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The Apocalyptic Sandbox

[tl;dr where I elaborate on how I think a “Fall of Empires” expansion theme bears a lot of potential to develop the EVE sandbox.]

I got some feedback on saturday’s thoughts about alternatives to the obivous “Gold Rush” expansion theme. Sugar pointed out that an apocalyptic theme might run the risk of forcing players into play styles they do not like, thus disrupting the sandbox paradigm. I understand that the building aspect of EVE is very important to many people. Hell, I am three quarters nullbear myself. The prospect of hordes of Super Sansha steamrolling through New Eden is uncomfortable and does not sound like fun. Even on a basic level one can argue that NPCs driven events are against the principles of the sandbox.

This is a very valid point and my intentions were far from turning EVE into a storyline MMO. I should have elaborated more on how I think this fits with the sandbox.

As I see it, there are two scopes on which we have to look at. One scope are the actions of the players. It is governed by the principle that a player should have maximum freedom to do what she wants in New Eden. We are told that in the sandbox every action counts and every decision you make has consequences. This scope is about the spades and buckets and sand we have to play with. Let’s call this the tools scope.

The second scope is the world the sandbox is set in. It encompasses the rich history and lore of New Eden.  The different factions we meet or can be part of. The empires and the structure of the game world, containing star systems, gates, wormholes and so on. Maybe we can think of it as the color and texture of the sand and our toys. But also the boundary of the box and the weather we are playing in (For some reason it’s always raining when I climb into the sandbox). I will call this the setting scope.

Of course there are strong links between the two scopes. For example, there is CONCORD, an NPC faction that will interfere drastically with player behavior in certain situations. More precisely it will offer consequences on player actions, when necessary. These consequences follow are fixed set of rules, which is encoded in the game. Another example are the different security levels of solar systems with the three main classes of high, low and null security. This classification has its root and its motivation in the setting, yet it has fundamental implications on the rules of the game and the consequences players encounter to their decisions. Apocrypha simply added a new element into the world – wormholes and wormhole systems – that served as a setting where new gameplay could be implemented. What made Apocrypha great is that it introduced not only the new space to fly to but also add a new level of technology to EVE that affected the whole of New Eden. There were new tools available for all players to play with. That is what I think CCP Unifex likes so much, this holistic thing where many aspects of the game are touched at once. And I think it is a really great way to approach expansion design. If we didn’t have Wormholes already, that’s what I’d like CCP to do. Yet, alas it’s there already.

What I am trying to propose is that you need not make a “promised land” the center of such a holistic expansion. There might be very interesting possibilities to alter the game and provide hooks to implement new things on the tools scope without adding new space to the setting but rather by changing parts of the setting that we already have. Such as, for example, to start a slow decay of the four empires. Or dreadful consequences of the technology we use, similar to what the Jove are suffering from.

What could be the advantages to use such a theme, over the “Gold Rush”?

I have the feeling that the tools one could implement on such a backdrop would have more depth. It is not a big issue to add new toys in the form of new ships, even new POSes to the game, without a big story behind it. What is more challenging is to shake up things on a larger scale, to bring fresh air into the relationship between nullsec and empire space for example. There are big discussions on how nullsec should be changed. One particular issue is nullsec industry, which many believe is broken due to unbalanced game mechanics. For me the nullsec alliances are nothing more than colonies. Although some deliver valuable resources to high sec, they are utterly depended on the industrial capabilities of the empires. A fact that frustrates many players and which is believed to lead to infamous phenomena, like “empty nullsec” and “blob warfare”. For younger players (like myself) it is a huge drawback of nullsec gameplay that your own feeble attempts at industry are easily nullified by anybody with a jump freighter. Issues like these will have to be changed, if CCP wants to draw more players into the game and still provide a sandbox.

Some people say the safety of high security space goes against the spirit of the game. In my opinion it is necessary to have save havens for new players. And it is very difficult to balance these requirements. This can for example be seen from the complicated discussion about highsec ganking and CCP’s balancing attempts through the last year. Actually I admire CCP how well they manage to do it. If one want’s to strengthen the sandbox in highsec, there should not be less security but the environment should be more liquid. Under the umbrella of “Fall of Empires” the introduction of voting systems, that give the players a handle on some of the rules in high sec (taxes for example, but it needn’t stop there) could very well be placed. Also, it has been suggested that the essential lack of consequences of factional warfare on the empires might play a role in turning FW into a farming activity. I am not convinced that the recent changes will prevent that from happening. But what do I know about factional warfare. A “Fall of Empires” theme would allow to continue iteration on FW to include the change of security status for systems on the border of lowsec, based on FW activities. With Dust514 coming in force this might be a very interesting idea.

Empires can fall from yet another perspective. There are enough factions in the EVE lore that are not exactly at peace with the four large states. It is very interesting in this respect to see that CCP recently has put pirate faction noob-ships onto the test server. Jester has a few things to say on possible implications of this on his blog. He already sees a pirate expansion on the horizon for summer. You don’t need hordes of Super-Sansha to create awesome, “apocalyptic” gameplay. Make the players do it. Make them bring the empires to their knees! Give the capitalists a reason to use bounty hunters and mercenaries.

Finally new players. From everybody I talk to about EVE and try to convince him to give it a try I hear the same thing. People fear that they cannot catch up to older players. I think for an MMO that enters it’s second decade this must be a primary concern. A “Revolution” or “Fall of Empires” theme could implement features that make life harder for more experienced / very rich players. Yes, many won’t like that. But in the end I don’t see many other ways to convince newbies that they stand a chance. And to the rich and capable people I say: maybe this is just the challenge that will also make your life more interesting again!

It might be that “Fall of Empires” is more difficult to balance than “Gold Rush”. Yet, I think its potential to develop the sandbox is much bigger. As always in EVE it is a question of risk and reward.

Fly smart! Chira.

About chiralityeve

A rookie capsuleer exploring the depths of New Eden



  1. Pingback: Imperial Waves of Sound | States of Entanglement - 10/04/2013

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