When the Encounter Surveillance System (ESS) was introduced to EVE, one of the stated goals was to create a new source of conflict in nullsec. It largely failed to do so; while the ESS is sometimes used because it increases ratting earnings, it falls far short of widespread conflict generation. As with most EVE problems, the failure happened despite a well-intentioned idea. Giving ratters, players killing NPC pirates for cash bounties, an option to earn more income at the risk of being robbed is exactly the sort of risk/reward decision that makes EVE a standout game. However, and not for the first time, players effectively outsmarted game design to avoid risk, maximize reward, and not get in fights.
A deployed ESS records every rat killed in the system and who killed it. 80% of the bounty payout from the rat is still paid directly to the ratter, along with a small quantity of faction loyalty points. However, the remaining 20% is retained in a system wide pool and this gradually increases to 25% over time if the ESS is left alone. The result is an eventual payout of 105%, or 5% more than could be made without an ESS, plus loyalty points, for a noticeable increase in income.
The cost of this additional payout is that the pool stored in the ESS can be accessed and stolen by anyone, hostile or friendly. Anyone who accesses the ESS is given the option to “share” the pool and pay cash to each player according to their contribution, or to “take all” and have the pool drop as tags that can be sold to NPC buy orders for a fixed amount. The “share” option takes 20 seconds to pay; the “take all” takes 120 seconds. The ESS applies a warp disruption effect to any ship accessing it and has a 15-km warp disruption bubble so accessing one puts a ship at risk. Any ship approaching the ESS triggers a system-wide alert to prevent ninja looting. When the ESS is paid, the bonus resets and has to be built back up, so there is a penalty for emptying one.
At first glance the mechanics appear sound. More risk for more reward and a way for the defender to get their ISK or for a thief to steal it. But once the ESS was released into the game and its full interaction with other game mechanics was tested, players found ways to undermine it.
First and foremost, region-wide intel channels usually give advanced warning of reds. Because it only takes 20 seconds to share an ESS pool out, the defender can just hit the button as soon as reds are reported in the general area. A red has very little chance of finding an ESS with a balance in it when he enters a system.
In the unlikely event that players load grid and see an ESS that has money, they are probably just going to get to watch that balance vanish. A pod can trigger the share option at any time, so a day-old alt can sit next to the ESS and hit share every time reds enter local; so long as somebody ratting in the system has a second account, the ESS is all but risk free.
Even if a parkable pod is not available, there is another option to keep thieves away. An ESS can be anchored in an anomaly, a site where waves of rats spawn based on triggers. After anchoring the ESS, the anomaly is then “hellspawned.” Triggers for the waves of rats are deliberately tripped to maximize the number of NPCs in the site. In order to steal the contents of the ESS, a thief would have to endure the fire of dozens of NPCs for two minutes or engage in a complex dance using multiple ships, tractor units, or their own pods to avoid the rats. This makes theft harder and more time consuming, giving the defender more opportunity to just pay the ESS out and have done with it. In addition, rats don’t shoot pods, so there is no reason not to deploy the ESS in an anomaly and park a pod on it as insurance.
All this taken together means that, other than the defenders being totally asleep at the switch or just plain stupid, there is no way for an ESS to be robbed. This has nothing to do with the defender’s ability or willingness to protect the ESS. It is simply a clever use of game mechanics to minimize risk.
The above does not mean there are not frequent ESS robberies across EVE, or that fights don’t happen over who gets to pay one out. What is described represents a group optimizing their behavior around game mechanics. Many players do not play EVE optimally, but over time optimal practices do become standard across the game. I have never heard of a roam undocking to go out and rob ESS pools; if it happens, it’s because an opportunity arose during some other activity. Although there is no way to prove it, there’s a fair chance that prior to CCP patching drone aggression mechanics the Mobile Tractor Unit was responsible for more destruction than the ESS by a wide margin.
The three obvious fixes here—making rats shoot at an ESS, requiring more than a pod to use the share option, or making the share option take longer to pay out—would not generate more conflict. With greater risk but no more reward, the ESS would just be used less. Instead, a more radical overhaul is needed to get the ESS to serve its stated purpose.
A new ESS could either replace the current one or be introduced as a “high-grade” version, leaving the current one intact. In order to function properly, a High-Grade ESS (HGESS) would have the following properties:
- It would be unanchorable anywhere but “empty” space, which has no structures, rats, or anything else that could be gamed to protect it without active player involvement.
- The pool could only be withdrawn during a fixed window, at intervals, and on a fixed schedule—every 4 hours, for example. This would prevent the defender from simply mashing the pay button every time a threat got anywhere near them.
- If the pool was not paid out during the window, the balance would simply roll over and continue to accrue until the next window came along.
- Paying the HGESS out would require more than 20 seconds for anyone and could be easily interrupted by the attacker.
- The balance stored in each HGESS and the time until the next payout window would be visible from the star map to every player in EVE.
- The HGESS would be low cost and easy to haul, so deploying them in large numbers would be practical even for a small organization.
- Alternately, instead of the above option, an HGESS would cover multiple systems or even a constellation. Ideally, it would prevent any other ESSes of any type from being deployed in its footprint.
- Finally, and most importantly, since this version of the HGESS would have much higher risk associated with it, the payout would have to be much higher—ideally high enough to support a much higher population density in a small area.
Anyone willing to fight other players over resources should be rewarded; conflict is the lifeblood of EVE. The current mechanics effectively punish anyone engaged in PvE for fighting back when reds roll through; gangs looking for fights will return to where they got them on the last roam. Fighting back just makes you a bigger target. Instead, players disperse and safe up the instant a red enters local, and so we have the vast empty nullsec of today. The HGESS would give players something to fight over; to use a popular metaphor, a system with an HGESS would be a farm and the bounty pool would be a field raiders could burn.
If a group wanted fights, they could deploy an HGESS as a “Come Get Some” sign and then go about their ratting; let the bounty grow high enough and every payment interval fights would be delivered to their door like pizzas. Alternately, the HGESS could be used offensively to punish corps who refuse to fight. Right now, a small but effective lowsec corp, surrounded by corps who refuse to fight under any circumstances, just has to endure the frustration. With the HGESS, they could at least impact the ratters’ bottom line and profit by it.
Nullsec has problems that go far deeper than the current ESS not working properly, but fixing it would be a small step in the right direction. In its own way, the ESS is a micro example of a macro trend: CCP implementing game mechanics that have admirable goals but don’t work as intended once players have a chance to explore their boundaries and discover weaknesses. Ironically, CCP is at a huge disadvantage here in that a few game designers are forced to compete with the combined efforts of thousands of players who constantly strive to find new and better ways to exploit the rules. Hopefully the new six-week release cycle will enable CCP to look back and fine tune new features to take into account player behavior as it evolves and adapts.
This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by FearlessLittleToaster.