Friday, 24 October 2014

Moments in Elite: Dangerous



While I appreciate that Freebooted has historically been an EVE Online blog exclusively, my current love affair with Elite: Dangerous has left me considering expanding my content. After all, five years dedicated to a single game does seem a little... obsessive.

Of course, I'll continue to discuss EVE Online - I still feel like I've got plenty to say - but I don't think there's any harm in looking at new entrants to the increasingly busy sci-fi gaming niche from time to time.

Besides, as I discussed in my previous post, Elite: Dangerous seems capable of ticking boxes that EVE has always neglected as a game which can deliver content and stories on a more personal level. Certainly, the broader slate for fiction E:D offers has already spawned a number of novels. The game design also lends itself more readily to some narrative structure than EVE, which is something I hope to see.

For me, the real hook in Elite: Dangerous is what Frontier Developments CEO David Braben describes as the 'moment-to-moment' gameplay. There's an immediacy and a connectivity to E:D's world which really breathes life into the game experience, creating unexpected events with exciting, satisfying and/or hilarious outcomes.

Already, I've had several 'moments' which have given me stories to tell. I'm not proud of all of them, but the game environment certainly seems like a fertile bed for all manner of unscripted occurrences and those arising from seeds planted by the designers.

For clarity, I've mostly been playing in 'private group' mode, so all of my interactions thus far have been with NPCs (friends currently seem to be invisible/in a different instance), but to my rookie eyes, I wouldn't be able to tell player from AI anyway.

Here's a few of my more memorable (or shameful) moments:

Moments in Elite: Dangerous - The Cobra Money Pit



Oh, Cobra Mk. III, icon of my childhood and versatile chariot of the stars, why do you hate me so?

An early goal I'd set myself was to get into the signature ship of the original Elite. In Elite: Dangerous terms, it offers a solid platform to experiment with a variety of playstyles: bounty hunting, trading, exploration - it can do it all. But ever since I bought one, I've had nothing but bad luck, leading me further and further into debt.

Admittedly, it started with a degree of over-exuberance on my part. After making my purchase and spending far too much of my remaining credit balance on pimping it out, I was eager to get out on its maiden voyage and test out my shiny new Cobra Mk. III.

With a complacency undeserved by my pitiful piloting skills, I performed my usual high-speed launch from within a space station: a quick vertical blast to clear the launch-pad, engines gunned to max, landing gear up and the turbo hit to shoot through the letterbox-shaped exit like a rocket. But wait a moment? That exit looks awfully black. I still don't know what kind of ship I had the head-on collision with, but judging by my almost instant explosion, it was far bigger than me.

Sharp-eyed observers will notice this isn't a Cobra cockpit, but you get the idea.
Having had to take out a loan to avoid finding myself back in a lowly Sidewinder, my second Cobra outing started off well. After flying to the nearest planetary belt and finding a busy extraction point filled with miners, police ships and the occasional troublemaker, I started to really get the hang of combat (or so I thought). Sidewinder after sidewinder fell to my pulse lasers, while my inability to hit the side of barn with my fancy new cannon perhaps gave me a hint that I wasn't quite the killing machine I'd begun to think I was. It was a hint I chose to ignore. The first Cobra pilot with a price on his head soon educated me otherwise. Scratch another Cobra (and thousands in uncollected bounty rewards).

A new Cobra required new prey. After swapping out the cumbersome cannon for a pair of gimbled multicannons, I returned to the asteroid belt and warmed up on a few Sidewinders, much happier with my ship's ordnance.

Then, I stumbled across a pair of gigantic Anacondas whose misdemeanors had already drawn the attention of the local enforcement patrol. As the bulky vessels lumbered through the belt, smaller ships nippling at them like piranhas, I decided to get in on the action. Tearing toward them with all guns blazing, I watched as their shields just shrugged.

I did manage to get a couple of good salvoes into my target before my screen suddenly filled with a criss-cross of laser fire, all coming straight at me! How many guns on those things? Enough to rip my shields away in seconds, it seemed. Nose bloodied, I did a quick about-turn and managed to get out of range to lick my wounds.

Also not an actual shot of the action described, but mashing the screenshot button just wasn't a priority. Sorry.
At this point, the sensible thing would have been to find somewhere to dock and repair and that was initially my intention, until my ship's computer announced 'target shields depleted'. How could I resist a siren call like that?

I dived back into the fray and unleashed the full fury of all my pop guns. The combined damage of my attack and several others slowly whittled away at the Anaconda's hull. The giant vessel changed course, heading deeper into the asteroid field in an attempt to escape. With its hull integrity down to nearly 50% I suddenly found myself the focus of its fire again.

At that point I suspected things were about to end badly for me when the Anaconda suddenly ploughed straight into an asteroid whilst under my fire. The sight of the glorious explosion and the blackened Anaconda hull fragmenting into pieces and spiralling away was made all the sweeter by the announcement that the kill had earned me 58,000 credits, over twenty times the kind of bounty I was used to (and far more than I had in my account).

This was the one time I didn't allow my hubris to get the better of me (I briefly considered taking on the second Anaconda) and immediately returned to a station to capitalise on my good fortune.

My good luck didn't last.

I have since lost at least three Cobras, variously to:

  •  A security vessel flying straight through my line of fire as I bore down on a kill, quickly seeing me eviscerated by the irate copper and his colleagues. That's entrapment!
  •  A panicked attempt to dock while being scanned with illegal cargo on board (why is it 'stolen' if I found it laying around in space? What about salvage rights?), resulting in me bouncing around inside the docking bay before getting hosed by the sprinkler system of doom.
  •  An anti-climactic end to an epic (read: hilariously inept slow-boat circling) engagement between me and another Cobra pilot which was going to the wire until he decided to commit seppuku on my windscreen, sending us both into oblivion.

I still love my Cobra though, even if it's propelling me to bankruptcy.

Put some clothes on love! (Still not a relevant screenshot, aside from the fact that on one disastrous launch attempt this was where I ended up.)
[Back to Moments in Elite Dangerous]

Moments in Elite: Dangerous - Hidden Stars


Something that has continued to impress me is Elite: Dangerous' astroscape (I'm not sure that's a word, but if it isn't, I'm coining it). From the 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque station approaches to the vast, undiscovered planetary systems which all move and orbits in real-time, the entire gameworld is captivatingly real. It still feels spartan, but then it is space, which to be fair is not known for its dense flora and fauna. But there is an ever-present suggestion that there is always more to discover, just hidden beyond sight.

As I cruised around in the star-spattered blackness, jumping from system to system in a Sidewinder collecting data on various astronomical bodies to sell, I found the experience to be cathartic. The slow-paced, solitary occupation of the interstellar cartographer is a far cry from the adrenaline highs of the bounty hunter or the number-crunching role of the trader.

This was freedom.


Clearly it's not a playstyle that would suit everyone. Some might call it dull. Indeed, I'm sure I would tire of it if I pursued it exclusively, but from time to time it's nice to just head out into uncharted territory just because it's there.

But I became hooked when I entered a system whose star had an elliptical orbit path according to my HUD overlay. Curious. I'm no astrophysicist, but I was pretty sure that meant there must be another mass for it to orbit, yet no second star was apparent. Checking the system map confirmed the presence of a second, unknown star.

Not a binary system, just an example.
After some head-scratching, I engaged my supercruise and sped away from the visible star until I could see the entirety of its orbit path, then did a hard right. As a drifted at superluminal speeds across the periphery of the system, I scoured the backdrop, hoping my theory would prove true.

Then I spotted it. Among the hundreds of distant points of light, one crept across the darkened sky, belying its appearance as just another far-off system. By using a bit of lateral thinking and nothing more than my own eyes, I'd discovered something my instruments couldn't – the second, far smaller and less visible twin star.

Using the parallax effect to spot pixels may seem like a trivial achievement, but for me it was very satisfying and, perhaps oddly, gave me hope for Elite: Dangerous' future. It suggested to me that this won't be a game which spoonfeeds its audience with pop-ups, tooltips and walkthroughs, but one which revels in its own depth and mystery.

I'll be even happier when system maps actually look like this rather than the current beta placeholder.

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Moments in Elite: Dangerous - The Dodgy Hauler


After cutting my teeth on the spry but limited Sidewinder, I wanted to try out other ships but lacked the capital to do it. The quick solution seemed to be to use what little I had earned to upgrade to a hauler, facilitating more lucrative cargo runs and courier missions. This would be my stepping stone to something more glamorous.

Sadly, the bargain basement hauler, the Zorgon Peterson, is a comical embarrassment to self-respecting spaceships everywhere. It's a testament to Frontier's craftsmanship that they can make the various ship hulls feel so different just by tweaking handling parameters and changing some audio and visual material. The Zorgon Peterson experience was certainly a far cry from the Sidewinder starter ship.

The moment I laid eyes on the cheap plastic interior, I knew I'd never bond with this ship. The dashboard and air-vents look like they're taken straight from a 1990s Japanese minivan. On launching, my heart sank further as the feeble engine noise became audible. Was this thing powered by an elastic band?

Having made my purchase and accepted a charter, I had little choice but to launch and drift forlornly into space, a hold full of cargo that someone wanted moved somewhere pronto. the little crapheap wheezed its way out of mass lock range and I engaged hyperspace.

Nothing happened.

I was informed by my HUD that something was deployed, preventing the jump. I checked and double checked: I'd definitely withdrawn the landing gear, I hadn't accidentally activated to cargo scoop, nor had I done anything involving hardpoints or discovery scanners (causing a known bug). I repeatedly pressed several buttons, but to no avail. I had no choice but to turn around and dock up. Maybe I could demand my money back.


The only problem was, despite my landing showing as deployed, I couldn't touch down. Clearly this hauler was a duffer. Zorgon Peterson are apparently the Skodas of the Elite universe.

Eventually I resolved the issue by shutting down the client and restarting, but by this time I was up against the clock with regard to my delivery. Despite my best efforts thereafter, I missed the deadline and got a hefty fine for my troubles.

So much for hauling being a moneyspinner, but part of me hopes they keep this bug in as long as it's specific to the Zorgon Peterson. It adds character.

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Can EVE Online and Elite: Dangerous Co-exist (on my Hard Drive)?


The thrum of my ship's engines subsides as it drops out of warp and my viewscreen is filled with asteroids silently floating in the void beneath the silvery disc of a distant moon. A quick glance at my instruments warns me of the presence of other ships. Compelled by my curiosity to explore every facet of this vast and bewildering spacescape, I guide my lowly vessel closer to investigate, wary of possible hostile action...


It's a scenario which could describe my early days in EVE Online circa May 2003, or my more recent first steps in the modern re-imagining of the game that started the digital space race in 1984, Elite.

In both cases, the sense of being a tiny denizen of a vast and undiscovered universe tangibly permeates the game experience, injecting an austere sci-fi concept with possibility and wonder.

Of course, in EVE Online, that promise which was made by such a broad, open universe built around emergent gameplay concepts evolved into the peerless, player-driven experience which has seen it enjoy 11 years of success and counting.

On the other hand, Elite: Dangerous is still in beta for another few weeks and unsurprisingly has plenty of bugs and missing content. But despite that, I've had the opportunity to spend some hours playing what is already a polished and sometimes awe-inducing first-person spaceship piloting experience. The audioscape in particular is entrancing.

Rekindling a Love for the Unknown

Hyperspace jumping through 'witch space' in Elite: Dangerous
As I took control of my light multi-role Sidewinder and participated in the variety of activities Elite: Dangerous already has to offer, I quickly found myself falling back in love with the game which defined my youth and arguably played as big a role as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Asimov/Clarke in making me a lifelong science-fiction enthusiast.

After all, for me, the whole lure of EVE Online was its intention to provide an online game which delivered the Elite experience of an open universe filled with opportunity and discovery. CCP Games delivered this in spades over the last decade, adding depth and breadth to the early, feature-light gameplay which captured my heart.

EVE Online's skyboxes are stunning.
Witnessing the growth of EVE Online from within as a long-time player has been has been unique journey through online gaming. Well ahead of its time and undisputed master of the emergent gameplay niche, few can doubt that CCP stands atop the industry when it comes to delivering the massively component of massively multiplayer gaming.

Yet as I delve deeper into this brave new (yet wonderfully familiar) universe offered by Frontier Developments' Elite: Dangerous, I already sense it offers something which has always eluded EVE Online. There is a connection, a feeling of being immersed directly into a future world of technology and spaceships, which I've always sought in EVE, but has always been supplanted by CCP's insistence that New Eden's best experiences are found in large crowds.

'Join a player corp as soon as possible,' players would be told, with the aim of projecting the rookie EVE capsuleer into the player-fuelled socio-political centrepiece of the EVE experience where the hook of social investment counterbalances its still problematic and bewildering new player experience.

The Needs of The Many


When they say EVE is big, they mean it. Big spaceships (10km+), big battles (2000 players+), big stories.
EVE is unmatched in providing a platform for vast player organisations to compete and cooperate, but the individual player experiences at the fringes are lacklustre and showing their age. The universe of New Eden is mapped, endlessly documented and no longer a frontier, more a vast, battle-worn arena given texture only by its residents. CCPs man-hours are largely devoted to refining this combat dynamic as they well know it's EVE's strongest gameplay card. But the rest of the experience may be forever playing catch-up.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy the asymmetric PvP element EVE provides - the ever present risk is exhilarating and the adrenaline shakes EVE can stimulate has yet to be replicated in any other gaming experience I've had. But those moments are fleeting (haha!) and a lot of gristle has to be chewed to find those sweet morsels. Even then, the disconnected and uneven gameplay that permeates EVE remains unaddressed.

The lost connection of EVE.
It's a challenge CCP continually works to overcome, and have been slowly making ground, but their greatest opportunity was squandered with the poorly executed Incarna expansion of 2011. Incarna aimed to provide human avatars and related content, but succeeded only in fomenting unprecedented player backlash and set EVE's development firmly on the remote spaceship path.

Admittedly, I am one of the pro-Incarna minority crowd, because EVE's abandoned 'walking in stations' gameplay promised to fulfil my hopes for the kind of immersion I had long hoped for from my EVE adventures. Indeed, my preferred spaceship experience is one far more insular, one which encourages me (and perhaps a small group of friends) to believe the surrounding environment, providing immersive escapism.

The Desires of the Few

The surface of a Coriolis space station in Elite: Dangerous.
As perhaps a more selfish player, Elite: Dangerous has already convinced me that it will deliver the experience I've been waiting for. It is still far from feature complete and certainly doesn't include any avatar gameplay, but as Frontier CEO David Braben has explained in recent interviews, they've built the foundations and the house, now they've got to move the furniture in.

And the empty house is already glorious.

The empty co-pilot's chair in a Cobra Mk. III 
Even with sparse content and limited ability to interact with fellow players, I've enjoyed some great personal moments that have impressed upon me the potential that Elite: Dangerous offers; a hair-raising escape from a dogfight that saw me outmatched and praying for my hull to hold out as my Frame Shift Drive spooled up, the dawning realisation that each star system's terrain is unique and in motion with gravity wells for slingshotting, surfing and providing navigational challenges, the satisfaction of using my eyes to spot the parallax effect leading to the discovery of new astronomical bodies. My ability to interact with and be a success in this universe isn't defined by how many corpmates I have, but how I choose to interact with the world around me, alone or with a couple of wingmates (once the buggy instance matching is fixed).

That said, Elite will likely never be able to scratch the empire-building, strategic itch that is EVE's oeuvre. It offers a far more modest, but intimate and personal story. They are very different games, and I am thankful for that. The two titles can co-exist on my hard drive without much overlap; Elite provides sit-forward 'moment-to-moment' gameplay, while EVE is a more cerebral, calculated, sitting-back experience.

In fact, from my perspective, Frontier has probably done CCP a huge favour: I can now enjoy EVE for what it is rather than what I'd like it to be, and the two games can comfortably co-exist on my hard drive, ripe for comparison but rarely competing, and perhaps even learning a little from each other.

To be honest, I'm relieved.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Twitter Community Proposal: An #EVEblogs Hashtag


It's hard to keep track of all the EVE blogging that goes on out on the interwebs and there's plenty still out there despite the rise of popular aggregate sites like EVENews24, TheMittani.com and Crossing Zebras. But it's hard to keep track of the scattered individual blogs even though I occasionally stumble across new and interesting writers and posts. It makes me I wonder how many I'm missing.

Sometimes I remember to add them to my 'recommended reading' list over in the sidebar of this blog, but in truth, much of my casual reading material is sourced from Twitter. I follow so many tweeters, writers, sites and individuals of interest, EVE blog links tend to get lost in the noise.

I don't know how common this behaviour is amongst my fellow bloggers, but I reckon in this age of social media, a shared EVE blog-specific hashtag might be useful, so I've fielded a suggestion to the general #tweetfleet Twitter community that we could use #EVEblogs on any tweets linking to a new blogpost.
So far, several bloggers have already agreed to participate, so this could be a good thing.

I appreciate that it's still not a perfect solution and will require new bloggers to discover it, but #tweetfleet does pretty well as a general EVE community and chatter hashtag. Perhaps #EVEblogs might provide a kind of library resource if it's adopted widely enough.

Of course, there'll still be some noise - once it's out in the public domain there's little that can be done about that - but with any luck #EVEblogs might become a self-maintaining repository of fresh EVE reading material which nobody needs to curate or police and which we can all dip into.

I'll certainly be appending #EVEblogs to any tweeted posts I publish in the future and I hope you might consider it too.

All the Gear and No Idea (Week 3): Feeding the Beast

TL;DR - As I attempt to stabilise my newly-established industry venture, I come to realise that significant time and effort is required to keep all the plates spinning; everything depends on keeping my fuel-hungry starbase online.


Three weeks into my adventure as an EVE industrialist sees me hitting something approaching a plateau.

Week one was very much about setting things up and getting a feel for the process (The Industrial Odyssey of an Idiot). Last week saw me undertake a failed wild goose chase to find the artifacts which would have enabled the building of some unusual named modules (Raiders of the Lost Artifacts), So this week I returned to the more basic task of producing stock for which I already had the raw materials and keeping the machinery of my industrial efforts in good working order.

With my current skills (Retail 3 & Trade 4) allowing 45 market orders, I had been doing my best to make sure they were filled. My blueprint portfolio currently enables me to build frigates, destroyers, cruisers, a few modules and some rigs. After putting everything I'd built on the market, I filled the remaining orders with surplus mission loot modules from my stockpile. The ISK has continued to flow steadily into my corporation wallet, with in excess of 150m ISK of goods selling over the course of the week, making my gross income a shade under 400m ISK after 3 weeks.

Interspersed through my usual routine of managing my sell orders and gathering more materials (mining, exploring, etc.) I would occasionally fly out to my starbase to research some more blueprints to increase their efficiency, reprocess some more materials (the yield is better at a starbase reprocessor than in NPC station facilities), or get another batch of goods building at one of my assembly arrays.

However, it suddenly came to my attention that I'd not checked my starbase's fuel reserves for a while. When I'd set it up, I'd filled it to capacity, which would give it some 3+ weeks of life. That time was running out. Sure enough, I had a little under a week left and no significant fuel reserves back at station. If I let the fuel run out, the protective shield would drop and leave my entire enterprise exposed to looters.

Suddenly, acquiring more starbase fuel jumped to the top of my priority list.

Appetite for Construction


Being both a hoarder and someone who likes to dabble with every aspect of gameplay, for some time (years on and off) I had been maintaining by planetary interaction [PI] production chain in my local system and I had built quite a stockpile of the component materials required in POS fuel.

Well, most of them. Of the eight component materials, I had an adequate supply of the PI-sourced ones: mechanical parts, oxygen, enriched uranium, coolant and robotics. However, the remaining three materials; isotopes, liquid ozone and heavy water were all the product of ice mining, something of which I had done very little.

To make matters more inconvenient, my starbase control tower was of Minmatar design, meaning that the type of ice I needed to harvest was not available locally. All ice yields the generic liquid ozone and heavy water, but isotope type is linked to region-specific ice types and I was sitting on a hoard of the wrong kind, harvested from a local ice belt.

When the starbase fuel blocks had been introduced in 2011's Crucible expansion to reduce the complexity of trying to fit a balanced amount of the 8 required fuel components into the starbase's fuel bay (they were all consumed at different rates), I'd had the foresight to pick up a Minmatar Fuel Block blueprint, which I'd recently researched to maximum material efficiency.

After assessing where my stocks were short, it became clear I'd either have to eat into my profits to purchase some expensive ice products or go ice mining. Given that I wanted to sample every element of industry, I opted for the latter, hopped into my Mackinaw exhumer and headed for the Minmatar Republic.

Ice Chasers

In the past week, I'd already spent a bit of time cruising through Minmatar space trying in vain to locate the Data Interfaces required for my future plans to experiment with the Tech 2 manufacturing process and had noted the Glacial Mass cosmic anomalies which appeared on my scanner from time to time. These were apparently the sites I sought.

Little did I understand how transient they were.

What experience I'd previously had of ice mining involved looking on DOTLAN Evemaps for the nearest static ice belt and just having at it until I got bored. This apparently was no longer how it worked. Instead, ice belt sites would occasionally appear as anomalies anywhere within the region, so a certain amount of roaming was required to find one, something for which a sluggish mining vessel is ill-suited.

[Correction: After a bit more research, it turns out this is quite wrong - ice still only appears in designated systems as shown on DOTLAN. However when the site is exhausted, it despawns and a new site reappears elsewhere in the same system 4 hours later. Thanks to Mara Rinn for the steer.]

My first rookie mistake was to fly to my chosen mining region in an exploration frigate; in hindsight, As cosmic anomalies show up on the scanner automatically (unlike cosmic signatures which need to be scanned down with probes), I should have just purchased a shuttle or similar to conduct searches once I'd arrived in the area in my mining vessel. Or better, I should have loaded an exploration frigate and my mining ship into an Orca industrial command ship so I would have avoided my second rookie mistake - ice is massive and needs something a hell of a lot more roomy than a mining barge to ferry any substantial amount home.

Cold Rush

Most surprising for me was the change in player behaviours as a result of this new, dynamic ice belt location process. Whereas previously, any static belt with seemingly limitless supplies of ice would just be mined at a leisurely rate by folk, now there was something of a gold rush with every appearance of an ice belt.

Having been fortunate enough to stumble upon one not long after it had spawned, I warped into the collection of silently glistening blue-white chunks to find that my Mackinaw exhumer was the only ship present. Assuming this to be the norm, much like exploration sites, I casually went about settling in to consume as much ice as I could, safe in the knowledge that there would be more than enough for my needs.

However, within minutes my screen was filled with the criss-crossing of ice harvesting lasers of dozens of other mining vessels supported by Orcas, the odd combat vessel and even a freighter. These folks meant business.


In the time it took for me to fill my ore hold twice, departing briefly to deposit my gains at the local station for later transfer, the ice asteroids started to disappear as they were depleted by the horde. The mining activity became a slow-motion scramble for the last icy dregs. It was then I saw the benefit of using the more appropriate Skiff-class exhumers, their faster Ice Harvester cycle time, undoubtedly further boosted by their Orca fleet-mates, meant that the mining fleets sucked up the final asteroids whilst my slower harvesters invariably came away empty-handed. These guys were the pro miners. I was just an interloper on their patch as they presumably swarmed from site to site like locusts, with everything set to optimal.

Still, I'd managed to gather a little ice over a couple of sessions. Now to get it home for reprocessing to see how much longer I can keep my hungry starbase alive. I'll update here once I see how much more time I've bought my starbase. I'm hoping at least a month.

[Update: I got the ice home and refined it, enabling me to build enough fuel blocks for 19 days. Not too bad for roughly 5 hours of ice mining and a couple of hours of haulage. Interestingly, it's liquid ozone that I ran out of first.]

Can One Player 'Do Industry'?


In my mission to embrace the entirety of EVE's industry gameplay, I'm starting to see that cooperation among multiple players would pay dividends and is almost certainly a requirement if you're taking things seriously. Attempting to single-handedly take on every aspect of running a manufacturing operation (resource gathering, starbase maintenance, research, construction, sales, and so many more contributing elements) is probably folly, at least if you want to keep time spent in game to a reasonable level (or support PvP) which, for me is a few hours a week.

I certainly can't dedicate too much time to ice-chasing on a regular basis, so if it becomes too much of a chore or an expense to keep the starbase fuelled, that will likely spell the end of this venture. It's unlikely that my high-sec PI operation will be able to keep up with demand and my reserves won't last forever. Of course, I could always buy the fuel blocks or the components I'm lacking, but at over 20m ISK per week just to support a small starbase, that'd eat into my slim profits and make the whole project even more of an ISK sink than it may already turn out to be.

That's not necessarily a damning indictment of industry gameplay and I still hope to find low-maintenance way to enjoy it whilst making a profit. My knowledge of the behaviours and needs of industrialists is certainly increasing through the experience and perhaps I can use that to find a more casual gameplay niche, perhaps sourcing materials for sale rather than manufacturing myself. It would probably pay to specialise in a single aspect of the gameplay which makes up the many-headed beast which is EVE's industry and I certainly enjoy the variety and challenges of tracking down the bewildering array of items and materials required.

The last thing I'd want to do is end up getting stuck in an endless, time-consuming cycle where it starts to feel like the game is playing me.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Begun the Clone Wars Have: EVE's Niche is Getting Crowd(fund)ed

"As the evolutionary march of the MMO continues and the gaming climate changes, it is becoming evident that many of EVE Online's traits have held it in good stead to survive an economic ice age and outlast its more prehistoric rivals with their Gygaxian DNA. Envious eyes from other evolutionary branches are showing more and more respect for emergent gameplay principles that have seen EVE Online thrive when others have fallen." 



When EVE Online celebrated 10 years of commercial success and growth in 2013, it stood almost alone in the kind of MMO experience it delivered. The freeform, player-driven science-fiction universe quietly expanded to fill - and define - its PvP sandbox niche. Meanwhile, developers of the vast majority of massively multiplayer games looked hungrily at the more obvious successes of the undisputed giant of MMOs, World of Warcraft.

Itself essentially a clone, World of Warcraft borrowed heavily from other IPs, polishing MMO design concepts popularised by Everquest as well as replicating much of the tone of the Games Workshop's Warhammer universe. Looking back over the evolution of gaming, both of those IPs owe their existence to Gary Gygax's pen-and-paper RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn was the gamification of medieval fantasy as created by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937 with his genre-defining The Hobbit and its follow-up, Lord of the Rings (and if we dig even further, you end up in Northern European folklore).

WoW's absolute domination of the MMO genre was of course going to leave other developers wanting a slice of the WoW pie and, as a result, we've since seen dozens of variations on the level-grinding swords-and-sorcery trope (the 'Gygaxian' model as I refer to it in the quote at the top of this post). But the overheads of building and maintaining such content-heavy game experiences make them endeavours of incredibly high stakes and the MMO battlefield of the last 15 years is filled with the smoking remains or barely-twitching emaciated survivors of the desperate search for a WoW-beater.

The Evolution of Sci-Fi Gaming

Elite: Dangerous
In the modern development scene, as MMO developers look for a more efficient and sustainable MMO model, I believe we're seeing the beginnings of a similar phenomenon occurring within EVE Online's sci-fi sandbox niche. After all, few other MMOs can boast such robust progress over such a long period and still show so much potential to continue moving forward. That's an intoxicating aspiration for any MMO studio - or apparently for start-up developers brave enough to try.

The renaissance of sci-fi gaming and its charge into the open-world MMO genre is spearheaded by the more immediate gaming experiences of the well-documented Star Citizen (current public alpha, release ~2015) and Elite: Dangerous (current premium beta, release Q4 2014). Both of which, while appealing to a similar demographic, offer very different game experiences to that offered by EVE Online.

No Man's Sky (2015 release) became the darling of this year's E3 expo, offering spaceships and the exploration of a vast open universe. Indeed, even Wildstar, while ostensibly being a sci-fi WoW, lifted EVE's successful PLEX payment system as an alternative to standard subscriptions, providing another indication that CCP Games was doing things right in the eyes of its peers/competitors.

Perpetuum Online
Recently, more obvious clones of EVE seem to be becoming increasingly prevalent. In the past, Avatar Creations' Perpetuum Online (2010) essentially gave us EVE Online with robots and at the time was the only EVE facsimile which met with any real (if marginal) success. Yet the last few months have seen the announcement of no less than three games which are quite clearly looking to find themselves a space in EVE's niche, each hoping to deliver a freeform science-fiction MMO experience.

The internet spaceship plate that EVE Online kept spinning for so long has suddenly become one from which everyone seems to want to eat.

Let's take a quick look at these new pretenders to EVE's crown.

Seldon Crisis


An ambitious project from an unblooded development team which apparently includes former EVE Online staff, Seldon Crisis hopes to take EVE's player-driven sandbox template and improve upon it (no stargates, minimal UI), delivering an emergent gameplay environment based on Isaac Asimov's peerless Foundation novels. Or, as Chaos Interactive would prefer to phrase it, 'Seldon Crisis is a video game based on an original story written by Scifi novelist and huge Isaac Asimov fan, Riccardo Simone.'

In their own words:

'Seldon Crisis As a sandbox MMO that allows you to freely travel the galaxy without stargates dictating your movement. You will start your journey with a small fighter craft and some money, starting to work your way towards bigger ships, wealth and influence over other players.

'It is completely up to you how you will achieve this: Through diplomacy, intelligence, military strength or economical power. Have an impact on thousands of other players in a seamless single shard universe. Write your own story, forge a great empire or cause the next Seldon Crisis.

'The game is completely player driven. The economy, politics and even theinfrastructure is in the hand of the the users. You are unbound from preset paths and there is no linear progression to go through.'

At time of writing, a Kickstarter campaign was in progress, with a $8,058 of a $250,000 target currently pledged. Taking a leaf out of Cloud Imperium Games' book with their outrageously successful rolling Star Citizen crowdfunding programme ($54m and rising), Chaos Interactive are also hosting a pledge system on their own site, with a more relaxed end date. Notwithstanding any cease and desist orders from the Asimov estate, it will be interesting to see how this project progresses.

Transverse


The recent announcement of Piranha Games' Transverse has been beset with some less than favourable coverage from many quarters, including the playerbase of their own free-to-play shooter, Mechwarrior Online. Offering their own take on a brutal universe of spaceship combat and exploration, early dev videos have hinted at an interesting variation on EVE's character progression, with skillpoints acquired whilst undocked at risk of being lost (and looted) in the event of player destruction.

In their own words:

'Synthetic physical forms allow humans to pursue an existence in space and have opened the door to immortality.

'This future is not without danger and the very substance of humanity will be tested in the distant regions of space known as the fringe. Out in the Fringe, factions of humanity race to explore space, claim resources, and create new technologies to tip the balance of power; with this race for new power, all of humanity is plagued by conflict with the remnants.

'Out in the lawlessness of the Fringe humanity faces its greatest enemy: itself.

'In ship to ship battles, your precision maneuvering and sharpshooting skills are the difference between victory and defeat. The physically-inspired close range combat will require strategic management of your ship's systems. With each burst of weapons fire, high speed turn, and shield deflection, your ship will expend power and build heat. Find holes in your enemy’s defenses and go in for the kill. Every battle you engage in will play out differently.'

The crowdfunding model is once again the resource acquisition method of choice for Transverse (although notably not via Kickstarter), with development milestones at $500,000 intervals stretching up to $2,500,000 as detailed on their website. At time of writing, current funds amount to $7,820.

Dual Universe


From a 10-man indie company called Novaquark led by Jean-Chrisophe Baillie, a man who previously ran a robotics company, Dual Universe is gunning for a more immersive first-person experience in a procedurally-generated sandbox PvP universe. While the concept shares much of EVE's DNA, notable differences (aside from the first-person emphasis) include multiplayer ship crews, editable environments and scriptable ship control.

In their own words:

'The Dual Universe is a gigantic multi-planet world where players are free to invent their collective destiny: civilizations will rise and fall, player-driven events will shape the course of History, because everything you do matters in a persistent single-shard universe. We are pushing the limits of what is technically possible today to open the door to what we believe is the next generation of MMO games. Welcome to Dual Universe!

'Dual Universe is about true massively multiplayer experience. There are no boundaries, instances, or zones. You can experience real cooperation and competition, forge intergalactic empires or giant cities, gather thousands of players in alliance events and tilt the balance of power with epic battles, or diplomacy.'

As far as I can tell, there's no current crowdfunding campaign in progress, so this seems to be a privately-funded enterprise at present. That said, the website contains only concept art and some grand aspirations, so the project appears to be very much in its infancy. In any case, it's certainly an engaging concept and I hope to see more from Novaquark.

Healthy Competition

In many ways, it's surprising that EVE was able to exist for so long without much competition. In EVE's early years there was Westwood Studio's Earth & Beyond, which launched in 2002 some six months before EVE. However, EVE emerged victorious from that particular clash, absorbing much of the losing game's playerbase when Electronic Arts closed Earth & Beyond down in September 2004.

Since then, EVE has pretty much existed alone in its niche and has flourished as a result. However, this new generation of internet spaceship games seems to indicate some believe EVE's success is ripe for exploitation. Whether this is because EVE's playerbase is considered to be fair game, filled with folks prepared to jump ship for a fresh experience, or that the niche itself is wider than previously believed with a demographic of sci-fi gaming enthusiasts currently underserved by existing games, only time will tell.

CCP should be both flattered and threatened by the imitations. EVE Online has had the advantage of a decade-and-a-half of development, both of the core game and the growth of the community, giving it unprecedented depth but also troublesome legacy code and ancient design concepts. This headstart is both EVE's strength and its weakness and there are interesting times ahead.

Watch this space. And that one. And the one over there...

Saturday, 13 September 2014

All the Gear and No Idea (Week 2): Raiders of the Lost Artifacts

TL;DR - In my foolhardy quest to participate in EVE's industry gameplay without getting bogged down in endless calculations and spreadsheets, I accidentally made a profit and encountered something unexpected: fun.



When I began my 'playtesting' of the new-fangled industry in EVE, I expected it to be a fairly dry affair more akin to running a business than playing a game. To a degree this is still true and, as I detailed last week, a not insignificant amount of effort was required to set things up.

However, once things were ticking over and I was able to research blueprints and manufacture ships and equipment as I fancied, EVE's universe suddenly came into focus.

No longer was my EVE experience aimless, with occasionally roams or content grinding just because. Goals began to present themselves to me, be they of a pecuniary nature or just a desire to 'find the materials to build that thing'. Every game session becomes a treasure hunt or a mystery.

A Quick Recap

In my first week, I was able to manufacture enough to fill most of the sell orders my mediocre Trade and Retail skill levels allowed: a handful of frigates and destroyers, assorted modules and some rigs. Those few sell orders I couldn't fill with manufactured goods I filled with some of the endless stacks of mission loot I'd been sitting on. Some helpful reader comments last week gave me some pointers, including the fact that modules recovered from missions can no longer provide much in the way of reprocessed material, so their use to me was limited.

A single tritanium unit like you've never seen it before.
By the end of week 1, I'd spent approximately 200m ISK and sold goods to the value of 20m ISK, so things seemed a little fruitless. However, with a full stack of 30-odd sell orders which I monitored and modified on a regular basis in the event that someone nearby undercut me, by midway through week 2 I'd turned over 300m ISK. I was back in the black!

Granted, a significant percentage of that was from the sale of 3 Gnosis battlecruisers I'd built for 1 tritanium each, so it's a bit of an artificial achievement - there's unlikely to be such easy money to be made in subsequent weeks. But after getting a bit of a buzz from seeing my coffers fill so quickly,  I hungered for more high value items to sell. What else did I have stashed in my treasure trove of goodies gathered over my years of play?

The Quest for the Random Items

Talocan? More like Talo-can't!
After some sifting through various loot containers, I found some COSMOS storyline blueprints for modules which I recall being pretty underwhelming at first glance. However, a quick market check showed the items to be of potentially quite high sale value, so I figured I'd see what I needed to do to get them built. That's when I hit a snag; it wasn't just your standard raw materials that were required. Lots of parts with 'Talocan' in their name were needed. Oh well, I was sick of mining anyway, maybe these gubbins were found through exploration - I often recover odd and apparently useless materials from sites found at cosmic signatures.

I was keen to discover content rather than be spoonfed by player guides, so I only allowed myself a quick look on EVElopedia before departing. My research indicated that Talocan sites were found in the Okkelen region of Caldari space twenty-odd jumps away. Just in case combat sites were involved, I decided against my exploration ship of choice - the effective but flimsy (and unarmed) Buzzard - and fitted out my recently acquired but still unused Astero frigate, which can deliver just as well on the exploration front, but has more teeth.

Some time later I was busy scouring space for juicy signatures to plunder. I found plenty of archaeology and hacking sites as well as the more visible combat sites (and one combat signature site which was a bit scarier - I left that to a pilot in a Cerberus who turned up shortly after I did). But none were delivering on these mysterious Talocan items. Hmmm.

Eventually, I relented on my 'no heavy research' resolution and dug further. Well, I say 'dug', my misguided assumptions were pretty much corrected on Twitter by Steve Ronuken and Noizygamer, but I confirmed their advice with my 'digging'. It seemed I needed to be looking for my elusive bounty in a static 'COSMOS' exploration location called the Devil's Dig Site. However, the detailed information provided by EVElopedia and supplemented by research from the Arek'Jaalan project (an innovative, slow-burning live community event from a couple of years ago) indicated that my poor little Astero would likely be chewed up by the rogue drones in the area.

I needed something tougher.

Raiders of the Lost COSMOS

One round trip back to my distant HQ later saw me return the the Okkelen constellation in a purpose-fit Tengu strategic cruiser. The configuration I'd opted for was low on damage output (only three heavy missile launchers), but it focused on having a solid permaboosting shield tank so I could ignore incoming fire and get on with ransacking the relic containers while letting my drones chip away at the hostiles.

The Infested Excavation Site
The entry deadspace area for the Devil's Dig Site plays host to a number of NPCs who offer missions to recover the loot found beyond the acceleration gate. I ignored them. I have other uses for those relics.  The COSMOS sites are home to what more traditional MMOs call public quests and I expected to see other pilots passing through, all with their own reasons for scouring the area.

On entering the Devil's Dig Site proper, the Infested Excavation Site, I was confronted by a vast stalagmite-like asteroid, around which were scattered numerous relics to point my Relic Analyzer module at. A couple of other pilots were present (also in Tengus I noted) and going about their business.

Each time I interacted with a relic node, I was required to play through the hacking minigame which I'd encountered so frequently in more standard exploration sites. The slight difference here was that they offered more of a challenge - I even failed a few times. This was certainly a more engaging way to gather resources than mining and I spent a number of hours slowly gathering some of the materials I needed. Before long I'd built a stockpile of Talocan Mechanical Gears, Reflective Plates, Info Shards and Solid Atomizers. However, a number of parts just didn't seem to be available here.

Another acceleration gate sat at the bottom of the site. Hoping the second site beyond would yield the rarer parts, I activated it, but it just taunted me with demands of an Ancient Cipher Totem key, hinting that it must be around here somewhere. I presumed it to be a rare drop, perhaps like some of the other as yet undiscovered Talocan items, and continued the grind.

Scifi minesweeper: sometimes repeated clicking can be entertaining.

Over the week, I did a half-hour here and there, mindful that I needed to get back to my nascent industrial empire soon; this little field trip was taking too much time. With no variation on the loot I was obtaining, I was about to give up hope and head back to HQ when I finally accessed a relic containing an Ancient Cipher Totem key. Frustratingly, my real life schedule was about to get busy for a few days, so I didn't have the luxury of planning an extended session to make best use of the single-use key any time soon.

I waited until I had a couple of free hours and took the plunge. It was a similar setup in the Ancient Temple beyond the gate, with clusters of relic nodes protected by frigate- and cruiser-sized drones. I went about accessing them, but was forced to keep half an eye on my drones and my shield - these hostiles had a bit more about them and when enough of them concentrated fire, they strained my shields. I also lost a few drones to them. My time was brought to an end by the server shutdown (irritating that on logging back in I'd be back in the starting area with no means of returning to the restricted area) and my spoils were disappointing - I'd gathered a couple of new items on my list, but it was mostly the same stuff as the previous deadspace area.

Unexpected Dividends

Nice chap, bad photographer.
Fortunately, in a stroke of random luck, I did get some contributions from elsewhere. I was still on the Arek'Jaalan mailing list (which is mostly dormant these days) but it had recently seen an enquiry regarding technology sites. I'd chimed in about my quest and before long, Mike Azariah piped up that he had a few bits laying around that I could have. He contracted them over and further bolstered my Talocan artifact collection. He didn't even want anything for his stash, nice chap that he is.

Despite all that, as I headed back to my industrial HQ, a quick assessment of the storyline blueprints that had started this little quest showed that I'd be able to build precisely none of modules I'd hoped to. Bugger, perhaps I should've stuck with mining. Still, it wasn't a total loss - according to the EVE client, the value of the artifacts I'd collected exceeded 150m ISK. In any case, I probably shouldn't focus too much on these blueprints as it's about to change, with news that named modules are going to get a rebalance starting in the upcoming Oceanus release on September 30.

Now back in the comforts of my usual system, I've not yet had much of a chance to kickstart the next batch of industry jobs yet, but I will. As I review and reflect on the growth of my industrial empire, even though in terms of efficiency and profit I essentially wasted most of this week on a jolly to far-off systems, it was refreshing. Rather than rinse-and-repeat the same manufacturing cycles, I experienced a variety of gameplay, tweaked a few ship fits, read some lore and socialised with other EVE players.

It was fun.


Friday, 5 September 2014

All the Gear and No Idea (Week 1): The Industrial Odyssey of an Idiot Begins

TL;DR - I'm dabbling with EVE's revised industry gameplay. The result will likely be a glorious failure due to my spreadsheet allergy, but as Henry Ford never said, "It's always worth taking the time to point and laugh at the clueless."


I enjoy repetitive tasks and fondling spreadsheets.
EVE's complex economy is undoubtedly one of the shining achievements of modern game design. Daily, New Eden sees tens of thousands of players routinely harvesting, manufacturing, buying, selling, and consuming as they contribute to an (almost) entirely self-governing simulcrum of meatspace's capitalist markets.  In gameplay terms, industry has always been the less glamorous side of CCP's internet spaceship MMO and as a result tends to play second fiddle to the more popular spaceship combat experience.

However, in the recent Crius release, the whole system has been given an unprecedented overhaul. The archaic interface of nested windows and endless clicking was reborn as a new shiny sci-fi looking thing, and significant changes were made to the underlying mechanics which look to shake up industry gameplay in its entirety.

I watched with interest during the deployment of the Kronos and Crius releases as the changes were announced, tested, implemented and fixed. I read through assorted discussions as players were variously impressed or frustrated with EVE industry redux. To be perfectly honest, I found most of it baffling, with the frequent discussion of impenetrable algorithms and the kind of mathematical jiu-jitsu that wears out my mouse scroll wheel. But the UI screenshots were certainly pretty (an example can be found below).

In any case, I like the idea that CCP is attempting to make industry more accessible and its appeal more broad, so I thought I'd give it a go. I don't expect to be particularly successful; my brain can spot a spelling mistake from across a room but anything more than basic arithmetic tends to induce a form a glassy-eyed catatonia. I hoped to find some engaging gameplay that is no longer the sole domain of spreadsheet egg-heads. I figure I'm the perfect test subject: if I can get into industry, anyone can.

Where the Hell Do I Begin?

It begins with rocks. And patience.
Luckily for me, I've been knocking around in EVE for long enough to have collected sufficient stuff to speed up my entry into industry, so this is unlikely to be an accurate account of a rookie starting from scratch. But fear not, whatever advantage would be gained from my veteran status will undoubtedly be squandered by my lack of attention to detail and my slapdash, casual approach.

Over the years I've variously tinkered with running a low-sec arms depot on the doorstep of the Providence (I single-handedly ruined this operation by losing all our blueprints due to a poorly-managed overview), operating a corp starbase in null-sec to provide members with a source of ships and equipment (we were eventually pushed out of null by a then rampant Russian alliance [in truth, our landlords sent us home to high-sec like naughty schoolchildren who hadn't done their homework] ) and I've been a contributing, if junior, member of an ultra-organised high-sec industry corp (which I wrote about in my GameSkinny column).

Since then, I'd consolidated whatever assets remained from my adventures into one high-sec location from where I would occasionally pop out to roam, explore, mine or whatever took my fancy. Most of my kit has gathered dust for years. I'm a bit of a hoarder, so I already had a number of blueprints - both unresearched originals and highly researched copies (I can't remember how I got these). I also had a stockpile of minerals and station containers full of mission loot which I could probably melt down if I needed to.

I just needed to decide what to manufacture and start building stock to sell.

Coming Up With a Strategy

After sifting through stuff and admiring my blueprints in the new industry interface, one thing became apparent - in most cases, there was bugger all profit to be made. For example, if I was understanding the numbers helpfully presented by the interface, the estimated cost of production of a Stabber was roughly 9.9m ISK and a quick look at the local market showed they were on sale for just over 10m ISK. So I'd be going to all the effort of mining and building for the sake of a few hundred thousand ISK. Even more depressingly, a quick look at EVE Central showed me that Stabber hulls were available in trade hubs for over a million ISK less than I'd be apparently making them for. If I sold them there, it would be at a price lower than I could sell the raw materials locally for.

A hundred ways of saying, 'you can't afford to do this.'


Clearly I needed to find a way to optimise my production process to improve margins. Most of my manufacturing skills were pretty high as a legacy of my time with Aideron Robotics, so the only other fat to trim was improving my material acquisition and reprocessing and to set up a starbase (POS) which apparently provides a more efficient production process. Of course, any savings made would be offset by the cost of buying and running the POS, but my hoard included most of the POS assets I'd need and I'd been idly running my planetary interaction setup to produce POS fuel for months, so this would cushion the blow to an extent.

At this point, I found myself slipping into maths coma mode and decided I'd just build an assortment of stuff to see what I could shift - I could speculate and procrastinate for days and I just wanted to get on with actually doing something.

I wanted to experience every aspect of the industry process, so my strategy was to acquire raw resources by traditional means (mining etc.), whilst researching my blueprint originals and building from my more efficient blueprint copies. Any sales income would go into my corp account, but I'd float the venture with my private assets to see how quickly I could generate a respectable revenue.

Despite my asset hoard, I managed to burn through nearly 200m ISK buying a small starbase control tower (the large one I already owned would be expensive to run and was overkill for my needs), a reprocessing array (I'd been mining throughout my planning and wanted to get the best return on my ore), and an assortment of skills to improve my mining, reprocessing and sales.

My First Week in Industry: Bankruptcy in a Thousand Tiny Slices

Bloody capitalism!
I actually started this process a week ago and although I enjoyed the process of setting everything up and turning space-rocks into spaceships, I was finding it to be a bottomless pit of hidden charges. Everything I did, from recovering POS fuel from planetary colonies to improving my blueprints in my POS-based research array incurred tax charges, which meant I had to pump some cash into the corp wallet to keep things moving along.

After a few days, this all seemed to suggest that I was putting in a lot of effort only to be spending a lot more than I was making. I built an assortment of frigates and destroyers in batches of 10, despite the likelihood that, in order to be competitive, my low prices would make replenishing depleted coffers a glacially slow process.

That said, I got a genuine buzz when I logged on one day to find that I'd sold a couple of Catalysts and an assortment of frigates. The idea that somewhere out there, players were zipping around in ships of my creation gave me a genuine dopamine hit. To hell with profit, there was reward to be had in other ways.

I looked again at my resources to see what else I could throw out into the local market. Rigs seemed to fetch a fairly high price and I already had a stockpile of salvage. After some confusion over which POS module produces these (it's the equipment assembly array if you were wondering), I found I had one gathering dust in the hangar and some appropriate blueprint originals too. After a bit of material efficiency research, I produced a few and they sold quickly for a sum which far outstripped my hull sales. Lovely.

Now, after a week, I've sold roughly 20m ISK in hulls and rigs, so I've got a long way to go before I break even. Although I've cheated a bit by building some Gnosis battlecruisers from my 10th Anniversary Collector's Edition blueprint at 1 tritanium apiece, so when they sell for ~80m ISK each, that should address the shortfall.

In Conclusion: Effort Versus Engagement

Stuff in space making stuff for space.

This entire venture may be folly, as I'm probably being far too haphazard to properly analyse profit and opportunity and be a proper EVE industrialist. But is that - or should that be - a barrier? After all the effort of setting my operation up, I certainly won't be moving systems if things get even more expensive, as seems to be the thinking behind the System cost index mechanic. But can I just trundle on regardless without running out of resources or content?

I am enjoying the experiment so far, it's been relatively painless and the industry window is very helpful for the most part. There are a few pain points, largely relating to UI inconsistencies, especially when it comes to POS use. But I appreciate that the POS UI is a different and far larger challenge for CCP to address, with the tendrils of convoluted starbase legacy code entangling various other gameplay aspects. Despite this, the setup and use of a POS is certainly far smoother than it used to be. No longer are there pointlessly long waiting times for module deployment and onlining/offlining, making the juggling act of running multiple modules from the inadequate power plant of a small POS more of a sliding block management mini-game than an act of self-harm, especially with the removal of (most of) the irritatingly restrictive interaction ranges.

If nothing else, industry has given purpose to my gameplay. Prior to setting up my operation, I'd log on, ship spin and maybe undock with no real goals in mind. Now I am constantly on the lookout for potential local anomalies to exploit for resources through mining, hacking or archaeology. I'm starting to see trends in what sells and how much effort is involved in acquiring the resources for that product and how I should action that.

For instance, the rig market seems quite lively. However, I'd sooner avoid having to grind missions, but to my knowledge level 4 missions are probably the most accessible source of raw salvage materials. I foresee the need for me to branch out to find more valuable resources, perhaps using an expedition frigate to go wormhole spelunking or trawling in low-sec for rare minerals like megacyte.

It's early days, but I think something just clicked.

Check back next week for a progress report.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Is EVE's New Rapid Release Strategy Working?

EVE is changing, and quite rapidly it seems. Whether this is always for the better is a subject of much debate.

The new, more frequent releases have been belt-fed out of CCP's doors at a rate which I've found almost unsettling as a veteran player used to the old, bi-annual schedule. I remain uncertain as to whether I prefer the new process, which barely leaves time for the traditional cycle of anticipation and investigation of the new features before adapting accordingly.

However, the approximately 6-weekly releases, of which we've seen 3 thus far: Kronos, Crius and Hyperion, have each targeted a particular area of gameplay alongside the grab-bag of rebalances and quality of life tweaks. In a way, this means that it's unlikely that every release will directly impact any given player in a major way. That said, everything in EVE is linked organically, and each ripple in the pond is likely to have some overall impact.

Over these release periods, I've watched with a mix of trepidation and schadenfreude as the much vaunted close relationship between EVE's developers and players has been put to the test. It's quite clear that not everyone is happy.

Observing largely from the sidelines means I don't have a dog in this fight, other than hoping for EVE's continued success. I certainly wouldn't want to see invested players become disenfranchised, however, after reading through the release specific feedback threads and various other places, some of the changes have certainly left some players disgruntled.

Kronos (3rd June 2014) 
[30 pages of issues and feedback in 13 weeks.]

Highlights:

  • New Ships: Mordu's Legion Command Garmur, Orthrus, Barghest & ORE Prospect expedition frigate
  • Customisable sound levels
  • New exploration content
  • Removal of loot spew mechanic
  • Previously useless drones revitalised.
  • New station skins individual to each NPC corporation.

Pain points:

  • Freighter/jump freighter rebalancing/nerfs.

Judging by the EVE-O forums and elsewhere, Kronos seemed to be relatively well-received despite the originally planned industry revamp being bumped to the subsequent Crius release. The remaining content included the fleshing out of the Mordu's Legion faction lore and the introduction of new ships alongside new and revised content contained something of interest to many current players as well as having enough verve to perhaps catch the eye of some passing trade too.


Crius (22 July 2014) 
[96 pages of issues and feedback in 6 weeks.]

Highlights:

  • Revamped industry UI and mechanics [1]

Pain points:

  • Buggy release (much of which has been subsequently addressed). [1]
  • Lack of ability to scale industry UI window, which occupies 80% of the screen at 1080p (although the bottom 1/3 can be reduced and double-clicking the top bar minimises the window in-situ). [1] [2]
  • Loss of invested time in researched blueprint originals. [1] [2]
  • Loss of invested time in grinding faction standings to allow high-sec starbase deployment (although high standings still contribute to reduced costs).
  • Taxing industry jobs at player-owned starbases. [1] [2] [3]
  • Inflated costs for industry gameplay due to blueprint revisions. [1] [2]

Long-time industrialists who had invested time and effort to hone their blueprints to a incredibly high ('perfect') levels of time and material efficiency, taking months or even years, found their efforts cast aside by the new capped system introduced in Crius. Where previously blueprint originals could be researched ad infinitum (despite ever diminishing benefit), the new system maxes out at 10 levels of research, meaning those months (or sometimes years) of blueprint research beyond 10 levels which some players had undertaken had been summarily disregarded by CCP's revisions (early discussion saw CCP considering some kind of compensation, but they eventually decided otherwise).

That's not to say the reception of Crius' industry revision has been entirely poorly received, the feedback thread is also dotted with positive comments about various quality of life changes, as well as responses to the disgruntled, inciting them to 'adapt or die'.

Hyperion (26 August 2014) 
[24 pages of issues and feedback in 1 week]

Highlights:

  • Challenging 'burner' missions against single, powerful NPC ships.
  • Shareable overview settings.
  • Wormhole gameplay changes, including environments exclusive to small ships. 

Pain points:

  • Disruption of the wormhole playstyle status quo/ignoring player feedback. [1] [2] [3] [4]
  • Loss of previously stored overview data. [1]
  • Mass-based spawn distance for wormhole travellers. [1] [2

Mirroring Crius' industry shake-up, Hyperion dropped a boulder into the tranquil pond of wormhole life, delivering changes to the dynamic generation of transient wormhole connections, purportedly rendering some established playstyle habits extinct (although possibly creating others). In Hyperion's case, a significant amount of player feedback was received prior to release (including this 91-page threadnaught), and although CCP devs amended their original designs, wormhole player dissatisfaction has apparently remained high enough for many to reiterate their concerns in the post-release thread.

Brendan Drain offered an interesting counterpoint to the complainants in his recent Massively article, Wormholes Should Be More Dangerous, citing 'blatant self-interest' as the motivation for most of the objections to recent changes with a disregard for what might be good for the game at large.

Damned if they do...

While work on the content of each expansion presumably runs concurrently, with dev teams having individual schedules aimed at different releases, Kronos evidently benefited from starting out as a traditional expansion and had more meat on its bones. Comparatively, Both Crius and Hyperion seem to have had a much more troubled start in life, delivering seismic changes to industry and wormhole environments respectively, each leading to vocal dissent from a proportion of the veteran players representative of those playstyles. Sindel Pellion's A Tale of Internet Spaceships metaphor of CCP shaking the ant farm springs vividly to mind.

In neither case can I claim to be an expert, having simply taken the pulse of the forum communities where invested players have voiced their concerns both during the pre-release test phases and subsequently after the changes have gone live. There's no shortage of disenfranchised and frustrated comments from players claiming that they have lost the will to continue pursuing their internet spaceship hobby.

Without access to hard numbers, it's impossible to say whether CCP's new, aggressive and frequent ant-farm shaking policy is having an impact on player subscriptions with either a positive or negative trajectory. Certainly the best external source is Chribba's EVE Offline server monitoring website, but any indication of a player response to the new development regime is obfuscated by the traditional Summer slump and the fact that unrenewed subscriptions may take some months to expire.

The following graph shows the average weekly concurrent users since 2006, with this year's Summer high being 26,458 on July 24th.


According to that graph, high points from previous Summer periods are as follows:

31,849 on 8th August 2013
30,251 on 9th August 2012
30,957 on 21 July 2011
33,695 on 1 July 2010 (or 31,961 on the 22nd July if you want a more similar date).
29,861 on 3 September 2009
24,947 on 17 July 2008
21,539 on 3 July 2007
17,507 on 24 August 2006

So we have to go back to 2008 to find comparable Summer numbers to this year's (although admittedly, this Summer isn't over yet). This would suggest to me that, at the very least, there are some teething problems with the new release process. It is possible that the releases are either not addressing an expected decline or are perhaps even contributing to it. In any case, the average user count is down by about 20% on the previous 5 Summers.

However, also worth considering, as CSM member Mynnna pointed out on Twitter, is that the Summer period also has an impact on CCP's development resources as many devs flee the spaceships (and the volcano) for more relaxing vacational pursuits. This might go some way toward explaining why some release features may have been delivered with less polish than would have been optimal, perhaps also compounded by a degree of low morale due to the recent lay-offs. But if that's the case, does this expose the lack of wiggle room in the new rapid release strategy? Mynnna also offered some other insight into the presentation of the recent releases:


Admittedly, it's easy to become negatively influenced by the famously demanding and "toxic" EVE-O forum culture, and I should perhaps take the acrimony to be found there with a pinch of salt. But in doing so, would I be falling into the same trap as CCP developers who have been accused recently of ignoring feedback?

In any case, in true EVE player form, I figure that one player's broken game experience is another player's opportunity. If industry veterans are really throwing in the towel en-masse, it may be a good time to revisit manufacturing to exploit any void they might leave. Also, first-hand experience will be informative in ways that forums full of rage, trolls and apathy can never be. I've recently been flirting with the new industry experience in the hope I might be able to exploit the dissent (more on this in a subsequent post).

I'll reserve drawing any conclusions for now, as it would be premature based solely on some nebulous numbers and a few forum threads. In the meantime, what's been your experience of CCP's bold new release strategy? Has it shaken up your gameplay experience in a good or bad way? Are you finding the constant changes exciting, daunting, or tiresome? It'd be very interesting to hear from those who've got the good sense to avoid the EVE-O forums.