Well over a year has passed since we first stepped out of our capsules and set foot on solid ground in EVE. In June 2011, CCP released the Incarna expansion, unveiling a series of graphical updates and an entirely new aspect of the game known as 'Walking in Stations' (or WiS). Being able to walk around in these massive space stations was a feature that players and CCP had wanted for years, if not from day one of release. Gone was the limitation of a player to a single impersonal avatar, the spaceship. A full-bodied character, the player's alter ego, was controllable and able to interact with the environment. Previously all players were represented by a portrait only. Now, nearly everything was customizable: the body type, complexion, clothes, tattoos, hair, even eyewear. The avatar could walk around, sit down, look around, change clothes, and watch TV. Incarna was a radical step in a new direction for CCP.
By the way I'm describing it, one would think that it was a smashing success for CCP, a well-received update for a game that needs to stay competitive in the fickle MMO industry.
This was not the case.
A Summer of Rage
Incarna was controversial at best. Because of the much higher system requirements to run EVE smoothly with this expansion it alienated those who were running older machines. Suddenly, in a single update, a game which worked perfectly well for some subscribers ceased to function. Players logged in only to be frozen out by resource-hogging, poorly optimized code. For those who could still play the game, walking in stations took all of ten minutes to lose its novelty. It looked good, yes, but you couldn't do anything. There was no player to player interaction. The room you were trapped in contained a couch, some soda cans, and a TV limited to one "channel". The entire update seemed rushed to meet CCP's artifical deadline, with only one of the four Captain's Quarters available on launch. Furthermore, the longstanding issues left by previous patches and expansions were unresolved. Some aspects of the game that were terribly broken or unbalanced were neglected further, or even made worse by performance issues. Incarna provided players with everything they thought they wanted and none of what they actually needed. In retrospect, most players see Incarna as a waste of a full development cycle's time and resources.
In response to this backlash, CCP made efforts to refocus on game quality and rebalancing, going back to the roots of Flying in Space (or FiS) and iterating on what makes EVE unique. Crucible was released in November of 2011, advertising itself as the expansion where “CCP listened”. The patch notes listed over a hundred changes, fixes, or improvements to already existing elements of the game. The content added, such as the new battlecruisers, was very well received. CCP and Eve Online needed this expansion to be successful, and thankfully, the players approved. If they hadn't, we could have seen a cascade of failure similar to Star Wars Galaxies after the release of Trials of Obi-Wan.
No other expansion has been as ambitious or backfired so strongly against CCP. Iceland has been angel-footed ever since. This is understandable. Having been so close to the brink, there are strong incentives against risking it all once again. Unfortunately, it still leaves one with the question: what to do with Walking in Stations?
The Orphaned Feature
Someday, perhaps someday soon, a game is going to come along that does what EVE does, but better. It might already be in development. Getting rid of WiS is out of the question. Doing nothing with it, however 'safe' the idea is in the short term, wastes a viable opportunity to grow the gameplay. Expanding and improving Incarna is the only realistic option for CCP. Iceland has done an admirable job keeping EVE competitive graphically while iterating over the past year, and much has been accomplished. Incarna is ripe for the same sort of attention.
Love it or hate it, Walking in Stations is EVE's best chance to draw in new players and stay competitive with upcoming games. What CCP needs to keep in mind is that there needs to be both form and function. Simply being able to walk around in a station means nothing if you can't accomplish something while doing it. This is why Incarna failed: everything you could do outside of your capsule in your Captain's Quarters could be accomplished by a previously-existing feature. EVE's efficiency-obsessed playerbase saw an entire expansion lost to superfluous aesthetics. Thus, the "Summer of Rage".
Interactivity could avert this rage in the future. People play MMOs not for the aesthetics, but because they're, well, massively multiplayer. Games competitive with EVE, such as Star Trek Online, have thrived based on player avatar interaction. We may laugh at the idea of Jita 4-4 turning into Drozana Station, but it's the little things, the interpersonal experience, that players hunger for. In Lord of the Rings Online players can buy guild houses, decorating it with spoils of war, holding meetings and managing assets inside. Immersion is the key. Those who act vicariously through video games and the characters they create need that immersion and interactivity.
Of course, there should be practical applications as well. Not all players will be content to just “hang out” in a station. The novelty will only last so long - though it would be a major improvement to the lonely, cabin-fever-inducing Captain's Quarters. Essential gameplay elements unique to stations will have to exist. An avatar could perform missions, do research and development, perhaps negotiate with DUST 514 mercenaries.. there's a lot of potential here. Ultimately, there must be a good reason to spend time walking in stations.
Home is Where the Game Is
CCP seems to have learned from its overreach with Incarna, but I hope that they haven't lost their ambition altogether. I do not believe the playerbase will protest against iterating on Walking in Stations so long as it's managed properly. The EVE developers must continue improving the existing game, certainly, but I still dream of watching a great battle from the window of a station after completing a very crucial secret mission from an undercover agent I met face-to-face. I am reminded of the scene in Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor taunts Luke Skywalker with the operational status of the Death Star shortly before blowing up a Rebel starship.
A giant station laser. Now, that's a feature with potential.