Talos Speaks: CCP’s Masterplan

Dirk Stetille 2020-01-17

Header art by Quendan Comari.

Just to be clear, we talked to Team Talos member CCP Masterplan. We didn’t get CCP’s master plan. We’re good, but we’re not gods here, folks. So Arrendis and I sat down with CCP Masterplan to talk about the team and how things were going. And now that we’re past the clickbait, read on!

Ahead of CCP’s January release initially slated for Jan. 14, we had the opportunity to sit down and discuss all things Talos with Masterplan, ranging from Masterplan’s history at CCP and the origins of Team Talos, through their previous releases, and into some of Talos’ future plans. This article is not the complete transcribed interview, as that was more than eight thousand words of meandering discussion in total, but is representative of the discussion and the topics we covered. For the sake of transparency, we should also mention that our conversation was a wide-ranging discussion of many topics, and this article is organised to be a thematic progression instead of a chronological account of the interview.

Masterplan and the Formation of Talos

So who is CCP Masterplan? As he put it, Masterplan is “a gameplay programmer”, which he explained as, “the majority of what I do is actual programming but a good chunk of what I do is gameplay work,” taking ideas from concept through to implementation.

A ten-year veteran with CCP, he’s worked on a number of projects, including the Crimewatch overhaul in 2012. In the years since, he has been a constant member of Team Five-0, until the formation of Team Talos last year.

That came as part of a mass shake-up at CCP, which saw all of the development teams reorganised. The change brought together CCPs Rise, Masterplan, Paradox and Trashmob, alongside CCP Nomad, who will be a new name for many players. CCP Nomad is a Senior GM focusing on Customer Support for Talos, but is also trying his hand at some balancing and tiericide development work.

Their focus is as a “rapid iteration model, focused mainly on older than 30-day players”. This is all part of the concept that “there should always be something new within the next few weeks, but something different that people can be looking forward to.” Talos has “a fairly wide mandate to work on very different aspects of the game,” though Talos wouldn’t touch features owned by other teams without the involvement of those teams. With that said, “any existing gameplay feature that has been out there for a fair while” is a valid candidate for Talos’ particular brand of iteration.

According to Masterplan, Team Talos has been “one of the learnings of the Chaos Era” from last year. He went on to describe Talos as “a slightly more refined way of doing [Chaos].”

Team Talos in 2019

In 2019, Team Talos released seven different updates to Tranquility. These ranged from Warp Drive Active in October to mid-December’s Naughty or Nice holiday event. The next release would have come on Christmas Eve, but CCP do not publish TQ updates across the holidays for obvious reasons. Instead, Team Talos sent the EVE Playerbase their Season’s Greetings devblog, looking back at the work so far, and hinting at the future.

Masterplan didn’t offer any comments on some of the finer details, saying things like ship balance were “probably more Rise’s area”. However, he did indicate that the team is committed to not letting things sit too long if a previous change doesn’t achieve their goals. “If something was out of line, it’s not going to be six months or a year before we get back to looking at it again. There’s a bit more of a ‘go fast and respond to things’.”

“The structure changes that we did, the reinforcement work, we actually had another half of that which was to do with the interaction between tethering and reinforcement and so on, which we actually pulled from the release because it wasn’t in a good enough place to go out with. So that’s one where we’re continuing to iterate on the designs of that and we’ll come back to that one at some point further down the line.”

One feature that Talos definitely intends to iterate on is the reindeer filaments. Masterplan said that Talos “were just overblown with how people took to these and the response to them.” He also said that this event bucked the typical usage trends for event engagement. Normally, a release will have “a huge spike at the start, and then it kind of tails down and trends off as people use it.” Instead, these reindeer filaments had some staying power. “The numbers that were using them on day ten or twenty were the same as were using them on day five, almost.”

A remaining area of uncertainty is whether the filaments would remain as popular if they were always available. “So do we make it universally available, or do we maybe restrict it more for special events, or do we have some basic level that’s always in the game, and then experiment with different flavours for different events.”

Either way, according to Masterplan, “it’s not gonna go away forever.”

The Process Approach

One thing that players often don’t have is the ability to see how CCP approach development on the ground level. We have some stories from the Council of Stellar Management, and of course CCPers will make presentations on behalf of their teams at Fanfest and other events, but the way development is prioritised and conducted is generally kept behind a curtain. CCP Masterplan was kind enough to offer a glimpse behind that curtain and discuss both his approach to problem-solving when it comes to Team Talos and also some of the methods that CCP use across the company.

Quality Control

Often in software development, systems that seem fine in initial testing encounter additional hiccups when released into the live environment. Thousands of people banging on code have a very different effect than even the most dedicated testers can produce. But Talos releases have been very smooth and bug-free by the time they reach the Tranquility servers. We asked Masterplan if he had any insights into how that’s been achieved.

His response was that Talos “don’t do anything different from any other team. We have the same process, we have an embedded QA in the team, and then we also roll in our external QAs and outsourced partners that we work with. I think possibly it’s that we’ve chosen our battles more carefully, maybe, to give ourselves the advantage of doing that.” He added that changes, “that are balancing-based are mostly testable because it’s ship attributes and they tend to be either right or wrong. Probably a more complex one would be the structure changes, the Kicking Over Castles. That kind of change is harder to test at scale because a lot of it is emergent mechanics. I think so far it’s mostly been that we’ve chosen the features to suit the bandwidth we have available.”

The Complexity of Tiericide

One of the real concerns in live development is always unintended consequences. Side-effects happen, after all. The best-known case of this in EVE is the legendary spaghetti-code for Player-Owned Starbases, or POSs. POS code is notorious for breaking the game in unexpected and seemingly unconnected ways whenever CCP has tried to update it. That’s a big reason the structures overhaul introduced completely new systems with the Upwell structures. And Team Talos’ projects aren’t completely immune. Take, for example, module tiericide.

Whaticide?

Module tiericide has come into Talos’ profile as the teams were reorganised. Prior to Talos, tiericide had been the on-again, off-again pet project of CCPs Rise and Fozzie, which began all the way back in 2014. Pre-tiericide module groups had a clear progression: meta level. Basic Tech I modules were Meta Level 0. Additional T1 ‘meta’ modules ran from Meta Level 1-4, and the Tech II versions sat at Meta Level 5.

While the names were confusing, the progression was simple: higher meta level = better module. This meant that in each group, until a character could use Tech II, there was a clear ‘best in class’ choice, subject to cost and market availability.

In tiericide, the modules were overhauled and rebalanced. The aim, as CCP Fozzie said in 2014, was to “make sure that every module is useful.” Instead of modules progressing in all aspects, each module was given its own strength. Where one meta shield extender takes less fitting space, another has a reduced signature increase, and so on.

Additionally, confusing module names were replaced with simple, consistent naming schemes that make clear what the strength of each module is. Those that take less fitting space as “compact”. Less capacitor cost earns “enduring”. And modules with reduced drawbacks are “restrained”.

But with that clarity comes the unintended side effect: which meta module is ‘better’? That depends on what you need. This is a good thing, and it gives players more flexibility, but for new players, it can make what had been a clear progression into a bewildering array of ‘too many options’. Module names and roles became simpler and clearer. Learning to fit ships—already one of the most complex parts of the “EVE Learning Cliff”—became much harder and more complex.

Tiericide Moving Forwards

We asked Masterplan if Talos was concerned at all by the additional complexity, especially the increased difficulty of teaching newer players about the basic principles of fitting a ship well. What came out of this was an interesting and new piece of information: CCP have “another group in [Talos’] same sector, which is looking at that as a longer-term solution.”

Masterplan elaborated that there are “two scales” to the progression of the tiericide project. “One is what this team is doing, with kind of a longer term view of what does meta level mean in terms of progression and how do you choose what you want to fit or how do you teach a person, and then the other half is just straight tiericide continuing with the lines we had before, where instead of a linear progression of modules within a group, there’s no one objectively better version – there’s a better fitting one, a better damage one, a better whatever makes sense for that module type. So in the short term, that’s what we’ll be doing, definitely.”

Keeping Cadence

Masterplan also commented that the two-week release cadence has been working very well so far. He also noted that Talos “don’t start work, finish it in two weeks and release it”, instead having “three or four things in parallel going on at any time” to build up a backlog of releases. Masterplan also revealed that some features have less pressure to be perfect out of the gate.

The example he provided was the October ‘Trick or Treat’ release, which was “from the start designed to have a time limit”. Because it was time restricted, “if [Talos] found that it was a terrible thing that we should never have done, it doesn’t really matter because it’s not gonna be forever.” This particular release moved the percentage chance of items being dropped as loot to 100%. However, “pretty quickly [Talos] realised it would have possibly been more interesting, instead of a 100% guaranteed drop, it would have been 99% chance of a full drop and 1% chance of no drop. So if we do that event again, we may tweak on it that way.”

And all in all, that seems to fit the Talos philosophy: change, done right, is good. Even changes to Talos’ approach.

The January Release

Masterplan was initially guarded about the January release, for understandable reasons. EVE is a very cut-throat game, and players often seek any advantage they can get. CCP, on the other hand, need to keep the game fair, and like all devs, Masterplan takes that responsibility seriously. Once he understood that nothing would be published until after the main January patch, he opened up a little.

Team Talos’ involvement in the Jan. 16 patch is two-fold. The first part of the release is “an interesting experiment with this, in that we have a tiericide theme that we’re doing. We’re also tying in with another team that’s working on an event dungeon, so they are doing a piece of dungeon content which ties into the storyline, which ties into the tiericide.” This collaboration with Team Event Horizon demonstrates that while Talos may be working on balance and gameplay issues as their primary role, they are also involved in shaping the wider future of EVE’s story.

The big teaser from the holiday devblog is the second half of Talos’ contribution to the early January patch. When asked about this, all Masterplan had to say was that the Sansha aspect was tied into the event aspect “a little”. Could it be the long-awaited shield slaves? “We’ve never talked about that feature before, so I don’t know where people get the idea that that might be a thing at all from, right?” (Hint: It’s never shield slaves. Until it’s shield slaves. Wouldn’t you know? It was shield slaves!)

It Would Fit The Theme, Wouldn’t It?

Despite his reticence to discuss the details of the imminent patch, one of the recurring comments that came through during our hour together was that a particular discussion topic ‘would fit the theme’ of CCP’s Q1 2020 focus, entitled ‘Fight or Flight’. Our understanding of this quarter’s focus is that there will be a developer push to revisit PvP areas of EVE Online in a number of ways, and Masterplan had some interesting perspective on this. Of course, almost anything you can think of regarding spaceships blowing up would potentially fit this theme, but Talos appears to be focused on the aspects of ships blowing up (or not blowing up) that are causing some of the most obvious stagnation in the EVE universe right now. Certain items were even touched on in the Season’s Greetings devblog.

Logistics

The first one listed was combat logistics ships. As most experienced EVE players know, logistics provides an immense force multiplier. Bring enough, and nobody dies. Don’t bring enough, and you lose. There’s no point even undocking. This trend reaches its apex in Force Auxiliaries, which CCP have already made efforts to address. We asked whether the team has any particularly radical solutions on the table to address this binary aspect of flying combat logistics ships. The answer came in two halves.

“One is just the basic mechanics of how reps work, I think probably the last mechanics change was probably when we added the diminishing returns sometime in the middle of last year. that was an actual mechanic change, we haven’t gone back really and tweaked the numbers on that yet, but that’s one area where we have a possibility to balance numbers.”

“The other half of it, then, is a more meta side of it, which is the process of escalation – how easy is it to take a fax out of a fight long-term once it’s set up in that critical mass level. Some of those might be a case of tackling it from the escalation point of view, like the cyno changes. is it trying to get a better rock/paper/scissors balance for subcaps, caps, remote reps, supers, that level. There are things that we’re looking at […] in our prime sight line that we have plans for.”

Low-Risk PvE

What is ‘low-risk PvE’? Different players will almost certainly have different ideas when they hear that phrase. When we asked Masterplan, even he acknowledged that “everyone thinks that everybody else is getting it easy, so there is a kind of ‘grass is always greener on the other guys feature or gameplay area’”. Then, he turned it right back around to ask what we considered ‘low-risk’.

In general, the consensus that emerged was ‘solved’ PvE—playstyles where people can more or less autopilot their way through the content and process of making money, even if they’re at the keyboard. Examples included nullsec ratting, Sansha incursions, FW missioning and de-plexing, and everyone’s favourite grr-piñata: Rorquals.

Masterplan had an interesting take on it: “is that a problem of the ship or a problem of the PvE that it’s used for?” In our opinion, that’s a good question to ask. It demonstrates Talos is looking at deeper issues, rather than immediately lashing out with the nerf bat. While there’s a lot to be said about how the Rorqual changes went in, they did go in. At this point, Team Talos, and all of us, have to focus on how to move forward from here. And on that, Masterplan had this to say: “That’s definitely one of the ones that’s on the radar. As for a sort of order of those, I’m not sure when or how that would rank against, say, cap and supercap PvP balance or something like that, but it’s one of those ones that comes up a lot, so we’re definitely aware of that one.”

Which brings us to the other half of that statement.

Capital and Supercapital changes

At the moment, a lot of people feel supercapital umbrellas are one of the things causing the most stagnation. In 2019, Beat Around The Boosh touched the Bosonic Field Generator module a little, and now it doesn’t annihilate Interceptors and Assault Frigates in a single cycle. We asked Masterplan whether any other modules feel particularly oppressive, and if there was anything in that vein that he would like to tackle.

“Probably fighters, I guess. Not strictly a module, but close enough,” was his immediate response. “I would say that because they apply at many different scales and they don’t necessarily scale well, I think they would be a good place to start on one of the next rounds of changes. What else would there be? Just looking over some of our scratches… Maybe the HAW Guns, as well.”

HAW guns, or High-Angle Weaponry, have already seen one balance pass in the last year, with damage bonuses moving from the guns themselves to dreadnought-based Siege modules. “The idea was,” according to Masterplan, “set them under siege to be where they were, and then out of siege to reduce their power a little.”

This had the side-effect of reducing Titan power slightly. Whether Titans and HAWs need further rebalance is something Masterplan indicated could be looked at in the future. He added, though, that “Features tend to creep upwards, and in this case, upwards always leads to a Titan, right?”

However, rebalancing Titans will almost certainly have to come with a Supercarrier pass, as well. “I think probably support [fighters] is the bigger imbalance that probably wants looking at, given that—especially on supers—your fighters can be your support as well as everything else all in one. Rather than relying on giving different people different roles, you can be all of the roles at once, and I think that’s where a lot of issues come from. Whether we lower the number of tubes, or we take out the support tubes altogether, or just nerf the fighters, I don’t know, but I think that’s probably going to be where I would say the biggest bang for the buck would be to begin with.”

Closing Thoughts

Part of what makes EVE Online special is the nature of EVE Online. Like anything else that endures for decades, it doesn’t stay the same. It can’t. But there’s always a sense of continuity, and CCP Masterplan illustrates that change-but-continuity well. Team Talos is named for a figure from Greek Mythology, a great bronze automaton made to patrol the island of Crete. Similarly, Talos will be patrolling EVE Online, alert to problems and worries, and addressing them as effectively as possible.

In the past, that role was often filled by Team Five-0, so perhaps it’s fitting that Masterplan— one of the few constants on that team—is on Talos now. When we asked him about the closure of Team Five-0 following his departure, he said that it happened, “not because it was my team, but because… What’s it called, the Ship of Theseus, where it was a ship, but every bit of wood on the ship had been swapped out, and ultimately, is it the same ship or not? The joke was that I was the last bit of continuity, and so when Talos came up as an idea, and I said I’d be interested in joining it, I jokingly said that if I leave the team, you know you’re gonna have disband the team, right? And then a bit later on, it turned out that we were actually going to disband the team and reform all of the teams, so I kind of felt a little bit guilty about that. That was kind of sad to split the team up, but again, in another way, it was healthy to keep things from becoming too stagnant.”

Keeping things from becoming too stagnant. Sounds like a theme around EVE these days.

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Comments

  • Alaric Faelen

    A lot of talking points but I still don’t see anything that addresses lack of conflict drivers. I don’t see anything grander than pointless brawls and the hope that shaking easy kills in front of players like keys in front of an infant will distract them from the reality of the ship sinking around them.

    CCP still doesn’t get it. They are still incapable of thinking outside of this ‘small gang’ obsession they are on. In other words, fights that mean absolutely nothing. They might as well be arranged duels at the sun for all it makes a difference whether some random torp bomber gang sacks an AFK Rorq. This is not epic gameplay set in a far reaching sandbox- it’s slap fights between groups that have giant armadas of capital ships….doing nothing. The only thing to do with them was rat- and CCP decided that was bad too.

    CCP is all happy with how many people used the filaments- but doesn’t say WHO used them. Is this the spark that high sec care bears finally needed to take a risk and PvP? Or…is it the exact same people that already PvP and just used wormholes to get places?

    Because if that’s the case, then they’ve made ZERO IMPACT other than saving someone the time of probing down a WH chain. CCP can break their arms patting themselves on the back- but the people I’ve seen pop up in Delve on filaments are the same people that took wormholes to Delve before filaments so what has CCP actually accomplished?
    Still no REASON to go shoot someone other than killmail collection. Still no stakes other than some isk loss. Still nothing larger than some smack talk in local and ships SRP’d before their timers are even down. Still more random slap fights instead of strategic objectives.
    If anything, the popularity of filaments is probably a bad sign. One, there is no major conflict driver to create fights organically so we have to rely on gimmicks. Two, there isn’t even a concern by CCP on a larger strategic element to Eve Online, so we get teleported to totally random locations for pointless brawls because…PvP doesn’t matter regardless of where we do it. Three, we are so starved for content that if CCP didn’t limit the number of ships for each filament, every fleet would have been 254 people. The rest of Eve has stagnated or is just plain bad, so even bad PvP gets people piling in, hoping that something….anything…happens.

    January 17, 2020 at 9:16 PM
    • Axhind Alaric Faelen

      This has been the problem for years since the Reddit brigade is all elite pvp crowd that wants easy ganks and cries to CCP as soon as someone shoots back. That’s why cynos were nerfed, why titans were nerfed and why ccp will never touch either cloaks or bubble immunity.
      Until CCP actually gets devs with past that was something other than pointless small gang ganks and stops listening to the reddit brigade things are not going to change. Even now they rather went to reddit to ask what people think than their own forums…

      January 17, 2020 at 9:52 PM