Seldon Game Theory

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, set thousands of years in the future, concerns a historian, Hari Seldon, who developed a mathematically exact science for predicting the future sweep of human history. Actually, Hari Seldon is long dead early in the first book of the original trilogy. His hand simply lingers on through the centuries as it guides the political organization he founded along its way. The calculations that he made in the distant past predict what will happen and what the winning moves are. The science Psychohistory, is obviously a fictional construction. The closest we have got has been a shift in real historians’ perspectives, some of whom have adopted an attitude of natural causation mixed with chance. See the books Guns Germs and Steel and War! What is it good for? for an example of this approach. This is related to EVE by the way that players receive content. In most games developers would create a level, and that would be the content that players experience. Even in most MMOs, content comes as instanced dungeons, as meticulously designed as a roller coaster. EVE content comes from other players in the sandbox. We roleplay generals, soldiers, businessmen, reporters, dictators, and presidents. We build nations with silly names and we make vibrant communities. EVE without people would be a pretty mediocre place. Another way of wording this, is that what the playerbase decides to do is important. It matters a great deal what happens to our space nations and what our space leaders decide to do over the long term and in aggregate. The content comes from the sweep of EVE history as it unfolds. There are some problems with the system from a developer’s point of view. Each player is looking out for number one. Player generated content is not vetted by CCP. Sometimes players take action that is not best for the community. They draw ASCII dicks in space. They create bonus rooms. They hotdrop everything they can get their hands on. They wage wars designed to grind down enemy morale.
“Either way, the fighting style spreads. Its almost a kind of evolutionary race.”
Think on this for a minute. If one group that favors brutal ‘no fun’ war comes into conflict with a more easygoing group, we can only have one of a few outcomes. The group with the more effective fighting style wins, becoming bigger and more powerful, or the second group adopts the more effective fighting style. Either way, the fighting style spreads. Its almost a kind of evolutionary race. More specifically, it is a definite process (probably inevitable) that results from the rules of the game. gaming-eve-online-image-02 We see trends like this in EVE on a regular basis. Some situations mirror real life, and some are unique. EVE is effectively a long running Seldon experiment. The think tanks of various alliances try constantly to guess what the outcomes will be, and how to achieve favorable ones. Individuals try to run ahead of the curve or try to climb to the top of the heap. None of us have anything near so accurate as Psychohistory to guide us. We stand in the dark we hope our judgements are reliable. But in all of this we sometimes suspect that we serve the ends of inevitable processes. Its about which of us gets there first, rather than where we decide to go. There is a best fit for that Ishtar, and one of us will discover it.
“Where we are is not just a matter of luck.”
Players understand this at a gut level, though they do not often think about the fact that CCP also spend time worrying about the future in much the same way. CCP do not care who wins or loses, but they have a powerful existential interest that the game continues. The fact that the game is so strong at it’s age, and has not devolved in one way or another, such as one group conquering everything, is an impressive achievement. Where we are is not just a matter of luck. CCP have, and continue to design the playing field with the Seldon experiment analogy clearly in mind. They change the underlying conditions, never outright dictating what any one player can do, but tinkering with incentives and outcomes. These underlying conditions push EVE in different directions, bigger empires or balkanization, war or peace. EVE developers have to try to be psychohistorians every time they go in to change the code. At some times there has been a light hand on the tiller. Recently CCP have been pushing serious changes toward an overriding goal. In all of this, CCP do not have access to Psychohistory any more than the players do. They also rely on gut feelings, hope, a handful of data, and guesswork when it comes to illuminating the future. There are a great deal of tangential topics that I long to touch on. You could take this insight and, if you bought into it, discuss almost everything else facing EVE in its particular light. All of that stuff can wait until later because I suspect that there is a discussion to be had about about the idea that EVE has a kind of Psychohistorical force. Game theory has proven for simpler games that there is one optimal strategy, although for some simple games there is no clear solution. The is also the issue of evolutionary stable strategies. Yet, EVE is complex beyond game theory’s ability to handle, except in very small parts. You could reasonably argue that individuals are more important than I give them credit for here. You could say the same for culture. Maybe with different leaders and having developed a different culture, EVE would be a world of NRDS space democracies. Or maybe that was never going to happen. I do not have mathematical proof, just a gut feeling.
Tags: development, game theory, Mukk, sociology

About the author

Mukk Barovian

Mukk is a long time skirmish FC with a penchant for overpropping his ships.

  • Talvorian Dex

    So, what do you see as the “overriding goal” CCP has been pushing towards? I’d be curious what objective you posit as that ultimate desire on their part.

    What does picture do you form about what CCP wants null-sec to look like, based on what they’ve done?

    • Gavin

      Wild, precarious, flux, treacherous

      • FC.

        Instructions unclear, fortress deklein complete.

    • MukkBarovian

      The phrase local content gets bandied about. People talk about small groups squabbling with each other. However without knowing CCP’s plans, it is very hard at this point to guess at what exactly their vision is.

  • Kamar Raimo

    To think about why the meta and playstyles of the game have evolved one way and no other is a very intriguing subject and there are many interesting starting points in this article. Good work.

  • Dermeisen

    Thoughtful writing, it makes sense that game design is moving towards fertile and unpredictable outcomes, where the sweet spot is the underdetermined. Where the evidence is insufficient to identify which theories/strategies are optimal given the available evidence.

  • Kinis Deren

    Seldon infamously wasn’t able to predict the appearance of The Mule. One may wonder if CCP also failed to forsee the circlejerk consequences that Dominion sov and moon mineral farming produced in EVE.

  • Abraxis

    From my point of view, Sov Null is closed off for people not already established in Sov Null. You either get griefed out or you pay rent (in whatever form). There is no middle ground. How this is different from “one group conquering everything” is beyond me.

  • Danny11068

    Great article, would love to hear more from you on the tangential topics!!!

  • AFK

    Well, there’s not only the fact that players adopt metas and make adaptations, but as EVE ages, they get better and better doing so. Doctrines propagate quicker and quicker, CCP’s changes are solved on sisi before even being released. Like the old guy in the Matrix said “this is the 7th time we’ve done it, we’ve become quite efficient at it”.

    This is not always a good thing. Much content in EVE comes from people doing something “wrong”; taking fights they’ll probably lose, or defending space when they should run. But, now, everyone knows the counter everything else, everyone can predict reasonably what the outcomes will be, and everyone takes the most efficient path. (With the exception of BRAVE who for some reason stubbornly refused to do so). More and more people just run rather than fight, which while is the “correct” play, is also the boring one. I think players have just gotten too good.