I started this blog with a lecture on the trust problems of Eve. That was quite a while ago. Now, it’s about time to explain how, I think, Eve will one day die. Thinking of this was actually what prompted me to start this blog in the first place.

It’s not happening yet, and will still take a year at the very least — virtual worlds are resilient entities and can dwindle for an eternity, though if Eve does, it’ll go out with a bang. It can still be avoided.

The time window to do something about it is shrinking, though.

To reiterate the most important point from the trust problem lecture, the problems building and keeping trust in Eve produce problems of new player retention — new players do not readily integrate into veteran groups even into positions that they could possibly occupy, and these are instead taken up by more and more alts of veterans themselves, and new player groups can’t survive competition with veterans. That produces a self-sustaining loop, as more alts running around in fact make it harder to trust anyone.

This results in veterans controlling a disproportionate number of ‘votes’ in running the game — the ability to cancel a single account can be treated as a plain vote. While in ideal conditions, one player gets one vote, in Eve, one veteran controls anywhere from 1 to 20 votes. The exact average number of accounts per player is not being released these days,1 but frankly, even CCP can only make educated guesses on the matter. Conclusively attributing two accounts to the same person is something you can only do on a case-by-case basis and there are no hard and fast rules — you can get close to the true number, but knowing for sure is impractical. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s sufficient that a veteran typically influences not only his immediate social circles and the dominant opinions therein, but also directly commands more than one vote.

There’s a similar effect that can be observed in any modern society. What previously was a uniform mass of people, which could be analysed statistically and behaved according to the law of large numbers, suddenly no longer quite does — because the natural clusters people form around opinion leaders have suddenly become much bigger due to modern communication capabilities or the emergence of sharply polarizing issues that force people to demonstrate allegiance immediately. Once clusters are big enough, the law of large numbers stops being a very good predictor.2 It’s as if individuals grow into each other, so there’s suddenly less individuals in the same number of actual people, and the numbers are no longer so large.

I called this effect ‘social fragmentation’ when I first thought of it, even though actually, what happens is exactly the opposite. Like when you’re rearranging files on a disk during disk defragmentation, people of like opinions clump together, and reinforce these opinions in each other, producing larger groups that act in a uniform fashion, when previously, they would pull in random directions like ants trying to move a caterpillar, only getting anywhere because over half of them is pulling in one direction. What fragments instead is the picture of reality each group subscribes to — there is no longer a uniform ‘what everyone else thinks’, because there’s no longer a uniform ‘everyone else’. Not that there ever has been, but there’s far less of it than there would otherwise be, reality almost literally fractures and groups start wondering what the other groups have been smoking — because their impressions of the world and sets of culturally shared experiences are so radically different.

Normally this would not be seen in a MMO, because they’re typically just big enough for the law of large numbers, but still too small and disconnected for the fragmentation effects to manifest. Unless there’s a really strongly polarizing issue that draws on their cultural backgrounds of origin,3 it is actually very much like a town somewhere in the wilderness.4 But in Eve, two things happen that don’t commonly happen in MMOs:

  • Veterans controlling a disproportionate number of accounts form much larger clusters, from the votes point of view, than they could otherwise.
  • Groups based on off-world communities enjoy an advantage, which allows them to grow bigger than other groups, and they form their own, even larger clusters.

So the effect still comes about, just in a very different fashion. The one interesting consequence of that effect is that the community becomes more prone to sudden changes. This is basically the way revolutions work these days. In Eve’s case, the danger is obvious — whines about one change or another may suddenly give way to mass account cancellations, turning what would offend an inconsequential 1% of players into offending 10% or more. "Everyone knows" that cancelling your account is the only way CCP listens, right?5

Now, there’s one thing on the horizon that will become a strongly polarizing issue fairly soon, a done deal that is only months away. Dust 514. Yeah, that.

Dust is a very ambitious project, an implementation of something that has only been talked about since late 90s. It’s essentially the first proper fusion of multiple game layers into one gigantic universe. While games that let you run on the ground, fly and drive everything, and give your lieutenant an RTS interface all at the same time have been around for a while, none of them ever attempted or could do this on scale large enough to bring space into it.

It is not at all surprising that Dust has drawn considerable interest just for that alone. When Dust was presented during the 2011 Fanfest, the number of people who watched the presentation live on Playstation Home was cited as ‘several hundred thousand people‘. All of these people are potential Dust players, and there’s no telling how many more will there be, nor there is any way to know just how many of them will end up trying it out, but seeing as it’s free to try, the proportion can be very high. I remind you that Eve currently numbers at ≈360k active accounts, not counting the trial accounts. The number of Dust players has every chance to exceed that, possibly by orders of magnitude.

Which would normally be a very, very good thing both for CCP and for Eve players, but every silver lining has a cloud, and if my intuition is any indication, this particular cloud is a typhoon.

I must admit I haven’t played Dust myself, mostly because of not owing a PS3 in the first place. But for this particular conclusion that’s not important, what’s important is what Eve players expect from being finally connected to Dust, for which, seeing their excited comments everywhere is quite sufficient. And wherever you look, I can bet that one of the first comments you shall see boils down to "fresh victims!" — mostly to shoot from orbit, but also, to scam and otherwise exploit.

It’s not like CCP did not publicly indicate that this is one of the things they had in mind. There’s that whole "Future vision" trailer which boils down to exactly that — a capsuleer in charge of orbital strike redirects this strike to blow up the mercs he was supposed to support instead, and then immediately gets shot for it on the station. This is obviously a vision of wishful thinking, it’s not going to be like that anytime soon. But notice what’s missing.

Yes, walking in stations is much further away now than it was when this trailer was published, but orbital strikes are just around the corner. I, of course, know, that to shoot from orbit Eve players will need to have a target designator on the ground, gameplay videos released indicate that quite clearly. However, there’s one thing you can trust about Eve players, if there is a way to grief someone, they will find it, and if all that requires is sacrificing an alt, they’ll gladly take this chance. Which is still fine and dandy.

What isn’t fine and dandy is that Dust players are not the same crowd as Eve players, and never really will be. From the very platform itself, which selects for a considerably different demographic, to the existing culture of FPS players, which are typically far less attached to particular games, as their skills are applicable in just about any of them, and who generally have a special hatred for team killers, Dust players will be very different, even if the seed population of beta users is selected from existing Eve players. And they will be much more likely to complain about unfairness of the situation they’re in than Eve players are. The large scale cultural conflict between Dust and Eve players is inevitable like sunrise.

The fun thing is that I have a distinct impression CCP is flying what they cannot afford to lose. I have no real data nor clue on how much money has been sunk into Dust development, or whether it was even all theirs, but it’s probably a really large part of CCP’s budget, not to mention the Aurum microtransactions forming the very important part of the expected future income.6 They clearly can’t afford Dust to fail.

I can see one of the two things happening because of all the abovelisted reasons:

  • Dust players quickly clash with Eve players over cultural incompatibilities on what is permissible towards your fellow man in the game, and flood CCP with petitions that eventually force CCP to make really unpopular changes to fix the situation immediately in the fastest way possible, lest Dust fails without actually properly taking off.7 Eve veterans will feel this to be encroaching on their core values — having fun through the domination of others. Since, as described above, Eve’s social structure is already unstable, this can cause a mass exodus well exceeding the Summer of Rage in magnitude, sufficient to cause a cascade.
  • Dust players take matters into their own hands and actually invade Eve in numbers so high that the Goons will feel themselves a minority. This community will have a huge trust base to give them an advantage, and quickly displace Eve players out of their niches.8 Then they will petition in favour of their Dust characters, which will cause the same thing.

But probably, we can expect both to happen at once. Nice vision of apocalypse, don’t you think?

Yes, I might be exaggerating. Just a little, though.

In short, it puts CCP into a zugzwang — a position in which there is no winning move. Favour Eve players and Dust might fail. Favour Dust players and Eve might fail. One failing will drop the other dead, and you can’t balance them on the tip of the needle for very long. What CCP has clearly devised at least partially to introduce new blood to Eve might simply drown them in that blood.

There is so far no indication that CCP sees this potential problem at all, and if they do see it, they definitely aren’t telling what are they going to do about it. The most obvious thing is to create mechanics to insulate Dust from Eve in terms of griefing and trust — the contracts system slated for Winter expansion. But as I said above, no matter how advanced that contract system is, Eve players will find ways to exploit it, plugging them up in time might be simply impossible.9 What Eve needs instead is to become more stable, so that it is no longer quite so dependent on the views of it’s powerful voting blocs.

And the only way to have that is to fix the new player retention problem at it’s root — preferably, doing something for this before Dust comes out of beta and into the hands of every unsuspecting PS3 owner.

  1. Actually, what would be most interesting is the full dataset — number of players controlling 1,2,3,4 accounts, etc. — which has never been published.

  2. It also becomes harder to collect reliable data, because once the clusters are large enough, there’s no guarantee that any random sampling of the population you selected for study didn’t end up with a disproportionate representation of a given cluster. You basically have to cover everyone with a blanket data collection system to get anywhere after that, or explicitly segregate by cluster.

  3. I.e. if they don’t have a common language.

  4. Down to the population mechanics, actually. Children get born, and if they don’t find a job in town, they move out to greener pastures. Eventually only the old people stick around, new children no longer get born, the remainder slowly dies off — sounds familiar?

  5. It’s not like CCP didn’t nurture that belief.

  6. I do wonder what kind of ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) they expect, actually. It’s pretty obvious with Eve players, but nowhere as obvious in a microtransaction revenue model.

  7. While Dust players will probably no have accounts to cancel, their displeasure will be visible far quicker in the online population numbers.

  8. There’s also one interesting indirect cascade opportunity here in particular. Many established players have adapted to pay for their main accounts with PLEX, i.e. they’re capable of having sufficient ISK income to regularly purchase PLEX for all of their accounts. Any significant drop in the PLEX purchasing population, which is, in many a case, solo or small gang PVP aficionado with no time nor inclination for PVE, will cause PLEX prices to rise, which may make the established players who pay for their accounts with PLEX incapable of purchasing them in required quantities. PLEX price is kind of like the an economic index for player satisfaction for a specific population subset, if we only knew for sure which subset that is…

  9. No matter what you do, as long as you don’t have a human policy that limits breaking trust, no amount of mechanical limitations will completely stop it. Typically this isn’t a problem. But in Eve, such a policy is contrary to fundamental design decisions, and mechanical limitations are a very touchy issue among the population…