Header Art by Redline XIII
In recent weeks, CCP Games have taken EVE Online into a new “Era of Chaos.” This new era in EVE Online’s development is about “acting more and thinking less,” according to CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, and it is the latest attempt by CCP to pull EVE Online out of a perceived period of gameplay stagnation. The big highlights of this new Era have been a cancerous Drifter Invasion mechanic, the nullsec local chat blackout, and some market tax changes, with some announced and not-quite-chaotic cyno changes on the way for the September Release.
As a result of the chaos changes and some other information we’ve been hearing from CCP this year, I’ve decided to jump into the mix with some of my thoughts and questions. Once more unto the breach, dear friends!
*** A brief warning before you go any further: This article is an Op-Ed comprised of many words, most of which have been strung together into vaguely recognisable sentences. It will meander a little, and it will almost certainly have opinions that you find questionable. That said, all opinions are my own, and this is simply my perspective on the current situation regarding the present Chaos Era and the overall state of game development for EVE Online. Have fun. ***
Aaah yes, the interviews. As part of the new approach to EVE development, a number of developers have taken to the EVE Talk Show circuit to expound upon this new design philosophy, the various issues within the EVE Online game environment, and the apparent solutions to these problems that this new era of CHAAAOOOSSS brings (yes, that is how I’ll be referring to it now, it’s much more fun). Obviously, I’m mostly referring to the Talking in Stations interviews here—one with CCPs Hilmar, Falcon and Goodfella, and one with CCP Rise—but I’ll also give Rise some credit for coming into a late night/early morning Open Comms Afterdark show with a bunch of drunk commentators and attempting to have a reasonable discussion.
Now, in fairness, for interviews that CCP specifically requested with TiS staff and guests (shoutout to Brisc Rubal), these could have been far, far worse. The interviewers addressed some of the issues players have been seeing, and the CCPers didn’t always pivot right back to their corporate sales messaging. This is especially impressive when you take into account that one of the interviews was literally three CCP C-level and management PR guys in a room with the TiS staffers. I would even recommend that if you haven’t listened to them already, load them into your favourite podcast app and give them a listen when you have a couple of hours to spare.
This isn’t to say that these interviews were everything I hoped for, of course. This is always going to be the case – I’m not in the room to hit the follow-ups I think are important. My thirty-second recap of the interviews could go along the lines of “Hilmar, Falcon and Goodfella were talking up the new approach and engaging on questions about the grandiose dreams and general plans for EVE’s five—and ten—year future, while Rise had more to say about the specific mechanical questions and the impact the new focus has on the development teams,” and I doubt anyone could fault that description. Thankfully, the answers or follow-ups provided a lot to think about, not just in what was said (and there were some extremely silly comments) but also what was left to be inferred and extrapolated as players read between the lines.
The Questions Arising, Not Just From Interviews
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics (Or Numbers, A Question)
As Rhivre discussed in the fantastic graph-riddled economic analysis posted last week, there are a lot of issues with CCPs Monthly Economic Report data. This year alone, they have missed an entire region (Cache) from the MER multiple times, somehow missed wormhole blueloot from their commodities faucet graph in the July MER, managed to apply some form of CCP.round() to various ISK sinks, and even represented in that same July MER that broker fees going to players via Upwell markets count as an ISK sink. What’s more, these are just some of the data issues, and this doesn’t even touch the aspects of their analysis that seem to ignore events occuring in the simulation sandbox.
Once we dig into the interviews, there is a consensus among the CCPers about the economic situation—that the ISK faucets and sinks are (or were) broken. Hilmar and Rise both said this, and they may even have said the same thing word-for-word during their interviews. The differing opinion appears to be whether this continues to be an issue. Hilmar and Falcon both appeared to believe that the blackout would go a long way to ‘fixing’ these issues but it would still require additional focus over the next six months, with Falcon saying that “it’s incredible to see [PvE] activity is still there.” This is contradicted by CCP Rise only three weeks later, who stated that the in-game economy is “completely out of the woods,” and that before long, CCP “are going to be looking at where to tune the rewards back up because [the economy is] going to be in a deficit soon.”
So which is it? Is the economy fixed and going to need tuning back up, or does it need more balance work to bring it to a reasonable level? It has to be asked whether CCP themselves know definitively. Right now, all I can tell you for certain is that nullsec PvE activity is cratering on a large scale, and somewhat artificially tanking the ISK faucet income along with it.
Assumptions Make an Ass Out of U and Me
Woah, this section could be huge if we address every assumption that came up and went unchallenged in the interviews. For the sake of expediency, though, I will keep to just a couple of the biggest assumptions I have identified; these are the major assumptions that the interviewed CCPers need to treat like a hot potato and drop ASAP.
Assumption the First: that owning nullsec sov is easy.
This was possibly the most downright hilarious aspect of the interview with Hilmar, Falcon and Goodfella. There were some noticeable points during that interview that had me questioning what the actual fuck Hilmar et al. have been smoking during these long, warm summer months, but here’s the big one. It was a short series of comments from Hilmar and Falcon that appear to suggest an understanding that the Aegis Sov mechanism provides a huge amount of inherent safety, purely by dint of owning territory and upgrading systems via the Infrastructure Hub system.
Hilmar: “Overall, we want to decrease the challenge for new players and increase the challenge for veterans – EVE Online has so many super-smart players that to some extent, the game was already solved. It was slowly turning into the purple donut everyone was fearing, and that is the endgame solution. The chaos of EVE has just been drained into order and everyone is slowly reaching a consensus on how things should be.”
Falcon: “From my point of view, for the past three, four, maybe five years, we have been in a position where the pendulum has swung to the safety side of things and just stopped… For me, I look at nullsec and I see it as a wasteland of people who have bedded in and are just happy in a bubble, making a shitload of ISK and going about day-to-day life in conditions that are (in a lot of instances) a lot safer than [low and high security] empire, because they have a big capital umbrella to sit under and they can travel huge distances with the infrastructure that’s been set up.”
Now, I have to wonder about the ability of a developer to say that their game is so stagnant on a development level that the players have figured it out, and then in practically the same breath suggest that the answer is small, low-effort changes that ‘fix’ the game. Again, is the economy sorted, or will the economy still require huge amounts of effort? Furthermore, are CCP responsible for the playerbase trends, or are they just exacerbating a pre-existing trend? These types of questions go deep into the approach CCP takes to their metrics and gameplay analysis, and where that analysis takes the game design group. But no matter how they act internally, these comments feed the idea that CCP don’t have an understanding of huge areas of gameplay experience and the overall work it takes to create such ‘safe’ spaces within areas of the EVE universe.
The Value of Organisation
If you haven’t done so already, by the end of this section you may well be calling me an Imperium stooge, as I begin to talk about how owning large swathes of nullsec and maintaining a functional nullsec empire requires a metric shit-ton of effort. You may even be right, to an extent. I have been playing at a relatively high level within the Imperium for a few years now, and it’s entirely possible that I am a part of the nullsec propaganda machine (read: I’m a GSF diplomat and an INN editor; of course I’m involved in shaping narratives).
Regardless, I’m going to say it; building up and then maintaining a nullsec empire, especially on the order of the Imperium, Legacy, the wider PanFam or even Dead Coalition, is a hell of a lot of effort. It requires delegation of responsibility, it requires huge amounts of man-hours per week to maintain, and more than that, it requires a bunch of volunteers who, it bears remembering, pay subscriptions to EVE in order to be able to volunteer their time for the benefit of their alliance/coalition/line members in an effective manner.
On the low-end, nullsec players are looking at double digits of man-hours spent every week dedicated to running a two-corporation alliance in Tribute, as one example. On the really high-end, groups like Legacy Coalition or the Imperium see hundreds of volunteer man-hours per week to keep their organisations ticking over in peacetime. In wartime, the large groups will see the number of hours spent to run the organisation increase massively, easily breaking into the low-thousands of man-hours.
As it happens, the value of organisation segues well into the next major CCP assumption…
Assumption the Second: that the new-player experience is ‘fixable’ with enough developer hours.
During the interview with CCP Rise, a factoid regarding developer priorities happened to slip out. Specifically, Rise stated that “the majority of the dev team right now are working on new player focused stuff. That’s definitely the number one strategic goal… We’re doing a lot of work to improve the early experience because that is definitely our big Achilles’ heel as a game, we lose a lot of people early.”
I need to start the meat of this section by being very clear; developing a game with new players and their retention in mind is both admirable and necessary. Especially in EVE, we need to be constantly encouraging the next generation of FCs, alliance leaders, logisticians, haulers, and industrialists. This game is both massive and complex, and burnout occurs very quickly if players aren’t careful. There should always be someone ready to step into a market gap and bring new perspectives to their chosen gameplay expertise.
Realistically, when it comes to the new player experience—specifically the tutorial missions and the ease of access to game content for those cute newbies—CCP have come on by leaps and bounds in the past half a decade. By my count, we are on the fourth iteration of the tutorial missions in three years, and The Agency 3.0 launched just a couple of months ago. As a matter of fact, I ran through the most recent tutorial in late June for a different project, and I thought it was really great. The mechanisms CCP have in place to teach the really basic mechanics—lock, shoot, move in space, dock, refit and so forth—are honestly really good. Unfortunately, once the tutorial is over, CCP is dumping new players into a mission interface that feels as if it hasn’t seen an update since 2006, and a corporate recruitment interface that feels even older.
Herein lies the generally uncommunicated and unrecognised truth about the EVE Online NPE: it’s not about the first six hours. It’s not even really about the first three days, despite the massive percentage of retention drop-off in that period of time. It’s about the players who come back beyond the initial tutorial experience. It’s about the people who are dragged, kicking and screaming, into the mission system that appears to have been untouched in more than a decade. For the early-days new player, nothing is easy after the tutorial. The actual NPE is all about the players who, by luck or by skill, make it past the antiquated gatekeeper that is NPC missioning and find something worthwhile beyond that gatekeeper. As it is, CCP need to recognise that their efforts have to address major sections of the early gameplay sections that have been untouched for so long, instead of rehashing the same few hours of initial gameplay.
The ~Put Shit On Rails~ Corollary
Looping back into the value of organisation, I want to elaborate a little. The large groups running new-player-friendly corporations take great pains to teach the players who come to them without any knowledge. There are some specific groups, obviously – KarmaFleet, Brave Newbies, EVE University, even Pandemic Horde. These are the people who care about their new members, try to integrate them into a community, and put their best foot forward in teaching any and all mechanics that new player may want to know about. In general, these groups have been teaching new players for collective decades, and as CCP Ghost admitted at Evesterdam 2019, these types of group typically have far, far better overall player retention rates than CCP.
So here’s the deal about these new player-focused groups: they make sure their new members have two things. One is easy access to information on different play styles and a recommended pathway for every major play style, and the second is ensuring players have the best path to making friends and integrating with the community they have chosen. These groups make the first few weeks as simple as possible without compromising endgame complexity.
It’s not just all about teaching and learning, though. EVE is a massively complex environment that requires years of effort to master even a single aspect of gameplay. It could be fitting ships and knowing how to design coalition-level doctrines, it could be learning to read and predict market shifts for personal benefit, it could even be knowing how to FC and then learning to coordinate multiple fleets. But this is a further benefit of joining those larger new-player-friendly groups: you aren’t expected to be a master of the game within two weeks. Larger groups will provide fits for new players to go ratting, salvaging, or mining. They will also support these players to get out on community fleets and become part of the group; The Imperium, for example, gives out free T1 frigates that are welcome on basically all strategic fleets. The new players can try their hand at all trades without being penalised, and really find what EVE career suits them.
Put simply, the organised nullsec groups are in a fantastic position to put mid-level gameplay on rails for newer players within the current gameplay experiences and mechanics. Additionally, those same pre-existing communities (again referencing CCP Ghost’s Evesterdam presentation) work wonders to keep players around. Ensuring that people feel included is key to retaining new players.
For the first time today, CCP, please help us help you.
This wouldn’t be an article on the era of CHAAAOOOSSS without some good old-fashioned backseat developing. We all think we can do better, right?
My big piece of armchair development recently has come from the incoming cyno changes, and I think those changes exemplify the kind of overly complex (and at the same time restrictive) box at least some of the game designers are still stuck in. To give a quick recap on what the proposed cyno changes were initially, though: Cyno Field Generator I modules can only be fitted to Black Ops battleships and Force Recons, and Jump Freighters would be able to jump to covert cynos. After some community feedback asking about memorial cynos and whether a cost-effective option for lighting memorial cynos that are visible on the in-game maps and overviews could be considered, multiple CCPers responded that this was a serious oversight on their part, and that they would come up with a solution.
The solution they provided to the stated memorial problem was the introduction of a new module, the Industrial Cynosural Field Generator. This module can only be fit to Tech 1 industrials, Deep Space Transports, and Blockade Runners, provides a beacon on maps and overviews, and can only be jumped to by Jump Freighters. At this point, you’re probably wondering where my problem lies, right?
The problem is that it’s an unnecessary shift to the only CHAAAOOOSSS-era change that seemed on track to shake things up positively and provide some real change to the way people play the game. When the original changes were proposed, I felt that the ability to sneak a Jump Freighter behind enemy lines in combination with the nullsec blackout could provide some really cool options for gameplay, especially for deploying forward staging posts for conflicts and potentially for resupplying a group of ‘submarining’ pilots who were causing trouble behind said lines. With the shift across to the new module, those possibilities have died before they ever existed.
The New Design
The development I have been considering stems from CCP’s willingness to create a new module, but also their apparent need to complicate that by making the new module do something. The problem of memorial cynos could have been solved simply by making a ‘Memorial Cynosural Field Generator’. This module would do everything the current cyno module can do – fitted to all ships, cannot be lit above 500m/s velocity, cannot move while lit, and so on – with one key difference. The beacon it creates cannot be jumped to by any ship.
This solves the “we want a beacon across the stars for our fallen friends” issue without having any impact on the new gameplay possibilities, and also not impacting the lowsec and nullsec hauling pilots who had already begun to make a shift across to covert cyno chains by adjusting training plans or buying skill injectors. It is also very technically possible, given that CCP have created a module that changes all of the same fields as my suggestion here. CCP have, in my view, failed to think more broadly about the impact of their changes twice in one change cycle. It would be impressive if it weren’t so disappointing.
Who is… CCP Mannbjörn?
This article has really been a big wind-up to this, the final question I have been struggling with for longer than even I knew. I’d ask for a show of hands as to how many people reading this know who CCP Mannbjörn is and what he does over on that frozen rock, but I think I have that number already.
In answer to my own rhetorical question, CCP Mannbjörn is the Executive Producer of EVE Online, and he became the Executive Producer in July 2018, supposedly taking over the role from CCP Seagull after Hilmar’s stint as interim EP. The reason I ask this rhetorical question, though, is that it isn’t actually rhetorical. Who the hell is CCP Mannbjörn, and what the hell is he doing at CCP right now? It sure doesn’t feel like he’s producing anything at an executive level.
In fact, a quick Google search for his dev name provides either 51 or 320 results depending on whether you include the umlaut, his LinkedIn profile states that he has been a Senior EVE Online Producer since 2014, and he has not been seen in any official capacity at a single player meetup following his ‘promotion’ in July last year. Moreover, that Google search? In the first few pages I clicked through, there were only three results that pulled from 2019 to date. One was the CSM 13 Winter Summit Minutes from February, one was an amusing EVE Onion satire piece, and the third was an article from Arrendis in mid-March, where Mannbjörn was directly referenced as not having articulated any sort of vision for the moonshot that is EVE Online.
Just take a moment and let that sink in for a minute – the guy whose sole purpose at CCP is to direct the development of EVE in a constructive and positive manner without other IP or projects to distract him has not, as far as I can tell, been seen in public as a CCPer by any member of the player base in more than six months, has never engaged with the wider player base in person since his promotion (even as CCP have taken FanFest on a worldwide tour), and has yet to update his online CV to reflect what should be a major promotion for anyone working in the gaming industry.
I can’t help but wonder if his tenure has been more of an empty title than actual promotion, given the fact that he was promoted just after Hilmar had stepped back into the EVE Online limelight. Has CCP Mannbjörn been turned into an empty suit while Hilmar is back in the EVE universe? Did Hilmar take the reins and then realise he didn’t want to let them go just yet? At this point, I can’t help but wonder if we will ever get to see what CCP Mannbjörn is made of, and more importantly, what he can do for EVE.
Have we had enough of the so-called “experts”?
Okay, I lied. Who is CCP Mannbjörn was not quite my final question, but this is my almost-conclusion, so sue me. Anyway, this is a question for you, the readers, to answer.
One thing that you may or may not be aware of is that three years ago in the United Kingdom, there was a referendum on our membership of the European Union. Please don’t panic, I’m not going to conduct some weird segue and devolve into real world political debate as some weird ‘EVE is real’ parallel. But one of the campaigners in this referendum, as part of a speech he made, claimed that in the UK “we have had enough of experts.”
I didn’t agree with this statement when it was said at the time, but I have to say, this appears to sum up the opinion of many EVE players at the moment. The cyno changes, the nullsec blackout, the Drifter invasion – basically the entire damn CHAAAOOOSSS era has a lot of players wondering what the next piece of shit flung at the wall will be, if it will stick, and when CCP will realise that they need to get a handle on their so-called “experts.”
To put all of that a little more bluntly, what this boils down to right now is that given enough time and enough typewriters, monkeys are going to write the complete works of Shakespeare. A profitable business, however, does not have enough time to wait for sheer chance and a pile of monkeys to do their job for them. CCP need to start demonstrating they recognise how to keep EVE Online engaging for the players while remaining reasonably challenging, and they need to do it before their subscription numbers completely slide off a cliff. The players who leave will have chance to break their EVE habits forever, and that is bad for both CCP’s bottom line and the wider player experience too.
A Final Message to CCP
To CCPs Falcon, Hilmar, Rise, and any other CCPer who is reading this and thinks players are at fault for the way we have organised and reacted to the situations in nullsec or the way we have created umbrellas of safety and built up our end-game supercapital armadas, I want to be very clear. You encouraged the consolidation of sovereignty space by introducing Aegis Sovereignty and the entosis/ADM mechanics. You encouraged further fortification and development of our armadas with the Citadel patch, and specifically the ability to swap a supercapital pilot in a capital or subcapital via Keepstars. You further incentivised excessive supercapital proliferation by giving us the Rorqual, in both the original 2016 capital redesign and then in your failure to properly address that sheer power across multiple balance iterations.
Ultimately, you are blaming the players for playing the game you have made, and you are blaming us for optimising the gameplay, instead of recognising that you need to change the gameplay on a substantive level to address the current stagnation issues. Please, for the love of all that is sacred, actually address the root problems you have created, instead of prioritising quick and dirty short-term fixes. I have been advocating for a new Crucible-level patch for many months now, and I stand by that; EVE Online needs another mechanic (and bug-finding/fixing) patch in order to help players feel as if their dedication has been worthwhile. This could actually help new players, it could address supercapital oversuperiority, it could address any number of issues that we all generally agree are problematic. CCP, if you take a step out and collaborate with the players at least a little in order to to find solutions, we can take a step and help as well—I promise, we want more conflict and fluctuation too, we just want it to be worthy of this incredible sandbox.
So there you have it – my slightly slapdash, not-quite-Arrendis-level-wordy thoughts on this new ‘Era of CHAAAOOOSSS’. All that’s left (at least today) is to hear your thoughts. Have you had enough of CCPs experts? Do you still believe CCP are the real experts, and if you do, is this Chaos Era the type of development you want to see more of? Sound off in the comments below.