5 Years Of Lex Malcanis

5 Years of Lex Malcanis 

A little less than 5 years ago, when I was still much more unironically enraptured with EVE Online A Bad HOLY SHIT SPACESHIPS!!! Game (and even more enraptured with having a whole new set of forums to indulge my prolixity in), I noticed a common theme to many of the complaints, proposals and ideas that revolted my new-found sandbox sensibility.

This set of suggestions was defined by a pair of common themes.  Firstly, and rather predictably, they were intensely self-serving. That's not unexpected, and it's not even wholly wrong. Players posted from their own perspective about problems that affected them and they made suggestions that they thought would fix the problem as they saw it. That's understandable, even if it usually produces bad ideas. They were being made by people with the aim of boosting the reward and reducing the risk of their particular professions and playstyle, which is only to be expected in such an intensely competitive game. 

The second, rather more interesting common characteristic  was that these Bad Ideas™ were invariably reinforced by the proposer with "and of course, this will help new players".

On closer examination - and usually you didn't even have to examine them very closely - they either didn't do a damn thing for new players or, much more frequently, the minor benefit that accrued to new players was greatly outweighed by the far greater advantages inevitably gained by old, rich, experienced players. I'm not going to go into any detail discussing the most common proposals justified in this way; the dreary plainsong of people trying to turn the only SF-themed sandbox with non-consensual PvP into yet another grind4epix (+ spaceships) wonderland continues essentially unchanged to this day, and you can go and read these game-design coelacanths, virtually unchanged by time, in General Discussion or The Assembly Hall whenever you choose: Buff CONCORD; lock mission deadspaces; ban scamming; NPC escorts; turn lo-sec into hi-sec; bring level 5s back to hi-sec, et cetera et ad nauseam in eternis.

What was slightly more surprising was that after a fair bit of investigation, I was unable at that time to find any "for the new player" suggestions that didn't somehow more strongly benefit older, richer, more experienced players. I expected this from the suggestions made by old rich experienced players, but it also seemed to be true of suggestions made by fresh-faced, damp-eared newbies too.

And thus, "Malcanis' Law" was born:

 "Whenever a mechanics change is proposed on behalf of 'new players', that change is always to the overwhelming advantage of richer, older players."

Now it is important to remember that at the time, I meant the Law to be a descriptive one: it wasn't to say that any change had to be that way, only that they always were.  It was originally a law about the people making the proposals to change EVE, not a law about change itself.  It was intended to be the equivalent of Godwin's Law for discussions about rebalancing EVE, because they invariably devolved down to "and of course it will benefit new players if we change X" in exactly the same way the internet political discussions invariably end in a race to call the other side literally Hitler. I didn't imagine the law as a prescriptive one: that is to say that any proposed change would disproportionately benefit older players whether it was being justified in this way or not.

In the following 5 years, I saw my little Law fulfillled hundreds of times, as you no doubt did yourselves if you follow the forums at all. The Assembly Hall became the cesspit of self-interest we all know and love, General Discussion was generally graced with a round half dozen threads on the front page at all times with serious suggestions to completely rewrite the basis of the game "to help new players (and also coincidentally me!)".  And the off-site forums weren't much better

In only a few, very specific cases of actually implemented changes was the law broken, and then not by much, and those cases mostly had one thing in common.  Let's look at the 3 biggest examples:

First and most famous: the removal of Learning Skills and the refund of the SP invested into the Learning Skills. This unquestionably benefitted new players, as it removed a huge section of skill training that was required early in a characters career. These meta-skills didn't do anything in themselves, but allowed you to acquire other skills faster. CCP actually didn't so much remove them as simply give them fully trained to everyone. In fact, at the time, I thought this change did follow the Law, because all the old players received a lump sum of refunded skillpoints that they could immediately invest in whatever skills they wanted, allowing them an instant gain of up to 5,400,000 instantly applicable SP, and of course their disposable alts would now all have a +15 SP/minute training bonus, reducing the gameplay/interaction niches available for "real" new players. Additionally, older players who had already got their core skills with friendly stat requirements trained up could use those SP for skills with awkward stat combinations, saving further training time and increasing their effective advantage over the new players. Mathematically speaking I was correct, but in practice I had lost sight of the fact that not everyone is as patient (and mildly OCD) as me, and that removing the learning skills was such a vast improvement in the quality of life for genuine new players that even the very considerable bonus to older players was overshadowed.  (This was one of the incidents that gave me the insight that EVE is about people first, numbers second.)

Second: the Tiercide project and the Tech 1 Frigate, Destroyer & Cruiser rebalance. An unquestionably successful program of change that has revitalised PvP, especially in Empire, the tiercide project's goal of "No ship left behind" has in my opinion done more to help new players to engage with the game than any single change CCP have made since I started playing. All the T1 Frigates and Cruisers are now worth flying on their own merits and have credible, viable roles in PvP. The bad old days of Caldari players essentially having nothing to look forward to but being the ECM guy until they could train up their Drakes, and later their T2 Large Hybrids, are gone. The era of "Rifter or get out" frigate combat is over. Even older players have started flying these long forgotten hulls - at first out of curiousity, now as viable cheap alternatives for low-stakes PvP like scratch roams, new FC fleets, casual piracy thunderdomes and so on, as well as Faction Warfare..

Third: The New Player Experience. Virtually the only worthwhile thing to come out of CCP during the Incarna era, the NPE saw improved tutorials with buffed rewards, a widening of the range in activities covered by the tutorials, and even a mission with mandatory ship loss to introduce new players to the vital concept of only flying what one can afford to lose. There's not much to say about this: it greatly benefits new players, and no one else gets much out of it. It flatly breaks Malcanis Law, unlike the other two changes, which merely benefit old and new together.

Or does it?

Well yes, in a literal sense, it does. But it's interesting to see what limitations had to be applied to the third change for it to completely reverse the Law and get away with it, and to then compare it to the first two changes. First and foremost, the new tutorials have almost zero effect on the wider game. It's pretty difficult to imagine a scenario where you use tutorials to change someone else's game experience. Secondly, they really only do matter to new players. The tutorials would function equally well if new players were started out on SiSi and ran them there. For a proposal to outright break Malcanis' Law, it has to be so tightly focused that it might as well not exist for the game at large.

The other two changes have in common that they weren't aimed specifically at new players. They were changes that were made to improve the game for everyone, and as a result new players benefitted strongly. It turns out that Malcanis Law is just a special case of a more generally applicable law:

"Any change that is made to privilege a specific group in an open, classless game will invariably be to the greater benefit of older, richer, more experienced players"

In short: special treatment will always be exploitable.  If you want to see the game experience for your pet demographic improved, be that new players, ninja salvagers, gas miners, or whoever, then it is invariably true that they only way to make sure that they don't get less benefit out of the change than those old rich guys is to make sure that there are no special exemptions, no special treatments, no privileges. Because those old rich high-SP guys are always going to be the ones with the game knowledge, the investment capital, the spare time, the contacts, the pre-existing skills, the ships purchased and ready to go and so on who can best exploit any newly introduced imbalance. No matter how tempting it is to advocate "just one" little special sanctuary, a "merely temporary" privilege, no matter how deserving the intended receipients, these players will be lurking like Nile Crocodiles just below the surface of the cool, tempting waters of favourable treatment. 

Lately we've seen some interesting examples of this in the Jita Park forum, with various proposals to reform the CSM voting and representation process in order to "break the nullsec monopoly and allow hi-sec representation". That has a rather familar tang to it, doesn't it? And of course the results were wholly predictable: every single suggestion made was without exception trivially exploitable by the large, well-organised nullsec demographic to increase their influence in the CSM. The only exception was a proposal to improve the information flow to potential voters and ensure that players who don't visit the forums are aware that the CSM even exists, and that would merely benefit the well-organised players only as much as the hi-seccers.

It might be possible to get away with special treatment and new player privileges in other MMOs, with their level zoning, and their soul binding and so on. Personally I wouldn't be surprised if the Law operates there too except when specifically restrained by developer fiat.  But in EVE? Never! The game is too open, too malleable, the players far too unrestricted in their options, too developed in their communication skills, too sophisticated in their analysis of the subtlest advantage. So in the end, Malcanis Law can be broken. Changes can benefit new players. But that vast majority, the 99.999th percentile of suggested changes to EVE, are made not for the benefit of the game as a whole but for the benefit of the person making the suggestion. These changes will always follow the general case of the Law. Any CCP-implemented imbalance between opportunity and effort will be maximally exploited quicker than you can say "Reprocess 1.29M units of Pax Amarria per day". 

Don't try and make EVE "better for new players"; just try to make the game better for everyone and the new players (or miners, or solo PvP, or small alliances, or hi-sec CSM voters) will benefit just fine.