The past few weeks have been pretty transformative for EVE Online, with the global communications blackout across null-security space revitalising roaming gang PvP in a way I personally haven’t seen for nearly a decade. What started as something of an experiment by CCP Games now seems to be blooming into a radical new design direction for the game that could seriously shake things up. We may be about to enter an unprecedented era of danger and conflict in EVE as developers work to inject a little chaos back into the sandbox.Hilmar Veigar Petursson made the case for a new design direction during recent appearance on community podcast Talking in Stations, where he noted that “Over time the chaos of EVE Online has been drained into order, the sand in the sandbox has turned into cement.” Hilmar suggested that EVE will be entering into a new “chaos era,” but what could that look like and how would it improve the game?
In this edition of EVE Evolved, I explore the stagnation of nullsec, the effect of the blackout, and how CCP could shake things up further.
When I wrote about EVE‘s communications blackout in a recent EVE Evolved column, I speculated that it would lead to absolute anarchy in nullsec. The null-security regions of EVE were originally envisioned as a lawless frontier where players make their own rules and the threat of attack is always present. The nullsec regions are home to hundreds of warring alliances and coalitions, and yet they’ve been some of the safest places to live for most of EVE‘s lifetime.
The most successful alliances in EVE have always been those with expert diplomats making non-aggression pacts behind the scenes. Every alliance then maintains a standings list that highlights other players as friend or foe, so you always know whether you’re in danger just by glancing at the list of names in the local channel. Most alliances have intel channels to post the whereabouts of enemy ships and fleets spotted passing through a system, and some even have their own bespoke intel network software that members are expected to run.
There’s a saying in EVE: “If you find yourself in a fair fight, someone miscalculated.” For all the reputation EVE has as a hardcore PvP universe in which anything can happen, EVE players are absolute experts at conflict avoidance. I wrote about this problem back in January when I explored issues ranging from wardec evasion and neutral logistics to how the big bad nullsec players run and hide at the first sign of a neutral ship in the system.
I firmly believe that the root of EVE‘s conflict avoidance problem is the ease of accessing accurate intel. Most of the major fights in EVE‘s history have happened because people made mistakes, and not just genuine mistakes like the infamous fat-finger on the “Jump” button that kicked off the Battle of B-R5RB. Most mistakes are just cases of fleets misjudging their enemy or the state of play, with battles escalating to hundreds of billions of ISK on the field only if both sides think they have the upper hand.
The same is true on a smaller scale, with roaming fleets looking for smaller fish to land on while evading the larger predators. The blackout removed just one source of intel (albeit the main one) for nullsec players, and the result was an effective fog of war that led to a ton of fights.
The recent communications blackout in nullsec proved definitively that removing perfect intel drives further conflict. The local chat channel used to provide a perfect and up-to-date list of everyone in the system, but when the blackout landed players stopped appearing in the list unless they typed something in chat. Suddenly enemy fleets could pass undetected, stealth became a more viable option, and you no longer got obvious warning of enemy reinforcements several minutes in advance.
I decided to try my hand at a little solo PvP in nullsec right after the blackout landed, and the result was the most fun I’ve had in PvP in years (even if I did just lose a bunch of ships). I found myself glued to the directional scanner to hunt for targets, never knowing who was alone and who had backup. Often I would be in the middle of a pitched battle and then suddenly a third party would decloak or warp in on top of us and turn the tide of the fight. A massive fleet even dropped on top of me in the middle of a fight I was sure to win, a fight I wouldn’t have committed to if I’d seen the fleet incoming.
Take two: I'm such a pro PvPer I just burned out my guns and ran away o/ pic.twitter.com/Fz3Rvcbzoo
— Brendan Drain (@nyphur) July 12, 2019
Nullsec alliances showed some effective emergent adaptation to the new status quo. Many solo farmers switched to cheaper ships or fit warp core stabilisers, trading farming efficiency for safety. Some also started organising to farm PvE sites or mine in larger groups rather than solo and posted scouts as guards to warn of incoming enemies. A huge number of botters and AFK farmers were killed (hooray!), and a lot of farmers were caught off-guard by roaming fleets and solo pirates.
Everyone started using the directional scanner more to stay safe and as a tool to hunt people down, and I saw a few people teaching others how to use it in the help chat channels. Some alliances formed regular defense fleets or clustered their people closer to their capital staging systems in case backup would be needed. Meanwhile, pretty much every major PvP alliance put together roaming fleets and reported that the lack of immediate intel made more actual fights happen. Jin’taan made a video on his experiences below, and the solo PvP portion mirrors what I experienced pretty well.
When Hilmar Veigar Petursson talks about EVE entering a new era of Chaos, I look at experiments like the Blackout as test beds for a new design direction for EVE. I’ve spoken to Hilmar at a few events on the EVE World Tour this year, and the message has been pretty clear: EVE has become too safe in recent years, and CCP is not beyond making sweeping changes to shake things up. Nullsec local chat isn’t the only thing potentially on the chopping block as we enter this new chaos era.
We’ve already heard rumblings of other intel systems being limited to reduce the amount of information players have to work from. I personally think kill feeds and statistics from EVE‘s ESI API should be delayed by at least an hour across the game to create more of a fog of war for roaming fleets. The game’s largest public killboard has already started delaying killmails from ESI by two hours voluntarily, but this should be done on CCP’s side to prevent alliances from just using their own private intel tools to get an advantage.
In years gone by, alliances would view their enemy’s structures and territory with an envious eye and invest massive sums of ISK in their war machines. Starbases could drop billions in loot and ships when destroyed, and there was always a ton of profit to be had taking over a staging outpost as locals would always fire-sale their assets. This wasn’t always enough to offset the cost of war but it was a strong economic motivator for those participating in the fighting.
These structures have been replaced with Upwell structures, and now all player assets in a destroyed structure are magically whisked away to safety. That’s the tradeoff we made for the ability to destroy stations, but the current implementation has robbed us of the spoils of war. We’ve also largely lost the ability to take strategic locations that would lock the enemy out of assets such as their capital fleets and reserves in the long term, so the incentive to defend certain strategic structures has been eroded.
As much as I would love to see Asset Safety removed or limited in nullsec, CCP will have to be very careful with how this is changed. No players should log in one day to find that all of their stuff has been stolen or destroyed without them explicitly choosing to risk it, and no-one should be punished for taking time away from EVE. As player Sentient_Blade recently posted on the EVE subreddit, “EVE should be dangerous and sinister. EVE should not be you losing everything you worked for because your wife was in a car accident and you’re spending every evening by her hospital bed.”
When Hilmar said that “the sand in the sandbox has turned into cement,” he wasn’t wrong. Players have long since figured out the safest ways to play in nullsec, and something needs to be done to forcibly shake things up. The blackout proved that limiting player intel and removing safety nets leads to more combat and higher active engagement from players, and it’s not the only change that could have this effect.
I’d love to see the blackout become permanent or a regular occurrence that people would have to prepare for, and I want to see CCP revisit other safety nets such as asset safety and tethering with fresh eyes and newly collected player data to hand. Developers have been trialling various experimental changes in the EVE China beta to collect more data on how players react to them, and some of those could make their way to Tranquility.
It’s also possible that we’ll get even more radical changes in the future to shake up the nullsec meta in a kind of seasonal format. Perhaps one week or month the Drifters could knock out jump drives across nullsec, and the next a Triglavian virus could disrupt all of our cloaking devices? As EVE moves into the promised era of chaos, the only thing we know for certain is that those who can adapt quickly to change will certainly come out on top.