Massively Overthinking: Revisiting sheep and wolves in MMOs

    
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One of the meta discussions we’ve been having here on MOP this week has centered on PvP sandbox titles like Albion Online, specifically how Albion has made serious attempts to cater to non-PvP-oriented players to bring them into the gameworld – in fact, “synergizing” sheep and wolves has been one of the game’s key philosophies for years, and in my mind, this recent patch is just one more example of how it’s not just idle chatter.

That said, I don’t actually know whether it works. Our PvP columnist digs the game, but does it actually appeal to PvE players, and are they sticking around once they poke their heads in? And is it any different for other games with heavy PvP, like EVE Online, or even something like Black Desert, which isn’t marketed as an old-school PvP sandbox? For this week’s Overthinking, I am dropping this conversation in the laps of the MOP writers: What specifically can MMO developers do to attract sheep to the sandboxes where wolves prowl, and what can they do to keep them around?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): High levels of customization, engaging PvE experiences, and have PvP that occurs in a tiered sense can really increase the chance that MMO devs can keep wolves and sheep together, but it won’t be perfect. If you go back to the Shard Defense article I wrote on Asheron’s Call’s deathiversary, what you had was regular players who were affected by macro level changes (like towns getting destroyed) and the micro level PvP wars that could affect them. That’s really simplifying it though. More specifically, you had unengaged players basically bearing witness to the largest effects of the event. Then you had adventurers who unknowingly were causing issues. If you were lucky, one of those adventurers was also a lore fan and disseminating information. Those people created a faction to participate in PvP that picked a side in the game’s on-going story. Other players could support a side either through direct conflict (PvP) or trade (PvE).

I don’t think you can really have a truly FFA PvP game that both griefers and carebears will get along in, but you could conceivably created a PvP game where the PvP players are basically the center of the dramatic action. Say, holding towns. However, GM events could then threaten said towns, and PvP players would basically choose a side that effects said towns. Non-PvP players could either choose to directly participate and PvP or help with some non-PvE method. Taking a page from Asheron’s Call 2, I remember capital towns were invaded by large amounts of rapidly spawning mobs that could only be defeated by appeasing an NPC leader within the city. The NPC leader essentially had a riddle to be solved, and once a player could reach that NPC and solve the riddle, the town would be saved.

The problem is also how often and how severely you want to disrupt players’ game lives. I loved WoW’s zombie plague event, but it was also an event that caused many people to rage quit their gaming sessions at the least. That was some great sandbox play in a very theme-park MMO and even that was highly controversial. FFA PvP catering to non-PvPers is just a really messy topic, though I still applaud any company that attempts it (as long as they’re trying to learn from past games and not just spit-balling ideas).

Andy McAdams: I think it’s a big issue that developers seem rather unwilling to address on the whole. The problem with PvP games is that a singularly focused PvP audience isn’t enough to sustain a game; with only wolves, the game dies. I think the way to keep the sheep in a game is to provide ways for the sheep to fully enjoy the game with the option of remaining relatively safe. There absolutely needs to be some risk built into the game, but the sheep need to be able to be able to do things to protect themselves from the wolves. That protection might be something like being able to hire PC/NPC escorts when crafting in dangerous zones – safe ways to travel between zones / cities / towns. Maybe you can send PC/NPC adventurers into the wild for your mats (like actual NPCs that could be attacked).

I think that the wolves need to adjust their expectations as well. It’s a wolf-eat-wolf out in the wilds where things happen without consequences, but if it’s wolf-eat-sheep in a not-wild space, there should be real consequences for the wolf. Attacking a sheep should be a decision, a risk to be balanced by the wolf, and in order for that to happen there have to be real in-game consequences for the world. That might be jail time, a level experience, being unable to engage with merchants/enter cities/have bounties. There are plenty of ways to make the PvP dynamic risk-reward evaluation that doesn’t skew to sheep always being there to just be ganked. What sane person walks into an environment were the entirety of the game is designed so they get ganked as frequently as possible with no chance to retaliate? That’s what most PvP-centric games are.

Empower the sheep to expose/protect themselves for varying risk-rewards and set consequences for wolves so that ganking sheep becomes a risk-reward decision as well. Everyone wins.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t think the wolves-and-sheep situation is resolvable in a game whose developers are designing for wolves and sheep. Sheep don’t want to be preyed on. Wolves want to prey on sheep, not other wolves. Sometimes there is no compromise, and many devs know this and do it anyway, hoping to trick sheep into being content. Please understand, I grew up in classic Ultima Online, in a PvP-centered guild, in a world where you marked safe runes, put your keys under a trapped box in your bag, stored all your good gear in the bank, and never went anywhere alone. But we didn’t have hundreds of MMOs to choose from back then. If sheep and wolves didn’t work for UO when there were no choices – and in spite of the fun I had, even the devs know it didn’t work – it’s a hard sell in 2019.

That said, if an MMO is being designed as a virtual world rather than a predator/stalking/ganking simulator, open world PvP is still absolutely doable. I continue to be a huge supporter of the TEF (temporary enemy flag) system pioneered by Star Wars Galaxies because of its tiered approach. First, there is a hard opt-out; if you don’t ever want to kill or be killed by players, you can choose that and go on with your day. Second, there’s a faction system, so fewer than half the other players would even want to kill you. Third, there are improved rewards for fighting players actually worthy (i.e., higher rank) rather than noobs, with minimal penalties for death. Fourth, the overt/covert flags allow people to temporarily flag and unflag for PvP so they’re not always a potential victim unless doing activities that’d flag them as an obvious enemy. And fifth – and most important – a lot of the PvP was encouraged to take place in public spaces, goading covert players into joining the fray, which they willingly did.

I saw so many self-described “sheep” willingly participate in world PvP in SWG, people who won’t touch something like Albion no matter how hard it works to entice them with safe zones and GvG. Part of the reason TEF works so well is that it attracts a crowd that’s OK with the pop-up PvP of TEF and isn’t hoping for a gankbox full of easy marks. It’s harder in this case to change the stigma and the playerbase than the mechanics.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Speaking as one of those soft, doughy sheep, it’s hard for me to rewire myself to like PvP sandbox anything. I fall to pieces when I have to engage another human player, fingers flailing like spastic eels on the keyboard and heart rate racing to uncomfortable and worrying levels. It would seem, then, that it’s impossible for me to enjoy this kind of MMO. And not for lack of trying, really. I guess the only thing that would entice me into joining in to these kinds of games if there were some manner of protections to quash griefing and mad ganking from happening at all. After all, I tend to prefer being a crafter/gatherer in these kinds of games, which makes me the most succulent of lambs, and nine times out of ten more attention seems to be paid on making crafting and gathering fun without actually paying attention to making it semi-safe.

Note I said semi-safe; I contend that there should be inherent risk involved for my chosen profession. All I’m advocating is “risk” here to not mean “heart palpatations whenever I realize I have to venture out to beat on a rock.”

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I am huge carebear, but I also love Black Desert Online and have sunk a shamefully large number of hours into that game on characters level 50+ (when you become open for PvP). It isn’t quite the wild and crazy murder scene that “open PvP” implies. PvE players should look into the culture and consequences of PvP in a game before rejecting it out of hand. I really do understand wanting a game where you never have to worry about being randomly PK’d, but if you can tolerate it happening occasionally, you might want to try some of these PvX games that have a little something for everyone.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Honestly I think the only way to successful have sheep and wolves together in a game is to let the sheep completely opt out of the wolves’ gameplay. Because the PvP should only be wolves vs wolves. Other players shouldn’t be involved. I think the language needs an overhaul as well: It shouldn’t even be called wolves and sheep because that tries to enforce the notion that one is food there for the other. Let’s call them wolves and dinosaurs. The dinos don’t care about the goings-on of the wolves and don’t need to concern themselves with it. Wolves can run and do wolf things, and the dinos can do dino things. That’s the way it should be. But if a dino wants to be a wolf a while, or a wolf a dino, make it so. Games need to study Star Wars Galaxies’ system and head that way, allowing people to opt in and flag for PvP and participate in hot spot PvP zones. Shroud of the Avatar also lets you opt into PvP, and you can’t change willy-nilly, so there’s no throwing a punch and then going safe again.

Wolves and dinos can coexist, but they should never have interaction forced upon them. If you want PvE players in your game, you make them dinos, not sheep.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): This is certainly a tough problem without a single solution. I think the main difficulty for MMO developers is that they tend to see the wolves as the goal, or the endgame. The wolves are placed up high on pedestals. The wolves have so much more to gain and so much less to lose than the sheep. The sheep works hours gathering mats, putting them together, crafting something nice to go out and fight some beasts, only to get it taken away in five minutes by a ganker. That’s a quick way to have someone turn off your game and not turn it back on again. Just as with skill and classes, there needs to be a balance.

Perhaps one thing developers could do is add in another option – a third pillar if you will. Where are the shepherds or sheep dogs? Give players more reasons to protect each other and work together. Oftentimes, games will simply suggest that you can work together to avoid getting ganked but don’t explicitly reward you for doing that. Bounty systems can work in that direction. Maybe the ganker loses something from his bank, confiscated by the authorities. This way he can’t just keep his best things safe and away while he goes ganking.

There are options available, developers need to try new things and not fear their playerbase. One of the coolest things is what we are seeing in EVE Online right now – developers throwing things into disarray. I love it.

One last thing: A terrible way of trying to solve this problem that some developers tend to do is forcing the PvE and the PvP players together. For example, locking a portion of a quest/achievement within the PvP part of the game (looking at you ArenaNet). The PvP players don’t want PvE people taking up space on the server, and the PvE players don’t want to fight each other. Don’t force it like that.

Tyler Edwards: Realistically, I don’t think very much. The moment I hear open PvP is even a possibility, I start tuning out, as evidenced by the fact this is the first I’ve heard of Albion trying to make concessions for PvE players. I know I’m not alone in this. Those of us who aren’t interested in open PvP tend to be pretty set in our ways, and I don’t think there’s much that can be done about that.

It’s not just about not wanting to be ganked, although that’s obviously the biggest part. It’s also about the sort of community such games attract. While I know this isn’t universally true, my personal experience has been those that gravitate towards open PvP are pretty hostile to those of us who prefer PvE. Why would I join a game just to be constantly derided for being a “carebear”?

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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Mia DeSanzo

Reading the responses here has sent me down memory lane.

One thing that we know doesn’t work: Letting the players police themselves. That was one of the lessons of UO. I learned to stay off the roads in UO pretty early on. Getting a guild tag that let people know you’d have back up was helpful too. Later, after the Trammel/Felucca split, I had a house on the Felucca side, and actually spent a fair amount of time there.

I once put a massive bounty on my late ex-husband after he accidentally killed me while sparring for skills. Good times. 😆

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Video Game Professor

Ultimately, I believe that pvp needs to be consensual. But I recognize that one of the first rules of any fight is not to pick one you might lose. One way I think you can allow a player to pick fights they’ll certainly win (gank), while still appealing to the need for the satisfaction of superiority, is complex, but has been demonstrated on other platforms.

It basically would involve phasing. When you “flag” for PvP, you are phased with others that have flagged. In addition to those that have been flagged, the world is populated with random characters from other accounts which are given basic scripts to perform. They appear like players, and may behave like players, but aren’t.

As a player, I can attack other players that have flagged as well, or these scripted player characters. Obviously, they wouldn’t respawn in the same location (or at all). Upon the completion of their script (or their death) they disappear and are replaced with another randomly chosen character. The scripted character is a snapshot of that person’s account. Their abilities, gear, etc. Maybe they’re a powerful character with powerful gear, or their not. It doesn’t matter. The overwhelming majority of pvp players are not looking to take something away from another player, but get something for themselves. Whether it’s a score, territory, some other resource, or bragging rights. I concede there are those that just like to piss in other players cheerios, so go after the guy that is flagged and hunting SPC’s (Script PCs).

I mentioned it was demonstrated and was referring to “arena modes” in the occasional Mobile Game. I set up the character/Party/Base I want to make available for attack and other players attack it. I don’t see them do it, but I see the result. I don’t lose anything from their attack, my gameplay is interrupted, and my ego isn’t really bashed. Meanwhile, I can choose my own targets as well.

Just some thoughts. Cheers!

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Carebear

The word “wolf” is make a disjustice to the actual wolves (the animals). Whenever I hear the word wolf for a pvper I laugh.

Wolves hunt for a reason… they are hungry. They dont hunt for “fun”. Also a single wolf can attack 100 sheep and “win”.

It also sounds very “childish” to call yourself “wolf” in a video game..

Black Desert, a PVP game, have only 1 PVP server and is always empty… lol. And I am sure many players who play on other servers consider themselves “wolves” yet they avoid the pvp server like hell!

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Arktouros

Arsha is 100% not empty.

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Carebear

Considering its the ONLY pvp server in the game and is never tagged as “crowded”… in peak hours, half the servers are marked as “crowded” but never the pvp one…

So yes, its “empty”. It shows that a very tiny minority are true pvpers. Even the fact that the company chose to have 1 pvp server among ~30 (didnt count them exactly) says a lot.

And its why most of other sandboxes fail, because they only have “Arsha” servers and we know how popular these type of servers are…

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A. Kring

Although I am on the PvE side of things, I would like to correct your perception of real wolf behaviour. Many predators in the animal kingdom do not kill only because they are hungry. Predatory behaviours by humans in virtual environments are actually very similar to predatory behaviours observed in other animals. Examples involving wolves specifically are given in the linked article.

I concede that we cannot tell if the animal that kills for a need other than sustenance itself is doing it for “fun” or to “win”. Only humans are eloquent about their emotional state. We can only guess what the animal is feeling when it does something.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

People who want a civilized game aren’t going to stick around unless you give them tools that serve as a HARD counter to the predators. Laws. Cops. Punishment.

In other words, never shall the twain meet. Might as well ask what you can do to get people to move to Syria or Somalia.

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EmberStar

To be fair, I’m pretty sure some people *do* intentionally move to Syria and Somallia. To be near relatives, for better job opportunities (Soldiers wanted, apply now!) or because moving there is still an upgrade from wherever they live right now. O.O

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Castagere Shaikura

After all the years trying to mix the two and they still don’t see that it will never work. I wish they would just make separate games period. PVE players don’t want to PVP why can’t they figure this out yet. You are not going to force a PVE player into PVP and if you try you end up with a dead low population game that will shut down in a year probably.

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Anstalt

First, you have to have ways for the sheep to stay safe.

Like Bree, I’m a fan of SWG’s TEF system, it makes the PvP optional and seemed to work well.

If you insist on FFA, then it’s all about providing a good PvE experience for the sheep whilst providing them with safety nets. For example, if the game includes mounts then make sure there is a short dismount time to make it harder for the wolves to even attack the sheep.

Then, its all about the on-ramp for sheep who want to become wolves. PvP is usually a horrible experience for newbies. Not only are your opponents higher skilled than you, they usually have much better gear and the fights are over in an instant.

So, build the game around horizontal progression to remove power gaps. Then, make sure your time-to-kill is long. That way, even if a sheep gets jumped by a wolf, they still get to fight back and feel like they’re doing something, rather than just being a victim, even if the outcome is inevitable. In addition, make sure crowd control isnt out of hand – again, if you’re the victim, being stunned locked to death is also an extremely negative experience. In this way, the sheep get accustomed to PvP and get to actually learn something from those early experiences. Rather than just getting slaughtered, they get to learn how PvPers move about, what sort of attacks they use etc, and that then helps the sheep learn to defend themselves rather than accepting the inevitable.

Finally, make sure the PvP has a purpose. If you’re just bashing on other people to gain ranks, thats not going to motivate the sheep to defend themselves or to take up the fight. But, if the PvP is about realm pride, taking and holding territory etc, the majority of the PvPers will be focused on that and not on seeking out easy prey, so that should reduce the number of times the sheep get attacked.

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Witches

MJ should be a dev.

This isn’t a real issue, if they really wanted to accommodate non pvp peeps they would give pvprs mob stats, you would need the best gear and large numbers to kill someone not flagged for pvp, the whole point of pvp is the risk factor, if you are attacking someone who can’t fight back you might as well be fighting starter zone mobs with endgame gear.

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Bryan Correll

Not calling strictly PvE players ‘sheep’ might be a good step toward getting them interested.

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draugris

The real problem with pvp these days is that more pvp´ers are the carebears than anyone else. In reality, the majority don´t want to go out and fight people in a sense of competition or to see who is the better, no today the ultimate goal is to ruin someones day by ganking, griefing, corpse camping, you name it. And if developers implement systems to combat such behavior, their whining honestly is louder than any pve player who got killed in the woods by another individual.

I have played a lot of (consensual) pvp, in a lot of games, but world pvp, unfortunately, is pure and utter cancer these days, regardless which game. So real pvp´ers who actually want to fight other players that are a threat to them, are only to find in instanced pvp like battlegrounds or arenas. In albion i can see gvg´s provide that, but world pvp, no there is no way to bring pvp´ers and pve´ers together.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

I was going to bring this up as well. The first thing that needs to be done is understand the difference between a true PvPer and the rest of the bunch who claim to be PvPers, but really aren’t.

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

While I don’t disagree with this sentiment – this does skirt pretty close into the No True Scotsman territory. If the majority of the people identifying as PvPers are those you say are not true PvPers -I think there’s a bit of a cognitive dissonance going on here.

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Arktouros

There’s this whole concept of “honor” and what is and isn’t considered honorable behavior in competitive environments for a super long time. It was dialed up to 11 back in the old PK vs Anti-PK days where there were people non-trolling thinking every PK was little more than degenerate thugs who belong in prison in real life for the “crimes” we committed in games.

The thing people don’t get however is there are people in PvP environments who are here to wage total war. Yet a lot of games don’t provide a “win” scenario for people to achieve towards. This means war is unending until one side steps down or one side quits, thus the goal becomes to get the other side to quit. The only way that happens is if you make your opponents miserable thus we became experts at making other people miserable.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

If I understand you correctly, the goal you espouse is simply to win, whatever the cost to the game. In short, the total war is being waged against the game itself because once you have obliterated the opposition by chasing everyone off, you’ve destroyed the game.

Thus, any behavior is acceptable so long as the goal of demoralizing other players and forcing them to quit is achieved.

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Schmidt.Capela

If I remember correctly, the key argument that finally got EA’s management on board with fighting griefing in UO was exactly that: the griefers were costing EA more in lost subscriptions than they brought to the game. That idea, in turn, spread to all the other MMOs that were being built, often resulting in games designed around not allowing players to drive each other away, and the main design element to change in order to achieve that was PvP.

In other words, PvPers with that mentality might very well be the reason most games after UO restricted PvP and avoided things like player looting.

laelgon
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laelgon

CCP finally looked at data around Wardecs and realized that a relative handful of “wolves” were making a large number of new EVE players log out permanently. It was so bad they just disabled wardecs while they worked to fix it.

I think most PvPers are looking for good fights, the problem is the hyper competitive psychopaths who get there fun not from the fights, but by ruining the game for someone else.

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Arktouros

I mean it’s just good money war decing guilds in high sec. When I was in a corp doing that we’d use finder agents and collect easy salvage and payoffs constantly. When you got an Orca pilot at your mercy they are pretty pliable to pay quite a large sum of ISK to let them go.

This is again just game design dictating how players can play the game. You don’t see this in a game like BDO for example because you have a set criteria to be ready to go to war as a guild. Even if you manage to match that there’s still other mechanics like protection slots so people can’t use the war mechanic to bypass the penalties for killing people.

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Arktouros

Oh without a doubt the game mechanics were costing more than they were bringing in. I mean I can safely say that I caused a guild of 10-15 people back in Ultima Online to quit the game after I looted all of their houses and deeded all of their boats after murdering them all repeatedly over the course of 12 hours.

The far more likely reason why PvP became less and less of a “feature” in MMOs is simply a develop cost/return ratio. The number of people interested in hardcore PvP systems pre-WOW was very small by comparison to the multiple servers full of people that would fill PvE servers. Having to design a fully functional PvP ruleset and how the game mechanics handle that just becomes not really worth the cost in the end.

The issue for game developers these days is that PvE majority already has the games they’re pleased and happy with and they stick to the “big 4” MMOs. So just sticking towards the majority isn’t necessarily a slam dunk either which is why I think we see the resurgence of PvP focused titles.

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Arktouros

Well I wouldn’t say that I am espousing it but instead stating my experience from playing with people in these PvP environments.

But yes you have the gist of things. Competitive players aren’t there to compete or look for fair or balanced competition. They are there to win no matter what the cost is.

This is why I say developers have this “romanticized” vision of what they think players will do. They don’t understand how ruthless and self destructive competitive players are. Game systems need to be robustly designed with the idea that players can and will abuse every tiny advantage imaginable in these kinds of environments from game systems to even non-game aspects such as diplomacy and social engineering.

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lostkoss

Perhaps a better question would be; How do you keep your PVP game from becoming a Gankbox? Because that is what most people seem to object to.
In a good sandbox like EVE there are no sheep or everyone is a sheep depending on how you look at it.

EVE mostly avoids the Gankbox label in a couple of ways.
1) Huge Area – The amount of space in EVE is mind boggling. Just one star system is a massive area that can have many players in it that never even cross each others path or even see each other in the distance. Someone almost has to be looking for you to cross your path. If someone does cross your path, small ships that new players get can usually get away fast.

2) Penalties – The reward for ganking a new player is just not worth the penalty in high sec and probably not worth the time/reward in low sec. Out in Corp space, well that leads into the next way.

3) Corporations mandatory – You can’t play EVE without being in a Corp. You can stay in the new player Corp forever but you are still in a Corp. EVE is pretty heavy handed about getting you to join a player Corp. Your Corp will determine where you can and can’t go safely (Or as safe as it gets) out in Corp space.

Now can you get ganked in EVE? Absolutely.
Do you sometimes lose money/time because of it. Absolutely.
Does it happen every time you leave spacedock? No way.

In fact it was a pretty rare occurrence for me. I played a couple years of EVE and got ganked maybe 5 times. Once it was even fun because I got away in my mining ship and came back in my Rifter and blew HIM up.

The only problem with EVE is I hated actually playing the game despite loving the idea and danger of it all. The UI is just UGH! Flying the ships is just pointing it in a line and saying Go! And the combat can best be described as “target that red x and fire”.

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Schmidt.Capela

Different people define gankbox differently. For many people EVE is very much a gankbox.

BTW, EVE does have one nasty issue with player retention; last time CCP showed the numbers, last month during the EVE North conference in Toronto, roughly 90% of the new players that went as far as downloading the multiple-gigabyte install and logging into the game gave up in a week or less, with that number rising to over 97% of the new players when you get to the 3 months mark.

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lostkoss

That is because the ideas are great, the actual game play is over 15 years old and awful.
The IDEA of EVE draws people in, then the GAME sends them running.

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EmberStar

But the part of the idea that draws them in might be just “I get to have my own starship.” Then their mining ship gets blown to scrap by a Goonswarm suicide run (because killing highsec lozers iz funny) and they realize that the “EVE is PVP all the time” isn’t just re rhetorical statement.

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Schmidt.Capela

@lostkoss
EVE isn’t the only game that went for that, you know. A number of other newer games with more modern gameplay went for similar concepts when it comes to the PvP. None managed to get even close to the success of EVE.

(Unless you think about the Asian market, and more specifically South Korea and China. Players in those countries are far more welcoming of hardcore open world PvP than western players.)

@EmberStar
Yep. I tried EVE a long time ago not because of the PvP, but because of the rest. And I actually love all the rest about EVE, except for the PvP, to the point I would even play an offline single-player version of EVE if it was available.

Incidentally, EVE was the last MMO with non-consensual PvP I ever tried, and the one that convinced me to never, ever, again give any chance to any game where I can be attacked without having first given my explicit consent to the fight. And no, logging in, even in a game like EVE, doesn’t equate with giving consent.