January 2013 Archives

So, Ripard Teg's recent blog post "Ganking Isn't PvP and Never Was" has been getting a lot of attention from the #tweetfleet and the Eve blogging community today. Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion has been focused on ill-advised hyperbole on his part (rape and slavery metaphors are always winners) and on whether this is a shameless ploy to grab the carebear vote for the upcoming CSM elections, obscuring the some of the larger point he's making.

The Opening Barrage

First off, let's get it out of the way. Yes, the rape and slavery metaphors were probably not going to be that conducive to a constructive debate. However, the moral outrage from people who use rape metaphors for just about everything else in the game (including, by the way, a good many of the same people complaining) strikes me as ridiculous. There's a proverb about motes and beams in eyes that seems appropriate here.

The bigger controversy swirling around this post though is that Ripard is asking whether or not the current largely unrestricted wardec and ganking environment in highsec is healthy for the game. The reaction was probably about what you'd expect; a great number of players who make highsec wardecs, ganking, and PvP in general their way of life gave a great hue and cry about how Ripard was trying to turn Eve into Hello Kitty Online and how newbies who quit because they can't handle a wardec or a gank or two aren't cut out for Eve anyway. Then you had the other side of the coin, where some people are calling those PvPers the thing that will destroy Eve by driving everyone except themselves out of the game. There's plenty of people somewhere in the middle, but in what is normal for most Eve veterans, I think the general opinion is that everyone is very wary of calls to reduce the sandbox, open PvP nature of Eve in order to try to get more subscribers. After the events of 2011, they probably have some right to be a little concerned, especially when someone running for CSM seems to be pushing that line of reasoning.

For my part, I don't think Ripard has become some sort of kumbahyah carebear (though I wouldn't put it past him to pose as one in order to get votes), and I don't think he wants to gut the sandbox as much as some people think (though I think the suggestions he has here aren't on the right track). I do think he makes a valid point, however -- that if new players are thrown into the deep end without understanding what that entails or how to defend themselves from, for lack of a better term, organized crime, they are not likely to be long-term subscribers and learn the lessons that most of us Eve veterans have figured out by now.

What we have here is a failure to communicate

It's that not understanding part that is the key here. For a lot of new players, they'll form a new corporation just so they can play with friends and share a hangar -- for most other MMOs, that's all creating your own guild gets you, a communal resource. When they get wardecced, they don't really understand what their options are at that point, so they either end up dying to a much more experienced, well-funded enemy, hiding and hoping their enemy goes away, or they quit. Not all, of course; I count myself among those who went from someone initially frustrated by highsec wardecs to someone who is firmly in the "it's a learning experience" camp. Unfortunately, Eve does not do a very good job of presenting those options to new players or making more options available.

If Eve is going to grow as a game, it will need to increase its player base, and frankly a lot of those new players are probably going to have to be on what I'll call the "noncombatant" side of the fence; miners, industrialists, mission runners, etc. There's two big reasons for this. One, CCP needs these players to support their business because the niche of people who are already super-hardcore PvP gamers is not a large one and is probably getting close to tapped out. Two, in order to sustain the Eve ecosystem, the hardcore PvP types need all those noncombatants to build their ships and to be juicy targets. If the proportion of pirates to potential victims gets too out of whack, you're going to see noncombatants simply get devoured out of existence.

Instead of artificially protecting those players with more of what I'd call "gamey" mechanics -- mechanics which have no basis in the world of Eve and are there to create arbitrary barriers between players -- I think the best course of action is to give those noncombatants more ways to prepare themselves and more incentives for other corporations to help them do so. Right now, there's a lot of incentive for going after those newbies (easy, cheap kills for your killboard, if nothing else), but there's not much in the way of incentives for people to come to the defense of noncombatants with little in the way of experience or resources. They can't afford to pay mercenaries, and when presented with significant resistance, a lot of their former enemies simply give up and move on, which means that a friendly corp guarding them ends up doing a whole lot of nothing, which is not really most people's idea of fun. And the minute that friendly corp moves on...well, the cycle ends up repeating itself. I think the fundamental problem is that highsec isn't really profitable enough to support a full-time military presence (especially when you're paying them to be bored out of their minds, which isn't conducive to them being a particularly good military presence), but if you make mining or missions more profitable than they already are, it would get ridiculous.

Fix it, but don't break the sandbox

There is an alternative: instead of making noncombatants safer in highsec, make the risk to those who prey on them higher.

Let me explain a bit where I'm coming from. Early on in CAIN's history, we tried to do a lot of what I'd call "citizen policing." Even though I'd say most of us still had a lot more sheer persistence than skill or resources, we wanted to roleplay a Caldari security unit, so we wanted to seek out industrial corporations in Caldari space and protect them from highsec wardecs or other forms of harassment. Our first real big knock-down, drag-out fight, the Mito Conflict, basically arose because we were trying to safeguard an area of Caldari space. In the end, it put us on the path from being roleplayers trying to PvP to, in my not so humble opinion, probably one of the best pound-for-pound combat corps around, at least in our particular niche.

However, our initial goal kind of fizzled out because the logistics of trying to be the police was, quite frankly, too difficult and simply not worth the time. You can't afford to wardec every penny-ante corp of pirates, extortionists, and general troublemakers, and even if you did, eventually you'd be so overstretched, militarily and financially, that you'd be ineffective. Plus, you can only be pro bono bodyguards for local carebears for so long before you simply run out of cash.

The new Crimewatch system and the revamp of bounty hunting that went in with Retribution was a good first step on the road toward making "white hats" more profitable, however. I think iterating on that, possibly also linking it in with faction warfare, might be one way to make those highsec wardecs a little less lopsided, while avoiding solutions that give them complete safety and threaten to ruin the sandbox of Eve.

A Possible Solution

Here's my first pass at an idea -- keep in mind this is just what I've come up with a few hours of spitballing and it's hardly ready for prime time, but I think it at least illustrates the type of solution we should be looking for.

PvP corps already have the option to throw their lot in with one of the four major factions in the game through the factional warfare mechanic; what if we added an option for noncombatant corps to do so as well? Add an option for player corporations that allows them to incorporate as a Caldari corporation, for instance, in return for paying some amount of tax. I'd suggest that it should be at least 5-10%, possibly more -- it might even be dynamic, based on the size of that faction's territory and/or how many players were flying under its banner. I would posit that a lot of people who form player corporations don't necessarily care about the tax so much as the other cooperative benefits you get from forming a corporation, so I don't think this tax is going to be as big a deal breaker as you might think.

In return for incorporating under the banner of the Caldari State, your corporation gets a degree of protection from the Caldari. Not direct protection -- the Caldari Navy isn't going to jump in and blow up anyone who declares a war on you; they're busy protecting the interests of the megacorps and the planetside populations. However, corporations that declare war on a corporation incorporated with the State get flagged as suspects to Caldari factional warfare corporations. There's nothing stopping them from plundering the rich hulls of highsec miners, but at least now they're exposing themselves to white hats that want to put their PvP skills to good use. Factional warfare corps get something new to add to their sandbox, being a Caldari corporation (or whichever faction) actually has a real meaning, and it gives the empire factions a little bit of extra life instead of making them simply background noise for most people. Better yet, it gives those noncombatants some extra opportunities for protection (and possibly an impetus to communicate with friendly FacWar corps) without giving them some sort of arbitrary immunity.

You could unify the current FacWar system with this system and the only difference between these noncombatants and today's factional warfare privateers becomes their focus as a corporation. I admit I've always thought it's silly that you can declare on one corporation in factional warfare and their fellows can't shoot you for it. This would mean that all those noncombatants would also be open to attacks by hostile FacWar corps, so maybe you'd want to set the tax significantly lower (especially since you'd be charging it to all FacWar corps, and you don't want to disincentivize factional warfare).

Those are the kinds of solutions I'd like to see to give newbies and noncombatants more of an even footing against the people who want to prey on them. Things that add more interesting gameplay opportunities and meaningful choices, and make the game world feel more like a living, breathing place rather than like more of a game, and hopefully foster more conflict and community, which I think most of us veterans can agree are the two most interesting parts of this game.

One Night in Asakai

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Last night we saw another event of the sort you only see in Eve Online. Triggered by a misclick that sent a titan into Caldari lowsec without a support fleet, a series of escalating hotdrops by major coalitions throughout New Eden ended in a giant furball involving over 3000 participants and an untold fortune in ISK worth of ships, a trillion ISK or more of which is now so much vapor.

It's events like these which show the most important distinguishing features of Eve; emergent gameplay, world-shaking events that touch the entire player base, and a community like no other. Despite the fact that last night I was puttering around in Providence trying to crawl my way back to solvency after an incredibly stupid loss of my own yesterday, I was caught up in the events unfurling in Asakai. I was watching streams from a number of players who were involved in the fight, listening to the live broadcast of Podside, talking with the #tweetfleet on Twitter about it, and wondering what the repercussions were going to be for me, my alliance's small corner of nullsec, and for the game at large.

There is no other game -- even other MMOs with larger player bases -- where you get this kind of immersion, and in large part I think that is why Eve's community is as tight as it is despite the fact that it can often be as caustic as the worst depths of MOBA communities. Whether we like it or not, every Eve player, from the day-old newbie to the carest of bears to the bitterest of vets, is in this together. It's that reason why I keep coming back to Eve even after finding myself frustrated on many occasions, and why I have flown to Iceland three times (with my fourth coming up in April) to spend a week with a thousand other internet spaceship nerds.


Unfortunately, last night's events in Asakai highlight a couple of issues with the current state of New Eden. The sheer scale of the battle last night was impressive in itself, but personally I think there is a problem when a significant portion of nearly every major nullsec coalition's capital forces can be thrown into a battle with almost no notice. It is a testament to the organizational skills of the coalition leadership that this is possible, but this kind of force projection ability makes limited engagements and the survival of small nullsec entities a virtual impossibility. As a member of the Providence coalition, I am under no delusions that we could withstand a full court press by one of the four or five major coalitions. Unlike in the real world, there is no internal limit on the expansion of a nullsec alliance or coalition; in all but the most extreme cases, it does not matter how large a border they have with their neighbors because their fleets can respond almost instantly to a significant threat almost anywhere thanks to jump bridges and titans.

There's also the problem that the nullsec coalitions have become so rich thanks to passive income from technetium moons and other sources that despite the staggering scale of the losses we saw last night (according to TheMittani.com, the CFC lost eight supercapitals and around 75 normal capitals), it seems unlikely that there will be significant impact on the readiness for any of the nullsec alliances. Yes, we'll likely see a spike in mineral prices as both sides rebuild their losses, but I have no doubt that the Goons have enough ships in reserve that those losses last night will be replaced by Monday morning. While this lack of financial and military risk is part of what enables coalitions to feel that committing hundreds of capital ships like this is feasible, it's yet another reason for the stagnation we see in nullsec today. When it's difficult for even a massive battle like this one to significantly impact the fortunes of the participants, there's even less of an impetus for the nullsec coalitions to engage each other in the kinds of wars which can change the shape of the Eve political map. If the much-anticipated war between the CFC and HBC erupts over this, I suspect it will be more about ego and a desire for "good fights" than for any substantive change in the balance of power.

I won't lie -- I live for nights like last night and I love the excitement that will no doubt be blazing through the community for the next week as we relish the shared adrenaline high that events like Asakai can give us. I just worry that some of the darker implications of events like these will get overlooked in our exultation.

First off, yes, I am still alive even though I haven't blogged here in ages. Since the last entry I've moved to California and taken a new job, and this just fell by the wayside. However, it's a new year and let's just see if I can't get back into the swing of things, shall we? I'm going to kick it off with a review of Mass Effect 3, which I got for Christmas, since I think the game deserves a good discussion of its merits and flaws. It's been a year since it game out and I know it's been discussed half to death already, but not by me.

It's going to be hard to discuss the game without spoilers, but for this first part of the post I am going to keep them to an absolute minimum. If you haven't played the game yet and have managed to avoid all the publicity around the game's ending, I don't want to be the one to spoil it for you. Once I'm behind the cut, I'll go more in depth on what really seemed to work and what fell short in terms of the story, which is really where the meat of this game is.

In all likelihood, if you're reading this you've already played Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2; if you haven't, you should (although I admit the original Mass Effect is a bit of a slog to go back to these days). You also probably know the gist of the plot too (the Reaper invasion has begun and you need to stop it). If you've been paying attention at all since the game was announced, you know Bioware was hyping how all your choices from the first two games would pay off in this one, and if you've been paying attention since it was released, you know that the fan furor over the ending has been unprecedented. With all of that, plus the additional baggage of EA's Origin platform, it becomes difficult for the game to really stand on its own when you're playing it nine months after release. To be honest, I had put it on the back burner in "well, maybe someday I'll play it" territory because of that, despite the fact that I think Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I've ever played.

However, once I sat down with the game last week and actually dove in, after steeling myself while I installed Origin and tried to put the furor over the ending out of my mind, the same excitement I had at every turn in Mass Effect 2 started to creep back in. It doesn't hurt that the game opens with some really magnificent visuals, with the Reapers attacking Earth and a trip to Mars in the middle of an oncoming sandstorm. In general, the story manages to keep the same quality that it had in the second game (with a few major exceptions), the gameplay mechanics are improved, with a happy medium between the power and inventory headaches of the first game and the bare minimum of RPG trappings in the second game. Honestly, I feel a little silly for ignoring the game for the better part of a year, because it really is a good game for the most part, and especially now that you can get it for half the original price, it's well worth playing. Here's my breakdown, with a discussion of story spoilers after the cut:

The Good

  • For the most part, the writing in ME3 is up to the level displayed by Bioware in the first two games, and the voice acting, especially the returning members of the cast, is still superb. I'm still not quite sure what the point of Jessica Chobot's character was really (unless it was to get some free media coverage for Bioware). Freddie Prinze Jr. gets kind of a hard role, coming in as a new character not mentioned in any of the previous games, and doesn't do a bad job, but it seems like it would have been better to replace his character with someone from the earlier games. Most of the major subplots in the previous games (the krogan genophage, the quarian/geth conflict, etc) get some resolution in ME3, with some very strong emotional moments. The very end of the game does fall short of the mark (even with the Extended Cut DLC), but up until the last ten minutes of the game, I found myself deeply within its grasp.
  • The game swings the pendulum back the other way on the RPG mechanics side of things, towards a middle ground between the first two games. There's a wider variety of weapons available but not too many -- generally between 5-10 options, and they've brought back weapon attachments. Instead of having to pick them both up individually, though, you only need one to equip everyone in your squad with one (like in ME2) and finding or buying additional ones of that same type add to the level of the item. Your character can carry whatever kind of guns he or she wants, but the more weight you carry affects your power cooldowns. I liked the system and I actually felt like the different kinds of guns mattered, as opposed to the choices in ME2 where it was basically the good one or the not-so-good one. I used the Black Widow sniper a lot myself, but tended to give Garrus a different one because I wanted him to be laying down covering fire more.
  • The pace of combat was very similar to ME2, and it's still easy to see where you're going to have a fight because the terrain will start to have ubiquitous cover, but there was a fairly wide variety of enemies and I only had a handful of fights where I got a little annoyed with the dying. They were all climactic fights though, so they were intended to be difficult, and the autosave is good enough that I didn't need to redo any huge amount of stuff or watch 3 minutes of cutscenes each time like in ME1. The added weapon variety makes the combat a bit more interesting though, and most of them feel very different in a fight (some with very different effects) giving it an extra dimension, enough that I actually enjoyed playing the multiplayer, which is just wave survival combat for the most part.
  • Visually, the game seems like a step up from the previous game; as I said, the opening visuals on Earth and Mars are breathtaking at times, but even the textures and lighting on board the Normandy seem better than they did in ME2 (which I replayed with all the single player DLC right before my ME3 playthrough). Some of the facial animation seemed a little off, and there were a few other niggling graphical glitches, but for the most part it is a very pretty game.
  • One of the things I was mildly worried about with ME3 was the departure of Jack Wall as the composer; his synthy 70s-80s scifi soundtrack was a big part of the first two games. I really shouldn't have worried that much, in retrospect, since Clint Mansell is certainly no slouch when it comes to music. The soundtrack in ME3 is different than the first two, more orchestral and less synthy, but it is very good in its own way. There's a good number of musical callbacks to the first two games that made me very happy every time they popped up.
  • Speaking of callbacks, there were certainly plenty of those in ME3, depending on how you played the first two games. Every major character from the first two, assuming they're still alive, shows back up in the third game. Fewer of the minor characters pop up, but that's an understandable admission when you look at just how much they're trying to cram into the game's narrative. However, there's some problems with this as well, which I'll touch on in the next section.
  • I felt like my romance with Liara (which I've kept through all three games) had the best payoff in ME3. She was still remarkably standoffish for the most part until right before the penultimate mission (as always), and the sex scene was still somewhat awkward (why is she naked and I'm wearing a bra and panties?), but I really felt like the dialogue around that scene had a lot more heft than in ME1 or the ME2 relationships. The fact that Liara's character has evolved significantly from the first game until now no doubt helped, but I hope the romances with other long-time companions of Shepard are as rewarding.
  • Thankfully, I never really ran into the money trouble or resource problems that were annoying in my first playthrough of ME2. Bioware seems to have fixed that particular annoyance that made ME2 a bit frustrating at times. I don't think I had enough money to just buy everything I saw (especially not at the beginning) but with a reasonable amount of scanning I didn't need to scrimp and save every penny like I tended to have to do in ME2.
The Bad

  • All right, let's get this out of the way. Yes, the very end of the game has issues. The final segment of the ending is largely unconnected from the rest of the game or the previous two games and the choices seem arbitrary and not particularly satisfying. All of the possible endings seems to go against the tone of the last three games, and the Extended Cut DLC doesn't really help that; in fact, a lot of its extra exposition seems unnecessary and cumbersome. I'll talk more about this in the spoiler section, but be prepared to be somewhat disappointed by the game. However, as I said, up until that point the game is really good.
  • Probably my biggest annoyance of the game is that it's really hard to keep track of the little side quests you get. You pick most of these up by overhearing random conversations in the Citadel, and they are kept in the same place as your main quests in your journal, which is a little hard to handle. The bigger issue, though, is that none of these are tracked on the galaxy map, so you have to poke through your journal to find out where you need to go to get some of this stuff. That got pretty tiresome as the game wore on.
  • The war assets system, where you have to collect war assets to supposedly improve your chances with the ending, really seems to have disappointingly little to do with the rest of the game. Yes, having more war assets opens up more of the arbitrary ending choices, but other than needing a higher number, none of the endings really have anything to do with any of your war assets. The war assets are good for getting extra money or resources, and you probably want to max out the war asset bar for the most options in your ending, but it really feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. It would have been nice if getting war assets slowed the progression of the Reapers, or if different war assets changed the specifics of the ending (like how the ending of ME2 could change based on how loyal various characters are or how you used them).
  • Remember those callbacks I was saying were good? Well, the caveat is that they are really only window dressing on things that are going to be there anyway. Killed the Rachni queen in Mass Effect 1? Too bad, the Rachni still show up in this game. Myself, I always went for most of the game options that tended to preserve as many characters as possible, so I didn't notice too many things that seemed amiss here, but I suspect if you had a particularly bloody playthrough of ME2, you're going to see a lot of Dr. Neds ("the totally not-made-up brothers of Dr. Zed") showing up in your game. This feels like a disappointing cop out for a game that Bioware promised would be hugely impacted by your previous choices. It's understandable; planning for every one of a hundred different combinations of major choices and character notes would probably have been cost prohibitive, but Bioware shouldn't have hyped that so much if this was really all you were going to get.
  • Like ME2, ME3 suffers from not having a strong antagonist. There are really two antagonists in the game, the Reapers and Cerberus, but aside from an endless string of mooks you don't get much in the way of rewarding confrontations with the enemy. You have a handful of conversations with the Illusive Man or his head ninja assassin (who seems a bit out of place here), and one confrontation with a Reaper, but there's nothing that even approaches the confrontation with Sovereign or your run-ins with Saren at Eden Prime or Virmire. Why the ending has you deal with a literal deus ex machina instead of Harbinger itself is a baffling choice to me, especially when it's one of the places where ME2 really dropped the ball (and ME1 did so well).
  • Compared to the number of companions Shepard had in ME2, ME3 pares your crew down to a relative handful. Some of this is understandable, since you could have had a lot of characters die in ME2 potentially, but if you did, woe is you. Because your core crew is made up of only 3-4 people for most of the game, plus one with the From Ashes DLC. It's possible you could pick up 1-2 more later on, but compare that to the 10-12 you could have in ME2 and it seems a bit paltry. There was also a lot of overlap for me; I rarely wanted to take James, the new marine who joins your crew, on missions when his skill set overlapped with mine or another crewman, and he didn't have the resonance of having been with me for the rest of the series like Liara. It also means there's less difference when you replay, since you lose out of the multitude of companion reactions to each mission.
  • Ashley, the collagen in your lips and that hair is not regulation, woman. Please don't be an embarrassment to our gender. That dress that Diana Allers runs around in doesn't really seem appropriate for wearing aboard ship either.
Despite its failings, though, Mass Effect 3 is far better than you might expect based on the furor that erupted after it came out. In a lot of ways, Bioware is a victim of their own success here, because the bar was raised so high with the first two ME games (and almost all of their catalog up until Dragon Age 2 and The Old Republic) that it was going to be very hard for them to live up to all the hype going into this one. Now that the furor has died down a little and the price has dropped, it's hard not to recommend Mass Effect 3 to anyone who liked the first two games. It might not be everything you hoped for, but I can guarantee you won't end up feeling like you wasted your money.

On that topic, I also picked up the From Ashes and Leviathan DLCs after recommendations from people on Quarter to Three. Annoyingly, despite the fact that it's for sale from EA's own store, you're still forced to buy it with the ridiculous Bioware points crap (just let me use actual money, for crying out loud); each of those DLCs is 800 Bioware points, or ten bucks, and that's kind of marginal for what you get. Both of them really feel like they should have been included in the main game, for as integral to the main plot as they seem to be. From Ashes adds a new squad member with a fairly large amount of new and interesting dialogue, plus an extra mission, while Leviathan gives you three extra missions and some fairly important insights into the Reapers. Since you can get the base game for less than $20 on sale these days, I'd recommend snagging them if you don't have too much moral indignation about the DLC. If I'd paid full price for the game, I would have been pretty annoyed with the nickel and diming. I skipped the Omega DLC for now because it just didn't seem worth $15 at this point.

Okay, now it's time to take a deep dive into spoiler territory for the rest of my review. If you read past here, keep in mind what you're in for!

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