Friday, 25 May 2012

Blog Banter 36: The Expansion of EVE

Welcome to the thirty-sixth edition of the EVE Blog Banter, the community discussion that brings the collective minds of the EVE blogosphere together to chew the cud, exchange opinions or troll the world.

"With the Inferno expansion upon us, new seeds have been planted in the ongoing evolution of EVE Online. With every expansion comes new trials and challenges, game-changing mechanics and fresh ideas. After nine years and seventeen expansions, EVE has grown far more than most other MMOGs can hope for. Which expansions have brought the highs and lows, which have been the best and the worst for EVE Online?"

As the blogosphere warm themselves by the blazing Inferno, they stare wistfully into the flames and conjure memories of expansions past...

[For more information on how Blog Banters work, read this post or read previous Blog Banter summaries here.]

Inferno Campers (happy or otherwise):
Final Blog Banter 36 Review hosted by A Scientist's Life in EVE.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Inventory Unified, Players Divided

With the latest EVE Online expansion, Inferno, comes the promise of many things; a revitalised faction warfare dynamic, a refined system for defining wars and allies, the means to hire mercenaries and some spectacular new combat animations (see EVE Online: So Beautiful, I Can't See It for more on this). Unsurprisingly, in many of these cases there have been some teething problems, but this is mostly forgiveable when planting seeds for the future.

However, one particular "seed" seems to have fouled the harvester and tainted the crop: The Unified Inventory. Perversely embracing the spirit of Inferno, the EVE Online forums are afire with vitriol and dissent as many players struggle to get to grips with this new User Interface element. Whilst some are struggling with fixable bugs, others are finding the basic design concept a barrier to their style of play. Contrary to this, some players are speaking out in defence of the new system, citing that it is "fine once you get used to it". A few even prefer it. In any case, the torrents of forum posts indicate that it is having a significant impact on the user experience.

This puzzles me. I can't help wondering how the Unified Inventory can be so divisive. Is its design suited to some playstyles more than others? There has certainly been some negative comments made by capital ship pilots and POS managers, but equally salvagers and casual PvPers. The Inventory interface is clearly something that impacts every EVE player to a degree. Perhaps the rage is the result of an over-entitled player base who are falling into the habit of threatening to unsubscribe every time something is tweaked?

Test Server, Please Ignore

Having wrestled with the developing Unified Inventory on Singularity, I took an early dislike to the concept. I felt I was being forced to interact with the client in a particular way that I found less appealing than the method it replaced. I couldn't help feeling that it was a solution without a problem - there were many more offensive elements of the user interface than the inventory system. However, I accepted that mine was only a single "use case" and that the designers had the majority in mind. I realised I would have to accept this new irritant and hope I'd grow into it if I wished to continue playing EVE.

However, I was not alone in my concerns; on investigating the Test Server forums, individuals far more diligent than I had gone to some length to detail the Unified Inventory's misgivings. Tippis wrote a particularly constructive in-depth analysis of the problems in his blogpost, The Shift-Click, It Does Nothing. He even went to the length of making an explanatory video.

Representing Player Concerns?

Despite the growing feeling amongst the voluntary testers that the Unified Inventory was not fit for purpose in its current state, it was clear that CCP were not intending to deviate from their plan to include it in the initial release of Inferno. There was a notable absence of CSM dialogue in the relevant forum threads. Surely they, or the previous CSM (in many cases the same people) had been made aware of this feature and had been given the opportunity to provide input and feedback? Emails and tweets were sent by myself and other concerned players, but no response was forthcoming until my submitted question was addressed in the live CSM Town Hall meeting held on the weekend preceding Inferno's release. This was my question:

"There is concern from some quarters about how the Inferno release of the Unified Inventory will be received by the playerbase. There are some well-reasoned arguments that the feature is incomplete and reduces functionality.  Have the CSM been consulted on this matter at any point, what are your thoughts and do you think there will be a player backlash after patch day?"

Their response was a unanimously non-committal "it's fine", which suggested to me that they either had no knowledge of the feature in its current state and the associated player concerns or they had been NDA'd to the point of being no use on the subject. Either way, it was a disappointingly brief and dismissive answer and not indicative of effective representation of player concerns.

Controlling the Fire

Inferno was deployed and at little surprise from the SiSi testers, the predicted player backlash began. In an effort to remain positive about the changes, I want to understand what is it that some players are finding appealing about the Unified Inventory. Please let me (and others) know and help convince me that this is a good change.

My main issue is this: I want to choose my tools and how to use them, not be railroaded into someone else's preconception of the correct way.  I have long been content to browse my hangars and containers in multiple windows filled with colourful icons. I enjoy this. Having accrued lots of loot over the years in many stations, it's like having treasure troves or boxes of Lego I can sift through. However, I am receptive to the idea of having better tools with which to sift and to analyse my total assets and their locations. I play casually and am often reclined (back problems), content to just use the mouse, but having to sit up and use a keyboard shortcut every time I need to spawn new windows is irritating. I've only got two buttons on my mouse and until recently that was enough. I have many other issues with it too, but this is not the place to list them.

I feel, given the diversity of tasks performed in our sandbox, more than one size of bucket and spade is required. Is it me who has not given it enough of a chance or is it you who hasn't used it enough to discover its shortcomings?

[Update: since the publishing of this post, CCP Soundwave has released a new Devblog addressing some of the Unified Inventory issues. There are plans to provide a drag-and-drop alternative to the evil shift-click option, which makes me happy. I've also made this suggestion with regard to emulating the old system for those who preferred it. Whether this widely condemned feature can be made universally accepted remains to be seen. I wish this was taking place on Singularity though.]

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

EVE Online: So Beautiful, I Can't See It

[WARNING: This is a rant. It's a constructive, well-meaning and good-natured rant, but a rant nonetheless. I have perhaps sullied the purity of the rant with this qualifier but I am English, so erm... sorry about that.  Long-time Freebooted readers may be aware it is not the first time I have ranted about this subject, but just to make sure CCP realise I haven't forgotten - even if they have, I am going for round three of my crusade to get better camera functionality in EVE Online. Rounds one and two were Fanfest Flashback: The Spectacle of Combat (April 2011) and BB30: EVE Online Director Mode (Nov 2011).]

I'm sure you will agree with me that EVE is visually stunning.

The crisp, realistic character creator, the hypnotic space environments, the slick spaceship designs and the stark, breathtaking lighting effects makes EVE a majestic and inspirational visual experience. With the UI removed (CTRL + F9), almost any screenshot taken on the highest graphics settings will result in something worthy of your desktop wallpaper if not a professional movie poster. CCP's Art Department is truly world class.

So why is it so hard to enjoy EVE visually whilst actually playing it?

Sight-seeing tours aside, EVE's client does not make it easy to admire the great work that CCP's talented artists have provided for us to enjoy. As a game primarily marketed on it's spaceship combat, what is the point of creating searing weapon blasts, impressive missile vapour trails and visceral explosions if most of the visual impact is lost because the combatant is zoomed right out or staring at his ship filling the screen? Seriously, why bother? CCP may as well just dump the visual window-dressing altogether and run EVE purely as a spreadsheet with live text updates.

Alternatively, they could provide us with a better means of viewing the action. I propose a customisable, intelligent and versatile toolset that would enable casual players, serious business PvPers and armchair directors to all get the best out of EVE's visual feast.

The Current Toolset

Let's look at the tools currently available to assist our viewing pleasure. I do this as both an assist to those who may not know about them and to prevent the inevitable torrent of unsolicited advice that will point out that there are "advanced camera" tools.

Camera Drones are the lore-based explanation for the default third-person viewing perspective of your ship in space. In game mechanic terms, it's a simple, intuitive means of looking at your ship by using the mouse. By default, the focus is always your own ship. Holding down the left mouse button allows you to pan around in an orbital movement and you can zoom in and out with the mouse wheel (or L+R mouse buttons). Holding down the right mouse button and panning allows you to "free look", but the camera rubber-bands back to the point of focus (ie. your ship) as soon as you release the button.

A Ferox fitted with a mushroom launcher?
Whilst fine for admiring your ship, this is fairly limited for viewing how it interacts with the environment. The view of other objects in space is obstructed by your own ship and concessions must be made to view even static objects (moving objects I'll cover later). You must either zoom out so you can no longer see your ship, rotate the view so the object occupies a peripheral area of the screen or change the focus of your camera away from your ship's position. To an extent this can be mitigated by the Camera Center slider in the Escape button menu, which enables you to slide the camera focus along the X axis.

The Look At option (found in the right-click context menu or from the Selected Item button bar) allows the point of focus to be changed to (almost) any object within 100 kilometres of the player's ship, but this suffers from the same limitations as viewing your own ship.

The Advanced Camera Menu (enabled via a tick box selection in the "Display and Graphics" tab of the Escape button menu) goes a small way toward appeasing the desire for better camera functionality and its existence at least suggests that CCP are aware of the need. However, I feel describing this additional functionality as "advanced" is stretching the truth a little.

By enabling this function, the options to "set as parent" and "set as interest" appear in the right-click context menu. Much like the "Look At" function, setting an object as the parent makes that object the anchor for your camera drone location. However, selecting another object as the interest means that whilst your movement controls (LMB to orbit, mouse-wheel to zoom) behave in relation to the parent, your point of view will remain focused on the object of Interest. This theoretically enables fly-by and tracking shots to be achieved, but the controls are clumsy and limited. Annoyingly, a passive 360-degree tracking rotation is not possible as the camera rubber-bands awkwardly on every rotation. Additionally, this mode does not keep both the parent and the interest objects in shot, instead pivoting on the spot to focus solely on the focus of interest.

The frenetic pace of ship-to-ship combat means that the player is generally too busy to manually manage his camera, so he is very unlikely to use the advanced camera menu even if that were to give him an entertaining view of the action (which it wouldn't). The best he can probably manage is some frantic and repeated manual panning in an attempt to keep his target in view, but most likely he would just zoom out to watch the action from a distance that renders the graphical excellence invisible.

Custom Camera Tool Wishlist

The existing camera tools are basic, but they get the job done - assuming the job is to provide wallpaper screenshots and to perpetuate the fallacy that EVE is just spreadsheets in space. But there is a glimmer of hope; the current toolset at least provides a foundation on which to build a greatly improved camera system.

What follows are some simple concepts which would improve the visual experience.

EXISTING LIMITATION: Player ship obstructing field of view.

PROPOSED SOLUTION: To complement the existing X-axis slider, provide a Y-axis slider to allow the focus to be moved to the bottom (or top) of the screen. Ideally allow these sliders to be accessible via the NEOCOM rather than the ESC menu.

BENEFIT: The player would have greater control over the use of screen real estate.

EXAMPLE MOCK-UP: Fixed Tailplane View

EXISTING LIMITATION: Presently, the camera points in a cardinal direction unrelated to the ship. If the focal ship is flying directly away from the camera toward an object in view but then changes direction, the camera direction remains the same, meaning the object being approached may very likely be out of shot.

PROPOSED SOLUTION: Allow the parameters of the camera direction to be user-selected. For example, a radio button NEOCOM menu with the following View Lock options:
  • Cardinal (as it presently is).
  • Vanishing Point (the direction the focus ship is moving/pointing)
  • Custom (a number of slots allowing user-defined camera views to be stored).
  • "Keep interest focus in view" toggle. 
N.B: This is essentially a refined version of the existing Advanced Camera Menu, with the additional ability "set interest" on the direction of travel (vanishing point) and the ability to keep the player ship in view irrespective of camera rotation.

BENEFIT: This would enable the camera to automatically 'face forward' when the ship is travelling and provide a more connected experience with the player ship. Custom camera direction would enable user-defined views, for example used in conjunction with the Axis Slider (see above) would allow for the classic tailplane view.

EXAMPLE MOCK-UP: Fixed Forward View (Naga)

EXAMPLE MOCK-UP: Focus on Hardpoints and Target

EXISTING LIMITATION: The need for manual panning and zooming to maintain desired view creating a disjointed and disorientating viewing experience.

PROPOSED SOLUTION: Allow the outer edges of the "object" being viewed to be user-defined. The camera will automatically zoom to keep the "object" on screen. A menu would provide the following options:
  • Self
  • My Target (Primary)
  • My Targets (All)
  • All Aggressors
  • Squad
  • Wing
  • Fleet
  • Broadcast Target
  • All Ships on Grid
  • Vanishing Point
Selection of one or more of these options would define the actors to remain on screen within a user-defined optimal viewing area (an invisible bounding box to work within the chosen UI layout) and the Intelligent Focus system would auto-zoom appropriately until the settings are changed or switched off (ie. doesn't reset on session change).

BENEFIT: This would give the player a much improved viewing experience in a multitude of scenarios. In 1v1 combat it would make optimal use of the screen space, with combatants spiralling around each other exchanging fire, giving the viewer a much more connected combat experience. In fleet or other mass ship environments it would optimise the appreciation of scale and the interaction between groups. All in all it would create a more dynamic and cinematic viewing experience passively.

Less of this: "Where the hell is that coming from?"
More of this: "Oh, there you are."
And this: "Okay, you can stop now - they get the idea."
Fleet ops would be more spectacular for pilots...
... so only FCs and tactical dudes have to put up with this.
[It's presently pretty hard to get a meaningful mid-battle shot, so the above example doesn't quite get the point over, but you get the idea. Most of the above screenshots have been staged and would not appear naturally without lots of manual camera-work.]

In Conclusion

I would also suggest a picture-in-picture function for targets, which would provide another way of enjoying ship models in combat (as well as providing tactical info like fittings and direction), but judging by CCP T0rfiFrans' Fanfest presentation homage to my flawless Photoshop work in last year's EVE Online: Director Mode post, that one is already somewhere in the CCP hive-mind.

Freebooted 2011

CCP @ Fanfest 2012, You're welcome Torfi ;)

The key with all the suggested camera tool refinements above is that they should be passive and preset, allowing the action to flow. Nobody is going to have time to be playing Spielberg mid-battle, the game engine should be doing that for us. The EVE player viewing experience would then be improved immensely, allowing the glorious visual labours of CCP's Art Department to be suitably framed as the works of art that they are.

Nobody goes to the Louvre and is forced to stand half a mile from the exhibits and spin around. Please CCP, we shouldn't have to choose between enjoying the view and playing the game. Don't make us do it any longer.

If the decision-makers need further incentive, think of the improvement in quality (and quantity) of output from the vibrant player video scene.

Improved camera tools = more free marketing + more happy players = more subscriptions.

It's a no-brainer.

[If you agree with the sentiments of this post, please support the related forum post in the official EVE Online Features and Ideas Discussion Forum]

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Fake Rookie

Once more unto the Breacher, dear friends, once more.

In pursuit of variety and material for my Guild Launch odyssey around New Eden, I've found my recent organisation-hopping exploits to be most enjoyable. After years of steadfastly languishing in one corporation with a lacklustre CEO (me), I finally plucked up the courage to put Greenbeard's Freebooters behind me.

I have to say, in terms of facilitating my enjoyment of EVE, it's been the best decision I've made in a long time. Gone are the burdens of trying to manage a fake spaceship business for largely absent players and instead I'm enjoying thriving communities and eventful gameplay.

Ever the Dropout

I was hugely impressed with the degree of organisation behind the player-run EVE University corporation. The wealth of information and support that they offer the clueless is just the tip of the iceberg, there's far more going on there too. Of course, I completely failed to take advantage of any of it in my short visit, having spent 50% of my scheduled month wading through the administrative side of things and then the remainder of my time trying to convince myself I already knew it all. After all, I've been playing for years...

The administrative issue isn't a complaint levelled at EVE University - as an organisation it is just the product of its environment. In order to create a relatively sociopath-free environment that is conducive to the newer or gentler player, they have to double-lock their doors so to speak. My stay was a great, if brief, experience and you can read more about it in my report Exploring EVE Online: The Rookie's Path & EVE University.


My plans to follow the path of least resistance and move on to experience the Red Versus Blue phenomenon met with a potential deal-breaker when the combined forces of the Red Federation and the Blue Republic went "Purple" and declared war on EVE University. Despite this, my previous conversations with RvB important dudes at Fanfest and the UK Pub Meet held me in good enough stead for my application to be accepted without fuss anyway. It turns out that RvB are to administration and security exactly what E-UNI isn't. There is a worryingly relaxed approach to organisation in RvB, but somehow it works and I've already enjoyed participating in a couple of entertaining events.

I say unto thee, jump, jump and thrice jump.
As well as an impromptu frigate roam, I had the good (mis-)fortune of attending RvB Ganked, a regular, themed roam that is the spiritual offspring of Failheap Challenge's Gank Night tradition. Azual Skoll of The Altruist blog was the guest host and ran the fleet with cool aplomb as befits his  Agony Unleashed heritage. The Shakespearian theme required the entire 100+ fleet to fly Breachers (Once More Unto the Breacher, Dear Pilot) and smacktalk potential targets in local with a deluge of Olde Worlde insults. It was strangely liberating replying to abuse with "Verily, thy stench is akin to that of rancid horse quim."

A jolly good time was had by all and I even managed to take part on some comical Breacher-swarm kills before getting destroyed and returning in a Manticore stealth bomber I had stored nearby. I was a little sad when the event was bought to a climax by Azual suiciding the entire fleet into a smartbombing battleship at a cyno'd POS. I suspect he wanted to retire. I probably shouldn't have been in my clone with the expensive +4 implants but I had been warned.

Is this a 'Baddon which I see before me, its smartbombs toward my face?
[I've just noticed that jargon heavy sentence I just wrote; "suiciding the entire fleet into a smartbombing battleship at a cyno'd POS". Oh dear, there's no going back now, but for the less spacegeeky reader (hi Mum) here's a translation: A bad man set up a trap by luring us with the promise of a potentially vulnerable target which turned out to be a very well protected and lethal battleship.]

Wow, Look at... Oh Never Mind

When shall we 120 meet again, in Thrasher and Lachesis over in Stain?
Throughout the roam, one thing that struck me again - and will spawn a post of its own - is how visually arresting EVE is, but how frustratingly hard it is to look at things. Still shots just do not do justice to the hypnotic sight of a hundred glowing frigate contrails circling a single spot, it has to be seen in motion for the full effect. Combats too would be a spectacle, if we had any kind of intelligent camera tools. I don't understand why CCP makes EVE as beautiful as it is and then provides no way to really appreciate it. The current viewing experience is like trying to read a really good book over someone's shoulder.

Anyway, rants aside, I'm looking forward to the somewhat more complex RvB event taking place tonight, but I'll keep my powder dry on that until my next Guild Launch article.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Standing at the Crossroads of Opportunity

When it comes to my relationship with EVE Online, I find myself in a strange place.

Last Summer, in the wake of Monoclegate and the Jita Riots, my affair with EVE hit a rocky patch. Unlike most, my disconnect came more from the disappointing realisation that the grand visions of EVE as the "ultimate sci-fi simulator" had come crashing down to the reality of "an MMO about spaceships".

I set out on a pilgrimage to EVE Vegas where my passion was reignited as I found a new hook to maintain my interest. I found inspiration in the idea that not all EVE content had to be within the game engine and, like a good book, sometimes it was better to just plant seeds in the ploughed fields of imagination. The following months saw me oversee the birth of Tech4 News and the re-emergence of the Blog Banters, as well as my involvement in various other podcasting and writing ventures.

Putting My Back Into It

My creative itch was being well and truly scratched and my involvement in all things EVE hit an all-time high. My EVE community output was greatly assisted in October by the aggravation of a recurring back injury, preventing me temporarily (so I thought) from working in my meatspace role as a paramedic. Whilst painful, being stranded at home recovering gave me plenty of time to devote to my hobby. As time wore on, it became clear that full recovery from damage caused by twelve years of lifting the fat and the dead was not going to happen.

However, I was enthused by the positive response to my various creative projects. The community approval of my work on Incarna: The Text Adventure and my writing/podcasting showdown with writing hero Mord Fiddle, the plaudits for Tech4 News and various other audio skits and continued interest in Freebooted gave me the belief that writing could become a viable alternative to my stuttering ambulance career.

Confessions of a Dreamer

My wife, long-suffering EVE widow that she is, was concerned by the amount of time I devoted to my EVE hobby. Although I rarely logged in, the weekly hours I spent on my writing, community and audio work was easily the equivalent of a full-time job.  However, after discussing my aspirations she saw the benefits of my continued spaceship-related pursuits as a means of developing my skills and building confidence. We made a deal; I would continue to focus on EVE-specific writing projects until Fanfest in March 2012, after which we would review the situation and I would very likely walk away from all things EVE, unless an opportunity had arisen requiring me to stay.

The next few months were quite a rollercoaster (as much as any series of events can be when my default location was supine on a sofa). I was pleased with the evolution of the Tech4 News despite only managing three of the originally planned six audio episodes (there's a tale for another day), I won the Guild Launch EVE Correspondent contest and my paramedic career was officially pronounced dead. March arrived, Fanfest came and went and The Situation was reviewed.

End of Line

So here's the thing.

Firstly, you'll notice I'm still here. The line was crossed, the watershed was passed, yet still I remain. This is partially due to my commitment to Guild Launch - as part of my correspondent contest prize, I won a 12-month paid writing contract which, given that they want me to write about EVE, pretty much means I have to stick around. But also, why the hell would I want to leave this vibrant, endlessly inspirational community who, after nine years, are redefining dedication (or desperation) by still hanging around waiting for EVE to become the game we all hope it will be. Three cheers for you... er, us.

But there's the rub. I'm not sure what part I should be playing now. I am neither content provider, nor community manager and whilst I have been making pretend at those roles for the last year, the bank balance has told me to stop. I'm just a community member who got a bit too involved. I need to re-focus my energy toward endeavours that will allow me to build on the experience I have gratefully gained in my service of the EVE community, but which will also line the nest.

Shedding the Burden

Ultimately, I need to offload many of my more time-consuming commitments and convey my heartfelt apologies to those whom I am letting down; those involved in current projects and those with whom I've discussed future endeavours. You know who you are but I hope to catch up with you all at some point soon.

The community as a whole is bigger than any one of us and some institutions need to be maintained. I feel strongly that Tech4 News is a community project that deserves to continue its growth and I would be happy to discuss handing over the reigns. Also, the Blog Banters are an important community glue and the torch is available for the right individual to carry. Please contact me if you think you can help continue either of these institutions.

I'm not giving these things up easily - god knows I don't want to - but I need to bring my internship to an end and clear my calendar to focus on the Next Chapter. In any case, I'm not planning on disappearing entirely, I would still like to flex my quill on Freebooted from time to time and I will of course be playing EVE for the next year to continue my Guild Launch-sponsored odyssey.

Onward and upward.