Welcome to Jester's Trek.
I'm your host, Jester. I've been an EVE Online player for about six years. One of my four mains is Ripard Teg, pictured at left. Sadly, I've succumbed to "bittervet" disease, but I'm wandering the New Eden landscape (and from time to time, the MMO landscape) in search of a cure.
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Thursday, April 28, 2011

The difficulty factor

My commentary about the PL Thundercat fit the other day drew a few wry comments from Pandemic Legion members on kugu and other forums.  My favorite described it as "charming, but sad", heh.  It also drew an absolute ton of comments on the blog itself, 23 as of the time that I'm writing this, many quite insightful.  Kamphamster, in particular, did a great job of laying down all the different factors that make PL successful in just about everything they do: their player skill and SPs, their FCs, intelligence network, tactics and theory-crafting, and fleet doctrine and consistency of ship-fittings.

It underlines a point I made in another post a week back, that I want to expand on somewhat.

Think of any video game that you've ever played, other than EVE.  Mass EffectCall of DutyStarCraft.  Even World of Warcraft.  I'll use Bioshock as my own example in this blog post, since just about everyone I know has played it.  But you can pick any other video game that you like.

When you first start playing Bioshock, you're given a wrench in game, and soon after, a very basic lightning attack.  The first creatures you come across are aggressive, stupid, and ridiculously easy to kill sub-humans called "Splicers".  You collect additional special attacks and additional weapons, including automatic weapons and shotguns.  In Bioshock, how to use these items and how to expand your character's abilities is explained to you in very clever in-game ways; in other games, you have manuals.  Your abilities make your character tougher and tougher, but the creatures that you're facing become tougher at a faster rate.  It's now a race, between the escalating difficulty of your opponents, and your ability to quickly and creatively combine the various abilities, weapons, and defenses that you've pulled together.  Before long, you're using these weapons and abilities to fight the toughest creatures in the game, Big Daddies.  The final few fights against these creatures are ridiculously tough, putting you into a situation where you are alone, having to escort an ally that is much weaker than you.  Then you are thrown into a final boss fight which is usually the toughest fight in the game, requiring all of your skills, abilities, weapons, and creativity.

It is that race between the abilities of your opponents and the ability of your in-game avatar that characterizes virtually every modern video game.  Even in games like Portal or Braid, where there are few or no external opponents, the environment itself slowly escalates in difficulty and the same race between your creativity in using your abilities, and the difficulty of the environment applies.  Video games get progressively more difficult the further into them you get.  It's a rule that we've all come to accept.

Except in EVE.

We all joke about the learning cliff in EVE, but the learning cliff exists because unlike every other video game in the known universe, EVE front-loads all of the difficulty.

In effect, EVE welcomes you to the game, hands you a wrench... and then almost immediately expects you to kill a Big Daddy with it.  Your initial few months in the game are the hardest EVE play experience you'll ever have.  The longer you play EVE, the easier the game gets.  And this applies every bit as much to EVE's PvP component as it does to its PvE component.

When most EVE players begin to get into PvP, they're usually doing it as part of an Empire corp's war-dec.  The war-dec will probably have been imposed on them by a pirate or merc corp living in Empire, and this enemy corp probably glories in preying on inexperienced Empire players.  The ship fittings available to this new PvPer are sub-optimal, if not downright awful, either because of lack of fitting skills or lack of knowledge of decent ship fits.  The FCs available to this new player are terrible, usually giving awful orders if they're giving orders at all... many Empire corp FCs freeze up mid-battle.  Their fleet doctrine is non-existent, their spy network is non-existent.  It is, in short, the most difficult PvP experience imaginable, not only compounded by the new PvPer's lack of experience, but probably creating bad habits in the new PvPer due to the lack of all of the things that Kamphamster reminds us that PL (for instance) excels at.

Our brand new PvPer and his Empire corp gets their asses kicked again and again and again, because he's facing PvP fights well outside of his skills or abilities.  The game is slowly getting easier, but it still almost impossibly hard.

Later, our newbie PvPer joins a faction warfare corp, wormhole corp, pirate corp, or the like.  In this corp, he is probably introduced to better ship fittings and tactics.  He probably gets his first experience with good FCs and decent fleet doctrine.  Things are still very difficult for him, because many of the ship-types being requested, he can't fly due to lack of SPs.  Many of the fittings for the ship types he can fly are out of his reach for the same reason, or because they are outside of his budget.  Even if he does have the ship type needed and the fitting desired, often he'll make rookie mistakes due to lack of experience.  But as he does gain experience, he starts losing the people around him.  The best FC in the corp is enticed to join Noir. or Rote Kapelle and leaves the corp.  Experienced players he was leaning on for support get disgusted with EVE and quit.

Soon, our newer PvPer is pressed into the role of being an FC himself... and fails utterly.  He lacks the skills and experience to FC properly.  Because of the departures of key personnel, his corp now lacks the proper fleet doctrines and discipline.  People are showing up to fleets bringing whatever they want.  The game is slowly getting easier, but it's still very, very hard.

Assuming our PvPer has the perseverence to stick out this ridiculously backward difficulty curve and reaches the very top of the PvP game, he'll himself be recruited by an outfit like PL.  He now has access to players as professional as himself as fleet-mates.  He has tons of great FCs to follow -- the best FCs in the game, in fact -- plus excellent ship-fittings, tactics, and fleet doctrines.  He also finally has the skill points he needs to fly all of the needed fits, and the ISK to purchase these fits.  His FCs even have access to enemy fleet doctrines, plans, and communications.

And who are the opponents of these elite PvPers?  There's no boss fight for them.  Instead, they're fighting players much worse at this game than they are, using worse fleet doctrines, worse fits, and without the discipline to be any kind of challenge at all.  And unsurprisingly, they wipe the floor repeatedly with these inferior opponents.

In short, EVE begins by handing you a wrench and telling you to kill a Big Daddy.  And ends by handing you every plasmid and heavy weapon in the game... and telling you to kill a stupid, overly aggressive Splicer.

This probably makes sense in some dark corner of Nordic Icelandic mythology somewhere.  Maybe.


  1. I think what you're describing here is what happens in every other MMO where PvP is involved. Even if player skills are less involved in the outcome of a battle, the higher level you are, the easier it is for you to kill the lower level players, and the higher level and most experienced you are, the easier it is to make money and buy the best items.

    Here with the Bioshock exemple you're comparing PvP and PvE. If you look at PvE in eve, it's not as bad as you've described it. Level 1 and 2 missions are not too difficult to complete even when you're a complete noob, but L4s require more preparation. Then you have wormholes, getting harder and harder the higher the class.

    Anyway, it makes sense to me that the better you get at an PvP online game, the easier it is for you to beat the less experienced players, and a game like eve promoting player experience rather than just how much you've grinded through levels is definitely a good thing.

  2. That's the thing, though: player experience quickly takes a back-seat to the other advantages gained over a long period of time playing the game.

    If you took a brand new, never-played-EVE-before player, bought him a toon with 10m SP, and then put him into PL or another hard-core PvP organization, he'd still be MUCH more successful than he would be otherwise despite the total lack of EVE play experience because he'd have immediate access to great FCs, ship fittings, fleet doctrines, and the like.

  3. Some very intriguing points here Ripard, I have to agree. As to see_im_useless's comment, yeah the basic premise of getting better as you are deeper into the game is fairly standard across all genres (not just MMO's) but the aspect of EVE that makes this post shine is that unlike, say WoW where you are bracketed and only fight people within a certain range of your own level, in EVE it's totally open. It is entirely possible to fight a day old player and a 6 year old player within minutes of each other.

    There's my 0.02 ISK.

  4. That's true, but only because he would benefit from the experience of his new mates. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think any elite PvP corp/alliance would recruit a noob player only because he bought a 10 or 20m SP character. And I can totally see this new player you've described get his ass kicked by some 5M SP specialized toon who knows what he's doing.

    Take the problem the other way. A new player joins a great PvP corp the first day he joins the game, because he knows their CEO irl or whatever. Do you think that after a few months he won't be able to take on some way older players who've had only little PvP experience?

    I think it depends on how you define 'success', 1v1 straight combat, small gang efficiency, blobbing, hisec wardec of noob corps? You can be succesful at wardeccing in hisec but still be a bad PvPer. Sure your SP count plays a role, but so does your wallet size and how experienced you are. Of course, beeing in a group of more experienced players helps a lot, because you can learn from them.

  5. You seem to have missed a big difference between all the PvE games you've listed that provide a nice experience curve, and EVE PvP. In EVE PvP, your opponent is not a program carefully designed and balanced to provide just the right amount of challenge, but another human mind which also wants to win. EvE PvE is balanced more or less decently: the tutorial missions teach the basics; the career mission arcs give you equipment; the introductory epic arc gives you an overview of Empire space; past that there are missions, mining, wormholes and incursions. But PvP in EVE is against other players, and there is no good way of turning that into a 'balanced' experience, short of transforming EVE into a series of cloistered arenas ranked by kill-death rations and other similar statistics.

    As far as PvP experience goes, most players who want to engage in PvP look for corporations that engage in PvP. They do not get 'sucked into' PvP by empire wardeccers.

  6. It's and interesting subject simply because it highlights the human factor that is at the core of every MMO game.

    The developers & designers can only control certain parts of the game world in which to provide a properly balanced & scaled experiance; but in order to do this is needs to be in a PvE environment.

    Other games try to create PvP balance in the form of levels so that players are aware that a level 1 players will never be able to beat a level 10; to the point where it is encouraged by the system to be a 'waste of time' to engage in those players (through lack of 'honor points' or no xp etc).

    EVE on the other hand is obviously very different and a low SP pilot can still play a pivital role in PvP engagements; essentially in EVE a level 1 players CAN take on a level 10 player and win if they know how to play... but knowing how to play is a human factor and something that no one can hope to control and if anything provides some of the best fun and the most amount of frustration.

    Imagine a new player who joins a good corp; they get a lot of advice, free ships, free isk, good FCs and they progress at the 'best possible' rate. Eventually they can participate in PvP and be effective and fun is had by all.

    Another player then joins a not so great corp; they struggle to get into the game, lose ships, isk is hard to come by and PvP is seen as the 'older kids bullying them'.

    Both players have the potential to do well, and the game provides them with everything they need to succeed; but it can't provide the human factor, the good corp, FCs and friends.

    So how does one find all these good corps, FCs & friends? Connections or just blind luck?

  7. And here's why: hyper-capitalism.

    See, it works the same way in our current RL paradigm too. The more money one has, the more ridiculously easy it is to get even more money. Those at the top of the capitalist game are competing largely with noobs who have far less money, and non-money resources to play the game with, making it ridiculously easy for the top dawgs to make even MORE money.

    See? Eve Is Real!


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