It's no secret that the model for subscription-based MMORPGs is rapidly shrinking. Where coughing up fifteen dollars a month used to be par for the course in most online games, things are shifting towards the "freemium" subscription model where the cost of entry for games is free but as soon as you step inside you're likely to be funnelled down a corridor made of hands that are constantly groping you until you finally throw them your wallet just to make the awkward torture stop. Of course, some games aren't nearly this bad. WildStar is a great example of a free-to-play MMO that does a pretty good job of keeping the cash shop quarantined from the actual fun of the game. And that's a good thing.
But for the last few months, a hot topic in the EVE community has been the introduction of skill point trading, which, if you've missed out on the discussion or aren't an EVE player (my apologies to you), allows you to neatly package up the skill points which you spend real time accruing and sell them on the market for ISK. When this plan was initially revealed, many saw it as a way in which EVE Online was becoming pay-to-win, because the item required to extract skill points costs Aurum—EVE Online's premium currency that you have to spend real money to get.
On the surface, that knee-jerk reaction seems like it has merit. If I can just dump a bunch of money into EVE Online and purchase a ton of ISK and then use that to purchase skill points, couldn't I just essentially buy a super powerful character? From someone standing on the outside, that might seem like a very bad thing. After all, wouldn't that be like buying a level 100 character in World of Warcraft already suited up with the best gear?
Well, no. It's not. For one, EVE Online has had a method of selling characters for ISK for a long time on the character bazaar. I can buy a bunch of Plex using real money, sell it for ISK, and then use that ISK to buy just about any character I could dream of. Skill point trading is just a more nuanced process, allowing you to not have to trade in characters wholesale, but rather keep the name and identity and ship off a small portion of their skill points.
EVE Online has already had pay-to-win elements ever since you could spend real money and essentially buy the in-game currency. But it's important to note that EVE Online is certainly not pay-to-win, at least not on this kind of level (whether people funneling real money and ISK into alliances to influence the outcomes or war is pay-to-win is another thing entirely).
So what sets EVE Online apart from other games that have these same kinds of systems, and why are they terribly afflicted pay-to-win zombies while EVE Online remains the healthy and exciting game it always was?
That comes from the fact that EVE is a complicated game where, above all else, skill and knowledge trumps raw value. Sure, I could dump a few Plex into a character and start doing station trading, but unless I took the time to research the value and movement of materials, I'd run just as much of a risk of imploding my enterprise with awful investments. Even worse, I might be a total dummy and decide that ferrying billions worth of assets in a hauler to a more fortuitous market would be a good idea, one that gankers would be happy to divorce me of.
Likewise, I could dump a ton of money into the game and suit myself up with all the skill points and ISK I need to fly an ultra shiny ship, but unless I knew how to fly the damn thing all of that extra money is going to evaporate under fire from better, more skilled players.
The point I'm trying to make is that making direct comparisons in EVE Online is nearly impossible as events rarely exist within a vacuum. Instead, a ton of external factors contribute to what makes one player objectively better than the other. In many other MMORPGs, damage projection isn't much of an issue because the game is designed to compensate for your inability to aim attacks. Magic missiles track opponents, and so long as they're within range of you, you'll apply the maximum amount of damage from an attack. In EVE, however, which features a hugely complicated combat system where even a frigate pilot could, with enough skill and maneuvering, bring down a ship three times his size—suddenly pay-to-win doesn't seem like that big of an issue.
But the ultimate benefit to this system is that finally EVE Online is making good strides towards being an MMO that doesn't make new players want to microwave their hands because they're so far behind the skill curve. In a way, the real-time skill point earning is EVE Online's greatest strength and biggest weakness, but it's a good thing that CCP is experimenting with the system to try and mellow out the grind for newer players.
The fact that just about every pilot I've talked to on this column has told me at one point or another about how they first played and quit EVE (often several times in a row) before it stuck, tells me that EVE has a new player retention problem. If skill point trading is going to make that problem shrink for new players who are willing to farm the ISK (or outright pay for it), then I can't see any reason to be against it.
While everyone has some measure of pride in the fact that they stomached EVE's incredible grind (I myself have a character of over five years and have nearly maxed out my Gallente-focused skills), we shouldn't be narrow-minded enough to look down on those who would rather skip it altogether just so they can finally experience what makes EVE Online fun. There's already a way to skip the ISK grind, what's so bad about skipping the skill grind too?