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Month: January 2017

CAGEO: Pirates, Carebears, and Emergent Gameplay

One of the most intriguing things about EVE Online is that CCP, the developer, does not make any attempt to use their ability to manipulate the rules of the EVE universe to artificially impose the acceptance of the title to property. Pirates are not ruled out of existence; they are incorporated into the rules. There are computer-controlled NPC enemies referred to by the game as “pirates” which players call “rats” in EVE slang. And then there are the actual pirates, the other players who shoot at poorly armed ships for fun and profit. In what is called “high sec” space (sec being short for security), there is a police force called CONCORD that will come in and exact retribution upon those who illegally shoot another player’s ship. I know that we’re going through a log of jargon here, but this is so you don’t have to play the game for a few months to have any idea what I am talking about. That’s the idea behind this series.

In other MMO games, there would be a no-PvP zone, but even the developers say that there are no safe places outside of stations. So while it may be illegal, and punishable by the invincible CONCORD, nothing stops players from shooting another player’s unarmed mining ship. But what prompts the developers to remind us of the face that nobody is safe in the most secure of high sec space? This is where I have to start talking about CODE. It’s the bogeyman supposedly hiding in every asteroid belt. I mentioned in the private chat channel for the corporation I joined that I had flown out and set up a mining frigate to work away while I wrote Skills, the previous post in this series. I was warned that this kind of mining was going to get me killed by CODE. Who is this monster hiding under every capsuleer’s bed?

CODE. is the alliance of players and player-corporations founded by a player named James 315 which enforces the New Halaima Code of Conduct. James also publishes a daily blog chronicling the exploits of the alliance. If you choose to browse the website, please be aware that it’s a beautifully Orwellian work of propaganda. If it feels a bit icky and cultish then you are just reacting like any normal human being should. But once I accepted the premise, I became hooked on the entertainment value.

CODE. as a group is basically a space mafia centred around a personality cult. They shoot pacifists and run a licensing scheme that amounts to an extortion racket. And you know what? I love them for it. Consider the following groups of players in EVE: so-called “carebears” who don’t shoot other players and just want to shoot rats, mine minerals, and build stuff; griefers looking to shoot down unarmed player ships, enforce a player-created code of conduct with religious zeal, and run an extortion racket; and toxic players who spew obscenities and abusive language. You’d think that the last two groups would have the most overlap, but if James’ blog is a reasonable sample then I am inclined to believe there are more carebears who are engaging in verbal abuse than there are CODE. agents doing that. They get into the roleplay and have fun with it. They play the game. They’re the space mafia, but they’re a damn good space mafia. I even agree with some of their points about bot-aspirancy. Of course, not all carebears are abusive jerks and/or bot-aspirant. I’ve met some in the field (strangers, not even corporation-mates) who went out of their way to ensure I knew how to avoid getting killed. But there does seem to be a steady stream of very salty carebears who really do need to take the agents’ advice and calm down.

What do I find so interesting about this conflict between peaceful miners and zealous pirates? It’s that all this isn’t the brainchild of some writer working for the developer. It’s all created by players. All of the drama, all of the anti-CODE. resistance, it’s all content that emerges from players playing the game. Incidents like the death of Lord British or the Corrupted Blood Incident are rare exceptions in other games, but in EVE Online it’s entirely by design that content emerges from unexpected events. The developers never intended for CODE. to exist, some guy named James invented it and now it’s part of the folklore. I think that’s really neat. I only wish more carebears who got blown up sought in-game solutions to their in-game problems instead of spewing abusive language and threatening to file spurious reports to the moderators. Groups like the High Sec Militia might not be able to hold a candle to CODE.’s blogging game, but they exist in the game and their chat channels are active. There are options for players who wish to resist without being toxic. As for me, I choose to use the in-game tools available to avoid CODE. and other player-pirates altogether while going about my business.

Fans of the 2003 television series Firefly fondly remember this scene where the pilot of Serenity is playing with his toy dinosaurs while Serenity is cruising along, but at no point does he completely abandon his console. He’s got to be vigilant in case there are hostile Alliance ships in the area. Sound familiar? It’s the end of his little vignette that I am reminded of whenever I see a threat to my ship.

Curse your sudden, but inevitable betrayal! (source)

So, that’s me when I’m mining in high sec: perhaps blogging rather than playing dinosaurs and watching the in-game chat channels Gank-Intel and Anti-ganking rather than a radar with an audible alarm, but with the same idea. I can mine while writing, but getting careless with it would see my ship blown up by those who claim ownership over all the rocks in all the space. Isn’t that better than sending hatemail to other players and getting made fun of for it?

And, at the end of the day, I won’t be upset if I get ganked by a CODE. agent. First, because they would have to be quite good at what they do to ever find me to begin with. If they can catch me I’m dead, but I will respect the skill and talent of any agent who is capable of catching me. Second, even if I lose my stuff, I am centred in the knowledge that I am playing internet spaceships in a PvP universe. It’s not to be taken seriously. If I don’t take it too seriously, there is no reason to have a tantrum and say horrible things. If it ever gets to be too much, I can just move on to another game.

Now, does using internet spaceships to mine internet asteroids sound like a life for me? Not really. But is it way more fun doing so for a little while with an element of danger and feeling like I have in some small way flouted the space mafia by mining without a licence? Absolutely. I don’t know how long I will continue to play this game or what I will move on to doing within it if I do. The only thing I know for certain is that I am not in the market for a a mining permit. Not now, not ever.

Hail To The Chief

When I started this blog I knew I wanted to write about things that can be framed as “games” even though they’re not the recreational pastimes we usually think of when we hear that word. An odd choice to be sure, but one I hope sets this body of work apart from the gaming-related noise on the internet. So I knew at some point I would have to address the phenomenon that is Donald J. Trump, the unlikely prospect for the Republican nomination. At first, I thought I would wait until his primary campaign flamed out and write a retrospective. And then he became the nominee, so I planned to watch the rest of the campaign and write the post-mortem in November. Then I had to wait and see if there would be a stunning upset in the electoral college. And now, as of yesterday, he is the president of the United States of America. Whatever the founding fathers of their nation may have envisioned 240 years into the future, this one man has come to define his nation’s politics. This election result has already changes the political landscape in North America, and it’s only just beginning.

We’d better include some measures in this constitution to prevent the rise of a demagogue…

A lot of ink and pixels have already been devoted to gloating, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and analyzing the causes of the final score in the political game that was the USA 2016 election. I’m not going to rehash most of that here. If you have seen Almost Infinite’s Twitter and Facebook cover photos then you know how I feel. But what interests me as a writer is the remarkable scale of the dissonance between the rules of the game and what people think the rules of the game are. No matter what the game is, this disconnect can be responsible for a lot of unnecessary grief. The remedy I propose is to understand and change rules rather than shout at the world about how things should be but simply aren’t.

One thing I am tired of is hearing American liberals complain that Clinton “won the popular vote” as if achieving a simple majority is the magic threshold of legitimacy. It can be argued that in a bipartisan system this would not an unreasonable standard to adopt, but I am not taking a position in this post about how they should run their elections. I am merely observing the way they do run their elections, and that this way has nothing to do with winning the popular vote at the national level. Their rules are complicated, and seem downright Byzantine to Canadians like me. These rules, though complex, are not vague: the candidate who wins the most votes in the electoral college wins the election. They might be terrible rules, but they are the rules all the same.

Peace, order, and good government: no simple majority required.

This disconnect between what we think the rules and and what they actually are exists in Canadian politics as well. Every time a majority government is elected with less than 50% of the vote you will hear people shout about how ~60% of the population voted for someone other than the Conservatives/Liberals yet the Conservatives/Liberals still got a majority of the seats. “It’s not fair!” Well, maybe it isn’t; I am not taking a position on Canadian electoral reform in this post. What I am saying is that our 39% majorities are a fact of life in this country because that is what happens when the game is played by our rules. It is entirely legitimate to wish to change the rules to something better, and it is quite possible that there are better ways of electing a parliament than the first-past-the-post system we use. However, to suggest that a Canadian government lacks legitimacy without achieving a simple majority is simply absurd (and is usually coated in a strong partisan bias; Liberals seem to have no problem with 39% majorities when it’s a Liberal majority and vice versa for Conservatives). We have not had a federal government that “won the popular vote” since 1984, when the Mulroney Conservatives in a “landslide” just barely cracked the 50% mark. There are many silly things about our antiquated Westminster parliament, and several changes I would like to see, yet I love our parliament for its quirks and its ability to deliver relatively stable governments that most Canadians can live with even if they detest the governing party. Being snarky about the legitimacy of our government because you don’t like the rules is useless at best, and dangerous at worst. Working for a better alternative, changing the game itself, is entirely more worthwhile. Or, get better at the game under the current rules and defeat your opponent like Justin Trudeau did to Stephen Harper. And yes, like Donald Trump did to Hillary Clinton. Despite all his faults, despite all the faults of the system, he won the game as it was intended to be played.

So, what does liberal America do with their situation? It’s not an easy thing to figure out from here and the answer won’t be the same for everyone. But one place where I think disgruntled Democrats can start is to flush the pee jokes out of their system and get to work on improving their game under existing rules while also pursuing electoral reform. Trump is POTUS and just wishing it wasn’t so doesn’t change anything. The same rules that allowed him to win also allow for the Democrats to win back their congress and senate over the next couple years, for impeachment of the president, and failing that they have another run at him in 2020. Their victory is not guaranteed, but there is a path towards it. Americans who oppose what their president stands for have options. As an interested observer, I am hoping that the vast majority of them choose something more productive than complaining about it on social media to their friends and followers who think the same way. Protest. Get involved. Do something about it. The USA is a weird, sometimes frightening, sometimes amazing country that deserves much more than a steady stream of snark piped into a series of echo chambers about what shouldn’t have happened.

Alright, the political rant is done. Back to writing about internet spaceships next week, then more tabletop RPG goodness on February 1.

The Magic is Missing

I haven’t rediscovered it yet. That Civilization magic that keeps me up into the wee hours of the morning, hopefully not on weeknights. The third, fourth, and fifth instalments all in their own way refined and built upon this magic. But when I tried to play Beyond Earth, I found it wasn’t there. Oh well, I thought, the magic wasn’t in the spin-off but it will arrive with the new one in the main series. But I have been trying to play through Civ 6, and it took longer than I expected to make it through my test run on Settler (lowest) difficulty.

Truth be told, the main reason I’ve made it as far as I have in my Civ 6 games is that I committed myself to write about things other than the series I am working on about that other game. My deliberate effort to stay casual rather than a part time job has meant that I was able to make time for Civilization, though I could just as easily have spent 100% of my gaming time there. Sort of like how Civilization used to perclude playing any other video games…

Inside the game, the part I am having the most difficulty with right now is that the new idea of districts struck me as brilliant. What I am finding less than brilliant is that the cost of building them is so high that it has made both of my attempts so far into production queue logjams because I have to wait so long for district construction to be complete. Technology and social policy acquisition are hardly limiting factors anymore; it’s being able to build the districts in any sort of reasonable time frame while still pumping out industrial and military units.

Planning Mumbai’s expansion: the cost of the districts themselves seems a bit steep.

But my beginner’s misadventures in virtual city planning are probably things I could learn to avoid given time and practice with the new rules. What concerns me more is the interaction with other civilizations. Although it has long been the case that interaction with your neighbours consisted mostly of them finding excuses to declare war on you because you deign to exist next to them, sometimes it almost feels like a geopolitical game. I fondly remember a round of Civ 5 where I propped up the Roman Empire with huge gifts of strategic resources because it was the only buffer between my land of peace, science, and cultural advancement and the Huns’ sprawling empire based entirely on brutality. The fact that I could use game mechanics to create a narrative was neat. This was more of an exception than a rule, but if that sort of shenanigans could become common then the whole idea of foreign relations could be a lot of fun. My experience so far is that it’s the same as it ever was, except now the leaders will insult me for having a small navy or not adopting their religion before they declare a war of naked aggression because my land is next to their land. It doesn’t make that part of the game much more compelling than it used to be.

So, while I like the new ideas, until I rediscover the magic that drew me to Civilization in the past I won’t be grappling with the prospect of pouring infinite amounts of time into the game. It has stood the test of time for 26 years, but if I start to feel about Civilization 6 the way I do about Beyond Earth, I may yet be cured of the obsession with getting through just one more turn.

CAGEO: Skills

I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable new year. I am getting right back into continuing the Casual Alpha’s Guide series.

Let’s talk about skills. In character-driven video games, our avatars learn how to do things that we can only imagine, whether that is summoning a fireball with a magic spell or piloting a starship that’s faster than the speed of light. For us in the real world, our skills are limited by four things:

  1. What is possible according to the physical laws of the universe. This is why it has never helped for me to shout fus ruh dah at any of my cats when they jump back up on the table yet again.
  2. Access to training and materials. I don’t have access to spacecraft or the trainers who could teach me how to pilot one.
  3. Physical and intellectual capacity to learn the skills. Even if it was possible for a human to attain the near-superhuman skills of the Batman, it wouldn’t be me doing it.
  4. Desire and inclination. While it may be realistic and possible to go salsa dancing, I live near enough to places I could learn, I probably have enough money to pay for lessons if I were to prioritize this, and am at least able-bodied enough to give it a shot, in order for me to learn this skill I must put in the requisite time.

What video games do, for our entertainment, is to exempt our characters from the first three requirements and drastically commute the last one. The games offer us a vicarious experience by redefining the rules around what is possible. However, in the absence of the normal restrictions, the game must preserve a sense of incentive/reward in order for the title that goes along with the skill to mean anything. Remember, a title must be seen as compensatory for some kind of effort put in.

In some games, simply progressing through the plot unlocks new skills. In others, “experience points” are rewarded for killing enemies or for accomplishing other tasks on the side. EVE Online, however, indulges in the ultimate technological fantasy: being able to plug our brain into a computer and downloading knowledge and practical skills while sleeping. From a game design perspective, what EVE does is make learning skills a question of allocating real time that the player does not have to spend in front of the computer rather than incentivizing the player to spend as many hours at the keyboard as possible to grind the EXP to get the level-up in order to get the skill. The following is a snapshot of Aleff Knoll’s skill queue from a few weeks ago:

Training will be complete in two days, eleven hours, and four minutes.

Yes, that’s over two full days of offline training I’ve got queued up in there. If I was a subscribed user, I could have a month or more in this queue silently ticking away whenever I am not online. While there are many new character skill guides out there, I have decided to follow my experience rather than metaknowledge gained from the various wikis and guides available online. I acquired a destroyer and I can look at the details for this model which tell me what skills I need to fly the ship with increasing levels of expertise:

Aleff Knoll’s skill training Curriculum

So that’s what I have been doing instead of what would have been my assigned readings from EVE University. Now in tandem with the “skills” of the character come the skills of the player. For these, the career agents in my starter system have been quite helpful. The quests they give out are nothing special, like go haul this or kill bandits there. What I found is that the player-skills I picked up (such as how to use the targeting system effectively rather than the clunky way I was doing it during the introductory tutorial) all emerged from trial and error rather than having a big flashing sign that said “click here.”

This, rather than some kind of EXP grind, feels more rewarding because understanding the game for myself is a small personal accomplishment, whereas simply having a character that holds certificates and “skills” doesn’t mean I know anything or can do anything in particular. A few years ago, one of the richest players in EVE spent an inhuman amount of ISK on creating a brand new character with maxed-out skills. No grind, just the character skill reward for “cash.” Of course, one must have at least a basic understanding of the game to know how to use the in-game items to make this happen, and the guys who do this sort of thing aren’t plunking down $28,000 in real money to CCP in one shot. These are top tier players paying with ISK made in-game; the dollar values are usually used to illustrate the scale of these things to people who don’t play the game. What that case does prove, in principle, that this game can be pay-to-win but only if you consider your character’s skill level to be a valid ranking. And the truth of the matter is, while it certainly does give an in-game advantage in some areas, having maximum skills doesn’t end the game. You don’t get a certificate saying you’ve won an academic victory. Life in New Eden simply goes on. Both character skills and player skills are essential to winning, but you have to decide what winning means. In this way, it’s a lot like life. It’s great to know things, and be able to do things, but really: what you choose to do with what you’ve got is what matters, not what you could do if you chose differently. It is perhaps more important to have a good sense of what winning is than it is to have the skills to get there.

The next post in this series will be on January 28th, 2017. By then I will have left the local environs of my noob station to explore a little bit more of the local neighborhood, if not the whole galaxy.