EVE is Hard—Designing a Moonshot

Bill McDonough 2019-03-13

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.

EVE Online has a long history of being regarded as a difficult—even masochistic—game to learn. For over a decade, people have known: EVE is Hard.

The infamous ‘EVE Learning Cliff image. It’s at least 9 years old, but even in 2010, nobody could remember who made it.

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.

Top/Bottom Disconnect

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.

Once Bitten…

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.

Contrast that with the December and the current or incoming wardec changes. What is the desired shape of high-sec warfare? We don’t know. The best we have comes from a devblog:

“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.

In Conclusion

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.

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  • Punky260

    A wonderful article I totally can get behind in. Hopefully everyone at CCP reads it.

    Especially regarding the new wardec it was pretty sad to see that instead of a new system, they just try to fix the status-quo a little bit. This is even worse when you look at the right places and see players (like myself) being able to envision these new systems – while CCP obviously tries to take the path of least resistance here :/

    March 13, 2019 at 8:43 AM
  • Guilford Australis

    I recently caught myself wondering what I would identify as the thing I fear most in EVE. There isn’t really anything in-game that I would say I “fear,” since EVE’s history demonstrates the incredible resiliency of the core mechanics, and I believe that a true sandbox game will always achieve some form of player-guided balance. To put it another way, there is nothing that could happen to me personally, to my alliance, or to the balance of power in EVE that would compel me to log off permanently.

    However, I started thinking about the long, meandering stagnation of some of CCP’s big ideas – some of them abandoned over time and others dragged on for years without resolution – and I realized that I fear a future in which EVE becomes mundane and nothing I do feels significant anymore. I’m acutely aware that Tranquility will shut down one day, and – as I think Asher Elias said once said – all our ships and ISK will be gone forever, leaving us nothing but the memories of what we did. But I’ve always pictured that the memories would be of hard fights up to the end, and possibly some glorious last stand before CCP pulls the plug. How different it will feel if the memories are of half-implemented balance passes, player disengagement, and a slow decline toward meaninglessness. I had never before considered that I might one day quit EVE out of boredom rather than winning it because I fought too hard, for too long, and burned myself out – but that was what I thought about the other day. I don’t want that to be my memory of EVE.

    I agree that it’s not too late for CCP to turn back toward big dreams and bold initiatives. I hope they’re able to recapture the fearless, ambitious vision that first brought them, and all of us, to New Eden.

    March 13, 2019 at 1:39 PM
    • Alaric Faelen Guilford Australis

      Your point about fearing when Eve becomes mundane and nothing carries weight is a critical one.
      I’ve never come close to rage quitting Eve, or unhappy at being just a regular schmo instead of galactic warlord. But I have put the game down a couple times over sheer boredom. It’s only because I have a community within the game that I came back.
      In so many instances I have looked at some part of Eve and said– I wish this mattered. I wish this related somehow to the rest of the game. But more and more Eve doesn’t feel like a single cohesive game. It feels like 20 different little games that only overlap grudgingly if at all.

      March 13, 2019 at 4:29 PM
  • Colin Byrne

    They should just do more experiments. I think it would be great fun, and exciting to do an event where regions in high sec lose their “high sec” status due to some event. Kind of like the power grid flickering because of some imminent threat to the eve universe. Drifters or jovians or whatever could be some looming threat of invasion, a real invasion not the sansha incursion inconvenience. It would add a sense of suspense and get people in high sec involved. It would be interesting to see what happens in short bursts in areas where this occurs. It would be bold and it would shake things up if one day suddenly Jita was in low security space for a period of time. Burn Jita already shows how interesting that can be…

    March 13, 2019 at 3:19 PM
    • Arrendis Colin Byrne

      The problem with ‘doing experiments’ is that they don’t actually follow-through on them. They don’t try to understand why they’re getting the results they get, and they don’t see ‘well, then if we change X, does Y change in a predictable manner?’

      Example: Resource Wars.

      Resource Wars was supposed to be a new avenue of cooperative PvE gameplay in highsec, accessible to even the newest players. The plan was to put it in, offer rewards, and iterate on it to work with the concept until it really sang.

      Except… the rewards were… skewed. Weirdly.

      A new player, running L1 RW sites in the venture he or she gets in the NPE, could get enough LP to start buying rewards from the LP store after only 4 sites. That’s good! It’s not instant, but it’s not a huge slog. So that works, right?

      One problem: to spend that 500 LP, that new player needed 100,000,000 ISK. Which is peanuts to experienced players in null who make bajillions per tick, but for an actual new player, that’s about ‘hang on, give me the time to run missions until I’m in L4s with my hurricane/drake and then I’ll still need a week’.

      So nobody did it. New players looked at the rewards as ‘omg that takes so long’ and experienced players looked at them as ‘why the hell would I pay that much for a badly-fitted Rifter with a SKIN that I can only use on that particular ship?’ Ship dies with that SKIN active, you lose the SKIN. I’m not kidding about the value vs effectiveness, either. The Rifter is 1.5M. Which, ok, great, that’s not too much… except you can buy the whole thing—unrigged, because the RW packages don’t come with rigs—for under 613k. Less than half the price. And if you just do a little shopping w/the meta modules in Jita, you can drop that down to under 470k. And let’s face it, charging newbies 3x the cost plus LP is just dumb. Even if they do get a 1-use, non-transferrable SKIN.

      The sites were easy, but not too easy, and encouraged spontaneous group activity. You could go in as a miner or a combat pilot, (L1s really only needed miners with combat drones) and as long as there was both types of activity going on, the site gets finished and everyone gets their LP. It was just the balance of effort vs rewards that was off, and even that was mainly a problem with the ISK costs of the rewards. And everyone who gave feedback told them that. So what did CCP do about it?

      They cancelled all plans to iterate on RW. Just straight up cancelled it. Not ‘we’ll look at that’, not ‘maybe we should rework the idea’, just flat ‘Nobody likes it, we’re gonna leave it as-is and never iterate on it again’.

      What. The Fuck?

      March 13, 2019 at 3:51 PM
    • Carvj94 Colin Byrne

      See I hate when people throw out ideas that make hisec less safe. Some people don’t like PVP and just play games for PVE. I say as a wormhole dweller. It’d be the same feeling as if nullsec became lowsec/hisec depending on the ammount of pirate kills. You’d be out of your element and in someone else’s and it wouldn’t be as fun.

      March 14, 2019 at 4:19 AM
      • Arrendis Carvj94

        Well, I think if such a mechanic were in place… it would work both ways, no? If security status can be degraded, then the empires should also be trying to secure their space (lowsec) and possibly pushing into null.

        March 14, 2019 at 6:23 AM
      • Punky260 Carvj94

        I actually like that idea, althought it would totally fuck up a lot of things.
        But having it reduced to a predictable area (similar to Sansha incursions) wouldn’t be a bad thing. That would be small enough to handle it, but big enough to care about…

        March 14, 2019 at 7:55 AM
  • Bill Bones

    The problem is that CCP no longer haves the size to undertake big things. They’ve been losing players, revenue and staff since 2013 and none of those trends is going to change.

    CCP faces to either shoot for the moon and die from a single horrible failure or take it easy and perform a thousand hit-or miss little things that allow them to last some more years. In the long run they’ll fail more than they’ll succeed, but it’s nto a all-or-nothing scenario for people who no longer are in their 20s-30s, but in their 40s-50s.

    The reason for the wardec changes is that the usual prey for wars, PvE players, are dwindling as a direct consequence of roughly everything CCP has done (or rather NOT done) since the whole structures thing began.

    It’s not that more people are leaving because of wardecs, it’s that the people doing it represent now a larger percent of the total population since there’s less people to wardec. Enough to warrant wardec changes. And yet none of those changes can address what’s really going on here: a large amount of EVE players will rather leave than be forced to PvP. They’re there for the PvE and are an amount so large that their disappearence is slowly killing the game despite all CCP’s efforts to improve PvP rather than PvE.

    March 14, 2019 at 8:01 AM
    • Rammel Kas Bill Bones

      Two assumptions there could be false.

      Staff losses and working capital churn could be non-core projects getting wound up. As we saw later they were frosting up the window dressing for a buyer. And now we have that in PA.

      Player numbers tend to be a popular misconception when cyclical seasonal ranges are in play.

      We only now have a high-level understanding of how the first one went down, and most popular opinion miss the beat entirely. The second one is a popular trope. But we do get a lot of null block war tourists show up each time. I’m not THAT convinced.

      March 14, 2019 at 10:53 AM