The Importance of Story

Against my better judgement, I went to see "Batman vs. Superman" (BvS), the new comic book movie last night. Before seeing the movie, I read the reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes website, where less than a third were positive, so I had prepared myself to be disappointed.

Nevertheless, I felt compelled to go see BvS. I've been a fan of comic book heroes since before adolescence (now nearly five decades ago), and so, seeing my boyhood idols emblazoned upon the big screen always brings back happy memories, even if the movie itself isn't that great.

Still, I was surprised at the uncanny depths of badness presented to me by BvS. The reasons for this utter failure go way beyond the petty DC-vs-Marvel arguments about what band of superheroes is more interesting than the other. (I confess that my personal preference is Marvel, but I digress.) BvS is simply a badly made movie. Despite its sporadic technical charms - and the movie certainly looks good in parts - BvS fails at a more fundamental level: it doesn't tell a story very well.

In fact, it's just a confused mess. The chaos of BvS starts with choppy editing, of which there is an abundance. The plot is nonsensical. The reasons why characters do and say things are muddled, at best. The movie awkwardly assumes that the audience knows DC comics and understands the backstories of every character, but then it conveniently forgets what those characters are all about. I am one of those people who avidly read the books, even at my now relatively mature age, and yet I found myself groaning and rolling my eyes over the decisions characters were making throughout the movie. I'm not sure who that guy on the screen with the big "S" on his chest was supposed to be, but he certainly didn't act like Superman - the same problem I had with him in Man of Steel, only even more so in BvS.

For someone who knows and enjoys both Superman and Batman, BvS is a painful experience to endure. It's more like watching a two-and-a-half hour teaser for the planned line-up of new DC-based comic book movies, rather than well-crafted storytelling.

The Value of Story

As I left the theater, I pondered why I was feeling so angry about BvS. My hope was that even if the movie felt overly bombastic and dark - a common malady of every DC comic book movie made after the first Superman series starring Christopher Reeve - it would at least tell an interesting story. BvS's inability to cogently tell a tale - with a distinct beginning, middle and end - is the film's most grievous fault. That fundamental failure is what made me feel so cheated.

Human beings love stories. It's why we read fiction, go see plays, and watch movies and television. There's something intrinsically compelling about witnessing how a character moves from one situation to the next, acting and reacting to events, to create their own history. There are lessons to be learned from every good story. A great story is one that makes us ask, "If I was in that situation, what would I do?"

The inherent value of story is one of the reasons why I love EVE Online. There's no better example of this than Andrew Groen's new book, "Empires of EVE - a History of the Great Wars". The book is a compelling read because you are drawn so deeply into the story of interesting characters playing off each other. Groen does an amazing job capturing the dynamics of the struggles of the first big wars in New Eden.

Beyond the actions of players in EVE Online, there is also the lore, which is constantly unfolding in the game. I like knowing that there are good reasons why certain factions occupy certain regions of space. NPC characters pursue their own agendas and strive to attain their own goals in New Eden - and their decisions and actions ultimately do shape the future in which players must operate.

Strangely, there are many players who turn up their nose and grimace whenever anyone reminds them that EVE Online includes an emerging story driven by fictional characters woven into the game. They myopically believe that the only story that matters is the one that is fashioned by the players alone - they think that the lore is just window-dressing.

Certainly, they can play the game that way, but they ignore the lore at their own peril. We are already starting to see evidence of the growing importance of NPC behavior in the game, with the introduction of the Drifters. I recently wrote an article for Crossing Zebras that explores the rise of NPC capability in EVE Online, and how it will exert more influence and impose limits on player decisions. As NPCs become more empowered in game mechanics, players will have to interact with them more, and they will thereby become more important to the ongoing story of EVE Online.

I want more NPC interaction from EVE Online, because it would draw me deeper into the story. I want the Gallente militia to send me an email asking me to join their cause, because they are losing territory and they need my capsuleer talents. I want that Federation Navy mission agent, with whom I have developed 10.0 standings, to drop me a friendly note: "Hey, Neville - How's my favorite pilot? Come see me, I could use your help", and then send me on a special mission reserved only for his most trusted capsuleers. I want more opportunities to discover the machinations of NPCs as they struggle to achieve their own ends. I've always thought that CCP Games could do so much more to draw players into the ongoing story of EVE Online. It would make New Eden feel so much more real.

The Story-Making Machine

To ignore the different aspects of story in EVE Online is like watching BvS only for its technical achievements. As I mentioned before, there are a lot of things that look good in that movie, but without a compelling story to propel the action, they are just pretty pictures on the screen.

Oddly, I hear a lot players ooh and aah at great length about superficial things in EVE Online, such as new ship skins or module effects. Certainly, these things add higher quality to playing the game, but if shiny visuals were all EVE Online was, then it would be a hollow experience, just like watching BvS.

To make playing EVE Online matter to players, the element of story is required - good game play puts players in situations that cause them to act and react, and thereby create their own histories. It does not really matter if those situations are created by other players or by NPC characters - as long as they help to fashion a compelling story for that player, they bring immense entertainment value.

While I certainly love making ISK, flying around in fleets, and experimenting with the complex mechanics of EVE Online, the game would be far less engaging without the opportunity to create my own story. In fact, whenever I've felt myself losing interest in EVE Online, I realize that it's because I haven't yet turned the page to my next chapter of exploits in New Eden. Then I try something new, and my engagement rekindles.

At its very core, EVE Online is a story-making machine. I hope CCP Games understands this essential element, and never forgets what it means - or else EVE will devolve into an unsatisfying experience like BvS.

Fly safe! o7

Bits and Pieces: April 2015

I've been traveling in Real Life again, though I've been playing quite a bit of EVE Online regardless. Connecting to the EVE Online server via hotel wi-fi is always a tricky proposition, but the Internet gods have looked favorably upon me, and granted me fairly reliable access for a change. I paid tribute to their generosity by awarding several grants to new players, giving away a few hundred million ISK over the last couple of weeks.

Have you hugged a noob today?

I have a habit of maintaining contact with an ever-changing small group of new players. Sometimes I'll see a pilot in my home system whom I don't recognize, and I'll check out their employment history. If they appear to be a novice pilot, I'll open a convo, welcome them to New Eden, and send a little ISK their way. Afterwards, they usually chat with me from time to time, to ask questions or share their latest adventures.

It's always gratifying to see a new player react to an unexpected grant of 25-50 million ISK, which must feel like a vast sum when they have practically nothing. I always reply to their enthusiastic expressions of thanks that they must give me a piece of their capsuleer soul in exchange - as if we really had one. And thus starts yet another informal mentor relationship.

If you have some ISK and a little time to spare, reach out to a new player or two, and send a little cash their way. Offer to answer questions, or to give them a hand, if they need it. I find that most new players are extremely grateful for the welcome and the assistance. I find that offering the occasional tip or bit of advice, to help them avoid some of the obstacles that baffled me when I was starting out, to be personally rewarding. I also enjoy collecting pieces of capsuleer souls, too.  (Insert evil snickering here.)

God bless you, Team Five 0

I have often grumbled about the user interface for corporation management in EVE Online. Setting proper roles for corp members, without leaving massive holes in security and leaving all your assets vulnerable, is difficult and confusing enough if you are running a small corp, but it can be brain-bending torture if you are trying to manage a large organization. When I was a director at EVE University, I did everything in my power to avoid the corporate management UI, as I found myself twitching uncontrollably every time I tried to figure it out. To call it "arcane" would be an understatement of the highest order. This is why most of the larger alliances have their own information technology service teams.

At Fanfest 2014, I asked some CCP developers if they could look into improving the corporate management functions. They all responded in the same way - with utter and complete terror at the prospect of unraveling that circuitous and convoluted code. "It's a nightmare," one dev told me then. "We will have to fix it eventually, but I feel sorry for whoever gets that job."

Role definition for corporations is now so much easier, I feel myself tearing up a bit. Seriously, it's a beautiful thing.

So, all hail the intrepid Team Five 0, who have finally battled the complexity of corporate management, and brought it down to something much easier to use. They've reduced the number of screens to just a quarter of the original set, without losing functionality. It's a dramatic improvement, though they are quick to point out that they have more plans for further enhancements down the road, especially as the new structures become available.

I, for one, am delighted with the changes thus far. Kudos, Team Five 0!

Give me some SKIN, man!

I like the new ship SKIN system very much, especially because they are now a function of a character, rather than of a specific, customized ship. The ability to change ship appearance on the fly, so to speak, is super-convenient.

Being a fan of EVE lore, I worried a little about how CCP was going to explain how this new mechanic worked. Could they find a way to describe how this makes sense in the EVE Online universe?

Never underestimate the creativity of CCP's clever developer and community teams...

I've said before that there are two reasons why people pay good money for luxury items (and ship SKINs definitely qualify): for prestige and for affiliation. This new system certainly aligns well with those players who want to show off their enhanced ability to fly decorated versions of their ships. I know I will certainly take advantage of this, as I'm a natural hoarder and love to display my collections.

Time to redeem some SKINs!

Time to redeem some SKINs!

I only wish that CCP Games would figure out a way to provide us with limited licenses for approved corporate- or alliance-only SKINs. People would pay good money for a ship color scheme that is available only to a particular group. Even better, if we could also display our corp and/or alliance logos on our hulls, I'd bet that players would pay staggering sums for the privilege. Demonstrating one's pride of affiliation is a strong motivator for a lot of people, in both Real Life and in New Eden.

Come on, CCP - make it happen! If you do, I think a lot of pilots won't be able to throw their money at you fast enough - myself included.

Speaking of lore...

While I enjoy reading about EVE lore, I'm not nearly an expert analyst like those players who are very heavily into the backstory, or who can speculate on the tinfoil implications of in-game events with confidence. I just love how CCP Games continues to invest in the emerging story arc as a rationale for all the new enhancements appearing in the game. It's being very well done, and gives EVE Online a flavor that is unlike any other MMO game.

The lore also makes me want to try some new - and possibly very stupid - things. For example, I'm off to hunt Circadian Seeker cruisers today, to see if I can collect some Antikythera Elements without getting zapped by a Drifter Battleship. I'll share how that goes in a future post.

Opportunities abound

I have written a lot about my personal passion for helping new players in the game, and I've been following the excellent work of Team Pirate Unicorns' development of an improved new player experience with great interest. In particular, their new opportunities system, which now replaces the old tutorial system, is a big leap forward in introducing EVE Online to novices. In fact, it has been shown to improve new player retention by at least ten percent already.

With the Mosaic update, released today, every player gets the opportunities system, and I must admit, to my personal surprise, I am really enjoying it, even though I am very much a grizzled veteran player. There is something strangely satisfying about having the new opportunities system ping you when you've completed an assigned task. I started a new manufacturing job, and got a notification saying that I'd fulfilled one of the opportunities, and that made me feel disturbingly good. Now I have this urge to make sure I've filled in all the blanks on every opportunity, even though they are for very elementary game mechanics I'd mastered long ago.

I must fill in all the empty boxes. I MUST! I MUST! I MUST!

Yes, I clearly have an obsessive need for completion. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that I find playing EVE Online so fulfilling. And here is yet another way to get another feeling of accomplishment, however devoid of meaning it may really be. It's like Team Pirate Unicorns is in my head! Argh! Get out of my brain, CCP Rise!

Silly wardecs

One of my manufacturing alts received a war declaration from a small corp the other day. This happens from time to time - a small corp sees a high-sec POS tower, with no defenses but lots of manufacturing and research structures, owned by another small (probably one-man) corp, and they decide they want to loot it. So, they declare war, in hopes that the target is a casual player who isn't paying attention. If they time the wardec right - usually towards the beginning of the work week - they can sometimes take out the POS unopposed, and loot the contents before the weekend-only player returns.

This actually happened to me a couple years ago, when I was traveling in Europe and didn't log into EVE for ten days. A small Russian corp saw my high-sec research POS, declared war, and took it out before I logged in the next week - far too late to do anything about it.

The new POS force field effect, just introduced in the Mosaic update, is definitely more attractive and interesting than the previous version.

The new POS force field effect, just introduced in the Mosaic update, is definitely more attractive and interesting than the previous version.

The loss wasn't that much, all things considered, but I'd learned my lesson, and set up the Neocom app on my iPhone to alert me whenever war was declared. That gives me 24 hours to take down the POS and secure my assets.

And this is precisely what happened this time. I got a notice of a wardec, and then logged in to shut down my POS and store it safely in station until hostilities ceased. I must have disappointed the wardec'ing corp, though, because they soon realized that there was no juicy target to attack. They promptly issued a surrender. One day later, my POS was once again anchored, online, and productive again. (And this time, with a pretty new POS shield effect.)

And so, let me state without equivocation: I'm disappointed in the current war declaration system in EVE Online.

I have no problem with a good war. Some of my fondest memories of EVE involve some intense battles during wartime. But as a player who lives mostly in high-security space, I have to say that the current wardec mechanic is just plain silly, because - in my experience - seldom do the corps who declare war actually show up to fight. Most are simply looking for easy one-sided kills - and where's the fun in that, really?

Not only that, but for my industrialist characters, it is far too easy to avoid war altogether, and that is indeed silly, too. If I get a wardec notice, I simply shut down for a week, and play on alt characters doing something else. It's really just a minor inconvenience, if any trouble at all.

Alas, I must confess that I do not yet have an alternative wardec system to suggest, but this latest experience has me thinking about it a lot. Wardecs should be fun, for both the aggressor and the defendant, with something both to risk and to gain on both sides. As it exists today, it's too easy to risk nothing and secure easy gains in high-sec wars, or even worse, to simply blow it off if there's any kind of potential loss at stake, by either the attacker or defender.

I'm all in favor of war in high-sec, but there's got to be a way to make it actually mean something. Perhaps you, dear reader, have some ideas? If so, please share them in the comments.

I may find some lessons to be learned from factional warfare or the new Fozziesov mechanics, so I'm going to study these and see if I can come up with a better solution than the current, goofy system we have today. That will likely be the subject of a post in the near future.

Until then - fly safe! o7


Encounter with an Unidentified Structure

A few days after the release of the Rhea update, I undocked from a station in a 1.0 high-sec system, and saw something new on my overview: an "Unidentified Structure". I'd never seen this designation before, and it piqued my curiosity. I had just finished a short hauling run in my blockade runner, which is equipped with a covert ops cloak, so I decided to go check it out.

After cloaking up and warping in at a safe distance, I observed a dirty cloud of gas and dust - but no structure was visible. I approached the cloud to investigate further.

The "Unidentified Structure" lies somewhere in this dirty cloud of gas and dust.

In a small clearing to one side of the cloud, I saw what appeared to be lightning flashes. Moving closer, it was apparent that those flashes were rippling around what seemed to be a large, cloaked structure - the outline was dimly illuminated with each small electrical discharge.

I approached this transparent structure slowly. Its outline was visible only in brief glimpses when highlighted by the sporadic electrical flashes. It appeared that this structure's cloaking device was failing - explaining why it had just now appeared in my overview.

The structure was huge - at least 50 km long, and as I soon discovered by attempting to orbit it closely, at least 10 km deep. No amount of ramming would cause it to emerge into full visibility. (Later, I brought out a battlecruiser to the site, and fired lasers into the structure, but that made no difference either, and my sensors reported that no damage had been inflicted.)

While orbiting the large structure, which I determined to be spindle-shaped, three Circadian Seeker drones warped in. These are the new Sleeper drones I'd read about in the release notes. Cruiser-size, they approached the structure, without any apparent care about my ship.

The new Sleeper drone, the Circadian Seeker

The Sleeper drones orbited the structure, casting what appeared to be some sort of beam on it. Whether these beams were scanning or repairing, or perhaps both, I could not say for certain.

The Sleepers cast their mysterious beams on the Unidentified Structure

As I was observing this odd behavior, one of the Sleepers cast their beam on my ship. I saw no change in status - there were no deleterious effects apparent. It did cause an interesting graphical effect on my shields, but there was no harm inflicted.

The Sleeper's beams cause an unusual rippling effect on my ship's shields.

(Later, I fired upon an destroyed one of the new Sleeper drones. It did not fight back, and it dropped only a single scrap metal - there was no loot to be found.)

It has now been a week since the Unidentified Structure appeared in this system, and it still remains there. Is it a Jovian structure, as EVE lore expert Mark726 speculates? Have the Sleepers been spying upon us in k-space all this time? Why are the structures appearing now? Another EVE lore master, Rhavas, suggests that we are seeing these structures because of a broad malfunction of Sleeper power management systems.

Regardless, I am intrigued by the mystery behind these strange new structures - I can't wait to see what they portend for the future of New Eden.

Fly safe! o7