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I'm your host, Jester. I've been an EVE Online player for about six years. One of my four mains is Ripard Teg, pictured at left. Sadly, I've succumbed to "bittervet" disease, but I'm wandering the New Eden landscape (and from time to time, the MMO landscape) in search of a cure.
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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The money barrier

As you might have heard, this morning CCP announced that they had recruited Sean Decker, a former Electronic Arts Vice President, as their Senior Vice President of Product Development.  Most recently, Sean was the VP overseeing EA's F2P gaming strategy.  He's also a former head of EA's Los Angeles development studio and prior to that lived in Stockholm, Sweden for six years as the general manager at Digital Illusions CE.

Digital Illusions CE (DICE) is of course best known for their Battlefield series of games and so far as I can tell, with the occasional detour here and there (primarily into various titles of the Command and Conquer series), shooters have been Sean's career focus for some eight years now.  Because of the success of Battlefield Heroes, whether EVE players like him or not, whether they like EA or not, that makes Sean one of the foremost experts in developing and selling both free-to-play gaming and shooter-based gaming in the world.

The cynical among you will immediately retort -- not without cause -- that he's also one of the foremost experts in pay-to-win free-to-play gaming in the world.  We'll get to that.  First, full disclosure: the following post was written without consulting CCP employees.  But at the end of the day, what are they gonna say?  This guy reports directly to their CEO.  So while they may have their own opinions over a pint, in public they're going to be enthusiastic and supportive.

Let's start with the reasons why this a good move for CCP:
  • It gets CCP a smart, successful leader in the industry who has a proven track record successfully developing and selling both shooters and free-to-play games.
  • It gets CCP someone who's intimately familiar with development and retention issues in a F2P marketplace open to millions of potential customers.
  • He's both press-savvy and a good communicator, and able to operate well in an environment of games having difficult launches.
  • Frankly, it weakens what is likely to be their strongest competitor going into the holiday season just as that competitor was developing their marketing and launch strategies.
  • Interestingly enough, Sean has a lot of familiarity with nordic personalities and developers.  I assure you this is a thing.
  • It gets CCP someone who's familiar with what game genres are likely to go over well in different markets around the world.
  • It gets CCP someone who's very experienced in tying a lot of fractious development teams together, something it's clear that Hilmar himself was kind of struggling with.
So for CCP, there are way more potential upsides than downsides.

But let's get to the downsides.  There are really only two... but they're kind of huge.
  • Sean views free-to-play gaming almost exclusively through the prism of "basic game-play is free, everything else costs."
  • Sean comes from a company that has not been afraid to spend enormous amounts of money to solve their problems.
Let's talk about each in turn.


Read through or watch various interviews that Sean has given on F2P strategy over the years, and at times he comes off as kind of forgetful about what he's selling.  Game companies exist for one reason and one reason only: to sell fun and good memories.  That's it.  That's your product.  Forget that and you're dead.  I've covered this a half-dozen times or more on the blog over the time I've been writing it, all the way back to the very beginning.

Now as a Vice President in a big company with ten thousand employees, forgetting this fundamental to focus on the "consumer" and the money side of your business is certainly a forgivable offense.  There's several thousand people below you that are going to remember that games are fun and are going to take care of that part of the business for you.  Sean says "I see the world as a micro-transaction" and describes games in the same breath as pay-per-view movies bought in addition to basic cable, or buying a meal on in economy class on an airplane.  And at the VP level, there's nothing at all wrong with that perspective.  In the C-suite, you set the high-level business goals and those will be translated into ground-level directives by the personnel in your management chain.  That's their job.

But how well will this translate at a company with 6% of EA's staff?

The good news here is that it seems clear that Sean's initial focus is going to be on DUST 514.  I doubt very much that CCP is going to dip their toe into the EVE micro-transactions pool again without a lot of forethought into the matter.  The lessons of the summer of rage haven't been forgotten.  On Massively today, Hilmar pointed out two areas that are both consistent with EVE and consistent with a micro-transactions approach, ship paint-jobs (which I'm overwhelmingly in favor of, even if some of the cool colors and skins are bought with Aurum) and dual training (which I didn't care for CCP's approach on, but I don't object to the basic premise).  And Sean was very quick to mention that he agrees that he doesn't think "[free-to-play] is the be all and end all business model."

But that still leaves Sean developing his strategies with a tiny staff where he's going to have to keep track of all the elements himself.  When CCP hired David Reid, I was very enthusiastic about the hire because David came from a company of similar size and understood the challenges faced by a smaller organization.  Sean's experience with a small business is some 13 years old; he's going to have to re-remember some old skills.  And in the meantime, DUST's current customer base is too small and too fragile to try to swing the "buy cool stuff!" stick too much.  Sean also says that EA saw little or no cannibalization across their brands.  I think he's going to find CCP is seeing something very different.

The same interview says...
The "money barrier" as Decker put it - the bit where you hold out your hand and ask for cash, is still the trickiest part of balancing the experience of free to play games.

"That money barrier is difficult and interesting," he said. "For us it's - can you offer something of very clear value to the player where they feel they want to do it, but at the same time do not upset the ecosystem of everybody being able to play, and it will turn into 'pay to win'. You really need to do a great job of balancing that out."
Which brings me to the other potential downside, because that's not the only money barrier Sean is facing.

EA is really really good at one thing, and that one thing is marketing.  Now again, I'm a big fan of David Reid, but this is an area that CCP has been struggling with since 2003 or so.  Sean is coming from a company that quite frankly tended to solve development issues, marketing issues, and issues of building an audience by throwing enormous amounts of money at the problems and then expecting enormous returns.  In 2009, EA rather famously said that a typical game needs to sell more than a million copies to break even... but of course said that in the context of nine or ten figure marketing budgets.

I'm pretty sure CCP doesn't have that kind of coin.  Nor do I think CCP has the money, wherewithal, or inclination to spend more on marketing than it spends on development, something that it's been occasionally reliably rumored that EA has done to guarantee success of this or that game.

On the flip-side, of course, EA benefits hugely from the fact that so many of their games can operate from the same engine, Frostbite, which has been in continuous development for more than five years.  This engine, originally developed for the Battlefield franchise, has now crossed genres to be used in virtually every type of game EA makes from the Need for Speed franchise to Dragon Age.  This has done a tremendous amount to limit the development cost of EA's games and freed up a lot of cash for other uses.  This is obviously a good thing... but it's another thing that Sean isn't going to have at CCP.  At CCP, the individual development teams don't even use the expression "NIH", preferring instead to have each team develop their own phrase for not wanting to use another team's work to speed development or reduce costs.  Or as Sean puts it himself...
...at the end of the day you don't want to spend half of your time creating tech - you want to spend your time making a game.
Yup.  Except CCP has never learned this lesson.  Hell, CCP spent months developing their own in-game font, for Heaven's sake, to say nothing of their own in-game engines for everything else, too (notably Incarna).  Is Sean going to be able to deal with that?  Or will one of his first tasks have to be to break up that kind of thinking?

So yeah, I'd say there are some interesting times ahead.

Again, the good news for EVE players is that we shouldn't see too much impact in space for the time being.  For now, my recommendation to EVE players is not to freak out.  Yeah, there's already a threadnaught.  Yeah, it's filled with EA rage.  And yeah, in the time it took me to write this post, it grew three pages.(1)  But guys, let's calm down and see where this goes.  I know you guys like to speculate.  I know you guys like to go negative.  And yeah, as I noted above, there are some good reasons to be concerned.  But for the moment, let's sit back and see which money barrier becomes the critical one.


(1) And yet, no matter how big the threadnaught gets, this will be the best post in it.  Classic!  Love it!  QOTW right there.

26 comments:

  1. I never got why anyone would consider Eve "free to play". Every active, non-temp account is paid for (either thru subscription, or plex). Thus I don't understand when this argument continually arises.

    Eve is unique in the fact that people purchasing plex in market are just as valuable as people providing plex (from their RL). Without one (or both) Eve would definitely wither so it is fair that they are both treated equally.

    I get that companies are continually harassed to increase profit margins, but transforming Eve into a play-to-win game would be a death-knell as I'm sure the majority would eventually cancel their accounts.

    I'm sure CCP fully understands all this so I'm doubtful anyone is willing to entertain thoughts of changing the fundamental payment dynamics right now. What worries me is that reality gets distorted the higher up the chain you go. Thus, I wouldn't discount new leadership brainstorming session bringing us another Monocle-gate.

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  2. Burn him at the stake. Purge the invader.


    Alternatively, Star Citizen is looking like a nice alternative if this asshole burns EVE to the ground, which being from EA, I expect he will very shortly.

    In that case, there really is only one option...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2VhB7vaZI0

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    1. tbh if eve goes the EA way i would probably prefer to switch to this eve clone mmo (cant remember the name right now, from those east european guys who copy everything from eve just with mechs instead of spaceships)

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  3. Awful pay-to-win model or not, battlefield:play4free is a way better shooter than Dust

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  4. Let the guy get his feet under the table before we all start getting hysterical over how much he will charge us :)

    Dust 514 is a 'meh' FPS in a market crowded with excellent FPS games. Its the cut throat edge of the console games market and other companies are doing it way, way better. His first job is to make the game attractive, establish a solid player base and then to monetize that player base. CCP knows this and it seems that he has the track record to be able to do it.

    It is a smart recruiting move. If you want to play with the big boys then you have to recruit people who know how the game is played. And yes, Dust 514 needs increase and monetize its player base for all our sakes. If not, EvE may die with it.

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  5. I agree with Ripard, I seriously doubt Decker accepted a position, and executive position, with a company and product he did not at least do some basic research on... (though it is not impossible) He IS in the gaming community, he has to at least have heard some of the stories etc.

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  6. LOL - there was a lot of speculation about who would be the next sucker to pick up Decker. There wasn't too much crying at EA over his departure.

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  7. He is from EA, the scourge of the gaming world. That should be enough to make us all very, very nervous until he proves otherwise.

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  8. I'd say this guy is being brought in to "FIX" Dust 514 which has been languishing. The best fix for DUST 514 is to release it as a native PC game. Releasing as a PS3 exclusive was a ridiculous decision.

    If he starts tinkering with EVE Online then the Jita Monument protests will look like childsplay compared to what will happen now.

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  9. I dont think they brought him in for intention only to work on Dust 514 - they have that new Vampire MMO/FPS they have been working on and I think that's why the brought him in is to help with that mostly.

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  10. Eve online is going F2P....the writing is on the wall!

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    1. If you don't want to pay for Eve you can input time instead of cash. A three week old character can plex an account with hours of farming clone tags, ice mining or exploration.

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    2. The writing on the wall is saying it's the beginning of the end.

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    3. No, EVE will remain sub-based, for the immediate future. DUST isn't generating any significant revenue, so EVE subs are CCP's primary income source. They won't mess with it, until they have new revenue streams in place and generating comparable income.

      EVE will be going P2W, though. Decker is a big believer in this model.

      Most likely, however, it will start with features like the recently introduced dual training, for which CCP can directly charge PLEX, yet without risking a rehash of the "summer of rage" uproar from the player base. We should expect to see PLEX for remaps soon. Custom skins is also on the table - we've already seen several in-game tests in the special edition ships, such as the Quafe Catalyst.

      But, gold ammo - probably not.

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    4. I don't know that anyone has a problem with F2P per se -- it's the "balancing of the equation", the P2W part, that has a lot of people up in arms.
      I think in a game that has firmly established itself on a core value, namely "player skill > character skill, wallet, etc", that's a valid concern for the playerbase.
      CCP being a company, and companies liking money and :profit:, it would not at all surprise me to see them trying some sheisty shenanigans in order to wring every last Inter-National Kronor out of us. ;-)

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  11. Bit off topic, but...

    The font thing I can understand being a bit overboard. But... and this is a big but. I don't think CCP can grab off the shelf tech for the vast majority of their needs. I've lost count of the number of devblogs, interviews, and forum posts about CCP trying to implement a fairly straightforward feature that had a line that said something to the effect of... ".. and then the server guys looked at us in abject horror, so we had to shelve it...".

    It's all well and good to use the same gaming engine for all of your games when you only have to worry about 64 tops players using it at once, you can hide the crimes with a bit more ram and a CPU/GPU usage. It's an entirely different problem when that ramps up to 1000+ players.

    On Dust Mr Decker probably can make a case for getting rid of the NIH syndrome in a lot of places that don't directly connect to Tranquillity. Eve on the other hand, I think he's pretty much hosed because any time CCP does anything to Eve it is invented there. No other game in existence has to worry about what happens in 2000 people decide to do something in the exact same system on the exact same grid all at once.

    You also hit CCP's long term strategy of breaking more and more pieces out of the Main Game Loop into discrete servers handling specific aspects of the game as Eve grows. For instance "Brain in a Box". It's all well and good to reuse code from other features, but once you start offloading processes the calls you need to make a large majority of features work may not be there, and then you'd have to re-engineer huge parts of the game all at once to work with the new server architecture.

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  12. Huh... not sure how they did it, but they hired someone more controversial than an ex-Goon.

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  13. Even at a basic 'feel' level I'm not sure if this is a particularly good move for CCP - simply because after Incarna and their 're-dedication' to space ships this hire seems like a step in the other direction and players may see this as a move AWAY from space ships and more to DUST.

    The fact that he knows Pay to win and Free to Play doesn't always means that he knows EVE universe or he knows how to keep players happy with content. A lot of 'Free to play' or 'Pay to win' games keep players happy with simply giving them more goodies or toys to play with and when a player gets bored they dangle another carrot and they stick around for a little longer.

    EVE players are a different animal all together and would expect to be treated differently - if he tries the same 'dangled carrot' to them they'll quickly notice and bite the hand that feeds because it looks like a bait and switch because its easier to provide new toys than it is to provide actual content which gives a player a REASON to keep playing.

    Now if CCP said that Sean was for DUST ONLY then I think the reception would be less hostile as it doesn't affect the space game as much.

    Now if the intention of CCP is to get Sean to guide EVE towards free to play or another similar model then I can see that being a can of worms in itself and the results could go either way..

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  14. It is always fascinating how much "prophets of doom" are just waiting to tell us their vision on any news that might support it.

    If someone worked for a company he doesn't become that company. Chances are he is taking this job as something new. As a professional he should know that he can't transfer all his knowledge from EA to CCP. But he has the experience to merge some of that knowledge into ccp.

    "At CCP, the individual development teams don't even use the expression "NIH", preferring instead to have each team develop their own phrase [...]"

    Well I'm not that much in contact with eve development teams like you Jester, but last time I checked there was an CARBON Engine developed within CCP to use as a core. And there always is talk about new tools they developed to speed up process in the development part.

    Time will tell if Sean Decker fits into that development environment of CCP but I am pretty sure that the dedication of the known CCP guys already there is that high that a single newcomer won't sink that ship without resistance.

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  15. Interested in joining the battlefields of DUST 514? Create a free cahracter here: https://dust514.com/recruit/tKhYfs/ And get free equipment to help you start your career.

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  16. Jester I would be less concerned if the prick's job was Head of DUST 514 development, the fact that he a Head of CCP Product Development makes me very, very nervous. So long as he sticks to ship skins and monocles and all that other shite I am ok; the 1st hint of F2P/Pay to Win and CCP will have an epic player revolt on their hands. I for one play EVE to get away from the overwhelming glut of F2P crap that passes for games these days, I have no interest in playing EVE if it goes down this route.

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  17. Anyone who has played Battlefield 3 is going to be worried. It is a terrific game saddled with a terrible internet interface that was most likely dictated by the management clowns at EA. That interface was terrible and resulted in many players simply giving up on the game, myself included. I feel that most likely that interface was a result of the institutional imperative where middle managers go along with terrible ideas that come down from the top, so they don't "rock the boat". If Sean Decker was one of the management clowns who drove that bus into the ditch then God help us all. Hopefully he wasn't.

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  18. I really hope he fixes DUST it’s appalling. I’ve tried my best to play it and enjoy it, but as a console shooter it really is far too clunky. If I come home and want to shoot people in the face for an hour before I eat my dinner DUST isn’t the game for me. Say that to hardcore players they tell me I should play COD or BF3 – the problem is I do and that’s the problem.

    That’s why the player concurrency on DUST is shit – it’s getting to the point where it’ll struggle to get 4k players on. Given with the PS4 they’ll be competing with games like planetside 2.

    They really need to find a balance between a more casual playing experience and the deeper Eve experience or their just going end up with a dwindling player base.

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  19. The problem with EA is that at this point it has a well-established and arguably well-deserved reputation for screwing over its customers whenever it thinks it can get away with it, sometimes for no good reason.

    A successful microtransaction strategy need not contain any pay-to-win elements at all, or even sell any game-impacting items whatsoever. A perfect example is Team Fortress 2, which continues to be a huge cash cow years after release. The opportunity to customize an avatar's appearance is more than sufficient for most players to pay cash for items; those items don't need any other 'reason' for players to buy them.

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  20. Cool article, I like how you put a lot of things he did in the past in perspective. The only thing that bugs me is your perception of the marketing team being weak since 2003.

    I felt they have been very creative and proactive up until around 2008-2009. Sometimes I wonder if the marketing dept that exists now is largely new staff.

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  21. You guys also seem to forget that he is based in atlanta and not iceland. Traditionaly exec not in touch with their employees (in iceland) tend to make descisions not based in reality we should orepare for an other season of rage.. .

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