In 1988, I installed a new game on my IBM PC. Starflight had been released the previous year, and I had heard nothing but praise from one of my fellow co-workers for months, so I was very curious to experience the game for myself.
Though it looked extremely crude by today's standards, Starflight was a revelation for me. Unlike other PC games of the day, Starflight was an open-ended experience, with hundreds of planets to explore, and an endless number of quests beyond the core storyline. It was possible to win the game by completing the main story, but if you wanted to go off and explore uncharted space for a while, or mine precious cargo to upgrade your ship, or train up your crew to prevail over some of the more difficult adversaries, you could certainly do that, and come back to finish the main storyline whenever you wished. Starflight provided an amazing level of freedom in an era when most PC games were very limited and linear experiences.
The plot of Starflight's main story was a fascinating mystery - one of the most intricate puzzles I've ever had the pleasure to unravel over three months of play. I kept a notebook next to my PC and filled it with hints and locations that I discovered as I pursued the various threads of the story. At the end, when I finally completed the principal quest, I felt a sense of satisfaction that I had never experienced in a PC game before. Starflight remains one of my most enjoyable gaming memories to this day.
Fairly early in my EVE career, I eagerly jumped into "The Blood Stained Stars" (a.k.a. Sisters of EVE epic arc) - a series of 50 linked missions within an unfolding narrative. While I enjoyed the nice rewards and faction standings boost that come with completing the arc, I could not help but feel a little disappointed with the experience.
I was hoping for something that was more like completing the main quest in Starflight. Instead, this epic arc was simply a bunch of combat and courier missions, daisy-chained into a sequence. While there were two parts of the arc that required choices to be made, they really did not affect the outcome significantly - it was still a mostly linear progression towards the ultimate conclusion.
I later tried the epic arcs for both the Minmatar and the Gallente factions, and found them both unsatisfying as well. While the stories in each arc frame the reasons for the various missions, you don't really have to read them to succeed. In fact, I've since run through the SoE epic arc a couple times more (they are easy to blitz through in an assault frigate), without reading any of the explanatory text. The stories are just window-dressing - they don't really add anything that affects your success or failure.
I wanted each epic arc to be a true quest - an adventurous expedition in search of something of great value. Most MMO players think of a "quest" in the sense that World of Warcraft uses the word - a conflict with designated foes that provides some sort of material reward for success. Practically speaking, this isn't that much different from EVE Online missions, except that we are using lasers and railguns instead of swords and sorcery.
A true quest might discover a rare object of great value - Arthur's knights pursuit of the Holy Grail, for example - but more importantly, it also provides a revealed truth. At the end of the Starflight main quest, you ended up with no material gain at all, but you learned an important fact that enabled you to resolve the critical conflict in the story. What the EVE Online epic arcs lack is the "adventure" - as each story progresses, nothing that materially affects your next decision is ever revealed. In fact, there are few important decisions to make, except how to succeed in the next mission.
In Starflight, you would learn different aspects of the main story as you interacted with various entities in the game. There were frequently many paths one could take to act on what was learned - there was no single "optimum" way to complete the quest. And there was rarely an entity that would point you directly to the next agent, as one finds in the EVE epic arcs. The Starflight quest felt like a detective story, with many leads dangling and waiting for resolution - it was up to the player to determine how to pursue those leads, and weave the final picture together. It was that openness that gave the Starflight storyline its engaging power. This is sadly lacking in any of the EVE Online epic arcs.
Meat and Potatoes and EVE Online
While there are many different types of Player vs. Environment (PvE) options in EVE Online (e.g., Level 1-5 missions, data and relic exploration sites, COSMOS missions, anomalies, Ghost Sites, Incursions, burner missions, ratting, faction warfare sites, etc.), they generally share one common characteristic: players do PvE to earn ISK, or for other rewards that can translate to ISK later, such as loyalty points (LP) and NPC corporation or faction standings. So, while the variety of PvE activities has increased in EVE Online, they really are just different ways to grind player time into in-game currency, for the most part.
I enjoy running missions and doing other forms of PvE every once in a while, and I do so primarily as a solo activity. Level 4 missions have become a mostly mindless pastime for me now, requiring only some diligence in watching Local for potentially hostile pilots. They aren't particularly difficult or very engaging, but it's fun to blow up little red icons sometimes, and make a little cash in the process. But I must admit, once I cracked the code for running missions successfully, they became routine.
I applaud CCP's efforts to add more variety in PvE choices for EVE Online. The recent addition of Drifter complexes in unidentified wormholes, which require multiple players to succeed, and new, more difficult burner missions, are notable examples. But I am concerned that PvE is mentioned only twice in the latest CSM summit meeting minutes, and in both cases, only as ISK-making opportunities in null-sec or wormhole space. Providing more ways to grind players' time into ISK isn't a bad idea, but it seems to me that they are just variations of the same basic thing. There are only so many ways you can cook potatoes before they get boring - no matter how you prepare them, they are always just potatoes.
CCP is missing a great opportunity to provide some real meat in PvE content, in addition to more common staple fare. Enhancing epic arcs to be truly open-ended, broad-reaching and engaging interactive stories, steeped deeply in the lore of New Eden, would add a whole new dimension of play that would be truly novel. And I suspect, these kinds of arcs would attract a whole new set of MMO players - those who enjoy being part of a great story, but don't want to wait for EVE Online's player-based emergent gameplay to be in one.
Sometimes, I think CCP relies too heavily on us players to be the story. The recent developments in the backstory of New Eden - such as the emergence of the Drifters and the death of Jamyl Sarum - can drive player engagement, too, and help progress the story forward. There needs to be a balance between player emergent gameplay and in-game lore-driven events. A revitalized epic arc system would provide a unique blend of the two.
Faith and Hope
If a handful of programmers can develop a masterwork of player engagement like Starflight, using the simplest and most limited tools available, way back in 1987, I have to believe that CCP Games, with some of the most talented people and advanced computing power on the planet, can develop epic arcs that are true quests, here in 2015.
I do not underestimate the time and effort that such a development project would entail. The hardest part would be designing an interactive story that could be pursued in a non-linear way, either by individual players or by groups, with many paths to success. But I know CCP Falcon and CCP Affinity and the rest of the lore producers are a clever and highly talented team, and capable of such an effort, if they put their collective mind to it.
Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if the epic arcs in EVE Online were true quests that felt genuinely epic in scope? What better place than in New Eden to provide such a unique player experience?
I live in hope that someday, such a thing may come to be. I really would like to experience the kind of joy I felt when playing Starflight once again, only in my current favorite space game, EVE Online.
Fly safe! o7
If you are curious, you can still play Starflight. It is available at GOG.com for just US$5.99 - and you get the sequel, Starflight 2, included also. The interface is crude and takes some getting used to, but it is a great example of what the early days of PC gaming were like.