Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Eve Online: SOMERblink closes down

Wow this last week has been insane in Eve, and it's all revolved around one name: SOMERblink. If you are like me, you may have only been peripherally aware of SOMERblink. I knew of their existence, just like I knew that there were members of the community who didn't like them. I also knew from listening to the Crossing Zebras podcast that they were involved in some sort of controversy almost a year ago. So when my twitter started melting from people talking about the latest Somer scandal, I decided to write a bit of an overview of the entire situation, starting with the scandal a year ago. Buckle in, because this one is a long one. Let's delve into it.

To explain the issues, you need to know what SOMERblink was. Started four years ago by Somerset Mahm (also known as Somer), SOMERblink allowed for people to gamble with their isk (the in game currency for Eve Online). The form of gambling is a system called a micro lottery, which operates similar to a raffle. People buy a ticket (or tickets), into the raffle (or as SOMERblink called them, Blinks) for a chance to win a rare or expensive ship, game item, or a PLEX. These tickets are limited for each item, meaning that you can't buy a hundred tickets for something you want (although you can buy out all of the tickets if you are fast enough). If Somer had just kept it at that, they would have been perfectly fine. But before we get into what they changed, we need to look at some previous issues Somer had with the community in Eve.

The layout of a typical game of Blink.
A little under a year ago, Somer and CCP came under fire from players in Eve for a planned giveaway at Eve Vegas. CCP had planned to give away some extremely rare ships, including a one of a kind ship that had been given out as a prize for winning the Amarr Championship in 2003, the Gold Magnate. When that ship was later destroyed in 2004, there was no way for anyone to obtain a Gold Magnate. Of course when CCP announced that they were going to be giving two of these ships to Somer to use in the lotteries, players were outraged that a piece of Eve's history was going to be given to a website who would profit a huge amount for its lottery.

Later in 2013, a mail was leaked from a SOMERblink employee stating that each member of the staff at SOMERblink would be receiving an Scorpion Ishukone Watch from CCP. These ships, which cannot be built in the game, are used by CCP as prizes for community events and are estimated to be worth between 15 to 20 billion isk. At the moment there are a known 132 of these. CCP's reason for giving these rare ships out? As a thanks to "one of the most awesome community sites we have." This caused a lot of controversy among the community, mainly because this deal all happened behind closed doors implying that CCP wanted to keep this a secret for some reason. Even other Eve based gambling sites distanced themselves from SOMERblink, with Eve-Bet stating that they thought those ships should be reserved for "more deserving winners and not sites that can afford to purchase them off the market like everyone else."

The first way SOMERblink tried RMT.
Now we get into the part that Somer changed. While all the attention was on Somer and SOMERblink from these two events, FunkyBacon, an eve blogger who also hosts an Eve Radio show posted this blog post about SOMERblink. In it, he details a way that Somer had been making money by what was ostensibly selling isk. Like selling gold in WoW, selling isk for real money (RMT) is not allowed in by CCP as detailed in the EULA (specifically section B of Conduct). How was Somer able to do this? FunkyBacon used the image to the right to detail how this worked. SOMERblink had a link to a website called Markee Dragon who sell Eve game time codes that can be exchanged for PLEX - an in game item that can either be used to add 30 days of game time to the account, or traded on the in game market in exchange for isk. In return for directing traffic to their site, Markee Dragon give Somer a referral bonus. Somer then gives the player 200 million worth of credits to be used on his site (essentially giving the player 200 million isk, but only for gambling use).

NoizyGamer, another blogger who talks a lot about RMT and botting in MMOs, made a post that was extremely well researched and in depth on the whole situation. His research lead to a discussion with the Chief Operating Officer of Somers previous GTC reseller - Shattered Crystal. During the conversation, Noizy found out that Somer had been let go as an affiliate after a bidding war on the referral bonus percentage. Standard referral bonuses are 5%, but Shattered Crystal had to let Somer go after the bidding hit 8%, and with the volume of GTC that the link on the SOMERblink website had sold, Noizy estimates that Somer was making around $7500 a month with his incentive to buy from him, if he was indeed at 8%. Eventually, CCP were forced to make a change to the rules regarding selling time codes, and Somer had to stop offering the bonus credits.

Screenshot from NoizyGamer's blog. Find it here.
And that leads us to last weekend. A reddit post on /r/eve shows how SOMERblink have setup a new form of credits, called PLEX Credits. Members of the CSM are alerted to another possible RMT scheme by Somer, and FunkyBacon makes another post explaining what he understands is going on. The biggest part of all this? Somer claimed this had been "vetted and approved by CCP," which lead to concerns that CCP was again allowing some form of incentive from SOMERblink to buy from their affiliate link, rather than elsewhere. CCP Falcon, the community manager over at CCP, posted a thread on Evo-O acknowledging that they were aware of the situation and they were reviewing the proposal that Somer had provided to the sales team at CCP, along with the legal and information security teams.

The biggest question I've seen asked is this: How is this RMT? Once again, FunkyBacon provided us with an updated version of his previous diagram to show exactly how:
Seriously guys, go read FunkyBacon's blog. He's even a CSM member.
In this situation, the player clicks on the affiliate link on the SOMERblink website, taking them to Markee Dragon, where they buy PLEX as usual. Markee Dragon pay Somer the usual affiliate cut. Doing this gives your account on SOMERblink a PLEX credit. This credit is basically a token that SOMERblink use to guarantee that they will buy that PLEX back - at a higher than market price. That reddit thread that I linked earlier estimated the price that Somer would give was around 45 million isk more than market price in Eve (average PLEX price in Eve is currently around 780 to 790 million isk), so a total price of 830 million isk. The best part of this in my mind, is that as FunkyBacon pointed out in his blog post, if SOMERblink then use that PLEX in one of their lotteries, they bring in 936 million isk, meaning they profit a little over a 100 million isk. It truly is a brilliant scheme: Somer profits in both isk and real life cash.

Click here for large version. Thanks to Noizy again for this picture.
So the question has to be asked. If this was "vetted and approved by CCP," why did Somer shut down SOMERblink when CCP Falcon posted that they were investigating the situation? Noizy gives us some insight here in an update to the situation he posted the day after his initial post. Somer posted a link to an email chain between himself and the Vice President of Sales at CCP, Lisa Bell-Cabrera, and a copy of the proposal to her. Unfortunately, the email chain can no longer be accessed, but Noizy did get a screenshot of the proposal shown above. It's interesting to note that under the section marked Justification, Somer explicitly says that "Blink provides no extra isk or bonus Blink credit for buying through the link." However they are technically providing extra isk, by buying that PLEX at a higher price than a player could otherwise sell it. It's a bit :tinfoil:, but it's certainly possible that Somer intentionally worded the parts about buying the PLEX back vaguely so it seemed like there was no additional ISK being provided. In any case, the whole proposal reads like a shady sales pitch, and

And that leads us to where we are today. A rather sharply worded message was posted at the top of the SOMERblink website that read:

Hey friends,
Thanks for all the years of Blink that we've spent together. It's been a long four years-- some of it longer than others! Unfortunately, as of today, Blink is going to go on extended-- perhaps indefinite-- hiatus. CCP has gone back on everything they said several months ago, and the resulting environment is so hostile that it's not one we want to try to operate in, if CCP throws us under the bus.
If you have prizes waiting, they will be fulfilled. You can claim prizes as normal. Bonk tickets have been refunded to your account balance. We will begin refunding all account balances of people that have played in the last 6 months, starting with balances over 10 million ISK. As always, we're not in the business of stealing your money. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet many of you, through Blink, Eve, and our lotteries channel. Thank you for the experience.

CCP Falcon also posted the official response to the whole situation on the forums. In it, he details the fact that none of the ideas for promotions that Somer had provided were approved by the appropriate people "namely, the Legal Team," and that Somer had "no basis to assert that the live promotion was "approved by CCP"". In an interesting twist, Somer's characters were all banned permanently for violation of the EULA and Terms of Service, meaning they will have to start a fresh account to play Eve if they choose to come back.

If there is one positive I can find about the SOMERblink scandal, it's that they are paying back isk to players despite the fact that they could easily shift that over to other accounts and be space rich. Maybe it's because they are already space rich from all the earnings of Blink that they feel they should pay them back. In any case, its a small silver lining to what is otherwise a very rocky story. I can't help but think that if Somer had simply put some sort of advertising on the site to make money, none of this would have happened. They could have even still had the link to Markee Dragon to earn the affiliate cut from time code sales alongside the ad revenue. Instead, Somer got greedy, and had to try and come up with these schemes to earn fast money. Protip: If you have to be deliberately vague in a proposal, your proposal is probably shady.

If you haven't exhausted yourself on this topic, I'd highly recommend reading all the linked blog posts from NoizyGamer, FunkyBacon and the forum posts by CCP Falcon. They go into so much more depth than I can in a single post, and each one of them is a really good read.

So if you stuck around to the very end of this long winded post about the life and times of SOMERblink, congratulations. I'm off to go and shoot some rats for a while. As always,


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