EVE Evolved: EVE Online’s case for asymmetric and asynchronous gameplay

    
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If there’s one thing that EVE Online does better than any other MMO on the market today, it’s persistent gameplay on massive scales. The now-famous Bloodbath of B-R5RB in 2014 involved 7,548 players over the course of almost 24 hours, and the Siege of M-OEE8 at the end of 2016 peaked at 5,300 separate players all piled into the same star system at the same time. Hundreds of thousands of players live and fight in the same single-shard universe, and EVE‘s largest corporations have more members than the total population on some other MMOs’ shards.

But what about the smaller end of the scale? MMOs aren’t just populated by monolithic organisations bent on galactic domination, and a growing proportion of today’s gamers play online games solo or in smaller groups. Features such as Upwell structures and the new PvE gameplay have clearly been designed with a wide range of gameplay scales in mind, but EVE has never really got past the problem that bigger groups are almost always better. Could the solution to this problem be found in small-scale asymmetric and asynchronous warfare opportunities?

In this edition of EVE Evolved, I look at why EVE‘s massive scale makes it so compelling, the problem that massive scale introduces, and the case for more asymmetric and asynchronous warfare.

The single-shard server model

One of the things that’s always made EVE Online so compelling is the fact that everyone is playing in the same universe, with the obvious exception of the China server that had to be separate for legal reasons. CCP has kept to this single-shard server structure over the years without using tricks like instancing and heavy login limits, and it hasn’t been an easy task. The Tranquility server cluster was once recognised as the most powerful supercomputer in the games industry, and during EVE‘s early periods of growth it had to be constantly upgraded to stay ahead of player density.

The single-shard server structure affects more than just the size of PvP battles in a game, though. It unifies the playerbase into a single community, allows complex economics to evolve that affects all players, and seriously raises the stakes in things like territorial warfare and politics. The lack of instancing also makes the universe more tangible and real, as you can’t switch instances to avoid a group of pirates or grind PvE in your own private bubble. Your actions in a single-shard server can indirectly affect every other player in the game, and your story forms part of the game’s one and only living history.

Bigger is almost always better

Despite almost 15 years of improvements to computer technology since EVE‘s launch, it’s only recently that ambitious titles such as Dual Universe have made serious in-roads on the instance-free single-shard space. Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous may be designed with single unified communities in mind, but they split the active players across multiple instances to handle server load. It’s EVE‘s lack of instancing that allows the maximum scale of PvP and PvE to reach thousands of players, but this also reinforces one of the game’s most fundamental and long-held problems — Bigger is almost always better.

EVE‘s lack of scale limits isn’t a big problem in PvE as players are incentivised to complete content with as few players as possible in order to split rewards fewer ways, but it makes it difficult to balance PvP features around certain numbers of players. Attempts to solve the scale problem with game mechanics such as the Entosis Link or the damage mitigation caps on Upwell structures haven’t exactly worked. There’s just no way to stop a larger enemy from escalating a fight beyond your capabilities and winning by sheer force of numbers. But is this a fundamental property of PvP without scale limits or is it something that can be tackled?

Asymmetric warfare in EVE

The numbers advantage doesn’t apply equally throughout all of EVE‘s PvP, in fact there are several asymmetric game mechanics that allow a smaller force to have a disproportionate impact against a larger foe. Stealth bombers were designed specifically to wipe out large fleets of battleships, for example, and Command destroyers can use the Micro Jump Field Generator to yank ships out of position and gank them before the rest of the fleet can intervene. Tools and strategies such as these allow small groups to disrupt larger ones and execute surgical strikes on a sub-set of an enemy fleet without engaging the entire thing.

I’d love to see CCP try to extend that philosophy into other aspects of EVE‘s competitive gameplay such as territorial warfare and resource harvesting. Perhaps ganking a Rorqual or anomaly-grinding Vexor Navy Issue in nullsec should remove its pilot’s recent contributions to the system’s sovereignty indices, for example, allowing a small harassment squad to attack a system’s sovereignty without actually meeting the enemy’s full force on the field of battle. Small and easily destroyed strategic structures could also give small gangs objectives to plant and to destroy, and some structures could be made hackable to provide another target for specialised groups in structure warfare.

Asynchronous gameplay

When Andie Nordgren described EVE as a massive asynchronous board game, I think she hit on something that’s always been core to the game: Part of your gameplay in EVE persists when you log off. Though the obvious pieces on the board include structures you’ve placed in the world, your asynchronous footprint also includes market orders, contracts, research and manufacturing jobs, planetary industry, deals you’ve made with other players, and strategic decisions you’ve made that are still playing out. This kind of small-scale asynchronous gameplay can keep people invested in the sandbox even when they’re offline.

When considering a small group fighting a much larger one, I can’t help but think that a lot of this war should be waged asynchronously. A lone pirate or small corp is never seriously going to be able to match a larger alliance in arranged combat, but they should be able to harm an enemy that lets its guard down or makes a mistake. Some structures could be hacked to disable them temporarily, steal ISK and other resources, or to mess with services like manufacturing. There should also absolutely be more small structures like the Encounter Surveillance System that don’t have reinforcement timers to give strategic targets to hit if the enemy goes into hiding when your gang shows up.

Small gangs and solo players can be great at harassing the local populations of a region of space and catching targets who aren’t watching their intel channels, but attacking structures and territory is still very much a job for the largest fleets you can muster. While that may be a fundamental consequence of EVE‘s lack of instancing and scale limits, I do believe there’s room for new asymmetric and asynchronous gameplay to let the little guy have more of an impact.

What if a small group could attack an alliance’s territory indirectly without courting escalation, if daily roaming gank squads helped to whittle down the system’s defences, and if lone warriors could put some pressure on an alliance’s bottom line? Would that make a difference?

EVE Online expert Brendan ‘Nyphur’ Drain has been playing EVE for over a decade and writing the regular EVE Evolved column since 2008. The column covers everything from in-depth EVE guides and news breakdowns to game design discussions and opinion pieces. If there’s a topic you’d love to see covered, drop him a comment or send mail to brendan@massivelyop.com!

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Aelzen
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Aelzen

Your mention of tools and strategies reminded me of one of the most interesting fights I was involved with recently was being an invitee to a calmil/galmil fight in low on behalf of calmil (I’m not a facwar pilot, rather just a dirty pirate, but my group gets invited along to a lot of calmil things and sometimes we go).
The fight had been pre-arranged between the two sides for particular ship classes, from what I understand, but galmil shipped up so we (being the calmil aligned pilots) skipped the brawl and hid in a medium plex where their battleships couldn’t reach.
Still outnumbered, the idea was put forward that we double-boosh after the first bunch of their cruisers landed inside the plex. So stacking up on a couple pre-aligned t3 command destroyers, we waited; then in they came.
FC called for a boosh (and then another one to have us land 200km away), and we all got dragged with it, along with a number of their cruisers. Making short work of those unlucky enough to land on grid with us first, there was then some back and forth, mucking about, kiting and keeping range from the bulk of their fleet, and not long after galmil and their invitees left.
I honestly don’t recall who won the isk war on that, but I assume it was us. It was very clever use of mechanics to not only lock out larger ships that would have decimated our fleet, but then split that fleet into a smaller chunk for easy destruction.

Black Rise is a fairly odd place in my experience. The norm for my alliance is to just shoot everyone except one small-ish group we have set to friendly. Calmil, galmil, neutrals, they’re all fair game, but we happily put aside our arguments at times to do something bigger, or to defend the region from outside threat. Mostly it’s the realm of small gang or solo pilots, and it’s beautiful.

ultimategnome
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ultimategnome

Yes Elite: Dangerous splits the active players across multiple instances but no that’s not to handle server load. E:D doesn’t have servers for real-time play. It uses peer-to-peer instead. so it splits players across multiple instances because each of its peer-to-peer instance can handle a maximum of 32 players interacting.