Building a Better Sandbox

RI2 - Expo

The second decade of EVE Online is something everyone appears excited about. At Fanfest, the dev team was ecstatic to reveal their direction for the next few expansions and the player audience responded with thunderous applause at the concept of player built jump gates.

Everyone except me.

You see, I have been to a few Fanfests now, and have had the privilege of getting to know many of the CCP team over the years. Some of them I stay in touch with throughout each year and others still I keep in touch with after they’ve left CCP.

I’m not name dropping or showing off here. I’m building a foundation of credibility for the points ahead.

A KINGDOM DIVIDED

There are two camps in CCP. This isn’t a recent development as it’s something I’ve been made privy to since my first trip to Fanfest in 2008. There are some developers that believe the focus of EVE should be PvP, or player vs player. Every interaction should be as a direct result of player action whether it’s market, industry, mining, combat, etc.

EVE is a single shard universe and has always prided itself as such and the fact that your fame, or infamy, is known to everyone in that type of environment. Therefore, every player action has a consequence. We’ve seen this is the Butterfly Effect trailer, the Future Vision trailer and it has been repeated again and again over the years most recently with the EVE/DUST tie-in. Magazines write about how EVE is like no other game because of what players can do. It is what separates EVE from those other games that have pre-defined content that players consume as quickly as it’s put out.

EVE is real.

Make no mistake. I really and truly enjoy all these aspects of EVE Online tremendously. The community of EVE is what makes the game so great. The fact that we can essentially do anything within EVE Online is astounding … until you look under the shiny at least.

The other camp believes EVE is a MMO, or massively multiplayer online game. There is a belief in the lore of EVE, the backstory, the PvE, or player versus environment content, the underlying backbone of the universe that compels us as players to be involved. Why do I play a Minmatar? What does that mean? What event has transpired that makes me want to login? How is content generated? How solid are the ingame systems in place? What bugs exist that infuriate me on a daily basis? How are they being resolved? Is the environment believable? Do I feel immersed into this rich science fiction universe?

As I’ve spoken with the various members of CCP on this subject, it becomes very clear very quickly who believes what, and each and every person is passionately defensive of their stance. I respect that to a degree even though I believe it to be short-sighted and will be discussing with you right now why that is.

As it stands, EVE Online is a PvP game that pretends to be a MMO. Plain and simple. There is lip service internally and externally that says the lore is important, the story is important. In fact, there is a lore book coming out soon, a definitive guide written by former EON editor Richie Shoemaker. See? Lore. Important. Heck, CCP Falcon and the ISD teams are alive and well, continually adding more stories to the forums. Lore. Still important. Except it isn’t because none of it is reflected in the game.

Remember Sansha Kuvakei? You know, that meglomaniac trying to enslave the universe? Right. That had no lasting impact. The universe didn’t change. Factional Warfare? Yeah. Sigh. To date, there have been only two events that have led to lasting change:

  1. The discovery of wormholes which opened up a whole new area of New Eden
  2. The Battle for Caldari Prime which permanently affected the planet graphic

Both of these were scripted CCP events to coincide with a marketing initiative. They were never about lore.

Now CCP is talking about player built jump gates. There is speculation provided on how this will permanently change the universe. Maybe it will, but I’m doubtful given CCP’s track record to date.

TECHNICAL DEBT

There is a term used in the development industry called Technical Debt. Essentially, it is the continued accumulation of bad code as a project moves forward. There are always reasons for technical debt: reduced budgets, shortened deadlines, scope creep. They are an inevitable part of the industry. At this year’s Fanfest, the 10th anniversary of EVE Online, CCP gave us a sincere look into their Technical Debt. At every roundtable, a developer would mention how sorry they are for their technical debt. Everyone has been so very transparent about it at CCP that it almost makes you feel sorry for ever doubting them. Except for the fact that they’ve never actually told us their plans for how to deal with technical debt and actually dodged that question when I asked it repeatedly during various round tables.

As it stands, the easiest way for CCP to deal with technical debt is to completely avoid it. Shiny to shiny, keep building on an unstable base, sticking together bandaid solutions so the entire thing doesn’t collapse.

That doesn’t sound smart, does it.

A BETTER SANDBOX

Do you know why the content system has never been re-addressed? Partly because of that first camp I told you about that believe EVE Online is solely a PvP game. The other reason is that the PvE content code in EVE Online is so archaic and poorly architected as to be almost uneditable. It would literally be less manpower to scrap it and start over which would still not be a small task by any means. And why bother? Content is static and boring. Content is too easy to consume and too costly to create. It’s easier to simply not change it and push players into believing EVE is that PvP game. Let them create their own content. Let them pay us to do so. Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along.

It’s almost like walking down a Hollywood backlot, seeing the buildings on either side, being in awe of it all, until you take a closer peek around the corner and see they are just cardboard cutouts. It’s all an illusion you’re not supposed to question.

EVE is real?

LONG TERM THINKING

I’ve never written a post like this before. I’m truly a CCP and EVE fanboi. I have huge respect and admiration for Hilmar. I enjoy the game immensely. I’ve run for CSM. I’ve transformed my physical self to better match my virtual self. I’m a roleplayer to the extreme.

Why write such an inflammatory post then? Because I want to play this beloved game of ours until I’m too old to use a computer or whatever we’re using by that time. I want to be immersed in a universe that excites me because like our real lives it’s constantly evolving.

We’re partly there. I mean, we do have players that influence a lot of things and are always creating interesting news headlines.

Why stop there?

DYNAMIC LANDSCAPES

A while back I posted about an idea called Dynamic Landscapes. I agree that producing static content is costly and ultimately pointless as players will always consume it faster than it can be produced. So why not build a dynamic system for this? Why not have a database of objectives for the system to choose from? Why not have it tier structured base on previous completion and overall faction points acquired? Why not have it based on historic location data already available from within the game?

This type of system would allow content writers to update the database behind the scenes without any fanfare or hard public deadline. This type of system would allow players an interesting new way of consuming and generating content all at the same time.

Imagine the Angel Cartel setting up shop in a nullsec region. Tier 1 is gathering resources. This could be noticed on the market or randomly on system scans. You like the Angels and happen to find out what they’re doing. You decide to help them. Butterfly effect. Or you don’t like the Angels and try to stop them. Butterfly effect. Of course, they may have already gathered all the resources needed for Tier 1 completion and have moved on to Tier 2, ship production. You want to stop them but they have a defensive fleet in place that is far too much for you to take on alone, so you tell your corporation. Meanwhile, an Angel friendly Alliance has decided to defend them and their operation so things have escalated. Tier 3 could be a station. Tier 4 could be regional control or jump highways to highsec.

Additionally, each tier generates from a pool of agents. Each agent has a pool of player missions. Each mission has interesting risks and rewards. Each tier escalates in difficulty.

How does it play out? Do the Angels get destroyed? If so, they go back into the content pool and this could possibly never happen again. Or it could, but with a different faction and in a different location, with different tier goals. This creates nearly infinite content.

Or do they succeed? Now they are fighting player alliances for territory. That’s going to force some interesting content, don’t you think?

That’s simply one idea.

PLAYER VERSUS ?

Another idea is to improve the AI across the board. The roleplayer in me hates when an FC tells me to loadup for ratting. It tells me clearly that I will not be engaging players so fit accordingly. As a capsuleer within New Eden, there should be no advanced way of knowing. I shouldn’t know the difference between a player and a non-player. They should be the same.

Why not have the AI learn as it survives? Why not have them earn ranks much like in factional warfare the longer they survive? Why not have them receive small bonuses as they do survive, and watch their bounties go up? Why not have them change loadouts just like we do? Change tactics? Instead of suiciding us to the last ship, imagine if two warped away before dying, you scan them down, and come across the earlier Angel Cartel content at Tier 3? Well, that’s a PvE mission gone sideways. Fun!

We come closer and closer to AI chatbots that are almost able to win the Turing test. They are almost to the point where we can’t tell if we’re talking to a person or a robot. Once this becomes a reality, imagine being ingame, seeing a ship tracking you, having a conversation with the pilot, and not knowing if they are real or not. It is one more layer of realism that makes the game more believable.

SECURITY

Highsec, lowsec, nullsec. There are people that think this is enough. There is a growing number that believe it isn’t, that’s it too restrictive in some senses, and not restrictive enough in others.

This ties in to Hulkageddon, noob zones, and many other hot issues every CSM campaign. There are always false promises made by CCP and CSM candidates, but nothing has changed since I joined in 2006.

Why not make each point have its own set of properties? This code system already exists and is not in bad shape. Why not leverage it?

1.0 could be completely safe. A perfect place for noobs, at least until they do something that affects their standing in any way. After that, they are warned not to return under penalty of fire.

Each point system could get slightly and progressively more lenient, making every system more interesting.

This could apply to factions as well. I’m a Minmatar war pilot. When I enter Amarr lowsec, I get a warning. The longer I stay there, the worse it gets, unless I jump to a new system at which points it resets. Why do that? Why not have it get worse and worse the longer I am there at all? Why not have a point where eventually if I fly deep enough into Amarr space I’ll have an entire battleship fleet waiting when I jump through the gate that can instalock the second I decloak and incinerate me for being far too ballsy?

Why not apply this to every factional standing in the game and not just factional warfare?

Imagine serving the Minmatar Republic but in the process of trying to become a superstar you actually manage to decrease your standing with them. Imagine it gets to the point where your very public operations become an embarrassment to them and they no longer allow you into your own highsec systems until you clean up your act.

Or imagine just randomly flying through Guristas space with -9.2 Guristas standing when suddenly a pirate fleet drops on you because you are public enemy number one to them. How fun would that be?

PLAYER TOOLS

CCP is always mentioning how they want to create ISK sinks for the players that growing ever richer ingame.

Why not live event tools? Why not marketing tools?

Imagine being able to setup your own missions with your own rewards provided out of your own pocket? You, directly telling a story within the greater story of EVE. It’s been done in other games successfully. It’s also been abused and exploited horribly. It’s all about finding balance. But why bother if EVE is only a PvP game, right? Right.

Steam has a video creator. Crytek is soon to release theirs. We’ve seen some gorgeous EVE Online trailers. Imagine being given the tools to create those as players. Sure, they exist and they are also a code mess. No surprise there given the technical debt conversation.

But so what? Do we care? Put a disclaimer for use “as is”. Or spend some cycles and clean it up. Take that money from your marketing team because I guarantee you that having 400,000+ players making machinima for you is going to reduce your need for your current marketing budget.

CONCLUSION

It’s about making the game itself have a meaning instead of being set dressing. It’s about understanding that EVE being an MMO actually helps EVE be a better PvP game. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one is built upon the success of the other.

The technical debt continues to rise. When it reaches its critical mass it isn’t going to matter which camp you believe in. They will both fall apart.

I don’t want that. You dont’ want that. CCP doesn’t want that. Why then is nothing being done about it?

You may say that these ideas are stupid. Maybe they are. I’ve already thought of reasons that would make them not work. Then more reasons why they do work. Then more again for not working. That’s how I process.

You may believe CCP is probably doing something about the technical debt and we, as players, simply aren’t privy to that information. Maybe you’re right. Maybe the CSM is in the know. Or maybe not. Either way, one would think this would be a great marketing and public relations point to make, not something to be avoided like a huge conspiracy.

Whatever your thoughts, more than anything, this post was meant to stimulate thought and conversation. I’m still a fanboi. This is but a sampling of the thoughts that run through my head on a daily basis. Mobile? Hello, Capsuleer. Incarna? Whatever happened to our war rooms, games, bars, shops and strippers? Why are we using an engine completely different from WoD at this point? What happened to the CARBON buzzword? EVR? 60 FPS fighters in a 1 FPS game? I hope to share more with you going forward, but that all depends on how much you actually want to discuss my thoughts.

I guess we’ll find out in the comments below.

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12 responses to “Building a Better Sandbox

  1. Well said, Roc. I have been out of the game for a while, but your thoughts echo what I thought from day 1 as a pilot in EVE. Thanks for being willing to open up and own up to being a fanboi but still be willing to say what you feel and think about this.

    • There is almost an inherent obligation as a fanboi to do so. It’s the players that are apathetic that allow our great game to continue as is. CCP has always responsive to the player base, just not necessarily in the right way.

      Is my way right? Yes. Does it need refining? Yes. This is why I have run for CSM. Not to push my agenda, but to get the voices of players united on important issues.

      I’m not CSM but I still have a voice. Thanks for sharing yours.

  2. I would love to see the technical debt you talk about get heavily worked on over the next few years so that CCP will have a solid base to work off of

    • I agree, but we’re the minority. The valid fear is that by the time the technical debt is brought down to zero, players will have lost interest in the game because of the increasingly stiff competition out there. It’s a risk. It’s definitely something that needs to be worked on in conjunction with future enhancements, and I’m sure there is a percentage of this already done.

      I think the problem is symptomatic of most businesses in that the planning phase is always what suffers and going back always ends up being cost prohibitive so you make due with what you have.

      It’s not the “ideal” scenario CCP finds themselves in, but it is something that can be managed if they bring the right Executive Producer in to replace Jon Lander.

  3. I like the dynamic content Roc. Anything which helps a player with situational awareness, and encourages them to adapt as things evolve is a good thing imho.

    Why? It’s a good lead in to the world of PvP… and potentially how to avoid/escape it for those so inclined.

  4. Funny that you mention this. I’ve been imagining an engine whereby the NPCs learn from the players, adapt fits to their ships where possible, try out comps, learn from mistakes, etc. They would always lag a bit behind, which is fine–except where it happened that a certain comp was just *perfect* for that NPC faction’s ships, and there would have to be upper limits set on the number and type of ship so that some poor mission runner didn’t warp in to the equivalent of a nullsec megafleet, but it would mean that, in essence, the players were doing the work of designing the dynamic content. PVE would shift in response to the prevailing meta.

    • Absolutely on point. You could further expand it that as ranks increase, abilities increase – larger fleets, fleet bonuses, etc, etc. Survival is always rewarded.

      And yes, caps are important which is why even in dynamic landscapes there are only four tiers and a set time to accomplish goals. It prevents infinite farming as in found in static raid content as well as dealing with unfair advantages depending on where the content develops.

      Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg for Dynamic Landscapes. It could solve a great many of CCP’s underlying issues while pushing EVE ahead of the curve once again.

      Who else has an intelligent RTS system powering their NPCs?

  5. I’ve done the PvP and the PvE. Right now I’m running in stand-by mode. Just logging in to change skills, etc. Even my industry is on stand-by.

    I’m not in stand-by because I’m bored of EVE. Not at all. Life has told me to focus on other things at the minute and that means I cannot dedicate all the time that I need to EVE. This rules out PvP, which I miss. I tried to do casual PvP but it didn’t work out. I then solely focused my limited time to industry but that is most definitely a full time profession otherwise you start losing ISK on under utilised POSes and unsold items.

    This left me with the casual take it or leave it PvE. I used to enjoy running missions when I first started, and again later on after taking a break. Not any more. It’s just too repetitive. There is no fun in it. Not enough to bring me back, just yet anyway.

    No doubt I will come back by doing a few missions and it’ll escalate from there.

    I’m keeping my account active so CCP wouldn’t gain anything by improving PvE for me, aside from getting me interactive with the economy again. I bet there are a fair few pilots that are currently inactive though, waiting for something to bring them back in. Or even new players that wouldn’t have stuck around with the existing PvE?

    I do keep my hopes up that these things get the attention they deserve, however unlikely that seems.

  6. Imagine an inhouse software department with a 10 year old system.

    Imagine that department spending 18 months on technical debt.

    Imagine tripling the size of your development team to try to achieve something. That is growing from a team of 6 to a team of 18.

    Imagine, that during that 18 months only the absolutely most critical of fixes were done, and nothing new was developed. Many of these fixes were required to fix bugs by re-working the tech debt.

    Now imagine that after all that time and effort, you have nothing to show for it.

    While much of code is somewhat easier to work with, more is written the old way. You now have yet another way of writing code only marginally compatible with other, older methods.

    Imagine the author of this comment working for above said company. No, it was not a gaming company.

    No, I was not on that development team. I have been on other development teams. We addresses tech debt with care, and then only when required to fix something tangible that we wanted to deliver.

    If the tech debt is of the size mentioned, and you want it fixed, then please allow CCP 3 years with no new functionality expected of them. And even then, no guarantees you will be better off.

    • I completely understand your point. I am a Technical Director by trade. I head technology departments. I understand how much of an investment in time, money and manpower this is and yes, you may not end up better off. You may lose your customers in the meanwhile as the shiny dies while technical debt is worked on.

      Mark Heard, Seleene, had a platform of iterations, where new features were balanced with bug fixes. This is NOT that.

      This is referring to the underlying technical debt that continues to accrue as CCP goes from shiny to shiny.

      The problem with only considering technical debt resolution when needed to implement a new feature is flawed in that it will inevitably lead to more technical debt down the road.

      THAT is my point. If we’re on a debt scale of 1 – 100 and we’re currently sitting at 70 (arbitrary number), so be it. Spend some cycles here and there reducing that number but do not, and I repeat DO NOT simply try to fix as you go or that number will continue to rise until we find ourselves at the critical point where new features cannot be added because going back to change the previous code will inherently destabilize the entire system.

      That is a position none of us want CCP to be in because it is then that we can definitively start counting down the days until Eve’s death. The inability to add new features at all will then become a race to try to fix the technical debt before the customers leave.

      So why not fix it now, over the next three years as you said? EVE Players are very supportive. We’ve been down this road where shiny fails and held CCP to higher standards and expected slower and fewer updates that are more stable. Carbon excited us. CREST excites us.

      The new launcher … shit … that was a bit of an oops. Still isn’t 100%. More technical debt from rushing to meet the Odyssey release date. And we’re not even there yet.

      Again, not invalidating your point. It’s a tough thing to deal with. The reality is that it MUST be dealt with, the earlier the better.

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