Header art by Quendan Comari.
I don’t believe it would be a controversial statement to say that 2019 was a tumultuous year for EVE Online.
Late on January 2, CCP Convict seemed to reinforce this attitude by taking to the r/eve subreddit to openly probe into community sentiment as we all move into the new year. He was looking for feedback on CCP’s recent actions, the gameplay mechanics as of the end of the year, and also the political (or metagame) situation. All told, he was looking to assess whether the r/eve community feels positively, negatively, or uncertain about the future of EVE Online.
The appearance of this post lined up rather fortuitously with the editing process of this article, one which I was already working on. The article aimed to highlight some of the key areas in which I felt CCP had failed over the course of 2019, but in a constructive manner that presented clear ways to improve going forwards into 2020
With that in mind, let’s start by addressing those key failings, and why assuaging the impacts of them is in both CCP’s and the wider community’s best interests.
The Breakdown of Trust
Between CCP once again attempting to sell SP directly to players, the loss of two key links between the community and the developers in CCP Guard and Falcon, the cancellation of the 2019 Alliance Tournament, the public banning and unbanning of Brisc and the Fountain Three, introducing new gambling-based monetisation in the Hypernet Relay, the launch of the Nullsec Blackout and its abrupt end two months later, constant struggles to keep local chat functional, the cancellation (or, something approaching cancellation) of Project Nova, and of course the Drifter Invasion – I think everyone can point to at least one thing which has shaken their trust in CCP over the past 365 days, even if you agree with most of their actions.
That’s not something that it’s going to be insignificant for CCP to deal with, either. We’ve seen where a lack of trust in CCPs direction for the game has taken the community in the past. From the frothing pit of negativity, biting criticism and one particularly infamous hashtag that pushed developers away from the community in 2016, to the outright insurrection of the 2011 Summer of Rage.
If CCP can’t rebuild the relationship it once had with its players, it is going to be an uphill battle of convincing players to engage with whatever changes are being implemented in good faith, when they often identify different problems in the ecosystem as being more important.
So, from this point, what I’m going to do is describe some of the ways that I think CCP can move on from said missteps, and start to regain the community’s trust in their ability as stewards of the game.
Put Everything in the Patch Notes
The most infuriating habit that CCP developed over 2019 was trying to actively hide changes from the player base, They did this by simply pushing those changes to the live server, without a single mention in the patch notes. CCP did it for what feels like relatively flimsy reasons, and it created an unnecessary layer of confusion.
The majority of EVE players, upon encountering a game mechanic they’re familiar with having been altered without it being noted anywhere do not think; “Oh, this must be a cool shakeup to my gameplay.” They’re conditioned by years of experience to go instead; “Oh, this must be bugged, I should report this.” Even followed up with a swift response to inform the player it isn’t a bug, it’s unlikely to be an experience which enhances their gameplay. So it just introduces confusion for the sake of confusion into an already very confusing game.
Beyond that, it also feels like it lends an advantage to larger and more organised groups. These groups often have their own communication channels parallel to CCP’s in order to share knowledge about undocumented changes and best practices to adapt to them. That gives their members a stronger information advantage over smaller or less organised player groups. And whilst I wouldn’t claim that many in those groups are likely to read the patch notes, having all the documentation about changes to the game presented there at least provides a baseline of game information parity that every player has access to.
Over the course of the past year, CCP has worked towards trying to make the advantages larger groups have less efficacious in practice. The idea of that ‘baseline information parity’ helps in that regard. Taking that away seems to run counter to a large part of CCP’s work. I hope it’s something that we see them move sharply away from in 2020—especially if we continue to see more iterative changes, such as the resource shakeup right at the end of the year.
Give Players (not NPCs) New Tools
One of the themes of 2019’s development of EVE Online has seemed to me to be using NPCs to try and solve player problems in the ecosystem. From the introduction of Raznaborgs to curb AFK mining in Hisec, through the Drifter Invasion’s fixation on Citadels, to even the appearance of mass NPC fleets to try and revitalise Faction Warfare. This was coupled with a focus on explicitly removing tools that were deemed to be overpowered, from the Nullsec Blackout being justified as Local was “Never intended to be used as an intel tool”, to the alteration of what ships can use Cynos to remove the ability of Capitals and Supercapitals to serve as their own means into a fight.
What this served to do is massively change the Environment side of the equation. It fundamentally alters what people were able to do, by changing the context in which they had to operate. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, but it has served to leave the overall gameplay patterns which everyone is involved in almost exactly the same. So, whilst a lot of mechanics have been altered, it’s still a case of trying to kill someone before the umbrella they PvE under can be turned upon you. That leaves the impression that the core elements that make such a system possible haven’t been altered, because well, they haven’t. That massively contributes to the perception of stagnation in EVE Online.
Now, this is pure conjecture, as I’m not a game designer. But I think the best way to break this paradigm isn’t to continue to try and pare back defensive mechanics, but instead to introduce new ones for attackers, altering the Player side of the equation. The lack of active, positive development of new features as solutions for the problems identified was one of the most disappointing aspects of the Chaos Era for me, and in my humble opinion, it showed a lack of desire to invest actual development time to solve those problems.
The recent introduction of the Christmas filaments do show that CCP is still capable of creating tools in that vein, even with a noted limited lifespan, so who knows what we might see in 2020.
Keep Team Talos Alive
Now, on a slightly more positive note, one of the best things to come out of CCP this year in my opinion, was the foundation of Team Talos. For those that don’t know, this team is the one responsible for the series of fortnightly changes that have taken place since mid-October.
The simple fact that this mix of soft iteration and balance passes has been occurring regularly is groundbreaking for CCPs development. It’s an ability which has long eluded them, despite myriad promises to work towards it. From the “Balance Team” in 2017 that was put together, but never actually given any developer time to work towards their stated goals, to the non-existent but explicitly promised May follow up to the April balance pass this year, CCP has almost always fallen short when it comes to the part of following through on their big talk on the topic.
In Team Talos, though, CCP has found a formula that seems to work, and whilst their changes don’t completely solve any of the problems they touch, they don’t have to. Simply by tweaking the mechanics and changing the way people practically interact with them on a month-by-month basis, it gives players the impression that CCP is aware and working on the problems they face, and given enough time to work, these small changes will add up to be just as impactful as a full rework.
I don’t have anything more to add here. I just know CCP has a bad habit of looking at teams or operations like this, and deciding that they are less important or worthy of resources than those working on entire new features that the company assumes will drive new player acquisition. That completely ignores the effects they can have on veteran retention. So, CCP, please don’t kill what could be your PR golden goose in 2020.
Be Honest About the Future of Competitive EVE Online
This, admittedly, is probably not the point that will affect the most number of people. Competitive EVE Online in all of its forms is a relatively niche activity, and whilst it’s always done well on Twitch, it has it’s fair share of detractors among the general community. Given that, the hiatus of the AT this year to focus on the World Tour could have made an awful lot of sense, giving CCP the space they needed to revitalise the tools used to produce the show and the format to be played in order to modernise how the game was shown off to a wider audience and respond to the criticisms levied upon it.
Instead, however, what we’ve experienced is effectively a complete radio silence on the topic from CCP since their announcement of the hiatus of the AT, only broken by occasional “maybes” crowbarred out of CCPers put on the spot at various AMAs around the world. With all three of the player run tournaments that CCP had originally planned to work with in order to fill the gap cancelled (due to CCP’s complete unwillingness to put in any effort to revitalise the technology that underpins their competitive scene) and a move to simple 2v2 or 3v3 formats as seen in the World Tour and EVE_CS, people have been left wondering what form the Alliance Tournament will take in 2020. Or, if it will occur at all.
The start of the year is traditionally the off-season of EVE’s tournament scene, as people start to think about who they want to bring together as a team and try and work with for the next half a year in order to try and take the crown. But, this year, with no indication that the AT is returning – No preparations are taking place. This risks a rerun of 2018, where a lack of communication and proper planning on CCP’s part let to a relatively paltry number of teams signing up for the tournament, resulting in a subpar environment for players to take part in, and as a result, damaging the viewing experience.
Even if the AT is not returning this year and CCP’s focus will continue to be on the simplest possible form of competition at live events, the earlier that is made publicly known, the less chance there will be for people to convince themselves it is happening and put in effort in preparation for it, and the less backlash there will be.
Post-mortem the Chaos Era
Finally, the elephant in the room. The Chaos Era was described by CCPs Hellmar, Goodfella & Falcon in their interview as a way to “shake things up” with “experiments” that they would assumedly be able to study. And, shake up they did, with the Blackout, Cyno Changes, Drifter Invasion, Anomaly Changes, et al.
This should have given CCP enough data with which to draw conclusions about the changes they made and the impact they had on player behaviour, to see if it matched their initial assumptions and hopes as explained in said interview, something which I felt was confirmed by the answer CCP Falcon provided when I asked him about the timing of the Blackout’s end in EVE Berlin;
“I think it’s a combination of wanting to look at the Cyno Changes in isolation, also the fact that the blackout has been going on for some time now and we feel we have the right amount of data. We had a discussion around it lately with the strategy team where we asked ‘Do we have enough data now, is there anything else we want to learn?’ – Now we can take a look back at this and look at player behaviour after.”
Despite this, in the 3 months since, we’ve heard nothing from CCP on the matter at all, leaving people to simply throw mangled sections of EVE-Offline or the MER at one another to try and prove their own particular hypothesis. Team Talos was able to present a breakdown of the impacts of their changes over the past two months, and give a glimpse into some of the more esoteric and yet informative statistics that CCP has access to make their decisions from, but curiously it seems that on the matter of some of the most important changes in 2019, they’re either unable or unwilling to do so.
This denies the community and CCP the chance to have a more grounded, fact-based discussion of what happened during that period in order to help construct a way forwards that could retain some of the positives of these dramatic changes, without the negative aspects. And, beyond that, it makes those that appreciated the state of the game during the peak of these changes feel completely abandoned – a state that led to them quitting in dramatic fashion like Klandagi and Vheox DonTomazzo did.
If CCP wants to be able to make changes like those in the Chaos Era again in the future, they need to be able to show that it wasn’t a meaningless exercise, and that lessons were taken away from it. The only way to do that is to talk to the players about the process and keep them involved. Anything else is going to help feed the festering notion that some players have – that it isn’t about them fighting against other players anymore, it’s about them fighting CCP.
I’m sure there are far more ways that CCP could earn some trust back from the community than just these 5 points. In fact, this is only a small subsection of the points that I had originally drafted for this piece before I realised I didn’t want to spend 8,000 words on this topic. So, I encourage you to go down into the comments and note your own. But I hope what this piece has done is put into perspective how relatively easy it is for CCP to undo the damage they’ve caused, and start to generate good will again, primarily just by having an open and honest line of communication with the players as a whole.
Now, let’s all cross our fingers and hope that an article like this would seem out of place in 2021.