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 open 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.

Transverse


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.


Friday, 5 September 2014

All the Gear and No Idea (Week 1): The Industrial Odyssey of an Idiot Begins

TL;DR - I'm dabbling with EVE's revised industry gameplay. The result will likely be a glorious failure due to my spreadsheet allergy, but as Henry Ford never said, "It's always worth taking the time to point and laugh at the clueless."


I enjoy repetitive tasks and fondling spreadsheets.
EVE's complex economy is undoubtedly one of the shining achievements of modern game design. Daily, New Eden sees tens of thousands of players routinely harvesting, manufacturing, buying, selling, and consuming as they contribute to an (almost) entirely self-governing simulcrum of meatspace's capitalist markets.  In gameplay terms, industry has always been the less glamorous side of CCP's internet spaceship MMO and as a result tends to play second fiddle to the more popular spaceship combat experience.

However, in the recent Crius release, the whole system has been given an unprecedented overhaul. The archaic interface of nested windows and endless clicking was reborn as a new shiny sci-fi looking thing, and significant changes were made to the underlying mechanics which look to shake up industry gameplay in its entirety.

I watched with interest during the deployment of the Kronos and Crius releases as the changes were announced, tested, implemented and fixed. I read through assorted discussions as players were variously impressed or frustrated with EVE industry redux. To be perfectly honest, I found most of it baffling, with the frequent discussion of impenetrable algorithms and the kind of mathematical jiu-jitsu that wears out my mouse scroll wheel. But the UI screenshots were certainly pretty (an example can be found below).

In any case, I like the idea that CCP is attempting to make industry more accessible and its appeal more broad, so I thought I'd give it a go. I don't expect to be particularly successful; my brain can spot a spelling mistake from across a room but anything more than basic arithmetic tends to induce a form a glassy-eyed catatonia. I hoped to find some engaging gameplay that is no longer the sole domain of spreadsheet egg-heads. I figure I'm the perfect test subject: if I can get into industry, anyone can.

Where the Hell Do I Begin?

It begins with rocks. And patience.
Luckily for me, I've been knocking around in EVE for long enough to have collected sufficient stuff to speed up my entry into industry, so this is unlikely to be an accurate account of a rookie starting from scratch. But fear not, whatever advantage would be gained from my veteran status will undoubtedly be squandered by my lack of attention to detail and my slapdash, casual approach.

Over the years I've variously tinkered with running a low-sec arms depot on the doorstep of the Providence (I single-handedly ruined this operation by losing all our blueprints due to a poorly-managed overview), operating a corp starbase in null-sec to provide members with a source of ships and equipment (we were eventually pushed out of null by a then rampant Russian alliance [in truth, our landlords sent us home to high-sec like naughty schoolchildren who hadn't done their homework] ) and I've been a contributing, if junior, member of an ultra-organised high-sec industry corp (which I wrote about in my GameSkinny column).

Since then, I'd consolidated whatever assets remained from my adventures into one high-sec location from where I would occasionally pop out to roam, explore, mine or whatever took my fancy. Most of my kit has gathered dust for years. I'm a bit of a hoarder, so I already had a number of blueprints - both unresearched originals and highly researched copies (I can't remember how I got these). I also had a stockpile of minerals and station containers full of mission loot which I could probably melt down if I needed to.

I just needed to decide what to manufacture and start building stock to sell.

Coming Up With a Strategy

After sifting through stuff and admiring my blueprints in the new industry interface, one thing became apparent - in most cases, there was bugger all profit to be made. For example, if I was understanding the numbers helpfully presented by the interface, the estimated cost of production of a Stabber was roughly 9.9m ISK and a quick look at the local market showed they were on sale for just over 10m ISK. So I'd be going to all the effort of mining and building for the sake of a few hundred thousand ISK. Even more depressingly, a quick look at EVE Central showed me that Stabber hulls were available in trade hubs for over a million ISK less than I'd be apparently making them for. If I sold them there, it would be at a price lower than I could sell the raw materials locally for.

A hundred ways of saying, 'you can't afford to do this.'


Clearly I needed to find a way to optimise my production process to improve margins. Most of my manufacturing skills were pretty high as a legacy of my time with Aideron Robotics, so the only other fat to trim was improving my material acquisition and reprocessing and to set up a starbase (POS) which apparently provides a more efficient production process. Of course, any savings made would be offset by the cost of buying and running the POS, but my hoard included most of the POS assets I'd need and I'd been idly running my planetary interaction setup to produce POS fuel for months, so this would cushion the blow to an extent.

At this point, I found myself slipping into maths coma mode and decided I'd just build an assortment of stuff to see what I could shift - I could speculate and procrastinate for days and I just wanted to get on with actually doing something.

I wanted to experience every aspect of the industry process, so my strategy was to acquire raw resources by traditional means (mining etc.), whilst researching my blueprint originals and building from my more efficient blueprint copies. Any sales income would go into my corp account, but I'd float the venture with my private assets to see how quickly I could generate a respectable revenue.

Despite my asset hoard, I managed to burn through nearly 200m ISK buying a small starbase control tower (the large one I already owned would be expensive to run and was overkill for my needs), a reprocessing array (I'd been mining throughout my planning and wanted to get the best return on my ore), and an assortment of skills to improve my mining, reprocessing and sales.

My First Week in Industry: Bankruptcy in a Thousand Tiny Slices

Bloody capitalism!
I actually started this process a week ago and although I enjoyed the process of setting everything up and turning space-rocks into spaceships, I was finding it to be a bottomless pit of hidden charges. Everything I did, from recovering POS fuel from planetary colonies to improving my blueprints in my POS-based research array incurred tax charges, which meant I had to pump some cash into the corp wallet to keep things moving along.

After a few days, this all seemed to suggest that I was putting in a lot of effort only to be spending a lot more than I was making. I built an assortment of frigates and destroyers in batches of 10, despite the likelihood that, in order to be competitive, my low prices would make replenishing depleted coffers a glacially slow process.

That said, I got a genuine buzz when I logged on one day to find that I'd sold a couple of Catalysts and an assortment of frigates. The idea that somewhere out there, players were zipping around in ships of my creation gave me a genuine dopamine hit. To hell with profit, there was reward to be had in other ways.

I looked again at my resources to see what else I could throw out into the local market. Rigs seemed to fetch a fairly high price and I already had a stockpile of salvage. After some confusion over which POS module produces these (it's the equipment assembly array if you were wondering), I found I had one gathering dust in the hangar and some appropriate blueprint originals too. After a bit of material efficiency research, I produced a few and they sold quickly for a sum which far outstripped my hull sales. Lovely.

Now, after a week, I've sold roughly 20m ISK in hulls and rigs, so I've got a long way to go before I break even. Although I've cheated a bit by building some Gnosis battlecruisers from my 10th Anniversary Collector's Edition blueprint at 1 tritanium apiece, so when they sell for ~80m ISK each, that should address the shortfall.

In Conclusion: Effort Versus Engagement

Stuff in space making stuff for space.

This entire venture may be folly, as I'm probably being far too haphazard to properly analyse profit and opportunity and be a proper EVE industrialist. But is that - or should that be - a barrier? After all the effort of setting my operation up, I certainly won't be moving systems if things get even more expensive, as seems to be the thinking behind the System cost index mechanic. But can I just trundle on regardless without running out of resources or content?

I am enjoying the experiment so far, it's been relatively painless and the industry window is very helpful for the most part. There are a few pain points, largely relating to UI inconsistencies, especially when it comes to POS use. But I appreciate that the POS UI is a different and far larger challenge for CCP to address, with the tendrils of convoluted starbase legacy code entangling various other gameplay aspects. Despite this, the setup and use of a POS is certainly far smoother than it used to be. No longer are there pointlessly long waiting times for module deployment and onlining/offlining, making the juggling act of running multiple modules from the inadequate power plant of a small POS more of a sliding block management mini-game than an act of self-harm, especially with the removal of (most of) the irritatingly restrictive interaction ranges.

If nothing else, industry has given purpose to my gameplay. Prior to setting up my operation, I'd log on, ship spin and maybe undock with no real goals in mind. Now I am constantly on the lookout for potential local anomalies to exploit for resources through mining, hacking or archaeology. I'm starting to see trends in what sells and how much effort is involved in acquiring the resources for that product and how I should action that.

For instance, the rig market seems quite lively. However, I'd sooner avoid having to grind missions, but to my knowledge level 4 missions are probably the most accessible source of raw salvage materials. I foresee the need for me to branch out to find more valuable resources, perhaps using an expedition frigate to go wormhole spelunking or trawling in low-sec for rare minerals like megacyte.

It's early days, but I think something just clicked.

Check back next week for a progress report.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Is EVE's New Rapid Release Strategy Working?

EVE is changing, and quite rapidly it seems. Whether this is always for the better is a subject of much debate.

The new, more frequent releases have been belt-fed out of CCP's doors at a rate which I've found almost unsettling as a veteran player used to the old, bi-annual schedule. I remain uncertain as to whether I prefer the new process, which barely leaves time for the traditional cycle of anticipation and investigation of the new features before adapting accordingly.

However, the approximately 6-weekly releases, of which we've seen 3 thus far: Kronos, Crius and Hyperion, have each targeted a particular area of gameplay alongside the grab-bag of rebalances and quality of life tweaks. In a way, this means that it's unlikely that every release will directly impact any given player in a major way. That said, everything in EVE is linked organically, and each ripple in the pond is likely to have some overall impact.

Over these release periods, I've watched with a mix of trepidation and schadenfreude as the much vaunted close relationship between EVE's developers and players has been put to the test. It's quite clear that not everyone is happy.

Observing largely from the sidelines means I don't have a dog in this fight, other than hoping for EVE's continued success. I certainly wouldn't want to see invested players become disenfranchised, however, after reading through the release specific feedback threads and various other places, some of the changes have certainly left some players disgruntled.

Kronos (3rd June 2014) 
[30 pages of issues and feedback in 13 weeks.]

Highlights:

  • New Ships: Mordu's Legion Command Garmur, Orthrus, Barghest & ORE Prospect expedition frigate
  • Customisable sound levels
  • New exploration content
  • Removal of loot spew mechanic
  • Previously useless drones revitalised.
  • New station skins individual to each NPC corporation.

Pain points:

  • Freighter/jump freighter rebalancing/nerfs.

Judging by the EVE-O forums and elsewhere, Kronos seemed to be relatively well-received despite the originally planned industry revamp being bumped to the subsequent Crius release. The remaining content included the fleshing out of the Mordu's Legion faction lore and the introduction of new ships alongside new and revised content contained something of interest to many current players as well as having enough verve to perhaps catch the eye of some passing trade too.


Crius (22 July 2014) 
[96 pages of issues and feedback in 6 weeks.]

Highlights:

  • Revamped industry UI and mechanics [1]

Pain points:

  • Buggy release (much of which has been subsequently addressed). [1]
  • Lack of ability to scale industry UI window, which occupies 80% of the screen at 1080p (although the bottom 1/3 can be reduced and double-clicking the top bar minimises the window in-situ). [1] [2]
  • Loss of invested time in researched blueprint originals. [1] [2]
  • Loss of invested time in grinding faction standings to allow high-sec starbase deployment (although high standings still contribute to reduced costs).
  • Taxing industry jobs at player-owned starbases. [1] [2] [3]
  • Inflated costs for industry gameplay due to blueprint revisions. [1] [2]

Long-time industrialists who had invested time and effort to hone their blueprints to a incredibly high ('perfect') levels of time and material efficiency, taking months or even years, found their efforts cast aside by the new capped system introduced in Crius. Where previously blueprint originals could be researched ad infinitum (despite ever diminishing benefit), the new system maxes out at 10 levels of research, meaning those months (or sometimes years) of blueprint research beyond 10 levels which some players had undertaken had been summarily disregarded by CCP's revisions (early discussion saw CCP considering some kind of compensation, but they eventually decided otherwise).

That's not to say the reception of Crius' industry revision has been entirely poorly received, the feedback thread is also dotted with positive comments about various quality of life changes, as well as responses to the disgruntled, inciting them to 'adapt or die'.

Hyperion (26 August 2014) 
[24 pages of issues and feedback in 1 week]

Highlights:

  • Challenging 'burner' missions against single, powerful NPC ships.
  • Shareable overview settings.
  • Wormhole gameplay changes, including environments exclusive to small ships. 

Pain points:

  • Disruption of the wormhole playstyle status quo/ignoring player feedback. [1] [2] [3] [4]
  • Loss of previously stored overview data. [1]
  • Mass-based spawn distance for wormhole travellers. [1] [2

Mirroring Crius' industry shake-up, Hyperion dropped a boulder into the tranquil pond of wormhole life, delivering changes to the dynamic generation of transient wormhole connections, purportedly rendering some established playstyle habits extinct (although possibly creating others). In Hyperion's case, a significant amount of player feedback was received prior to release (including this 91-page threadnaught), and although CCP devs amended their original designs, wormhole player dissatisfaction has apparently remained high enough for many to reiterate their concerns in the post-release thread.

Brendan Drain offered an interesting counterpoint to the complainants in his recent Massively article, Wormholes Should Be More Dangerous, citing 'blatant self-interest' as the motivation for most of the objections to recent changes with a disregard for what might be good for the game at large.

Damned if they do...

While work on the content of each expansion presumably runs concurrently, with dev teams having individual schedules aimed at different releases, Kronos evidently benefited from starting out as a traditional expansion and had more meat on its bones. Comparatively, Both Crius and Hyperion seem to have had a much more troubled start in life, delivering seismic changes to industry and wormhole environments respectively, each leading to vocal dissent from a proportion of the veteran players representative of those playstyles. Sindel Pellion's A Tale of Internet Spaceships metaphor of CCP shaking the ant farm springs vividly to mind.

In neither case can I claim to be an expert, having simply taken the pulse of the forum communities where invested players have voiced their concerns both during the pre-release test phases and subsequently after the changes have gone live. There's no shortage of disenfranchised and frustrated comments from players claiming that they have lost the will to continue pursuing their internet spaceship hobby.

Without access to hard numbers, it's impossible to say whether CCP's new, aggressive and frequent ant-farm shaking policy is having an impact on player subscriptions with either a positive or negative trajectory. Certainly the best external source is Chribba's EVE Offline server monitoring website, but any indication of a player response to the new development regime is obfuscated by the traditional Summer slump and the fact that unrenewed subscriptions may take some months to expire.

The following graph shows the average weekly concurrent users since 2006, with this year's Summer high being 26,458 on July 24th.


According to that graph, high points from previous Summer periods are as follows:

31,849 on 8th August 2013
30,251 on 9th August 2012
30,957 on 21 July 2011
33,695 on 1 July 2010 (or 31,961 on the 22nd July if you want a more similar date).
29,861 on 3 September 2009
24,947 on 17 July 2008
21,539 on 3 July 2007
17,507 on 24 August 2006

So we have to go back to 2008 to find comparable Summer numbers to this year's (although admittedly, this Summer isn't over yet). This would suggest to me that, at the very least, there are some teething problems with the new release process. It is possible that the releases are either not addressing an expected decline or are perhaps even contributing to it. In any case, the average user count is down by about 20% on the previous 5 Summers.

However, also worth considering, as CSM member Mynnna pointed out on Twitter, is that the Summer period also has an impact on CCP's development resources as many devs flee the spaceships (and the volcano) for more relaxing vacational pursuits. This might go some way toward explaining why some release features may have been delivered with less polish than would have been optimal, perhaps also compounded by a degree of low morale due to the recent lay-offs. But if that's the case, does this expose the lack of wiggle room in the new rapid release strategy? Mynnna also offered some other insight into the presentation of the recent releases:


Admittedly, it's easy to become negatively influenced by the famously demanding and "toxic" EVE-O forum culture, and I should perhaps take the acrimony to be found there with a pinch of salt. But in doing so, would I be falling into the same trap as CCP developers who have been accused recently of ignoring feedback?

In any case, in true EVE player form, I figure that one player's broken game experience is another player's opportunity. If industry veterans are really throwing in the towel en-masse, it may be a good time to revisit manufacturing to exploit any void they might leave. Also, first-hand experience will be informative in ways that forums full of rage, trolls and apathy can never be. I've recently been flirting with the new industry experience in the hope I might be able to exploit the dissent (more on this in a subsequent post).

I'll reserve drawing any conclusions for now, as it would be premature based solely on some nebulous numbers and a few forum threads. In the meantime, what's been your experience of CCP's bold new release strategy? Has it shaken up your gameplay experience in a good or bad way? Are you finding the constant changes exciting, daunting, or tiresome? It'd be very interesting to hear from those who've got the good sense to avoid the EVE-O forums.



Wednesday, 23 July 2014

'The players are the salad.'

As the latest revision of EVE Online's labyrinthine game mechanics sees the complexities of industry and production given a facelift in the latest release, Crius, PR guy Ned 'CCP Manifest' Coker flexes his social media arm on Reddit to provide a selection of industry-flavoured fiction from the pen of Hjalti 'CCP Abraxus' Danielsson and his fellow scribes.

Unsurprisingly, the response to his Facebook link prompted a predictable challenge to the relevance of EVE's lore, with claims that it is unnecessary to EVE because 'the players are the plot'. The official EVE Online response (presumably also CCP Manifest) was as amusing as it was cryptic:


Whether those of us who enjoy EVE's lore have just been officially labeled as the vegetarians to the carnivorous PvPers, I'm not sure, but I'd like to think of myself as more of an omnivore with the hunting instincts of an angry daffodil.

Besides, if EVE stripped out all the fiction, you couldn't even have spaceships, warp drives, clones and so on. So like it or not, everyone has to accept the lore to some degree. It certainly doesn't do any harm to flesh out the universe with inspiring and thought-provoking stories for those who enjoy that sort of thing. The recent Dark Horse comic series proved that the player-driven stuff doesn't necessarily make for an engaging or coherent narrative anyway (although I think that was just a matter of presentation). The idea of weaving player actions into the background story is certainly a good one and New Eden has the best possible platform to do it.

In any case, the industrial overhaul is live and I'm very tempted to see if the manufacturing experience has been made any more accessible to mathematically-challenged casual players like me. That may or may not be the case after spending an evening reading the discussions on the EVE-O forums. It has certainly been an education (at least those parts I understood), with a lot of veteran (vegetarian?) industrialists raging about the loss of 'BPO plumage' (bragging rights derived from the negligible benefit of researching blueprints to a ridiculously high level, a process which takes months).

I note that EVE's cleverest blogger, Noizygamer, plans to defiantly hold his industrial ground in low-sec despite his claims that all evidence says that's a silly idea. What's he not telling us, eh? Maybe he's sitting on a secret recipe for Caesar salad down there? Is that what Rubicon was all about?

I suppose I'd better go mine some croutons.