Is Game Design a Numbers Game? – INN

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Bill McDonough

Joined: May 2022

Where should CCP’s priorities be, when it comes to game design? Does trying to please the most active people serve the health of the game, or should design decisions be agnostic of the current balance of numbers?

There’s been a running discussion on the EVE Online forums for a couple of weeks now about the structure updates that just went live. A lot of different viewpoints have been represented, both pro and con. As viewers of INN’s weekend line-up may know, Brisc and I have enjoyed some lively discussion of the topic, including on-air.

Running Some Numbers

One of those discussions led to me running the numbers on a claim Brisc made regarding whether or not the ‘large groups’ counted for most of the characters in the game. The contention is that the large groups are enjoying this change, and so most of the game’s population is well-served. During the conversation, the issue of ‘what constitutes a ‘larger’ group?’ came up, and the threshold was set at 400 members. Working from that, the numbers break down like this:

Total Characters In Alliances With 400+ Members: 353,259.00

Total Characters In Sub-400 Member Alliances: 142,328.00

So right off, yeah. Brisc’s right, most of the characters in alliances are in big ones, by more than 2:1. These numbers, however, don’t include characters in NPC Corps. Nor do they include any Corporation which is not in an alliance. In theory, you can obtain the numbers for ‘non-allied’ Corps. However, you’d effectively need to scrape the data for every corp, just to figure out which ones those are. And since NPC Corps never purge inactives, there’s no point even trying to figure it out.

To illustrate the potential skewing, let’s look at Pator Tech School. Pator Tech is just 1 of the 12 NPC Corps. And it has almost three-quarters of a million (741,113) members. So right there, Pator Tech by itself almost doubles the total number of characters in all alliances. Without a reliable way to gauge actives, however, we just can’t factor those numbers in.

The 32,000-member Elephant in the Room

Then again, even the numbers we have, aren’t perfect. For example, the #2 alliance in the game is Silent Company. They’re a highsec Alliance that comes in at 32,355 members. That’s larger than Pandemic Horde, and only about a thousand members behind Goonswarm itself. They’re definitely in the group that’s being characterized as benefitting from the change.

So how many Astrahusen(?) have they killed, ever? None. Raitaru? None. Athanor? You guessed it, not a one. Structure bashing just isn’t the game they play. They do own medium structures, though. So life got harder for them without any benefit to their goals and gameplay.

What about the renter alliances? Brothers of Tangra’s got 4,000 characters. Empire of xXDEATHXx comes in at 1,565. Heck, Red-Frog’s got 1,261. But… there’s another wrinkle. For the purposes of our discussion, we set the ‘large group’ threshold at 400 members. But is 400 members really ‘large’? If we change that threshold, the numbers change, too. And of course, this is all characters. We can’t make any case about the number of actual people in each group. So let’s just acknowledge that the ‘large groups are the majority argument’ has… complications.

First, Principles

Stepping away from the numbers, though, we need to ask ourselves a few questions about game design. Should the majority of characters be in larger groups, or should there be more of them in a larger number of smaller groups? Does a game design that caters to the majority—wherever they are—mean a healthier game? Should CCP cater to one specific part of the game just because that’s where most characters are?

Group Size

To a large extent, I don’t know if opinion on this one even matter against the backdrop of ‘that’s the way it is’, because, well, that’s the way it is. You know, depending on how you define your numbers. But you get the point. This may all be screaming into a hurricane. But if it is, that still doesn’t answer the question.

To try to answer it, though, there are two very basic ways to look at the question, and they wind up with very opposed viewpoints. There’s ecology, and sociology.

Ecology

Ecologically-speaking, you never want your food chain to be top-heavy. You want a nice, wide base of absolutely as many smaller things as you can get. When the base is wide, that’s a more robust network, and more stability at the middle and top.

In EVE terms, everyone needs multiple enemies just a little bit smaller. If your only option in your own weight class is bigger than you, you probably lose. Or you spend a lot of time beating up on much smaller entities who can’t fight back, and while that might be fun for you, it’s really not good for the game.

On the other hand, if you’ve got multiple enemies who are almost your size, then you’re in a good place. You can attack one of them, but you can’t leave yourself too open, or one or more of the others might gang up on you from behind. So you have strategic and political considerations to take into account, but you still have room to prosecute wars.

Of course, then they need multiple slight-smaller enemies, and so on, and so on. That points toward ‘a larger number of smaller groups’.

Sociology

People… aggregate. There’s really no way around it: we’re a social species. We went from troupes of naked apes on the Serengheti to nomadic bands across Eurasia to villages to city-states to nations to empires. The very nature of society is ever-enlarging patchworks of increasing complexity. Sure, every now and again you get a Brexit, but that’s one of those exceptions that prove the rule.

EVE’s no different. Heck, PvP’s no different. Since the first time one social critter poked a sibling and the two of them went to kill some unsuspecting victim, the most effective tool for getting an advantage in a fight has been numbers.

The same applies to every other aspect of EVE. The best way to split up work is among as many people as possible. The most efficient way to produce goods is through larger groups of people with more specialized jobs. It’s why society works as it does, and grows in size and complexity: it provides the most benefit to the most people.

In that light, people slowly congregating into larger and larger groups… it’s inevitable. It’s natural. It’s how we work, as a species. And it’s one of the big problems we’ve got, from a ‘hey, are we gonna totally bork the planet?’ standpoint, so maybe that’s a caution to keep in mind.

Finding A Balance

In the end, the growth of ever-larger groups is going to happen. So if CCP wants to maintain the ecological view, then they have to actively work against the sociological results of human nature. And they have to keep doing it, because whatever they put in place, we’ll eventually get around. That’s not any kind of declaration of exploits, though. That, too, is simply human nature: whatever challenge they throw at us—like every challenge in every MMO—will simply be a puzzle. And eventually, we’ll solve it.

But how much effort should they be putting into it? At what point does it just become more trouble than it’s worth? Ultimately, that’s not a question we can really answer. But it’s one CCP should keep in mind.

Health

My own opinion is that catering to the majority doesn’t make for a healthier game. Every part of the game needs every other part of the game. That’s especially true after the resource ‘rebalance’ of the scarcity era. Nobody can get all of the resources they need from just their part of space. So any game design decisions that make any part of space less likely to be well-populated are bad.

The flip side of the coin, however… is the same side of the coin. The coin has two heads! What I mean by this is: the argument to go ahead and focus on the part of the game with the most characters in it is also based on the idea that you need to keep people playing.

Habitually Routine

In that argument, the case is simple: the customers behind that large pool of characters are bored. Let them stay bored long enough, and they’ll go looking for something else to do. And that thing probably won’t be EVE. Then you run into the same problem that comes up with the smaller groups: Habits.

It takes about a week for people to settle into a new routine. Longer if it’s not a daily routine. A week of reinforcing the same behavior, and it tends to stick, as long as there isn’t some significant disruption. Given two weeks, the new habits get well-established, enough to handle a small variance or break in the pattern.

CCP’s even taken that into account in the past. It was one of the reasons why people who docked up for a week or two when they got wardec’d in highsec stopped coming back. So CCP took steps to ‘fix’ the wardec system. The fix isn’t perfect, of course, but at least they made the attempt. So they’re aware of the problem of people forming new habits. With that in mind, is it surprising that they might focus on getting as much retention in the part of the game with the most characters?

The Horn

Of course, it’s never that simple. There are always other considerations to take into account. In this case, you might say that the thing they’re forgetting is the Horn of Goondor. Or, you know, if you like the cheap, imitation, off-brand version, the Horde Horn. Up to you, but choosy nerds choose GEF. 😉

The Horn of Goondor is something we’ve really only sounded in extremis, but the principle behind it applies to a lot more. We keep in touch. What keeps people in EVE, after all, is their friends. Social bonds. Hanging out, talking to people. Even when I don’t login for a month, I talk to folks. And the same is true for a lot of other people.

Large groups tend to have better organization. And they have stronger social networks, because there’s more people socializing. So large groups—especially in EVE, where all of the large groups have extensive out-of-client communications infrastructure—have an easier time getting hold of wayward members and calling them back to the fold if something exciting is happening.

Larger groups do a fair amount of the work of retention for CCP. Smaller groups do, too, but remember: they have less of a margin of error. If Goonswarm sees 500 characters go inactive because the players got bored and go do other things, no big deal. If… uhm… Khimi Harar has that happen, well. Oops. No more Khimi Harar. And they’re in the ‘large group’ category by our numbers, remember?

CATCHPHRASE!

It’s a Free Guy reference. If you’re seeing this, I couldn’t think of anything better for this part, and frankly, it’s a better subheading than ‘I love three things: Kickin’ ass… TBD… Third Thing Here.’

Though, that would work for like, a heading and 3 subheadings. BUT ANYWAY. Let’s assume I’ll think of something better for this, ok?

There is, in fact, one thing that every part of the game agrees on. It doesn’t matter who you put the question to. Nullbloc pilots, lowsec pirates, highsec mission runners, faction warfare loyalists, wormholers, Kybers in Poch, all them give the same answer. When you ask them if they think CCP’s been favoring their part of space, or balancing the game for somewhere else, the answer is almost always the same: Somewhere else.

The reason? Carrots v sticks. This is more sticks, with carrots at a release date TBD… dammit, you see that? TBD totally works there!

Third Thing Here…

Ok, fine, it’ll stay in. Shut up and let me try to do that last bit more cogently, ok?

Every part of the game believes that CCP is balancing EVE against their interests and favoring someone else. Most of the game believes CCP is favoring nullsec. Nullsec believes CCP’s favoring highsec. Everyone’s sure CCP’s been actively crapping all over them for years now. And it’s not hard to understand why.

As I said while badly channeling Ryan Reynolds there, it comes down to carrots and sticks, incentives and disincentives. For the last few years, CCP has been basically disincentivizing… everyone. Scarcity and the economic rebalance made it harder for players across the board. Ignoring faction warfare for the last… let’s see, introduced in 2008… fourteen years?!? Pretty sure that didn’t exactly give those guys the warm and fuzzies, either.

And all that time, we’ve been asking CCP ‘can we maybe finally have a little carrot in all this stick, please?’ Nobody spent 2021 asking for the so-called Jesus Feature, nobody wanted anything super-amazing. People just wanted something. And that’s what we’ve gotten, now. At least… some of us.

Getting Beat with a Carrot

The Siege Green update is definitely intended to be full of carrots. Things blow up easier! Dreads get built easier! Yay! It’s basically CCP actively looking to placate those FCs that signed onto the ‘medium cits are too tough for our poor little fleets of HACs and our capital ships’ letter. It’s an attempt to deal with ‘a large number of customers in the big groups are bored‘. Because bored customers look for something else to spend their money on. Something that will actually entertain them.

At least, I assume it is. That’s the problem I’ve been told it helps address. CCP still can’t actually articulate what the problem is. At best, they can tell us that Medium structures ‘have never quite settled into a completely satisfying position in the ecosystem’. But they can’t tell us what’s unsatisfying to CCP about the current position, and they can’t tell us what a ‘satisfying position’ would look like. I guess it’s like pornography, and they’ll know it when they see it? Or maybe they’ll know it when FCs stop bitching? So the only thing we’ve got left is that this is about addressing boredom.

Boredom… All Over Again

But there’s a problem. We’ve been here before. With this exact issue. And with damned near the same solution. Remember when Abandoned Mode was supposed to solve the ills of structure spam, and keep everyone engaged and interested? How’d that go?

I don’t think anyone would deny that there was, in fact, the predicted uptick in structures going boom. We got ourselves a quick influx of ISK from all of the things that didn’t go to asset safety, that’s for sure. Heck, the potential for ‘oh my god, how much crap spawned?’ was so huge, CCP changed things so the old Conquerable Stations could never go abandoned. Letting NOL go abandoned and blowing it up broke Singularity.

But then it ended. And everyone got bored again. The thrill passed, and it was back to just EVE Online, same as ever. What, exactly, is supposed to stop that this time?

This Time, It’s Different

It’s true. This time, it is different. When the fix for boredom was abandoned structures, those structures were, well, abandoned. They were out of fuel for at least 7 days. Nobody was using them. Now, though, all medium structures are on the menu. People use these. So people will replace these. That’s what proponents of the idea tell me, at least: these things are cheap, so people will replace them, so you can go shoot the new ones, too.

But will they? Sure, they’re cheap. Once. Replace an Astrahus once, you’re out maybe 2b. Pocket change, even for some smaller groups. Replace four of them, it’s closing in on 10b. Still not horrible, but definitely stretching what small groups in places like lowsec or Venal/Syndicate/Great Wildlands want to have to shell out.

Now do it every week.

All your medium structures in NPC Null could be blowing up every 5 days. That’s including the time it takes you to anchor the new ones. And that also means you’re getting basically no use out of them. Would you spend 48b a month for nothing? From what the small alliance guys I know have told me… neither would they.

Wait List on Top of the World

So, CCP intended Siege Green as a huge carrot. And for null blocs and structure hunters, it is. But where’s the carrot for the people getting beaten with ours? This is a big part of the problem with Siege Green. But it’s more than that. It’s also part of the problem with FanFest 2022. The carrot is ‘not yet’ (or, you know, TBD, but I already used that gag).

The carrots for the smaller groups apparently came at FanFest. The Allegiance system. Interbux. The FW revamp. Those are all ‘coming’. The next expansion, we’re told, is coming in Q4. But CCP didn’t promise that those new things would come out with that patch.

So what you end up with is the groups who feel Siege Green is shafting them get all the stick, but still no carrots. And CCP expects them to not just take it, but to be happy about it. How happy?

Join the carnage! Kick puppies! Screw those non-bloc guys who thought they were allowed to have structures!

Happy enough to not be mad when CCP makes money off their asses getting kicked, I guess.

The Masochism Tango

But why should they be? And why should the groups with the most resources and the most manpower to replace those resources get to be entertained at the consistent expense to people who have a harder time maintaining those conditions? Does it make sense that small groups should be paying more ISK to get beaten up more often?

Would any of us be happy about getting told ‘yeah, hey, your 300-man group has to shell out 50b a month so TEST isn’t bored’? If TEST is bored, let TEST pay for their entertainment. When’s the last time you forced someone else to pay you for the privilege of driving you to the movies? When’s the last time you were even dumb enough to suggest it?

But that’s what we’ve got here.

And I’m not saying these groups didn’t get into the structure game knowing the risks. Of course they knew the risks. But no-place in those risks did they sign up for having to potentially replace crap every week for no actual gain. Nothing about how CCP presents medium structures tells potential owners ‘this is a disposable thing they you should expect to not keep very long’. ‘Entry level’ doesn’t mean ‘buy them by the case, you’ll need it’.

It’s Good For You…

Is that really what ‘good for the game’ looks like? The privileged taking advantage of the smaller groups, just because they can? Sure, it’s been happening like, forever, but it’s accelerating now. And it’s accelerating at the same time as real-world price increases. So those people not only pay for the privilege of getting their ass kicked, they have to pay more to get their ass kicked worse.’

I’ve been told that the solution for those smaller groups is to band together for self-defense against the large groups. But then they’re not small groups anymore. So either they have to pay to get their asses kicked, or they have to give up the part of the game they enjoy. Ok, sure, either way, they lose the part of the game they enjoy.

Over the last few years, we’ve heard it from one part of the game or another: ‘CCP is killing our play style’. And every time, the login numbers go down. Maybe they don’t go down by the same amount as during the Blackout, but they go down. Every time they go down, EVE loses. We lose vibrancy, we lose options. We lose little tiny pieces of the game that we simply don’t ever recover.

So Where Should Priorities Be?

Pretty much everyone I talked to about this agreed on one other thing, too. They all felt CCP should not balance the game around any one group or part of space. That’s great. It really is. It means there’s broad consensus that the game is better served by a whole-game approach. Or at least a region-agnostic one. Different parts of space have different problems, of course. And those need different solutions. But it should all come together.

Turning one part of the game into the carrot for another part to chew on doesn’t help. It just pisses off those customers, and makes them more likely to leave. When CCP introduces a change that’s going to be yet another stick for a noticeable segment of their customer base, it needs to be preceded by a carrot—or at least come at the same time.

In the prep for this article, someone said to me ‘You know, we used to tell people to HTFU.’ They weren’t talking about the same people, of course, but… I agree. We used to tell people to HTFU. Then the whining came from FCs with recognizable names and suddenly HTFU’s no good.

CCP’s clearly at the point of ‘Keep Clickin‘. Let’s just hope they listen to feedback from across the whole game, before EVE’s left with another form of communication.

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