CCP have created a daring concept rivaled by few other MMOs, but after more than a decade it appears that in some respects they may have bitten off more than they can chew. EVE’s combination of a subscription based business model with a continually evolving sandbox is well suited to create brand loyalty and long term goals, but it also suffers from serious problems which develop over time. Some of those problems are inherent to the game mechanics, others are the consequence of playerbase evolution. Often it is a combination of both. In either case, the issues have compounded to create a situation for CCP where they have considerable difficulty resolving them. In this article I will discuss a few examples of such complications.
The POS Code
Obviously this is the really big one when it comes to game mechanics. The Player Owned Starbase (POS) was introduced at the end of the first year of EVE development and its legacy plagues the game even today. I am neither a game designer nor a software developer, but the circumstances which lead to the problem can be understood even by a layperson. Back in 2004 CCP was still a small company with a fresh product on the market and the unstructured development process of a garage enterprise. In a recent fanfest presentation CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson reminisced about that. The result was badly documented code written with little foresight. In later stages more features got grafted onto what is effectively a black box and eventually CCP ended up with the gordian knot they have to unravel today.
This is not only a matter of game development though. Through unforeseen actions by the players themselves POSes became central components of a whole playing style. CCP never expected anyone to go and live in wormhole space, but players did and POSes are the only way to do so. For wormhole players everything depends on the functionality of those structures.
In nullsec POSes developed into an important part of the infrastructure too. Moon mining stations became a staple of income generation for many alliances and concentrated wealth in particular areas. The moon material rebalance alleviated that problem, but In today’s EVE POSes are still very significant for that and other major operations. Whether it is the staging point for fleet engagements by means of a bridging Titan or part of a jump-bridge network, the POS lies at the foundation of alliance support systems. Without creating a fully working replacement first, CCP face the potential consequence of exposing player assets to serious risks. What if they made only a small error in the redesign? Whole corporations and alliances may become severely crippled by a bug in the implementation. That is worsened by the fact that POS code is tied very strongly to other features of organisational management in game. It does look like CCP are seriously working on solving this issue once and for all, but only time will tell how that is going to work out. In hindsight it would have been better to deal with it earlier.
This issue is a perfect example of game mechanics and playerbase evolution coming together to create an escalating problem which becomes harder to solve the longer it is allowed to endure. With the introduction of jump-portal capable Titans, CCP created the possibility to send whole fleets many light-years across space in a single jump. Back in those days, Titans were prohibitively expensive and time consuming to build. It took from their introduction in December 2005 until September 2006 for the first Titan to be constructed. They were extremely powerful assets but the investment of time and money limited their use, in fact they were intentionally not designed to be cost effective. Since then alliances have grown significantly in size and wealth, and by now Titans have become a staple of strategic fleet operations. Nowadays even smaller alliances have at least one or two of them to bridge fleets into battle. The proliferation of those ships is apparent from the battle of B-R5B which broke the record for Titans destroyed in an engagement more than five times over.
The ability to change the tide of battle without any possibility for either party to know what might be coming has lead to several problematic effects:
To begin with it resulted in an avoidance of fights. Titans may be more common these days, but they are still rare enough to make it possible for any given group of players to collect the names of most – if not all – Titan pilots in another alliance. If one of those accounts is seen online, potential opponents might decide to not even engage because they consider the risk of a whole other fleet dropping in too high. That effect can be even more substantial if intelligence is not available. A combat fleet may categorically refuse to engage targets just on the off-chance that the fight might be stacked against them from the beginning. Because of that avoidance tactic, fights become harder to find for those who have a reputation for bridging in large fleets. That forces them to look farther afield for potential engagements which in turn requires long-range force projection and thus the vicious circle is completed.
Also, the possibility for multiple large groups of players to send massive forces across the map in a short time results in structural problems for the game software. In case of an escalation like the Battle of Asakai, the number of ships jumping onto the grid becomes so large that the site of the battle and several other systems running on the same node will be overloaded. In the past that generally resulted in system crashes and CCP have created a sort of solution with the introduction of time dilation mechanics, but even with that the game becomes virtually unplayable and conflicts which could be resolved in an hour or two extend to unbearable lengths.
Furthermore, the ability to move strategic forces all the way across the map significantly reduces the planning and execution of extended warfare campaigns to a level where they get decided by massive n+1 dogpiles with no meaningful tactics involved.
CCP have announced changes to force projection by the end of this year. The intense reaction to that announcement shows very clearly that CCP ended up in a position where they inevitably have to disappoint some part of the playerbase and risk losing subscriptions. If they would change nothing, then all the problems I describe above would continue to exist and become worse. The result would be growing dissatisfaction and stagnation among the players and a slow decline in active subscribers. With the actions they do intend to take now, they enraged many players who have become dependent on the gameplay made possible by jump portals. The consequences can even go so far that large renter empires or vast sov-holding blocs become difficult to maintain or even completely impractical. The organisational paradigms of nullsec will have to change, and there is a potential that many players will not be willing to make that transition and rather choose to leave the game.
The Old Money Gerontocracy
I already mentioned the growth of alliance size and wealth, but that are not the only factors resulting in an increasingly calcified gaming environment. With increasing age, player groups also develop more in-game and out-of-game tools which facilitate continuous consolidation. Particularly in nullsec space the hegemony of powerful groups became ever more cemented. The early superpowers of EVE lasted only a few years. Ascendant Frontier endured from 2005 until 2007. Lotka Volterra and Dusk & Dawn rose and fell in an equal amount of time. Band of Brothers managed to remain dominant for four years and the old Northern Coalition only slightly less. Today’s CFC with Goonswarm at its core is about as old as that and shows no apparent signs of dissolution. The most glaring example of this would be the Provi-bloc. This coalition, assembled around a core of Curatores Veritatis and Sev3rance, have held the Providence region for close to seven years now, with only short interruptions.
Of course alliances and coalitions fall, like the Honeybadger Coalition or the Drone Region Federation, but at the centre of all the current powers are individuals and groups who have developed their wealth, assets, organisational tools and political alliances over many years. Ever since I started playing in 2008 there has hardly been any change in the who’s who of nullsec. 2010 saw the appearance of TEST Alliance, but being mainly an extension of Goonswarm at that time hardly qualified them as a group who have developed under their own power. The emergence of Brave Newbies in 2012 looked like a new generation of EVE players was ready to enter the stage, but when they eventually entered nullsec, they quickly became entangled in the political structure that had developed there over the years. In addition to that, many older players moved their alts to BNI and infused it with not only assets and money, but also with their way of in-game conduct. As the leading alliance of the HERO coalition BNI remain active, but they have also been wracked by the drama and loss of independence which results from the political metagame they became a part of.
The example of BNI shows that even a large group of new players with its own strong identity can not help but become part of an established order if they want to achieve certain goals. The powerful structures built over years by older players make anything else highly difficult. Despite being most apparent there, that issue does not only affect sov-nullsec. In wormhole space high-skilled and wealthy older groups enforce a paradigm that requires newcomers to stand and fight or be crushed if they refuse to do so. Industry and trade in highsec are cornered by wealthy tycoons and PVP is dominated by cunning professionals who can outsmart and outspend all the newer players. Even the comparatively unstratified environment of lowsec and NPC nullsec is full of pilots with the wealth and skill points to use expensive ships, implants and ganglinks to such an effect that one could even call it an in-game version of pay-to-win.
Of all the problems which developed over time, this one is probably the most difficult to fix. Of course patience and perseverance should provide rewards. Those who hone their in-game skills while managing their skillpoints and ISK well certainly deserve greater success. Empire building is a great aspect of EVE and it is only fair that the time and effort invested result in according yields.
Simply nerfing ISK faucets can not be the answer because it would hurt newer players on the lower income levels harder than those who have amassed wealth already. Even today, the loss of a T1 battlecruiser hurts a new player more than the loss of a faction-fit T3 ship affects someone who is well established. To compensate for that risk, new players will gravitate towards groups who offer them financial support and/or ship replacement programs. Eventually that dynamic will make it ever harder for newly founded corporations to compete for members with the old guard.
A possible solution could be the introduction of diminishing returns which make it ever more costly and difficult to grow or amass wealth beyond a certain stage. How to achieve that exactly can only be determined after careful consideration of all variables involved, and falls outside the scope of this article.
Suffice it to say that CCP – despite thinking a lot about conflict drivers – failed to disincentivize the formation of massive coalitions and the concentration of wealth until it was too late.
The dilemma CCP set themselves up for by creating an open sandbox which not only allows but even encourages malicious behaviour is something I have written about before. In a more recent piece I discussed the current response of CCP to certain results of unconstrained developments in that area. True to his style, James315 has also published a very extensive piece on the subject. In light of those previous publications, I mainly mention the issue here for the sake of completeness and to add a thought or two.
At the centre of the problem lies the strong response of CCP and their lack of communication about it. If their intent is to enforce rules of decency in player interaction more heavily, they should not only be open about it with the existing playerbase, but also seek to make it clear to potential customers outside the game. The grounds to do so are directly related to the nature of the dilemma. By changing their policy to harsher enforcement where permanent bans are issued without much warning, CCP alienates that part of the playerbase who chose to play exactly because they could betray, scam and victimize others. To do so for the sake of players already in the game is only half the work. If CCP wants to get rid of the image of EVE as a game full of griefers that never get punished, they would have to do more public relations work to attract new players who would possibly be discouraged by that image. If it is not their intent to change that reputation, then they still should explain themselves more publicly or they might not attract new players who are interested in the mischievous aspects of online gaming. In the end CCP again faces a situation where their prior lack of action has resulted in a creeping escalation that can only be halted by severe measures and the company potentially loses subscribers either way.
A Decade Of Development
It has often been said that CCP did too little in the past to iterate and balance game mechanics which they introduced. Today there are still game mechanics which are in dire need of adjustment, albeit that CCP has dedicated much time and effort to fix many. I definitely did not address all of them. Most notably I did not discuss the implications of sovereignty because I did that before.
To draw a conclusion, CCP paid insufficient attention to developments in player interaction and the metagaming aspects. They did hire an economist to monitor and potentially adjust the way the economy behaves, but they never considered to analyze the sociological aspects. Sociology is not an exact science and it is not always straightforward to identify cause and effect, but some aspects of human interaction are well studied and can be anticipated. Creating a sandbox environment where very few rules exist to restrict player interaction, a place where people can build their own miniature societies, is a bold move. The fact that EVE has a strong core of long-term players is testimony to the merits of that model, but to let things run their course unattended for a decade is dangerously naïve. Consequently CCP ended up painting themselves into a corner in more ways than one.
To avoid this in the future it would be wise to consider the metagame just as carefully as the mechanics themselves when it comes to iteration, balance and steering. I get the impression that CCP simply has to learn that alongside us players.
It is a sandbox after all, who knows how the sands will shift?
Tags: development, force projection, pos, sandbox, tarek
Former nullsec spy (no not under that name of course) and current failure at lowsec solo PVP, Tarek spends his time not logging in to the game as much as he keeps thinking about its social and metagame nature and sharing some of those thoughts with the CZ readers.