2013-04-16

Life in Eve: You Play How You Practice (1/?)

When I first started playing Eve in earnest (which does not count the attempt some seven years ago) I went through all tutorials (this was only a few years ago, right after the new avatars, but before Incarna, so the tutorials weren't as utterly terrible as they had once been), then did the Sister's Epic Arc, and then started running missions.

I mean, that's what you do in MMOs, right? Tutorial, then the mission chain the tutorials send you to, then take missions from whoever seems interested.

Mostly, I did those missions on my own, but I was sometimes joined (and often advised) by Gor, who was a veteran of High-sec PvE and any-sec industry. I remember the first time he actually rendezvoused with me in a system (Nine jumps away! The vast distance! Travel takes so long!), stoically floating next to my trusty Vexor cruiser in his slowly pulsating Megathron Navy Issue battleship. Many times, he would lead the way into a mission, knowing the massive bulk of his ship could handle virtually anything the NPCs could throw at him, and that I could safely proceed to pick off the small stuff without fear of reprisal.

Time passed, and I became interested in Exploration and eventually Wormholes. Once I'd gotten to what was probably the absolute BARE minimum level of skill for handling the most basic of Wormhole anomalies, I went hunting for them, and convinced Gor and CB to come along on a little daytrip into the first uninhabited system I found.

Gor brought one of his mission-running battleships.

It wasn't pretty.

Gone was the idea that anyone was 'safe' in the site. Anyone on the field was a valid target, because the Sleepers switched primaries randomly, and even if they hadn't, none of us could really handle the incoming damage: if you had a hole in your defenses - ANY kind of hole - the sleepers found it, bored in, and tore you to pieces from the inside.

After a dozen attempts at the site, we finally prevailed, looted the field, and limped back to known space. I'm fairly sure most of us were on fire.

Gor was, to put it mildly, peeved. Insulted, really. The way the sleepers had manhandled one of his best mission-running ships was just... well, it was clearly broken, is what it was -- it was just ridiculous -- he hadn't been that close to losing a ship against an NPC in years.

Eventually (it didn't even really take that long) we figured out how to fit ships that could handle sleepers, and we adapted our play to their little foibles as well. There were some painful losses along the way (and not all or even most to Sleepers), but we managed. Eventually, it all became routine -- even the most challenging of PvE in Eve is pretty predictable, manageable stuff.

Later, I dropped into a random site in known space and was struck (shocked, really) by how EASY it was -- compared to Sleepers, these known-space NPCs were a walk in the park. I even ran a couple missions -- easily destroying objectives in an Ishkur frigate that I had once struggled to complete in a Myrmidon battlecruiser. Some of that was my increased training, yes, but far more was the simple fact that I'd been forced to up my game.

"I understand your frustration now," I said to Gor. "These guys don't prepare you for Sleepers in the least."

"I know," he said, sounding disgusted. "I almost didn't come back to wormholes when you wanted to try again."

Now imagine how much worse the shock is if, as someone new to PvP, you jump into a fight thinking that missions have prepared you for what's to come.

You expect this.


You get this.


What's that going to be like for the new PvPer?

Well, they'd be insulted. The way the other player(s) manhandled their ship was just... well, it's clearly broken, is what it is -- just ridiculous.

And that impression is not the fault of the PvP -- it's the way in which missions (and really any of the currently designed PvE) completely fails to prepare you for everything else in the game.

So how can you fix that in such a way as to make the PvE suck less (it is, honestly, quite poor -- ironically the worst 10% of the game, yet all that 90% of new players ever experience) while preparing players for the sorts of the gameplay you'll regularly encounter in PvP?

You Play the Way You Practice


Recently, Jester started up a PvP 101 series that I'm going to use as a sort of brainstorming blueprint for improving PvE in Eve. Jester's guide is very good, and the things he mentions a player needs to consider are important regardless of what you're doing in the game, so why not use the missions to teach those lessons, since that is where players coming in from other MMOs will start anyway?

The goal is three-fold, and the results are all beneficial: reduce or eliminate the profound culture shock that players experience when moving from missions to PvP, actually familiarize them with the skills and techniques they'll use in that environment (beyond just "this is what a web is"), and improve the missions themselves by making them more interesting and engaging.

But... why?


Jester said this best, so let's just let him explain it:
Player-versus-player combat in EVE is a rush that is very difficult or impossible to duplicate in other games. Your first few times in PvP battle, your heart rate will go up, your hands will shake, and you will have a visceral emotional reaction to what's going on. Even after months or years, from time to time you will still have this reaction. When you are killed, you will feel compelled to obsess about why it happened and when you succeed, it is something that will cause you to smile for hours or days afterward.

Compare this to Eve's PvE experience, which involves missions so boring that players routinely fall asleep if they run them for too long, and win anyway.

General Principles

Don't fly what you can't afford to lose.

One of the first and most profound differences between PvP and PvE in Eve is that, with PvE, Bigger is Always Better. This calls back to most traditional MMO designs in which the bigger and badder a mission is, the bigger and badder you need to be to defeat it. Think of any MMO where someone figures out how to beat a high-level mission on a low-level toon, and that method will quickly be labeled an exploit, a patch will be applied, and the innovative player in question should count themselves lucky they weren't banned.

That's... not how Eve works.

First of all, innovation in play is sort of the point.

But more importantly, this idiotic ship progression requirement in missions is teaching players the best ship for any given situation is the biggest fucking thing they can undock, and that is simply not the case in any other part of the game. Sometimes, you need something small and fast. Sometimes, you need something tough, and damage doesn't matter. Often, you need something that's got a bit of a bonus for a particular role.

Some faction warfare missions kind of work this way: in almost all of the highest-level faction warfare missions, the best ship for the task is the incredibly fragile stealth bomber frigate. That's a fine start, but it's ultimately a bad example, because it's still just one ship type that must be used.

There's a mission, for example, called The Reprisal, where you have to kill a commander flying a battleship. It's one of several missions of this type in Faction Warfare, but in this case the target you need to kill flies quite fast (reducing the damage sustained from the bomber's torpedoes) and actively repairs damage (eliminating what little damage he does take).

The solution to this problem in every other part of the game would be to get a fast interceptor or attack frigate to haul ass after the target, get a web and a warp scrambler on the guy, and pin him down while the bombers do their work.

Doesn't work. NPCs don't work like real ships, and can just go as fast as they like for as long as they like. Scramblers don't work to shut down the high speed of the target, and without that a web doesn't work nearly well enough.

So: the mission fails to teach players anything about how every other part of the game works.

How do the players deal with it?

They just decline the mission, because it's terrible. Not worth the effort, and introduces no interesting game play.

Solution: change around the missions to let pvp modules (and pvp-style fittings) have significant impact. Have agents offer hints and suggestions to that effect. Level 1 missions might be as simple as flying a tackle frig in and holding down a target until the NPC battleship can land and take him down... but the exact same mission can be offered at level 4, except now the target in question has a web he uses on you, a heavy neutralizer he uses to cap you out, and let's say five aggressive frigates flying escort that you need to deal with WHILE keeping the target pinned down.

That would be interesting. More, it would mean that the best solution for a level 4 mission isn't whatever damned battleship you have in the hangar. Sometimes you need an Ares interceptor.

Assume what you're flying is lost the moment you undock.

And sometimes, you need something cheap and very, very disposable, because you know you're going to lose it.

THAT is the thing that all but one mission in the whole game fails to teach:

Ships blow up. Pods blow up. They aren't you and it isn't the end of the world. You are immortal, so act like: reship and get back in the goddamn fight.

Frigates are just like any other consumable, and roughly as durable as these soda cans.


Missions should have unexpected twists and unknown triggers that may result in ship loss. To be somewhat balanced, those unexpected twists should happen more often when (a) the best ship for the mission is cheap and/or (b) the mission level is higher, or where the threat is clear and obvious in the mission text.

Adjust rewards to compensate, if you like, but ship loss should happen, and it should be no big deal.

90% of PvP in EVE is preparation.

Thanks to the eve-surivival website, you can prepare up to your eyeballs for missions, but the preparation you do is completely unrelated to the preparation you do for any other part of the game.

Missions set up some of the most unrealistic expectations in terms of your ship survivability.  How many level 4 missions in the game involve warping into a site and seeing a kitchen sink collection of fifty ships on your overview, from frigates to battleships?

You know what mission runners do in that situation?

Target the closest guy and start firing. They already know they aren't going to lose the ship.

You know how that same fight goes in a PvP situation?

Without support, your ship will be scrap before you lock your first target.

Imagine the culture shock when some experienced mission runner jumps through a gate, sees five pirates on his overview, and those five ships -- one tenth the number of NPCs he just destroyed in his last mission -- wipe him out before he can even get back to the gate.

"Unfair. Broken. Unfun. Impossible. Never going to do PvP."

Solution: First, change up missions (again) so you aren't always bringing your biggest, most expensive ships. Second, use the missions to set realistic expectations. That means cut the number of opponents in missions by a factor of ten, but increase the relative difficulty of "pure combat" missions by 10%, overall. A player familiar with missions should have learned how to assess threat levels in every other part of the game by participating in missions -- it should be fun, but it should also bestow relevant experience.

There's a mission -- I think it's the second to last mission in the Sisters of Eve epic arc -- that kills a lot of ships. It's a tough fight, especially for one player in a tech1 frigate.

And it's just one guy.

Just one.

"One guy," this mission says, "can be a credible threat."

It's a good mission. It has value.

... and then you get done with the arc, and you go to normal missions, and get something called The Barricade and learn you can ignore all that "single ship is credible threat" bullshit.

But Wait, There's More


This post is going on a lot longer than I'd expected, so lets break it up into multiple posts and see where we end up.

More soon.

In the meantime, grab a frigate, look up a friend in game who does that scary PvP stuff, and see if you can tag along.

Believe me, it's not that bad.
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