One of the main pillars of games, and one of the most central concepts in EVE, is that of progression, the grind. Whether that’s progressing through the story or climbing the ranks of the leader board we want to feel like we have gone somewhere and achieved something.
Due to the fact that EVE has no real end goal – other than the proverbial ‘I won by quitting’ – it relies, instead, on the player deciding the goal for themselves. Games like this use progression methods, such as money or skills, to nudge a player in the right direction, but really capturing the ‘goal’ is very difficult.
The Threat of Loss
Take Minecraft for example. In Minecraft you spawn into a world with little story to it. What you do is really up to you. So how does it keep the player engaged? If you are not told what to do how does it provide a sense of direction? It’s the progression. From wood to stone to iron to diamond. You are entranced as you progress further away from spawn and fight harder and harder mobs. But Minecraft ultimately has an end to it. Once the final boss is defeated the majority of players will move on.
Take another example, Rust. In Rust you also spawn into an unfamiliar area with little story. EVE shares this, along with a focus on interactions with other players and with the complete lack of predetermined end goal. Rust builds itself on the idea of rising to the top. The threat of loss is always there. Your base could get raided and your loot taken. You could get killed and lose your loot. This is all very similar to EVE, where much of the same things happen, just on a larger scale. So if they are so similar then what motivates the players on Rust should shed some light on the motivation within EVE.
But that’s the problem. After reading numerous steam reviews and talking to friends who play Rust, the only answer we find is something like “it’s fun.” Undoubtedly the progression is fun, from start to goal, but the exact hook that really engages the player remains unknown. As someone said a while back, “progression must make the player feel like they are going somewhere without giving them an overpowered advantage.”
This is very important to the health of a game because too much power in the hands of the progressed stops the player from enjoying the game, as no matter what he does the progressed player will always have an overwhelming advantage. Too little, and the player feels like progression is a bridge too far and that they should not waste their effort.
An example of the latter would be Ark Survival. A sandbox game with minimal story, Ark is similar to the previous examples given. It was basically known as ‘Minecraft with dinosaurs’. But Ark was also known to be a bit of a failure. As players of Ark will tell you, this was not a role model game. Its progression was long and slow – making simple bases was a chore. The blueprint system didn’t help either. You had to grind levels just to access the next level of items.
Every ounce of progression was locked behind a wall of grinding for meagre amounts of XP. What really put the nail in the coffin, however, was the design flaws and bugs that plagued the experience. You spent hours grinding for that base? To bad a t-rex spawned inside it and half you base was destroyed. This culmination of design flaws, bugs and exhausting grind made the game tiring to play and not very fun.
When we turn the lens back to EVE, the two can be compared. While EVE’s progression can be slow and exhausting, the game does not restrict you to the slow and steady, and gives you a variety of ways to make money, depending on how skilled you are. EVE has bugs, but CCP is usually quick to reimburse a player for losses they suffer due to bugs. CCP also understands that making ISK too quickly could be the death of the game, as what value is a loss when it can be gained back in no time at all. The game then loses all its meaning as that progression is ruined.
To look at this in practice, we can look at the ship tree in EVE. You will start with the frigates and you will slowly make you way up the chain until you reach capitals. It’s not an easy process. It will require time and money, and thus will require grind, but it’s achievable.
Less What You Get, More What You Make of It
Each milestone seems to bring a new reward with it to keep you going. When you hit cruisers you will be able to go in ESS, when you hit battlecruisers you can use command bursts, when you hit battleships you have frigate escape bays and when you reach caps you can jump. All that seems pretty cool to a new player, but none of these milestones give you a massive advantage, and each advantage they with comes with a cost as well.
Perhaps the ‘goal’ in EVE is less about what someone accumulates – ISK, ships, etc. – and more about what they make of each milestone. On my first cap I thought that was the greatest achievement I could get. It was definitely cool to see the last two-months efforts take physical form, but it was not what I thought it would be. The true reward came when I first dropped that cap. To see my efforts truly do something, that was when I knew I hit the sweet spot. Similarly, when my friend trained into a Hecate he was not too fussed, but when he went on a solo roam that all changed.
The progression in EVE may not be the final goal for a player. The true reward may be what they make of that progression. What feat can they achieve. EVE is less about our actions and more about what can come of those actions, and when we look back at all the crazy things we did with that progress, we hardly remember the grind at all.