Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

Early in my career, when I was in the software development business, I worked with a former US Marine who was fond of saying, "This is a horseshoes and hand grenades situation." In other words, we didn't have to be exactly on target with a perfect solution - something that was "close enough" would suffice.

While engaging in the "Shadow of the Serpent" event in EVE Online over the weekend, that catchphrase from my former colleague resonated in my mind. There are aspects of this new style of player-vs-environment (PvE) focused event that I like, but some parts of its structure and execution feel like a near miss. While interacting with the various mission challenges, I keep saying to myself, "This is almost, but not quite, there."

And yet, I'm having fun, regardless - so mission accomplished, CCP Games. In short, "Shadow of the Serpent", as an entertaining PvE diversion, is good enough.

But that hasn't stopped me from thinking of a few suggestions that might help to make the next PvE event - assuming that CCP uses a similar format - even better.

Leverage Lore with Interactive Context

First of all, kudos to CCP Affinity, CCP Falcon and the rest of the lore and community development team for setting up an interesting backstory that explains why this PvE event is happening. Since early May, a series of in-game news reports established the plot line around the Serpentis pirates, which culminates in the current event. If you've been paying attention to the lore, you've known that something has been brewing for a couple months now. (For those not so much into the lore, a dev blog described the event in practical detail.) They also set up a dedicated website promotion

CCP Games did a nice job setting the stage for this PvE event, starting with this dedicated website promotion.

CCP Games did a nice job setting the stage for this PvE event, starting with this dedicated website promotion.

CCP continues to produce interesting and high quality Scope news service videos, illustrating these in-game lore developments.

Alton Haveri reports on the latest developments between the CONCORD Assembly and the Upwell Consortium as a deal is struck for the handover of Serpentis assets seized by mercenary corporations contracted by Upwell.

But a good story, by itself, is not enough to create a feeling of immersion in an event like "Shadow of the Serpent". It's an excellent start, to be sure, but it doesn't help players make sense of the sudden appearance of a new window of event information on their character log-in screen, if they aren't already in tune with the in-game story developments, or if they can't easily access the appropriate lore assets through this window, so they can get proper context.

Putting the event information on the character log-in screen makes it impossible to miss, which is a good thing, as it should help to increase player participation. Increasing visibility in this way was a key objective, as CCP Affinity said in her dev blog:

We received a lot of positive feedback about the past year's events at Fanfest 2016 and at the CSM Summit, but this was tempered by concerns about event visibility. We've been relying on social media, web pages, emails, SCOPE videos, and word of mouth for the events so far, but that has still left some pilots frustrated by missing the call to arms. We want to fix that for Shadow of the Serpent!

The Shadow of the Serpent PvE event challenges appear on the character log-in screen, which make them impossible to ignore - or to miss. Too bad you can't do anything with this window of information, interactively - this is a missed opportunity.

The problem is in how players interact with this new thing on the character screen - I'm not even sure what to call it. It's not really a menu, or a list of select-able options, as there isn't any way to interact with any of the information it displays. If you click on the Scope Network band at the top, nothing happens. If you click on the news ticker just below that, nothing happens. If you click on the event banner picture, nothing happens. Click on any of the listed challenges, nothing happens. If you hover over the status line at the bottom of each challenge listing, floating text descriptions appear, but these are exceedingly brief and perfunctory, and provide little context.

Imagine being a relatively new player, ignorant of the ever-evolving lore, and being suddenly confronted by this unresponsive window of mysterious information. What does it mean? Where did this come from? What am I supposed to do with it? When I click on it, why doesn't anything happen? What am I doing wrong? Why does EVE Online hate me? I think I'll log off, curl up in a dark corner of my room, and have a long cry. This is what a bad user interface experience does to people - or so I've heard.

This new information window operates in the same way in the client, and its equal lack of interactivity there is as frustrating as it is on the character log-in screen.

So, high marks for lore development to CCP for this event, and an "A" for effort towards increasing its visibility - but a failing grade for an unresponsive and potentially very confusing UI experience.

There are several simple things that CCP can do to fix this:

  • Continue to display special PvE event information on the character log-in screen, please. That succeeds in elevating visibility and making the event much more prominent.
  • But please make elements on the PvE event information window interactive. A link from the Scope Network banner and news ticker to a CCP YouTube page of Scope videos, or to the in-game news reports page, would be very informative. A link from the current event banner to the dedicated website, with background information explaining what the event is about, would make it much easier for neophytes (and for the otherwise lore challenged) to understand what the event is all about. An instruction in this window imploring players to click on the new Scope Network icon on the neocom interface in game, in order to receive more details on the event, would be helpful.

A little guidance to click on the new Scope Network icon, on the neocom in the game client, for more event information would help give novice players a nudge in the right direction.

CCP is missing an opportunity to improve the feeling of immersion in this style of PvE event by not making it easier for players to get to those resources, and to find clearer directions about how to get involved. It's so close to being great, but it's not quite there.

Hunting for Guards

One of the first event challenges I decided to pursue was finding and killing a group of Angel Guards. These can be found lurking around stargates, though the challenge gives you no clue about that - a little direction there would have been nice. I figured it out when I saw numerous Angel Guard wrecks on my overview when jumping through several gates. Bingo - they must hang out around gates, I brilliantly concluded. And so, thus began my patrol for Angel Guard targets.

The biggest issue with the Angel Guards challenges isn't killing them, it's finding live ones to kill.

After jumping around through 14 systems in Metropolis, and spending nearly an hour searching for living Angel Guards, and finding only their wrecks, I was about ready to give up the quest. On the way back to my home base, I finally found a group of five Guards on a gate, and dispatched them quickly, before some other enterprising young capsuleer snatched my quarry away from me.

Note to CCP Games: jumping around in high sec for an hour, in search of an assigned PvE objective, does not a happy capsuleer make. Not at all. Here are a couple more suggestions:

  • Spawn assigned targets more frequently, so people can actually finish this kind of low-level, simple quest quickly.
  • Provide more information on the challenge description, to help players know were to look for the assigned target. You could at least say, "They tend to hang out at stargates and harass pilots there - go jump through several systems to find them!" 

The Same Sameness of More of the Same

I do like that players have a variety of challenge types and levels of complexity to choose from in this event. "Shadow of the Serpent" provides a multitude of special assignments, at every level of game experience and proficiency: mining tasks, frigate-focused combat, Incursion missions, Drifter assassinations, and special mission sites at various levels of difficulty, among other possible options. There's something for everyone.

One would not know that from the client interface, however. It currently only displays one challenge on the main screen, with no instructions about how to find the other challenge options. I figured it out only by experimentally clicking the new little TV set icon at the bottom of my neocom - another example of bad UI which assumes prior knowledge to use properly.

Only one event challenge appears on the main client screen. Unless you already know to click on the Scope Network icon on the neocom (the little TV set icon), you'd never know you had multiple challenges to choose from.

Only one event challenge appears on the main client screen. Unless you already know to click on the Scope Network icon on the neocom (the little TV set icon), you'd never know you had multiple challenges to choose from.

Once you find the multiple challenge options in the client, you then discover that many of the mission sites are just like plain old static mission-running dungeon rooms, and once you figure out how to crack one, you simply grind through the formula for each site of the same type. And further, many of the challenges require five of the same type of sites, so you must slog through the same PvE combat experience again and again.

Fortunately, it does not matter if you finish off the site personally, in order to get credit for it. You need only engage at some level with the rats there. As long as someone kills all the targets and picks up the contents of the spawned research container, thus finishing the mission, you will get credit for it. And since the sites are visible on everyone's overview, I rarely found one that didn't already have several players banging away at red icons there. I collected credit for completing Serpentis R&D sites by simply flying in, killing a single rat, and then flying off to the next one, leaving the container and the rest of the targets to others already working that site. If you're not interested in snatching the goodies in the containers, and are focusing only on completing the assigned challenge, that strategy is the most efficient, though one gives up the commensurate bounty rewards - it minimizes the sameness of the experience, at least.

If only these sites were dynamically generated - something I've longed for in EVE Online for years now. But I digress - for the present, PvE sites are static, and we must tolerate their ever enduring consistency.

Work as Its Own Reward

Speaking of challenge rewards, I've read mixed reviews about how lucrative they are. Some people report finding valuable items. Others seem to feel that the ISK value per hour isn't very good.

Personally, I don't care about the rewards themselves. I'm relatively space-rich, so fighting over containers for phat loot isn't something that inspires me. I'm much more interested in completing enough assignments to get the prizes at the 10K, 25K and 50K levels. I think I can get to the first two levels, but I suspect that the 50K level will remain out of my reach before the event ends in a month.

Nevertheless, I've found completing the "Shadow of the Serpent" challenges to be more fun than grinding through level 4 missions. I find myself irresistibly driven to attain the assigned prize levels.

Keep Trying, CCP!

I was in a bit of a funk about EVE Online over the last couple of months, but I have to give credit where credit is due: "Shadow of the Serpent" has rekindled some of my interest in the game, and I am enjoying it quite a lot. This event design has flaws, certainly, but for now, it's certainly good enough.

With a few tweaks to the interface, this new style of PvE event could become a fantastic experience for both novices and bittervets like myself. I hope that CCP continues to iterate and improve on this new model. It's close to great now - with a little more work, it could be right on target.

Fly safe! o7