CCP’s Dilemma

As we begin 2021, CCP faces a dilemma on the future direction of EVE Online.

At it’s core, the appeal of EVE Online is it’s ability to provide a sandbox where players can create their own stories, rather than simply following a storyline created by a game developer to guide you between elaborate cut scenes.

Whether it’s the solo player looking to achieve their own goals in industry, the PvPer that wants to rise on the killboard, or the large group looking to crush opponents and steal their star systems, EVE Online allows those stories to be written.

More recently, the CCP Dev Team has been more focused on directing action in the sandbox than they have in the past.  Specifically, the Ecosystem team has been trying to “fix” the economic resource balances in the game and reduce the ability of the wealthy players and groups to project as much power. 

This comes into conflict with some of the core marketing needs of EVE Online that are used to attract new players.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is a core tenet of attracting attention in news organizations, and CCP’s marketing relies heavily on bloody conflict to create headlines and stories that circulate on gaming sites and social media.  

Popular articles about EVE Online are invariably about large scale conflict, mass destruction, world records, and personal conflicts that spin out of control into wars.  Occasionally something like Katia Sae breaks into the news cycle, but the vast majority of eyeballs are drawn to gigantic fleets slamming into each other and expensive wrecks littering the field.

Rarely do you see an article about some small gang battle in a random system popping up on Kotaku or Polygon.  No one is writing articles about achieving Mastery levels in manufacturing or mining quietly in low sec for Crokite.

There is no book of “Small Frigate Fights of EVE”. 

The server-spanning, empire-crushing, tens-of-thousands-of-players wars are what get books written about and are the stories told for years afterward.

Unfortunately for CCP’s Marketing team, the game design is pointing in a different direction currently.  The continuing changes to resource availability, reduced ISK generation, infrastructure investment, and capital ship gameplay are basically disincentives to the exact kind of conflict and battles the are the lifeblood of CCP’s ability to get attention.

While these disincentives are frustrating to most players, they show no sign of effectively stopping “capital proliferation” or large scale empire power projection, some of the stated goals to justify the “starvation” that players are dealing with currently.

The frustration continues unabetted with no public design targets, timelines, or tangible “carrot” for players to be looking forward to besides “weaponized inconvenience”.

The on-going server spanning war is completely player driven conflict.  The war has nothing to with the economy or scarcity, and is based on a combination of grudges and existential threats that go back years. 

While the current war has been helpful in generating headlines so far, the future is not so bright for new headlines.  The debacle of the second fight in M2-XFE effectively ended the possibility that we will see a record breaking battle of that scale again. The lesson learned was that “people tanking” is a thing, and that pushing the server too hard is tactic.   Leaders will avoid the situation of being humiliated in a battle due to the game itself falling over.

The Dev Team response to M2-XFE gave no sign that the situation with player numbers in fights would see any improvement in the future, further dampening enthusiasm for these kinds of titanic battles. Not that there is an easy solution here, but the game meta has changed significantly due to M2-XFE.

Beyond that, once this conflict is over, we are faced with a game system that pushes large groups into the most economically rational decision; turtle up, generate resources, avoid losing powerful ships as they are hard to replace.  For smaller groups, the protection of the larger groups and defensible infrastructure becomes more attractive, reinforcing the conclusion that the smart move is it be part of an umbrella.

Once this war is over, the likelihood of large scale, newsworthy stories drops precipitously.

War is not profitable.

Generating resources, ISK, and ships in wartime is painful and frustrating.

Even the victors in war need time to rebuild their wallets. The losers, even if they are eager for revenge, will be far away from striking back.  Considering the direction that game design is heading, all sides will need even more peace time to regenerate strength.

CCP is committed to the current design path with economy for the foreseeable future, creating quite a dilemma.  Continue to reduce the rationale for war and ability to create large scale conflict, or enable conditions that create the events that make headlines.

Which way will we tip?

Not an easy one to solve.

People play EVE Online as an escape for the humdrum and horrors of real life.  They will endure some inconvenience in the game, but their willingness to grind in a system that is literally working to make their time less valuable has limits. 

I don’t have any answers on how to solve this, but CCP is going to have to grapple with this dilemma at some point, sooner or later.

When this war ends, many players are going to be taking a hard look about how much they log in and are willing to grind.   It’s one thing to endure frustration, while striving to support The War Effort, but another to see it as the New Normal.

The next six months will be interesting to watch, as CCP begins to reveal their plans for 2021 and which path they intend to walk.

On the ESS

The revised ESS system was released this week into New Eden.  As a former member of the CSM, I was aware of the basic idea for a long time, but now feel free to comment on the actual final design outcome.

The ESS posed some difficult design problems that have been addressed by fairly strict limitations on the environment in which players can interact.

Stepping back, it’s safe to say that EVE players are some of the most dedicated min/max gamers around.  They will relentlessly test, iterate, and hone in on ship fittings and tactics to master specific environments.   

Much of the hardest PVE content in the game has been mastered in this way, to the point that a player faces no real difficulty.  Burner missions, 10/10 escalations, and Abyssal space are intended to challenge players, but due to min/maxxing, they pose no real threat to players with the information on how to beat them.  They have become ISK printing machines, not challenges.

PvP is quite different than PVE, but even in PvP we have seen this same min/maxxing lead to optimal fits and tactics with little room for variation.  Abyssal PvP encounters rapidly became only run by a limited group of players due to their mastery of the specific fits and tactics there were basically optimized for the environment.

The live events team has done a great job with the Abyssal Proving Grounds, where the environment is rotated through to keep interest levels up and prevent long term stagnation. Even so, optimized fits rapidly emerge and dominate the environment. 

Which brings us to the revised ESS system. The environment has been very strongly controlled to remove many options from ship tactics to attempt to “force” good fights to occur.

The issue is whether completely optimized fits and tactics will appear for the “robber” side or the “defender” side creating a situation that is not fun for players.  

The fewer the tactical options due to the environmental restrictions, the simpler the task of optimizing is for theorycrafters.

We are still early in the ESS Era, but watching the ship doctrine choices in ESS encounters will be telling on whether players will be able to master the ESS, as they have every other limited environment in EVE.  

Only time will tell, but I’ve learned to never bet against on the hive mind of players to solve any puzzle placed in front of them.

On the Ecosystem Changes

I am occasionally on EVE talk shows and tweet about my feelings on the game. People sometimes ask why I am “against change” and “refusing to adapt”.  Here’s a slightly longer explanation about my views on the Ecosystems work for clarity that doesn’t fit well onto Twitter, Reddit, or Twitch.

Why am I frustrated?

My frustration with the Ecosystem changes over the last year is simple, they are dull, boring, weaponized inconvenience with nothing exciting for the average player.

Let’s compare to other major changes in EVE.  Each of these changes were radical and changed fundamental aspects of the game at the time.  Whether you like them or not, there is something about each change that created excitement, enthusiasm, and gave players significantly new things to do in EVE.  We can argue if they were long term good decisions, but it is inarguable that players were hyped and enthusiastic about the innovative changes.

Capital Rework – 2015

Near complete rework of the way Capital ships operate – introduction of modern fighter mechanics and creation of Force Auxiliaries.

Result: Entirely new fight dynamics for capitals ships in almost every situation. New roles for pilots, new escalation metas, new PVE opportunities.

Aegis Sovereignty – 2015

Complete work of null security space sovereignty system

Result: New war strategies, increases involvement of sub-capitals, new entosis strategy & doctrine, significant redrawing of the null sec map.

Upwell Citadels – 2016

Replacement plan for POS (Control Towers)

Result: New fight dynamics, new avenues for industry, un-coffined supercapital pilots, new choices for structure placement and use.

Athanor Moon Mining – 2017

Complete rework of moon mining process

Result: New shift in revenue streams from passive to active, allowed wide involvement from many pilots, created open trade in moon materials, created high risk locations for fights.

Again, you don’t have to think all of these changes were great, but in each cases they were new, enticing activities for players that created enthusiasm and new emergent gameplay.  Many will argue the pros & cons of each major change now in hindsight, but there is no doubt that the changes brought out excitement and enthusiasm in the players.

Now consider the changes to resources in the Economy work

Resource Redistribution – 2020

Resources are harder to acquire.

Result: Mine in other places. Haul more. Stuff costs more.

No new ships
No new incentives
No new strategies
No enthusiasm

Even the most positive comments are “It won’t be that bad…”.

The most enthusiastic players have pinned all their hope on some great, unannounced future feature set that will make all this “eat your vegetables” talk worth it.  

Imagine for a moment that it was the Aftertimes, and CCP was presenting at Fanfest or an in-person meetup and that the big keynote message was “Nocxium is in low sec now!”

Do you think there would be cheers? 
Do you think this would create excitement in the room?

Of course not. 

As I have said before, this is all stick, no carrot.

More “The beatings will continue until morale improves!” than “Here’s cool new ideas!”

And all this Ecosystem change is about getting to ‘Healthy Ecosystem State’, a state that has never been described, never been detailed, and worse, never explained to the average pilots why it matters.

Players are told “Trust us.”, which is code for either “we don’t know” or “we don’t think you are smart enough to understand”, both of which are terrible.

In previous large changes, explanations were simple: “Large Slowcat carrier fleets are basically invulnerable and have no counter, they gotta go. Capital ships need to blow up a lot more often.”

Most frustratingly, we see innovation from CCP sneaking in around the edges. Filaments, EdenCom ships, Proving Grounds, and Space Weather all have generated recent excitement, but that excitement continually tempered and diminished by the overwhelming wet blanket of the Ecosystem changes repeatedly smothering enthusiasm. 

Players need incentives
Players need excitement
Players need innovation

That’s not what players are seeing, they see harsh tweaks to force players to act in very specific ways, which in the sandbox universe of New Eden, is about as un-EVE as it gets.

On the Quantum Cores

Yes, structure spam is an issue.

Yes, bashing structures is painful with little reward.

Yes, as a former CSM member, this was a topic brought up to CCP and discussed.

That said, I feel that the announced change will not get the desired results of more sustained conflict.

tl;dr: They are burning down the house to kill the spider.

The change will cause corp & alliance logistics team headaches, leading to some consolidation of structures in a familiar form of “weaponized inconvenience” that we have seen with Ansiblex relocation and Abandoned structure states.  People like me who do this kind of work will complain, but much like the other changes, the job will get done and the organized groups will continue on unscathed.

I’m not against change or some version of the Quantum Cores, but the proposed implementation is unlikely to create the results expected by the Dev Team.

Personally, I’d rather spend alliance ISK on blowing ships up rather than on paying a retroactive tax on maintaining the status quo as most larger groups will do.

The change will lead to fewer structures in space and further incentivize players to concentrate in space and travel less.  Again, the optimal strategy will be to join larger groups for better protection from attack.

As we have seen with other major changes intended to create conditions for conflict, this will likely fail to do so as well.  Scarity has failed to create conflict.  Nerfs to supers and capitals have put fewer targets in space, reducing the ability of “hunters” to find prey, continuing to reduce people fighting in space.  Mining has moved in dramatic fashion to minimal risk High Sec space.

Boom

Yes, for the first few weeks there will be an orgiastic spike of destruction, much like the Abandoned Structures change, but once that is over and areas are purged, there won’t be many new structures being put up to replace them. 

If you couldn’t defend a structure from getting blown up the first time, you certainly aren’t going to anchor a new one in it’s place to get blown up for a second time.

Industrialists will likely see structure construction wind down to a trickle. Between the great unanchoring of citadels pre-Abandoned change and new consolidation, the stockpiles of structures and standup modules will be significant.  I’ve built over 200 citadels myself and don’t expect to build many more in the future.

Structures consumed a lot of P4 material in the past, so we will likely see increased supply with lower demand leading to further prices drops, accelerating price declines. Besides having less to build in this area, smaller industrialist will likely find fewer places to build and those will likely have higher indexes.

I’m not a High Sec person, so I can’t speak with any authority, but based on what I saw during the first weeks of Abandoned states, I wouldn’t want to be a high sec structure owner that can’t easily form 250 person fleets for defense.  Bob help the structures in High Sec if the Null Sec powers decided to ‘farm’ them for Cores rather than buy them.  As The Mittani clearly showed in Niarja, the force that can be brought to bear from large Null Sec groups is extreme and outstrips any typical High Sec group capabilities.

As I mentioned in my time as a CSM member, there is a disconnect between how the Dev Team thinks players will react to changes and how players actually adapt to change.  We have repeatedly seen design changes that do not work in creating conflict and getting more players going more places, just in creating speedbumps for people looking for fun.

If it wasn’t for the purely ego and grudge driven conflict we see in the current wars, New Eden would be fairly dull place with small groups filamenting around hoping to catch a ratting Myrmidon (if they are lucky).

Don’t chase kitey bullshit.

See you on grid.

Her Majesty