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


The Capsuleer's New Clothes

Yesterday, CCP Games announced that they will experiment with offering more skins for ships in EVE Online. Effective with the Rubicon 1.2 patch, to be deployed on March 11, players may spend Aurum in the Noble Exchange (NeX) store to purchase blueprints for eight new paint schemes on selected standard ships.

Don't like the dull green and bronze of your standard Incursus? Get the skin for the Aliastra Edition and enjoy your sporty new red, black and grey paint job, instead.

Don't like the dull green and bronze of your standard Incursus? Get the skin for the Aliastra Edition and enjoy your sporty new red, black and grey paint job, instead.

Or do the same for your boring old Hyperion and make it look like an assault weapon with war paint applied.

Or do the same for your boring old Hyperion and make it look like an assault weapon with war paint applied.

In addition, CCP is also making available a new skin for the Federation Navy Comet faction ship as a purchase in the CONCORD Loyalty Point store - the Police Pursuit Comet. (The return of the Comet police car - woop woop!)

"Pull over! You're under arrest! Do you know how fast you were going?"

"Pull over! You're under arrest! Do you know how fast you were going?"

The Problems with Unlimited Free Expression

According to the dev blog, CCP intends to monitor the popularity of these new ship skins, in order to decide whether to devote more development resources towards offering increased options for custom ship skinning. The blog post explains the technical challenges at a high level, indicating that a more comprehensive ship skinning capability would require some serious programming investment.

Lukas Rox describes in a short post how changes to a few graphic parameters could produce new color skins for ships. (The pink Tristan 'CCP Punkturis' Edition is an amusing example.) Changing ship colors appears to be relatively easy. The problem is how to scale this in the game graphically. Imagine a battle on the magnitude of the recent giant furball in B-R5RB, with over 7,500 ships on the same grid, but with the added component of each ship sporting its own custom paint job. The servers would not only have to process the actions of thousands of players, but also transmit data on the multitude of different ship designs to each client, so that they can be rendered correctly.

Well, at least you'd be able to check out the pretty paint schemes while waiting an hour for your last command to execute. That is, until the servers melted through the floor and everything went black. :-)

[UPDATE: Both T'Amber and Kelduum Revaan tell me that my concerns about scalability of customized ship skins and their impact on performance are exaggerated - see their comments below. They are more knowledgeable about these aspects than I - and I sincerely hope they are right.]

The dev blog also explains how offering customized ship skins would impact the in-game market, as every design must be listed currently as a different type of ship. Under the current system, if CCP Games allowed each player to customize their own ships, the markets would soon be overwhelmed with countless variations of the same type of ship. Though I am sure that the "Neville Smit Atron SuperSport XL Edition" would be ultra-popular, it will sadly never be seen in the markets of New Eden.

Given the implications that more flexible options for ship skinning entails, one can understand CCP Games' caution about offering such functionality, and they are wise to approach this in a limited fashion.

This is a test. This is only a test...

CCP Games is monitoring the reaction to the new ship skins, for more reasons than you may suspect.

CCP Games is monitoring the reaction to the new ship skins, for more reasons than you may suspect.

Unfortunately, CCP Games' provision of a limited number of new skins is not a valid test of the potential popularity and demand for flexible customization of ship design. As my fellow EVE University colleague and Professor, Seamus Donohue, pointed out, "I'm concerned that what's offered in the DevBlog is NOT a relevant test case to gauge interest." I agree with Seamus' perspective.

This is not the first time that CCP has provided variants of existing ship skins. In fact, they've been doing it for years. Look at the variations of the common Gallente Catalyst destroyer, introduced in the Retribution update in winter 2012, for example:

They are all the exact same ship, with different hull colors and markings. Surely, CCP can see how many pilots have purchased these variants, and how many have been lost in combat. They already have the information they need to determine the relative interest in different ship paint jobs. The only significant difference with the newest ship skins is how they are being provided to players - through the NeX and CONCORD LP stores.

So, is CCP really testing the popularity of different ship designs? Or is it actually a tentative re-examination of the potential value of new micro-transactions - for new ship "clothes" instead of clothing and accessories for pilot avatars? I suspect it is a really more of the latter.

Remember "Greed is Good?"

In the summer of 2011, CCP Games examined the potential of virtual goods in this internal newsletter, setting off a player firestorm.

In the summer of 2011, CCP Games examined the potential of virtual goods in this internal newsletter, setting off a player firestorm.

Anyone who remembers the Jita riots in the summer of 2011 understands why CCP Games is being extremely cautious about re-approaching the matter of micro-transactions for virtual goods in EVE Online. When the NeX store first became available in the Incarna expansion, initial prices for vanity goods were absurdly high (e.g., monocles costing about US$70). This was a grave enough sin, but even worse was CCP's initial refusal to rule out micro-transactions for items that could provide in-game advantages - a "pay to win" model. That led to large-scale rebellion by the player base and an exodus of enough subscribers to cause CCP Games to re-think their strategy, back away from micro-transactions, and ultimately issue an apology to subscribers.

To CCP's credit, they learned from the NeX store debacle and adapted, refocusing on spaceships and producing a string of solid expansions, improving many aspects of core EVE Online gameplay. But make no mistake - CCP has never completely given up on the idea of generating incremental revenue through the sale of virtual goods in EVE Online. The sales of new ship skins through the NeX store is a hopeful re-dipping of a CCP toe in those ever-enticing waters.

There is No Grey

In March of 2012, I attended a panel discussion at Fanfest in which the future of micro-transactions was discussed. CCP Unifex, who was then the Executive Producer for EVE Online, was one of the moderators. Still stinging from the player uprising of the previous summer, he hesitantly asked what kinds of things players might want to see in the NeX store.

A couple players asked for special items, like buying CONCORD passes to improve their security status, but this was immediately shouted down by most of the other attendees. "No micro-transactions that provide player advantage!", was the general cry of outrage from the majority. (Interestingly, a version of that idea was later implemented successfully in the "tags for security status" feature in the Odyssey update.)

"Isn't that sort of a grey area, though?", Unifex asked. "That's a pretty limited kind of advantage."

I recall answering, perhaps a bit too menacingly, "There is no grey. This is a black and white issue. If you cross that line, or even try to blur it a bit, the players will see what's happening, and you'll have Jita riots all over again."

I recall that the CCP devs moderating that panel looked very dour at that point.

Don't Fear the Micro-Transaction

Since that Fanfest event two years ago, I've thought a lot about the sale of virtual goods in EVE Online. I conclude that there are two reasons why expanding their availability in the Noble Exchange and/or LP stores, would be a good thing.

Prestige Buyers

Many people buy luxury items simply to display their wealth and success to others. These are the people who don't hesitate to buy an outrageously overpriced golden monocle from the NeX store. They do it to set themselves apart from the crowd, because few others can or are willing to make such a purchase.

I can afford a monocle, so I am undoubtedly richer than you, peasant.

I can afford a monocle, so I am undoubtedly richer than you, peasant.

I have no problem with these kinds of micro-transactions, as long as they do not provide any in-game advantage. In fact, I think the game could benefit from having more high-priced vanity items in the NeX store. More choices in markets provide more opportunity for traders to meet specialized demand and make a profit. Items that encourage players to earn more ISK so that they can afford luxury items and display their social status is another strong motivator for in-game activity, and thereby, create more content for other players. As a result, luxury items can enrich the EVE Online experience for everyone.

A few ship skins that are high priced in the NeX store might not be a bad thing. It would give one more option for the rich luxury buyer to consider. There is a reason that some people drive ridiculously expensive sports cars, when much more affordable transportation would do the job quite adequately - maybe even better. EVE Online should provide more options for this kind of buyer.

There are also players who simply enjoy collecting things, so they can get bragging rights or show off their extensive set of possessions to others. I confess that I am one of these people. I love collecting one of every ship, for the sheer pleasure of being able to say, "Oh, I have one of those", whenever any particular ship is mentioned in corp chat. Like many EVE Online players, I'm a little obsessive-compulsive, so I am driven by a need for completion. For example, I must have all six variants of the Catalyst destroyer in my hangar - or else I would simply feel unfulfilled. Yes, this is weird.

But it also means that I will be among the first in line to get all eight of the new official ship skins from the NeX store, as soon as they become available. And I suspect that I am not alone in this desire. The success of CCP Games' test will depend largely on mildly neurotic people like me, who get misty eyed about the idea of adding yet another vessel to their precious collections.

Affiliation Buyers

These are the players that CCP Games is missing with such a limited degree of ship customization options. Their current test will ignore this group - and I suspect that it is far larger than the prestige buyers.

These are players who want to display their association with a group. To that end, CCP needs to add the ability to display corporation and alliance logos on ships. Even better, what if each alliance could also develop their own paint scheme, which could then be purchased in the NeX store by members of that alliance? The opportunity to fly in a fleet surrounded by your corpmates, with all ships displaying the colors and insignia of your common bond, would be a powerful sight.

The need for affiliation is a strong motivator for many people, and would provide a huge incentive to purchase items through the NeX store which display one's chosen group to others. In addition to ship skins and logos, items reserved for certain alliances or corporations would be very popular, I am sure. At the Fanfest panel discussion mentioned earlier, two members of the Gentlemen's Agreement alliance asked for top hats, monocles (the traditional glass kind) and bow ties in the NeX store, so that all of their pilots could dress their avatars in the style of their alliance mascot. Is this a silly idea? Yes, of course it is. Is it fun? You betcha, and a lot of players would buy their unique "uniforms" just to show they belong to a particular corp or alliance.

CCP Games is missing the real opportunity with micro-transactions in the NeX store. In addition to providing affordable options for customizing avatars, it should also cater to players' desires to demonstrate their prestige to others and to display their affiliation with their chosen corps or alliances. Players would pay good money for both.

Keeping It Real

The coding and performance issues that CCP Games described in the dev blog are very real issues, and potentially difficult barriers to realization of fully customizable ship skinning capabilities. But if they are making development resource allocation decisions based on the very limited availability of new skins in the NeX store, they are not seeing the full potential of a more comprehensive configuration solution.

Is this the future of EVE Online?

Is this the future of EVE Online?

Even if they were able to develop a fully customizable "paint shop" feature, CCP Games would still have to exert control over what kinds of content would be suitable for ship skins. Otherwise, the game will quickly be overrun with "Hello Kitty" hulls. Or, more likely, other images far more vulgar.

While developing a system that provides some exclusivity of ship skin designs within a corp or alliance, and thereby catering to players' desire for displaying their affiliation, sounds like a cool idea, it may not be practical. Nevertheless, this is a design point that CCP should keep in mind.

I hope that the test of new skins available through the NeX store and CONCORD LP store is successful, and that it encourages CCP Games to devote more resources towards a more flexible ship skinning system. But even if the current test doesn't produce the numbers that CCP hopes for, I hope they bear in mind that it only represents part of the potential audience for more flexibility in ship customization options. They may miss an opportunity to make micro-transactions work as they should in EVE Online - and thereby miss the chance to develop a strong revenue stream for their company.

Fly safe! o7

UPDATE: Paul Oosterman is running a survey on EVE Online ship customization, here - complete it if you wish to contribute your opinions.