The dev team of EVE Online is really going where no dev team has gone before.
In this post, developer Grayscale outlines the rationale for changes to some game mechanics upcoming in EVE's upcoming expansion Dominion. First, he talks about the problems they see: [I've translated some EVE-centric jargon into my own words to make this more readable for a general audience]
So anyway, here we are today. Nullsec is largely the domain of large, 2-3000 member PvP alliances, grouped up into inevitable coalitions and engaged in not-quite-impossibly large wars. Costs are mosty covered at the alliance level by a combination of old money and high-value moon minerals. The latter continue to rise in price due to ever-increasing demand from invention, and [the fallout from an exploit last year]. Most of the space that's up for grabs is owned by a clone army of ideologically-distinct but functionally-similar alliances, making the entire political landscape depressingly homogeneous. The state of the military art is not much better - [fleets of little ships] are wheeled out for [highly specialized actions] and then packed away before they can fall victim to [multiple giant little-ship-killers], leaving huge capital fleets to park themselves in front of a never-ending procession of starbases. And the smaller groups, the newer organizations hoping to gain a foothold in the Great Game, are left begging for crumbs around the edges. Who's going to let security-risk nobodies into their back yard when they'll never be able to compete pay as much as a single [high value mining] moon?
The notion that most of nullsec is closed is fascinating, and mirrors what human beings often do. Japan closed themselves for nearly 300 years. China's emperors forbade trade. Jared Diamond describes how New Guinea tribal societies were so closed that literally thousands of languages developed in one large (and unknown to the West until the 1930's) interior valley.
Next, Grayscale says what he thinks is important about nullsec:
Nullsec is cool and different and awesome because of emergence. It's not the most populous area of the game, sure (and more on this shortly), but it provides one of EVE's most compelling and unique experiences. It does this because, by and large, we let you the players call the shots. [...]
By giving players and player organizations tactical and strategic freedom, we allow a situation to arise where each challenge is different from the last, because every time there are different people involved making different decisions which result in different outcomes. [...]
[...] The more decisions that players can make, the more emergence you get, and the more interesting the experience is. Therefore, a primary development goal in nullsec is to enable players to make decisions, which can be boiled down to two directives.
First, try to give players tools. [...]
Second, try to avoid telling players what to do or how to do it.
This is pretty interesting stuff, and nobody else is even trying this. So, what are the EVE devs going to do about the current situation. First, let's talk about the "sovereignty system". For non-EVE players, this is a head-scratcher. EVE has several NPC governments, which do or don't get along with each other, and this drives story and some interaction in the areas where there are NPC cops (known as CONCORD). This space is known as highsec. The sovereignty system among other things, describes which government is sovereign over each system. It's displayed on your screen prominently in every system you are in in high- (and med-) sec.
So, in the upcoming expansion:
- There will be a sovereignty system which will aim to describe who is sovereign in an area, rather than prescribing a particular method of conquest.
- There will be a way to increase the resource intensity of a system that is somewhat labor intensive. (This would be farming on planetside.)
- The value of minerals mined from moons will be reduced.
- Territory held will incur upkeep costs.
They are hoping that this will encourage nullsec alliances to allow settlers, since the settlers will increase the value of the territory, and more revenue will be needed to finance (through taxes) upkeep costs.
The hope is that differentiated strategies will emerge, because there will be more people making decisions, giving a greater chance for differentiation. I see difficulties here.
There are powerful forces for convergence of strategies. Internet forums and other outgame communications permit players to find out when one strategy seems to be working better than another. Divergence, of languages for instance, is dependent on isolation. There isn't much here.
Human beings are huge copycats. The phrase "monkey see, monkey do" would be better as "human see, human do" since homo sapiens is the biggest imitator in existence. And we tend to copy those who are powerful, even if the behavior copied has no bearing on what made them powerful. In game terms, if alliance A with strategy X were to defeat alliance B with strategy Y, you can count on all the observers saying how dominant strategy X is, and to start copying it. This is what human beings do.
I think asymmetric strategies must be based on asymmetric terrain. Europe and China were both repeatedly conquered by "barbarians" emerging from the Central Asian steppes who usually had developed new technology centered around the horse. This is because they terrain well suited to the horse, whereas China (and Europe) had terrain suited to agriculture.
This differentiation exists in Eve, but the agriculture terrain is highsec. So I think the hope for asymmetric conflict in nullsec depends on highsec corps deciding they want to colonize nullsec systems, and coming up with the wherewithal to hold them. The nullsec natives will object to this colonization, of course. And that will be good, at least from the EVE design viewpoint.