I’ve never actually seen the drama about mining on Eve-O forums stop. It waxes and wanes, but it’s been looping since before I signed up, and will, apparently, continue for the foreseeable future, with the exact same arguments on both sides and very, very little new ideas being added.

It’s an interesting question why exactly other people playing how they want, including AFK, generates so much discontent among people who play in different ways, but I’m going to leave that for another day. Instead, I wish to discuss the mechanics of mining themselves. For a change, this post is relatively short.

How do others do it?

I didn’t ask "Why are mining mechanics like that?" in my post about design intent because I’m pretty sure that I have the answer to that one. Mining in Eve is like that because it’s like that in Elite: ships equip special lasers to blast asteroids into bits, which are then scooped. Eve Online is unashamedly Elite’s spiritual successor.

This worked fine in Elite and it’s direct descendants by David Braben, like Frontier, because they were single-player games. In a single-player game, the player is always the biggest, if not the only predator, so interruptions of the process were infrequent, and even if any interruptions did happen, mining laser was a half-decent weapon.1 There was no such thing as a specialised mining ship in Elite, in fact — if you came to mine, you did it in a ship with at least as much hit points as a regular one.

This mining mechanic is also structurally equivalent to the one seen in Ultima Online, which many MMOs modelled theirs on:

  • Ore can be found in specific game locations — mines, mountains, caves, asteroids and planetoids.
  • Ore requires specialised tools and character abilities to extract — pickaxes and shovels, or mining lasers, and skills to use them, either available to all, part of the player’s own gameplay skill, or part of a character class package.
  • Ore requires extra stages of processing before it can be used for further crafting.2

Such a mechanic is not an absolute necessity in a MMO with a crafting mechanic. Many Korean style MMOs, Ragnarok Online, for example, don’t have one at all — the only source of ore is loot dropped by monsters. Others typically have structurally equivalent systems, but variations are possible — the most common variation is not requiring specialised tools, but just specialised character abilities.

Interestingly, Elite itself had another method of mining — the MB4 Mining Machine. It was a deployable that would mine without your interference, that could be used in any ship at all that could carry it.

What makes Eve different?

On the surface, nothing. Eve mining mechanics require the use of specialised tools and character abilities, ores can be found in specific game locations helpfully marked in the star system with beacons, or scannable, and ores require extra stages of processing before they become minerals, which are used in crafting.

But if you dig just a little deeper, you’ll notice a few significant differences:

  • Mining tools are not usable as weapons, even lousy ones. In Ultima Online, a pickaxe is a one-handed weapon suitable for swordsmanship — miners can typically defend from monsters while mining, without even stopping. In Elite, the mining laser is, well, a laser, and if you’re a good shot, you can use it in preference of regular weapons. In Eve, a mining laser only works against asteroids.
  • Most other games deal with humanoids. As a result, there’s nothing stopping you from swapping to a more specialised weapon if disturbed by hostile forces while mining, but in Eve, refitting ships in the field requires much hoop jumping. Mining ships are typically not usable for combat even if equipped for it. Ships are the closest equivalent Eve has to classes, as they lock a player into a role while a particular ship/fitting combination is ‘worn’, so to speak. Swapping to a different ship in the field is a proposition that is often too chancy to attempt, as you leave a ship unattended and ripe for stealing.
  • Mining cycles in other games are typically much shorter than in Eve Online, that is, a single ore source is typically depleted in seconds rather than minutes, and a new one needs to be selected.

As a result, engaging in mining doesn’t just reduce combat capability, but essentially puts a player into a completely passive situation, the only thing he can do when attacked is run away,3 and the only thing he can do when not under attack is wait for the lasers to cycle. Due to the peculiar running away mechanics, which allow one to pointedly (pun intended) prevent someone specific from running,4 guarding miners becomes pointless, as they’re going to die anyway. It becomes much more practical to point your mining lasers at one large asteroid and forget about it, than to hunt about for smaller asteroids, because mining cycles are so long.

So how is that a problem? Lots of ways, actually.

  • Mining naturally becomes a solitary AFK activity. Adding guards does not help, because it does not protect the miners very well, keeping at the keyboard does not help because you don’t have much to do. Solitary AFK activities are generally bad for social MMO games. Blaming miners for behaving this way is silly, because the miners simply don’t have much of a choice.
  • This restricts mining to situations where miners can mine in low attention mode, affecting the industrial balance of the entire game. Only high sec systems, where miners are ‘protected’ by CONCORD, nullsec systems, which can be locked down, and wormhole systems, which are naturally locked down, see mining on a large scale.

Existing core mechanics prevent dealing with this situation in a clean way. Giving mining ships special benefits regarding running away makes them useful as combat ships instead, and so does giving them a better tank. Changing mining lasers into weapons without changing anything else will do the same, but in spades. Changing mining cycles will play hell with ISK/hour and mineral indexes, upsetting faucet balance across the entire cluster. One little change you could make to get it into shape without upsetting everything that sits atop it simply does not exist.

So what can be done about it?

There actually is a direction to go. Eve could go back to it’s Elite roots for a change.

As I mentioned above, a separate mining mechanic is not a requirement for a MMO that includes crafting mechanics, resource generation does not have to ‘make sense’.5 What’s important is whether acquiring resources provides players with challenges, fun and engaging gameplay, opposition and, well, resources themselves. So why does the player have to devote their character, their most precious resource for extracting fun from the game, to passive mining? In a more sensible situation, we’d get a computer to do it. Beyond laser mining, Elite had a MB4 Mining Machine, far more interesting in it’s function than a mining drone. Nothing stops Eve from having something similar.

Here’s how one could possibly work:

  • A Mining Machine can be anchored more or less anywhere — for starters, they could be restricted to low sec and below. It takes a minute to anchor or unanchor, and requires Anchoring and Mining Barge skills to deploy.
  • It will automatically mine all mineable celestials within a certain range of itself, starting with the closest ones. The mining rate is adjusted to be roughly equivalent to a mining barge piloted by the same character who deployed it, and is affected by mining boosts.
  • The machine has no reinforcement mode of any kind, but EHP equivalent to a heavy bait battleship — enough to make destroying it take sufficient time to interfere.
  • One character cannot run more than one mining machine at once. If they are not in space, i.e. docked or logged off, or in another system, mining stops.
  • A mining machine has an ore bay somewhere on the scale of a mining barge, allowing a maxed industrial to pick up both the machine and it’s cargo, or just fetch the cargo and leave the machine running.

Such a device kills multiple birds with one stone — it makes it practical to mine in lowsec, do that while in a PVP-fit ship, doesn’t upset the mining balance, and just like a Faction Warfare complex, creates a natural focal point for PVP combat. Instead of sitting idly and watching your lasers chew up asteroids, you get to guard your own mining installation, which you pack up when you’re done, and doing it with friends makes considerably more sense than without.

…oh, who am I kidding, they’re never going to do that. :)

  1. My memory of playing Elite is fuzzy, as it dates about twenty years back, but I remember actually upgrading my weapon to a mining laser.

  2. This is one thing Ultima Online has beyond Elite’s mechanics — in Elite, there was no crafting system of any kind, so you got raw materials to sell instead.

  3. Exceptions like freshly boosted mining barges actually getting on ganker killmails are those exceptions that only reinforce the rule — they’re notable precisely because they’re not common.

  4. But that’s a subject for it’s own special post, because such treatment of space is one other thing that is apparently unique to Eve.

  5. Much of Eve does not anyway.