Engaging PvE in EVE Online?

Is the glass of EVE's PvE half-full? Half-empty? Or just exploding?
2021-01-06

Header art by Cryo Huren

There’s a lot going on in EVE right now, including a war with some small, insignificant fights. But it’s a new year, and that got me thinking. Every year, we hear from CCP about… well, stuff. All kinds of stuff. Some of it is stuff they think the game needs. Stuff they think they want to do. Stuff they think would be cool. We hear about player retention. Or the NPE. And we hear about the economy. And we hear about creating ‘engaging PvE’ in EVE Online. So as we begin another year, let’s do a little thought experiment, shall we?

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re playing a normal MMO. You know, the ones many EVE players scornfully look down on. Your rogue/thief/ninja/burglar—whatever the game calls its stealther—is going through an instance. You’ve got the next mob in sight, so you creep up next to it, root it, and then… hit auto-attack. And wait. Maybe drink a potion if your health dips too low. When it dies, you loot the body, and get ready to do it again on the next mob. Does that sound like engaging PvE?

Does it sound like EVE PvE? Because it basically is. Except, of course, that what I described is a little more involved than most EVE PvE. You wouldn’t need to start off cloaked, and you probably don’t need to point/web/scram the rats. You might have a web, or a TP, to make things easier, but those are basically part of your auto-attack: once activated, they stay on the target until it’s dead.

But, for the most part, you warp in, lock targets, push F1… and wait. Rat dies, push F1 on the new rat. Or maybe you use your drones. CCP recently changed drones so you had to push F for each rat… but then they changed that back, because they broke basically everything else about drones when they made that change.

EVE’s Most Engaging PvE

Even abyss-running and incursions, which are perhaps the most engaging PvE EVE has, amount to pretty much the same thing. In the abyss, you have to have built your ship to handle all of the different configurations that arise. Once you’ve done that, you jump in, lock rats, push F1 until it’s time to collect the loot and move onto the next room.

In Incursions, you need to have your group and play your role… but the basic framework remains the same. And for the most part, the same principles as solo PvE apply. Anything offensive gets turned on and left on. Target Painters, webs, damps, etc, all keep running on the target until the target pops. Logistics ships get more engagement, because they change targets as needed and remote reps can’t be grouped up, but even then, if someone’s under sustained fire… you just keep the reps running.

Lessons From Other Games

EVE, no matter what the developers or industrialists say, is built on PvP. Even in the context of looking at the game as an economic simulator, PvP’s the engine that keeps that economy going. So it’s understandable that EVE’s PvE plays second fiddle. Well, if we’re being honest, it’s more like Fourth Chair in the second violin section of the orchestra. Nobody’s really got any expectations of greatness, but you showed up for work today, EVE PvE, so good job!

In most of the other MMOs out there, the game is actually built on PvE, and PvP is added on as a way to keep things interesting between expansions. In those games, PvE needs to be engaging. It’s what most players do, most of the time. And even the ones who PvP as their primary activity learn the game through PvE. So what lessons can CCP take from those games to make more engaging PvE for EVE Online?

Let’s start with the obvious one, the one I touched on earlier. And by touched on, I mean basically hit everyone over the head with: doing stuff.

Complexity

EVE Online’s a famously complex game. There’s so much to do, and so many ways to do it, that it can be overwhelming. Most of that ends up being prep-work, though. Skill training. Ship selection. Fitting your ship. Then you get into space and… well, let’s be right up front here: the game straight up teaches new players ‘lock target, hit approach, and push F1’. Let’s face it, that’s auto-attack. You push ‘fight’ and it keeps attacking until it can’t. And that’s more or less enough to get players through all of the solo PvE content in EVE Online. In other games, players immediately have Things To Do™. There’s more than just auto-attack, and it starts right away.

Doing Things!

Hiali may not exemplify engaging PvE in EVE, but he's a good show of EVE's PvP: just by existing, he annoys someone.

This is a starting Runekeeper in The Lord of the Rings Online. I know the preview image of my little dwarf RK is small, but down at the bottom, you can see the default quickslots. Literally seconds after creation he’s already got four abilities. The first two are different damage types. The third is a heal. The fourth is some ability I don’t actually care about and can’t remember, because I just made the character for this example, and to annoy Alizabeth.

What those abilities are, though, isn’t important. What is important is that he has them. Right out of the gate, he’s got three different attacks (I looked up what that last one is, it’s another attack) and a heal. And none of those are his auto-attack. So all four of those are things the player needs to pay attention to, and decide when to use them, because you can only do one at a time.

Other games do the same thing: a starting Paladin in WoW has an assortment of abilities. Even Hunters, the epitome of facerolling, have multiple options and different choices to make. But EVE? A game renowned for its complexity?

Lock target, start auto-attack. Wait.

Doing Things To People!

The second problem EVE’s PvE has in terms of engagement is… there’s no visceral payoff. If, for example, I go hunting for crafting mats in WoW, and I murder a few hundred Drakes or Dragonkin to do it, I see them die. Sure, I know they’re not real, but the game still tells my senses ‘that’s a thing, and it died’. They complain. Maybe they cry out. Then they fall down.

EVE’s gotten better in terms of explosions for capital ships and structures (I mean, seriously, there’s a reason everyone loves to ooh and aah over a keepstar explosion. It’s awesome!) but for the majority of the NPCs you shoot, it’s basically nothing. Part of the problem is scale. To have a decent spatial awareness of your surroundings in EVE, you need to be zoomed out. It’s not easy to see a 20-meter long enemy ship when he’s 30km away. Even without curvature to deal with, 20 meters just doesn’t stand out at that range.

If you zoom in, yeah, you see explosions… but nobody does. Maybe the first few times, maybe even the first few weeks, you kept your camera tight and you fought things at under 5km so you got to watch them blow up… but let’s face it, you don’t anymore. Nobody does, for long, even if they started off doing it. So there’s no sense of ‘yeah, I got him!’

It sounds like it should be just the same in PvP, but there’s a critical difference: in PvP you know there is a real person on the other end of your guns. Maybe you can even see them complaining in local. But you know. And that knowledge fills in the gaps the same way WoW’s simulated interaction fills in the gaps in the other direction.

Lessons Need To Be Learned…

Ok, so how can that all be applied to EVE Online? The second part, that feeling of visceral feedback, is definitely a tricky one. After all, EVE’s scale does prevent any meaningful sense of immediacy. And very few other games work at that scale.

Star Trek Online does, but it cheats. You go zipping around a map that’s the size of a galaxy. And galaxies are a hell of a lot larger than EVE’s comparatively puny 110LY across. But they zoom you out, and then drop you into encounter maps for fighting. And even then, they cheat. Star Trek regularly talks about ranges in the tens of thousands of kilometers, but the visual representation of that in the game… your ship would have to be the size of a continent for it to be to scale.

So how does EVE get there? Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe more voice-acted interactions. Maybe pop-up holo-communications like the way they have Aura pop up during the NPE. Even if it’s a static image, it’s more of a direct connection the subconscious can fill in. That’ll probably slow things down a lot, though, and with the PvE being as mind-numbingly repetitive as it is, it’d quickly just get annoying. ‘Visceral’ payoff, lizard-brain engagement… might be impossible in EVE. Maybe all they can do is try to get players actively engaged.

Tedium Is Not Engaging PvE

One of CCP’s longest-standing problems is their inability to understand a simple principle: adding complexity without additional payoff is just tedium. More clicks != better gameplay. The simplest way to evaluate a change in these terms is ‘is this something I have to do, or something I get to do?’ Just do that. Just try saying ‘You get to…’ about any specific change.

As an example, let’s look at the ESS and DBS changes that went in last year. On the one hand, some of the ESS system does add more engagement. Players get to rob other players. Good job, CCP. On the other… the Dynamic Bounty System?

Is anyone going to say, ‘You get to put in more time and effort just moving your expensive ships around a lot more, in order to make about the same amount of money’? I don’t think so. In this case, though, that’s ok! The DBS wasn’t put in as a means of increasing player engagement, it went in to address a problem. And sometimes, the solutions to problems have to be something people won’t like. When you’re trying to curb excessive gluttony, you have to expect the gluttons to bitch. And that’s ok.

But if you’re putting in more work—not more activity, mind you, more work—for the same payoff… that’s still ‘have to,’ not ‘get to.’ It may be necessary. It may be something the devs ‘have to’ do. They probably won’t like making people unhappy, either. But even if it’s necessary, making people ‘have to’ do more to get the same dopamine release isn’t engaging. It’s just more tedium, and more boredom. And it’s important to keep that in mind.

So Let Us Do… Things

Which brings us back to ‘auto-attack and wait.’ That’s the big ticket item of engagement. That’s EVE’s Achilles heel, stuffed deep into CCP’s own mouth. If CCP wants their engaging PvE, then they need to engage us. They need to give us things to do, actively. Choices to make, even if we’re making them automatically because that’s our shot rotation. Yeah, it sounds stupid. It sounds like busy-work, because it is: busy-work for the brain. It’s still our brains tracking what we’re doing, our fingers actively pushing buttons.

How do they do it? There are ways, but they’ll involve seriously reworking the core gameplay of EVE. Because that’s what we’re talking about, after all: the core PvE gameplay mechanics of EVE. Right now, they’re, well, boring.

So maybe rethink how ship weaponry works. Maybe each ship class automatically has X low-damage racial weapons, and those are the ones on F1. Then you have the high-slot modules you fit, which don’t auto-repeat. Different modules do different things. Some do damage. Some do remote reps, some replace ewar mid-slots.

And make them do interesting things, especially in combination. Maybe a special type of weapon that lowers resists, and then you follow up with your big gun. The more interesting you can make the combos, the more engaged people become.

To People, Even!

That can extend to groups, and more importantly, it can extend to PvP. Imagine if a group of Guardians or Basilisks could take their cap chain and turn it into a targeted surge of power. Maybe it’s to fill up someone else’s cap, or maybe it’s a way to overload a hostile ship’s capacitor and temporarily disable a mission-critical target. Either way, once it’s used, those ships can’t even cap chain for 5-10s, leaving them vulnerable.

Introduce more variation, too. Give each hull size multiple types of reps or ewar. I don’t just mean ‘armor or shield,’ I mean like ‘module A does a massive amount of remote repair, but cycles slow, while module B does a lighter amount, but cycles faster.’ They don’t auto-cycle. You can only do one at a time. Apply that to local reps, AND to remote reps.

Now logi suddenly has to apply a mix of heals, with some trying to do spam-heals to allow the big heals from other logi to actually land. Groups can work up ways to make combos function in large fights. Doing that actually takes player skill, and the better your pilots are, the more you can defy N+1.

Imagine it: a way for small groups to meaningfully fight back against the blob. Sure, the blob can split into small groups and do exactly the same thing… but will they? How much more organizational workload does that add? If the much-maligned ‘F1 Monkey’ really is just a lowest-common-denominator deadweight, it’ll show pretty quickly, won’t it?

And Then CCP Can Tweak and Twist Knobs…

There’s a bunch of options out there. But ‘how they do it’ is less important than that they do it it. The sooner you get EVE players engaged, the sooner you can start fine-tuning how you’re engaging them. What matters, in the end, is building a framework of game mechanics that gets players actively interacting with their own ship’s actions, as constantly as possible.

You do that in a way that doesn’t feel like bullshit tedium and you’ll fix a lot of the player retention issues. Because you’ll have engaging PvE… and some potentially revolutionary PvP.

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Comments

  • Plebble

    tldr: Good article, but some people like unengaging game play. Why not both?

    You have some good ideas on how to increase engagement in PVE. Your suggestions come with a lot of risk though, as you yourself said: “There are ways, but they’ll involve seriously reworking the core gameplay of EVE”

    This kind of reworking of core gameplay is very risky. You are likely to push away many existing players who like the gameplay that currently exists. Attracting new players that would enjoy the new gameplay is not a given, as you have to fight against the existing reputation of the game.

    Balance is another issue when making big changes like you suggest. Years of effort has been spent to reach some semblance of balance with the current system, which you would be tossing out.

    My additive thoughts on this is mostly regarding implementation:
    * Implement it gradually, by being able to script modules to have different damage profiles, one of which is the current system. Much like you script Sensor boosters.
    * Do not force a transition, allow players to fit their ship for ‘passive dps’, which is what we have now.

    This will allow for more creativity and flexibility in ship fitting and gameplay.

    January 6, 2021 at 8:47 AM
    • Arrendis Plebble

      Rebalancing everything would be a huge effort, yeah. And yes, there are people who like being able to login and check out, and I’d say that some ‘no, here, you can no-brain this’ PvE content should be retained.

      And to @simonchui:disqus and @Guilford Australis, I’d say that yes, the rewards would have to be looked at. But at the same time, making the PvE more active would also mean you can make sure more resources end up getting consumed, and develop a better gradation of what the rewards should be at different levels and in different parts of space.

      I think one way that could work for mining—as an example—would be the status quo maintained for the ‘auto-attack’ mining setup, and then additional ‘you actually have to do stuff in combinations’ to increase yields… but at the same time, that feels like something that would have to be done in a way to minimize the degree to which it could be botted, while not being intrusive or having annoying things like popups or capchas showing up.

      Instead, visual cues on the rocks that allow for the ‘combo’ bonuses might be the way to go.

      January 6, 2021 at 6:03 PM
  • Simon Chui

    One PvE idea I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while is encounters where you don’t use your own ship, you have to use what the NPC lends you for the mission. The problem with current PvE is that people very quickly figure out a fit that solves the content, and everyone uses that ship, which requires the absolute minimum skill and effort to fly. You can’t blame people for optimising. But if you don’t let people fly their own ships, CCP can fine tune a fit that is challenging and interesting to fly in a specific scenario. Designing content for one specific fit is so much easier than trying to make it engaging for every possible fit, if that’s even possible.

    Another problem is risk vs reward. You want the PvE content to be challenging because that’s more interesting, but if it’s a little too challenging and people are going isk negative (or even just less isk positive than other available activities), suddenly no one does that content. If you’re not risking your own ship, CCP can crank up the difficulty harder, and they don’t have to make it hugely rewarding to compensate. If you could use your own ship, and you crank up difficulty and reward, eventually someone will solve the content, and suddenly it’s easy and highly rewarding and overpowered.

    CCP is kind of heading in that direction with abyssal deadspace, limiting ship types and numbers. But people still solve it (gilas every time).

    January 6, 2021 at 10:58 AM
  • For anyone wondering, the abilities on the Rune Keeper are an instant attack that does lightning damage, a cast that does fire damage and then applies a fire dot, an instant hot, and an instant lightning damage plus stun. Also, fuck you, Bill. You have no idea how many typos I am putting into my next article.
    Anyways, the different abilities of the Rune Keeper require the player to change their method of play based on mobility. Obviously, one cannot cast something while running. So it makes more sense to . . . I should just write my own piece.

    January 6, 2021 at 11:00 AM
  • Guilford Australis

    Solid observations. I’d add two others:

    (1). PVE can be uninteresting as long as it’s rewarding. CCP has repeatedly nerfed the rewards of most forms of PVE while failing to improve its appeal from a gameplay standpoint. CCP must provide (at least) one or the other, or else players interested in PVE will stop playing. That shouldn’t need to be explained to a video game developer, but, well, it’s CCP, and… actually, I’m not going to finish that sentence.

    (2). The development effort required to overhaul the basic structure of mining, combat sites, exploration, missions, and other forms of PVE would be enormous. I once heard a CSM member comment that his biggest surprise while touring CCP’s offices was the proportion of the staff dedicated to art design. That might explain why CCP always retreats into the excuse that they don’t have enough staff leverage to make the changes players want (although, curiously, they have no problem developing massive new content no one asked for).

    Certainly, tweaks to various mechanics could make PVE less miserable. But without an overhaul, it won’t be a better experience, and without more reward for the effort, it won’t be worth it at all.

    January 6, 2021 at 3:25 PM
  • Nate Hunter

    CCP would do well to have both low engagement low isk PVE and high engagement high reward PVE. We already have tons of low engagement PVE but most of it pays too well. The reason is there’s supposed to be inherent risk of being killed by another player but we’ve gotten too good at avoiding the gankers. In many games for high engament you have to dodge to avoid a high damage or even a KO hit, or run to a certain spot or kill secondary targets periodically before you can damage the main target. Further along that some games the NPCS just quit aggressing the player after a period if they’re even aggressive to begin with, low effort is still available but takes consumables to get the npcs to continue being aggressive, this causes the pve to either be active and you make more money or you use consumables to make it sorta afk and make less money.

    January 6, 2021 at 7:28 PM
  • Alaric Faelen

    PvE as a PvP tutorial:

    For years people have asked for PvE that allows them to play a role beyond DPS. Things like agent missions that require you to fly a Logi ship and rep xxxx amount to allied NPCs. EWAR, boosting, even probing could be focused on this way.
    It would also lend to a sense of being part of a more epic event. Star Wars Battlefront 2 does a good job of making the player feel like both ‘just’ a cog in a much larger battle, but then also the ability to rise to be that singular hero that turns the tide. A way to replicate the giant battles fought between real players in null sec, but as server-safe PvE content.
    Incursions come close but players should be able to experience all of what a fleet environment has to offer from day one and without having to satisfy some group’s minimum requirements to join.

    For most players, the first time they ever do Logi, or EWAR, or tackle, or pop bubbles- is done in actual live-fire PvP. That is often intimidating for new players that have only been fed a steady diet of Approach and F1 from the PvE that most new players begin their Eve careers playing. It would be great if PvE were seen as a PvP-trainer system. Players could take a small step rather than a giant leap from PvE to PvP and have on their resumes when they do decide to apply to that PvP based corp a heck of a lot more than Approach, F1.
    The rewards of PvE should be more than just isk. It should be a continuous training session to make you better at PLAYING the game rather than min/maxing the game.

    January 8, 2021 at 3:30 AM
  • IMO CCP just need to diminish the role of PvE and make PvP more remunerative. The best PvE experiences I’ve had recently have been PvPing as a goon: we have bounty programs that pay out for certain kinds of PvP activity the alliance deems constructive. Kill a cyno recon, collect 50m bounty. Kill an industrial cyno ship? Get 10m. Entosis an ihub? Take a screenshot of the imminent cap and collect a bounty. Kill a ratter? I forget what ratters are worth actually but you get the point.

    PvE is basically never fun because it’s by definition repetitive. Unscripted engagements vs actual human players can be interesting. CCP could easily add some mechanics that would enable smaller, less-organized groups than Goonswarm (with its massive resources and legions of bureaucrats ready to review and rubberstamp bounty requests) to make PvP more profitable.

    I mean, wouldn’t it even help CCP with their design goals? They’re always sweating bullets about how massive bounty payouts are ruining everything… why don’t they just largely eliminate bounties? Leave some NPC-killing missions and basic anomalies etc for newbies to get started with (but make sure the activities don’t scale well for multiboxing and are very modest), but have people in lowsec and nullsec “make money” in other ways– producing stuff or looting stuff.

    January 12, 2021 at 7:51 AM
  • disqus_To4KyaQ7Vl

    Great article about the need for better PVE in EVE.

    I honestly think the only way to fix the PVE is to remove the combat PVP part of the game. keep all the economy PVP trading stuff, as it’s not broken. That way you HAVE to make better, more engaging content. Otherwise, it’s just a PVP exploit type of game that doesn’t work unless you’re part of an exploit gang, I mean corp!!

    April 15, 2021 at 2:03 AM
  • Fejimush

    Very thoughtful article. Hope that CCP is listening.

    May 24, 2021 at 4:56 PM