We had a chance to sit down with the Lead Economist for CCP, Dr. Eyjfur Guundsson, to talk about the EVE economy and what makes it so special.
One of the elements that has always fascinated me about EVE Online is the stability and resilience of the in-game economy. What you may not know is that CCP has a team of economists that work with the development team to provide players with a stable economy unlike some of the other MMOs out there. We had a chance to sit down with the Lead Economist for CCP, Dr. Eyjólfur Guðundsson, to talk about the EVE economy and what makes it so special.
ZAM: First of all, what is Unholy Rage? I mean, there was a discussion earlier on it, but what are the underlying principles of it?
Dr. Eyjólfur Guðundsson: Unholy Rage is simply the name of a task force that we put together within CCP to fight off activities that are very well known within MMOs in general - they're usually called gold farming. In general, it's behaviour where players - but I don't want to say players, because they're not really playing the game - it's the behaviour where individuals use the game as a business for themselves, rather than using the game as an environment to play. This is very prevalent within all MMOs, but the problem is that these entities are usually using tools and additional tools that are not allowed to use to give themselves additional advantages, so they can gain more than a regular player. So that's really what we're going after.
ZAM: And this task force lead to the banning of several thousand people, as I understand it?
Eyjólfur: Yes. We've always monitored the behaviour of rule breaking players, and we have consistently been banning people on and off, that's nothing new. What was new with this task force was that we analyzed them in much more detail than we had before. We analyzed their behaviour and various groups of these entities. And once we thought that we would have a big enough impact, we banned them all at once, rather than just ban them as we came across them. So the big change is in terms of the methodology that we were using to find them and then dealing them once we found them.
ZAM: How many accounts were banned?
Eyjólfur: The initial blow was 6,000 accounts at once. But it's difficult to talk about how many players or how many accounts were banned, because they have a tendency to try to get back in, and then we ban them again, and so on and so on and so on. So it's just a never-ending process.
ZAM: Just sheer numbers, then?
Eyjólfur: In total, it's roughly 18,000 accounts that have been taken out of the game.
ZAM: All permanent?
ZAM: For a game that's so dependent on the economy, how do these bans affect it? You take all that capital out of the game, but the prices stay the same. Even though you remove it, players don't necessarily see that until the financial report comes out. How does that affect the game, short term, and overall, how does it affect the game?
Eyjólfur: Because the EVE market has become so big, it is very resilient to any changes that happen to it. And players, if they notice a shortage of product in one place, or a change in the price of another, and they will evolve to meet those changes, just like any upper class trader does. So the market, by itself, is fairly stable. Just find some new equilibrium, and continue without any problems. Even though these sound like large numbers, we have 300,000 players online in EVE Online. So even though we have taken out, at one go, about 6,000 players, which were only about 2% of our player base. And they were doing specific activities, focusing on botting and exploiting the game. Just taking them out had only a good impact on the rest of the players. It's not really a question about removing anything from the game, because it wasn't supposed to be there in the first place.
ZAM: You mentioned during the special round table that RMT doesn't exist unless there is demand. There is a lot of truth to that, and I like the way that you present that to the players because I think it's something that a lot of people don't think of. If you use something, it's going to be in demand. What do you think are some of the ways to get that message across to players? What kind of part can the player play to help scale down the RMT and the botting?
Eyjólfur: Well, in general, of course, it's the same that you do in real life. If you don't want something bad to be in your society, don't use it. If you don't want something of a certain nature in your environment, be sure that you're not part of it. But we have decided to have this two pronged attack, this pincer attack we have on this - both in terms of the demand and the supply. And we fought really hard to work it out. We don't want to break the game, and we want to keep it a closed world. We do not want people to be cast out from the world because there is a reason why EVE is designed the way it is, and we want to be able to keep that design. And in order to keep that design, we have to be sure that it is a closed world. And when I say closed, I mean that it is closed from the real life economy. So in real life, you can put money into EVE, while players should not be able to take value out of EVE, because then it becomes a business, rather than a game for the participants. So we thought really long and hard about what is it that is really going on here, and how can we facilitate this in a positive manner. And the solution was that people that have a little time; they would really appreciate help from people that have a lot of time. And the best way that those people can help each other is to simply exchange time cost. So if you're a player with little time on your hands, because of real life duties, but you have good income, then you might decide "well I've got a subscription to EVE, and I'll give a time cost to this guy and that guy, and they will give me some cash back. In-game cash. So that means that you are paying in-game subscription time for three to five people. That benefits EVE, because EVE is better as more people join. The sandbox approach, in terms of design, really requires that you have a lot of population.
ZAM: What kind of tools do you have in-game to facilitate that?
Eyjólfur: Basically we designed it to use the tools that we have, which is the market. So you, as the guy who is looking around to give time-cost to people, you can simply go to the market, and you can sell the time cost on the market, and for the market price you know exactly what you get, and they know exactly what they're buying. Yes, you guys are exchanging value within the game, but nobody is taking value out of the game. And the in-game currency that's being exchanged is earned through positive game play. So it does not break the game, it helps people function together, and it is keeping EVE larger and more interesting. So, in fact, as a player, if you're a person that has a lot of time on your hands, you can actually play EVE for free. Even though anybody will tell you that there is no such thing as free - you are just paying with your time!
ZAM: Now, one of the first questions that was asked at the economy round table, which led to the epic discussion that went on, was where you saw the economy going in the future. Based on the discussion and the already established fans that you have, where do you think that CCP is going to bring the economy in five years?
Eyjólfur: We have a big picture on the horizon that says that we want to have more advanced tools available to players. And the focus is on the tools. The players have shown us that the market, by itself, is player driven. So we don't have to think at all about the market as such, we just have to make sure that there are the tools available to make more advanced financial options. And to do that, we need to continue to add tools into the game. So as long as we are adding tools and new stuff, as long as that is happening, the game will continue to evolve, and it will evolve by the players. Once again, when I just started working with CCP, I was really amazed with the involvement of the players; not only within the game, but in terms of the stuff that they are creating outside of the game. And then the meta-game as well. The meta-game is really a strong element of the economy.
ZAM: OK, so tools play a major part, as a lot of the economy is all player driven. Which tools could you add to facilitate things like... a player driven stock market, for example.
Eyjólfur: We could take it in several dimensions. It could be simple tools, as simply making currently available graphics more interesting. It could be advanced tools that add to the corporate floor that we have. So you would have new kinds of corporations, maybe corporations that can be a better foundation for a stock market, for example. So all that that requires is a new level of programming and game design for those concepts. So that's a big task, as such. And nothing has been decided on this front yet, but just this just an example of where we could take it.
ZAM: One of the things where the argument has blown back and forth is adding tools that instil the ability for players to not rip each other off. Trust tools, while they somewhat exist in real life, like the government, or the police, it's not so much in EVE. What are your thoughts on that, and is that something where you definitely think that there's a middle ground?
Eyjólfur: There's definitely a middle ground, and I would tend more towards the EVE ground, rather than the middle. I have a strong belief that players themselves, if they want to, then they can create this trust. As we mentioned earlier, there are a range of individuals that are known for their trust. And trust does exist in EVE, contrary to what you might believe when you read the real life stories about EVE—about the scandals and so on. But the fact of the matter is that there is actually more trust than distrust. Because without the trust, we wouldn't have hundreds of people showing up in local, and fighting against another group of several hundred players. So there is definitely trust in EVE. What people are maybe talking about is to maybe institutionalize that trust, so that you, as an individual, don't have to think too much about, and just go on and do your business.... That's definitely a valid argument, but that would make EVE less interesting for the people. So keeping it to the initial design of EVE, to the initial vision that this is a hard world where you have to be really careful about where you go, and with whom you interact. It's a more interesting way to play EVE. You can play real life in real life, but in EVE, you want to play EVE.
ZAM: No, I definitely agree with you, I think that adds an element of immersion that keeps players really engaged, in an "anything can happen" kind of thing. During the panel you posited a metaphorical question about a player named Chribba. No-one raised their hand when you asked "who doesn't trust this guy," so, obviously, there are players that everyone trusts and everyone knows. But then with that great power comes that responsibility, where he could completely rip everyone off. I guess the question that I'm trying to ask here is... aren't there tools that you can give the players to help prevent that, and even offer punishment if players go rogue?
Eyjólfur: We would much rather the players themselves punish the individuals.
ZAM: Maybe tools to help players punish the individuals.
Eyjólfur: They can put out a war declaration against the person that they think has done something bad. That means they can find them wherever they are in space, and basically take their stuff. So you have the ability to avenge actions that you feel were taken against you. We sometimes use the metaphor from the old government system that we had in Iceland. There was no government. They just met once a year, and if somebody had an issue with a fellow countryman, it was either put up with a duel on the spot, or they were fined, or they were required to pay in other ways. So if that person that had that judgement put on him decided not to honor it, then he was an outcast. So you were an outcast if you didn't want to go by the rules. And this is basically what you can say is a part of EVE. You can go about suing anybody you want to - declaring war left and right - but, in the end, you will be an outcast. You have to work with people in order to thrive.
ZAM: The wild, wild west of space.
Eyjólfur: It is the wild, Wild West of space, yes. It is even beyond that in my understanding, because the wild, Wild West was all about taking over space and institutionalizing it. In EVE, it's more or less about taking over space simply in terms of profiting from it, so you can continue to do what you want. So I feel that the analogy with the wild, Wild West is much more about taking over wild space, then putting it to use. Players can do it if they want to, but generally they just go out there, take all this space, profit from it, and then someone comes and takes it eventually.
ZAM: What about the UI? Will you be adding anything to that?
Eyjólfur: The UI is something that we are always working on. We have a team within the development team that is focusing on UI. So, just like all other UI that you need, it needs to be constantly evolved over time. There are definitely a lot of ways that you could take the UI within the game and provide the players with more interesting depth; which is kind of exciting for us,
ZAM: Changing pace entirely. You come from an economic background; you're an economist in the real world, as well as in the imaginary. How has this experience changed your life and even your view of humanity?
Eyjólfur: That's a good question. How has this changed my view of humanity? Let's put it this way. From a standpoint as an economist, I've been really impressed by the fact that when you have an economy, like EVE Online, where you have very few regulations and very few rules, how efficient the market is. And it's actually conforming perfectly with the economic theories that are about. So EVE fits the economics often more efficiently than real life does. And that is because there are fewer distortions in EVE. The market is displayed, and the profits are homogenous. So it is closer to the theoretical world rather than real life. This has made me fight for more open markets and fewer regulations. It makes sense to me. You just have to make sure you don't have a misbalance between lack of information on one hand, and lack of regulation on the other hand. This is what I think really was a problem with our current financial recession. It's that we were relaxing the regulations faster than we could take off information. Let's put that aside for now.
So it has really confirmed what I've always thought about economics. It can really describe behaviour, and it has really meaningful ways of communicating to us about what people want. We've got plenty of examples in EVE, where prices have changed instantaneously when we change something. And people instantly change to the prices as they go up. People instantly change their choices, because they have their preferences, and we make a change, and that doesn't fit into their currently selection.
Taking to a more philosophical level in terms of what has it done in terms of early humanity. If anything, it has rather increased my belief that humanity will be able to solve its own problems, rather than not, because it's incredible to see what the players can do with their dedication and with their knowledge to improve the experience of EVE. They’re truly creating the content of EVE, because of the interesting factors that are happening left and right within EVE. They come up with tools to report on these issues, to communicate with each other on these issues, which is actually quite exciting. And they are doing things much more rigorously than I would have imagined. Taking that all together, I would say that, yeah, they've increased my belief in humanity. In that humanity can really solve its problems if you allow people to tackle the solutions directly. Not try to direct them in any way as to how they should solve their problems. Just give them the time and the tools, and they will, with their creativity, come up with really all sorts of solutions.
ZAM: Do you think that you've learned some things, having worked on EVE, that you could apply to real life economics?
Eyjólfur: Absolutely. I think I'm learning more every day about how effectively problems can be solved, if you allow individuals to interact, and that goes with economics as well. So every day that we look at the date, there is always an interesting observation that you can see about how the market is functioning, and how important transparency and the information flow are. So I've definitely learned a lot about the application of the knowledge I had before.
ZAM: Wrapping up here, the EVE economy is rated one of the coolest things around, as far as virtual economies are concerned. DUST 514 and EVE Online will somewhat depend on each other. How much influence have you had with the economy that will exist in DUST? It won't be as complex, as I understand, but it certainly will have some depth to it.
Eyjólfur: Well, Dust 514 and EVE are just going to be an awesome combination. This is the first time that you'll see a console game that is based on the player tactics there, merged with an established MMO that has players in the hundreds of thousands. Just like when we started EVE, well, we started the development of EVE around 2000; people told us that some of our choices were impossible. Now we're saying that we'll take those ideas to a different level. To me, this is something that is going to be absolutely awesome as a concept, and very interesting to see if we can take the economy of EVE and extend it to Dust 514. So we are in a constant discussion eternally about what is the best way of doing this, and how will we go about doing this. And, so far, all we can say is, really, when you've started something as complex as this one, it's something that you think will last for a long time, you start up slow and then you expand it.
ZAM: Definitely, because you have EVE, which is an established game and it has a stable economy. If you put too much interdependence on a game that’s future is completely uncertain, that could lead to trouble. I would imagine that there is a lot of emphasis on making sure that EVE doesn't rely on DUST 514 too much.
Eyjólfur: I mean these should grow organically. We want the EVE players and the Dust players to talk together and then form the social interaction together. And we learn from experience that these things happen slowly. And you want to take small steps - you want to take good steps! - but you want to take small steps as you move along. And as a design philosophy, that's definitely something that we will be using when we're doing this. But it's still going to be absolutely interesting to relay a lot of interaction that these players will still be able to have. It's going to be awesome.
ZAM: When do you think the Icelandic government is going to tap onto CCP for some help?
Eyjólfur: So we're more often looking for an outsider's view of things, rather than looking closer and seeing what can happen. And I think there's a small community, so people know what they're doing. Unfortunately, I think that the Icelandic government is currently too bogged down into the legal aspects of our current problems, rather than thinking about the future aspects. And maybe that's just what the government should be doing, because we have some very interesting phenomenon that's going on in Iceland these days. We have a ministry that was established by the people, called the ministry of ideas. And these are entrepreneurs. Young people that meet, I think they meet at least once a week, and they establish an incentive for entrepreneur companies. And they are doing some interesting stuff, and just taking up ideas and just saying "this is stuff we can do!" And I really like that kind of grassroots growth, saying "we can still do stuff!" And I think that should come from the people, and that is what is going on. CCP is born in that environment. They're born from an idea of some young guys saying "I know we can do it, we just have to work really hard." Here we are, five years later, and we're still thinking ten years down, saying "I know we can do something, something more." So I think that CCP and the other entrepreneur companies - they do their thing, and the government needs to deal with the boring legal stuff, trying to figure out the mess that we're in, and hopefully they'll be wise enough to make sure it doesn't happen again.
ZAM: Well, congratulations on a job well done. You and your team have done some amazing things to EVE Online. We're looking forward to seeing what happens next. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, we appreciate it.
Eyjólfur: No problem!
Andrew "Tamat" Beegle