Balancing Player Power in EVE Online: the NPC Evolution


For many years now, EVE Online developers have emphasized their intent to give players more control over every aspect of life in New Eden. At every Fanfest and local player gathering, CCP devs unwaveringly declare that “the players are the story in EVE Online”, and that it therefore follows that players must have more control over production, markets, politics, combat and every other aspect of capsuleer existence.

Over time, more game mechanics have been transferred to players: invention, planetary interaction, customs offices and structures are just a few examples. With the release of citadels in the next expansion, the potential for eventually doing away with non-player character (NPC) operated stations becomes an obvious and perhaps inevitable direction, in the spirit of transferring yet more burden for in-game content creation onto the backs of the player community.

Invariably, players cheer – quite literally and enthusiastically – developer declarations of player empowerment. They believe that more direct control means more options within the game, and more ways to stake out a significant part of the unfolding story of New Eden for themselves.

But is increasing player control always a good thing? Is unrestrained player empowerment the best direction for EVE Online, or is it just lazy game design?

Balancing Player Empowerment With NPC Agency

PC Gamer recently published an interesting article entitled, “The case for giving players less control, and NPCs more”, which covered a presentation at the 2016 Game Developers Conference by Meg Jayanth, writer of the award-winning 80 Days game. Jayanth makes a case for limiting the power of players in games and giving NPCs more agency, thereby requiring players to react to NPC decisions. The article explains: “Agency… means the power to change something if you wish. Jayanth is tired of game protagonists who storm through people’s lives solving every problem they have. It frequently doesn’t make sense, and it also robs those characters of their own agency: apparently they’re all helpless to decide or accomplish anything until you show up and do it for them.”

“…there are few significant cause-and-effect ripples for interacting with NPCs in New Eden.”

In EVE Online, this is exactly what happens in the missioning system, and is a principal reason why player-vs-environment (PvE) gameplay can quickly become repetitive and boring. Other than potential effects on standings – the risks of which can be mitigated by choosing how often to accept missions and for whom to run them – there are few significant cause-and-effect ripples for interacting with NPCs in New Eden.

Practically, most players can simply ignore their relationships with NPC factions. Other than gaining access to higher-level mission agents, there are few implications from NPC interactions on how players operate, even in Empire space. Capsuleers may roam freely in high-sec, as long as they maintain acceptable security status (or just travel in a pod), no matter how many of a faction’s ships and crew they have murdered in the past.


While this kind of unfettered player freedom may sound attractive, it actually reduces the range of possible outcomes when interacting within the game world. Giving NPCs more agency would require players to be more thoughtful in how they choose their actions within EVE Online. As the PC Gamer article says, “It makes the world feel bigger and richer when you’re not the most powerful person in it.”

One way to do this is to significantly raise the stakes of capsuleer actions against a particular NPC agent, corp or faction. For example, you may have the standings to fly in a faction’s space without their navy or patrols attacking you, but an unhappy NPC agent, displeased with your mission rejection or performance, might seek personal retribution by contracting with NPC mercenaries or bounty hunters to follow and harass you. Currently, only players may issue bounties on other players, but if that option was also a possibility for NPC agents, it would make PvE decisions more interesting to evaluate. NPC agents should not feel like they are generic and interchangeable. To feel real to a player, NPCs should exert their own individual wills, and pursue their own agendas, and thereby make more impact on players’ decisions in the game.

CCP Games has recognized the potential for improving NPC behavior, and devoted development time and resources towards doing so. At Fanfest 2015, CCP Frellicus presented a session on more adaptive AI for NPC ship actions. This new AI made its debut with the Drifter Incursions, but CCP soon recognized that they were not operating as expected, and suspended them for further revisions. At this time, it’s not clear what the plans for more sophisticated AI for NPCs in space will be.

CCP Affinity has said that improved NPC interaction is in the cards for future development. New NPC ship AI is the first step, and an important part of a revamped PvE missions system, but no definitive release plans have yet been made public for this. She and other devs – such as CCP Ytterbium – have stated an intention to model NPC actions more realistically in space, and provide more opportunity for players to interact with them in useful ways, such as possibly shipping small-sized courier jobs for players, or contracting NPC piloted ships for fleet support duties.

Resetting Standings

CCP Affinity has also said that the current standings system is in line for a significant overhaul. She has stated that players should not be able to be friendly with every faction, for example. Players will need to make more careful choices about what factions they want to align with, and where they can fly unimpeded as a result.

The current standings mechanics are relatively simplistic. Taking missions from an NPC agent raises standings with them, their corp and faction, while reducing standings to a lesser degree with opposing factions. This leads to “grinding missions” repeatedly in order to achieve higher standing and thereby unlock access to more lucrative agents.

The relative positive and negative relationships of the factions in EVE Online


By selecting the right missions, a player can theoretically develop positive standings with every faction under the current system. CCP Affinity’s idea is to make this impossible, and force players to make more careful choices in what factions they want to align with, and thereby develop NPC enemies at the same time.

One way to accomplish this is to add more granularity to the current standings system. All factions include sub-groups like NPC corporations, government agencies, divisions or tribes, and all of those have complex levels of relationship with other sub-groups, even within their own faction. The mega-corporations in the Caldari faction, for example, compete aggressively with each other, so running missions for one should affect standings with the others. Expanding the standings effects table to include inter-relationships between sub-faction groups, or perhaps even between individual NPC agents, would make player decisions about whom to ally with more nuanced and interesting.

In addition, including a much wider range of player actions in calculating standings changes could also make player decisions and actions more important. Taking out Angel Cartel anomalies in a Minmatar-controlled system, for example, might improve relations with the Minmatar military and government. Conducting trade in a Federation Navy station could cultivate some favor with that Gallente entity. Providing more options for affecting standings with NPC entities in the game beyond just exploding little red icons gives players more interesting choices, while also creating significant consequences for more of their actions.

While it could be a daunting undertaking, changing how individual NPC agents act and react in a more realistic fashion would also add a whole new dimension of player engagement in the game, and open many more possibilities for players’ story development. As CCP Games experiments with more adaptive and sophisticated artificial intelligence for NPC ship actions in space, it could also apply a similar AI to the behavior of NPC agents. Rather than just being dispensers of pre-configured mission assignments, NPC agents’ interactions with players could be driven by a wider multitude of variables, as well as by the agents’ individual goals. Every NPC agent should have their own story, and how much of that story an NPC agent reveals may vary significantly between different players. The experience of one EVE Online player with a particular NPC agent might therefore be far different than the experience of another player, depending on their relative standings and prior actions.


Pushing Players Out of the Nest

Increasing NPC agency also opens an opportunity for altering the dynamics of life in high security space so that players are encouraged to migrate to other types of space.

Currently, according to statistics provided by CCP Quant, over 70 percent of players operate in high security space. Many denizens of null-sec, low-sec and w-space have suggested that this is unhealthy for the game, and that players who have grown too comfortable in high-sec need to be pushed towards more dangerous space.

The most common suggestion for doing this is to make rewards in high-sec less attractive, and therefore “force” players to migrate to less secure space. But there is a potentially better way – incent players to emigrate out of high-sec by using increased NPC agency to slowly raise the risk level of operating in Empire space, and thus make it relatively attractive to move.

By adjusting the standings system, and providing NPCs with the ability to react more punitively against players who offend them, players who repeatedly take aggressive actions in high-sec will eventually need to operate elsewhere. In essence, players themselves could make high-sec as risky as any other space by their own actions and decisions, and by how NPC agents react to them, and therefore would have little incentive to remain in high sec, as it would no longer be “safe” space for them.

By incrementally increasing limits on players’ freedom from consequences, and providing NPCs with more agency over player actions, more players will eventually find moving out of high-sec an attractive alternative.

Empire Space Changes

Many CCP devs have openly described their intention to make Factional Warfare a four-way conflict between the major Empire factions. It is simply a question of time before this happens. How it will be handled in the lore of the game should be very interesting to witness. I’ve speculated before about the potential for fragmenting Empire space, in a previous article, and it appears that at least some of those ideas are coming to fruition.

Changing Factional Warfare to a four-way conflict would provide players with more opportunity to get into PvP, because the inter-faction fronts would all double in size. The potential for giving more NPC agents the wherewithal to recruit capsuleers into the greatly expanded war zone could result in a significant increase in players trying more aggressive aspects of the game.

At the very least, I think we can expect to see more visibility of NPC entities in Empire space, including a stronger naval presence. For example, I’ve always wondered where the Empires keep their titans and supercapitals – why don’t we see them in Empire space? We can also hope to see smarter AI applied to NPC faction vessels, and actual fights between NPC entities (e.g., faction navies vs. pirate ships in asteroid belts, or fights between rival faction navies in border systems, etc.). These would all be good things, as they would make high-sec feel more densely populated and dynamic, as it should.


Balancing Player Control

More player control over game mechanics is generally good, but it must be balanced against more dynamic NPC agency, or else players become solely dependent upon other players for content creation. As coalitions in null-sec have demonstrated (at least, before the start of the recent war), this can lead to stagnation when alliance leaders become more concerned about protecting their assets than they do about risking them in significant fights.

Providing NPC entities in the game with a more active role, by giving them more agency and intelligence, can help to shake up the status quo and break player complacency. NPC actions – such as massive Drifter Incursions, for example – could provide this kind of intervention anywhere, not just in Empire space. Players’ actions should not be determined solely by reacting to other players, but by reacting to the wills and desires of NPC entities as well.

Unlimited player control does not always lead to optimum gameplay. By giving NPC’s more agency, and more opportunity to exert their own agendas in the game, capsuleers would have to share their power in New Eden, and make more careful decisions about what actions they choose to take. Balancing player power with NPC agency would provide more potential for engaging in more interesting stories in EVE Online, and more entertainment value in the game.

Tags: Neville Smit, pve

About the author

Neville Smit

Neville Smit, a former director of education for EVE University, is now a non-violent space hippie in the Signal Cartel, living in wormhole space and making a meager living as an explorer. He has been trying to learn how to play EVE Online since 2009. You can read more about his misadventures in New Eden at NevilleSmit.com or on Twitter @NevilleSmit.

  • Jester

    What’s your source for 70% of players operating in high-sec? I must have missed a Quant post somewhere. Thanks!

  • Viince_Snetterton

    So….once again, “improve the game” by taking more away from the majority of the player base. Truly, these developers and their bosses are morons, pure and simple.

    • Neville Smit

      Would it be better then to remove all NPCs completely (and all the lore, while we are at it), and let players have 100% control of all game mechanics? I think not. In fact, I think striking a proper balance between the two provides more interesting consequences, which would add to the game, not taking anything away. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood your concern – please elaborate.

      • Viince_Snetterton

        How about this. Don’t do it at all. ADD to the casual high sec player experience, don’t take away. There is “no proper balance” needed that you speak of. In fact, if you want to achieve a “proper balance”, high sec must regain some of its lost income capability. Reverse out the disaster that was Crius and watch the PCU spike. Don’t go forward with this moronic 6% hike in taxes.

        The more that CCP and people like you think that high sec is too easy and profitable, the more subs that are lost.

        • Neville Smit

          I suspect that we are speaking past each other, and we have more alignment than we think. I do NOT think that high sec is too easy and profitable – I am concerned that it is the opposite. That is why I want to see MORE interesting content and ways to engage in EVE Online, including with NPCs. As for reversing Crius, you know we disagree on that point – I don’t think it’s necessary. I do share at least some of your concern about the Citadel taxes, however. That could end very badly for high-sec players.

  • Random Guy

    this must be a 1st april type of arcticle

  • Vartan

    I don’t think the rewards in high sec are particularly great now anyway, so I dont think people will move because of the rewards.

    But why to people stay in high sec anyway? is it because they are risk averse? or maybe they are new to the game (my son recently started playing on a trial account and I was trying to help him, it is amazing what older player take for granted in playing this game). Maybe it is because things like logistics is just easier. or perhaps most of them are industrial players that chase isk and the best way for that is in the trade hubs (maybe)

    I like the idea of giving NPC more options/clout though i think that will certainly make things more interesting, Not quite sure I like the idea of no NPC stations which you alluded too (at least that is how I read it) I wouldn’t want all my assets at the mercy of some random who could decide to just shut it all off.

    • Neville Smit

      I vacillate on the question of keeping at least some NPC stations, or letting players replace them with their own Citadels, especially in high-sec space. I can see merits either way. But I’d like to see at least some NPC stations maintained in the game, if for no other reason than to house agents for providing missions – which will hopefully be more interactive and engaging.

      • Vartan

        I think that if NPC stations go then I would more than likely leave the game. I wouldn’t want to be under the whims of a human player in order to access my stuff, I just wouldnt be comfortable with that, knowing the vitriol that can spill from players in this game I think that the scams that would ensue could maybe even be a game killer.

  • Do Little

    Right now, I have operations in both highsec and sovereign nullsec. I suspect that any significant effort to push players out of highsec will simply push them out of the game. Another statistic CCP Quant published in his Vegas economic update is that only 13.8% of players logged in participate in PVP (and I have no doubt some of them are gank victims who weren’t planning to PVP). The numbers say that Eve is really an economic simulation with a PVP component. A lot of us like it that way.

    I do believe that improved NPC AI will significantly benefit the game. I think CCP could substantially reduce the number of NPC agents by letting each of them offer different types and levels of mission and a path dependent agent based model would make them come alive with interactions depending on standing and history.

    CCP could replace CONCORD with faction navies – their response to criminal activity would vary depending on both the security status of the system and standings between the faction, the victim and the attacker. It might also be possible for attackers to defeat or escape a navy response. There are lots of other ways an advanced AI could enrich the game for those who aren’t interested or simply don’t have time to participate in traditional Eve PVP. Improvements that attract players to highsec do benefit all regions. CCP has more money to invest in the game and many of those players will eventually get bored in highsec and migrate to null (or low) as I did.

  • AkrasjelLanate

    Good stuff 😉

  • Zaros Tenjin

    Getting in especially on the last point you made with the Drifter incursions, once citadels are out i really would love to see Rogue NPC entities in Null to actually branch out. Maybe even try to challenge the Sov of the owners. Having a Drifter Incursion suddenly puts your structures and citadels at risk, pirate factions trying to expand their influence past the NPC-Regions (while keeping their home region out of the sov game or the npc pirates would just be steamrolled over and vanish). I think that would shake up things more and force the alliances to interact with an incursion for example instead of just shrugging and complaining about the incursion chat opening when entering a system

    • Neville Smit

      We’re in total agreement – I want to see more interactive behavior and aggressive actions against players by all types of NPCs. I like your suggestions a lot.

  • One interesting mechanic might be to have NPC ships accompany you on missions, if your standing is high enough to warrant it. Your mission reward could be reduced if too many are destroyed.

    • Neville Smit

      I like this idea. Players should be able to interact with and contract for NPC resources – that would help New Eden feel a lot more dynamic and engaging.

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  • Kamar Raimo

    I support the idea of making PVE more interesting and meaningful byt any means possible. I had my own armchair developer piece about that right here http://crossingzebras.com/player-versus-ennui/

  • Viince_Snetterton

    It is a certainty that whatever changes come to NPC’s, just like we just witnessed with these mining changes, high sec income generation will be a smaller piece of the pie when the null sec cartels and their crony dev’s are done.