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E for All 2008: Chat with Entropia Universe, the Last Stable Economy

Even though E for All was mostly a disappointing mishmash of already-released games, a few areas of the floor did offer some interesting and unexpected surprises. Enter: MindArk and their MMO, Entropia Universe. Though the game fit the weekend’s not-quite-retro theme, considering it’s been around since 2003, we were mostly unaware of its existence, and especially unaware of its lofty goals, economy, and soon-to-be graphical update. A chat with Business Development and Strategic Marketer, John K. Bates, opened our eyes to this dazzling universe and everything it has to offer.

Entropia Universe is entirely free to download and play, based off the micro-transaction model which is more popular across seas. “We actually call it a nano-transaction method, because it’s so, it really is just teeny fractions of fractions, where we make our money as a company. I mean, you don’t have to pay anything to play the game, there’s no cost to download the software, you can put money in if you want to, but you don’t have to, ever, and there’s a lot of fun to be had even if you don’t,” said Bates.

Players can put money in to help get them started, or can attempt to go it alone, without the added monetary boost. “You come into the world, you’re a colonist on the first human-inhabitable planet beyond Earth, and you show up in your orange jumpsuit with nothing. And it’s free to die, so you can run around and die a lot, if you want to make some money, create some value for yourself, you can go and get the sweat off the animals, ’cause that you can sell. Once you get enough sweat, you can sell it to someone who’s going to use that to make ‘Mind Essence,’ which powers the special mental powers that people have on planet Calypso. Or you can pick up dung, because the land owners need the dung to fertilize their land, so you can do things like that and build skills while doing that, and it’s free to do that, you can die a lot, so what?—It’s free to die. Sooner or later, once you kind of get the lay of the land, you understand what’s going on, you might want to put some money, and some people will say, ‘Well I spend $20 a month on a subscription, so I’ll give myself a budget of that, I’ll just do as well as I can for $20 a month,’ and sooner or later, you’ve got a high-powered character and you’re able to hunt scary animals or go mining and be very successful.”

Amazingly, being “successful” in Entropia equates to being successful in the real world. The game runs off a free market economy, with every ten ‘Planet Entropia Dollars (PED)’ backed by one US dollar. Bates explained, “So if you go in and you’re successful in the game, you can actually take that back out. There are plenty of people who’ve taken money out of the game. One of the guys here [at the expo] put in $500 to start, played very smart, he played it like a job, didn’t just go randomly do stuff, took out $17,000 already. He’s already made $17,000. Now, most people come in and they just want to play, they’re like ‘I don’t want to work at a game,’ and that’s cool, that’s fine, it’s a fun, fun game. But some people actually make money in there, and since we back our Project Entropia Dollars with US dollars and we have a really deep economy, the whole system has been made to enable that, so at the very lowest level, we’ve got really great security, and a little bit above that, we’ve got all these opportunities for trade.”

Items “decay” over time with use, and the associated devaluation is what pays MindArk’s bills. “…Only through use—you put it on a shelf and leave it there, it stays in the same condition,” Bates assured, “but as you use things, they wear out, and that deterioration, if you will, is where we make our money. So we’ve got to track every little bit of use on every item everywhere, and it’s only fractions of cents that it deteriorates, like when you change your clothes: they deteriorate just a little bit. And then sooner or later, you have to take them in and repair them and that brings them back to full color; it’s like washing them, right? Every time you wash your clothes they lose a little color, and then you take them in and get repaired. Some things you can repair and some things are not repairable, you just have to put them on a shelf when they run out, go get another one.” This decay is visible to the player: “Yeah, you can tell if…the jumpsuits are a bright orange, but when they’re not in good repair, they’re kind of a dingy orange.”

In addition to item collection and trade, all characters are capable of gaining skills in a variety of fields, from hunter to hairstylist to makeup artist. Then, those skills are transferred into goods and services purchased by other players. Keith Ward, owner of Entropia Outfitters, a company which makes real life clothing based off in-game Entropia outfits, and player himself, explained, “It is a completely free market. If you’re willing to do something cheaper than me, you’re going to get more customers than me, unless I drop my price.”

“I can be a hairstylist in the game, and I might be a level 50, which means I have all the different hairstyles unlocked and I can do them, but all my competitors are only level 20, so they can only do half the hairstyles, so I’m going to get more people because I can do more hairstyles, and I can charge more for those hairstyles…it’s a premium, right? Everything is supply and demand in this game.”

A character can even sell their own skills to a player that has less time to level than they do. Bates: “…In our game, we’ve really made it so you can come in with any combination of money or time. You can come in and never put any money in, put a lot of time in and do really well and have fun; put in a lot of money if you don’t have much time. We’ve got a guy who’s vice president of a bank, he puts in $50,000 a month sometimes. To buy top weapons, top armor, and skills, so you can chip out your skills, if you’re a player that’s been playing for a long time who wants to make some money, chip out your skills and sell them to someone like that guy, now he’s got the skills to use those really expensive, powerful weapons and you’ve got the money for that and you can go build your skills back up again. So any combination of time or money works in Entropia, you don’t have to come in and grind for a whole bunch of time, you know what I mean? You can do either thing.”

Despite its already expansive, all-encompassing world, Entropia is still growing. The development team is currently implementing the CryEngine 2 to bring EU’s visuals (more than) up to speed, along with destructible environments. The entire game must be reconfigured to the CryEngine 2, but this dedication and effort will allow the game’s appearance to match its outstanding economy and experience. “Once we implement that, we’ve got a bunch of planet partners that are currently creating new planets to come into Entropia Universe, and they’re totally different game developers, so they’re going to be radically different. It’s going to really increase the diversity of Entropia Universe to have these different planets done by different minds,” Bates explained.

With 800,000 currently registered members (fewer active members, but still in the few hundred thousand), three full-time economists on staff to keep the economy running smoothly, and no official end-game, (”It just keeps getting more complicated and complex and you can get more and more powerful and more planets open up,” said Bates), Entropia Universe seems like it could be in a strong virtual position for a very long time. But can they compete with WoW? Is it even on their radar?

Bates didn’t seem phased when WoW was brought up. In fact, his eyes shone even brighter. “I think a lot of people play more than one game, I also think World of Warcraft is a great training ground for people to come to Entropia, and I love what they’ve done for the market just in terms of getting people aware of MMOs and 3D virtual worlds and all that stuff. And I’ve been at a lot of these conferences and I’ve met a lot of World of Warcraft players who’ve gotten very excited about Entropia, so there’s always gonna be a place for both of us, I think. And we’re very different than they are, so when you want that kind of an experience, you play World of Warcraft, and when you want what we’ve got, you can play ours. But I do think that they’re a really good training ground for us, and I think that when people find that we exist a lot of them shift their time to our world.”

Thanks to John Bates, Keith Ward, and all of the Entropia Universe ambassadors for sharing their game with us. If you’re interested in checking EU out for yourself, head over to their website for the free download.