtue of existing in parallel to a different world where players can satisfy their needs, but both of those statements remain true even in Eve, with adjustments.

Social norms arise out of competition at a lesser rate, because no amount of force can actually lock a player down completely, to keep someone down in perpetuity you need to allocate manpower to do that in perpetuity, and next to simply having that manpower, you need to also consider that not everybody will find that activity fun. That decreases the threat of competition, people back down more frequently not because they can no longer continue to struggle, but because doing so is no longer fun.11 It does not, however, completely remove that threat, and the effect remains essentially unchanged. An example would be the whole OTEC cartel business, a social construct that is very large and influential for Eve, which is nothing but an agreement to prevent competition.

At the same time, the most notable war of Eve, one that changed the face of the game world, was all about the ideological differences between Band of Brothers and Goonswarm, over whether taking the game seriously actually implies winning in it, it was about domination and points of view. The resources were just the means to wage it and the nice bonus from winning. Even in Eve, more wars are fought over seemingly trivial causes like the word "mate" or legitimate cultural differences, like most of the wars of the Red Alliance of old — or explicitly for the expected fun, like just many an Empire wardec. The existence of Red vs. Blue exemplifies that Eve players really don’t require resource shortages to explode each other with abandon, that’s what they wanted in the first place.

As a result, the role of technetium moons as conflict drivers is almost completely destroyed by their role in the workings of large alliances — technetium moon income forms the backbone of their ship replacement program, which is necessary for their members to keep having fun, without having to engage in the un-fun PVE. Everyone else finds themselves with a requirement to do PVE penance in one form or another to continue having fun. This turns these resources from conflict drivers into massive sources of expanding returns — the more technetium moons you have, the easier it is for you to hold larger territories, which allow you access to even more technetium moons…

But tech moons are just one of the myriad design decisions in Eve taken with the same assumption in mind — that uneven resource distribution is required to create conflict, and without it, no conflict will ever happen. Mineral distribution across Eve and numerous other ‘natural’ resources follow the same paradigm, the most visible result of which is not really conflict as such, but rather, overpopulated trade hubs and market competition. ISK, being a resource in the game like any other — being the faucet/sink economy, it is created and destroyed out of nothing just like minerals — is seen in a similar manner, and often, as a reward unto itself.

Until this whole paradigm is rethought, design problems like tech moons will just keep popping up out of nothing as ‘unintended consequences’, which could have been seen and prevented beforehand.

  1. To be honest, my most important conclusion from years of studying virtual worlds has been that no such thing exists. But more on that in a separate post — it is quite important for discussing Eve, and once again has to be done at length.

  2. University level examinations in humanities in Russia are traditionally oral — the student gets an ‘exam ticket’, typically containing two questions, some time to prepare their answer, and must orally present it to the examiner — typically, but not necessarily, the TA who did their seminars. The lecturer is still the main authority in case of a disagreement. The standards are fluctuating, it’s the examiner’s job to determine which mark the student gets and why. There’s a lot of strategy in picking the right time to take your place at the chopping block, and presenting your answer in the way the examiner likes, of course. Students typically come with notes for their answer written up on a paper sheet. My policy has always been to allow them to use any source they can bring with them, but once they come up, I take away their sheet, look at it, and ask questions aimed at determining whether they understand what they wrote down. You’d be surprised how many fail those. You obviously have to know when to stop, as eventually you’ll have to define "define", which would serve no purpose in an examination on a specific course, but one step is typically enough.

  3. There is, actually, one exception I can name. The recent wardec debacle had CCP Soundwave utter a very interesting statement: "War dec prices are determined by the value you get from them. If you want to go to war with someone, a higher number of potential targets should be more expensive." This is one of the rare cases where CCP actually recognised value other than ISK in pretty much any activity. This, amusingly, was not a value universally shared even though sometimes players do subscribe to it. :)

  4. It certainly often does!

  5. Importantly, in a wider sense it’s also not doing things that you cannot afford to fail. Which includes many non-economic consequences of numerous actions.

  6. Overcoming progressively harder challenges is one way to get to "fun" but not universal by far, certainly not for everyone and not for every possible emotional state a player might be in.

  7. The lack of variety in missions in Eve is, frankly, baffling. When something like Dread Pirate Scarlet can be seen as ‘fun mission’, that’s really only compared to the sea of bland "kill that cloud of rats".

  8. I have already described why people do end up in this dead end anyway, but I’ll get back to it in a later post, I guess.

  9. I’m not sure that is an established term in English, but I’m going to use it anyway. It’s basically the situation opposite to diminishing returns, where the more you put in, the less you get back per unit. While the term ‘economies of scale’ sounds close, that’s not quite it in many cases I’ll be talking about.

  10. One typically does, Russian humanities education program typically includes a course on conflictology, which takes exactly a semester.

  11. Losing all the time is typically not seen as fun.