Header art by Major Sniper.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” -John F. Kennedy, Sept 12, 1962
EVE is hard. In fact, it’s famously hard. Most people who have played EVE for a while are familiar with the old ‘learning cliff’ image depicting learning curves in different MMOs. Most have nice, smooth lines. EVE, though, is a brutal cliff. Gibbets hang off the edge, bulldozers push bodies away, and there’s even a line of crucified victims for good measure.
With the release of the latest series of devblogs, some players decry one set of changes because ‘EVE is hard’, and the changes ‘dumb it down’. At the same time, in the discussions on another, the devs say they can’t do something because ‘it’s too complicated‘ or there are ‘issues’. Both of which translate to ‘it’s too hard’. The juxtaposition is an interesting one. Is this a cultural inflection point? Or is it just a lot of different things coming together in a weird kind of mirroring?
A Foundation of EVE’s Culture
Most of EVE’s players embrace that difficulty. Some even develop a fierce devotion to it. When developers unveil measures to simplify things for new players, many object. And these objections often seem nearly rabid in their intensity. The new ‘skills on demand’ plans are getting these objections. The introduction of alpha clones got them. Even removing skill loss and clone grades received the exact same objections: EVE is hard, stop trying to ‘dumb it down’ and ‘make it into WoW’.
In some senses, it feels like ‘I had it hard, so you have to, too’. But a closer reading of the comments and objections doesn’t show that. Rather than indications of resentment, or victimhood—’how dare you give them a break I didn’t get’—it becomes obvious that there’s something else at work: pride. Accomplishment.
It’s not only the players who have a history of embracing the tough, often vicious nature of EVE Online. Permaband’s first release, ‘HTFU’ outright celebrates it. The message is clear:
“EVE is hard”, devs and players alike tell us, “and that makes it worth doing”. But there are pitfalls along that path, on both sides.
EVE is Hard: Challenge vs Obstacles
When people say that something being hard makes it worth doing, there’s a certain level of understanding needed. Imagine getting a new tool, or piece of equipment. You’ve never used it before. It’s complex. And you received no documentation. Using that tool will be difficult. It makes your life more difficult. It’s an obstacle: something that makes things more difficult, for no good reason.
Obstacles don’t lend themselves to a feeling of accomplishment. Instead, they tend to just create frustration. Not being able to figure out a situation is annoying enough when it’s your own fault. Add the lack of clear documentation, and people tend to feel jerked around, too. We don’t see obstacles as things we welcome the chance to beat. We see them as things to just avoid. Obstacles aren’t what folks mean when they say things like ‘nothing worth doing is easy’.
What they really mean is ‘It’s challenging’. Challenges, once overcome, give us a sense of accomplishment. Shared challenges produce a sense of commonality, of community. Anyone who’s been through boot camp, or a disastrous summer camp experience, or Christmas around my cousins, can tell you that.
In this, ‘hard’, or difficulty, can be looked at like complexity. When ‘complexity’ is something boring and/or repetitive that you have to do, it’s tedium. When it’s something kinetic and fluid that you get to do, it’s opportunity. The challenge for devs is to make sure that what they’re producing is challenging opportunities, not tedious obstacles.
Unfortunately, that’s difficult. And when personnel have been slashed to the bone and everyone is already handling a tremendous amount of pressure, the difficulty feels a lot more like an obstacle, more ‘how do we avoid that?’ than the challenge of ‘ok, so how can we achieve this?’
Do You Mind?
The way a team—any team—responds to that moment of ‘how do we meet this pressure’ when it arises says a lot about them. But more than that, it sets the tone. Denial of defeat, regardless of what the movies tell us, isn’t really a character trait. We’d all love to be dauntless. We all love the idea that we wouldn’t give up in a hard spot. Not everyone will meet that bar, but it’s not because of some immutable defect.
In truth, overcoming challenges is a skill. It’s something we have to learn, and then have to keep on practicing. The brain is a marvel of recursion and redundancy. The more you do a thing, the more the brain re-wires itself to do it. And it gets more efficient about it. It gets better at it. And unfortunately, it works in both directions. The more you accept limitations, the more the brain wires itself to reinforce those limitations.
Worse, the brain doesn’t just run on patterns. It recognizes them, anticipates them. So the more you accept limitations, the more your mind sees limitation. The more you focus on ways to succeed, the more you see opportunities to succeed.
This is one of the most frustrating things with the way CCP has presented their response to some of the feedback: ‘We can’t do that, it’s too hard’. It establishes the negative: “We can’t,” “too hard”. Now, maybe that’s not the way they talk about it internally. Maybe internal discussions focus on ‘Let’s do X instead’. But with that as the framing they use with their customers, they build in an expectation of defeatism. Players start to expect a lack of effort. They expect to not see iteration occur. And they expect to have to accept failure as a consistent result.
Twist the… Knob?
This isn’t the first time CCP has framed things in terms of limitations. In fact, they do it often, always about themselves. At FanFest, or EVEsterdam, or Vegas, top-level faces of CCP, like Hilmar, or Burger, ask us to buy into broad, sweeping visions. But whenever the developers speak about their own efforts, limitations always play a part. They offer no big plans. They never bring up thorough, deep evaluations and overhauls. Two phrases come up again and again: ‘just twist some knobs’, and ‘tweak some numbers’.
That’s the language of limitation. It stays limited, plays it safe. And it tells the players ‘don’t expect much from us’. It feels timid, scared, like big ideas scare them.
The strange thing about it all is that CCP seems of two minds about this. At the upper levels of the EVE team, Burger espouses an expansive, sweeping vision. CCP Mannbjorn has yet to articulate his vision, but his predecessor, CCP Seagull, certainly didn’t shy away from grand ideas. And just this past week, Hilmar himself took to the dev-blogs and invited EVE’s playerbase to help out Hadean with a mass-user stress-test. If successful, that test will blow EVE’s record for PvP combat out of the water. And it might point to a future direction for EVE, too.
Clearly, parts of the company still understand and embrace the value of bold, brave ideas. It’s not just the money-minded, either. Hilmar was the original CTO and lead on EVE development, way back when.
So how did the rank-and-file get timid? It might be our doing.
Make no mistake: we did this. We, the players, caused this timidity. Once, CCP attempted great things. In the era of “HTFU”, they strode forward like a colossus, confident and unafraid. They even attempted a complete revolution in EVE gameplay: Walking in Stations. And we bought into that.
Incarna’s release sounded the death knell of that phase of CCP. The Summer of Rage laid low the confidence-turned-arrogance. In its wake, a chastened CCP pulled back from truly ambitious projects. CCP put ambulation on hold, and eventually even removed the Captain’s Quarters. World of Darkness, the in-development MMO whose assets and dev talent CCP had ‘borrowed’ to work on Walking in Stations, died not long after. Horizons shrank. Visions got smaller.
So how do you recover from that? How do the devs start planning for bigger, bolder projects? It’s got to come from the top. Sure, the upper echelons talk of broad, bold visions when they deal with us. But what do they tell the guys working for them? Do they encourage their teams to shoot for the moon? Or do they focus on ‘managing expectations’?
… And Do The Other Things…
EVE is in desperate need of large-scale solutions. It’s not enough to look at one system in isolation here, and another one there. The situations where these things come up don’t happen in isolation. Wardecs tie into crimewatch, which ties into bounties, into large-scale combat, then into capital balance and Time Dilation. That all connects to ISK faucets, the need for more destruction, and how to motivate players to leave high-sec. And so on. But CCP keeps looking for small, isolated solutions.
As of right now, no-one expects that to change. No-one expects CCP to tackle the interconnected mess of a thousand piles of accretion. Those piles are wide enough that together, they form a patina across the entire game.
But CCP does need to address the whole thing, all of EVE. Yes, when implementing solutions, each section will need attention on its own. But CCP can’t let those piecemeal efforts remain ends unto themselves. Attempts to balance one thing, fix one system in isolation caused the current disconnected, disjointed state of the game. And maybe more importantly, the devs need to learn how to sell that idea to the players.
It’s not enough to offer the players bold, sweeping visions at FanFest, or Vegas. We need to see that vision in devblogs, in feedback threads. The last time we got anything like that was the early days of the structure overhaul. The results weren’t perfect, but consider what the devs have done in the last five years. Work on Upwell Structures began about the same time as work on Aegis Sov. Structures never deviated from ‘we have a vision’. Aegis began ‘tweaking’ as soon as it hit.
Both have their problems, but ask players which change ‘went better’. Neck deep in structure spam, they still won’t pick FozzieSov.
Shoot for the Moon
So how does CCP get from here to there? How do they move toward bold visions and a mindset that no longer bakes defeat right into players’ expectations? First, they should start blasting HTFU through the office. Not only does it capture the swagger early CCP had, but it will also remind them to appreciate Guard while he’s still there.
More critically, though, the devs need to stop looking at minor tweaks to current systems. Think outside the box. Figure out what the big picture is, and then how to get there. That may sound obvious, but right now CCP appear to be taking a different tack. That seems to be ‘what do we have, and what changes will make things better?’
The difference in approach makes a huge difference in results. If you focus on making changes, you minimize the work needed, but also the amount of change that work produces. By comparison, focusing on the end result will likely mean more work. Sometimes, you may even need to rebuild things nearly from scratch, but the results will better suit your goals.
That means taking a different approach to things. And just like EVE is hard, shifting gears like that is hard. Still, we know CCP can do it. We’ve already seen it happen.
Seeing It In Action
For a number of years, CCP developers drove themselves mad trying to fix Player Owned Starbases (POS). Anyone who’s played the game long enough remembers lines like ‘spaghetti code’ and ‘legacy issues’. Fixing one aspect of POS’s often broke a seemingly-unrelated part of the game elsewhere.
Eventually, though, they scrapped that approach altogether. POS’s wouldn’t be fixed, they’d be replaced. All of that old legacy code, every strand of the spaghetti knotted up into weird places, would get removed. And that change in gears took a significant amount of work, but four years later, Upwell structures do all the same jobs POS’s did. Later this year, CCP will likely (and finally!) remove starbases. And now, even if problems do arise with Upwell structures—as they inevitably do with all code—working on them doesn’t mean breaking the rest of the game.
CCP didn’t get there by tweaking a few numbers, or twisting some knobs. They stepped back, and took a long, hard look at the situation. Then they decided what it should look like, and figured out how to make that happen, even if it meant scrapping everything they had. And it did, so they did.
War is… aw, hell.
“Wars that provide entertaining conflicts between corporations and alliances while reducing the number of situations where players experience a lack of viable choices or feel forced into avoiding joining player corporations entirely.”
That sounds big, sweeping… but it’s really just vague. When you read it, imagine what that looks like. Does anything come to mind? Worse, it sets the bar so low, they’ve already achieved half of it, before the implementing the ‘new’ system.
As of December, player corporations need to own a structure in space to betargets in a war. So CCP has ‘reduc[ed] the number of situations where players […] feel forced into avoiding joining player corporations entirely’. So players should never feel forced into avoiding joining a player corporation. The immunity from wardecs is right there in player corps that don’t own structures.
That leaves us with ‘wars that provide entertaining conflicts between corporations and alliances’. Which tells us nothing. So what does CCP want high-sec wars to look like? Do they even know? Or do they just have a vague idea of ‘people shooting one another’?
I suspect they don’t know what they want to see. And if that is true, then they should find out what the regular people of high-sec—not just the big war-dec groups—want to engage in when it comes to PvP content. That won’t be easy. High-sec players show the least involvement in the forums, EVE-meets, and so forth. Figuring out how to reach those players will be a big hurdle. But if CCP can do that, they’ll have much better data to build their vision on.
Almost every year at FanFest, EVEsterdam, and/or EVE Vegas, CCP—through CCPs Burger, Fozzie, Larrikin, Rise and Seagull, and even Hilmar himself—has laid out broad, sweeping, aspirational visions for the players. That has been a part of EVE from the beginning. It has continued right through to last year’s ‘imagine a universe where the navies can be called on for reinforcement, where you can command pirate fleets’.
The odds of those things actually happening as described were low. Everyone watching the presentation knew that, from Vegas to the stream viewers at home. But we bought into it. It works every year, because it is aspirational. We buy in because it is CCP throwing down the gauntlet and challenging themselves. And every year, we hope that it will serve to organize and inspire CCP’s energies and efforts. It is a challenge that we need CCP to accept—and to win.
We buy in, and we hope the devs will, too, because it is hard.