One of the great compelling aspects of MMORPGs is progression, progression being defined as doing something… gain a skill, earn some gold, gain some experience, advance a story, open up new zones or dungeons… that advances you towards a larger goal. I was all over that, along with what was meaningful and what might not be, last week. Or, at least I strung together a bunch of words alleging to be all over that. The rather subdued response could mean I sent everybody away to think… or that I just sent everybody away.
I am back for more.
Part and parcel of whatever variation of progression you choose, at least in PvE, is knowing that the time you spend gives you an expected return in the coin of the realm, be that gold, progression, faction, or whatever. Knowing you can log in and do something in a given amount of time for a set reward can be a powerful thing. But it can also be a limiting thing.
In a discussion in a comment thread a while back about PvE in EVE Online there was the usual gripe about the dull and repetitive nature of PvE in New Eden, accompanied by the call for CCP to make PvE more challenging, dynamic, exciting, or whatever. Those words always play well, in part because they are just vague enough without solid context to mean just about anything.
However one person called bullshit on all of that in a comment. His assertion was that what mission runners valued above all was the consistency of both knowing what they were going to get for their efforts and understanding what it was going to take to complete the task at hand. It was the surety of the return on the time invested that kept people going after they learned enough of the game to move forward.
And while I wasn’t on board with everything he had to say, I had to agree strongly that the almost guaranteed return on the time invested was likely the bedrock on which many a mission runner career ended up being based. In the absence of broad scale progression like levels, the reward in ISK and LPs was about all one can hang their hat on when it comes to New Eden PvE.
There is a reason that bounties in null sec are the biggest ISK faucet in the game. Anomalies are repetitive in the extreme, don’t really have much of a fig leaf of a story to cover your reasoning to warp there and shoot everything in sight, and the big excitement is that maybe you get an escalation at the end. And even escalations, not all that common back in the day, have gotten much more rare as CCP attempts to put the reigns on the faction battleship supply.
Furthermore, as I noted on Talking in Stations a week or so back, the escalation option for many players is to sell the bookmarks to a group that will run them and split the rewards with you so you don’t have to step out of your comfort zone and have your payout expectations set in advance.
There was a skit with Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live way back in the day where he was on stage with another performer ( I forget who at this point) who would give him a treat every time he did something on stage. Then, after one action, he didn’t get a treat, at which point he stopped to point out that he was expecting a treat. He’d been given a treat for every action in rehearsal and during the warm up before the show and for every action up to that point, but now suddenly he didn’t get a treat when he clearly expected one and had to find out, mid skit, what happened.
This is sort of the dark side of MMORPGs, the conditioned behavior, in that we expect to get a treat… experience or gold or achievement or whatever… for every action. We expect that our time invested ought to be rewarded and can get upset or demoralized when it does not.
I am reminded of spending a whole evening grinding mobs with a group back in early EverQuest and then having a bad spawn or a mob wander up or get trained onto us, getting killed, and essentially losing all of the progress I had made. That was always a disheartening moment. For all the arguments about having enjoyed yourself up until that moment, the loss of what you had played/worked for tends to cancel that out and then some.
MMORPGs have tended to mitigate that since the early days of EverQuest. In World of Warcraft death’s sting is pretty light, no progress is lost, and you can run back and try your hand at things fairly quickly.
In New Eden however the destruction of one’s ship can still represent a setback in the only progress a lot of people use, ISK accumulation. One of the hardest things to get used to in EVE Online is that losing a ship is something to be expected, a normal part of the game. It took me a long time to get past that. I have seen people argue that they would never play EVE because they equate a ship in New Eden with gear in WoW, and the idea that you could somehow lose all of your hard earned purple raid gear is anathema to some people. The whole “only fly what you can afford to lose” is nonsense talk to people who come from worlds where you never lose anything. That there is a whole complex economy happy to sell them replacement ships doesn’t matter, loss is bad.
And even when you have accepted that ships are temporary, there is still that ISK setback and the inconvenience of getting a replacement. So PvE in New Eden tends to be the pursuit of the optimized ISK gathering experience, and null sec anomalies win on that front. Missions are arguably at least mildly more interesting, but a boring anomaly is very consistent in reward and difficulty and you don’t have to travel to find one. With no real progression outside of ISK accumulation, people tend towards the easiest path.
But that is setting up for failure if your primary focus in PvE. Anomalies are deadly dull. I will never be really space rich or own a super capital ship because I cannot bring myself to run more than one or two on any given day. Instead I use them to fill in the gap between alliance ship replacement payouts (you never quite get what you paid, or for peacetime ops you only get a small payout), to buy new ships when doctrines change, and to cover my own losses when I am off doing dumb things just to see if I can. (I was told I was very dumb for flying my Typhoon back from the deployment, fun and/or challenge not being a mitigating factor in the minds of some.)
In a sandbox game like EVE Online which lacks what I would consider long term, meaningful progression, how do you build “better” PvE for players? What does “better” even look like given that, for many people, additional complexity or difficulty is often viewed as a negative and the accumulation of ISK or LPs are the only real long-term incentives?
Even people who choose more difficult content like burner missions optimize for them, so that when CCP changes something without mentioning it in the patch notes it can cause some heartburn?
And where does that leave CCP’s ambition to convert new players from PvE to PvP? Because the return on investment… measured in fun, excitement, or kill mails… for PvP in New Eden can be even worse than PvE. Much worse.
The problem with sandbox PvP is that it depends on other people, and we’re all notoriously unreliable. And all the more so in New Eden where you can’t just pop up again at the nearest respawn point fully equipped and ready to have another go.
Yet another on the list of reasons I fly in null sec is that not only do I see some of the more large scale PvP battles, but for the most part somebody else does the work of figuring out where to be and when, then just calls on people like myself to come and help make it happen. People like Asher Elias and Jay Amazingness and a host of other people put in a lot of effort to find fights that will keep us all happy to hang around and respond to pings.
Even then I would say that maybe, possibly, very optimistically one in four operations end us up with us shooting at hostiles, leaving aside structures and the occasional passing target of opportunity… which usually gets scooped up by the guy not running the doctrine fit because he has two scripted sebos in his mids for just such an occasion.
And even then, actually getting the much worshiped “gud fight” is a rare bird indeed. Most roams or gate camps or whatever tend to end up as ganks of singletons who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and can’t quite get away. It is no wonder that final timer structure shoots tend to get a good turnout. At least we all get to fire our guns and a kill mail is almost guaranteed.
So I ask, in the context of the progression the game offers, the tendency for players to optimize for the desired outcome, and CCP’s fantasy about turning PvE players into PvP players, what does better PvE look like in New Eden?