Buying real things with virtual money: CCP looks back on the grand GPU experiment

Buying real things with virtual money: CCP looks back on the grand GPU experiment

The economy of EVE Online is intricate, and involves multiple virtual currencies that interact with multiple real-world currencies around the world. There is ISK, the basic currency of the game, as well as PLEX, which is game time that can be traded between players and bought with ISK. It’s a game where you can grind for virtual currency to pay for your subscription fees.

There is also Aurum, but we can leave that aside for now. PLEX can be converted to Aurum to be spent on the Noble exchange.

This all sounds complicated, and it is; CCP employs economists to watch over the game’s economic systems and makes sure everything is in some kind of balance. CCP announced an interesting wrinkle to this system at last year’s Fanfest: Players would be able to buy video cards using PLEX. So you could grind for ISK, use ISK to buy PLEX, and then trade your PLEX in for a new GPU. There were 100 GeForce GTX 560s that were made available, and they were gone in seconds.

“We are proceeding carefully, with a limited stock at this time, to enable us to evaluate any impacts of this unique and innovative offer on the EVE economy, and understand any challenges arising from this form of exchange of game world currency for real world goods,” the company posted when the deal was announced.

EVE Online executive producer John Lander [he has since moved to CCP's mobile division] and I talked about the initiative during my Iceland visit. “It was a crossover between the virtual world and the real world. That’s what we find very interesting,” he told the Report. “It was certainly something that we wanted to see, and test, and see what would happen. It took 62 seconds for them to sell out.” They had to get more units to give out; they couldn’t stop the web server in time due to the crazy demand.

It was a fascinating experiment, but it's one that won't likely be replicated soon. “There are some real-world logistical issues around it. The minute people buy more than a certain amount there are tax-reporting issues, so you have to be quite careful,” Lander continued. “I would like to be able sell anything for PLEX, but the real world catches up with us. The fact that we’re allowing people to choose how they spend their leisure time, and create virtual wealth and bring it into the real world… It’s that kind of crazy shit we love doing.”

The tax, shipping, and logistics are simply too complicated for the company at the moment, especially during the launch of DUST 514 and the production of the World of Darkness MMO and ongoing support for EVE Online, not to mention the creation of a television show and comic book.

“If we were going to make $100 million a year out of it, it would probably be worth fixing. We’re not planning on making that much money - I’d love to make that much, don’t get me wrong,” Lander said. “For us right now we have an awful lot going on, so taking that on is not where we excel. It’s cool, and it’s given us some ideas, and it enables us to look at some things, but it’s just not worth all of that right now.”

They got lucky with the video card deal, as NVIDIA simply told CCP that they would cover all the logistic issues. So shipping the cards to different countries, working out the tax implications, all the complicated stuff that gets in the way of moving virtual money into real money in an ongoing way was handled by NVIDIA; CCP simply gave them the names and addresses of the people who had bought the cards.

“They did all the distribution, as we’re a virtual world game company. We’re just not geared up for that kind of thing,” Lander said. I'll give it a year or two before they try again - CCP has a bad habit of chasing the crazier ideas.