Header art by Redline XIII
This is the first of a series of articles intended to address the current failings of EVE’s nullsec game mechanics and to compare these mechanics to those of antiquity in a likely-foolhardy attempt to advocate for a complete revamp of nullsec’s sov mechanics and—possibly—a return to something approximating the pre-Dominion, POS warfare system of sovereignty. Fair warning: it will at times be nostalgic and is probably full of bad ideas. If this sort of thing intrigues you, read on. If not, maybe we can both just go back to playing Classic WoW.
EVE IS DEAD
Or, it is to me, anyway—at least for the moment. One needn’t spend too much effort perusing EVE-related media to discover that this is not a niche sentiment : INN, Reddit, and the EVE-O forums are full of content—from ragey whine-posting to in-depth, almost academic analyses—discussing the depressing, stagnant state of our game. The villains of these stories are varied and numerous, and although certain elements of the game are lambasted more consistently than others, when considering the various diatribes a clear theme begins to emerge: nobody—least of all CCP—seems to know where to begin when addressing EVE’s shortcomings. We may have notions about which abilities or hulls seem overpowered, which stats or individual mechanics might be tweaked to provide a band-aid solution to this month’s meta issue, or an inkling that HAW weapons on Titans might be problematic, but so far we (and the developer) have failed to address the bigger picture: how is nullsec supposed to work?
This is a difficult question to answer. When discussing the various recent iterations of game mechanics which have so manifestly failed us, it can be difficult to contextualize things. If we’re going to arrive at an understanding of where we are—and why this situation is untenable—perhaps we all take a moment to consider how we got here. After all, in AD 2019 there’s a whole generation of players who may have no idea how the game worked in its infancy, who are totally unaware of the cyclical nature of our perennial game-balance problems, and who are blissfully ignorant of solutions that came before.
A LONG TIME AGO, IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY
Accompany me, if you will, back to the mid-2000’s. The year is 2006; I’ve just matriculated to university, and—in the throes of nostalgia for an ancient space-trading-and-combat game called Escape Velocity—have just downloaded a bootlegged copy of Freelancer. Inspired by the game’s description, I’m ready for a massive, open world with near-limitless possibilities. Instead, what I find when I open the tin is a glorified arcade shooter with only the most basic trading mechanics. The graphics are garbage, everything’s the wrong scale, the game world is small, it’s not really multiplayer, and it feels like all the developer intended for me to do was spend hours piloting a small fighter in a series of inconsequential, cartoon dogfights. After a few hours I shut the game off, flabbergasted at the notion that a genre-leading game of the 2000’s was substantially less interesting than a top-down, 2D, sprite-based game from 1996 that could be played on a potato. Surely there had to be a better alternative.
Internet research led me to EVE Online. Perhaps I should say, internet research kept leading me ~*back*~ to EVE Online: at the time I had little desire to pay a monthly subscription fee, but the evidence seemed overwhelming—EVE was the only game poised to deliver on the promise of a large-scale, open world, multiplayer, sandbox space experience. So I reluctantly registered a trial account.
Immediately it became clear that the legends of EVE’s particular brand of un-intuitive learning cliff were not unfounded—this was not a game you simply jumped into and WASD’d your way around… it was certainly no World of Warcraft. The first time I undocked, it took me a few minutes just to figure out how to point my ship in a different direction. With Aura’s help, one hurdle at a time I got my ship moving around, then warping around, then fighting and mining and doing all the other things. I traveled to adjacent systems. I toiled to afford my first industrial ship and then left it AFK-mining Veldspar with a single Miner I while I went to my university classes, grinning ear-to-ear when I returned to a hold full of riches. Having secured an income of sorts, I gradually progressed into more combat-oriented frigates, ran entry level missions, learned the workings of the market, and so on. I spent many hours simply enjoying the scenery as my Merlin plinked away at mission NPCs.
I was hooked.
EVE had an atmosphere unlike any other game I’d experienced: it was complicated, but didn’t feel grindy, and the time-consuming bits—like skill-training or waiting for ore to accumulate in your ship—were hands-off enough not to cause burnout. The universe was absurdly large, there were more ships and items than I knew what to do with, the visuals and accurate portrayals of size and distances were spectacular… even the sound and music had a very distinctive, special feel. Sometimes I’d just sit on an undock and watch ships go by—Thoraxes and Rokhs which were beyond my wildest aspirations on a T1 frigate-pilot’s income—fantasizing about one day piloting them on unknowable adventures. I knew I would find a way.
My first venture into EVE’s multiplayer aspect was to enlist a pair of real-life friends, form a corporation, and go mining and missioning in highsec. But EVE’s complexity and niche appeal are not to be underestimated, and the attrition was real: within the first week or two, we lost the first friend. Disillusioned with our failing mining venture, my second friend—himself an avid Penny Arcade reader and forum-ite—found an EVE recruitment post for Merch Industrial and suggested we both join. According to my friend, they lived in a lawless, conquerable part of space where players controlled everything. It sounded exciting, so we signed on, sold everything that wouldn’t fit into a Caracal, and set our course for 28Y9-P in Scalding Pass to begin a new spacelife. I had no idea what we were in for.
A CASCADE OF RICHES
Not really, but that’s how it felt the first time my friend and I undocked, headed to our first nullsec asteroid belt and beheld an NPC battleship worth over a million ISK! Of course, we had no idea how to kill it: trying to engage such a behemoth alone was completely out of the question. Still, even splitting the spoils 50/50, we figured we could be in the money. So we teamed up, our shitfit, light missile Caracals (not rapids, mind you—honest to god light missile launchers) pounding away for an eternity at our enemy’s shields. Soon, one of our ships would begin bleeding armor and would need to visit the neighborhood station for a shield re-charge. No matter: as long as the remaining Caracal held the field, our partner would return restored and full of vigor, and eventually the massive pirate ships succumbed to our tag-teaming efforts. It was slow going, but given that each battleship kill amounted to god-knows how many days-worth of highsec mission-running, we felt pretty good about ourselves.
Of course, it wasn’t long before some of New Eden’s less-forgiving game mechanics were visited upon us: this time—if I recall correctly—in the form of a wrathful, player-piloted Vagabond which descended upon us, tearing one of our Caracals to pieces in a manner that put the efforts of the NPC Cyclones and Machariels to shame. Undeterred in our money-making efforts, we rapidly pieced together a replacement Caracal and resumed our long war against the Angel menace, but my curiosity was piqued: how had this player managed to sneak up on us so quickly, and destroy us so decisively? Fighting against NPCs had obviously given us a false sense of our ships’ staying power. Was it really this easy to blow people up? I didn’t know, but I thought it would be fun to find out. The next time a roaming fleet solicited adventurers, I jumped in a poorly-fit Rifter to go do just that.
A LIVING, BREATHING WORLD
My adventures with roaming opened my eyes to a world beyond the one particular part of one particular ratting pipe I had become accustomed to. Beforehand, a simple trip three to five systems away to collect supplies had felt like a serious journey. Now we were traveling thirty, forty, or fifty jumps in an evening, crossing regional boundaries and entering strangers’ lands. I didn’t know who we were fighting or what we were doing, just that as long as we stuck together and moved quickly enough, we usually found people to fight. It might be an ill-fated cargo ship on a gate, or we might catch a battleship fighting NPCs in a belt. If we followed instructions and timed things properly, we’d usually kill someone.
Eventually, our presence in the area would become known to others. As we moved from system to system and kill to kill, we’d begin to notice a few people following us—familiar names in local. Suddenly that force would multiply and we’d find ourselves on the run, frantically gating as fast as we could to make it out: I didn’t have time to think about where we were going, just enter the destination the leader said or warp to the next gate or planet he called out. Sometimes we’d make it, sometimes we wouldn’t. Occasionally we would lose almost everybody, or get camped into a system, and the call would go out to log out in safespots and take a break. Eventually we’d make it home: with our shields, or on them.
Each time I flew one of these sorties, my bloodlust deepened. I hungered for killmails. I dreamt of advancing from my little Rifter into something that could chunk through hostile ships with a few volleys from its massive guns and position itself squarely at the top of killmails. My gameplay experience had shifted: I would still shoot the red plus signs, of course—one must make a living somehow—but I found myself constantly trawling chat channels, looking for other bored people, hoping to manifest another roaming fleet.
A GALAXY IN FLAMES
Unbeknownst to me, I was participating in the opening salvoes of what is now known as the first Great War. Every time I fitted a Rifter, Drake, or Caracal and left the safety of Scalding Pass and Detorid as part of a roaming fleet, I was contributing to the misery of the likes of RISE and Coalition of the Red Moon (or CORM, as they were known in-game, which led to the term “CORM-holing” being used as a colloquialism for roaming), themselves “pets” or vassals of an alliance called Band of Brothers: a group of players who considered themselves the most OG of EVE players, and the most-skilled and best-equipped fighters in the game.
This conflict would quickly spread to engulf the entire South, as Redswarm Federation (an alliance of Goons and Russian groups under the banner of Red Alliance) proceeded to steamroll its way across renter region after renter region, obliterating Band of Brothers’ vassals, destroying BoB’s leader Sir Molle’s prized Avatar-class titan (one of a handful to exist in the game, at that time), and ultimately laying siege to BoB’s home regions of Delve and Querious.
It was EVE’s finest hour. Alliances and nascent coalitions were just becoming large and powerful enough to dominate entire quadrants of the galaxy. Capital and supercapital gameplay were still in their infancy, with dreads and carriers finally becoming a somewhat regular sight in the largest engagements and supercapitals still relegated primarily to the realm of curiosity save for the occasional solo-Titan driveby. While some of the richest entities did manage to field T2 cruiser doctrines some of the time, by and large it was a conflict contested with mixed fleets of battleships, as the first doctrine fleets were developed and streamlined by alliance leadership. For two years the conflict would burn bright, with active operations round-the-clock, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Thousands of structures were contested: so many at times that the list of pending structure reinforcement timers for a single day had to be scrolled through when viewed full-screen. Countless fleets were destroyed in sniping battleship slug-fests that rolled on for hours, and at the periphery of the strategic machinations, small gang fought small gang in a perpetual and seemingly endless existential conflict. This was New Eden in the throes of total war.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
Why are we reading a bittervet’s vague recollections of a war that happened more than ten years ago? The political particulars of this conflict are largely irrelevant to our purpose here: the resulting grudges have faded into memory. Most players today know little of BoB or RSF or the happenings of the first Great War, save that it was monumental in scale (at least for its time) and set the stage for a decade of conflicts to come, as BoB’s former pilots dispersed to various other organizations and repeatedly attempted to best Goonswarm’s iterations in various ill-fated bids for nullsec supremacy. But what can we—as present day EVE players—take away from a study of this conflict? I believe there are some important lessons to be learned related to the game mechanics of the time, how the resulting conflict was fought, and how it felt to be part of that gameworld.
MECHANISMS OF DESTRUCTION
To understand what made the EVE of the mid-to-late 2000’s so radically different from the EVE of today, we need to consider a few significant areas of game design:
- Resource Availability: general abundance of raw materials and production and gathering capacity—how hard is it to produce things and/or make money
- Geography of Wealth: differences in the viability / resource availability of territory—does space appear isotropic, or are there marked differences in the value of different systems and regions?
- Geography of space: is the layout of a region or that region’s position in the gameworld a relevant factor with regard to gameplay? Does it have any significant effects on player behavior?
- Structures and Sov Mechanics: How do players take and hold sovereignty? What benefits does sov-holding confer? How do individual mechanics affect the quantity and distribution of strategic fighting or other player efforts involved in contesting that sovereignty?
- Ships and Weapons: What tools are available to players to enable them to achieve their goals? How do these design choices impact the shape of conflict—both strategic and otherwise?
There will be significant overlap between these discussions—elements of each area will affect the others.
THE ROAD TO EL DORADO
That anecdote about moving to nullsec and struggling to kill Angel belt NPCs in crappy Caracals? Not an accident. The first thing—and possibly the most important thing—I want to talk about is the availability and distribution of resources in the game and the methods of extraction that exist for accessing them.
Compared to the trials of antiquity, the process of accruing wealth in today’s EVE is at once both familiar and completely foreign. Today’s PvE retains the same repetitive interactions and basic behaviors as the PvE of EVE’s early days, but the scope of its rewards and the availability of content is shockingly different. Let’s take a cursory glance at ratting and mining, since those are the most accessible and relevant enterprises for the average nullsec citizen.
MAGIC: THE GATHERING
We all know how ratting works today: each sovereign nullsec system equipped with an infrastructure hub is capable of being upgraded to supply a steady stream of combat anomalies. These anomalies can be run in a variety of ships, from the humble Myrmidon to supercapitals, with the most common contestants these days being VNIs (possibly untrue by the time of publication, thank the gods), carriers, and supercarriers.
While solar system truesec does account for some degree of variation in the types and numbers of anomalies spawned, I think it’s fair to say that any system today can be rendered a viable ratting territory for a few VNIs, while the lower truesec systems can easily support a supercapital or two. Constantly-respawning combat sites mean a continuous supply of ISK: the only limitation on the duration of PvE activity is a player’s tolerance for continued self-flagellation. Once installed in such a system, a player needn’t travel or interact with other players whatsoever to continue making ISK. Should a raider appear, the player need only tether or dock up until the hunters move on. If a player is tackled while flying a capital or supercapital, they can easily drop a cyno and summon FAX support to halt the attack. When the player is finished making money, they can stash their PvE ship in any of the innumerable Upwell structures that seem to litter every system in the galaxy and wander off to participate in some other activity using a travel-spec ship.
THE WAGES OF DESTRUCTION
The sheer amount of ISK generated by today’s anomalies compared to even the best belt-ratting systems of old is staggering. While anomaly rats do have somewhat lower bounties when compared to their open-world brethren, this small bounty penalty is more than offset by anomalies’ omnipresence, rapid respawn rates, and their relative immunity to small-scale player interaction. As the occupant of a sov system, I now have an unlimited supply of identical anoms on very short respawn timers. No player effort is involved in preparing these sites for maximum efficiency: they simply float there in space all day, every day, ready to be harvested. If an enemy player wants to disrupt my farming, they’re hard-pressed to catch me (I’m nearly always able to be aligned to a station while anom farming, since there’s really no incentive to do anything else), and beyond looking scary in local there’s little they can do to interrupt my ISK supply—the moment they leave, I go right back to ratting at the exact same ISK/hour I was before they arrived.
Lastly, the fact that these anoms are present in basically every system, along with most other relevant amenities—stations, jump gates, etc—means a player rarely needs to move around or expose themselves to any kind of travel risk in order to farm. Gone are the days of venturing to the edge of one’s territory to avoid other farmers, taking gates in a PvE ship and then basing out of a personal POS or even a safespot in order to produce dank chains and make a bit of money. Today’s players travel less, make dramatically more ISK from less effort, and do so in considerably more safety and comfort than any pre-Dominion player could dream of. Additionally, all of this is possible regardless of geography: with the right ihub upgrades, any slice of space can be made more or less as productive as any other bit of space.
The same toxic phenomenon is applicable to mining—another activity which was taken out of the belts and dumped into the anomaly system under Dominion. Where belts used to contain relatively small amounts of resources and respawn at downtime, we now have ihub-induced mining sites which heap gargantuan quantities of resources upon the playerbase. While these sites do have more meaningful respawn timers than combat anomalies, the fact that they’re present in every system we care to upgrade and the fact that the quantities of material involved are so gigantic means that again, our mining output is limited more by our ambition and appetite for repetitive gameplay (clearing Dark Ochre, dear god) than anything else.
A CREEPING DEATH
Of course, this resource situation is exacerbated by the fact that CCP chose to give players correspondingly-effective harvesting tools to go along with our new, unlimited resource nodes. Ship power-creep from mechanical changes and ship rebalancing have enabled unprecedented levels of personal wealth. By plopping huge caches of NPCs onto a single grid, CCP encouraged players to PvE in capital and supercapital ships (under belt-ratting, the constant need to align and warp between asteroid belts added an agility component to the ISK/hr equation that rendered smaller, less-powerful ships better-suited). And then there’s the Rorqual, which despite years of nerfs remains both tremendously capable and easy to defend.
Before Dominion, I used to rat in a battleship. Hell, as someone who wasn’t optimized for barge-flying, I remember mining in battleships (and cruisers!) a few times. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with giving players some more focused ship options—I think things like the Venture and re-worked T1 mining barges are great. But the sheer quantity of ISK and ore that experienced players can suck down at minimal personal risk using tools like supercarriers and Rorquals are ridiculous. I have no idea how we can reasonably expect the game to have a healthy economy or ship meta when individual players can mine a carrier’s worth of minerals in a day or two in a barely-assailable Rorqual, or when one can make hundreds of millions of ISK an hour, every hour, ratting in a Hel under a supercap umbrella.
Players’ desire to use incredibly-expensive toys to generate correspondingly-gigantic piles of personal wealth can’t be treated with greater respect than the overall health of the game. I’m all for people owning Titans if that’s what they really want, but that doesn’t mean a Titan needs to be an achievable goal for every player who has a few billion to spend on some Rorquals, and it doesn’t mean we need to make sticking a Titan into a combat anomaly the most profitable ratting scheme in the game. People will still want to have the biggest toys even if there’s no practical or economic argument for having them—there’s no need to give them the kind of gathering prowess they currently possess.
CULLING THE WEAK: INDUSTRIAL-SCALE SLAUGHTER
If the sheer harvesting capacities of Rorquals and supercapitals weren’t reason enough to undertake their acquisition and deployment, let’s not forget that CCP have managed to deploy both the carrot and the stick to heavily incentivize player adoption of these tools. In addition to being well-suited to Dominion-style PvE tasks, capital and supercapital ships also enjoy the distinction of being the only PvE ships in the game that stand any reasonable chance of defending themselves against modern EVE’s most effective sub-capital super-predator: the covert hotdrop gang.
Simply put, blackops bridges as currently implemented represent another massive misstep by CCP. For those unfamiliar—if you exist, in the Year of Our Lord 2019—blackops battleships are currently able to fit a jump portal generator that can be deployed to bridge covert-cloak-packing ships of various descriptions (covops, bombers, Stratii, appropriately-configured T3 cruisers, blockade-runners, etc) to both regular and covert cyno fields. These capabilities allow raiders to enter sov null with trivial ease, and from there effortlessly stage incredibly-effective attacks on nullsec residents’ ships and assets at almost zero risk to the attacker. Cyno ships range from disposable, cloak-warping frigate hulls that are hardly worth the effort to hunt down, to T3 cruisers that can have over a hundred thousand EHP and are practically impossible to interdict. Once a target is located, the only ships that need expose themselves to hostile fire are the hunting ship and a cloud of nimble, cloak-warping bomber hulls worth well-under a hundred million isk apiece. Each bomber can easily deal in excess of 500 dps, even with a basic fitting.
The mechanics of covert drop PvP are fundamentally at-odds with EVE’s historical difficulty level and common sense, and they contribute directly to nullsec’s blue-donut, supercap-umbrella stagnation and general lack of fun by obsoleting subcapital PvE ships entirely. When your enemy can instantly teleport a fleet of impossibly-high-dps frigates on top of your PvE ship that are capable of reducing any subcapital hull to a slag pile in mere seconds, players are highly motivated to procure and deploy capital hulls that are more capable of withstanding an initial assault long enough to summon reinforcements.
A SEDENTARY LIFE
All of these factors contribute to sedentary lifestyles on the part of individual players and player organizations. An overabundance of un-depletable resources means individuals are not motivated to travel around—thus risking unfavorable interactions with other players—to locate resources. The omnipresent threat of blackops hotdrops and the availability of powerful, damage-tolerant ships with which to extract those resources means these resources are gathered at unprecedented rates almost exclusively by capitals and supercapitals at little-to-no risk. And at an organizational level, the fact that basically all space in the game is equally-valuable given the application of a few ihub upgrades means there’s little incentive to contest ownership any particular corner of New Eden: why risk putting my supercap fleet on the field to contest sov when I could simply let my enemy take the region, move my own people elsewhere and be making the same ISK again within a couple of weeks? In our current situation, it’s not the space per-say that makes an organization richer than its competitors: it’s having the ability to defend your farmers from raiders, and in this scenario having the biggest FAX and supercap fleet in the region is of prime importance. Accordingly—as discussed in other articles—maintaining one’s super fleet is always going to appear more important than maintaining sov in any particular place.
This meta has been an absolute disaster for nullsec gameplay. At every turn, CCP have structured nullsec’s game mechanics in ways that have incentivized people to build compact, heavily-defended territories that are at once both heavily resistant to low-level harassment and, at the strategic level, completely expendable and interchangeable. The result has been an almost total lack of strategic conflict, monumental accumulation of wealth on the part of individual players, and a severe lack of interesting content for players that wish to live by the sword.
IF YOU WANNA CURE YOUR HEADACHE, USE A GUN: ENTER HILLMAR’S ~*AGE OF CHAOS*~
Clearly CCP are feeling the heat. Since June, EVE’s beleaguered developers have embarked upon a series of changes allegedly intended to save the EVE economy from a torrent of easy ISK and to revitalize nullsec activity as a whole. While I’ve already written a separate article on this topic (LINK: Shooting the Messenger), suffice to say that since the release of the nullsec Blackout (the first of the “Chaos Changes”) and subsequent announcements and deployments, relevant metrics seem to suggest mixed results: on the one hand, the flood of incoming wealth in terms of ISK and raw materials has been addressed. Although the necessity of an ISK-faucet solution on the heels of the supercarrier fighter nerf early in 2019 which drastically lowered bounty-related income is debatable, the ~*Chaos Changes*~ have certainly been effective in quashing both anomaly-running and mining activity in nullsec.
There’s just one problem: it seems the same changes have also succeeded in stamping out almost everything else. In addition to shockingly-low mining and ratting numbers on the MERs, the Age of Chaos also seems to correspond to a ~33% decrease in peak concurrent users, in addition to numerous more anecdotal accounts of decreased activity in general. Nullsec residents are logging in to find their friends MIA. “Whalers” and hunters in general are logging in to find vast swathes of space devoid of any kind of prey. Despite the fact that nobody seems to be PvEing anymore, no strategic scale PvP activity seems to have taken its place.
It seems to be a classic case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. And there seems to be no end in sight: as I write this article, the September patch is being deployed, bringing with it a nerf to cyno fields obviously designed to make it impractical for players to use FAX and supercapitals to defend their PvE ships. Rather than address the core problems with nullsec gameplay, CCP seem intent on simply stabbing the most convenient, adjacent mechanics until the behaviors they disapprove of die in a fire—regardless of what else happens to get caught up in the resulting conflagration.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? RE-FORGING NULLSEC FOR A VIBRANT FUTURE
What we need from CCP is not a reactionary, suicidal strategy for forcing changes in MER stats. We need a comprehensive revisiting of nullsec’s fundamental game mechanics. Before the Chaos Changes, nullsec had been stagnating for decades and people went ratting. If it was the ratting that caused the stagnation, then CCP’s Chaos Changes might well be effective at restoring the game to its former glory, but it remains my firm belief that CCP are simply shooting the messenger: capital ratting did not cause stagnation. Stagnation caused capital ratting. What else were people supposed to do when CCP’s design teams created a nullsec environment blatantly hostile to other forms of activity? When your playerbase has zero incentive to PvP, zero incentive to build-out larger empires, and not even the possibility of provoking interesting fights for sport, what the hell else do you expect them to do but find ways to get richer?
In the next installation of this series, I want to dissect sov nullsec as it existed during EVE’s finest hour—the First Great War—and extract from that picture some core gameplay elements that I believe were fundamental drivers of nullsec activity that created the vibrant nullsec gameworld so many of us enjoyed during those storied years of EVE’s history. Luckily for me—and thanks to CCP’s efforts—I may have a bit of a captive audience: if you can’t PvE and there’s nobody left in space to PvP, I suppose you’ll have little better to do than read my article.
(Editor’s Note: As indicated in the text, this piece was originally written just prior to the September release, during the Nullsec Blackout, but delayed for a variety of reasons.)