Factional Warfare finally not just vaporware? (Trammel/Fellucca)

I remember to have read not long ago, somewhere I can’t track again, a critics about Eve-Online, saying that when you spent a year developing a graphical upgrade and now your bigger project is about an avatar system that is only going to be used for social purposes, then it’s rather clear that your aim isn’t to enhance the gameplay but just to make the dress prettier.

Now if someone can remember the source I would be immensely grateful, so I can quote it.

I was noticing that the launch of the graphical upgrade in December lead to a predictable behavior. If you look at the server activity you can notice that there was a bump up in the number of players that lasted about three months, and now the curve, for the first time in a long time, is seeing a consistent, progressive dip.

I have no idea what goes on inside the game and why the player activity is decreasing so sharply, but my guess is that this is the direct consequence of the game development strategy. Just working on the surface of the game (the graphic) means that you get good short term results, but once the novelty is over the players who came back (or joined) to check the shiney will just leave again. I am one of them.

Eve-Online didn’t reach its maximum potential. But it did reach the topmost *exposition* it could aspire. What does this mean? That the game won’t benefit anymore for a better presentations to lure in new players. Months and years ago the game needed all the exposition it could get, because there were a whole lot of players who didn’t know the game and didn’t know it was a good and special one, deserving consideration. But now the potential reach is tapped and if CCP wants to grab even more subscribers they have to change their strategy: no more trying to publicize their game and improve just its presentation, but trying to aim for those players that are warded off by Eve design, and who don’t find the core of the game (the deeper layers and interactions between players) accessible. I’m again one of them.

I subscribed again in December to check the new shineys, and shortly after canceled again because the perspective of running again a bunch of dull, repetitive missions to grind money and standings didn’t appeal me at all. It simply means that the kind of gameplay that I saw within my reach wasn’t worth my time. And that I didn’t have the concrete competence and expectation to move away from that dullness and toward more interesting and compelling game.

This is firstly and foremost my incompetence at getting hooked in the community and the deeper layers of the game. But it’s also a flaw of the game that wasn’t able to ferry me (or provide the means) to that part of the game. It left me alone, in space. In the absolute, frightening loneliness that the immense space represents. Alone and doing grindy, aimless missions dressed up as a pretty screensaver mixed with an Excel spreadsheet.

If this was just a personal case then it wouldn’t be worth consideration, but my idea is that it’s instead an enormously widespread situation that not only is relevant, but that I believe it’s decisive to the future and growth of the game. And also with a higher, important task for the whole MMO development industry: demonstrate that PvP games with layers of complexity can be both extremely popular and accessible to the masses without sacrificing that complexity, but building on it and taking advantage of it.

The keys to all this lies in the “Factional Warfare”. I discussed already at length the possibilities of this system and the important point is that it plugs in the game a junction ring between the dull PvE game all the players see when they begin playing, and the more complex PvP game and player-driven gameplay.

Eve-Online’s future depends on that junction ring. The possibility to move players toward more interesting gameplay, to showcase better its qualities, to offer stronger hooks so that the players are motivated to stay and continue to p(l)ay. Something exciting. Goals to achieve.

Or: directed gameplay offering, but not forcing, patterns to follow inside a freeform game. It’s not an easy task to achieve, but it is possible and, in particular, worth it. Both for the concrete success and long term profitability of the game AND showing the whole game industry that it can be done.

In my mind, concretely, this takes the shape (or the example of many possible shapes following a similar pattern or model) of a military career. Not anymore just disconnected, solo missions. But a more fleshed out system where you get medals, gain new ranks, get access to specific, “leased” equipment. Hooks, rewards. Something players can desire and look forward to. Both short and long term objectives that keep players hooked to the game.

My “ideal” game that I described in the past had a lot of this: from a side you have what Eve already has, a complex structure of player-driven organizations that take control and manage parts of the game and resources, from the other a system-driven factional structure that puts all the new players, RIGHT AWAY, together in an NPC/system driven faction (or factions as Eve already has four NPC empires).

This scares a lot of players and CCP itself because they fear that this major shift can destroy the first layer and lose many players that like the game as it is now. It’s a well founded worry but that can be overcome if the system is well designed. The goal is to not introduce one layer at the expense of the other, but making the two interact, one orbiting around the other. And, in a later stage, when the new system is well-oiled, link directly the two so that the current corps can use the new possibilities within their own independent space.

Risky and ambitious, sure. But worth it if there’s the possibility to advance the whole game industry and really innovate toward something valuable: accessibility and depth.

In short the Factional Warfare should provide an almost linear pattern that clueless players can follow. A “career” not in the sense of class, but a linear path with goals and rewards. Showing the players the path, leading them to the next step. Clearly defined so that you don’t get lost. With an UI panel dedicate to it where you can track your own stats and progress clearly, showing what to do next.

So: a linear path very similar to those in other popular and simpler games, but then modular and hooked to the other layer: the factional warfare. Where the efforts of those players are collected and then have visible outcomes on the way the four NPC empires develop, expand or shrink. Dynamically. In the same way players and corps fight each other in zero security space, the NPC driven empires should battle each other and offer a similar, more directed, layer. With a mix of generated missions, both PvE and PvP, inside zones working like PvP battlegrounds, BUT PERSISTENT. And as controlled environments where those who enters share the same condition (a similar level of equipment that can be chosen between various possibilities/sets offered). So matching the fun and depth of factional PvP with the accessibility of the system that allows everyone to jump in and have fun.

The “sandbox” game shouldn’t be the antithesis to the linear one. It should be instead a complex environment where both linear and freeform patterns can coexist. Helping the players to choose the one they like better, or move more easily from one to the other, and back again as they wish.

The risk isn’t about removing parts of the game that the current players enjoy. The risk is about offering alternatives that some players may like better. This isn’t a bad thing at all (but may bring back memories of the Fellucca/Trammel separation). It may change the way the game is shaped, but it’s more important to rise the bar and do something ambitious (and motivated), than simply be conservative. Then observe what happens and, if things look too unbalanced, work to give the other part of the game new exciting tools and possibilities. Raising the bar, pushing things forward while paying attention and make the changes that are needed.

I talk about this because after a very, very long silence they are starting to talk about this again.

So, we have this expansion coming out this summer called Empyrean Age. It’s going to be pretty neat, and it’s going to include this thing called Factional Warfare, which is a feature we’ve been talking about for a fair while now and is generally regarded as something of a big deal. Over the course of the next week or so I’m going to thrash out the fundamentals of the entire design in a series of blogs, starting with this one.

This summer? I wouldn’t count on it considering the past experiences.

Their goal is not far from the ones I’ve set a while ago while commenting the game and that I repeated here:

There are a lot of things that Factional Warfare could be. What it is, right now, is in its most basic form a gameplay bridge from high sec to null sec – from the safety of Empire to the wild lands of Alliance space. High sec and null sec have very differing communities of players with very divergent play styles, and while moving from one to the other is obviously possible, it’s harder than it should be.

Factional Warfare provides a halfway house for players from Empire to get into the sandbox at the shallow end. It serves other functions too, for other types of player, but this is its primary function.

The core gameplay element of Factional Warfare is small-scale PvP combat. We believe that rounding up your posse, rolling out into contested space and having a healthy exchange of opinions and weapons fire with your sworn enemies is fun. Factional Warfare is designed to make this kind of experience accessible, with low entry requirements and a target-rich environment.

Underline mine, as I can’t stress enough that a core concept of PvP is the convergence more than the open wide spaces. Players need to know clearly where to go, what their goals and rewards are, and be able to jump in at any time.

What I ask may sound like exact copy of WoW’s PvP. The difference is that this system should fix the two parts that WoW fucked: social cooperation and persistence. So that those battles will be meaningful, so that the goals can be shared and players feel part of a greater cause, and so that they can organize together and see the outcome of their efforts.

Something that joins the complexity of Eve-Online, with accessibility and compelling gameplay.

Give us true battlegrounds and warfare, from small scale to epic. Not the fake paintball of WoW. One model doesn’t necessarily contradicts the other, and it is possible to take the best from both.

And hire some designers and programmers, instead of just more and more artists.

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