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.
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.
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.