Monday, May 23, 2016

Will PvE Blossom In 2017?

Sometimes I wonder if I follow what happens outside EVE way too much. One of those times occurred at Fanfest this year at the end of the first day of the convention. A group of us sat around drinking and discussing our impressions of the keynotes. I think most of us agreed that the presentations were not filled with exciting stuff. CCP Ghost's presentation (and brain) was a highlight that teased fascinating possibilities for the future. Otherwise, I thought the first day was rather pedestrian.

Neville Smit looked at the day and took the lack of new features one step further. Where was the content for high sec? My feeling at the time was that just because CCP did not announce something at Fanfest didn't mean content wasn't coming in the future. Just not the short-term future.

But that's all I had, a feeling.  I've heard that intuition is a subconscious collation of facts. So while Neville wrote his "Occupy New Eden" manifesto at the beginning of May, I searched for indications that the road map already included those elements.

First, I feel like I must address the elephant in the room, CCP Seagull's rampant Torfiphobia. Named after CCP Creative Director Torfi Frans Olafsson, Torfiphobia is the fear of a game designer to overpromise features, services, and other products to a game's player base. She displayed her case of Torfiphobia in a Reddit AMA she held in July 2014:
"As I go through the comments again, I just want to add something about why I am not going into specifics a lot. There are two main reasons:

"One is that CCP has a history of promising things and then not delivering what was promised. I am not going to be a part of that pattern, so I am very careful to not put specifics out there when I am not actually talking about things that are far enough into development that I know what they are, and that we are going to ship them. For example, I mentioned that we are working on properly sharable overviews, because it is both something that I was part of initiating, and something CCP Karkur and her team has in a state far enough that I am confident we will ship this actually soon, without the (tm). (When it comes to player built stargates, they represent a vision, not a specific implementation of how that will work - those specifics will come when we get to actually developing that part of the vision.)

"The other reason is that I am not going to sign team members up for designs and work - because making changes to EVE is complex and unless you work in one of our teams that have programmers, designers, testers, art, sound - then you can have all the ideas you like for perfect solutions, that may then not even be possible because of design aspects or technical aspects that don't come up until you sit down and actually work through the problem. Executive Producer is a management position that is there to drive the game forward by creating and serving the organization that makes it - not to design it in detail. If I did, I'd be a terrible Executive Producer.

"Now, I of course understand that this gets frustrating, especially with burning topics like null sec and sov being discussed - and I get frustrated too because I can see how many answers sound too vague and like empty promises of "someday maybe" - but the fact that I am not talking about specifics does not mean that we as a team that makes EVE Online don't have specifics or won't do anything. If anything, it could be seen as a good sign that the Executive Producer for EVE does not micromanage teams or promise certain fixes without knowing they are possible to deliver."
Another reason for the lack of specifics about the future of EVE Online is the convention schedule. Whereas many game companies may have one fan convention a year, CCP runs two: EVE Fanfest in Reykjavik and EVE Vegas in Las Vegas. Looked at from one angle, holding two conventions makes sense. With the change from a two-expansions a year to a release once every five week release cycle, CCP's PR department lost a natural hook for promoting EVE. The two conventions, usually held six months apart, give game journalists greater access both developers and fans. Players, particularly in North America, who normally could not afford to fly to Iceland may have an easier time getting to Las Vegas for a weekend.

Of course, such a strategy does require a change in the content for Fanfest. Prior to 2015, Fanfest provided players a look at the direction for the development of the game over the next year. Now Fanfest limits the news looking out to six months so as to allow EVE Vegas a chance to shine. Also, players attending a convention expect to hear the latest updates, even with the attraction of Las Vegas surrounding them. While I understand the rationale, I do hope that CCP provides a little more in the way of developer presentations at Fanfest in 2017.

But enough about why CCP is not revealing it's future plans. What evidence do I have that CCP will not spend the next year or two just working on null sec content? Let's look at the first point of Neville's manifesto, an improved new player experience. Yes, I know that Neville wrote his post after listening to CCP Ghost's Fanfest presentation. But with as many times as CCP has modified and improved the NPE over the years, looking at CCP's design goals is still a good idea.

I included CCP Ghost's section of the Fanfest presentation above, but I transcribed a four minute segment near the end that I think encapsulates his vision:
" do we utilize the awesome mechanics, the rich backstory of the game, and the vibrant player community to help more people enjoy this ultimate gaming experience? I believe that the answer to this is immersive experiences that provide meaningful gameplay plateau and we deliver them ASAP.

"This brings us to emotions. Emotions are the ultimate behavioral driver. Once we start experiencing positive emotions within our virtual realm, we have started to care, and build a ground for immersion.

"A powerful tool to bring people quickly to a state of caring are narratives and stories. The brain is optimized to store information through stories. People love putting themselves in a storyline that they can affect, and naturally this is a primary game design principles. You guys can do this because you create your own stories, but you understand the mechanics, the UI, and the metrics to do it. We need to teach people that. 

"So what I am proposing is that we assist new players into immersion. So instead of feeling overwhelmed with complexity to the point of leaving, they create their own sagas, even before they fully understand the instruments, within a framework that is always manageable enough to maintain the state of flow. 

"The obvious narrative tool for this are the empires. The EVE empires already have a rich backstory, they already have majestic fleets, and they are optimally structured in the game to give new players cool stories. 

"So envision this. When you invite a friend to try out EVE Online in the dim hope he will one day fly alongside you in a massively well-plotted scheme to take down an enemy citadel, instead of spending the first couple of days as his emergency help line where you are basically acting as his tutorial, he gets to tell you about his personal journey of mastery that he's taking whilst he's learning the game. He gets to tell you how he is being introduced into the incredibly interesting backstory of the game and how he's helping his chosen empire with crucial missions in the war effort, putting his stamp on the universe. His actions are laced with meaning, so he cannot wait to dive further into the game, unravelling his narrative and picking up mechanics and necessary skills along the way. And surely he's becoming a well-trained, well-fletched capsuleer that you can soon invite to your current corporation in a state where you feel good on having him on-board, but that he feels ready to come on-board with a story of his own. Not only that, but there are more recruits than ever coming in like this." 
Having ideas is fine; the issue is if the concepts become reality. My hope is that we get an update at EVE Vegas on the progress of the effort to keep new players around longer than two hours.

The second item on Neville's list, improved PvE, was a bit of a surprise for me. Not that CCP does not need to improve the content, but that he doesn't see signs of CCP wanting to improve that aspect of the game. Of course, the disconnect could come from the fact that I no longer see Fanfest as THE place to get the official word on development plans anymore.

Finding news about CCP's PvE development ideas is a bit of a challenge since those tend to slide under the radar. For example, CCP Affinity's PvE roundtable session was a last minute addition to the schedule and thus lightly attended. Still, the idea that NPCs scurrying about like Sims conducting their own business and reacting to players based on their standings is one I would love to see implemented. In the past I watched Circadian Seekers wander about a system, remembering not to attack them and call down the wrath of a Drifter battleship. What type of universe would we have if all the NPCs acted in that way?

Another piece of news on the PvE front that came out of EVE Vegas was the creation of procedurally generated missions and dungeons. Years ago I heard that CCP needed to build tools to create mission dungeons as each existing site was crafted by hand. Last week MassivelyOP published an interview with CCP Affinity and CCP Burger stating that work continues on the tools to create missions and dungeons.

The MassivelyOP interview also revealed that CCP now has two teams working on PvE. Team Astro Sparkle, which will create live content that may only run on Tranquility for a limited time. As CCP Affinity stated:
"We want to focus more on putting in stuff that matters to the narrative in the here and now, because EVE is a living work of science fiction and you can’t have that without the living part. We have to keep the narrative going and we don’t want to just sit in a room coming up with a long storyline for EVE and pushing it out via news articles. We want players to see it all happening in-game and we want them to be able to influence it, and if they can’t influence it then why are we doing it?"
CCP Burger heads up the new PvE group, Team Phenomenon. CCP Burger's team will focus on to "make more dynamic content that uses local parameters to react to the universe and what’s going on." As part of that effort, Team Phenomenon will focus on how the developers create content as well as different uses for the AI. Players have already seen some of the work on the AI on Tranquility. CCP Burger told the interviewer:
"It’s amazing to me the leap that the AI has taken in the past year. What was really exciting in the development of the AI is how it was developed was really interesting. The drifters were kind of a test-bed for the new AI, so they were almost tested Live and we got feedback kind of live. I think it’s a little slower way to develop stuff like AI but it’s a very healthy way to develop it and we can try it and get feedback."
Creating and tracking a list of desired features like Neville did at the beginning of the year is a useful exercise. Having something to point to when criticising at least let's CCP know what the complaints are about. But I think CCP is working towards improving the PvE experience in EVE. CCP Seagull's raging case of Torfiphobia may keep the announcements about the developers' progress out of major events like Fanfest, but I'm hopeful that the work that CCP Ghost, Team Astral Sparkle, and Team Phenomenon do this year will pay big dividends in 2017.

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