EVE Online's Secret Sauce: Pay to Play or Play to Pay (PLEX)
One of the jewels in EVE Online's MMO crown is undoubtedly the player-driven economy. This fully realised and completely mind-boggling exchange of in-game assets is the holy grail of any online game which provides an auction house or similar facility.
EVE's economic gameplay is fundamentally woven into the fabric of the game, with practically every item, ship, weapon and module found in-game manufactured by players, from materials farmed by players. Every dockable space station (of which there are thousands) is capable of stocking player goods to market. As the economy evolves, local and regional marketing hubs have naturally developed, with Jita 4-4 becoming the largest.
The entire process of EVE gameplay is a cycle of creation and destruction with the economy at its centre. The balance of in-game currency, ISK (InterStellar Kredits rather than Icelandic Krona) is controlled through the careful management of gameplay ISK faucets and ISK sinks, all under the watchful gaze of CCP's resident economist, Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson.
The Golden Ticket
Nestled at the centre of this thriving, hyperactive economy is the PLEX system. These Pilot License EXtensions are in-game tokens which can be redeemed for 30 days of game time. They are purchasable with ISK from the player market or with real-world cash from CCP, creating an elegant system whereby cash-rich, time-poor players can fund their EVE gameplay by selling pre-purchased PLEX in-game and time-rich, cash-poor players can work within the game to build the funds to buy PLEX to redeem, thereby playing for free.
It is a simple but clever system which works for everyone, whilst undermining the illegal real-money traders (RMT). The PLEX system was a refinement of the existing ETC (EVE Time Code) facility and was introduced in the Quantum Rise expansion of November 2008. It is worth noting that, according to figures presented by EVE blogger and CSM representative Ripard Teg, Quantum Rise was responsible for the biggest post-expansion subscriber increase and the most effective subscriber retention in the history of EVE expansions. Of course the expansion featured other content, but PLEX must surely have played a part in this.
Whether it is a system which can be transplanted into other MMOs with any real efficacy has been a recent cause for some discussion in the blogosphere and beyond. Following the upcoming subscription-based MMO Wildstar's inclusion of a CREDD system seems comparable to EVE's PLEX, however as The Nosy Gamer points out ("Wildstar Is Not Following The EVE Online Business Model"), there are differences in the underlying mechanics. It also remains to be seen if such a system can work without a mature market to support it.