(My apologies to any email subscribers who received a draft version of this post earlier this week when I forgot to finish it before it automatically posted.)
Sometimes, when playing what I call large and expansive recreational games, I wonder how much potential they actually have to live up to my expectations. A few days ago, I was out ratting (that’s EVE-speak for using an imaginary spaceship to shoot hordes of NPC pirates, equivalent to “farming mobs” in other games). An enemy player appeared in local (a chat window with a list of all pilots in system). I warped my ship to my team’s space station, which is a common move when you see an intruder in your space. Ratting and hunting ratters is a game of cat and mouse: they win by catching me, I win by scurrying away too quickly. I make it back to the station and tether, which essentially means I am invulnerable. He starts talking in local. “Fight me,” he says. I tell him that I will not fight him in my ratting vessel (which are almost always ill-suited for combat with other players) or my salvage vessel (unarmed) so I go fetch something more suitable from the next system over. Now flying a nimble assault frigate, I warped to the same station. I tethered up, approached the enemy cruiser, and then broke tether by opening fire. We fight for a while, then a friend in my alliance stumbles across the fight and opens fire as well. I would have told him to back off if not for the fact that I saw in local that there was another alliance mate of the guy I was fighting somewhere close to us. There was to be no pretence of space-bushido here. So I won, not because I am am especially talented pilot, but through (ab)use of the tethering mechanic and unfair odds that I didn’t bother to make fair out of paranoia that doing so is taking bait for a larger trap. That, my friends, is EVE at its most basic essentials. We both write “gf” in local, which stands for good fight. Some people might find this strange, but not people who play this game.
The next day I attended the weekly session of World of Darkness I play with my friends. We went totally off script, but ended up bringing a split party together onto the same narrative thread, no rails in sight. This is the tabletop gaming that I like to think is so good and interesting, rather than it being a tangle of out-of-character debates about arcane rules that makes me wonder why I think so highly of the game. There have been times, in many different campaigns including some that I have run, that I feel like the esteem I hold for the tabletop RPG is misplaced. Not last week.
So what’s the point? Some games can suck up a lot of time and not produce measurable returns. I don’t think, though, that this means we should eliminate recreational games from a healthy life balance that includes other activities just because there is no instant gratification. While it may be true that Yahtzee (or, as my wife’s off-brand set calls it, 5-dice Game) always produces a winner, it’s never going to be satisfying in the same way as having a great night at the WoD table or a fantastic example of the “gudfight” that capsuleers spend so much time seeking. Not even when I have the disgusting luck of multiple Yathzee rolls (five of a kind) in a single game. It’s there… and then it’s gone. It’s a game, but not a story. I happen to think that making new stories is just as good a way to spend a midsummer night as sitting on the patio enjoying some cold ones, or cycling, or whatever. That’s what I need to remind myself the next time I feel like I spend too much time listening to other people discuss their dice pools or spinning my ships in citadels and not enough time working or writing or designing or…. any of those other things I can maybe stand to do a little more of, but should not pretend like I could be doing it all non-stop.
Site update: in case the unscheduled break wasn’t a clear enough sign, I’m having a bit of a hard time keeping up right now. I have a few more posts in progress, then I am going on a semi-vacation from active blogging for a month. A generous donor has decided to supercharge Alastair’s Steam-Powered Hope initiative which means Almost Infinite will be running 100% Full Steam Ahead, every week in August. I will still be monitoring things behind the scenes and moderating comments, and then be back in September with what I hope will be more of the content I want to be creating rather than falling into the habit of steam-of-consciousness posts about whatever I happen to be playing, just to get something published for the week. There will be more applied game theory and philosophy posts after the break. Thanks for reading.
Sometimes we play games that are extremely limited in scope. There is one way to finish a game of cribbage, by following the one track you are on to the finish line. Even chess, though there are so many ways of getting there, has only two endings (checkmate or stalemate). This is good if one wants to be finished with the game in a short amount of time. In order to be passionate about something like that, though, there must be another level to the game. Perhaps you are looking to increase your Elo rating to advance competitively, or to enjoy a brief moment of glory among family and friends before it’s time to move on. But it’s not the win itself that drives excitement, it’s the bigger picture whether it’s a score and a formal title or building and maintaining relationships. To be passionate about these games one must look at each instance of the game as part of something bigger.
Other games, generally the ones I write about a lot, lend themselves to making the player feel like they are indeed participating in something that is bigger than their own experience. This is one reason that I appreciate games with immersive plots and storylines: it makes me feel like other things are going on in the in-game universe other than what is here and now in front of my face. Another way is to offer a chance to explore a world, as one can in the Elder Scrolls series. But in my experience, the most effective way to keep a game going indefinitely is to weave the social experience into the game itself. The tabletop RPG does this by ensuring that the boundaries of the game are malleable. Not that a dungeon crawl is an invalid play style, but that reminds me more of the single-instance games I mentioned at the start of this post. The campaigns we tell stories about are usually the ones that involve more than violence against the undead and making it to the end of the dungeon. The ones we remember tend to be the ones where the social interaction shaped the experience more than the dice or the rule book. Lastly, the MMO sandbox has clearly defined rules but leaves the objective and the ends up to the player.
Why did I spend an evening participating in the fleet pictured above and below? It wasn’t because of anything in particular to do with getting a structure kill on a scoreboard or what was inside that base. It was because I was a part of a corporation and I want to have good standing in that small team. I want my corporation to advance within our alliance and be a part of building that. I want that alliance to be successful because I believe in the values they profess to uphold. It’s all about being part of something bigger than my own ISK wallet and ship hangar.
So, if you like to be done with games in the space of minutes or hours, play something limited in scope. If you like persistent games, I think the key is to fully engage with the story and/or social aspects because those are the things that make the player part of something bigger. And, incidentally, if you play EVE and really liked that code of conduct that I linked, recruitment is open.
If you’ve been following this blog for some time then you will expect that when the gaming world and social issues intersect that I am likely to have an opinion on it. But I don’t think I want to spend too much time rehashing why it’s bad to use racial slurs when you are a YouTube celebrity with millions of followers. What I am interested in is how those in positions of authority respond to incidents like this. Something else happened in the gaming world this week, and that’s the collapse of CO2. No, sorry, there hasn’t been a breakthrough in carbon dioxide emission reductions. CO2 in EvE Online stands for Circle of Two, which had been a big alliance in the game for many years. The short version of this story is that a player in the alliance with very high level access to their resources handed over the castle keys to an enemy alliance because he became convinced that the supreme leader has been running the alliance into the ground. Much drama ensues after this betrayal. This is classic EVE as I have come to understand it. Upon learning of the betrayal, gigX (the former CO2 leader) logs on and makes a death threat against The Judge (the betrayer). He is immediately banned. Kotaku has the most in-depth story I’ve read on this so far. What does this have in common with PewDiePie? In both cases, a man went way too far with his words. The difference is that one is banned, and the other is still on his platform.
One could say that CCP is promoting in-game subterfuge and political intrigue by not making the subterfuge and betrayal against the rules. They even include “being the villain” in official advertisements about what one can do in the game. However, when gigX crossed the line into making real-life threats (a big no-no in EvE’s EULA) they didn’t hesitate to ban him. There was no debate over whether words were just words or anything like that. A line was drawn, he crossed it, and he was banned for life without consideration of how much money he had tied up in the game. This is a good example of how speech that isn’t necessarily illegal (local police might not find the threat credible enough to get a warrant) still leads to unfortunate consequences for those who violate community standards.
PewDiePie, meanwhile, still has his popular YouTube channel despite establishing a repeated pattern of behaviour which, while it may not be illegal, is rightly seen as morally reprehensible by decent people. It’s upsetting but certainly not surprising to see some of the usual canards about words being “just words” and all that. First, let’s keep in mind that defences that boil down to “this is not illegal” are usually very poor for establishing the acceptability rather than the legality of the conduct. I don’t think it would be right to bring the full force of the state down on PewDiePie because he dropped an n-bomb on the internet. But that’s not the only alternative to considering what he did to be acceptable. There are individual actions that one can take: I won’t be watching any of his videos and I will encourage others to abandon him as a matter of principle. I will allow YouTube’s response to colour my view of their platform. But, as a society, we need to be denying an audience to these kinds of people. If we fail to do this, then we leave too much room for something akin to a missing stair. The term is usually used in the context of sexual assault/harassment, but I think we could also apply it other kinds of psychological abuse, such as making your fellow online game players wonder if they are actually in real life danger (which has happened over MMO games more than once in the past decade so it’s certainly possible though not very common). It is certainly the case that at my D&D table it would be a terrible failure on the part of our group if a player threatened another player in an explicitly real-life context and we just worked around it rather than addressed it. Whether it was my house and my campaign or one I was just playing in, I would demand that person’s removal. In the case of the Judgement Day scandal, I don’t think The Judge is genuinely scared of gigX. But in this corner of the gaming community, there is a danger that “oh, that’s just how he is” becomes a way to permit behaviour that really ought to be unacceptable.
Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.” – Cliff Pervocracy
The troubling aspect of the commentary that objects to the gigX ban is that he should be given consideration because, like PewDiePie, he is a content creator and many people like him. So, the reasoning goes, deny him his platform and droves of people will quit in disgust and ruin something for many more people. I think this is a terrible line of reasoning because it seeks to excuse something that ought not to be acceptable simply on the grounds that the person is popular. If anything, people in these positions of power should be held to a higher standard because they are the ones with more power to set norms in the community. It’s not that I believe that YouTube racists with less than 100 views or the nobodies threatening CODE. agents shouldn’t also be banned, but banning those guys doesn’t send as clear a message when they have no power in the community. Rules and codes of conduct only hold meaning if the popular and powerful are expected to maintain at least the same standards of compliance as the people whose objections can more easily be ignored. If the continuation of the game really does depend on the acceptance of this kind of behaviour, maybe it’s better off not being played at all.
One thing I would like to be very clear about is that denial of audience is not the same as outrage. We don’t need anti-gigX or anti-PewDiePie rage posts; those would be counter-productive. Anyone who has watched Llamas With Hats by FilmCow will see that shouting at Carl’s heinous behaviour not only fails to deter him, but encourages it because it shows him that he still has an audience. Towards the end of part four, Carl calls us out on this: how can anyone be surprised at anything he does, given his history and the fact that despite it all, Paul is still there to see it and shout about it.
The series takes a turn after part 4, the originally intended ending, because somehow FilmCow’s audience kept demanding more. Although he continued to achieve greater and greater heights of depravity, it was all meaningless to Carl because he lacked his audience. He was not defeated by a powerful opposing force or by outrage and denunciation. It all fell apart when Paul decided to pack his bags and leave. That is why I support banning these objectionable people from their respective platforms: while we still let them make us outraged without denying them their audience, they keep on going. While we still continue to live with the guy who is hungry for hands, we are permitting him to continue.
What you permit, you promote. YouTube might do well to take some cues from CCP in this regard.
I have been thinking a lot lately about security and safety. In our non-fictional world we can’t stop talking about it. We bring our desire for security into our fiction-based games. After all, what is the point of defeating evil necromancers or eldritch space horrors if not to secure the safety of the ordinary good people in that fiction? Today I will be using an example from EVE Online to explain how risk cannot be eliminated while maintaining reward except by atrocity. There is a bit of a preamble, but don’t worry, I will as always ensure that I am writing in plain English rather than EVE-specific jargon (tooltips will be provided).
In our non-fictional world, safety and security are usually spoken of in positive terms. We generally want children to return from schools and employees to return from workplaces without serious or life threatening injuries or exposures. We expect to be able to walk out of our homes and not die by malicious action or careless negligence. Yet it is impossible to truly perfect our safety and security. Everyone who leaves their house consents to a level of acceptable risk. You know you could lose your life simply by walking out your door, but you do it anyway because the chances are low while the rewards are seemingly endless. You don’t proceed to run into opposing traffic because that kicks the level of risk into being unacceptable: being late for work is not worth your life. You feel safe enough, secure enough, that you would not go to bizarre lengths to drive the chances of something going wrong down to absolute zero. Yet that residual chance of a drunk driver defying the traffic safety rules and laws and causing you harm always remains no matter much more enforcement is applied. As a society we work out where to set the limits, and when we do well the risk is practically zero but not absolutely zero with as few restrictions on individual liberty as possible. We can chase that absolute all we want with ever-increasing zeal for draconian rule enforcement, but somehow we never get there. We know that if there is ever to be any reward, there is a non-zero risk.
Risk vs. reward lies at the core of the mechanics of the finite games we play. Our level of acceptable risk can go sky-high when there is no risk to our physical safety and no real money is involved. Where we are risk averse when it comes to the risk of termination of infinite play, we are perfectly happy to play finite games where we rush headlong into danger and get destroyed when we lose. The boundaries of the game provide a safe space for us to indulge the kind of risks that we would never take if the consequences were not contained within the game. We can construct terrible totalitarian regimes where no threat to our Civilization’s hegemony can go unanswered by military force. We can fly spaceships deep behind enemy lines knowing that we could be blown up at any time. We can take four points for twos at risk of losing our bonus on the top half of the Yathzee card. Depending on the game and the player’s style, finite games played for fun involve different risk profiles. Yet wherever our tolerance lands, we know that a game with rewards but no risks is completely broken.
So what happens when a player doesn’t understand this? This week I have a great example coming from New Eden, the fictional universe in which EVE Online takes place. Since the last time I wrote about this game, I took the plunge: got the subscription, joined a corporation, and moved out to null sec. Security here is different. I no longer rely on CONCORD’s omnipotent but reactionary justice. But I still read Miner Bumping with amusement. That is the blog I referred to in this post about emergent gameplay. Many days it’s more of the same: player in a mining ship in high security space gets blown up by a space mafia enforcer, space mafia engages in a little bit of light roleplaying (the blog being the central source for the in-game propaganda), the miner goes berserk and engages in toxic behaviour, the whole thing gets posted to James 315’s blog where the man himself makes entertaining wisecracks and reinforces his mythology. After a while that starts getting a little old, but then every few weeks something interesting and different happens. This last week Miner Bumping introduced us to a player named Starterrorprime (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). This miniseries is exactly why I read that blog.
For those who don’t speak EVE jargon, here is a brief synopsis: dude approaches one of the most powerful groups in a very large game and offers to build their ships rather than pay into their racket. They’re like no, we build our own ships, please pay into our racket. He doesn’t want to, so he buggers off to the area of space (null sec) where CODE. doesn’t operate. Wants to sell ships on the open market to a powerful null sec alliance. The same ships they build themselves and give out to their members for free. He complains on the official forums when his plan for pre-ordained profits fails to materialize. Then he comes back to high sec and goes back to forums with his tale of woe and asking people to donate (in-game currency) to his for-profit enterprise. If he is doing this as a scam, that’s the most perfect EVE gameplay I have ever seen. But if he believes his own BS, if he believes that there is actually something wrong with the game when he can’t just roll in and start making profit at the expense of large groups, that’s where he has a really serious problem. The game would have a serious problem if it rewarded players who are looking to get risk-free rewards, but that’s not the case. If he keeps on trying to mine minerals and build ships out of those minerals in high security space, he is going to continue to face player pirates (CODE. and otherwise) and the heartless reality of the open market where much larger and more efficient operations will be able to undercut him. He is not ruining the game because he is unable to completely remove the risk that he will either get blown up or beaten in the ship market.
Now, if he wants safety and security and the opportunity to take progressively bigger risks for progressively better rewards, he can always give it a try in a different null sec alliance. Do what I did: inquire about who is recruiting, find a good bunch of guys to play with, and be there for the group when they call for help to defend fellow alliance mates. Be there for their team mining boosts, be there for the corporation-level small fleet activities. Sure, my killboard will show that I have lost many, many more ships after leaving the safety of high security space. But my ability to build up and participate in something bigger is far more secure than it would be without being a part of a team.
And this is where we finally get to the part about atrocity: assuming it’s not a swindle, what would it take for Starterrorprime to be able to realize his dream of making profit without interference from opposing players? Would CODE. need to be banned holus bolus? Would a single player be able to find a way to take down a decaying Pandemic Legion? To do this without astronomical risk would take a lot of power, but not just any kind of power: it must be accessible to him but not his opponents. It may not be impossible that he is simply that much of an exceptional player that he could eventually find the hidden path to becoming John Galt in space faster than anyone else, but it seems quite unlikely. How does a one-man corporation reliably take on the masses and win every time (on the battlefield or in the marketplace) when the masses are able to change strategy and have been at the game much longer than our new bro? It is easier to imagine this power coming from some kind of exploit which CCP would make a bannable offence as soon as they are made aware of it. In order for him to use an exploit to dominate very large groups of skilled and intelligent players he would need the developers on his side to allow the exploit to continue. This would be, within the boundaries of the game, an atrocity. Now let’s think about things other than video games: if I came up with a risk-free way to win at board and card games, nobody would want to play with me anymore. I would be banned from tournaments. Casinos would kick me out. In order to keep “winning” I would somehow need to force others to play with me, which is in some ways impossible. The “players” would not really be playing the game, they would be maintaining the facade of a game to keep me placated. I would have to keep changing the rules to keep myself on top, always. The more extreme the drive to zero risk / increasing rewards gets, the worse and more bizarre the situation would have to be in order to make it possible. This why guys like Starterrorprime must be allowed to lose. Hopefully they come back better next time with a little bit more humility and a better plan. Things would need to be really crazy for it to be any other way.
So, the next time you see an embittered player pleading for more safety and security, be wary of what they might have in mind. Are they looking to bend rules to create an unfair advantages for themselves? What would it cost everyone else to see that player get their way? Are they looking to cooperate with others towards a common goal, or to exploit the good will of others and climb to power on their backs? If that kind of behaviour is allowed in the game with a risk of failure, great. But if they have the means to eliminate risk entirely and still get the rewards, some kind of atrocity is sure to follow. If it’s in the context of a finite recreational game then maybe it is time to quit and do something else. If it’s someone who wants to eliminate risk to their real-life fortunes it is important that they are denied the means to make it happen.
Next week at this time I will be rather busy. Last year’s modest proposal has lead to next Saturday being my wedding day. I have said before that this blog will always be free; that you won’t ever be pestered to sign on to give me money via Patreon, etc. just for writing posts. That is still true. However, I did reserve the right to use the blog to promote other projects asking for your money. If you appreciate my work and want to contribute, I do have a suggestion. My fiancée and I have requested of our friends and family to not give us physical things as wedding gifts (we already have enough dishware, thanks) but instead to make a donation to the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. So if you, wonderful reader, are the sort of person who’d be inclined to support my work right now please take that money and make that donation instead. To do this, please go to the Universal Hospital Foundation donation page and select “Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute” from the “designation” dropdown.
Almost Infinite will continue to publish while I am away, but comment moderation may be very slow. It should be fine if you have posted before, but new commenters may have to wait a while before their posts show up. And if you are wondering why to care about comment moderation when you don’t post any, I encourage you to make a change there. I hope everyone is enjoying Alastair’s series Full Steam Ahead which will return with “Arma II – Operation Arrowhead” on the 22nd.
I can’t say I’ve done it all in EVE Online; very few people can say that. I can say that I have played enough to understand what the game is about even if I haven’t participated in every activity. I’ve learned things in the game, outside the game in the “meta” game of EVE Online, and in blogging about it. I am sure I want to do more series of posts, and sure that I will never again use acronyms in the post titles to identify which series the post belongs to. I am sure that EVE Online is a special game, but still not sure I am buying a subscription in the next little while as I finally hit the ceiling in terms of what in-game skills an alpha clone can train. And, should I decide to go in on a subscription, what does Aleff Knoll’s future career hold? I don’t know.
What I do know is that there is a lot one can learn about this game. A lot of what can be learned is potentially useful for people interested in game theory and philosophy. And it can be really hard to learn these things without giving it a shot yourself. It is my hope that this series has given enough of a peek into the underlying game for those who will never actually play it to glean some of what I have learned and to appreciate the efforts of others who try to explain the game from a point of view outside of the EVE community and its jargon. Based on my experience with the game, I have come up with the following diagram to explain how I understand it to work:
I have found that while sources such as Uniwiki are great for new players, it is nearly impossible to open that up as non-playing observer and still make sense of it. Rather than boring my non-capsuleer audience to death with jargon-heavy descriptions of in-game activities, I have decided to describe it as something similar to a Euro-style board game. There is a generative phase, which provides resources. This is like rolling the die in Settlers of Catan and collecting the appropriate resources. Or the “draw phase” in deck building games. This is followed by a phase where one plans and assigns resources to different priorities, like in 7 Wonders when you commit the card from your hand that you are going to play. Then, lastly, there is a degenerative phase: with your resources collected, arranged, and deployed it is now time to resolve strategic conflicts. Sometimes there is an element of luck, but typically it follows how well you have done in the previous stages. In some games, dice are rolled while in others the outcome is a matter of counting.
To elaborate further on my diagram:
The cycle begins with account registration and (optionally) purchase of subscription time. Any ISK-value that gets paid to NPCs or vapourized in PvP combat is, essentially, the house’s winnings. Buying subscription time can be skipped if you are really good at producing and planning and marketing as you can buy subscription time in-game with ISK. Sounds neat, until you consider how long you would have to grind to make what is, essentially, less than two dozen US dollars. If you can make billions of ISK doing something you enjoy in an amount of time that fits your lifestyle, congratulations: you play for free. If not, you are relegated to free-to-play status or have to pay. It’s a neat system because most games are either pay-to-play or will try to microtransaction you to death. The interesting thing is that for every player who pays real money to sell play time for ISK, there is always another player trading in their ISK for free play time. Or, you have the option of paying for entertainment like a normal person. The fact that the market for PLEX (the in-game item that represents subscription time) is player-driven is one of the things that makes this game special.
Generative activities such as all varieties of mining, running missions for NPC agents, scanning down and unlocking exploration sites. This can be skipped if you are very good at planning and marketing, good at consuming, or willing to pay up in real money for subscription time (which can be sold to other players). Big time traders and PvP pilots don’t build all their own ships and components when loot and salvage either provide for the needs or can be sold to buy stuff from players who actually like mining and/or manufacturing stuff. As I noted in Pirates, Carebears, and Emergent Gameplay the desire to do things other than shoot at other players is not at all risk free, and is in fact more fun and interesting because there is risk involved. If the mining experience was risk free, then it would be dominated either by illegal bots or players who can replicate the behaviour of bots (what CODE. calls bot-aspirant). Regardless of your opinion on how those guys play the game, it is clear that risk of some kind is the only thing that makes casual ratting and mining profitable; lest we all be undercut by an inhuman level of grinding. As a producer, your game is risk vs. reward.
This is where you buy things, sell things, and put the modular pieces of ships together. This is also where you would find a fleet to join in order to further your goals, whether mining asteroids or shooting other players. A little bit of this is inevitable. Minimum time can be spent on this if one has good friends and/or cares little for maximizing their ISK/hour profit and just wants to mine rocks with lasers or build stuff or blow up other ships. Focusing on this is where you find the “spreadsheets in space” aspect of the game; some people like that and can turn a profit on it. I would put permissible scams in this part of the cycle because no ISK joins or leaves the market system when one player cons another player into a bad deal. A player can take this as far as he or she wants to, or not. I have certainly sold in-game items for ludicrously small amounts simply due to the fact that I did not have the time or patience to collect the things, bring them to a trade hub, figure out the price, etc. Someone made ISK on that. Some people thrive on being able to capitalize on my willingness to offer huge bargains.
Destruction of your assets by other players consumes the stuff that is built and sold in the producing and planning and marketing parts of the cycle. This is the part of the game with explosions and lasers. It is hard to completely avoid, but easy to minimize if you prefer the “carebear” style of play. This is the part of the game I have done the least of, being a bit shy about not being active as much as other players are, being an alpha clone (and therefore restricted in skills and equipment), and in general not being an overly aggressive person. I spend more time avoiding combat than engaging in it, but I can’t avoid it all the time, as you can see below. Everybody loses some ISK in the PvP sandbox, even if you are just trying to fly an exploration vessel through a shortcut between the game’s two largest markets (and therefore, an excellent place for pirates to set up a trap). If pew-pew-pew is your thing, the game does certainly offer plenty of that. This is the area that I will be exploring more of in the future.
My conclusion is that the game is not purely a fancy science fiction skin for MS Excel. It can be sort of like that if you choose to set yourself up that way, but it’s not something I can see happening organically. This cycle represents what is, pardon the phrase, a game that is almost infinite in the sense that most of the interesting gameplay that occurs emerges from the players and is dramatic rather than theatrical. The bounds of time and space exist but are impractically large; given a human lifetime a person could never see everything there is to see in New Eden. It is finite in the sense that it started in 2003 and will at some future date end. The universe is quantifiable. But unlike most other games, it embraces and revels in the fact that while developer-born content exists it isn’t really the game’s main draw for most people.
It is possible to have fun as a casual alpha, but only if you can define what fun is for you and achieve a reasonable set of goals you have set for yourself. It is not necessary to pay thousands of dollars and invest every scrap of free time into this game as long as one has a good grip on expectations and has set appropriate goals. So, if you are an interested observer who has been reading this series but have never tried the game, I can at this point recommend you give it a shot. It’s free to do so now, and the alpha clone system is much better than getting the full game for only a week or two like it used to be. If nothing else, you will gain the ability to understand (without my interpretation and guidance) what other players write and say about the game. I understand why most people won’t be interested, so I am not going to try and hard sell my reader(s) into it. But, if you decide to give it a shot, feel encouraged to send me an EVEmail.
That’s the end of this series. Please leave a comment if you’ve found this interesting or helpful.
“Fake News” is today’s hottest buzzword in real-world current events. We all want to think that other people, whose political opinions we disagree with, are the stupid ones. Being on the correct side, we are immune to being taken in by fake news because our opinions are based on facts. Last week I learned that I’m not smarter than that, I was taken in by a ruse that I wanted to believe in. Fortunately, I learned this in EVE Online rather than in the real world. Last week, James 315 confirmed that the massive theft from his alliance that I mentioned on February 18 was a ruse. In my own defence, I started to suspect something was amiss when he kept posting his daily blog without even mentioning what should have been a huge event. But really, to be honest, I fell for something I read on reddit because I wanted to believe that I was witness to something really big happening in the EVE universe. It wasn’t true, or at least what I believed was happening wasn’t what was actually happening. The space mafia is stronger than ever. Thank goodness.
At this point one might be wondering why, as an Alpha clone and something of a high-sec carebear I care so much about CODE. and vacillate between describing them using terms normally reserved for organized crime, then heaping praise on them for being in the game. It’s because nobody sold me on EVE properly before I started this series. It was sold to me as a game about spaceships and industry, which I don’t think it really is at a fundamental level. It’s a game about drama, framed by a risk vs. reward gambit. That there are pretty starfields and spaceships with lasers that go pew-pew is just the package it comes in. It’s not fundamentally about that any more than 7 Wonders is fundamentally about building classical monuments. The CODE. alliance plays a big role in making high-security a place of drama rather than a place of mindless grinding for ISK. There are other groups out there, this just happens to be the one I continue to find to be the most entertaining.
For more experienced players with fewer restrictions on their gameplay (have more time to put in, more in-game friends, willing to pay for a subscription), drama is still the main attraction. The New Yorker Radio Hour’s piece entitled Populists Stage a Coup in Space provides us with a story about Goons and BoB (two large factions in null security space). I highly recommend giving that a listen whether you are a veteran EVE player or will never play the game and only ever read about experiences on blogs and news sites. They go out of their way to explain what the story is about in plain English, much like I try to do. People don’t play EVE for the same reasons that they play other games.
This all stands in contrast to games which are theatrical rather than dramatic. Most other video games are theatrical. Western CRPGs typically feature character customization and branched narratives, but there is fundamentally a beginning and an end to each instance of the game. It can be dramatic during play, but it always comes to a conclusion. Players can make choices, but in mot cases the ultimate arc of the narrative will have been something pitched, written, and designed for the player.
Neither CODE. nor the The Great War were scripted by a developer. These factions and events are 100% generated by other players and therefore have a sort of realness that a scripted story can’t attain. And that’s why the Kusion Ruse is a cautionary tale. Using the magic of science fiction can help people think outside their normal boxes. It’s easy to be smug about being a North American liberal when you see the facts as being on your side. But in this case I don’t get to be proud of myself for being smarter than those other people who believed in the absurd things like Pizzagate. I have never fallen for a player-created ruse within a game like this, but having experienced it myself, it reminds me to keep my pride under control before writing off “those fools” as idiots not worth listening to. It doesn’t mean giving up on having opinions and voicing them, but it does mean occasionally checking to see if the idiot in the room is me. I can’t say that I have ever had this kind of insight caused by playing simpler, more theatrical games.
As I am approaching the end of the road for skills that Alpha clones can learn, the next post in this series will be the last. That is not to say I will never write about this game again, but on a less frequent basis. It is my hope that people have found this series to stand out from the many other pieces written about this game. The resources on how to play the game are vast and mostly indecipherable if you don’t actually play the game. It is my hope that the Casual Alpha’s Guide is a good reference for why a person would play the game and why it’s an interesting concept for study by people who don’t play.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Access to training and materials. I don’t have access to spacecraft or the trainers who could teach me how to pilot one.
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.
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:
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:
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.
What is a gift? A gift is different than an incentive. An incentive is not strictly quid pro quo, that’s a transaction. An incentive is freely given but with an expectation attached. For instance, in EVE Online this week I received a new ship as a gift from the owner of a player-owned corporation. If it were to come with the expectation that I join the corporation, this would not have been a gift. It would not be a transaction, as I would be required to take a specific action in exchange. In the case of an incentive, I am still not obligated to work with this corporation in any specific capacity for any specific length of time. However, it does come with an implicit ask. I would consider this to be of a much different nature than a gift in honour of a celebration. It would, after all, be somewhat tacky for me to give my fiancée a mundane household or kitchen appliance unless a particular desire for a certain item was expressed. The implication is that I expect her to use the item to do something for the benefit of the household. As it stands in EVE, though, the ship seemed to veer towards the side of being a gift because I wasn’t specifically asked to join the corporation, though I applied anyway. I will be writing more about corporations and the social side of that game as I continue the series in 2017.
Another example of an incentive is the recent news that the BC government is going to *ahem* “help” people, mostly in my age bracket, feel like real adults by giving them an incentive to buy real estate. This is anything but a gift, as it is so intricately tied to a future obligation. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you will know that I’ve got some opinions on the meaning of the title of homeowner. Likewise, a “gift” from the Bank of Mom and Dad for this purpose is similarly an incentive to take a specific course of action, no matter how it’s dressed up. If they’ve got money to give, and your alternative plans to invest in your kid’s RESP and/or travel abroad and/or have a great big wedding and/or whatever else you would do with it just aren’t good enough, it’s an incentive. Don’t take my word for it, just please go ask someone who is qualified to give specific advice on financial matters before you offer or accept any “gifts” of this nature. And please, think twice before supporting a political party that is willing to play a political game like that, brazenly stoking the FOMO of my generation.
A gift is different than a perk. A perk is a small token of reward given to someone with an existing title. The winter jackets I received as service awards from companies I have worked for, company lunches, volunteer appreciation events… all of these relate to something accomplished in the past and point backward in time to what we have already done. I appreciate staff lunches and service award jackets as much as any working person, but these are not gifts from employers. If you receive something because of a title you hold, it’s likely a perk rather than a gift.
So what, then, is a true gift? It is one given without expectation and not as a reward. There can be a sense of obligation to give a gift of some kind, as it would be a little bit odd if I gave gifts to relatively distant friends and skipped one for my brother or my partner. That does not, however, invalidate the gifts I might give to these people as long as it’s not seen as an incentive or a perk. An ideal gift is one you would give regardless of the terms of your relationship with the recipient, and in an ideal relationship one would be happy to give gifts of an appropriate nature. Even if “giving gifts” is not your love language, there is likely some kind of non-material gift that someone you love would appreciate.
Perhaps you were lying in bed on the night of the 21st of December, listening for the sound of hooves on your rooftop, wondering what gifts Woden has brought for the children as he rides through town on Sleipnir’s back. Perhaps tonight and tomorrow you will be contemplating the benevolence of a God who so loved the world He gave His only son to us. Maybe you are looking forward to the airing of grievances around the Festivus pole. Or maybe all your holidays are at other times of the year and you’re just looking forward to stat holiday pay. In any case, go ahead be grateful for those conditional gifts such as perks and incentives. But I implore you: celebrate and treasure the experience of giving and receiving true gifts. That’s something I think we can all do at this time of year.
Don’t forget to vote in the Steam awards for the “Test of Time” award today.
This is the third post in my series Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online. You will see that I am now linking to a nifty new index page that you can access from the sidebar. The other thing you might notice is that this isn’t a Saturday feature. I will be doing some EVE posts during the week when I have something else in mind for Saturday, because I know not everyone wants to read about this one game all the time. Some of these extra posts won’t be as long or as detailed, but I will still be doing one for every two hours I actively play.
OK, enough housekeeping, let’s get to talking about the game.
When I last left off, I was docked in a station with a few hundred thousand ISK in my wallet and a beginner’s mining ship. This week I started running some industry missions for the career agent so that I could learn more aspects of the game, generate some income, and keep my skill training queue in motion. I am finding the learning curve is treating me well so far and not living up to the rumours. The first mining mission was neither hard to figure out nor was it a paint-by-numbers experience like the tutorial.
I had a little hiccup when my first mining ship, a Venture class ore miner, was told it did not have enough cargo capacity to complete the mission. I had to do a Google search to find out that this warning message was only considering the space available for items, and that being a specialized mining ship, my Venture had more than enough capacity specifically dedicated to hauling ore. Without the EVE forums just a few clicks away, I would not have been able to play this phase of the game according to the rules as I understood them. Fortunately, those who play this game have the ear of the demons who come when you call their name: the EVE community seems very responsive to anyone who is willing to engage with it. While the game may be very deep indeed, most questions one has can be answered in the forums if not the many Wikis, subreddits, etc. Simply by mentioning the game in my tweet on December 3, not having posted it anywhere in particular, I got a small spike in readership of this blog. I haven’t even reached out by posting on the forums yet, and already I know the community is there. That is really neat.
Anyway, it took me a while to figure out that the feldspar I mined in my first career agent task was supposed to be reprocessed into tritanum for my second task. I went back out to the asteroids looking for the finished product when all I had to do was refine the stuff I was already asked to do in the previous mission, which I could do while sitting in the station. Doing these little missions require a little bit more effort than the tutorial, but it’s still all about learning the basics. Eventually, though, I did get to the point where the industry career agent is offering me a mission in dangerous space. This is when I decided I needed to outfit the frigate hull I bought last week when thinking about pursuing the military agent. While I doubt the hostile NPC drones will actually present an existential threat to any beginner ship, I wanted to play with the idea of putting together the best ship I can with my small budget, even if it is a tad unnessecary. I ended up with a Blast class frigate, which I renamed Genesis because I enjoy naming ships rather than just having it designated by owner and class. I think it’s how the Star Trek fan inside of me imagines a science fiction character talking about his ship, rather than how in real life I refer to my automobile by make rather than by a name.
As I am outfitting the ship it occurs to me that I can buy a few components to make it pack a little punch and be tougher than a child’s birthday party piñata. Not by much, being my first ship, but I figured I should make an effort. So I bought some upgrades for the Genesis which happened to be eight jumps away. I quickly figured out what this actually means: I have to actually go to the station where the part is to pick it up. This involved going out to the edge of “high sec” space, which worried me a little bit considering I hadn’t even got the skills and the ship upgrades I wanted to. The ones that I hope at least buy me a few additional seconds against beginner-level NPCs and other new players who aren’t well equipped for griefing guys like me. I was a little bit worried when I noticed the security rating on the system where I had to go for my new part. As it turns out, going from systems where the security rating is 1.0 (the highest) down to 0.5 is still considered “high security” space. I was relieved to know that I wasn’t taking as big a risk as I thought I was when I saw that security rating dropping. While high security is no guarantee that someone won’t try and blow up my ship for the lulz, it is at least comforting to know that the in-game police force will come harass them if they do.
And lastly, I find that I am cheating on my time limit, a little bit. One of the restrictions of being on a free account is that I can only have my character training three skills at one time, and the third skill must be scheduled to start within 24 hours. This means I could have been wasting oodles of training time (which increments in real-world time, not in-game time) if I didn’t go in and queue up more skills (which can be prerequisites for using cool new ships and components). So I’ve popped on for a couple minutes at a time each day outside my play time to keep the queue running and claim my Youil Festival gift crates. I expect this will calm down once my skills are up to the point where the next level is 7+ days away so I can leave it alone on any day when I am not actively playing. All of this to say, I am quite a fan of the balance CCP has achieved in giving me enough game for free that I want to check back in almost every day, but not too much for me to fail to see the value in subscribing and not necessarily drawing me in for huge amounts of time. I’ve got a brand new copy of Civ 6 sitting in my Steam inventory for when I am ready to risk having a video game attempt to eat my soul. I am at least saving my delve into that rabbit hole for an evening when I don’t have to work the next day.