Tuesday, 23 October 2012

EVE Development Strategy on Trial



Kaeda Maxwell, like many EVE players, was attracted to EVE Online for its scope and promise. The wealth of gameplay options offered by the New Eden sandbox promised the opportunity to partake in a gaming environment of infinite possibilities. The audacity and creativity of CCP's ever-expanding universe was a powerful lure for players seeking many kinds of entertainment. Sadly, Kaeda has taken the decision to quit playing EVE.

His reasoning is that "CCP seems to have gone creatively dead" and points out that since the woeful misstep that was Incarna, every expansion has simply been a list of reworkings and patches with no fresh content.

He makes some very good points in his departing blogpost and much of it struck a chord with me. There has certainly been a polar change in EVE development direction in the last year and it is worthy of further examination. In an effort to weigh up Kaeda's concerns and give fair hearing to CCP's decision, I'd like to attempt an analysis of both sides of the argument.

The Case For the Current Development Direction

Original 2003 EVE manual
At it's core, EVE is, and always has been, a PvP game. From it's birth in 2003, player activity has driven the direction of development. The Darwinian environment was inspired by Ultima Online, another game which encouraged freedom of action and did not shy from the brutal realities of human nature.

As EVE grew, more flavours of gameplay were added. The initially bold concept was fleshed out based on the direction in which the player population pushed. The formation of communities based around multiple corporations was recognised and the ability to form alliances was introduced. This saw vast swathes of players fighting for flags of their own creation and gave rise to the complex and dynamic political dance that takes place in the metagame.

The driving force behind all player interaction was spaceship combat. Every miner, industrialist and missioner was essentially feeding the engine of war. The development direction of EVE was always focused on expanding this ecosystem.

Parallel to this, gaming habits from more traditional MMOs needed to be recognised in order to make the EVE experience palatable to a wider audience. A "questing" system was a mainstay of MMOs and PvE content was a necessity. As a science-fiction universe, New Eden needed some character and personality beyond generic spaceships. As I recall, the concept of immortal capsuleers wasn't even fully realised at initial release, with "escape pods" frequently littering hangars and only vague references to cloning (from the original 2003 manual: "...your character dies and becomes a frozen corpse in space before your clone is activated."). All of it was clearly just a device to explain multiple lives and continue the game experience.

In pursuit of the ultimate sandbox, continuing development saw CCP fighting their own war on several fronts. The sheer diversity of gameplay was leading to the polarisation of disparate playstyle communities. The more traditional PvE players would pursue "carebear" activities mainly in the safer high-security areas, whilst a more directly competitive culture bloomed in the dangerous low- and null-sec regions.

CCP's greatest expansion
Expansions would often deliver content that would appease a segment of the player base whilst leaving others feeling undervalued. The exception to this rule, Apocrypha, is widely considered to have been the most successful expansion as it delivered varied and fully realised new content that suited most players. But for the most part, CCP's expansion cycles left great concepts half-finished as they needed to rush to deliver the next concept. CCP had become victims of their own success as their grand development ideals became a rod for their own backs.

This increasingly demanding process finally hit critical mass with Incarna - an initially bold attempt to broaden the appeal of the EVE universe by addressing the disconnected and - for many gamers - unappealing focus on spaceships as the primary character. Human avatars and space station environments were intended to broaden the player demographic and usher in a new era of player interactivity.

It failed. Badly.

Incarna concept art.
The resulting fallout of player discontent sent a shockwave through CCP. Angry players unsubscribed in their thousands as they realised that the core values of their spaceship combat game had been sidelined in favour of another "Jesus feature". For 18 months, the loyal player core had been living off the scraps from the table of the Last Supper and it suggested to them that they were being taken for granted by CCP.

In order to steady the foundering ship, CCP laid off 20% of their workforce and recognised they need to show that they did value those players who had invested hundreds or thousands of dollars in subscriptions over the years. The age of the Jesus Feature was over.

Since the Summer of 2011, CCP has had a much more pragmatic approach to their expansion cycles. They have been systematically working through the many flawed and unfinished game design elements of the past, adding polish and increased usability. No longer adhering to a single expansion release policy, a much more flexible system of iterative release now allowed for tweaks and improvements to be delivered when they are ready.

It is the legacy of such an old game with such ambition, that this period was perhaps inevitable. After years of ambitious expansions and 18 months of comparative neglect, CCP have since spent another 18 months clearing up their own mess. Perhaps not ideal, especially from the consumer perspective, but a necessity. CCP has learned that you cannot attract new customers if the old ones are unhappy.

As a result, what we are now seeing is the birth of a more streamlined, lean spaceship combat PvP environment that increasingly appeals to its core audience. This is totally in line with the history and ethos of EVE Online and is a necessary and welcome boost to its continued health.

Also, rumours of the death of the Jesus feature are exaggerated. If a lack of creativity and ambition is of concern to fans of the New Eden universe, have you considered DUST 514?

It doesn't get bolder than that.

The Case Against the Current Development Direction

Suggestions of the greater experience.
As detailed earlier, EVE Online has always been touted as a sandbox. Granted, it is a PvP sandbox, but it is one with such grand scope that it evokes player creativity and inspiration far beyond simple competitive eSports.

Over the years, New Eden has developed into an immersive science fiction environment which promises much. Whilst the limitations of a single game should be accepted, EVE Online has consistently shown that it could grow beyond those traditional boundaries and deliver a broad palette that could entice players who might otherwise not play games at all.

Part of what makes EVE Online unique is that quality that allows players to pursue their own destiny, to explore a dystopian universe shattered by war and politics. This is entirely down to the concept of choice.

An EVE player should be able to choose how his game experience plays out. He play the role of a peaceful industrialist, a defender of his faction or a hunter of criminals and enemies of the state. Certainly, recent and upcoming expansions support this to an extent, but all roads lead to PvP.

The ever-present threat of PvP, even in safer environments, gives EVE its energy and should remain a core concept of gameplay. But to exclusively focus on this misses the fundamental values of a sandbox. To single-mindedly focus on funnelling players into being the content without embracing broader gaming values significantly limits the appeal of EVE Online.

Riots in the Summer of Incarnage
As a result of the core player outcry triggered by Incarna, it is entirely evident that CCP is now frightened of its own shadow. After realising that previous development choices threatened the health of the "cash cow" of the fanatical segment of EVE players, CCP has consciously decided they would prefer to distance themselves from other, less well-organised and under-represented segments of the player community.

Whilst CCP may pay lip service to the backstory and content of EVE Online with occasional literature and the recent live events, it is clearly not a priority. Live events themselves, although exciting for those who do take part, are single events which suffer from the same demands as alarm-clock fleet ops. They dictate to the player when and where they should be playing, removing much of the choice which should be the lifeblood of EVE's sandbox gameplay. It is clear that the resources are not available to make live events an experience that can be shared by the majority.

Marketing gameplay
Further evidence of this bias is the rising tendency toward investment in competitive tournaments - something which has little to do with the universe of New Eden but everything to do with the eSports appeal of the combat engine. The Alliance Tournament is a fantastic spectacle and the upcoming New Eden Open tournament will undoubtedly be similar, but it is also symptomatic of this new ideological direction.

With regard to the recent patches (Crucible, Inferno and the forthcoming Retribution), any tightening and improvement of gameplay mechanics should be encouraged, but to dress this up as a shiny new expansion packed with content is misleading. Lessons should most certainly be learned from the mishandling of Incarna and the former expansion culture, but the pendulum has swung to far in the opposite direction. Without a more even-handed approach to the direction of development, EVE Online is destined to become a limited arena for eSports fanatics.

The broader, more imaginative experience that EVE Online once promised is withering on the vine and is gradually being replaced by an anodyne and sterile spaceship combat engine.

In Conclusion

Personally, I have mixed feelings about this debate. I completely appreciate CCP's current position and why they have chosen the direction they have. Their hand was forced by market forces and they clearly needed to reform their development strategy. They have retreated to the core traditions of EVE and are pushing effectively in a single direction rather than ineffectively in multiple ones. Sadly, this will come at a cost. Fringe players will become disillusioned and are more likely to quit, but CCP have already squandered the cache to do the same to their loyal player core.

CCP rolled the dice with Incarna and choked on the result. Now they have recognised the unique selling point (or more accurately the unique staying point) of EVE is the community structure behind the game, they are understandably building on that. This clearly favours those players who have invested - and can continue to invest - the time required to make this kind of arrangement work. Players not cemented in place by their commitment to a player community will remain increasingly likely to feel disenfranchised as they watch the min/maxer lobby rule game development.

For the first time in a long period, I have played other games and found the experience very rewarding. Both FTL and XCOM: Enemy Unknown have impressed me for different reasons. In many ways, EVE cannot compete with either game, but then nor should it. I think long-term indoctrination into EVE gives rise to the fallacy that it should be able to deliver on all gaming fronts by providing the most complete game experience available and rendering all other games irrelevant. Clearly, this is nonsense, but then EVE does encourage that kind of fanatical thinking.

In my opinion, it comes down to a simple decision: does EVE Online deliver the kind of entertainment that you are looking for at a price you are prepared to pay? If it does, great. But if it doesn't, then you should probably stop waiting for it to happen, because it won't.

What do you think?

7 comments:

  1. You're so much more eloquent then me :)

    Excellent blog post.

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  2. Oh Stan

    I had a post about this very subject stuck in my drafts folder for a few weeks now. It never got finished due to RL busyness.

    Now that you beat me to it I am both sad and happy.

    Sad that I didn't write about it earlier.

    Happy because you did such a great job.

    Often when someone writes a feature post like this, I come away wanting. Wanting to expand, comment or challenge.

    Your article just covers it all, there is nothing I could add.

    I just have one hope: That CCP gets the last few glitches ironed out, that they do their POS redesign, their ship rebalancing etc. and then find the courage and vision again which is necessary to add something new to the game.

    Something on the scale of Apocrypha, or even on the scale of Incursion (which did add new mechanics and had real lore-type content)

    ReplyDelete
  3. What do I think?

    I couldn't agree more with the argument against the current strategy.

    http://sandciderandspaceships.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/expansions-wwjd.html

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  4. wait wait wait . . . eve had a MANUAL?

    m

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  5. CCP's essential problem is that so much of their very basic game is so old and dated that it's not worth building on. How do you build fresh new PVE (like the proposed exploration-style Incarna content) on an ancient and half-assed AI? How do you bring farms and fields to nullsec when your POS code and interface and your manufacturing code and interface all suck? If you want Jesus features, you should remember his parable about the house built on sand.

    I mean, Dominion is still broken and half-finished, never mind Incarna. CCP gave themselves a lot of work. So if you don't enjoy the game as it is, now, then you should probably take some time off and wait for them to start expanding again.

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  6. I am a new player who just discovered your blog. Today. I have stop and started Eve 4 times in the last 2 years, mainly due to my inability to grasp the mechanics. But, that is EXACTLY why I keep coming back. Your article was a great read and I understood most of what you are saying. My hope is that CCP will make the game THEY want. Every game I have ever played began a downward spiral when they catered to the player (about midlife) and lost focus from when they created the game in the first place. Ultimately "I" will decide if I like the game. CCP cannot control my opinion. CCP should continue/start to develop a game that goes in the direction/dream of its creators and not what the community dictates.

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Lay it on me.