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The Blackout: Cruel But Fair?

August 6, 2019

By Twilight Winter

“More explosions,” the mantra is often repeated but rarely thought about beyond its surface attractiveness.

For the most part, I agree with the sentiment. I’ve been in quite a few organizations with various outlooks on the game, from more entrenched groups like CVA and Goons which are big on industry, to completely nomadic groups with no in-corp krabbing at all like Total Mayhem and my newly founded corp, Katothen. If there’s one thing I’ve consistently done in the game, it’s make explosions happen; sometimes the enemy explodes, and sometimes I do, but usually something ends up exploding. CCP Falcon, in a recent bumper episode of Talking in Stations, actually summed up what the majority of EVE players are looking for, in my opinion, and that’s interactions which are “cruel but fair”.

At first, that might sound like a bit of an oxymoron, how can something be cruel and fair? In single-player videogaming, this isn’t a new concept. Dark Souls is a game which is both cruel and fair; player mistakes are punished with huge damage from bosses and even regular enemies, but with perseverance and critical deduction, it’s possible to beat the game without many deaths. By contrast, I Wanna Be The Boshy is cruel and unfair; many deaths aren’t anything the player could have prevented, enemies fly across the screen with no forewarning, things which look like powerups are actually instant death traps. The game doesn’t reward deduction or preparation, and the only way to beat it is to memorize the predictable patterns and dodge them from memory.

In an MMO like EVE Online, being fair is even more important than in a pattern-based single player game, because it’s impossible to memorize patterns when there are none. Players aren’t AIs, they innovate and they react on the fly, and thus the ability to critically analyze situations and form strategies without first being ‘bullshitted’ ala Boshy is essential. More explosions are good, as long as they’re a reward for playing more coherently than the opponent. The reward must be worthy of the effort, and without the effort, there should be none.

Prior to the blackout, the effort of a hunter was disproportionately higher than the reward. A hunter was expected to understand the use of third party tools like Dotlan and zKillboard, to meticulously plan her route around ratting deltas and industrial indexes but without trapping herself in a pipe, to be able to form a proper fleet composition with a mix of tackle and damage, to correctly use d-scan and sometimes combat probes to find her target, to land on grid with her target, to get her target tackled and finally to bring her target down. The prey, by contrast, was expected simply to be somewhere near the keyboard and watching local. If a hostile entered the system, he could either warp away before the hostile could get him scanned, or light a cyno and bring in a friendly supercapital fleet (not a pre-formed combat fleet, but ratters rushing to his aid). Simply not being AFK countered any level of effort from a hunting party. In fact, with the use of tools like Near2, even AFK ratters could survive hunting parties if they were within earshot of their computer.

So, what makes an interaction cruel but fair? If we’re going to grade the blackout on having accomplished the goal, we’re going to need some criteria upon which to judge its success. I propose the following:

  1. Player mistakes and laziness are punished harshly, often with the loss of a ship;
  2. Players have the tools available to them to avoid these losses;
  3. Generally, counterplay exists on both sides of the equation such that the players who make better decisions emerge victorious.

I think it’s important to clarify points 2 and 3 before I continue. Tools available don’t just refer to on-grid options once an engagement starts, but to fleet composition, fittings, cargo, d-scan, intel channels, etc (everything a player reasonably has access to), and ’emerge victorious’ doesn’t necessarily mean winning a fight, it can just mean getting out alive before being caught.

In the majority of cases, what the blackout has done is made life a lot more difficult for AFK players and botters in subcap ratting and mining ships; previous VNI botting hotspots like Branch have seen their ratting statistics fall spectacularly and their ADMs plummet. This was, I believe, the primary intention of the change. When dealing with roaming nanogangs, a player can simply replace his use of local with the directional scanner, and other than a slightly higher requirement in actions per minute, he is largely unaffected by the change.

Another positive change which has been a direct result of the blackout is the loss of perfect information. As my colleague, Seraph IX Basarab, wrote in his open letter:

The point of local being delayed is to cause more “fog of war.” More of that results in more random content creating encounters. The nature of people is that if they know they do not have an advantage, they will not engage. Local provides a level of intel that gives all sides too much information allowing them to make the cautious decision limiting conflict. If people don’t know, they’re more likely to give you Asakai and B-R.

I haven’t run the statistics on small skirmishes, but anecdotally I’ve had a number of fights which I don’t imagine would have happened if Local existed. Some ended well, others didn’t. A greater number of gangs roaming around nullsec has brought a new life to the game, with new dangers but also new opportunities. Gone are the days when the only way to get a fight was to poke the local krabs and hope to haze the response fleet, now you can find other predators looking for the same targets and brawl with each other.

Having said that, I don’t think the blackout is without its faults.

ADMs in the regions with supercapital umbrellas (Delve, Malpais/Kalevala, Esoteria, and Detorid) are virtually untouched by the change, and this may encourage PvE-oriented players to consolidate even further into the major power blocs whilst the game would benefit far more from them spreading out into more alliances and a greater area of space. A solution to this problem which I’ve suggested and seen others suggest is to add some kind of concept of mineral scarcity; perhaps an inverse correlation between military indexes and ratting sites (such that the less populated, and thus lower indexed systems, have the best ratting available) and between industrial indexes and rare ores would be a solution: a miner can either choose to mind endless Dark Ochre under a supercapital umbrella or travel into more dangerous space for more valuable resources.

Cloaky ships, combat recons, and especially cloaky campers, are far more difficult to counter in blackout conditions. Short of having an alt on every gate downtime to downtime (and even that doesn’t work if they logged out in the system), you now not only have no way to catch and kill cloaky campers, but also no way to work out where they are or who they are. Whilst previously, a competent pilot could see the cloaky camper in local, work out her play hours and work around her, now this information is in many cases impossible to deduce. Black ops ships, which were already strong, have been given a significant boost with no accompanying additional requirements upon the hunters or the blops pilots. Additionally, supercapital umbrellas are still as oppressive as ever, and the sight of 10 titans on grid for your 15 cruiser gang is no less common.

The latter issues really come down to an issue which has long been pressed on the usual sites: the power of instant and very difficult to scout escalation via a cyno. Short of a major rework to the cyno mechanics, I can’t really see a way to improve this and make it more interactive, but it’s worth talking about why it’s a problem. In combat without jump drives, the following rules apply:

  1. Generally, to be able to catch you, I need to be faster (on grid and/or in warp) than you;
  2. If I’m faster than you, the chances are you can kill me given long enough;
  3. I have to not only be able to catch you, but help my fleet to land on you;
  4. To help my fleet land on you, I probably have to be within ~12km of you to land webs.

In other words, I am on a severe timer in which I have to get on top of you, get you tackled, get my fleet into the system (often multiple jumps, because otherwise they’ll be scouted), and get them on top of you. Many kills don’t happen because the tackle had to warp off or straight up died to the much larger and more powerful ship which it caught. You also had, via your intel channels, some knowledge that my fleet was moving around and some idea what its composition is. Your alliance can choose to bait me by putting tackle on your ship, it can counter-form to kill my fleet and meet us en route (or on grid with the tackled ship); or you could just warp off when I appear on d-scan or on intel. All in all, there is a decent level of counterplay here between the hunter and the prey which leads to rewarding gameplay.

A cyno changes all of this: you don’t see my black ops fleet on intel because they aren’t moving around the region, you might see a single T3C or a Prospect (assuming I didn’t log on cloaked in the system before you got on). My fleet doesn’t need help landing on you, it has battleship range, MJDs, and grapplers. I don’t need to hold you for multiple jumps, I can just click one button and put an entire fleet on you at 0km. Gone is the counter-forming, the intel trading, the game of cat and mouse. Your only realistic counter is to light your own cyno, or try to get off grid before I lock you. This was fairly lacking in interactivity before the blackout, but now you realistically have zero counterplay. I have all the time in the world to scout the area, and you have no idea what I can drop or where I am. Similarly, defensive cynos create uninteresting combat situations. The speed and maneuverability aspect of the game is again replaced by mindless AOE effects and 14km/s fighters. Realistically my only counterplay is to drop a Mobile Cynosural Inhibitor. If you’re AFK for a minute, you die; if not, you live.

With regards to cloaky cynos, I’d suggest some kind of structure or module which can detect any ship with a cyno fitted if they stay in system for too long. I’m not sure on the time, but I’d want it to be able to counter cloaky camping without affecting blops cynos passing through.

Capital and supercapital ships definitely have their place in the game, but without some kind of delay to get on grid or some kind of maneuverable counterplay like heavy bombers, they have the effect of creating safe zones in which hostile gangs short of a dread bomb can’t operate (and even those can’t operate in Malpais or Kalevala, where there’s no NPC space) and making subcapitals obsolete. What this means is that newer players, and newer FCs, lose a massive opportunity for home defense, and hunting groups lose a lot of kills even when they’ve clearly outplayed their targets. Worse, it encourages players to join the biggest established groups which already have supercap umbrellas, which feeds into the blue doughnut which has made nullsec so stale. The last thing EVE needs is more people in Imperium, Legacy, PanFam, and WinterCo.

Protestors will argue, of course, that the effort of having built a supercapital fleet and set up their space to benefit from great anomolies was a great effort, a statement which I’m not going to disagree with, but that effort didn’t fall on the individual caught in the Giant Asteroid Cluster, and may well have been put in before he even joined the alliance. In fact, the problem with these kind of front-loaded investments in safety is that they’re incredibly hard to catch up with, as any new industrialist has little incentive to join an alliance without an established supercapital umbrella, and without industrialists, it’s near impossible for those alliances to establish their own supercapital umbrellas.

The stagnant state of nullsec is a direct and obvious consequence of the larger blocs growing their share of the player base at the expense of smaller organizations. When you add together The Imperium and Legacy Coalition, two groups which share a NATO-like defensive treaty which prevents any meaningful action against one without the involvement of the other, you’re at over 50% of sov null residents. For as long as this megacoalition remains intact, Eve will remain stagnant, and for as long as there’s no incentive to join smaller startup alliances over the established groups, it’s likely to remain.

And this is really where the blackout hasn’t done enough. It hasn’t encouraged people to create more alliances, have more wars, and populate more of nullsec. I’d keep it in place because I think fog of war is a positive change and it lays the pain on the botters and “bot-aspirants”, as CODE would call them, but there are a lot more changes needed, especially with regards to cloaky camping, cyno mechanics and mineral/ratting anomoly density, in order to improve EVE and make meaningful explosions happen again.