Not long ago I was relaxing on an Imperium gate-camp a few jumps out from Hakkonen. Trying (and failing) to catch another insta-warping, interdiction proof interceptor.
Interceptors provide a relatively cheap method for players to cross the galaxy quickly, without the need of assistance or infrastructure. Assuming they are piloted and fitted correctly, they are almost impossible to catch, but they also lack the firepower to combat anything bigger than a frigate on their own. Interceptors are one of many examples of CCP introducing a mechanic which can insulate a player from risk, but also come with a reduction in potential reward (in this case, the combat effectiveness of the ship). In a sandbox MMO where player conflict is the main generator of content, setting up the mechanics of the sandbox to properly balance risk and reward should be one of the key goals of the development team.
Doing Risk Wrong
I was a player at launch of the now forgotten MMO “Darkfall Online”. The game, which released in 2009, sold itself as a game with the most brutal PVP mechanics possible. PVP could occur anywhere in the game at any time and if you died, you lost everything you had. This was a game that got the risk/reward balance fundamentally wrong, skewing far too heavily towards providing players with no ability to insulate themselves from risk.
As a try-hard teenager in 2009, I thought the idea of a game of constant risk with hardcore lethal PVP would be amazing; I eagerly bought the game on launch day. In principle, constant risk might even sound like a good idea. However, after loading into the game for the first time, I was soon ridden down by some higher level player in full armour on horseback. This was a constant occurrence; you couldn’t advance in the game for more than 30 minutes before being killed and having your progress reset. Small numbers of high-level players waited around the starting area, eagerly looking to grief new players.
By providing no ability for new players to insulate themselves from risk as they learnt the game mechanics, it was impossible to ease new players into the game. There are useful, low skill-point roles for a new player in large groups in EVE; new players in Darkfall were always at a disadvantage. This made them easy targets for griefers. Additionally, because of the extreme penalty for losing in PVP, it was difficult to organize players into functional alliances. Whenever you would walk from town to town, players would be constantly killing one another. The risk of trusting anyone was so high and just in case they stabbed you in the back as soon as you turned around, it was never rational to work together. Player groups from outside the game formed gangs and quickly dominated anyone who joined the game alone.
The game quickly entered a fail-cascade, losing the majority of its player-base, which never became particularly big. I certainly didn’t renew my subscription after the first month. It had a small but loyal follower base that eventually could not sustain the cost of servers, even with a relatively expensive monthly fee. The servers closed in 2012 – only a few years after they opened. The game fundamentally failed in my opinion because of its “no hand-holding” attitude. This meant imbalance which ultimately resulted in most new players’ lack of interest in the game. Imbalance is not something you want when operating on a subscription model.
The problem with Darkfall Online was that there wasn’t an interesting risk/reward dynamic. A key mechanic of games, whether it’s Blackjack or EVE Online, is the tension between taking on more risk for potentially more reward and the interesting decisions that arrive from that choice. In Darkfall Online, it was just risk and more risk. The only reward was getting to live with what you had collected for another day. All the progress you have made could be lost in one bad combat encounter or an encounter with a larger mob of enemies. The cost of death made the game incredibly unsatisfying; while enjoyable at first, its constant risk was eventually just tiring.
Why Is Risk Good?
I’ve outlined the problems with too much risk, but why is risk good? Most importantly, risk in-game creates interesting decisions and allows people to find their niche in the sandbox. Assuming the developers have designed their mechanics with depth, including tools and game-play styles can mitigate this risk. If a player is willing to invest the time to learn these mechanics, they will be able to leverage this knowledge to their benefit and advantage – creating a niche game-play style for themselves.
A perfect example of this is Red Frog, an in game corporation that specializes in using jump freighters to move items around New Eden. To move large volumes of in game items around, you must fly large, slow, and defenseless transport ships. However, flying these ships in certain ways, learning which systems to avoid, how to fit the ships, and what to do if you run into hostiles can greatly improve your ability to survive. These risk mitigation skills allow a skilled jump freighter pilot, in a corporation like Red Frog, to be more likely to survive than a random player that hasn’t invested the time into researching and learning these aspects of the game. This allows Red Frog players to charge other players a premium fee to move their goods around the universe. These space-truckers use their risk mitigation skills they have learned to develop a playstyle distinct from anyone else in the game. It is a playstyle they enjoy and they are paid by other players who themselves might specialize in a different aspect of the game. If freighters could travel completely risk-free around the galaxy, there would be no incentive to hire someone at a premium to move freight for you; the playstyle simply wouldn’t exist.
Risk also stops the game stagnating in times of peace. While that might not seem like a problem right now, with half the galaxy currently locked in war, it is an important issue to think about if we don’t want the game to stagnate the next time it reverts back to more peaceful times. Allowing players to pose a risk to one another encourages content generation. If every ship in the game was untouchable like the interceptor, there would be no point forming up a group to go hunting for other players. Being able to pose a risk to other players is a driver of quick form content that keeps the game interesting. Therefore, risk mitigation mechanics should only ever increase your chance of survival, not guarantee it.
Doing Risk Well
So, if too little risk ruins the ability for players to find their niche and too much risk ruins the incentive for long term investment into the game, the solution must lie somewhere between those two positions, right? The answer is maybe more complex than that. So how do you design good risk mechanics in a sandbox MMO?
Firstly, on its own, risk is not an interesting mechanic in games. Both slot-machines and poker are games about risk with arguably the second one being more interesting. How? It provides decisions for the players to be able to control, to increase, or mitigate that risk. The real question then is how does a designer make these decisions interesting? Firstly, make risk mitigation in a particular field an expertise that players can invest their time in. I return again to freighter piloting because it is done incredibly well here. Good freighter pilots will have spent hours analysing kills for different systems to draw up the quickest and safest route to their destination. They have analysed station undocks to avoid bumps when they cyno in and set instadock bookmarks. All of this is work that someone puts in to learn the game mechanics. In return, that effort feels fulfilling once they complete a run successfully. These mechanics also encourage counter-play. While these mechanics might help you avoid individual opportunistic gankers, it still provides a space for other players to be a genuine threat if they are willing to also invest the time into learning the mechanics. Anyone who has been on a CODE or Miniluv fleet knows ganking a freighter is a highly technical art form. Letting players develop their own strategies for risk mitigation within the game mechanics is better than simply introducing modules that protect them from risk. Because it allows for player creativity and expertise. It also discourages large groups from simply fitting the module and making up the lost effectiveness with greater numbers.
Secondly, it’s okay for the mechanics to hold the hands of new players to begin with – as long as it encourages them to develop as players. In high-sec space, this is done excellently. It provides an area where anyone who attacks a player will themselves also be destroyed by an in-game police force. This gives an area where new players can get comfortable with the game mechanics without feeling at risk from other players. It is liberating for most players to have the game let them know that they can take the learning process at their own pace and won’t be punished heavily for any mistakes.
Rather than simply banning aggressive actions in high-security space and rather than simply designating zones where combat mechanics are disabled, putting the aggressor at risk of destruction is a much better mechanism. Firstly, it maintains the key theme of Eve; the idea that EVE is a sandbox which provides the tools, but lets players choose their actions. The possibility to attack someone is always there, ensuring the rules of the sandbox remain the same in High-Sec. Secondly, it provides protection for new players in cheap ships but also allows a space for determined players to attack high-level players flying vessels like Jump Freighters if they are willing to accept the loss of their ship as well. This along with mechanics like war-decs, which allow players to shoot at each other in high-sec without reprisal, ensures that high-sec isn’t perfectly safe for high-level players. This provides more incentive to shift out of what should primarily be a new player area.
Despite my praise, one of the things EVE gets wrong with high-sec is the process that should eventually cut the umbilical cord and push those new players out into low and null sec space. While null sec news dominates the headlines in EVE and these more dangerous areas provide the most interesting gameplay, low sec, null sec, and wormhole space players actually make up a tiny minority of players in EVE as a whole. Certainly more than half of players in EVE never leave high-sec, for a long period of time, and experience what these other regions have to offer. Part of the cause of that is the way CCP designs the game. You are constantly reminded from the start that high sec is safe; whereas the rest of the game is this scary no-mans land where you’ll die at any moment. You even receive a warning as you prepare to jump out of high-sec for the first time – warning you of the dangers. This discourages players from enjoying the thrill of putting a little risk on the line and exploring these spaces. Perhaps CCP should take a little note from the casino industry. Rather than discouraging players from taking a risk, CCP should encourage them, let them know that these more risky spaces are where the fun is to be had. CCP should encourage players with more lucrative starter missions to get the player used to jumping a few systems into low sec in a cheap ship; maybe even CCP should give them a fitted, speedy, and interdiction proof ship and ask them to drop it off in low sec. I still remember the heart-pounding thrill of those first tentative steps out of safe space – that was part of the EVE hook. CCP should make taking risks part of the learning experience for new players rather than completely insulating them from it. Doing the latter only builds the psychological wall against progress in the game after high-sec content has sated the players. EVE is only a video game and encouraging a player to do something that means losing a ship isn’t the end of the world. One may even argue that players dropping out from the boredom of high-sec has killed more subscriptions than a player losing their ship in low-sec.
Finally, the mechanics you place in the game to allow players to mitigate risk shouldn’t reduce game play opportunities for other players. This is my problem with current areas of CCP design. The first is the near uncatchable fleets of tier 3 cruisers and interceptors. These ships can be fitted to make them nearly impossible to engage – other than on the terms of the group flying them. This reduces gameplay opportunities for the opposing fleets – who otherwise could set up traps and gate camps to catch these groups. Allowing ships like interceptors to be more easily caught by certain ships would allow for more interesting counterplay. One scenario might be letting defenders blind opposing FCs by taking out their scouts and then baiting them into a trap. This possibility is reduced if you can have uncatchable, cloaking scouts in most systems around you. This is also a problem with the current Citadel mechanics, which allows the owners to choose the time the structure will be vulnerable. While this was initially proposed to increase the likelihood of fights, lots of citadels just end up being placed as vulnerable in time zones that enemies are rarely active – like deep into the Australian peak time when most EU and US time zone players are at work or asleep.
Risk mechanics in games are at their best when they encourage players to invest in a deep understanding of the game and promote a counter play that similarly relies on a deep understanding of the game mechanics. This is what creates an engaging interaction between players. It provides the incentive for players to take deep dives into the game, really invest themselves, and makes success more meaningful. Tools for mitigating risk can provide an important way for new players to learn the mechanics safely, but it is important to design them carefully and try to reduce their exploitation by veteran players. Otherwise, the game can risk stagnating with a lack of meaningful content.