The past several years have seen a complete revolution in the online gaming market, and with it the MMO industry as we know it. An industry once dominated by monthly subscriptions is now rapidly giving way to games with free-to-play, freemium and hybrid payment models. EVE Online
developer CCP Games
has repeatedly expressed concern that EVE
could go the way of the dinosaurs if it doesn't adapt its business model to this new market. While I'm forced to agree with the general sentiment behind that statement, I don't think the developers at CCP recognise just how far ahead of the curve they've been with their own business model since the introduction of the 30-day Pilot's License EXtension (PLEX)
PLEX essentially allow players to pay for an EVE
subscription with in-game ISK, and it provides a legitimate way for players to buy ISK in a way that doesn't harm the in-game economy. It's a clever system that undercuts illicit RMT business, generates additional revenue for the company, and has even been used for charity drives
, but EVE
isn't the only game to use the system. The success of PLEX in EVE
has spurred several other MMOs to follow suit over the years, both in the subscription-based and free-to-play arenas. Runes of Magic
, Star Trek Online
and even World of Warcraft
have borrowed a page from CCP's book in one way or another, and it's paying off for them big time.
In this week's EVE Evolved
, I put the PLEX system under the microscope to find out exactly what makes it tick, and I look at other MMOs implementing similar systems.
EVE Online: PLEX
, each PLEX is 30 days' worth of pre-paid game time itemised as an in-game object that can be traded, sold on the market, stolen via in-game theft and even destroyed in a ship explosion. Cash-rich players who may normally be tempted to buy ISK from dodgy websites can buy a few game time codes, convert them into PLEX, and sell them in-game for ISK without risk of being banned. The ISK comes from real players engaging in normal gameplay, so unlike illicit RMT services, this doesn't directly support account hacking, botting, or RMT spamming
As EVE Online
doesn't have any untradeable items, everything from ships and ammo to services and political meddling has a price in ISK. We're even allowed to sell characters for ISK, thereby bypassing the skill training system. In combination with the PLEX system, this fact effectively means that everything in the game can be thought of as a microtransaction, and cash can be used as a universal gameplay shortcut.
Conversely, time-rich players can easily generate enough ISK to fund their subscriptions entirely through normal gameplay, essentially turning EVE
into a free-to-play MMO. The key feature of this business model is that cash can be used to buy anything you can buy with other tradeable currencies and that everything that costs cash can also be obtained through grinding or normal gameplay. Although EVE
may have been the first MMO to use this model, it certainly hasn't been the last.
Runes of Magic: Diamonds
The holy grail of cash shops is a system in which all players can get what they want from the store while spending only as much cash as they're willing to part with. Allowing a free substitution of effort for cash or vice versa is the key component that distinguishes EVE
's PLEX model, and when Runes of Magic
launched in 2009 it was definitely designed with that in mind
. Items in the cash shop that could be seen as essential to gameplay can be purchased in small quantities for phirius tokens collected as rewards from daily quests, but this isn't the only way to grind your way to cash shop items.
Players are able to sell the game's microtransaction currency diamonds on the auction house for gold. This trade exactly mimics the PLEX trade in EVE
, providing a legitimate way to buy gold for cash and allowing players to grind their way to every item in the cash shop. As happens in EVE Online
, this trade undermines illicit RMT while putting everything the game has to offer in the hands of anyone with enough time to grind for gold.
Star Trek Online: Dilithium
When Star Trek Online
announced that it would soon be going free-to-play, it was inevitably going to need a new economic model designed to incentivise cash shop purchases. Details of the game's new economy have been released over the past few weeks, and they paint a picture that sounds remarkably like EVE's PLEX trade or RoM's diamond trade
. The standard in-game currency will be abundant energy credits that will function like ISK, but big purchases like the high-end gear required to stay competitive in PvP will be sold for dilithium. Finally, some items like new ships will be sold exclusively in the cash shop for Cryptic Points.
Where this system gets interesting is that Cryptic
will be allowing players to trade their Cryptic Points to other players for dilithium. Players will be able to grind for dilithium, so they can potentially buy anything in the cash shop without paying cash just by substituting in some effort. Although new ships can be considered essential to gameplay just as a subscription is essential to playing EVE
players won't need to spend cash to get the latest ship. As with EVE
's PLEX and RoM
's diamonds, every cryptic point spent on ships must have originally been bought by a player for cash, and the market price of Cryptic Points will follow rough supply and demand rules.
World of Warcraft: Guardian Cub
It may sound like an odd example to give in the context of similarity to PLEX, but World of Warcraft
's recently announced Guardian Cub pet fulfills the exact same function
. The $10 cosmetic monster is the first ever cash-shop pet in the game that won't bind itself to the buyer, meaning it can be traded on the in-game auction house for gold. Blizzard
belayed initial fears that this may have been an oversight with a message confirming that
the company is "OK with it if some players choose to use the Guardian Cub as a safe and secure way to try to acquire a little extra in-game gold without turning to third-party gold-selling services."
Even though it's only a single cosmetic pet, this item provides a legitimate route through which players can buy gold without fear of being banned. Players who want to get their hands on the pet can substitute its $10 price tag with some effort by grinding for gold in-game and then buying the pet on the auction house. The same arbitrage through a player-established market will exist for this item as exists for PLEX, so prices are likely to vary between servers and change with supply and demand. The Guardian Cub shows that even Blizzard has recognised the success of the PLEX trade and similar systems in fighting the illicit RMT.
The games discussed above are a few of the most obvious examples of games co-opting the PLEX mechanic for their own purposes, but it's not a complete list. The system has gained some notoriety as a popular measure for fighting gameplay-damaging illicit RMT services, spawning direct implementations like TERA's chronoscrolls feature
and modified alternatives. There are plenty of different implementations of EVE
's fundamental PLEX scheme out there, but all of them share a few core common traits that make them a potent payment method for a game.
There's always a form of purchase asymmetry in which some players spend cash on items that ultimately other players will receive. Arbitrage through the player economy is essential, as every penny spent on cash shop items or subscription time has to have come from someone somewhere. All implementations include some way to use cash to shortcut a currency grind and conversely to use currency to buy things you'd normally spend cash on. The easiest way to achieve that is to make a grindable currency tradeable for cash shop currency and vice versa, but as long as the cash shop items themselves are tradeable, the scheme holds up.
For all CCP's worry over becoming obsolete in a changing market, I can't help but think the PLEX system put CCP 10 steps ahead of the rest of the industry. In a genre where paying cash to shortcut grind is considered acceptable but the worry over pay-to-win schemes looms over every business model discussion, PLEX and similar systems offer the best of both worlds.
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to
EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.