Saturday, January 15, 2011

Prisoner's Dilemma

What to do if you find yourself stuck in a crack in the ground underneath a giant boulder you can't move, with no hope of rescue. Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn't been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won't be troubling you much longer.
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Having recently seen my own attempts at ransoms rejected more and more and then seeing Druur Monakh's comment I decided to explore the topic in a bit more detail.  So this post will include thoughts on why we ransom, why we betray ransoms, and why the ransomee so often responds with details of where Pirates can best stick their ship.

First off, I bring you a rather detailed exploration of the Prisoner's Dilemma from Wikipedia.  In short,

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

The above is the classic example of the Prisoner's Dilemma(PD from here on out).  For those of you not wanting to read the rather lengthy explanation from Wikipedia, I'll sum up the concept for you.  Basically, the PD is a scenario in game theory where two players both stand to benefit more if they cooperate, but benefit more individually if they refuse to cooperate.  Since you can't know ahead of time what the other person will do, your choice is limited to how much benefit you give the other person, and can only hope they'd do the same for you.  However, the most logical decision you can make in this scenario is to betray the other person, assuring that you do not suffer your own worst possible outcome.

So, how does this affect Piracy in EVE?  

Unlike the classic PD, the two parties in a Ransom are not on equal footing.  They are not Prisoner A and B.  I shall instead refer to them as Pirate and Hostage for ease of reference.  The Hostage is making a more traditional choice from the PD in that his decision is made with no knowledge of what the Pirate will do.  The Pirate, in contrast, already has the knowledge of what the other party will do when he makes his decision.  This leads us to being able to discount the fourth possible outcome in which he would choose to let the Hostage go and the Hostage doesn't pay as being unrealistic, but it's still included for the sake of example.  For the purposes of these scenarios, any ransom that would be paid is considered less than the cost to fully refit the ship, while more than the value of any modules that would have dropped.  That leaves us with the following.

1.  The Ransom is paid and the Hostage is destroyed.  This is the best possible scenario for the Pirate, while the worst for the Hostage and is akin to Prisoner A betraying Prisoner B.

2.  The Ransom is not paid and the Hostage is destroyed.  This is the worst combined outcome for the two parties, and is akin to both Prisoners betraying the other. 

3.  The Ransom is Paid and the Hostage is let go.  This is the best combined outcome for the two parties, and is akin to both Prisoners remaining silent.

4.  The Ransom is not paid and the Hostage is let go.  This is the best possible scenario for the Hostage, while the worst for the Pirate and is akin to Prisoner B betraying Prisoner A.  It's also not realistic within EVE Online.

As you can see, the most beneficial choice for the Pirate in a single ransom is 1.  At the same time, the Hostage knows this, and logically chooses not to pay.   But, as is demonstrated in multiple playings of a PD, it's possible to come to an equilibrium where both Prisoners remain silent to the greater benefit of both.  

Surely, the best scenario for everyone's benefit is one in which Hostages always agree to pay and Pirates always agree to let them go.  Perhaps EVE has yet to reach this equilibrium, or perhaps the constant influx of new players to the game (game in this sense only references the "game" of Ransoming) means it can never reach this equilibrium.  New Pirates only seeing the short term benefit might still dishonor Ransoms, while new Hostages might refuse to pay out of fear that they would be betrayed and a lack of knowledge that they were always honored.  

As Druur states in the aforementioned comment, "Now if pirates would police themselves better, you might get more people to pay up."  They do have a point, as only the Pirates could take the first step in reaching that equilibrium.  Any attempt at Hostages to start paying before Pirates start honoring would be pointless after all.  As I mentioned when talking about some of the bad PR of lowsec, one of the perceptions being that all Pirates are on the same side just isn't true.  There's really no way for Pirates to police each other.  It's not as though we can revoke your union license to Pirate or anything.  

What can be done to solve this?  I can certainly conceive of some contract system for ransoming.  Something like: ISK is placed in escrow to be paid at a specified future date, say at the next time the paying party docks or 24 hours whichever comes first, and is returned to the owner if any killmails are generated with the receiving party on them during that time.  

Could that work?  Sure, but I don't necessarily think it's a good idea.  It limits the sandbox nature of EVE by removing option 1 from the list of decision the Pirate is able to make.  What I'd be more interested in is a solution that further takes advantage of the existing sandbox.  Why has no one created an escrow company specifically geared towards ransoms?  A public channel in which parties could enter, come to an arrangement, transfer the isk to an independent third party, and then part company.  I know that EVE's reputation as a cold harsh world makes trusting people hard, but there are certainly plenty of other ventures that started the same way.  All it would take is someone building a reputation and getting the word out.  Reputable Pirates could start using them, and carebears could start trusting them.  Before you know it, there'd be a new gold standard in ransom security.  I may just have to look into this myself...

What do I recommend in the mean time for players venturing into lowsec?  Do your homework.  Try to learn what you can about the Pirate organizations of New Eden, and specifically those that call your region Home.  Most of the Pirate organizations in it for the long haul will honor ransoms as it benefits them more in the long run.  Maybe they're the first step toward that equilibrium.  In the short term, knowing ahead of time who does and who doesn't honor their ransoms could mean the difference between paying 50m isk for your 100m isk ship, or paying 50m isk and then buying a new 100m isk after your ransom is dishonored.

Questions/Comments/Concerns are welcome.  As always, I'd be interested in hearing if anyone thinks these ideas are viable, or simply the ramblings of a madman.  I'm probably leaning towards the latter, but there's nothing new there.




  1. The reason a human run escrow would likely not work is based around a set of not-so edge cases you forgot.

    5. While trying to negotiate a ransom, Party C comes in and blows up both party A and party B.

    6. As above but Party C blows up party A with party B escaping.

    7. As above but Party B escapes and party A snuffs it.

    These scenarios cause a time pressure that makes finding an online escrow person both could trust iffy.

    If I were naive, I would suggest some sort of reputation system for pilots, however any such system is bound to be able to be gamed.

    As you mention, the only real solution is research.

  2. While these certainly aren't scenarios that I "forgot", I don't think they're as common as you might think. Largely because most Pirates I know are observant enough not to let them happen. If I don't think I'm safe enough to ransom, I usually won't even open channels to do so. Also, consider the number of ransoms that are successfully achieved through item exchange contracts because the pilot didn't have the isk in their wallet, and you can see the amount of time that's sometimes available to conduct the proceedings.

    I don't think it's unreasonable that a Corporation could profit by having a public channel that Pirates sat in, invited their ransomee to, had a member of the third-party Corporation confirm receipt of the funds and then parted ways in approximately a minute. The Corporation member that handled it keeping 5-10% of the total ransom seems like a reasonable yet profitable amount.

    While I don't necessarily think it would work as a start-up if I tried it myself, I can think of a couple of scenarios that could succeed in doing so. The first being an already existing company that had ventured into IPOs and Profit Sharing payouts and has built a name as a trustworthy organization in EVE. The second, although less ideal, would be for a number of the well known Pirate organizations in EVE banding together to offer the service. While I don't know that someone getting ransomed would be as likely to pay another Pirate to be let go, it might be a first step towards Pirates "policing" each other. Either way, it's just a thought.

  3. It is an interesting one. And I see what you mean about the trade window.

    I think it would help if said corp had buy in / support from popular "carebear" figures like Chiribba as well as a mutal enforcement pact by all involved.

    Namely if one or both parties renigs or fails to deliver, the whole weight of a whole lot of pirates, suicide gankers and even powerful carebears will make their eve life hell ;)

    With that kind of weight behind it, even a simple "yes I commit to paying your ransom, lets dock up local just went up" in the chat channel you talk about should be sufficient.

  4. Having lost two very expensive sets of implants after paying ransoms (fool me twice...) I now simply expect to be podded when flying in low sec. Some kind of enforcement company might convince me to start paying ransoms again when flying expensive hardware (which I don't).

    It really is as simple as "Release these funds from escrow in fifteen minutes unless I send you a killmail showing he breached the ransom agreement."

    If you can draft a fake killmail in 15 minutes without error, IMO you deserve to get away with the scam. Maybe I'll get into this gig. :)