Last week's article by Mynnna on the lack of opportunity for small independent entities in Null-sec talked a great deal about the political realities (both today and moving forward), but didn't really discuss the fundamental paradigms that make the current sovereignty system so hostile to newer or smaller alliances. Suggestions for changing sovereignty usually involve doing things like reducing jump ranges, splitting sov-holding structures into smaller, bite-sized pieces, or placing arbitrary limits on the size of sov-holding alliances. In the end, few of these will actually achieve the goals these people are usually trying to achieve.
Why? Because in the end, there are easy ways around all of these changes that are trivial for large alliances to do, and the current paradigm makes it easy, if not imperative, for them to claim huge tracts of space if for no other reason than to raise the barrier to entry for other alliances to establish themselves nearby. As long as that is in their best interests, they will continue to do so, even if that means operating more fleets or using more jump bridges or whatever else; if it is a question of resources, whether those resources are people, minerals, or ISK, large alliances will always be able to expend that effort. With the current sovereignty system, there are few if any internal pressures that restrict the size of large alliance territories.
The fundamental problem is not jump bridges or structures with hit points that are too high; the problem is that all of these keep the current paradigm: prescriptive sovereignty.
A Result, Not A Requirement
Simply put, prescriptive sovereignty means that sovereignty is a requirement in order to "do things" in your space. In order to build a shipyard, you need sovereignty. Want your space to be more valuable? You need sovereignty so you can build up your infrastructure hub. Want a cyno jammer to keep people out of your space? You need sovereignty. And in order to get that sovereignty, you need to perform some arbitrary task which has no value other than to give you sovereignty.
In contrast, a descriptive sovereignty system is one where "doing things" is what gives you sovereignty over your space. Building infrastructure (like factories, shipyards, or trading posts), mining, defending your territory, or whatever else adds "value" to the system. Think of it like a Homestead Act for Null-sec. You move into the system, improve it, and as a result your claim on that space is recognized.
A descriptive sovereignty system means an end to paying an arbitrary price for sovereignty, which is always easier for a larger alliance to pay. It means an end to sovereignty requirements for things like outposts, capital shipyards, or jump bridges. Instead, you can build those anywhere and they are what gives you credit towards sovereignty in that system. To take sovereignty in a system, you destroy the infrastructure someone else has built and put up your own. A system naturally gravitates towards an "unclaimed" state, where no one controls the system; this creates an internal pressure on alliance sizes, making it impossible to claim vast swaths of territory without the activity to support it. This creates expanses of unclaimed or disputed territories stretching between the home systems of various alliances. These gulfs provide a place where smaller alliances can establish themselves with no passive barrier to entry -- if a larger alliance wants to keep them from colonizing those systems, they must actively deploy military force to dispute the claim.
Sovereignty also shifts from a binary state (you either have sovereignty or not) to an analog state (you can have strongly-held sovereignty or weakly-held sovereignty), where the recognized sovereignty holder is simply the alliance with the strongest claim on the system.
The Return of the Wilderness
The most common complaint about Null-sec is that the vast majority of alliance-held space is seemingly empty aside from a few major trade hubs or fortified choke points. Most of those empty systems, however, are worthless due to a poor True-sec rating, while the current sovereignty systems make it even more important to cluster in a small number of systems to reduce spending on infrastructure upgrades.
Descriptive sovereignty turns this on its head. The value of sovereign systems is the infrastructure they provide; shipyards, trade hubs, refineries, defensive emplacements, and a tight defensive perimeter. However, this very activity is what makes it less likely for the various resources of Null-sec (NPCs in the belts and plexes, asteroids for mining, etc) to be optimal in these systems. Instead, True-sec becomes dynamic. As sovereignty in a system increases, the True-sec increases, making it less valuable for mining and ratting. The longer a system remains unclaimed, the lower its True-sec becomes. (Mary Titor discussed a similar idea with a much wider scope in a blog post; it's worth reading if you haven't already.)
What does this mean for established alliances? It means that in order to best profit from Null-sec, they will have to leave their trade hubs and well-traveled choke points and venture into the wilderness. This will provide a reason for conflict in unclaimed space, as they scramble to grab the best areas for mining and ratting which only last for a limited time before that very act begins to reduce the value of those systems. Meanwhile, new alliances moving into Null-sec will initially get a large boost to income, allowing them to build infrastructure in their space and eventually causing its value to decline. This starts the cycle all over again, bringing them into conflict with their neighbors.
This creates an internal pressure that acts as a soft limit on the size of an alliance's claimed space. Expanding too much and devouring the empty space in Null-sec is not only likely to be cost prohibitive (as creating enough infrastructure to have overwhelming sovereignty in huge regions of space would be extremely expensive), it will also damage their income potential, forcing them to range further and further out for better income. Smaller alliances that have a strong claim on only a few systems will be much closer to the wilderness areas.
All of these factors combine to create a much more diverse Null-sec which encourages conflict and competition for resources, whereas the current system promotes stagnation by centralizing resources and making these activities safer, rather than forcing players to make meaningful choices between protected, highly developed space and lucrative, dangerous space. In addition, it gets rid of an annoying "gamey" mechanic and increases immersion in the world of Eve.
I've intentionally avoided getting bogged down in too many details simply because the issue of exactly how such a system gets implemented or what variations you want to add to it is less relevant than the change of perspective. Just how much various activities contribute to sovereignty, or how disputed territories with multiple alliances' infrastructure are handled, or how to handle the migration from the current system to a descriptive sovereignty system is a much longer topic that is ultimately something that requires a lot more insight into Eve's innards and various metrics.
Unfortunately, there are many caveats to this system. For instance, moon mining (and other forms of passive income) are antithetical to the goals of descriptive sovereignty, since they provide huge income streams with very little player involvement. The weakness of Null-sec infrastructure compared to High-sec infrastructure (with regard to mineral refining, for instance) also reduces the impetus for alliances to build up their own systems. And a descriptive sovereignty system would probably require the ability for alliances to raze the infrastructure of their enemies (including outposts) in order to truly work in the way described above. However, while these reduce the effectiveness of a descriptive sovereignty system, they don't make it worthless. In contrast, making small changes to the current prescriptive sovereignty paradigm is simply putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.