Friday 30 November 2012

Eve: a notion of how CCP might fix null sec

I'd like to conclude my so far rather gloomy series of posts about null sec with something more positive. First off, I'd like to say I'm very impressed with CCP, with their awareness of the game issues and their conscientious and thorough approach to iteration. I once played a MMO (Star Wars Galaxies) where the Live team wanted the game to be a different game and played other games in their off-time. It's why it died. I'm now playing Eve where the devs play it when they're not being paid to and where they get their ideas from the community not from (better) rival games.

So Eve is in good hands and is very healthy. Maybe we won't see something much like my idea but we will see something and it will be pretty good.

So how can we fix null sec? First, let's look at what's good about it and what's bad about it.

The good:
- it's fun. It's very exciting to paint the map in your alliance's colours, to undertake massive and difficult conquest of space.
- it's social. It's a communal exercise where it's very hard to solo, you have to group to be effective. (There are exceptions and Eve has plenty of outlets for solo players).
- in some ways the rise of the coalitions is a vindication of Eve's awesome sovereign gameplay.
- it drives the rest of Eve. The destruction of ships and structures in massive null sec pvp provides markets for the builders and traders, keeps rewards high for those who earn loyalty points in Faction War or mission running and is where the high level ships produced from wormholes go to die.

The bad:
- the main issue is that possibly the end is within sight. As I talked about last time we could see an all-blue (non-aggression) null sec simply because expanding your circle of allies is the natural and most effective method of playing the game. So people want to win and because we want to win we risk causing the game to stagnate as an unintended consequence.
- another problem is that the rest of the game is economically dependent on the null sec fighting. Eve has a rare MMO mechanic of destroyable ships which makes it unique and is the reason it appeals to its niche. No other mainstream MMO has so rich an economy or such a fun crafting game and the reason is that the demand is perpetually renewed because ships get blown up. Few other MMOs allow you to risk so much in one throw or ruin another person's day so thoroughly.
- null sec industry is non-functional. People just bring stuff in from Jita. Even null sec mining is barely better than high sec mining.
- it's too small. It may once have seemed epic and vast but the game grew in player numbers continuously from 2003 to 2010 and space has been further shrunk by the efficiency of jump drive using pilots. It's not just the introduction of the capital ships, its their development as players have skilled their characters up and developed alt-based strategies that allow them to move their ships across great chains of jumps.

(I deliberately don't include two oft cited null sec issues as bad. Lag isn't bad now that we have time dilation. And structure grinding is about where it should be so people don't lose their hard-won space too quickly or too trivially).

My solution:

In brief: More space.

In detail:  Deep space sensors across Empire space begin to pick up strange and giant artifacts out beyond the furthest reaches of a number of solar systems. Exploration teams discover vast alien pillars, previously undetectable but now beaming a faint signal. Is this some kind of unknowable invitation? Engineers examining the objects conclude they are some kind of non-operational alien stargates built on a scale never before seen in New Eden. Where they go is beyond anyone's ability to guess. But it does seem as if they could, with sufficient resource investment, be made operational...

This would be an expansion (in both senses of the word) in stages. The first stage is rendering the Cosmic Starways operational. My idea for this is borrowed from World of Warcraft where for the Ahn'Qiraj raid instances each world had to first make a vast communal effort. You'd hand in resources and receive rewards, worthwhile enough that people would feel motivated to do it for the reward even if they didn't give two hoots about opening up what lay beyond. So there would be a Cosmic Starway in each Empire constellation and any player can fly up to one, interact with a Sisters of Eve agent there, and hand in resources and get LP in return. Sisters of Eve LP or LP for some special store, doesn't really matter. This of course would be a useful asset sink.

Opening a gateway should take the entire server weeks or months. There's no harm in making this a really big effort, it makes it feel more epic and sinks more assets.

Each gateway leads to an area of Orion-space, a new null sec zone. Functioning more or less as current null sec except with one crucial difference: the distances (in Light Years) are much bigger. Where a six cyno chain in the current game might let you jump 50 systems in Orion-space you'd travel more like 10. Jump drives are mainly useful for letting you appear in a different place in a system than the obvious entrance rather than letting you move super-fast across regions. In particular the Cosmic Starway that leads in from Empire is hundreds of AU long, meaning that no jumps from anywhere else in Eve are possible. Orion-space does not connect to wormhole space.

Curtailed travel times have the following effects:
- discourages blobbing. A large empire needs to not concentrate all its force in one place because it will be unable to quickly move to help other frontiers if it does so.
- encourages local industry. It's better to make stuff locally than to bring it from Jita.
- encourages political diversity. It's much harder for a coalition or two to dominate everywhere.
- encourages exploration and small scale ventures. You can find a corner of the universe where it might take months before anyone even notices you, much less attacks you.
- encourages ganking as so much more trade is moving in convoys rather than virtually ungankable jump freighters.
- encourages racial homogeneity as it will be hard to get isotopes that aren't native to the region.

Economic notes: Orion-space should not be an exporter to the rest of Eve. There's always a temptation to sell a new feature to the player base by filling it with shinies, this area really doesn't need that. Its inaccessibility is its Unique Selling Point. By the same token anything Orion space can't make locally will be rarely seen. T3 Cruisers would have to be brought in from Empire in Freighter convoys through stargates because those materials aren't available. Amarr type regions (the equivalents of Delve) would be full of Amarr capitals because it would be so hard to run ships that require "foreign" fuel.

Political notes: Orion-space will attract people to nullsec who feels marginalised by the current Eve political situation. Most people don't want to have to become a Goon in order to not get your home kicked in. A new patchwork quilt of rival alliances should emerge, much like early days of Eve. Initially whoever can take and hold the entrance system from the first Cosmic Starway built will have an amazing influence - they'll be gatekeepers to the entire zone. However no one will be able to stop the community from handing in resources for LP across Empire and so the other Starways will gradually get opened allowing more access points. Orion-space would make a great alternatives for alliances that lose in conventional null. Instead of moving to Empire they could come here - an exciting option instead of a dull one.

Afterword: however CCP solve the issue of null sec stagnation I'm sure it will be good and surprising. Eve is in good hands.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Eve: Why players can't fix null sec

I don't think players can fix null sec. I could be wrong but here's why I think the brakes are off and the train is rolling downhill.

1) The combined power of the Honeybadger Coalition and the Clusterfuck Coalition is now too strong for any third party to stand against them. In fact probably only Solar would have any chance against even one of them and if Solar started to win one the other would likely help their bros.

Gevlon made this map showing the HBC/CFC controlled areas in red on the left side of the map. Any veterans of board games like Risk know that once you've got this much of the map the rest is just mopping up. Actually they're doing even better than it looks at the left side of the map is much richer space than the right side - all the Tech moons are in the top left, the right is mostly undesirable Drone regions.

CFC/HFC area in red.

2) The HBC (politically dominated by TEST, the Eve alliance from the Reddit forums) and the CFC (politically dominated by Goonswarm Federation, the Eve alliance from the Something Awful forums) are too friendly, too culturally similar and too hostile to the rest of Eve ("pubbies") to seriously undermine each other. A reset in quest of "good fights" is possible but it would almost certainly incorporate elements of HBC and CFC's current policy regarding fighting between the two entities: no ganking on jump bridges or stations, no sov grinding, no messing with the other coalition's strat ops. Effectively roaming gangs can shoot each other but no consequence-laden pvp is permitted.

3) Enemies are responding to losing by joining the Coalitions as fast as they can. There are a few hold outs but much of the HBC's current expansion has been fueled by enemies flipping sides. Raiden, Initiative, elements of Red Alliance have all joined Honeybadgers - thousands of former enemy pilots coming to where the grass is greener. When The Jagged Alliance was kicked out of HBC, 90% of its members left and re-joined HBC either by finding an alliance that would take them in as a corp or by applying as individual members. This is likely to increase in pace as it becomes more and more evident that the only way to play sov null sec is to be in HBC or CFC or face losing all your invested time, infrastructure and perhaps ships when the steam train reaches your area. Also the more space that is conquered the further the big two have to go to find fights. My alliance (in the HBC) is currently deployed three regions away from where we live because there's simply no one closer to conquer. When we finish conquering Esoteria we'll no doubt install blues to rule it then join with them in conquering some new region because if we don't our pvpers will have nothing to do and get bored (and they are quite rightly the most important people - without good pvpers you don't hold space).

4) The management can't rein this in. The Mittani who runs CFC could tell his alliance to stop recruiting perhaps (although even that could be problematic as it's tied to an external website so possibly not his call to make) but he has no chance of imposing a coalition-wide recruitment freeze. He's repeated many times that other alliances are peers, are friends, not pets. It's the philosophy of both of these coalitions. So each alliance is relatively free to grow however it chooses and there's a flood of recruits coming in as people work out it's the best option. Naturally every "junior" alliance wants to grow and prosper and become as strong as or stronger than Goons and Test and they're all trying to achieve this by mass recruiting.

5) The opposition can't stop them. In theory if the military forces of every non-CFC/HBC sov null sec alliance united against them it would be ample force to prevail. However every attempt to organise has failed and the longer the opposition keeps losing the harder it gets. It fails for many alliances because their highly egotistical leaders fall out with each other. In fact most of this patchwork quilt of small alliances are actively fighting each other rather than preparing to face the juggernaut. With the personalities in place in NCDot, Triple A and so on there really isn't any chance of them all subordinating their alliances to one leader and trusting him. Most of these alliances have very little concept of the new style of diplomacy that CFC and HBC use - they're mired in early Eve thinking - we are elite, we are unique, we may temporarily set someone blue but ultimately everyone else is an enemy.

6) Distance doesn't matter. Titans can bridge fleets halfway across the universe and capitals can jump wherever there's a cyno chain. It takes set up but that's in place. Alliances redeploy to staging systems to conquer new regions. Pandemic Legion showed in the 1V-L12 battle just how mobile forces are when they moved to kill SOLAR supercarriers 33 jumps away from their home.. (In support of NC. and Red Alliance who are more interested in fighting SOLAR than resisting the juggernaut now).

7) Crappy space won't save you. People want to put their flags on the map, new members of the coalitions want to make their marks. We are at the point where close to all non-Drone Region space is under HBC/CFC management or will be within the next couple of months. At that point alliances in the coalition will have to settle for Drone Region space simply because there's no other conquerable space left in Eve that isn't either blue or subject to no sov grind agreement between the Big Two.

Conclusion: without game redesign all of sovereign nullsec will be blue to the two major coalitions within two years. Possibly sooner. And players are not able to prevent this. In fact with the collapse of SoCo and the breakup of the NCDot/Black Legion/Evoke partnership in the North Eve is basically won already, we're in the mop-up phase now.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Eve: The future of Nullsec

Although Eve has moved a long way from its initial state it seems that at one time nullsec was envisioned as the end game of Eve. You start in high sec with safe low paying missions, graduate to low sec where the rule against interdiction bubbles means you can usually escape with your pod and the gate guns and stations create safe areas and finally graduate to null sec where the name implies there is no security, no safety. Ultimate danger, ultimate reward.

In a game so old and so based on emergent gameplay that picture has become distorted. Low sec has, for all the time I've been playing, been far more dangerous that null. Wormhole space is null sec on steroids - more dangerous, more rewarding although with peculiar local rules that limit the size of alliances. Bored nullseccers have turned their attention to high sec making some high sec activities (eg flying a freighter through Niarja, mining ice in Gallente space) amongst the most dangerous in Eve.

So what now is the point of nullsec? It's not the most lucrative, it's not the most dangerous. It's probably not the most interesting, null sec sov grinding being notoriously dull.

I think there are two answers, related to each other. 1) Politics and 2) Marking out a territory. Nowhere in Eve is the political game as important. You have to play politics and play it well. You have politics within your corp as people squabble over competing goals. You have politics within your alliance. You have politics within your coalition or if you don't have a coalition you have to politic your way into one. And all in aid of painting a corner of New Eden with your alliance's colours. (I'm excluding NPC null sec from this analysis as functionally it's more of an extension of low sec than typical null sec).

And what's the point of politics and conquest? Ego, marking your territory or even that weird consensual collective vanity that passes in the real world as nationalism.

So does null sec need "fixing"? It seems to be pretty popular. Although it attracts a high volume of moaning many of those moans are derived directly from how busy it is - lag and blobbing wouldn't happen if only 10 people wanted to do null sec.

There is perhaps a danger that the trend for growing coalitions could change the nullsec we know. What if the bigger coalitions become so dominant that you have to be blue or you're ousted? If that happened there would be no one to fight - nullsec could become a huge farming zone enlivened by the occasional cloaky ganker.

However that's possibly a matter for the players rather than the developers. If everyone wants to blue each other it's almost impossible to prevent, if everyone is relentlessly hostile and prefers a target-rich environment, likewise the players can force that to happen.

What we have seen in the last two years is the triumph of diplomacy over elitism. Alliance leaders who are bad at diplomacy, who make the key failures of making promises they don't keep or letting down other alliances who depend on them are on the way out. This is not necessarily a promise of perma-blue though as it's possible that leaders may decide against perpetual growth. There has to be a concern though as the TEST-led Honeybadger Coalition conquers Esoteria that the war machines may simply become too big not to feed and that Coalitions will be led despite their intentions into eliminating every possible enemy.

The next couple of years will be very interesting. But afterwards null sec Eve may become rather dull.

Friday 2 November 2012

Bah Humbug!

Well halloween's over and I'm possibly one of the few MMO players who's glad to see the back of it.

I don't generally like these holiday events. I like my fantasy world to be other, to be distinct from the reality I inhabit. It seems tawdry to stick pumpkins everywhere or santa hats or love hearts. Would Gandalf's struggle against the Balrog have been more epic if they had both been wearing party hats and tooting whistles? I doubt it.

On top of that Halloween isn't really celebrated in England much so it's odd to have all this trick or treat stuff. Not only is reality shoehorned into my adventure but it's foreign reality to boot.

But perhaps worse of all is experiencing it in a new game. Having just started GW2 and not knowing where anything is or what the quests are it's very confusing to have an overlay of seasonal quests. They seemed quite oddly implemented too. I went into one which was a maze. We were supposed to collect goo for some NPC before we got beaten up but I only collected 2 pieces and the random strangers I was with did even worse. So we failed, got beaten to death by monsters and there wasn't any apparent way to exit the event. As my character was only level 4 I just checked a couple of days later to see if she was still stuck in the maze then deleted her.

I have read elsewhere that some people loved the events so fair play to them. I reckon the most practical approach for me is simply to not log in for 2 weeks when one of these events come up and leave them to more social people who love showing off their broomsticks or whatever.