The following post is the second, technical part of a two-part article on a political system for Empire Space in EVE. If you are interested in a fictional introduction I recommend to read part I first. Here I am going to discuss design issues connected to the idea of creating mechanics that allow players to experience and engage in the political power play of the empires of New Eden. The post has evolved into a quite longish essay. If this is tl;dr for you, there is a summary of the key points at the end of the article.
The motivation to create a political game-system is to further expand the concept of sandbox gameplay into Empire Space. We can transcend common definitions of the sandbox – which are closely tied to unrestricted PvP combat – by providing novel game mechanics that pitch players against each other in a different context than shooting spaceships. The system tries to embrace every character from the miner to the faction militia pilot into a greater whole. Its main goal is to instill the feeling that everyone is integrated into a meaningful world and feels the actions of other players around him. While my previous posts only discussed the idea in rather coarse strokes, here I will attempt to layout the possible foundations of such a system in more detail.
The article is organised in the following: I start with a look at what are possible decisions that could be given in the hands of player driven politics. Then I discuss how these decision can be made meaningful and interesting and how a political system may enable new types of player interactions and emergent factions. After taking a look at the how the process of making law can be organised I touch on several technical topics from voting to how to define citizenship. I briefly discuss the connection to media and life events and conclude with a list of possible challenges and problems a player driven political system might face.
Politics is about Decisions
Politics is about making decisions in the context of larger group. Before we can think about how decisions are made let’s take a look at what these decisions could be about in the first place. What is there that needs to be or even can be decided? For decisions to be possible their needs to be some freedom, some space of possibilities or possible solutions to a problem that one can select from. We will thus need to look at where are spaces of possibility already present in EVE Online Empire Space or where something new has to be created. In order for a decision to be meaningful there have to be tangible consequences. In order for a decision to be interesting the possible outcomes must have gains and losses so that it is not immediately obvious which decision to take. We will come back to this point in the next section. For the moment what are the items that might be decidable in EVE? Decision making happens in the context of a system of rules, laws and mechanics that describes what is possible in the world and how it is organised. A decision deals with changing this system. Let’s take basic trade as a simple example: Players can buy and sell goods on the market in a station. They pay a fee for each transaction. Now, there are two different classes of changes to a system:
- Changing system parameters : The fee that has to be paid is an obvious system parameter. Setting the market fee to a certain value is a decision on this particular system parameter. Another parameter would be the number of offers a trader is allowed to set up in a station.
- Changing system structure: A local government could decide to allow trade at player owned structures. Or they could evoke an embargo on an enemy state, either by stopping all trade ships that try to deliver to the that state or by putting fat punitive tolls on the export of certain goods.
The difference between these two classes of changes is obvious. In the case of structural changes additional game mechanics is required. In real life politicians can come up with any law construct they can think of. In a game environment this is a bit more tricky. Anytime we want to introduce something really new into the game the developers have to get active. While this is a possibility the goal here is to discuss a political decision system that can work without developer interference. It should allow players to “pass bills” that change the game without requiring the developers to write new code. Fortunately even relatively simple system can exhibit drastically different and even chaotic behaviour as a single parameter is changed. One challenge of designing an interesting political system is to create mechanics that are simple but support a multitude of different outcomes when parameters are changed. From the example above one can glimpse that certain designs will be more suited to this goal than others. A toll system which lets a government place tolls on exports is almost as simple to implement as just stopping ships that carry forbidden goods at the jump gates. Yet, it supports a much larger set of possibile solutions and adjustments. The trick is to identify such game mechanics. In the following we will look at mostly parametrical changes that players could be made to decide upon.
A lot of things are already present in EVE but in order to create interesting dynamics some structural changes might be necessary. Fiscal or budget decisions immediately provide parameters that can be tuned by capsuleer decision. It is not without reason that the right to pass a budget is the most holy right of any parliament. Decisions revolve around how to generate income and how to distribute the budget onto state expenses. For this to work a state first od all has to generate some income, usually through taxes and fees. Taxes are usually calculated as some percentage of the value of the item that is taxed. Fees are a fixed amount per service, but the distinction might be blurred. It is also imaginable to give players the possibility to define the mathematical formula by which a certain tax is calculated. For example, the game could provide a mechanism to change income tax. Income tax could depend on many variables, such as the aggregate wealth of a character or the income of a player during the last n days. In-game politicians could be allowed to define the formula through which the final tax for a player will be calculated! This would allow for all sorts of extremely interesting meta-gaming and place not only the decision of how large should the tax be but also what kind of tax system do we want into the hands of the players.
The tax system in EVE would have to be made flexible by splitting taxes into several categories like transaction fees, income tax, property tax. The state tax would exist in parallel to the corporation tax. There could be docking fees, jump gate usage fees, mining concessions. The individual rates of these taxes and fees could very well be the subject of player driven politics. Another financial aspect lending itself to policy making is trade regulations and tolls. This would need some new game mechanics to be introduced but could lead to extremely interesting political decisions, as discussed below. Customs at constellation and regional jump gates could be a source of income for a state but also a tool for foreign policy. CCP could implement limitations to what can be influenced by players. For example it could be impossible (or very expensive) to set up customs officers at gates leading to lowsec. If a government decides to put up tolls, there would always be possibilities for smugglers to sneak in through the backdoor. If we see a new POS system one day and “space cities” become a reality, where every player can setup his own small structure, a local, player run administration would have a lot to say about city development. Anchoring places could be decided upon, anchoring fees would go into the state treasury and so on.
Decision are only interesting if they have consequences and if there is no obvious best solution. In short politics is about tradeoffs. If players could just freely design the tax system, they would simply vote down any tax and let the state budget run dry. That changes if there are vital things to spend the budget on. Prime example for community spending is any kind of infrastructure. Station services, jump gates, planetary installations, police, CONCORD, communications infrastructure, security status all these things need to be financed. Make budgets for infrastructure and let the politicians decide how to spend the money! There is some balancing involved here to make this a hard decision. One important rule of thump should be that whatever generates income, also needs some upkeep to stay operational. If a jump gate can be used to tax a fee per jump, then there should be an upkeep to be paid per jump. And so on. The consequences of neglected infrastructure have to be dire. Longer waiting times at gates. Less industrial slots at stations. Market orders limited in range. Delayed police and CONCORD response, deteriorating security status…
You do not need to invent a lot new features or gimmicks in the game. Enough interesting behaviour could be created by making what is already there more dynamic. The goal would be to create a challenging puzzle for the politicians to solve in order to balance state income with spendings — with all the troubles that state finances are faced in the real world. Things get more interesting if the political system is linked in with other game mechanics, like incursions, that provide random disruptions. A constellation might be required to spend a significant amount of money on fighting a Sansha incursion. Politicians would be challenged to find new ways to plug the sudden hole in their budget and might turn to the capsuleer community to attract quick help.
Ultimately any puzzle as clever as it may be designed will pale compared to the challenges that can be created if players are pitted against other players. A successful political system will attempt to pit different groups of highsec-dwellers against each other. The game evolves from solving a mechanical puzzle (how to finance my system with x income and y spendings) to the infinitely more interesting problem of trying to outsmart another human being.
Examples for possible antagonistic groups could be
- Miners vs manufactures : the state budget must be balanced between providing industrial infrastructure and the prospection of new asteroid belts. The state has to decide where to invest more money.
- Manufacturers vs traders : Advanced station services can only be funded by raising market fees or installing an export toll.
- Labor vs capital : Should there be a weekly tax on captial assets to bolster the state war chest?
- Rich vs poor : How should an income tax be designed? Should there be a progression of tax so that the rich pay a larger relative share than the poor?
- Military vs citizens : Do we want to engage in a war with our neighbours?
- Constellation vs Constellation : should a rich part of the empire transfer some money into a less developed one? Can we afford to let a constellation drift into low security space just because it cannot generate the necessary income for its security upkeep by itself?
- Empire vs Empire : How much money does the empire spend on their militia? Should we race military spending or negotiate with the other empires? What if they do not hold their words?
In all of these cases decisions that are made available in the game are designed such that different interest groups can emerge. The critical enabling feature are tradeoffs connected to each decision, which influence different groups of players. A budget with several separate compartments can be a very good tool to facilitate that.
Interesting dynamics can be generated from regional differences. Imagine a political system with several layers, so that there are councils and budgets on the constellation, regional and empire level and politicians can decide how money flows between these layers. Could Jita be taxed and the revenue distributed to less attractive constellations?
Factional warfare is the highest level where the foreign policies of entire empires clash. While it seems difficult to give the decision to abort or start a war into the hands of the players themselves, tying FW into the budget system could create some interesting dynamics. Loyality point payout could be made dependent on what an empire is willing to spend on its military, for example. A toll system would allow to flank factional warfare with a trade war creating a more holistic experience and making the war effort influencing other parts of the game.
How are new laws created? There are several ways to design a system of law-making which can be used to tweak the feeling of involvement the players get. Let’s divide the process of making a new law into three steps:
- Legislative initiative
Who can when propose a new law on what? Who has the legislative initiative? Can this be any player? An elected council? Or can new laws be only proposed by NPCs? Maybe some parts of the system are deeper in the hands of the players than others. It might make sense that decisions concerning faction warfare cannot be initiated by the capsuleers but are handed to the capsuleer council by an NPC government (controlled by CCP’s life events team).
The time when laws can be changed is a critical design criterion. There could be fixed regular intervals at which a new budget is decided. Alternatively a player council can be given the freedom to change taxes any time they like. Finally, as discussed above ,the topics which are open to political decision at all are an important design criterion. This can include the degree of decision the players can make. It is a very different system when players are asked to decide for or against a 3% tax increase (as proposed by an NPC government) or if they have the power to negotiate the percentage amongst themselves. Legislative initiative is a very important tool for the designers to tune the degree of control they retain over the system.
Another interesting issue is political debate. Once a proposal is on the table, will it be possible to hand in amendments? Are there public debates (for example on an in-game forum)? How can politicians show off their influence on the law making process? What is the role of the media? To enable a tangible debate could be a key to make the political process come to life. It would be interesting to see what role-players can make out of this. Here is an opportunity where the CCP life events team could step into the very interesting role of an interstellar media company. Leaving the reporting largely in the hands of CCP would ensure that the player driven politics is properly embedded into the culture and backstory of EVE.
The last part of the law making progress is the decision. Real life politics is a lot about negotiating a package of laws that contains bits and pieces everybody can show off to their voters. If you can influence how the bundling is done, which laws are voted on together in one package, you have a very interesting power.
A considerable challenge is to design a user interface which captures these steps of the political process in an accessible way. Especially, how are bills or law bundles represented? Many board games use cards to represent new laws. I could imagine a kind of construction kit that lets politicians plug together the components of a bill and form them into a card-like widget. LiquidFeedback is a real world software system that might be a template of how to achieve something like this. At least it shows that this is not a show stopper.
If all the question discussed so far have been answered, the actual voting mechanics is the most straight forward to implement. There is a plethora of voting systems out there to choose from but they all have the advantage that they are mathematical algorithms which can be programmed into the game. From a design point of view the biggest decision is, whether the system should use representative or direct democracy. In any case, it would pay off to design a voting system that can handle abstract decisions and is reusable in many places. For example, the same voting code that is used to elect a representative capsuleer council can be employed for the decisions this council would make and so on.
The political process, its institutions and political bodies often reflect the underlying culture of the society that created them. It would be intriguing to implement a distinct system for each of the four major empires creating a reflection of the different cultures in terms of game mechanics.
- Gallente would favour basic democracy
- In the Caldari State you need to be member of a corporation to have political wheight
- The Minmatar are organised around their clan structure
- Capsuleers in Amarr space organize in secret societies where standings is everything
Who can vote? Who can take actively part in the political process? To whom do the laws apply? If a political system is introduced, the question of citizenship has to be answered. It should be noted that citizenship is a very sensitive issue when it comes to avoiding abuse of the system. If there is a situation when somebody can control the political process without having to face its consequences it will breakdown in an onslaught of trolls. Fortunately in EVE there already exist several measures that can be used to determine if a character should be a citizen or not: Standings to an Empire or the home station where the medical clone is installed are obvious choices but they are too easy to manipulate and often do not reflect the true region of operation of a character. Another possibility would be to ty citizenship to a character’s assets. For example, if you want to become a Gallente citizen, the majority of your assets has to be located in systems belonging to the Gallente Federation. Still, with enough financial power it would be possible to game this system. It might be necessary to ty citizenship to activity. Locality points might be a means to measure activity for a certain empire but since having a Faction Warfare alt is not a very difficult thing, this does not eliminate the possibility of politicians being manipulated from outside forces. On the other hand, this is EVE and politics might just be a dirty business…
Crimewatch should be used by the political system as well. Criminals usually loose political rights. There is ample of possibilities here and I will leave this to the reader to figure out interesting interconnections.
Life Events and The Media
Politics does not work without the media. Any system that remotely uses democratic principles needs the media to inform the citizens about the political process. On the other hand, major political decisions, which touch on the lives of many thousands of players will generate an interest and a desire to know more about what is going on and who is responsible. I believe that CCP’s life events team could be best employed as a galactic news consortium which reports to the characters. Not only does CCP have all the necessary information to create interesting news, by keeping a hand on the media it can shape the perception of political events to fit into the game world.
As Mat observes in his call for the 46th blog banter, there has always been a tension between the deep backstory of EVE and the sandbox universe, which is largely player controlled. Providing players with a framework to influence empire politics could be a wonderful way to bridge that gap. If CCP makes clever use of the legislative initiative, which could be (partly?) in the hands of NPCs and provides an interesting media coverage to report the political debate in a world-consistent fashion, player driven politics could be the key to solve the dilemma.
A player driven political system is a challenging game to design. I believe that EVE has the best foundations to make such a thing a reality but before we get to excited here is a short list of unsolved problems that any such system would need to adress.
- Single point of failure : Imagine a player would be elected into a very special political role, such as a president and the stops playing EVE. Or worse, starts to troll the whole game. It is for these reasons that I don’t see this to ever happen. The power in any resilient political system needs to be distributed over many shoulders. I therefore would favour a system where the main scope of influence of capsuleers is on the constellation level and each constellation has its own council or governor. The constellations can nevertheless be linked together by a federal budget, for example.
- Too big to fail : Very similar to the previous problem but in terms of game mechanics. It could lead to a lot of frustration if, by political incompetence or overwhelming hostile power, a constellation could be manoeuvred into an inescapable situation, for example, when infrastructure is degraded to such a degree that it cannot generate the necessary state finances anymore, no matter what is decided.
- Exploits and trolling : People will try to game the system and they will find weak points. The best strategy to battle this is to keep things dynamic, for example, by leaving some legislative initiative in the hands of CCP. In that case, if exploits become apparent, the behaviour of NPC politicians can change without a developer necessarily having to rewrite large chunks of game mechanics.
- Elite gameplay : If CCP would invest a significant amount of developer resources into a political system they would want as many players to have fun with these features as possible. While politics has the potential to touch on the lives of many, only a few would probably have the patience necessary to step up and actually be a space politician. If it goes wrong only a few would ever use the nice politics UI. Or, even worse, only a few would even care what is going on on the political stage. Again, spreading political responsibility through the player base, avoiding overly centralised systems and creating decision mechanics with tangible outcomes are the cornerstones to help here. Nevertheless it remains a challenge.
- The true populations of the empires : this is more a question of immersion and consistent backstory than of game design. What about the billions of citizens who are not capsuleers? How is their political will manifested in the system? Again, a clever use of legislative initiative could provide a way out here. The issue should be treated as a feature that can be used to make the game better rather than a problem.
This has evolved into a much larger post than I originally anticipated. If you have made it through to this point I thank you for your patience!
Let’s summarise the thoughts developed above. I think there are a few cornerstones that should be used in any design of a political game system:
- Before space politicians can start making decisions CCP must create a freedom of choice by freeing parameters to be tuned by player decision.
- Parametric decisions are much easier to implement than structural decisions. Clever design can however create interesting emergent behaviour from parametric changes.
- Financial politics, including taxes, fees and import/export tolls as well as government spending on infrastructure lends itself well to parametric decisions.
- Meaningful decisions have impacts on all characters and are characterised by difficult tradeoffs.
- A political system should support the formation of interest groups amongst players through tradeoffs that are focused on certain play styles.
- A decentralised system is more resilient against player fault, trolling and gaming. I propose the constellation level as a basis for capsuleer influence with regional and empire levels represented through federal budgets.
- Legislative initiative is an important tool to control the amount of freedom granted to the players and to connect player driven politics to the fictional universe.
- Representing the political process with debate and the development of bills (with bundles of laws) in the game is a more important challenge than programming voting systems.
- Citizenship has to be organised in such a way to ensure that somebody who can acquire power also is impacted by the consequences of his decisions.
- CCPs live events team should from a media division, reporting on the political gameplay. This would be the ideal way to tie capsuleer politics into the backstory of EVE. I’d love to see regular news shows like this Scope News. But with reports on politics that is made by players!
I find the possibility of player driven politics in Empire Space extremely interesting. And since there are influential DEVs at CCP that seem to like the idea as well, who knows we might just see it in the second decade of EVE Online.
Fly smart! Chira.