Toldain Talks

Because reading me sure beats working!


Toldain started as an Everquest character. I've played him in EQ2, WoW, Vanguard, LOTRO, and Zork Online. And then EVE Online, where I'm 3 million years old, rather than my usual 3000. Currently I'm mostly playing DDO. But I still have fabulous red hair. In RL, I am a software developer who has worked on networked games, but not MMORPGS.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Nullsec Sociology

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.
There are also some revisions to the way that stations are conquered, but that seems a bit more technical.

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.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

EVE: The First 24 Hours

I've now spent my first 24 hours in EVE Online, and I think I'm solidly hooked. My score so far is 12 missions completed, about half a million ISK in the bank, and three ships, a Velator (my starter ship), a Navitas (pictured above warping to a jump gate), and my brand-new Intaki, which is slow but has a big cargo hold. I've splattered about half a dozen Serpentis, and got myself agression-flagged for it, that was kind of a surprise.

I've been a shameless coward, warping away from a few fights that it looked like I couldn't win, and hiding in a dock waiting for my aggression timer to expire. At one point I visited an asteroid field with several wrecks that were marked as "Serpentis Scout" or "Serpentis Initiate" I assumed these were NPC's, but when I opened one up and started to loot it, the game told me I was going to steal from XXX, did I really want to do that. At the same time a Serpentis Spy showed up on scans and started shooting at me, and some odd things happened with my aggression timer, in spite of the fact I decided not to loot.

After about 5 shots it developed that my weapons could not harm the Spy in the slightest, so I ran. Fast, if not hard. I didn't have enough energy to make it to my warp target so I came to a dead stop in interplanetary space, breathing hard. Eventually I made it home. Fun times.

The tutorial line I decided to follow was the merchant line. It had me doing spy-type work, breaking codes and taking salvage, as well as shopping and buying things, transporting them to where they needed to be. My final mission was to make some Antimatter Charge S, and thus learn how manufacturing works. I gathered my materials, hired the assembly line and then had the following (virtual) conversation:

"Here's the stuff you wanted."

"Sorry, that's not nearly enough."

"Wait, you said you wanted five thousand units, not five hundred? Hey, it's just one little zero, how important can it be? Umm, I'll get back to you."

Since there was a bonus payment for finishing the mission within a time limit, I decided to stay up until it finished so I could make the delivery. However, 5000 units takes a lot longer to manufacture than 500. Thus it was that my contract finally delivered at about 0300 local time. I killed the intervening time with mining ops. The intro to the merchant path said that you'd be hiring other people to do this kind of thing for you. I hope that happens soon. Though it was profitable.

One strangeness: An agent at a different College site sent me an email (or maybe more than one, I'm a bit hazy) saying she liked what she heard about me and wanted to offer me more work. But when I went over there (while waiting for my manufacturing run), she said she had no work for me. Thanks for nuthin' babe! Luv ya, buh-bye! Maybe my skills aren't right? But then why send me the email. Sigh, I'm probably being noobish.

When I told Phritz that I was interested in playing Eve, he said, "I heard you need a spreadsheet to play that game". My reaction, having played now, is "Yes, isn't it cool?". I have a spreadsheet. I used it to figure out whether to refine before selling. Answer: No. Also, to figure out which ammo types were profitable to make for immediate sale. Of course, I have no idea of the relative effectiveness of each, but I'll figure that out eventually, I'm sure.

I haven't yet gone to any game guides. I haven't been this clueless playing an MMO since Everquest, and I kind of like it. Playing with stuff, trying stuff out, and discovering things, that's part of the fun. Eventually, I'll join a corp (hint, hint), and word of mouth is an acceptable way to learn tidbits. Eventually, I'll probably break down and look at guides, but right now, I'm having too much fun splashing around in the puddles.


All About EVE

One of the first things I do when I play a new character-based game is ask myself, "How do I make Toldain in this system?" Yes, I know, I'm stuck in a rut, but I'm 3000 years old, what do you expect? In EVE, I was faced with some interesting possibilities. It seems Gallente was going to be my race, since they were the most friendly seeming. Which matches up well. I ended up being forced to choose between the best background and skills (Intaki Artist), the best stat profile or the best appearance. I chose to go with Intaki Diplomat, seeing as how the EQ1 version of Toldain was extremely charming.

By the way, that picture up there is Bette Davis from the 1950 Oscar-winner All About Eve. If you haven't seen it, stop that mining this instant and go rent it and give it a watch. It has few explosions except for most of Bette Davis' lines, but still worth two hours, assuming your skills are queued up.

Anyway, here's what Toldain looks like. Not as pretty as he might be, but somewhat elfin, and with fabulous red hair, for sure. And as a capsuleer, he is immortal. I think his eyes are so sunken because he was up really late last night waiting for a manufacturing run to finish so I could get the speed completion bonus to the mission...never mind, I'll talk about that in another post.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a mezzer in EVE, maybe some kind of ECM that I'm way too much a noob to do anything with? I look forward to finding out about all this kind of stuff.

In any case, Tipa has inspired me to give EVE Online at least a 14-day trial.

So, I'll be letting you know what's happening. Coming soon, spreadsheets and


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Life Beats CGI

Completely off topic, I just wanted to share this image of Saturn eclipsing the sun from the Cassini spacecraft. This observation led to the discovery of more rings around Saturn.

Here's a bigger version.
The entire set of photographs is here, on the Smithsonian website.


Risky Business

Today I take inspiration from Brian "Psychochild" Green's latest post and from a pickup group I ran in Veksar last night.

Psychochild starts by citing some train nostalgia in a post by Gordon of We Fly Spitfires. From there he points out the the fun part of trains was the spice:

But, I suspect this is one of the reasons why Gordon remembers trains fondly: because they were a disruption. As some of the comments on my previous post indicate, some people want a little spice to the encounter. Going in and simply doing the memorized pattern gets boring. Trains were definitely an unpredictable element, since they were based on other players' behaviors.

I think this is basically correct. I certainly have some train nostalgia. Once I was in Karnor's Castle with some friends near the entrance when a big old train comes screaming out of the castle and running down the other side of the big hall. I didn't feel like running, but there were too many to mez. Pretty much on a lark I decided to charm one. As soon as whoever they were chasing zoned out, they all turned on my charmed mob. This being Everquest, it took maybe 8-10 seconds to kill it, at which point I charmed another. They all turned on him. I thought, "Hey, I'm on to something". Lather, rinse, repeat. I'm washed that train right out of my beautiful red hair. Fun times.

Then there was the time we were working on a friends epic in Rathe Mountains and the mob turned out to be a chained spawn. You know, kill one and the next one spawns instantly on the spot. Well, we ran, and another guy in the zone got the aggro. He was mad, and trained us with other giants. I asked him what that was about, and when he said we had trained him, I explained that no, we were just clueless. At which point he changed his attitude and helped us kill the mobs we needed.

Lobilya, my RL spouse, loves to tell of the time she knocked a gnoll into the big pit up at the top of Blackburrow, and listened to the shouts from below of "train to zone", and watching the gnolls boil out. Some higher level players would deliberately do and wait at the zone line to battle large numbers of gnolls at once. Very memorable, and fairly manageable. If you didn't want to deal with the trains in Blackburrow, you went somewhere else.

Psychochild goes on to say:

To put it in more basic game design terms, we're looking at risk as an enhancement to fun. Risk means that there's a chance for something good or something bad to happen. If you manage to overcome the obstacle and get the good result, it can feel great!

I'd just like to point out that there's plenty of risk in EQ2, and it's still due to player interaction. My PUG in Veksar last night is a case in point. Most of the others in the group were mythical wielders and competent players. Good attitudes, too. Unfortunately for us, the tank was not at that level, and clearly did not have much experience tanking for that level of play. I expect most of his game experience was soloing. We had a rough start, and the other players had to tell him to put Amends on the wizard. Once that was done, things settled down a bit with the Mystic pet pulling. It also developed that the Paladin didn't have a good concept of holding aggro on a group via wards, heals and blue AE's. So we wiped on the group just before the climb down.

But the worst was the final boss. We tried that pull many times and it just wasn't working. It developed that the tank was in offensive stance. And not using a shield. And having trouble keeping aggro on the adds. The leadership of the group had promised a very fast run, and was feeling impatient, so there wasn't a lot of instruction or communication. They were used to just blasting through a dungeon with minimal chatter. Eventually, the leader kicked the tank and two-boxed his own guardian to finish the dungeon. I felt a bit soiled, but I stayed. Another group member left before the finish, claiming it was raid time.

My point is this: There's still risk in the game, risk attributable to players. The game design set up this paladin for this fall. EQ2 is basically a two-track game: You can level up to 80 soloing and doing quests and feel like you have done well in the game and still be woefully unprepared for dungeons like Veksar. You don't know the tactics, you don't know expectations, and you don't have the gear. There are some very tough dungeons out there, and people still don't like dying a lot, because it represents Failure, and they have been trained by the solo game to expect Success.

When it comes to player-created risk, the critical thing is whether the players have chosen to accept that sort of risk. For example, consider recent posts of Tipa's about PvP in Eve Online. Or one of the first writings about PvP in Everquest, which I have thought of ever after as "You Came Here to Kill People".

Not everyone is going to choose these risks, and game companies naturally want to serve as large a population as they can. So they make two-tracked games, or games where players find it difficult to give other players grief. PvE risks are known and very controllable. PvP risks are not.

Another aspect of Blackburrow trains is that they encouraged cooperation across groups. The train is a threat to everyone, so it makes the players natural, spontaneous, allies. Even shouting "Train!!!" is a cooperative act.

I've long been an advocate for game designs that allow spontaneous socially-positive acts. Driveby buffing, etc. Much of that has been relaxed from launch, and that's good. But the opportunity to do this is greatly reduced, since most of the fighting now takes place in instances rather than dungeons.

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