What Wonders Shine Behind Sleeping Eyes
While Walt Disney and his team didn’t coin the term Imagineer (that honor belongs to Aluminum giant Alcoa), the now multibillion entertainment conglomerate certainly took the idea and ran with it. According to the inexhaustive font of information that is wikipedia, ”Imagineers are governed by a few key principles when developing new concepts and improving existing attractions. Often, new concepts and improvements are created to fulfill specific needs.” In essence that is precisely what I’m going to attempt to do today. To be clear, I know nothing whatsoever about the tech, code, or feasibility of what idea’s I intend to offer today, but what CCP needs desperately in their approach to Player Vs. Environment (known more colloquially as PVE) is a springboard of ideas to jump off from. Critics can argue about balancing isk faucets, or the practicality of implementation, but nothing will come without the spark of imagination from the monolith that our game has become. EVE needs an idea-man, and as a much beloved character from science fiction would say; “We gotta go to the crappy town where I’m a hero!”
PVE constitutes of just about every portion of the game that fills the wallets of our denizens, from mining to mission running to exploration, PVE is the dull grinding engine that keeps the lifeblood of New Eden pumping. I want everyone to take to heart how much I care for this game, how astoundingly attached I am to this silly waste of time, and how much it hurts to speak ill of it, lest I damage its enjoyment for anyone else. Know that it pains me when I say with utter conviction this: I would rather drive rusty staples under my cuticles one at a time, whilst listening to Fran Drescher sing the National anthem directly into my ear than run missions. This one aspect of the game is so widely reviled that over 520,000 pages are displayed upon googling “How bad is PVE on EVE Online?” Surely the quantity of argument over this notion speaks as openly as the quality of the prose. I don’t want my game to have that label. I don’t believe it’s healthy for the life of the game, the quality of life for its players, or the livelihood of its developers. Ladies and gentlemen, we can do better.
Getting it Right
When an Imagineer sits down to design a new attraction (let’s not mince words, despite the consensus that EVE Online should be a ‘sandbox’ and not a ‘theme park’, each predesigned facet of any MMO is indeed an attraction) it needs to be designed to work within existing parameters, but push the envelope into the realm of being unique. You want to build on proven winners, and while there’s a lot of harsh criticism leveled at the game, there are a surprising number of things that genuinely work.
I have Surveyed planets to drop extractors on in Star Wars Galaxy, clicked relentlessly on the ground with a pickaxe in hopes to produce some ingots in Ultima Online and grinded like a man with no hope the labyrinthine alchemical formulae that reign as the crafting career on a number of korean style MMO’s. It’s generally pretty awful and offers little true content for its inclusion in a game. CCP has managed a really amazing feat over the years in that while not always balanced, industry is a big deal. It manages to regulate and sometimes even destabilize the live Market that the game hinges on, and it’s accessible from the earliest point with a slick recently revamped UI. I don’t engage in industry myself, but I don’t knock it. Mining isn’t my idea of relaxing on EVE, but for thousands of others it certainly is just that- and lucrative to boot. While far from perfect, as long as CCP stays on the ball, continues watching trends, adjusting mineral costs & availability, and keeping the needs of the market in mind; industrialists will only have to complain about gankers and ‘miner bumping’ being ‘broken’. Even the most hardened MMO vet should be able to concede that CCP has got this one right. The gameplay is intuitive, perhaps overly lucrative in high sec, but certainly appealing enough to serve the purpose of creating just about everything in the game, and provides a host of private goals that a player can aspire to. Well done.
Sleeper AI and Escalations:
I’m going to focus on a singular aspect of Wormhole life that EVE Online got completely right, regardless if you consider wormholes an isk geyser or a mysterious oddity, Sleeper AI and the notion that an AI can call back up to respond to overwhelming force is an amazing addition to the game. The initial upgrade to the AI allowed Sleepers to prioritize targets based on ECM threat. It gave them the knowledge to tackle weaker targets that are more easily dispatched, like drones. This was the first incarnation of the new universal AI that mission rats now follow. Triggerable escalations within a fight offer reasons to bring additional players and different equipment into the fray in order to offer more reward, something that could potentially benefit all types of PVE.
Back in 2010, when the Incursion Expansion promised us a meaningful Fleet Based PVE experience that would reward the well prepared, I scoffed at the notion. WoW-centric ‘raid’s’ would never work in the social landscape that is EVE Online. While I still have to admit that the game play gets repetitive, and that it does seem a little too easy to make isk within the confines of the Incursions themselves, CCP did a fine job executing this and understanding that Public Fleets would pick up where Corporations and Alliances would not. We need to realize that they didn’t just create a ‘Raid system’ (which if you think about it, that is exactly what they are), they also created content in the form of several very distinct communities that at one point even perpetrated their own content: ‘warfare’ on each other when parties began disagreeing. Incursions stand as an excellent introduction to large fleet concepts such as Logistics, anchoring, target calling and broadcasting, all very engaging and arguably strong correlations to PVP content. While I personally have a few minor qualms with the existing state of Incursions, I feel that CCP has generally done a spectacular job translating the ‘raid experience’ into a preview of Battleship Fleet combat that players can grow within.
The inclusion of the more recently implemented ‘Drifter Incursions’ showcases some impressive AI advances. It also welcome less experienced players in more expendable ships. While the player base is still ‘perfecting’ its approach to this newer feature, it has already been shown to offer a new outlook on an entrenched community. Could it be better? Maybe, but CCP showed they have chops putting this feature into play, boasting an AI that could offer formal NPC vs NPC fleet engagements. The Drifter Incursions open up new options to the PVE Landscape.
Burners and Seasonal Events:
The advent of pvp themed, Burners and Seasonal offerings such as The Blood Raider’s Bloody Omir event and Operation Frostline provided brief glimpses into CCP’s ability to design and implement, rapid deployable scripted events on their shortened timeframe, and is the first open deployment of their retooled event writing tool. The legacy code that crippled the Dev team’s ability to design new and more innovated missions is seemingly no longer an issue. The seasonal events also gave us a glimpse of PVE that offered a distinct Risk structure with ever changing loot tables and opportunities to engage in PVP within the confines of each site. Sites became contested as pvp magnets even more than for the loot offered within. Burners offer players the option of engaging against NPC’s that feel a lot more like PVP oriented players than the usual wave after wave of various rats in a mission. The new AI is frighteningly good at eating alive the unprepared and giving the well fit a solid run for their money, CCP has the makings of legitimate ‘boss’ AI with the Burners. All in all these features seem like just the beginning of what CCP may have up their sleeve.
As something of an RP junkie, I personally eat up every last bit of flavor that CCP puts into the game. At EVE Vegas when the identity of the rival Valkyrie Pilot was revealed to be a southern drawling Fatal, I howled inwardly with joy. The Story we have to support PVE is there. It’s got epic space opera written all over it, and in a genre labeled not just MMO but MMORPG, there can’t be enough good material. Being able to place your character in the thick of events is something CCP have dabbled with but not quite successfully blended into a meaningful way to make a difference in the game world. Now they are showing interest in giving us a compelling way to leave our individual mark.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel: A World of Pure Imagination
Take a moment and forget the EVE Online we currently know, consider the following idea of what PVE in the game could be. You have been working on the security contract missions for a while now, and you feel comfortable with low level offerings, looking for something a little more risky, you seek out the Special Operations agent, available at all standings tiers for a specific faction. You have been earning Caldari standing, so you head to the agent nearest to your position to be given the details.
The mission turns out to be a legitimate escort involving providing small craft assistance to an NPC Raven Battleship that needs to burn a few jumps on autopilot to be refit. You are told that the enemy is on the lookout for the ship and its escort (being you) and will respond with appropriate force to take it’s objective, and the mission states that additional rewards can be earned by engaging larger forces.
A corp-mate has just logged in and you ask if they would like to join in on the escort. You select a Merlin to skirmish with, and your corp-mate opts to bring a Bantam to augment the survivability of both you and the Raven. You exit the station and meet up with the Raven at its initial safe spot. At the first gate there is a single Condor, it manages to beat your vessels to the gate, having spotted your fleet composition and informing their allies. If you had fit ranged rail guns, rather than short range blasters, you may have been able to stop the scout from relaying the information. You jump the gate and make your way with the Raven to the next gate as the Raven begins turning slowly to burn towards the 2nd jump gate, a large gang of Guristas frigates, several cruisers and a pair of battlecruisers warp into your group. The battlecruisers begin firing on the Raven and your logibro gets to work keeping the battleship together as it begins fighting back. The Bantam begins having trouble as you set to work clearing all the light tackle, and tells you that there are ships jamming his reps, preventing him from helping the battleship. The Battleship begins dipping into armor as the first Battle Cruiser explodes under the Raven’s missile fire. You turn your attention to the ships that are jamming your reps, with a bit of luck the jammers explode just before the Raven loses all of its armor… the Bantam begins plying its reps and within a few more minutes the field is clear and though suffering from a damaged model, and lacking all of its armor, the Raven begins once again slow-boating through to the other side of the gate. You watch the Raven warp off after you escort it to the other side of the gate, and the Special Ops agent messages you that the mission is complete, thanking you but offering you a chance to bring the fight back to the guristas. You smile and wonder if anyone else in corp would care to join in before accepting.
The Future is Nearer than You Think
My proposal is that CCP consider blending elements of their newest additions to the game into a new mission series that operates with a procedural generation mechanic to blend objectives along with meaningful dialogue options that affect standings. The missions themselves would have sequences that evaluate a gang size and composition (based on ship type, meaning that the AI would perceive a logistics frigate for a vessel generally kitted out to perform remote reps, and an attack battlecruiser as a high damage, high mobility dps dealer- in line with the ISIS ship details screen), and respond in kind with an adequately difficult scenario to challenge the objective. Each instanced room, or scenario (as the scenarios could take place on public Stargates, in front of stations, or at asteroid belts in order to offer other players a glimpse of what goes on in New Eden) can experience ‘escalation triggers’ ala the sleeper sites, as new pilots in the gang ‘join’ the grid. This would result in an experience that scales with the force that players choose to bring. Certain scenarios could be rated ‘boss’ scenarios and operate similar to the Burner AI, scaled to fighting a capsuleer with only t2 equipment rather than faction.
This living and breathing mission series would wind up rewarding social play, which is generally considered the best part of EVE Online. I can recall only a few days ago being asked if I would consider doing some industry as a group and wholly agreeing to it, despite never enjoying it solo. The minute you give a good reason for people to form gangs, the more people will be playing together rather than alone. This not only breeds good retention, but a more expansive gameplay. CCP needs to capitalize on its status of being an industry leader for games that bring groups of people together. When corporations begin naturally from small gangs of players working together to fulfill goals rather than a singular CEO attempting to collect taxes from corporation members, it can only add to the number of potential small groups that would be willing to move out to claim their own space with the advent of Citadels. As I move forward next time I’d like to take a more in depth look at procedural mission generation, and a revamp on uses for Loyalty Points and Faction Standings. Till then however, fly dangerous.