Now, where was I… Ah. Back to our scheduled lecture course. Customers, products and community, with emphasis on Eve. Let’s start with the endgame, though, because that’s a problem every MMO has to solve, regardless of how long they want their subscriptions to last on average. Just like in a typical game economy, virtual money enters through one pipe and exits through another, just like water enters and leaves a pool in a traditional school problem from the 60s, so do the players — they enter at the low end and exit out the high end. The proverbial question "Can I haz yr stuff" is the most direct evidence of this actually happening, as old players complain and leave, while new players have yet to get dissatisfied with the activity and want the stuff.
No matter what you do, at some point the players will reach the maximum advancement you’ve coded for, will have everything, and will be bored. You need to occupy them somehow, since there are advantages to keeping some of them, if not all — whether indefinitely, or just until you can push a new expansion out.
The attempted solutions can be very bizarre.1 Ablity advancement is a touchy issue in any game, regardless of the number of players, starting with something as ideologically simple as a single player first person shooter. The kind where finding a rocket launcher typically means you’re about to meet an armored vehicle, and you usually only get slightly more ammo for it than you need to kill that vehicle. Games are appealing through their process and overcoming challenges, rather than results, and the challenge level must be carefully tuned for the game to remain interesting.2 But all good things eventually end.
Most of the Theme Park MMO family solve this problem by dangling the rope to bind each other with at the end of the said road or thereabout. That is, they offer the opportunity of group PVP only to characters which are the closest to the theoretical maximum achievement point. Alternatively, they offer it to everyone, but since the advancement is linear, endgame players typically displace everyone else out of the activity by being far more powerful in the same roles. This works more often than not, as having consumed the entirety of the available content, players have by then formed stable groups, which go on to consume each other as content, as I described previously.
But with Eve it is substantially different. Some people say that the high point of Eve is that there is no set endgame, which is close to the truth, but not quite. The beautiful solution3 to the endgame problem that Eve presents consists of multiple measures:
- Capability advancement is dissociated from activity, and locked, instead, to the time spent paying for the account. This creates a specific advancement schedule that cannot be accelerated more than by about 10% or so, and ensures that no enterprising player will be able to jump too far ahead. It takes far more years to train every skill to 5 than Eve existed, and there’s nothing at all players can do about it.
- The game dispenses entirely with levels or classes4 and only maintains vestigial notions of character race. Simplifying the character description into classes that have levels makes a game easier to balance,5 because advancement happens along predictable routes, but instead, what Eve has is a variety of skillsets appropriate to specific game roles, each of which can be maxed out relatively fast.
- While NPCs, like in any MMO, remain the major harvesting resource, other players are the actual opposition at every stage, not as indirect competition, but as direct threats. I.e. "Eve is a PVP game."
The end result is that in terms of character advancement, a single endgame state indeed does not exist. But it is replaced with multiple smaller ‘endgames’,6 and you typically reach your first one relatively quickly. The variety of roles and activities in Eve ensures that mastery in at least one is typically available once the player’s interest has survived past the first few months watermark7 — and for each fully mastered role, some kind of ‘endgame’ activity is available. In almost all cases it’s already fully stocked with competition, which provides the required challenge.
On paper, this is the ideal setup for an eternal subscription MMO, strictly geared towards getting the players to entertain themselves with each other, and leaving developers with the only responsibility of making sure the tools the players get for the task are up to date and impartial. This obviously isn’t the way it ends up working, though. While these measures are certainly rarely seen in combination,8 when they do fall on their face, it happens just as beautifully. Time-based advancement in particular is the most interesting, in that it should work ideally in theory, but has shortcomings that only manifest on a meta-level: it ensures that characters specialise, but doesn’t really get players to specialise. Characters simply don’t have any other options, the laws of game mechanics prevent them from acquiring skills at a rate faster than predetermined. But players can just create more accounts, and don’t really like it when their effort does not matter.
While it is possible to actually prevent people from multiboxing, or at least hinder it so much that it is quite impractical, this is neither practical to do itself, nor appears to be a sound business strategy at the first glance. However, there are long term benefits to not encouraging it that I have already described before: it may reduce income in the short term, but makes players more interdependent, promoting a social situation that ensures the flow of new players is uninterrupted. Instead, time-based advancement has an unhealthy synergy with the PVP-based nature of Eve’s challenges, which gives players extra incentive to roll up a small personal army,9 making up for social environment shortcomings with extra resources and effort because the game itself does not allow one to put in extra effort for direct advancement.
That would be hindrance enough. But what is the most ironic about it is that as far as can be seen, CCP itself seems to think Eve does have a single endgame in the normal sense of the word. That is, the nullsec sov warfare, which is supposed to create an endgame activity for every role ever thought of in New Eden.10 This assumption creates a glaring disconnect between the state of nullsec that CCP expects and openly desires — hundreds of small, thriving, territorial, constantly feuding baronies, which only occasionally form situational coalitions — and the actual state. That is, the sparsely populated desert full of unconsumed resources, occupied by sprawling alliances that set each other blue, only go to war once in a blue moon, and then complain of blue balls anyway.
I have no idea whether this view of endgame has been there from the very beginning, evolved over time, or is a result of changing the initial development paradigm. It’s been like this ever since I joined, and according to anecdotal reports, for quite a while before that. There is no question that this is one of the major draws of Eve, though, as it produces the most press by the virtue of being industry’s first or largest or whatever every time it comes up, so it can’t be said this view isn’t justified.
However, there are reasons it isn’t worth relying on as ‘the endgame.’ So next up under the microscope… The concept of conflict drivers and how economics factors into it.
Tokimeki Memorial Online deserves a very special mention here. The game was an unusual hybrid of a visual novel (Or to be more precise, a dating simulation — ‘visual novel’ is a story presentation method, ‘dating simulation’ is a subgenre of strategy game, typically with RPG elements, which usually, but not necessarily, uses visual novel to present the story. But I digress.) and a MMO, where the players were supposed to be courting one of the few typical VN NPC heroines through conversation and appropriately raising their stats. Stats were raised through participating in instanced minigames, which were the most fun part of the whole thing. However, once you have reached a happy ending with any of the heroines, it was game over, and your character would just evaporate together with your game progress — which, as far as I remember, is pretty much unique for a MMO. Mostly because it doesn’t actually work. People would instead hang on right before that last date like bodhisattvas, to keep playing the minigames.↩
Hence, in Left4Dead, one of the selling points of the game is the special AI that does it in real time, trying to make sure you get exactly as many zombies as you can barely handle.↩
Mind you, beautiful doesn’t mean it’s always effective.↩
I should mention that classes go back all the way to the game mechanics of the original D&D, which grow from the game mechanics of Chainmail — which is not what we normally call a roleplaying game (of the tabletop variety) but a tactical level wargame, one of the earliest examples of such in a fantasy setting — prior wargames have almost exclusively been simulations of historical battles. Classes made a lot of sense in a game where the most important thing about characters was their combat abilities, and we’re stuck with this notion since, including many places where it makes no sense whatsoever.↩
There’s an interesting side effect to this, by the way. In your typical MMO with D&D RPG roots, NPC resources are generally segregated by levels just like player characters are. Required advancement resources, like experience points, tend to rise with level, or acquired resources are modified by the difference in levels, or both, which encourages players to progress through the game content to a desired endgame point and avoid hogging the static resources. This is not so in Eve, where tuning rewards in this fashion is impractical and experience points do not exist in the first place. Loot is generally the same for whoever kills the NPCs in all games, and is still an important resource in Eve. As a result, this disconnect makes optimized farming strategies based on vastly exceeding the player advancement level for a given NPC resource attractive. I.e. solo ratting carriers, ships that otherwise scream of being meant as a cornerstone of a team.↩
Well, to be fair, I don’t think there’s really a MMO that only offers a single endgame activity for everyone, but only Eve offers so many different non-intersecting ones.↩
This is actually the cause of CCPs observation that accounts that are older than six months never really get cancelled for good — they have achieved mastery in at least one role, which is available for them to enjoy for as long as they can stomach it, and changing circumstances change the demand for specific roles.↩
While there are examples of MMOs with pure skill-based mechanics and no concept of level, just like there are examples of MMOs where players are meant to be the major competition at all stages, as far as I’m aware, subscription time locked advancement is unique to Eve.↩
Granado Espada, as a side note, has a very amusing feature that bumps it up a notch from the outset without actually changing anything: Every player gets a whole stable of characters to play on a single account, and plays three at once from the single client, running around in a party joined at the hip at all times. That doesn’t actually change the situation much, though, and the major draw of the game is the jaw-droppingly gorgeous character outfits instead. It is otherwise very Korean in style, continuing on the basic design ideas seen as far back as Ragnarok Online.↩
W-space and Incursions were the only true deviations from this way of thinking that I can remember. Both are interesting in that they greatly ramp up the challenge factor of PVE, otherwise typically neglected, and actually make cooperation in PVE competitive with an army of alts. Both also have very wide-ranging consequences which don’t mesh terribly well with everything else in Eve, and in case of Incursions, those consequences were seen as rather disastrous.↩