In the past, I've made no secret of the fact that I think CCP undervalues the lore of EVE Online. I've seen what I perceive to be a cultural shift away from the interwoven backstories that make sense of our science-fiction sandbox.
It was almost as if CCP were embarrassed by it and, in part, I can understand why. Due to the failure of Incarna, the marketing value of immersive content in New Eden fell through the floor. Not because EVE fiction wasn't great – it was and still is - but because the avatar-led gameplay element which would have been a doorway to a more connected experience was so horribly mismanaged.
Has the Summer of Incarnage forever set EVE development on a path to become an anodyne eSports engine with the science-fiction increasingly marginalised? Or is there still room for in-game content befitting of an epic space opera?
A Pavlovian Development Arc
Incarna was a good idea, badly implemented. Let's not forget that the expansion immediately prior to Incarna was the a heavily storyline-led and content heavy Incursion. One of the most successful and fondly remembered expansions was 2008's Apocrypha, which was steeped in the lore and mystery of wormhole space and the ominous Sleepers. So when Walking in Stations went down in flames, it took EVE lore's credibility with it.
As a reaction to this, CCP seemed to walk away whistling nonchalantly, claiming that they didn't want that lore anyway and that EVE was about the players' stories. Jon “CCP Unifex” Lander took over from CCP Zulu as Senior Producer in December 2011 and a new era of EVE development dawned. CCP Unifex's strategy for the last eighteen months has seen CCP maintain a laser-like focus on iteration and improvement of internet spaceships.
It has been a great success.
But EVE Online development is now governed by an Incarna-induced cultural aversion to lore which has been evident throughout this development cycle. The focused desire to pump subscribers through the initial stages of the game into the community quagmire that would ensure their retention has seen character and depth stripped away. A host of in-game items were renamed “for clarity”, all attempt at immersion was removed from the tutorials and Team Avatar was disbanded.
CCP Unifex has publicly stated that introducing new content was pointless as some players would complete it within days, implying that there is little point catering for any but the most hardcore of gamers. That many gamers with an interest in epic sci-fi might not have 20+ hours a week to devote to grinding content doesn't seem to be a concern – those less valuable customers can make do with content that is nearly a decade old, as CCP almost exclusively courts the hardcore technical PvP demographic.
All this seemed to be further evidence that EVE Online's former goal as the “ultimate sci-fi simulator” was being deliberately narrowed to become a niche PvP society. Such was the legacy of the Incarna debacle.
The Playstyle Pendulum
As someone who specifically returned to EVE Online some years ago on the promise of what was then called “ambulation” (and often ask myself why I'm still here), I have always felt that immersion into the storyline was vital to my enjoyment EVE Online, if only at a background level.
In the last year or so, I have come to terms with the mortal blow that any such aspirations have been dealt and I've learned to accept the status quo. I have come to accept the oft-repeated mantra of “the players are the content”.
There is still enough fiction inspiration in New Eden from which I can continue to draw, but I remain disappointed that CCP want to develop a low-maintenance gaming environment which they seem happy to practically abandon to the lowest common denominator. Surely that is evidence that the playstyle pendulum has swung too far?
However, I now find myself wondering if there is a turning of the tide. Is the pendulum starting to swing back to a place where CCP sees value in embracing the fictional heart of EVE again?
A few CCP fifth-columnists have been keeping the flame alive, the recent release of new material on the EVE fiction portal shows that the backstory of EVE at least still has a pulse and the return of CCP-led live events creates some storyline integration into the game itself. However, I'm cautious about seeing this as more than just lip-service to keep people like me quiet and I await the CSM summit minutes with interest as I know that the lore and content topic was discussed to some degree.
The Quiet Horde
The phenomenal success of the Pod and Planet fiction contest, run by Telegram Sam with support from CCP, saw over 100 entries of some pretty solid EVE sci-fi. There really is a wealth of incredible writing talent across the EVE player base and deserved congratulations to the 16 selected prize winners.
I don't think Telegram Sam and his co-judges were expecting such a huge volume of submissions, but this is clear proof that there is player enthusiasm for elements of EVE Online beyond optimal ship fittings and e-peen bragging rights. CCP have let this demographic wither on the vine for the last two years, yet they still exist in enough numbers to generate several novels-worth of material for a single competition. This gives me hope and should send a clear message to CCP.
Imagine how many more lore-hounds there might be if CCP actually put any effort into courting this demographic with more than just the occasional live event and some new webpages on the EVElopedia. CCP should see EVE's backstory as more than just marketing material and a lure for new players, it could be part of EVE's raison d'être again.
There are signs that even CCP Unifex seems to be swinging around to the idea of moving some of his eggs out of his single development basket. In a recent interview published on ZAM, he said,
“I think you need a certain amount of single player leading people in, so they actually want to go and make these social connections. It’s certainly one of the things that we’re beginning to look at within EVE now, which is how do we smooth out that learning cliff, how do we make it less threatening, how do we make it easier for a new person to get into the game, and that will involve a certain amount of single player content.”
There is also a vague reference in the article to “updating the Mission system”, although it was in the past tense, so I think that was just a reference to the Retribution NPC AI update. If so, I think considering that an update to the mission system is overselling it a tad.
Learning to EVE Versus Choosing a Path
All in all though, this is a very encouraging change of perspective and one that buys into the argument I have been making for some time. The majority of newcomers to EVE will have experienced other, gentler MMOs and certainly need to be eased into the murky gameplay oceans of EVE. Just dropping rookies into ice cold water is unlikely to get many to stay for a swim.
But I hope that CCP Unifex can see more value than just using content and immersion as a method of indoctrination. If he values EVE Online's reputation as an open-world sandbox, I believe he should be encouraging the expansion of choices available to players, not rail-roading them. It should not be compulsory for every new player to be forced down the path toward becoming a PVP junkie in a large organisation. Lore-based content should not just be seen as entry-level material, it can sustain a playstyle which can keep a player's interest indefinitely and broaden the appeal of EVE beyond the eSports demographic.
Let us choose the depth at which we swim. Or are those who want to stay in the shallows not welcome? I'm not for a minute asking for EVE to be made into a theme park or made safer, I certainly don't want to be protected and I enjoy the ever-present threat of player intervention, but I do want to be entertained by my environment too.
Let the sandbox thrive, encourage playstyle diversity. Don't ignore the PvE and please, let slip the dogs of lore.
Dare to be bold CCP, dare to be bold.
Labels: development, game design, lore