Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Few Thoughts On The Removal Of Clone Upgrade Costs

""We take quality of life in EVE seriously.  And while many of these changes are made by individual developers who are responding to player requests, this is a fully supported direction for all of EVE development.  So you can expect more of these kind of changes in the coming year, because we are questioning a lot of old truths and assumptions."

CCP Seagull, EVE Vegas 2014
Last Thursday on the o7 show, CCP revealed the elimination of the different levels of clones and the clone updating mechanic which required the payment of ISK to prevent the loss of skill points upon the death of a pod.  In effect, CCP will reduce the death penalty in EVE Online in the Rhea release on 9 December.  CCP Terminus gave three main reasons for the change.  The first is that high clone costs are a disincentive for older players to take risks and "interact" with other players.  The second is that many new players are affected because they don't know about the importance of upgrading skills (or that the mechanic exists at all) and negatively affected once they find out the hard way about the penalties of having an insufficient clone.  Finally, CCP is looking to make additional changes in what clones are, how they work, and how skill points work in general.

From the public statements available so far, the members of the Council of Stellar Management are not unanimous in their reaction to the change.  Sion Kumitomo, in an article on TheMittani.com, came out strongly in favor of the changes.  DJ FunkyBacon came out just as strongly opposed to the change on his EVE Radio show Friday night/Saturday morning.  Mike Azariah, appearing on EVE Radio's GRN Show on Sunday, stated he opposed the complete removal of clone grades but favored a more change in clone costs that would not hit veteran players as hard as currently.  And in her weekly CSM update, Sugar Kyle wrote that the removal of the mechanic was just the first step of the process; one she hopes results in the decoupling of implant clones and pods.

As a low sec carebear who putters around Minmatar factional warfare space in a one-man corp avoiding PvP as best as I can, my opinion may not matter.  Then again, when has that ever stopped me from posting?  So here's my take on the upcoming clone changes in Rhea.  Hopefully I have something new to add to the general discussion.



First, I see the current progression of skills a throwback to the level-based games CCP sought to complete against at the turn of the century.  EVE is a pre-World of Warcraft game, launching 18 months before the game that became the industry standard for success.  In the 2000-2003 period in which CCP developed EVE, games like EverQuest in the west and Lineage in the east dominated the MMORPG scene.  Having a harsh death penalty was an industry standard.  So were levels.  As CCP developed its skill based game, the developers inserted a type of character level: the medical clone.  The longer a player subscribes, the higher in rank a player's clone attains.  Eleven years after launch, I don't think anyone who's played the game more than a few months thinks that way, but that's what the system looks like to me as I try to look at EVE through a new player's eyes.  I think some new players may look at the clone purchase screen and believe he can never catch up to veterans.  Perhaps eliminating clone grades will get new players to focus on the fact they can catch up to long term veterans in relevant skills for a ship and not worry about overall skills.

Continuing on that line of thought, the clone grade system is part of the theme park game design we sometimes still see in EVE.  Like the absence of 1/10 and 2/10 complexes spawning in low sec until recently, clone grades assume that players will progress along a track of new players in high sec until they eventually grow up and head to null sec where the real profits lie.  No offense to those living in w-space, but I'm referring back to a period years before the introduction of wormholes.

In a level-based theme park game, the developers need gold sinks, so they make the death penalty more and more expensive.  WoW is a good example of the mechanic.  The penalty for death, in addition to a ghost run, is a 10% reduction in the durability of a character's gear.  If a player dies enough, the gear is useless until repaired.  The cost of repairs for a level 30 character is much less than the cost of repairs for a level 90 character engaged in end game raiding.  The game developers scale the cost of the repairs to the ability of a player to acquire in-game wealth.

The pre-Rhea clone grade system works basically the same way.  CCP assumed that the longer a person played EVE, the greater their ability to generate ISK.  But that is where the similarities between the average fantasy MMORPG and EVE end, at least for this example.  Whereas a paladin in WoW basically wears the same type of gear from level 1 to the level cap and just gains better stats the higher the level of the gear, in EVE a player's playstyle is often determined by the type of ship flown.  Also, a player may not want to fly battleships in order to run level 4 missions.  Instead, perhaps our player likes flying smaller, quicker ships and specializes in PvP.  During all of the discussion about the clone change, I've read and heard some players say that they don't want to fly smaller ships when the cost of their clone is so much more than the value of the ship.  Others say that they will fly the smaller ships, just not on a regular basis.  Those sentiments are the mechanics of the game pulling players along a track that the player may not want to ride.

An important game mechanics change that CCP instituted last week affected the practice of pod jumping.  Before the Phoebe release, players could quickly move around the EVE universe by either self-destructing their pods or having someone shoot their pods.  In that environment, a "death tax" made sense as an attempt to limit players from transporting all over the game.  Having grades of clones helped to give newer players the same ability to jump around the universe as veteran players, assuming everyone involved did not have implants.  But with the changes to long distance travel in Phoebe, the need for a tiered death tax greatly diminished.

Of course, no discussion of the clone change is complete without addressing the issue of risk.  Yes, by removing the clone upgrade mechanic, a player no longer risks that he or she will lose skill points by forgetting to upgrade his or her clone.  Since the change means that the only way a player can lose skill points once Rhea goes live is to lose a strategic cruiser, does that make EVE a more forgiving game?  Once again, yes.

Now, for the hard follow-up question.  Is the player who loses skill points doing so due to a good or a bad game mechanic?  I would argue, the player lost the skill points to a bad game mechanic.  Upgrading a clone isn't really a choice.  The only reason for not upgrading a clone is because the player either didn't plan ahead and forgot that the clone had surpassed the skill point limit for the existing clone, or the pilot quickly reshipped in the heat of battle and forgot to execute a few mouse clicks.

In principle, I am not opposed to having game mechanics that result in skill point losses.  Let me use an example from another game I tried, Lineage II.  The Korean import has as part of the game's death penalty experience point loss.  Die enough, and a toon in Lineage II can even lose a level.  I know, because I experienced that myself.  When that occurred, I needed to grind up the experience again so I could make a second attempt to complete the encounter in which I was killed.  Losing experience points because I'm bad at a game doesn't bother me much.  Losing skill points because I forgot to push the proper papers around in the medical station?  I call that bad game design.

I should add that I like CCP's use of skill point loss as a drawback of using tech 3 strategic cruisers.  The SP loss is limited to one of five possible skills that only apply to the use of strategic cruisers.  The player can determine how high to train each of the skills in order to limit the point loss in the case of defeat.  In other words, the player gets to choose whether to risk losing skill points, and if so, how many skill points to lose.  The more skill points the player risks, the better the ship performs.  Providing players with those types of meaningful choices are marks of good game design.

An interesting argument I heard over the weekend was that, after the clone upgrade costs are removed, that a player who flies around in a clone without implants is risking nothing.  Perhaps if the player is just traveling in a pod, a rookie ship, or even a basic shuttle.  But apart from industrialists and traders in high sec, how much time do players really spend performing that type of travel?  I don't have any statistics from CCP, but my educated guess is: not much.

Given that hypothesis, my question is: is a pilot flying a clean clone really not risking anything?  I think the answer is no, because the pilot is still risking his ship.  By flying with a clean clone, a pilot is obeying the number one rule in EVE Online, "Don't fly what you cannot afford to lose."  Of course, flying with a clean clone means the player is flying a less capable ship than the pilot who flies with a head full of skill hardwirings.  Once again, we come up with a meaningful choice involving risk vs reward.  Does a player go cheap and hope for the best, or does the player buy an expensive set of implants and have a better chance of winning?  Given that all other factors are even, the smart money always bets on the pilot with a head full of Snakes over one in a clean clone.

Before I conclude, I have a point I want to bring up that, as a resident of low sec, is irritating me about the removal of the clone upgrade costs.  Neither CCP or the CSM, from everything I've read and listened to, have addressed that fact removing the clone upgrade costs also removes one of the benefits of system control in factional warfare.  Currently, control of a faction warfare system provides three bonuses to stations: a reduction to all existing station facility pricing, discounted broker fees for market orders and contracts, and a reduction to the costs of medical clones.  Perhaps the answer is buried under the infamous NDA, but I'd really like to know if CCP intends to replace the medical clone benefit with a new benefit.  Or are stations in factional warfare systems only going to receive two benefits instead of three starting in Rhea?

Finally, I just want to add that CCP plans on making additional changes to clone and pod mechanics.  Since the changes are not complete, I think judging what we've seen so far (nerfing the pod express and removing clone upgrade costs) is a little premature.  But if CCP continues to prune out no-thought game mechanics and add content with meaningful choices that requires thought, then I have hope that the end result is something most players will approve.

5 comments:

  1. Level headed. Thorough. Perceptive. And relevant critique of underdiscussed consequence.

    You are a God among men Nozy/Noizy. Don’t ever stop playing Eve.

    ReplyDelete
  2. ...questioning a lot of old truths and
    assumptions."
    and ...
    if CCP continues to prune out no-thought game mechanics and add content
    with meaningful choices that requires thought, then I have hope that the
    end result is something most players will approve.


    Well, so far, so good... Hear! Hear!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I will be curious to see if attribute implants feature in the future of pod changes? Time will tell.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's not a "death" penalty when no one dies. The loss of SP could maybe, maybe be rationalized by the deletion of one's T3 cruiser, if one pretended that weeks of memories were also lost, but the clone SP loss never made a lick of sense. It was a mechanic that tried to roar "HTFU" but instead whimpered "dumb."

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is has always been a badly designed feature of the game and I'm glad to see it is going to go. It has proven, time and time again, to do nothing but disincentivize people from playing the game.

    Older players become more risk-adverse - less likely to fly smaller, more vulnerable ships and/or to put themselves in situations where they might get podded. Newer players accidentally lose a week or month of training, due to forgetting to replace or upgrade the clone, and quit out of disgust.

    No one benefits from the SP loss or ISK loss from killing a clone, so what's the point? It would be a completely different matter if the person who got the pod kill saw some sort of proportional reward - in either SP or ISK. As it stands now, it is just risk without any reward.

    ReplyDelete