Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Can EVE Online and Elite: Dangerous Co-exist (on my Hard Drive)?

The thrum of my ship's engines subsides as it drops out of warp and my viewscreen is filled with asteroids silently floating in the void beneath the silvery disc of a distant moon. A quick glance at my instruments warns me of the presence of other ships. Compelled by my curiosity to explore every facet of this vast and bewildering spacescape, I guide my lowly vessel closer to investigate, wary of possible hostile action...

It's a scenario which could describe my early days in EVE Online circa May 2003, or my more recent first steps in the modern re-imagining of the game that started the digital space race in 1984, Elite.

In both cases, the sense of being a tiny denizen of a vast and undiscovered universe tangibly permeates the game experience, injecting an austere sci-fi concept with possibility and wonder.

Of course, in EVE Online, that promise which was made by such a broad, open universe built around emergent gameplay concepts evolved into the peerless, player-driven experience which has seen it enjoy 11 years of success and counting.

On the other hand, Elite: Dangerous is still in beta for another few weeks and unsurprisingly has plenty of bugs and missing content. But despite that, I've had the opportunity to spend some hours playing what is already a polished and sometimes awe-inducing first-person spaceship piloting experience. The audioscape in particular is entrancing.

Rekindling a Love for the Unknown

Hyperspace jumping through 'witch space' in Elite: Dangerous
As I took control of my light multi-role Sidewinder and participated in the variety of activities Elite: Dangerous already has to offer, I quickly found myself falling back in love with the game which defined my youth and arguably played as big a role as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Asimov/Clarke in making me a lifelong science-fiction enthusiast.

After all, for me, the whole lure of EVE Online was its intention to provide an online game which delivered the Elite experience of an open universe filled with opportunity and discovery. CCP Games delivered this in spades over the last decade, adding depth and breadth to the early, feature-light gameplay which captured my heart.

EVE Online's skyboxes are stunning.
Witnessing the growth of EVE Online from within as a long-time player has been has been unique journey through online gaming. Well ahead of its time and undisputed master of the emergent gameplay niche, few can doubt that CCP stands atop the industry when it comes to delivering the massively component of massively multiplayer gaming.

Yet as I delve deeper into this brave new (yet wonderfully familiar) universe offered by Frontier Developments' Elite: Dangerous, I already sense it offers something which has always eluded EVE Online. There is a connection, a feeling of being immersed directly into a future world of technology and spaceships, which I've always sought in EVE, but has always been supplanted by CCP's insistence that New Eden's best experiences are found in large crowds.

'Join a player corp as soon as possible,' players would be told, with the aim of projecting the rookie EVE capsuleer into the player-fuelled socio-political centrepiece of the EVE experience where the hook of social investment counterbalances its still problematic and bewildering new player experience.

The Needs of The Many

When they say EVE is big, they mean it. Big spaceships (10km+), big battles (2000 players+), big stories.
EVE is unmatched in providing a platform for vast player organisations to compete and cooperate, but the individual player experiences at the fringes are lacklustre and showing their age. The universe of New Eden is mapped, endless documented and no longer a frontier, more a vast, battle-worn arena given texture only by its residents. CCPs man-hours are largely devoted to refining this combat dynamic as they well know it's EVE's strongest gameplay card. But the rest of the experience may be forever playing catch-up.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy the asymmetric PvP element EVE provides - the ever present risk is exhilarating and the adrenaline shakes EVE can stimulate has yet to be replicated in any other gaming experience I've had. But those moments are fleeting (haha!) and a lot of gristle has to be chewed to find those sweet morsels. Even then, the disconnected and uneven gameplay that permeates EVE remains unaddressed.

The lost connection of EVE.
It's a challenge CCP continually works to overcome, and have been slowly making ground, but their greatest opportunity was squandered with the poorly executed Incarna expansion of 2011. Incarna aimed to provide human avatars and related content, but succeeded only in fomenting unprecedented player backlash and set EVE's development firmly on the remote spaceship path.

Admittedly, I am one of the pro-Incarna minority crowd, because EVE's abandoned 'walking in stations' gameplay promised to fulfil my hopes for the kind of immersion I had long hoped for from my EVE adventures. Indeed, my preferred spaceship experience is one far more insular, one which encourages me (and perhaps a small group of friends) to believe the surrounding environment, providing immersive escapism.

The Desires of the Few

The surface of a Coriolis space station in Elite: Dangerous.
As perhaps a more selfish player, Elite: Dangerous has already convinced me that it will deliver the experience I've been waiting for. It is still far from feature complete and certainly doesn't include any avatar gameplay, but as Frontier CEO David Braben has explained in recent interviews, they've built the foundations and the house, now they've got to move the furniture in.

And the empty house is already glorious.

The empty co-pilot's chair in a Cobra Mk. III 
Even with sparse content and limited ability to interact with fellow players, I've enjoyed some great personal moments that have impressed upon me the potential that Elite: Dangerous offers; a hair-raising escape from a dogfight that saw me outmatched and praying for my hull to hold out as my Frame Shift Drive spooled up, the dawning realisation that each star system's terrain is unique and in motion with gravity wells for slingshotting, surfing and providing navigational challenges, the satisfaction of using my eyes to spot the parallax effect leading to the discovery of new astronomical bodies. My ability to interact with and be a success in this universe isn't defined by how many corpmates I have, but how I choose to interact with the world around me, alone or with a couple of wingmates (once the buggy instance matching is fixed).

That said, Elite will likely never be able to scratch the empire-building, strategic itch that is EVE's oeuvre. It offers a far more modest, but intimate and personal story. They are very different games, and I am thankful for that. The two titles can co-exist on my hard drive without much overlap; Elite provides sit-forward 'moment-to-moment' gameplay, while EVE is a more cerebral, calculated, sitting-back experience.

In fact, from my perspective, Frontier has probably done CCP a huge favour: I can now enjoy EVE for what it is rather than what I'd like it to be, and the two games can comfortably co-exist on my hard drive, ripe for comparison but rarely competing, and perhaps even learning a little from each other.

To be honest, I'm relieved.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Twitter Community Proposal: An #EVEblogs Hashtag

It's hard to keep track of all the EVE blogging that goes on out on the interwebs and there's plenty still out there despite the rise of popular aggregate sites like EVENews24, TheMittani.com and Crossing Zebras. But it's hard to keep track of the scattered individual blogs even though I occasionally stumble across new and interesting writers and posts. It makes me I wonder how many I'm missing.

Sometimes I remember to add them to my 'recommended reading' list over in the sidebar of this blog, but in truth, much of my casual reading material is sourced from Twitter. I follow so many tweeters, writers, sites and individuals of interest, EVE blog links tend to get lost in the noise.

I don't know how common this behaviour is amongst my fellow bloggers, but I reckon in this age of social media, a shared EVE blog-specific hashtag might be useful, so I've fielded a suggestion to the general #tweetfleet Twitter community that we could use #EVEblogs on any tweets linking to a new blogpost.
So far, several bloggers have already agreed to participate, so this could be a good thing.

I appreciate that it's still not a perfect solution and will require new bloggers to discover it, but #tweetfleet does pretty well as a general EVE community and chatter hashtag. Perhaps #EVEblogs might provide a kind of library resource if it's adopted widely enough.

Of course, there'll still be some noise - once it's out in the public domain there's little that can be done about that - but with any luck #EVEblogs might become a self-maintaining repository of fresh EVE reading material which nobody needs to curate or police and which we can all dip into.

I'll certainly be appending #EVEblogs to any tweeted posts I publish in the future and I hope you might consider it too.

All the Gear and No Idea (Week 3): Feeding the Beast

TL;DR - As I attempt to stabilise my newly-established industry venture, I come to realise that significant time and effort is required to keep all the plates spinning; everything depends on keeping my fuel-hungry starbase online.

Three weeks into my adventure as an EVE industrialist sees me hitting something approaching a plateau.

Week one was very much about setting things up and getting a feel for the process (The Industrial Odyssey of an Idiot). Last week saw me undertake a failed wild goose chase to find the artifacts which would have enabled the building of some unusual named modules (Raiders of the Lost Artifacts), So this week I returned to the more basic task of producing stock for which I already had the raw materials and keeping the machinery of my industrial efforts in good working order.

With my current skills (Retail 3 & Trade 4) allowing 45 market orders, I had been doing my best to make sure they were filled. My blueprint portfolio currently enables me to build frigates, destroyers, cruisers, a few modules and some rigs. After putting everything I'd built on the market, I filled the remaining orders with surplus mission loot modules from my stockpile. The ISK has continued to flow steadily into my corporation wallet, with in excess of 150m ISK of goods selling over the course of the week, making my gross income a shade under 400m ISK after 3 weeks.

Interspersed through my usual routine of managing my sell orders and gathering more materials (mining, exploring, etc.) I would occasionally fly out to my starbase to research some more blueprints to increase their efficiency, reprocess some more materials (the yield is better at a starbase reprocessor than in NPC station facilities), or get another batch of goods building at one of my assembly arrays.

However, it suddenly came to my attention that I'd not checked my starbase's fuel reserves for a while. When I'd set it up, I'd filled it to capacity, which would give it some 3+ weeks of life. That time was running out. Sure enough, I had a little under a week left and no significant fuel reserves back at station. If I let the fuel run out, the protective shield would drop and leave my entire enterprise exposed to looters.

Suddenly, acquiring more starbase fuel jumped to the top of my priority list.

Appetite for Construction

Being both a hoarder and someone who likes to dabble with every aspect of gameplay, for some time (years on and off) I had been maintaining by planetary interaction [PI] production chain in my local system and I had built quite a stockpile of the component materials required in POS fuel.

Well, most of them. Of the eight component materials, I had an adequate supply of the PI-sourced ones: mechanical parts, oxygen, enriched uranium, coolant and robotics. However, the remaining three materials; isotopes, liquid ozone and heavy water were all the product of ice mining, something of which I had done very little.

To make matters more inconvenient, my starbase control tower was of Minmatar design, meaning that the type of ice I needed to harvest was not available locally. All ice yields the generic liquid ozone and heavy water, but isotope type is linked to region-specific ice types and I was sitting on a hoard of the wrong kind, harvested from a local ice belt.

When the starbase fuel blocks had been introduced in 2011's Crucible expansion to reduce the complexity of trying to fit a balanced amount of the 8 required fuel components into the starbase's fuel bay (they were all consumed at different rates), I'd had the foresight to pick up a Minmatar Fuel Block blueprint, which I'd recently researched to maximum material efficiency.

After assessing where my stocks were short, it became clear I'd either have to eat into my profits to purchase some expensive ice products or go ice mining. Given that I wanted to sample every element of industry, I opted for the latter, hopped into my Mackinaw exhumer and headed for the Minmatar Republic.

Ice Chasers

In the past week, I'd already spent a bit of time cruising through Minmatar space trying in vain to locate the Data Interfaces required for my future plans to experiment with the Tech 2 manufacturing process and had noted the Glacial Mass cosmic anomalies which appeared on my scanner from time to time. These were apparently the sites I sought.

Little did I understand how transient they were.

What experience I'd previously had of ice mining involved looking on DOTLAN Evemaps for the nearest static ice belt and just having at it until I got bored. This apparently was no longer how it worked. Instead, ice belt sites would occasionally appear as anomalies anywhere within the region, so a certain amount of roaming was required to find one, something for which a sluggish mining vessel is ill-suited.

[Correction: After a bit more research, it turns out this is quite wrong - ice still only appears in designated systems as shown on DOTLAN. However when the site is exhausted, it despawns and a new site reappears elsewhere in the same system 4 hours later. Thanks to Mara Rinn for the steer.]

My first rookie mistake was to fly to my chosen mining region in an exploration frigate; in hindsight, As cosmic anomalies show up on the scanner automatically (unlike cosmic signatures which need to be scanned down with probes), I should have just purchased a shuttle or similar to conduct searches once I'd arrived in the area in my mining vessel. Or better, I should have loaded an exploration frigate and my mining ship into an Orca industrial command ship so I would have avoided my second rookie mistake - ice is massive and needs something a hell of a lot more roomy than a mining barge to ferry any substantial amount home.

Cold Rush

Most surprising for me was the change in player behaviours as a result of this new, dynamic ice belt location process. Whereas previously, any static belt with seemingly limitless supplies of ice would just be mined at a leisurely rate by folk, now there was something of a gold rush with every appearance of an ice belt.

Having been fortunate enough to stumble upon one not long after it had spawned, I warped into the collection of silently glistening blue-white chunks to find that my Mackinaw exhumer was the only ship present. Assuming this to be the norm, much like exploration sites, I casually went about settling in to consume as much ice as I could, safe in the knowledge that there would be more than enough for my needs.

However, within minutes my screen was filled with the criss-crossing of ice harvesting lasers of dozens of other mining vessels supported by Orcas, the odd combat vessel and even a freighter. These folks meant business.

In the time it took for me to fill my ore hold twice, departing briefly to deposit my gains at the local station for later transfer, the ice asteroids started to disappear as they were depleted by the horde. The mining activity became a slow-motion scramble for the last icy dregs. It was then I saw the benefit of using the more appropriate Skiff-class exhumers, their faster Ice Harvester cycle time, undoubtedly further boosted by their Orca fleet-mates, meant that the mining fleets sucked up the final asteroids whilst my slower harvesters invariably came away empty-handed. These guys were the pro miners. I was just an interloper on their patch as they presumably swarmed from site to site like locusts, with everything set to optimal.

Still, I'd managed to gather a little ice over a couple of sessions. Now to get it home for reprocessing to see how much longer I can keep my hungry starbase alive. I'll update here once I see how much more time I've bought my starbase. I'm hoping at least a month.

[Update: I got the ice home and refined it, enabling me to build enough fuel blocks for 19 days. Not too bad for roughly 5 hours of ice mining and a couple of hours of haulage. Interestingly, it's liquid ozone that I ran out of first.]

Can One Player 'Do Industry'?

In my mission to embrace the entirety of EVE's industry gameplay, I'm starting to see that cooperation among multiple players would pay dividends and is almost certainly a requirement if you're taking things seriously. Attempting to single-handedly take on every aspect of running a manufacturing operation (resource gathering, starbase maintenance, research, construction, sales, and so many more contributing elements) is probably folly, at least if you want to keep time spent in game to a reasonable level (or support PvP) which, for me is a few hours a week.

I certainly can't dedicate too much time to ice-chasing on a regular basis, so if it becomes too much of a chore or an expense to keep the starbase fuelled, that will likely spell the end of this venture. It's unlikely that my high-sec PI operation will be able to keep up with demand and my reserves won't last forever. Of course, I could always buy the fuel blocks or the components I'm lacking, but at over 20m ISK per week just to support a small starbase, that'd eat into my slim profits and make the whole project even more of an ISK sink than it may already turn out to be.

That's not necessarily a damning indictment of industry gameplay and I still hope to find low-maintenance way to enjoy it whilst making a profit. My knowledge of the behaviours and needs of industrialists is certainly increasing through the experience and perhaps I can use that to find a more casual gameplay niche, perhaps sourcing materials for sale rather than manufacturing myself. It would probably pay to specialise in a single aspect of the gameplay which makes up the many-headed beast which is EVE's industry and I certainly enjoy the variety and challenges of tracking down the bewildering array of items and materials required.

The last thing I'd want to do is end up getting stuck in an endless, time-consuming cycle where it starts to feel like the game is playing me.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Begun the Clone Wars Have: EVE's Niche is Getting Crowd(fund)ed

"As the evolutionary march of the MMO continues and the gaming climate changes, it is becoming evident that many of EVE Online's traits have held it in good stead to survive an economic ice age and outlast its more prehistoric rivals with their Gygaxian DNA. Envious eyes from other evolutionary branches are showing more and more respect for emergent gameplay principles that have seen EVE Online thrive when others have fallen." 

When EVE Online celebrated 10 years of commercial success and growth in 2013, it stood almost alone in the kind of MMO experience it delivered. The freeform, player-driven science-fiction universe quietly expanded to fill - and define - its PvP sandbox niche. Meanwhile, developers of the vast majority of massively multiplayer games looked hungrily at the more obvious successes of the undisputed giant of MMOs, World of Warcraft.

Itself essentially a clone, World of Warcraft borrowed heavily from other IPs, polishing MMO design concepts popularised by Everquest as well as replicating much of the tone of the Games Workshop's Warhammer universe. Looking back over the evolution of gaming, both of those IPs owe their existence to Gary Gygax's pen-and-paper RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn was the gamification of medieval fantasy as created by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937 with his genre-defining The Hobbit and its follow-up, Lord of the Rings (and if we dig even further, you end up in Northern European folklore).

WoW's absolute domination of the MMO genre was of course going to leave other developers wanting a slice of the WoW pie and, as a result, we've since seen dozens of variations on the level-grinding swords-and-sorcery trope (the 'Gygaxian' model as I refer to it in the quote at the top of this post). But the overheads of building and maintaining such content-heavy game experiences make them endeavours of incredibly high stakes and the MMO battlefield of the last 15 years is filled with the smoking remains or barely-twitching emaciated survivors of the desperate search for a WoW-beater.

The Evolution of Sci-Fi Gaming

Elite: Dangerous
In the modern development scene, as MMO developers look for a more efficient and sustainable MMO model, I believe we're seeing the beginnings of a similar phenomenon occurring within EVE Online's sci-fi sandbox niche. After all, few other MMOs can boast such robust progress over such a long period and still show so much potential to continue moving forward. That's an intoxicating aspiration for any MMO studio - or apparently for start-up developers brave enough to try.

The renaissance of sci-fi gaming and its charge into the open-world MMO genre is spearheaded by the more immediate gaming experiences of the well-documented Star Citizen (current public alpha, release ~2015) and Elite: Dangerous (current premium beta, release Q4 2014). Both of which, while appealing to a similar demographic, offer very different game experiences to that offered by EVE Online.

No Man's Sky (2015 release) became the darling of this year's E3 expo, offering spaceships and the exploration of a vast open universe. Indeed, even Wildstar, while ostensibly being a sci-fi WoW, lifted EVE's successful PLEX payment system as an alternative to standard subscriptions, providing another indication that CCP Games was doing things right in the eyes of its peers/competitors.

Perpetuum Online
Recently, more obvious clones of EVE seem to be becoming increasingly prevalent. In the past, Avatar Creations' Perpetuum Online (2010) essentially gave us EVE Online with robots and at the time was the only EVE facsimile which met with any real (if marginal) success. Yet the last few months have seen the announcement of no less than three games which are quite clearly looking to find themselves a space in EVE's niche, each hoping to deliver a freeform science-fiction MMO experience.

The internet spaceship plate that EVE Online kept spinning for so long has suddenly become one from which everyone seems to want to eat.

Let's take a quick look at these new pretenders to EVE's crown.

Seldon Crisis

An ambitious project from an unblooded development team which apparently includes former EVE Online staff, Seldon Crisis hopes to take EVE's player-driven sandbox template and improve upon it (no stargates, minimal UI), delivering an emergent gameplay environment based on Isaac Asimov's peerless Foundation novels. Or, as Chaos Interactive would prefer to phrase it, 'Seldon Crisis is a video game based on an original story written by Scifi novelist and huge Isaac Asimov fan, Riccardo Simone.'

In their own words:

'Seldon Crisis As a sandbox MMO that allows you to freely travel the galaxy without stargates dictating your movement. You will start your journey with a small fighter craft and some money, starting to work your way towards bigger ships, wealth and influence over other players.

'It is completely up to you how you will achieve this: Through diplomacy, intelligence, military strength or economical power. Have an impact on thousands of other players in a seamless single shard universe. Write your own story, forge a great empire or cause the next Seldon Crisis.

'The game is completely player driven. The economy, politics and even theinfrastructure is in the hand of the the users. You are unbound from preset paths and there is no linear progression to go through.'

At time of writing, a Kickstarter campaign was in progress, with a $8,058 of a $250,000 target currently pledged. Taking a leaf out of Cloud Imperium Games' book with their outrageously successful rolling Star Citizen crowdfunding programme ($54m and rising), Chaos Interactive are also hosting a pledge system on their own site, with a more relaxed end date. Notwithstanding any cease and desist orders from the Asimov estate, it will be interesting to see how this project progresses.


The recent announcement of Piranha Games' Transverse has been beset with some less than favourable coverage from many quarters, including the playerbase of their own free-to-play shooter, Mechwarrior Online. Offering their own take on a brutal universe of spaceship combat and exploration, early dev videos have hinted at an interesting variation on EVE's character progression, with skillpoints acquired whilst undocked at risk of being lost (and looted) in the event of player destruction.

In their own words:

'Synthetic physical forms allow humans to pursue an existence in space and have opened the door to immortality.

'This future is not without danger and the very substance of humanity will be tested in the distant regions of space known as the fringe. Out in the Fringe, factions of humanity race to explore space, claim resources, and create new technologies to tip the balance of power; with this race for new power, all of humanity is plagued by conflict with the remnants.

'Out in the lawlessness of the Fringe humanity faces its greatest enemy: itself.

'In ship to ship battles, your precision maneuvering and sharpshooting skills are the difference between victory and defeat. The physically-inspired close range combat will require strategic management of your ship's systems. With each burst of weapons fire, high speed turn, and shield deflection, your ship will expend power and build heat. Find holes in your enemy’s defenses and go in for the kill. Every battle you engage in will play out differently.'

The crowdfunding model is once again the resource acquisition method of choice for Transverse (although notably not via Kickstarter), with development milestones at $500,000 intervals stretching up to $2,500,000 as detailed on their website. At time of writing, current funds amount to $7,820.

Dual Universe

From a 10-man indie company called Novaquark led by Jean-Chrisophe Baillie, a man who previously ran a robotics company, Dual Universe is gunning for a more immersive first-person experience in a procedurally-generated sandbox PvP universe. While the concept shares much of EVE's DNA, notable differences (aside from the first-person emphasis) include multiplayer ship crews, editable environments and scriptable ship control.

In their own words:

'The Dual Universe is a gigantic multi-planet world where players are free to invent their collective destiny: civilizations will rise and fall, player-driven events will shape the course of History, because everything you do matters in a persistent single-shard universe. We are pushing the limits of what is technically possible today to open the door to what we believe is the next generation of MMO games. Welcome to Dual Universe!

'Dual Universe is about true massively multiplayer experience. There are no boundaries, instances, or zones. You can experience real cooperation and competition, forge intergalactic empires or giant cities, gather thousands of players in alliance events and tilt the balance of power with epic battles, or diplomacy.'

As far as I can tell, there's no current crowdfunding campaign in progress, so this seems to be a privately-funded enterprise at present. That said, the website contains only concept art and some grand aspirations, so the project appears to be very much in its infancy. In any case, it's certainly an engaging concept and I hope to see more from Novaquark.

Healthy Competition

In many ways, it's surprising that EVE was able to exist for so long without much competition. In EVE's early years there was Westwood Studio's Earth & Beyond, which launched in 2002 some six months before EVE. However, EVE emerged victorious from that particular clash, absorbing much of the losing game's playerbase when Electronic Arts closed Earth & Beyond down in September 2004.

Since then, EVE has pretty much existed alone in its niche and has flourished as a result. However, this new generation of internet spaceship games seems to indicate some believe EVE's success is ripe for exploitation. Whether this is because EVE's playerbase is considered to be fair game, filled with folks prepared to jump ship for a fresh experience, or that the niche itself is wider than previously believed with a demographic of sci-fi gaming enthusiasts currently underserved by existing games, only time will tell.

CCP should be both flattered and threatened by the imitations. EVE Online has had the advantage of a decade-and-a-half of development, both of the core game and the growth of the community, giving it unprecedented depth but also troublesome legacy code and ancient design concepts. This headstart is both EVE's strength and its weakness and there are interesting times ahead.

Watch this space. And that one. And the one over there...

Saturday, 13 September 2014

All the Gear and No Idea (Week 2): Raiders of the Lost Artifacts

TL;DR - In my foolhardy quest to participate in EVE's industry gameplay without getting bogged down in endless calculations and spreadsheets, I accidentally made a profit and encountered something unexpected: fun.

When I began my 'playtesting' of the new-fangled industry in EVE, I expected it to be a fairly dry affair more akin to running a business than playing a game. To a degree this is still true and, as I detailed last week, a not insignificant amount of effort was required to set things up.

However, once things were ticking over and I was able to research blueprints and manufacture ships and equipment as I fancied, EVE's universe suddenly came into focus.

No longer was my EVE experience aimless, with occasionally roams or content grinding just because. Goals began to present themselves to me, be they of a pecuniary nature or just a desire to 'find the materials to build that thing'. Every game session becomes a treasure hunt or a mystery.

A Quick Recap

In my first week, I was able to manufacture enough to fill most of the sell orders my mediocre Trade and Retail skill levels allowed: a handful of frigates and destroyers, assorted modules and some rigs. Those few sell orders I couldn't fill with manufactured goods I filled with some of the endless stacks of mission loot I'd been sitting on. Some helpful reader comments last week gave me some pointers, including the fact that modules recovered from missions can no longer provide much in the way of reprocessed material, so their use to me was limited.

A single tritanium unit like you've never seen it before.
By the end of week 1, I'd spent approximately 200m ISK and sold goods to the value of 20m ISK, so things seemed a little fruitless. However, with a full stack of 30-odd sell orders which I monitored and modified on a regular basis in the event that someone nearby undercut me, by midway through week 2 I'd turned over 300m ISK. I was back in the black!

Granted, a significant percentage of that was from the sale of 3 Gnosis battlecruisers I'd built for 1 tritanium each, so it's a bit of an artificial achievement - there's unlikely to be such easy money to be made in subsequent weeks. But after getting a bit of a buzz from seeing my coffers fill so quickly,  I hungered for more high value items to sell. What else did I have stashed in my treasure trove of goodies gathered over my years of play?

The Quest for the Random Items

Talocan? More like Talo-can't!
After some sifting through various loot containers, I found some COSMOS storyline blueprints for modules which I recall being pretty underwhelming at first glance. However, a quick market check showed the items to be of potentially quite high sale value, so I figured I'd see what I needed to do to get them built. That's when I hit a snag; it wasn't just your standard raw materials that were required. Lots of parts with 'Talocan' in their name were needed. Oh well, I was sick of mining anyway, maybe these gubbins were found through exploration - I often recover odd and apparently useless materials from sites found at cosmic signatures.

I was keen to discover content rather than be spoonfed by player guides, so I only allowed myself a quick look on EVElopedia before departing. My research indicated that Talocan sites were found in the Okkelen region of Caldari space twenty-odd jumps away. Just in case combat sites were involved, I decided against my exploration ship of choice - the effective but flimsy (and unarmed) Buzzard - and fitted out my recently acquired but still unused Astero frigate, which can deliver just as well on the exploration front, but has more teeth.

Some time later I was busy scouring space for juicy signatures to plunder. I found plenty of archaeology and hacking sites as well as the more visible combat sites (and one combat signature site which was a bit scarier - I left that to a pilot in a Cerberus who turned up shortly after I did). But none were delivering on these mysterious Talocan items. Hmmm.

Eventually, I relented on my 'no heavy research' resolution and dug further. Well, I say 'dug', my misguided assumptions were pretty much corrected on Twitter by Steve Ronuken and Noizygamer, but I confirmed their advice with my 'digging'. It seemed I needed to be looking for my elusive bounty in a static 'COSMOS' exploration location called the Devil's Dig Site. However, the detailed information provided by EVElopedia and supplemented by research from the Arek'Jaalan project (an innovative, slow-burning live community event from a couple of years ago) indicated that my poor little Astero would likely be chewed up by the rogue drones in the area.

I needed something tougher.

Raiders of the Lost COSMOS

One round trip back to my distant HQ later saw me return the the Okkelen constellation in a purpose-fit Tengu strategic cruiser. The configuration I'd opted for was low on damage output (only three heavy missile launchers), but it focused on having a solid permaboosting shield tank so I could ignore incoming fire and get on with ransacking the relic containers while letting my drones chip away at the hostiles.

The Infested Excavation Site
The entry deadspace area for the Devil's Dig Site plays host to a number of NPCs who offer missions to recover the loot found beyond the acceleration gate. I ignored them. I have other uses for those relics.  The COSMOS sites are home to what more traditional MMOs call public quests and I expected to see other pilots passing through, all with their own reasons for scouring the area.

On entering the Devil's Dig Site proper, the Infested Excavation Site, I was confronted by a vast stalagmite-like asteroid, around which were scattered numerous relics to point my Relic Analyzer module at. A couple of other pilots were present (also in Tengus I noted) and going about their business.

Each time I interacted with a relic node, I was required to play through the hacking minigame which I'd encountered so frequently in more standard exploration sites. The slight difference here was that they offered more of a challenge - I even failed a few times. This was certainly a more engaging way to gather resources than mining and I spent a number of hours slowly gathering some of the materials I needed. Before long I'd built a stockpile of Talocan Mechanical Gears, Reflective Plates, Info Shards and Solid Atomizers. However, a number of parts just didn't seem to be available here.

Another acceleration gate sat at the bottom of the site. Hoping the second site beyond would yield the rarer parts, I activated it, but it just taunted me with demands of an Ancient Cipher Totem key, hinting that it must be around here somewhere. I presumed it to be a rare drop, perhaps like some of the other as yet undiscovered Talocan items, and continued the grind.

Scifi minesweeper: sometimes repeated clicking can be entertaining.

Over the week, I did a half-hour here and there, mindful that I needed to get back to my nascent industrial empire soon; this little field trip was taking too much time. With no variation on the loot I was obtaining, I was about to give up hope and head back to HQ when I finally accessed a relic containing an Ancient Cipher Totem key. Frustratingly, my real life schedule was about to get busy for a few days, so I didn't have the luxury of planning an extended session to make best use of the single-use key any time soon.

I waited until I had a couple of free hours and took the plunge. It was a similar setup in the Ancient Temple beyond the gate, with clusters of relic nodes protected by frigate- and cruiser-sized drones. I went about accessing them, but was forced to keep half an eye on my drones and my shield - these hostiles had a bit more about them and when enough of them concentrated fire, they strained my shields. I also lost a few drones to them. My time was brought to an end by the server shutdown (irritating that on logging back in I'd be back in the starting area with no means of returning to the restricted area) and my spoils were disappointing - I'd gathered a couple of new items on my list, but it was mostly the same stuff as the previous deadspace area.

Unexpected Dividends

Nice chap, bad photographer.
Fortunately, in a stroke of random luck, I did get some contributions from elsewhere. I was still on the Arek'Jaalan mailing list (which is mostly dormant these days) but it had recently seen an enquiry regarding technology sites. I'd chimed in about my quest and before long, Mike Azariah piped up that he had a few bits laying around that I could have. He contracted them over and further bolstered my Talocan artifact collection. He didn't even want anything for his stash, nice chap that he is.

Despite all that, as I headed back to my industrial HQ, a quick assessment of the storyline blueprints that had started this little quest showed that I'd be able to build precisely none of modules I'd hoped to. Bugger, perhaps I should've stuck with mining. Still, it wasn't a total loss - according to the EVE client, the value of the artifacts I'd collected exceeded 150m ISK. In any case, I probably shouldn't focus too much on these blueprints as it's about to change, with news that named modules are going to get a rebalance starting in the upcoming Oceanus release on September 30.

Now back in the comforts of my usual system, I've not yet had much of a chance to kickstart the next batch of industry jobs yet, but I will. As I review and reflect on the growth of my industrial empire, even though in terms of efficiency and profit I essentially wasted most of this week on a jolly to far-off systems, it was refreshing. Rather than rinse-and-repeat the same manufacturing cycles, I experienced a variety of gameplay, tweaked a few ship fits, read some lore and socialised with other EVE players.

It was fun.