EVE's Amateur Designers

The notion of occupancy sov has re-entered the collective consciousness of the playerbase as of late, though it may be more apt to say that it never left. Regardless, there’s more discussion on the topic in the past couple of months than I can ever remember. Two of the more notable ideas posted recently come from Goonswarm Director of Intelligence Endie, and Pandemic Legion fleet commander Manfred Sidious (“Manny”), among others. With sovereignty tantalizingly placed on the roadmap presented by CCP Seagull this past Fanfest, it seems like a given that players will be discussing sovereignty in general more and more, and - being the preferred flavor of sov - occupancy-based systems in particular. No one who knows me would be surprised to hear that I’ve got my own suggestions slowly coalescing; however, the purpose here is to back off a bit and talk about design and why details are important.

The Carrot

People and organizations in Eve alike are driven by incentives. Do something, get something. It should be obvious, then, that you can shape their behavior, or try to. The consideration of risk vs reward is a large part of this equation, though not the only part, which is a fact conveniently overlooked when arguing over whether this type of player in that type of space really deserves the isk they make.

Wormholes are a great example of this. These days, capital escalations are a solved problem, and the time they take - a scant few minutes - is worth hundreds of millions of isk per hour. There’s always the risk of losing the fleet, but, conversely, wormholes are an area of space where numbers are limited, ambush-by-cyno can’t happen, and you have some modicum of control over access to your space even if you don’t have local. Given all that, k-space pilots tend to prefer to tell w-space pilots to suck it up when they complain about the limited number of available sites.

The reason for that lies in the now well-known story about the origins of wormholes. As CCP envisioned them, wormhole life would be nomadic, moving from hole to hole to gain access to new resources, carrying everything you own with you. It’d be tough and certainly dangerous, but the high reward would make it worthwhile. Probably. We’ll never know, however, as someone on the design team went “Eh we can leave POS enabled in wormholes, who’s really going to do that kind of logistics to live there permanently?”

Whoops.

This talk of wormholes is relevant because it’s a great example of how players will do the damnedest things. The fundamental questions to ask about a feature, even in a sandbox (especially in a sandbox, in fact) are: “What does this feature encourage groups to do” and “What does this feature encourage individuals to do”. If you have to ask yourself  “Will people really do _____ to achieve that?”, the answer is yes, and those who won’t will be crushed by those who will. Eve, and nullsec in particular, tends to be ruthlessly Darwinian. If you want to play junior game designer, fantastic. Just consider your goals and how the mechanics you propose achieve them, as filling in those basic details can radically alter the efficacy of the system.

Herd Mentality

Generally speaking, encouraging the group one way or another is comparatively simple, if only because there are fewer variables. In the context of this problem, “shrink the size of space holdings”, “make leaving home riskier,” and “make using your space matter” are all common and related goals. But: details! How the mechanics achieve this is important!

The basic group restriction in every occupancy sov is, of course, usage of the space. Usage in and of itself is not a limiting factor, however. One can easily imagine super-alliances in place of the existing coalitions, and if doing so is too hard, just have a gander at Serenity, where that model is already the norm. Something extra is needed to meet the “limited holdings” goal. Most proposals out there go for a disincentive, such as an exponentially scaling sov cost as a limiting factor. The assumption is that even the largest of groups will hit a limit on what they can afford. Assume for now that the usual workarounds (“Goonswarm One”, “Goonswarm Two”, etc) are addressed, and this does meet the goal.

However, there’s another question that’s always worth asking in feature design: “Is this compelling?” I’m sure some professional game design theorist has written about “what do you need to be compelling,” but for our purposes here we're going to say “multiple interesting choices, none of which necessarily are or stay optimal.” Needless to say, exponentially scaling costs (or similar) don’t fit. They’re one-dimensional optimization problems that have an effective hard cap regardless of the size of a group.

Another common suggestion in occupancy sov systems involves dramatically lengthened and often cross-linked sovereignty indices, with new and interesting perks at the higher levels. Most readers recognize this as the “Civilization model”, offering a group the ability to go either “wide” (lots of lower level systems) or “tall” (a few extremely well developed systems). This model often ties the Strategic index (with a host of new defensive and non-PvE oriented upgrades) to the PvE indices as well, furthering the distinction between wide and tall. If properly designed and balanced, there’s plenty of room to meet the compelling gameplay requirement.

Of course, as noted earlier, usage in and of itself is not a limiting factor, while the exponential costs models can easily become too limiting. And just like that, we’ve stumbled onto what is perhaps an ironic truth about game design: Like most human endeavours, it would be recognized as “compelling.” There are multiple choices, none of them are definitively optimal, and best results come from combining them.

The Everyman

Paradoxically, the goals and incentives at the individual level are both easier and harder to get right. Individual players. Dangle a carrot in front of someone and they’ll follow it or not as they see fit. Some players will be motivated by the largest possible reward, others optimize on effort, and others just want to PvP all day. The whole point of occupancy sov systems is encouraging the use of one's space - whatever PvE strikes your fancy - which you can’t effectively do unless you’ve got people out PvPing, patrolling the area and driving off or killing hostile roamers and gankers. So we really just want people to do what they always do. What could be so hard about that?

How about the “what they always do” part? We started this section off by noting that players will respond to incentives by changing their behavior! An occupancy sov system is offering players, at a minimum, the incentive of direct influence over the space in which they live, and depending on whose idea you’re reading at the time, improvements to its quality above and beyond what can be had now to boot. That’s a hell of an incentive, to be sure, and players (particularly those in nullsec) already do the damnedest things when it comes to controlling space. It’s not exactly hard to imagine unironic “ALL HANDS RED PEN MINING OPS” or forbidding the farming of anything but Forsaken Rally Points, your isk per hour be damned, because they increase sov the fastest, or something that sounds equally ludicrous until you remember what game you’re in.

Naturally, there are solutions. Better balance amongst various income sources is one of them, as it’s difficult to balance appeal when the rewards are so disparate. (The balance of income in nullsec versus other areas of space is a relevant but separate topic.) Activities could have their contributions capped in a way as to encourage spreading out. Or, more suitable to EVE, they could have diminishing returns, or the adjust contribution inversely proportional to how often that activity is performed. There’s also another immensely novel solution (amongst many others I’m no doubt ignoring) which is “get the balance amongst activities close, then ignore the problem.” Now wait! That’s not as bad as it sounds, because at the end of the day, the group that forces its pilots to “red pen mining ops” every day for a 0.38% more efficient gain on the indices, over a group that just does what they want when they want, is still undocked and doing things in their space to keep it.

Junior Game Designer

An all too common rejoinder amongst players (particularly those running for CSM, I’ve noticed) is how they’re “not a junior game designer”, how they’re not there to do CCP’s job. It’s not hard to imagine someone reading this taking the same stance. “I don’t need to provide details; that’s CCP’s job.”

In some sense, that’s correct. But on the other hand, many CCP employees appreciate details when considering feedback. Not all details are created equal, however! The minute details are CCP’s job, yes. Specific details would be things like “what’s the value assigned to each activity”, “what’s the equation governing diminishing returns”, things of that nature. The broad details, however, you can absolutely fill in. “The governing equation has this form” or “activities of type A should probably contribute about twice as much as activities of type B because (reasons)” are two such examples. It’s these kinds of details that serve to show your work, to better explain and justify the concepts behind your thinking, and to explain how and why your proposal will actually work, instead of handwaving them away with a “It obviously follows that…” worthy of any bad Calculus textbook.

Taking the time to flesh out a proposal undeniably strengthens your argument and provides more area for discussion, which can help strengthen it even further. But if you disagree and you want to go on thinking the awesome quality of your ideas is self evident, have fun being ignored.

Seven year veteran & economics guru of EVE Online as well as CSM 8 representative. On the side I play PS2, WOT and Hearthstone.