Thursday, June 28, 2012

Epic times ahead

319-3D stats, June 27/28
Tuesday evening I finally heeded the CTA call and moved to Delve, to partake in the war that is now called 'Delve IV'. On our way to C3N-3S, which was to be our staging system, we got stuck in 319-3D, an NPC station system a couple of jumps out; C3N was heavily camped and we were advised to hold in 319. After a while I decided to call it a night and logged; I would try to make the trip to C3N another time.

Yesterday I logged in to see if I could make those final few jumps to C3N, but boy, 319 was busy! Over 400 pilots in local and Time Dilation running between 90-50%.. I wondered if I could get out in one piece. My corp mates were already out and about, as part of a bomber fleet, scoring their first Delve kills, and one of them  - zipping past the 319 station - told me the undock was clear. Quickly I undocked and warped to a safe, waiting for whatever would happen next. At least I could now set my overview to the proper 'large engagement' settings.

There was some TeamSpeak chatter about a Titan somewhere in local, and after a while (around 19.11 eve time) we got the call to warp to a POS to eliminate a Pandemic Legion gang of Tornados that had just landed there. Time Dilation was brutal now and it took me a long time to warp from my safespot. When I landed there were just a few PL pods left, and when I finally could begin to lock someone, the last pod vanished from the screen. But there was, indeed a Titan there!

The Titan turned out to be intended for a Titan bridge: -A- decided that 319 is a better staging system for all those not living in Delve. It is an NPC system and as such unconquerable: anything docked in 319 can always be recovered. I think -A- has fond memories of LGK-VP in Stain, their trusted NPC fallback position for when Catch is under siege: 319 might very well be their 'Delve LGK'.

In the mean time, local numbers in 319 spiked to over 525 with Time Dilation as low as 21%. Reports from C3N and 1DH reported huge numbers there, too. All in all, thousands of pilots where moving about, setting the stage for this next big conflict. Even though nothing 'epic' happened last night, being part of this huge operation already is impressive. Interesting, and possibly epic, times ahead!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The local channel: a revamp proposal

The local channel in Eve Online. Should it stay or should it go? The debate is ongoing, with arguments pro and contra. Those in favour of keeping it, usually claim that removing 'local' would harm industrial and other casual nullsec activities; those wanting to see it removed claim it gives defenders or carebears an unfair advantage, contradicting the sandbox principles of Eve Online.

There is something to be said for both sides. I have been thinking of a way to reconcile the two views, and I think it can be done by tying the presence to sovereignty, jump gates and giving nullsec some properties of wormhole space.. It has become quite a long post, but please bear with me!

Jump gates - let them rot
I have examined the lore surrounding jump gates, and frankly, there isn't a lot of information. But from the evidence available, it seems jump gates need maintenance crews to keep them functioning, and there is talk about 'new versions of jump gate design'. Who pays for jump gate maintenance and keeps them up and running, or applies the upgrades isn't really clear, although for highsec it seems logical to assume that the empires and/or Concord are doing it.

soon to be offline?

In nullsec, a sovereignty holder pays sovereignty fees to Concord, but there is no noticeable Concord presence out here. To assume that Concord would do jump gate maintenance in nullsec doesn't make sense: they wouldn't send their maintenance crews unprotected into the 'lawless outer regions', especially given the fact that for many systems there is no sov holder to pay them. And the empires sure arent doing any maintenance out here, either. 

Given the lack of a plausible maintenance backstory, I propose that jumpgates be allowed to deteriorate over time if they are not actively maintained (more on that below). A deteriorating jump gate would, if it's efficiency falls below a certain threshold, occassionally fail to jump ships, with the percentage of failure progressing over time as it's efficiency level drops further. After a while, it would cease to function completely and go offline. And it would take the local channel down with it (more on that below as well).

Jump Gate maintenance
Jump gate maintenance would be needed to keep gates alive. It would have to be done through a specialised (tender like) ship and module, possibly aided by matching drones. Keeping a jump gate at 100% (or at least acceptable levels of) efficiency, would require a certain amount of 'maintenance points' to be applied, every week. Just like you need to fuel a POS, you need to maintain your gates if you want them operational. But, every pilot can apply maintenance points to a jump gate, irrespective of their standings to whomever has sovereignty in the area.

A sovereignty holder has other means of arranging jump gate efficiency: they can buy and install a 'jump gate maintenance' upgrade in the TCU or ihub. With that upgrade (and a noticeable extra monthly fee to Concord) all gates leading to or from the solar system where the TCU or ihub resides, are maintained at 100% efficiency without requiring pilot intervention.

An ever changing map
Allowing jump gates to become inactive would alter the map of New Eden's nullsec regions. Some parts might become difficult to access over time, perhaps creating pockets where a smart corporation or small alliance might find a home for themselves, flying under the radar and keeping out of sight as much as they can. Keeping tabs on what gates are operational and which ones aren't becomes an important part of nullsec intel, and those who live in the area certainly are at an advantage in this regard. Yet, offlined gates might be repped back to life by anyone, so you are never certain. And, of course, black ops ships and cyno beacons still work.

So what does this have to do with the local channel? I propose that the working of each local channel is tied to a solar system's jump gate efficiency level. Systems with 100% jump gate efficiency have an immediate local channel: the local jump gate system knows precisely who entered but did not leave the solar system, there is full and immediate 'pilot presence intel'.
If one or more jump gates deteriorate, the quality of this 'pilot presence intel' deteriorates with them, and hence a delay is introduced: it takes longer and longer for a pilot to appear in the local channel, after jumping or logging in. If the jump gate deteriorates further, a pilot may or may not not appear at all. And when the combined efficiency of all jump gates falls below a certain threshold, the local channel goes into permanent delayed mode, failing to show any pilots unless they happen to actively use the local chat channel.

Live there, rule there
It has often been suggested, that having sovereignty somewhere should be related to actually living in the solar system in question: conquering it once and pay the sov bills forever afterwards, shouldn't be enough. It seems to me that this could fit in with the jump gate proposal as sketched above. Large swathes of nullsec are virtually uninhabited as it is today, because independend entities can't live there, as there is no place to hide. But, I don't see the large power blocs sending jump gate maintenace teams all over nullsec to keep the gates alive, so it would become harder for these large entities to maintain full control over those uninhabited systems. And with deteriorating jump gates everywhere, smaller entities might indeed be able to find a difficult to access nullsec pocket or semi closed corner to live in for a while, basing out of small (mobile?) star bases or POSes, and cynoing goods in and loot out as needed. And the occassional passer by might barely notice you, because there's no immediate local. Until someone reps that jump gate, of course..

But, in order to make nullsec life more worthwhile for such smaller corporations or alliances, it might be needed to buff NPC anomalies, belt rats and/or ores to mine, in systems that have delayed local. 

Double edged sword
Having jump gates at 100% efficiency, and a fully operational local channel, might very well end up to be a double edged sword. It means you can spot anyone coming in, but it also means anyone *can* indeed enter your system; and those who enter also get to see your pilots! Your space is open and accessible: having full presence knowledge comes at a price, security wise. If you live in a nullsec area, it's your choice how to balance ease of access with giving away local intel to each and every pilot who jumps in.

Open the sandbox - by closing off parts

The proposals outlined above might turn the lesser inhabited parts of nullsec into something resembling wormhole space: less predictable in terms of access and availability of intel, more profitable, more interesting: "I wonder what happens behind this closed gate.." And yet, by virtue of applying jump gate maintenance, every pocket can be opened and no walled garden is guaranteed to remain forever! Deteriorated gates might be guarded and defended vigorously, scouts might have to work hard to get access to pockets.. It seems to me that this construction fits in with Eve Online's sandbox principles, and could lead to some interesting situations, in terms of (emergent) gameplay. Not to mention several new ships, modules, skills and professions.

Some issues and objections
When thinking along these lines, some problems appeared, and I think it's only fair to mention those.

For instance, the 'forever fortress' issue: alliances could chose to let certain important jump gates deteriorate, making it very hard to enter their space for an enemy, while using jump bridges to circumvent the barrier themselves. An example: if -A- could disable the jumpgates out of HED-GP into Catch, they would probably do so in a heartbeat.. or whenever an invasion threat is looming. -A- would have to make sure the gates aren't repped, and most of Catch would be much safer, instantly: conquering Catch is difficult if you don't take HED-GP. This is obviously not the intended usage of the system outlined above, and this use case would certainly have to be dealt with. Perhaps the option to add security, by letting jump gates deteriorate, should be balanced by the removal of jump bridge capability in 'deteriorated constellations'? Or the presence of jump bridges automatically means all jump gatges inbetween are maintained at 100% efficiency? Difficult issue, and constructive suggestions here are certainly welcome.

A second objection could be, that small gang pvp is negatively affected by this, as small roams might keep running into offlined jump gates. I'd say that's probably true, but there will also be a lot less intel available to their potential prey, because many systems won't have an immediate local channel. So scouting becomes very important: identify a route of working jump gates, and try to find those pockets without immediate local! And breaking into that  supposedly safe pocket in nullsec would also an impressive feat. Overall, nullsec becomes less predictable to all inhabitants, be they roaming gangs or mining nullbears.

And what to do with the fact that there are always two jump gates involved in jumping? It is conceivable to have one of the pair deteriorate, while the other is maintained, effectively creating a one way street. From a gameplay perspective, it might be better to have the efficiency level determined per jump gate pair: bringing one side up to 100% always restores full jump capability for instance. This area, too, needs some thought.

Finally, the rate of deterioration and the amount of maintenance points needed to restore a gate to working order, need to be balanced very careful. You don't want each and every solo passerby to be able to rep a gate in a few minutes, but you also don't want to turn gate repping into a carrier fleet operation, taking hours to complete. Balancing these is going to be difficult, perhaps.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A lucky escape

Just after I logged on to Eve, three reds - two Cynabals and a Stiletto - paid us a visit. I jumped into my Hurricane and joined the hunt, which resulted in a couple of fun skirmishes at the gate. It was a good fight, with some remarkably polite and witty banter in local. We couldn't really catch them as they kept kiting us, and perhaps that's what saved me: just before I got blown up, they lost their warp scramble lock on me and I was able to warp out. I don't think I could have made it if they'd have kept point on me a few seconds longer..

Friday, June 1, 2012

Diversity Online

I have read some of the discussions about the all-new permanent Goon-sponsored Hulkageddon, and it made me think of Edward Castronova's book Synthetic Worlds, published in 2006.

In this book, Castronova described four types of inhabitants of virtual worlds: explorers, socializers, achievers and controllers. Most players show elements of all four types, but usually one of them is dominant. I’ve given a short description and a translation into Eve Online professions earlier in this blog post: A different mindset. It’s not too long but still relevant! The crude TL:DR version, applicable to the subject at hand: achievers (who just want to create wealth, the peaceful way) are totally different from controllers, who want to dominate, compete and prevail, using violence if needed.

Eve Online seems to be tailored to the tastes of the controllers, with its’ strong emphasis on player versus player combat and the lack of basic safety that permeates all of New Eden. Yet, to keep its’ economy going, New Eden also needs a measure of achievers: the guys who create and build the stuff that we all use. Eve Online really does have something to offer for those achievers, with its’ evolved economy and in game industry, not to mention its’ beautiful space vistas and the positive social interactions that can be had in corp or alliance.

For years, a tenuous balance has existed between achievers and controllers. Every achiever miner - at least every one who can be bothered to read up on the game they’re playing - knows mining is never safe, not even in highsec. Yet the number of highsec miner ganks is usually low, and while disturbing to them, it doesn’t really impact the average miner all that much. Yes, there’s the yearly Hulkageddon (a controller type of event if there ever was one), so during that time the miner takes it easy for a while, perhaps goes play something else for a bit, until Hulkageddon is over again. Occassional newbie miners will be ganked and some of them will unsub, but enough survive to keep the game going. And so, an uneasy balance between achievers and controllers has existed for years.

But now that Hulkageddon is becoming a permanent part of Eve Online, one has to wonder what will happen to this balance. If achievers are denied enough space and time to achieve their goals, what will they do? If Eve Online fails to satisfy their gaming urges, why would they stick around? It’s not unlikely that these kind of players will move on to greener pastures. That has nothing to do with rage quitting or lack of 'htfu', it's just that Eve Online may be developing in a direction where more and more achievers find that it does no longer fulfill their gaming requirements.
These achievers might be able to adapt, or become more like a controller, but they simply don't want to; it doesn't fit their personality. As Jester keeps pointing out, we are buying entertainment for our dollars or euros: if a game ceases to be fun, the player ceases to pay.

If the new permanent Hulkageddon is successful enough to upset the balance between achievers and controllers, I see a real risk for user retention. If that happens, there won't be a 'summer of rage' - the achiever isn't that kind of player, I think - but a slow and steady leak of this player type might occur.

The question is: can Eve Online survive without a sizeable contigent of achievers? My guess is, that the New Eden economy can. Mining is a typical starter occupation, so there usually are a lot of newbie miners around. Also, controller minded pilots may fill the void left by the achievers, as mining becomes more profitable once again. Yet it remains to be seen whether a smaller group of miners can produce enough raw materials to feed the New Eden war machine.

And, over time, we will probably be left with a less diverse and hence less interesting population in New Eden. I consider that a shame, and a loss for all of us. It is also a long term risk for CCP: a monoculture is more vulnerable to external threats than something more diversified.