Any time an in-depth discussion pops up about EVE Online, it’s never long before someone pipes up with the complaint that new players just can’t compete with veterans. EVE has been out for over 12 years now, and thanks to its realtime skill training mechanic, there are players who seem to have up to a 250 million skillpoint head start. Existing players have also had years to build up wealth, join together in huge alliances, learn how all the game mechanics work, figure out the best ship fittings, and get a lot of PvP practice. Actually catching up to the veterans in every way is next to impossible, but the truth is that you don’t need to. You can be very effective in PvE and PvP with just a few months of skill training and practice, and you can still contribute heavily to fleets with cheap tech 1 ships.
As EVE has been in constant development for 12 years, its history is full of moments when the rules of the game changed and the gulf between newbies and veterans suddenly shortened. When a new major feature comes out and changes the game in a significant way, new players and veterans alike must adapt and effectively have the same challenges and opportunities. We could be approaching one of those moments with Tuesday’s patch, which will turn sovereignty on its head by allowing small groups to potentially steal star systems from larger alliances. There’s a lot of theorycrafting left to be done on strategies and fleet compositions in the new system, and anyone who implements a good strategy before anyone else will get a significant advantage.
In this edition of EVE Evolved, I look at several moments in EVE‘s history when players found themselves suddenly competing on a more even playing field and ask what lesson older games can learn from them.
It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of 4X games like Civilization and Master of Orion II, so much so that I’m even making one of my own. The big appeal of 4X games for me is how replayable they can be thanks to procedurally generated maps and other random variables that are outside your control. Every new game starts as a blank slate filled with potential, and every player has roughly the same starting setup and a particular strategy in mind.
When you’re winning in a strategy game, it’s particularly satisfying because a combination of your choices and maybe some good fortune ultimately led to that victory. Since everyone starts fresh with roughly the same starting opportunity, you can take pride in the fact that your victory is because you outsmarted or outplayed your opponent. If things don’t go your way and you start losing a 4X game, the loss doesn’t feel final because you know that you can start a new game and get a clean slate again.
EVE Online has had several of these “fresh start” moments in the past with the introduction of major features players had to figure out or balance changes that really shook up the PvP landscape. I used to joke that EVE Online was a new game every six months because each expansion would introduce something new that would make some of our previous knowledge of things like ship fittings obsolete, but this has also always been an opportunity for newer players. Maybe you didn’t figure out wormholes quickly enough to make billions of ISK per week before it dried up, but you knew that if you waited a few months, then you could get in on the next big trend. Now that the game has switched to an iterative release schedule, those changes are smaller but more frequent and require constant adaptation.
The most obvious fresh start in EVE‘s history would be at the end of beta when people started new characters and corporations and began grinding toward their first cruisers. When player owned structures were introduced, we had a similar moment as people began scanning moons for minerals and building industrial infrastructure.
All you needed was access to nullsec and a few hundred million ISK to get started, so the barrier to entry was fairly low. Nobody had any idea which moons would be most valuable, how to efficiently set up industrial structures, or how to best attack and defend a starbase. There was a race between players to figure out the best strategies and put them into action, and those who managed to adapt quicker than average were at a significant advantage.
When outposts and titans were introduced, they were designed to be industrial megaprojects that no individual player could realistically afford on his own. Few alliances had enough ISK in the wallet to make an outpost or supercapital ship immediately, and there was also a ton of work to be put in hauling minerals and operating shipyard starbases. A genuine arms race kicked off with alliances running mining fleets, escorting freighters full of low-end minerals into nullsec, and raising ISK via other means to fund their projects. The Interstellar Starbase Syndicate even ran the the world’s first MMORPG IPO to raise the ISK for a publicly owned outpost. Some small alliances rose to power because they figured out ways to take advantage of the new state of play, and some old ones started losing ground because they didn’t.
The biggest fresh start moment for me was in 2009’s Apocrypha expansion, which opened wormholes to completely new and unexplored star systems and sparked an immense gold rush. This time the barrier to entry was as low as you wanted to make it, with individuals able to solo the lowest class of wormhole system and larger corporations investing in permanent expeditions with starbases and capital ships.
Nobody had a clue how wormholes really worked, which star systems were most cost-effective to colonise, or how best to tackle the sites found in them. Corporations and individuals took on the risk and competed to figure out the secrets of wormhole space quickly enough to profit on them, and those who figured it out quickest became rich in the process. This was a feature designed to reward small but dedicated groups, and having very deep pockets or hundreds of pilots at the ready didn’t really help that much.
All of the moments I described above have one big thing in common: They minimised the advantage conferred by longevity and your existing success in the game. You couldn’t throw billions of ISK at wormholes to unlock its secrets before everyone else, and you couldn’t throw manpower at a shipyard to make a titan build faster. As long as you met the minimum barrier to entry, you would be participating in this new feature on roughly equal footing to everyone else. New features and ship types also frequently come with new skills that nobody could possibly have pre-trained, so everyone who meets the new skill’s prerequisites is on equal footing there too. In contrast, the old sovereignty system did the exact opposite of this principle, accidentally maximising the advantage of having mountains of ISK and so putting more power in the hands of existing alliances.
Although EVE Online has been out for over 12 years, it’s definitely not too late to get into the game now. Veteran players may have millions of skillpoints, plenty of ISK, and a lot more experience to draw on, but the release of a major new feature often helps to level the playing field. When there are new skills to train, mysteries to solve, and strategies to formulate, a six-month-old player could stand just as good a chance of leading the pack as a ten-year veteran.
The idea of getting a fresh start every now and then is something that’s been incidentally present throughout EVE‘s development, and I think it’s actually a big part of what makes people stick with the game for years. Perhaps the big lesson to take away from EVE‘s history is that it’s not just acceptable to make old gameplay obsolete; it might actually be necessary. Reinventing the game periodically seems to help keep the playing field level between newcomers and veterans, and it’s the player who adapts quickest that survives.