In a packed session at GDC Online, CCP Games associate producer Ben Cockerill talked about how the company made a lot of mistakes in its introduction of virtual goods -- which resulted in a player revolt and an emergency meeting of its player government.
"Up until now it has been an almost purely subscription-based model," said Cockerill.
The company launched its first virtual currency, PLEX, in 2008 and "since then, for many of our players, EVE has become free-to-play."
"The time-poor players buy PLEX directly from us, and the time-rich players buy it on the secondary market."
"Our most popular bundle sells for $105, just to give you some idea the engagement our players have and what they're willing to spend on their hobby."
However, the company felt it was necessary to launch Aurum, a third currency -- in addition to PLEX and the in-game currency ISK -- for two reasons: the launch of avatar-based gameplay with the game's Incarna expansion, and Dust 514, the upcoming PlayStation Network shooter which hooks directly into EVE.
With Incarna, the decision was to make items at "low volume / high graphical quality" -- "we're not looking to sell a lot, and that reflects the small and hardcore set of players that we have," he said, noting that these items were meant to represent "more of a clothing boutique, not Walmart."
PLEX and ISK are freely interchangeable on the market, but Aurum can only be generated from PLEX and sold for ISK, not the other way around. And "the only use for Aurum is to buy virtual items in the virtual goods store," said Cockerill.
"In June this year we launched the item store and there were eight items in it at launch... We received a lot of negative feedback," he said. "The biggest part was that there was the perception that this was the beginning of a slippery slope, changing from the days where EVE is about skill... and about how many friends you have... to how much money you have."
The store only launched with eight items, which were across different price points -- important to show relative value, but the selection was top-heavy.
"Quickly we added some more," he said, but "we still need more."
"This meant we weren't quite ready," he said. In the studio, the key people and processes were not in place, and worse, "we didn't get internal acceptance that virtual goods were not evil."
This is all bad, said Cockerill, but "this, I think, was our biggest mistake -- we aimed all of our items at the players in Incarna, that were for an avatar, and right now, that's not a proven player segment."
That said, the highest-end item, a monocle which costs $65 in real world currency, "is our highest grossing asset." Because of the controversy, "if you dock a ship and you're wearing a monocle, people come and fight you," he said, suggesting that may be a significant reason why it's so popular.
Despite the scarcity of items and the problems that causes, "We release [items] in small numbers, and we release them in waves, and we see very small spikes in PLEX sales," he said. PLEX prices stayed stable and these did not affect the overall sandbox gameplay with the primary player base likes, he noted.