Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Blog Banter 40: Interstellar Blood Sports

Welcome to the 40th edition of the EVE community Blog Banter, the discussion arena that reaches parts you probably shouldn't be touching.

A Blog What?

With CCP casting their community spotlight upon this very tradition, we might have some new readers curious about the process, so here's a quick run-down:

It's pretty simple; on a semi-regular basis, questions suggested by the community are fashioned into a broad discussion topic which is then tackled by the many bloggers who choose to participate.

Many bloggers are emailed the details (I maintain a mailing list which I would be happy to update if you want to be included - email me at seismic[dot]stan[at], and others simply grab the question from the launch post (like this one) which I simultaneously publish. Entrants link to their blogpost in the comments section below and a list is maintained at the bottom of this article. Participants and observers are encouraged to read through the entries and leave comments, and before you know it you have an explosion of focused discussion spreading across the community.

Once the conversation has reached it's conclusion, a willing volunteer then puts together a summary of the whole event and we get an overview of general opinion and a collection of diverse and intelligent ideas. For more info, check out Blog Banters Reborn: Now With Added Troll or take browse through this summary of previous Blog Banter discussions or by following the link at the top of this page.

BB40: Interstellar Blood Sports

So on with the banter.

Fresh from publishing the community spotlight on the EVE blogosphere and Blog Banters, CCP Phantom has suggested a banter focus on competitive tournaments.

There is no finer spectacle in the universe of EVE Online than the explosive dance of weapon-laden spaceships in combat. The yearly Alliance Tournament is the jewel in EVE Online's eSports crown and the upcoming New Eden Open should deliver the same gladiatorial entertainment showcase.

Given the scope of the sandbox, what part should eSports play in EVE Online and what other formats could provide internet spaceship entertainment for spectators and participants alike?

Banter on.

E-Sports Punditry to follow:

Summary at EVEOGANDA

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

EVE Development Strategy on Trial

Kaeda Maxwell, like many EVE players, was attracted to EVE Online for its scope and promise. The wealth of gameplay options offered by the New Eden sandbox promised the opportunity to partake in a gaming environment of infinite possibilities. The audacity and creativity of CCP's ever-expanding universe was a powerful lure for players seeking many kinds of entertainment. Sadly, Kaeda has taken the decision to quit playing EVE.

His reasoning is that "CCP seems to have gone creatively dead" and points out that since the woeful misstep that was Incarna, every expansion has simply been a list of reworkings and patches with no fresh content.

He makes some very good points in his departing blogpost and much of it struck a chord with me. There has certainly been a polar change in EVE development direction in the last year and it is worthy of further examination. In an effort to weigh up Kaeda's concerns and give fair hearing to CCP's decision, I'd like to attempt an analysis of both sides of the argument.

The Case For the Current Development Direction

Original 2003 EVE manual
At it's core, EVE is, and always has been, a PvP game. From it's birth in 2003, player activity has driven the direction of development. The Darwinian environment was inspired by Ultima Online, another game which encouraged freedom of action and did not shy from the brutal realities of human nature.

As EVE grew, more flavours of gameplay were added. The initially bold concept was fleshed out based on the direction in which the player population pushed. The formation of communities based around multiple corporations was recognised and the ability to form alliances was introduced. This saw vast swathes of players fighting for flags of their own creation and gave rise to the complex and dynamic political dance that takes place in the metagame.

The driving force behind all player interaction was spaceship combat. Every miner, industrialist and missioner was essentially feeding the engine of war. The development direction of EVE was always focused on expanding this ecosystem.

Parallel to this, gaming habits from more traditional MMOs needed to be recognised in order to make the EVE experience palatable to a wider audience. A "questing" system was a mainstay of MMOs and PvE content was a necessity. As a science-fiction universe, New Eden needed some character and personality beyond generic spaceships. As I recall, the concept of immortal capsuleers wasn't even fully realised at initial release, with "escape pods" frequently littering hangars and only vague references to cloning (from the original 2003 manual: "...your character dies and becomes a frozen corpse in space before your clone is activated."). All of it was clearly just a device to explain multiple lives and continue the game experience.

In pursuit of the ultimate sandbox, continuing development saw CCP fighting their own war on several fronts. The sheer diversity of gameplay was leading to the polarisation of disparate playstyle communities. The more traditional PvE players would pursue "carebear" activities mainly in the safer high-security areas, whilst a more directly competitive culture bloomed in the dangerous low- and null-sec regions.

CCP's greatest expansion
Expansions would often deliver content that would appease a segment of the player base whilst leaving others feeling undervalued. The exception to this rule, Apocrypha, is widely considered to have been the most successful expansion as it delivered varied and fully realised new content that suited most players. But for the most part, CCP's expansion cycles left great concepts half-finished as they needed to rush to deliver the next concept. CCP had become victims of their own success as their grand development ideals became a rod for their own backs.

This increasingly demanding process finally hit critical mass with Incarna - an initially bold attempt to broaden the appeal of the EVE universe by addressing the disconnected and - for many gamers - unappealing focus on spaceships as the primary character. Human avatars and space station environments were intended to broaden the player demographic and usher in a new era of player interactivity.

It failed. Badly.

Incarna concept art.
The resulting fallout of player discontent sent a shockwave through CCP. Angry players unsubscribed in their thousands as they realised that the core values of their spaceship combat game had been sidelined in favour of another "Jesus feature". For 18 months, the loyal player core had been living off the scraps from the table of the Last Supper and it suggested to them that they were being taken for granted by CCP.

In order to steady the foundering ship, CCP laid off 20% of their workforce and recognised they need to show that they did value those players who had invested hundreds or thousands of dollars in subscriptions over the years. The age of the Jesus Feature was over.

Since the Summer of 2011, CCP has had a much more pragmatic approach to their expansion cycles. They have been systematically working through the many flawed and unfinished game design elements of the past, adding polish and increased usability. No longer adhering to a single expansion release policy, a much more flexible system of iterative release now allowed for tweaks and improvements to be delivered when they are ready.

It is the legacy of such an old game with such ambition, that this period was perhaps inevitable. After years of ambitious expansions and 18 months of comparative neglect, CCP have since spent another 18 months clearing up their own mess. Perhaps not ideal, especially from the consumer perspective, but a necessity. CCP has learned that you cannot attract new customers if the old ones are unhappy.

As a result, what we are now seeing is the birth of a more streamlined, lean spaceship combat PvP environment that increasingly appeals to its core audience. This is totally in line with the history and ethos of EVE Online and is a necessary and welcome boost to its continued health.

Also, rumours of the death of the Jesus feature are exaggerated. If a lack of creativity and ambition is of concern to fans of the New Eden universe, have you considered DUST 514?

It doesn't get bolder than that.

The Case Against the Current Development Direction

Suggestions of the greater experience.
As detailed earlier, EVE Online has always been touted as a sandbox. Granted, it is a PvP sandbox, but it is one with such grand scope that it evokes player creativity and inspiration far beyond simple competitive eSports.

Over the years, New Eden has developed into an immersive science fiction environment which promises much. Whilst the limitations of a single game should be accepted, EVE Online has consistently shown that it could grow beyond those traditional boundaries and deliver a broad palette that could entice players who might otherwise not play games at all.

Part of what makes EVE Online unique is that quality that allows players to pursue their own destiny, to explore a dystopian universe shattered by war and politics. This is entirely down to the concept of choice.

An EVE player should be able to choose how his game experience plays out. He play the role of a peaceful industrialist, a defender of his faction or a hunter of criminals and enemies of the state. Certainly, recent and upcoming expansions support this to an extent, but all roads lead to PvP.

The ever-present threat of PvP, even in safer environments, gives EVE its energy and should remain a core concept of gameplay. But to exclusively focus on this misses the fundamental values of a sandbox. To single-mindedly focus on funnelling players into being the content without embracing broader gaming values significantly limits the appeal of EVE Online.

Riots in the Summer of Incarnage
As a result of the core player outcry triggered by Incarna, it is entirely evident that CCP is now frightened of its own shadow. After realising that previous development choices threatened the health of the "cash cow" of the fanatical segment of EVE players, CCP has consciously decided they would prefer to distance themselves from other, less well-organised and under-represented segments of the player community.

Whilst CCP may pay lip service to the backstory and content of EVE Online with occasional literature and the recent live events, it is clearly not a priority. Live events themselves, although exciting for those who do take part, are single events which suffer from the same demands as alarm-clock fleet ops. They dictate to the player when and where they should be playing, removing much of the choice which should be the lifeblood of EVE's sandbox gameplay. It is clear that the resources are not available to make live events an experience that can be shared by the majority.

Marketing gameplay
Further evidence of this bias is the rising tendency toward investment in competitive tournaments - something which has little to do with the universe of New Eden but everything to do with the eSports appeal of the combat engine. The Alliance Tournament is a fantastic spectacle and the upcoming New Eden Open tournament will undoubtedly be similar, but it is also symptomatic of this new ideological direction.

With regard to the recent patches (Crucible, Inferno and the forthcoming Retribution), any tightening and improvement of gameplay mechanics should be encouraged, but to dress this up as a shiny new expansion packed with content is misleading. Lessons should most certainly be learned from the mishandling of Incarna and the former expansion culture, but the pendulum has swung to far in the opposite direction. Without a more even-handed approach to the direction of development, EVE Online is destined to become a limited arena for eSports fanatics.

The broader, more imaginative experience that EVE Online once promised is withering on the vine and is gradually being replaced by an anodyne and sterile spaceship combat engine.

In Conclusion

Personally, I have mixed feelings about this debate. I completely appreciate CCP's current position and why they have chosen the direction they have. Their hand was forced by market forces and they clearly needed to reform their development strategy. They have retreated to the core traditions of EVE and are pushing effectively in a single direction rather than ineffectively in multiple ones. Sadly, this will come at a cost. Fringe players will become disillusioned and are more likely to quit, but CCP have already squandered the cache to do the same to their loyal player core.

CCP rolled the dice with Incarna and choked on the result. Now they have recognised the unique selling point (or more accurately the unique staying point) of EVE is the community structure behind the game, they are understandably building on that. This clearly favours those players who have invested - and can continue to invest - the time required to make this kind of arrangement work. Players not cemented in place by their commitment to a player community will remain increasingly likely to feel disenfranchised as they watch the min/maxer lobby rule game development.

For the first time in a long period, I have played other games and found the experience very rewarding. Both FTL and XCOM: Enemy Unknown have impressed me for different reasons. In many ways, EVE cannot compete with either game, but then nor should it. I think long-term indoctrination into EVE gives rise to the fallacy that it should be able to deliver on all gaming fronts by providing the most complete game experience available and rendering all other games irrelevant. Clearly, this is nonsense, but then EVE does encourage that kind of fanatical thinking.

In my opinion, it comes down to a simple decision: does EVE Online deliver the kind of entertainment that you are looking for at a price you are prepared to pay? If it does, great. But if it doesn't, then you should probably stop waiting for it to happen, because it won't.

What do you think?

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Relating to EVE: A Difficult Marriage

My relationship with EVE is an unusual one it seems. But perhaps there are some for whom it will be familiar.

EVE and I have what is increasingly feeling like a struggling marriage. When we first met a decade ago, I was completely entranced by everything she was; I thought she was beautiful, deep and infinitely inspiring. She seemed very aware of this and was happy to oblige me my every internet spaceship desire. I met a lot of her friends and found much reason to be content. I didn't mind that she was a crack whore with a viscous streak, it made her all the more unique. It created an intoxicating cocktail of danger and promise.

As time passed I started blogging about my time with EVE and for several years this seemed like a natural evolution of the relationship.Increasingly, I found I chose my in-game activities based on what I enjoyed writing about. As well as continuing my scattershot bloggery on Freebooted, I wrote and produced an EVE audio fiction series (available on iTunes), contributed to a number of podcasts, inherited Crazy Kinux's Blog Banters, penned Incarna: The Text Adventure and took part in various other projects. I was living a kind of science fiction writer's nirvana.

However, some time in the last year, I've been feeling differently. The passion has cooled. I no longer spend much time playing EVE as I'm too busy writing about it. I was fortunate to gain a position as Guild Launch's EVE correspondent where I write a monthly Exploring EVE Online column. This month I discussed the player-developer relationship against the backdrop of the recent Veto EVE meet in London (more on that later). I've also recently had the opportunity to contribute to EON Magazine and I wait to read the next issue with eager anticipation.

Why So Quiet Stan?

Lately, my enthusiasm seems to have almost entirely transferred over to the act of writing, both in the EVE world and elsewhere. The spaceship portion of my EVE experience has certainly taken a back seat. Recent events in real life had a profound impact on this, particularly the pregnancy of my wife, the end of my paramedic career due to back injury and, to a degree, the death of Sean 'Vile Rat' Smith. For different reasons, these events tugged at me to turn my attentions away from an MMO experience to things of more real value. This might explain why not much content has appeared on Freebooted for the past few weeks, but I've still been very busy behind the scenes.

I am very aware of how skills and experiences I learned in my virtual EVE relationship have directly impacted on how I interact with real world problems. The illusion of influence created by my participation in the EVE universe perhaps gave me ideas above my station in the real world. Nonetheless, concerned with the quiet deterioration of the UK's emergency ambulance services, I applied EVE metagaming blogger mentality to the problem and as a result, I've managed to get my concerns published in a number of newspapers, both national and regional, have spoken with a number of key figures and have played a part in getting the ball rolling on what I desperately hope will be changes that will prevent the collapse an important part of the social fabric of the world I'll be bringing a new person into.

So as you can see, it's been a hectic few weeks for me and sadly my EVE participation has suffered. We've even missed a Blog Banter, sorry about that. But now I hope things have evened out slightly and I will be endeavouring to get back to my EVE relationship (so expect a new Blog Banter sometime soon). However I'm viewing it with new eyes.

What's My Motivation?

Hot off the back of the live event relaunch which I was honoured to be asked to play a part in promoting, I'm finding my role in the EVE universe a little challenging. I'm torn between enjoying the part I play "evangelising" EVE (Hilmar's words from Fanfest 2011) and justifying the time and effort required to do so. I certainly appreciate the experience I've gained from my relationship with EVE, but I am now struggling to re-engage what had essentially become a full-time, unpaid job.

Perhaps as a result of this sense of detachment, my experience at the London pub meet was a mixed bag. It was disparate collection of communities, none of which I really felt attached to. For the most part, I wore my "proto-journalist" hat whilst researching for Exploring EVE Online: The Story Beyond the Pixels. I felt more like a service provider than a player and didn't have the dedication to gameworld specifics that most attendees I spoke to had. I felt disconnected and a bit like a fraud. I just don't have the time or the dedication to keep up with these hardcore spaceship enthusiasts. I was in awe of the totality of their involvement with EVE, but didn't feel a pressing desire to engage at their level. I was very much the spectator.

Talking to CCP Unifex didn't help much either. His resolute attitude toward almost exclusively promoting the more hardcore aspects of EVE gameplay and supporting the most dedicated communities made me feel like my approach to EVE was too casual to fit in. His logic is entirely understandable given that for a long period of time that same community spine felt undervalued by the pre-Incarna development direction CCP had taken. But there were definitely undertones of "my way or the highway". Perhaps I need to accept that EVE and I are just drifting apart.

This isn't to say I didn't enjoy the pub meet. I had a chance to catch up with Richie Shoemaker of EON and Stuart at Play Sci-Fi. I met an old enemy from 2003 and had another chance to chat with some of The Bastards. I was pleased to meet Penelope Star (Tech 4 News actor/contributor) in person but sadly she snuck off too early to have a proper catch-up. I also enjoyed chatting to some other folk in the pub who knew nothing about internet spaceships, but a refreshing amount about current affairs, sport and relationships. I must have enjoyed it all because I stayed out late enough to miss my last train home.

Apologies if this blogpost has been a bit of a miserable ramble, it's more or less just a stream of consciousness as I try to swing my mindset back around to my EVE community duties. It's a bit like trying to psyche yourself up to do some DIY whilst my wife EVE is out mugging pedestrians with her friends. In the back of my mind, I'm starting to wonder if we even need another set of shelves. I've never seen her even pick up a book.

Anyway, about that Blog Banter, watch this space...