CCP, the developers of the famously complicated space MMO Eve Online, have taken a new approach to their updates in recent months. They've split each year into three-month 'quadrants', during which they'll release smaller, more regular features and changes along a common theme - not unlike 'seasons' as used by many other online games.
The first of these quadrants, titled Fight Or Flight, began this January, and the last part of it, Loyalty to Lowsec, goes live today.
But what is a Loyalty To Lowsec? I sat down at a polite distance with Scott Rhodes and Joshua Bayer, Producer and Senior Games Designer respectively, to find out.
Bayer tells me that the Loyalty To Lowsec update will primarily bring improvements to factional warfare, one of the main features players engage with in low security space, and one that the playerbase has requested changes to for some time. There'll also be short term events to celebrate and shake up lowsec. From release day to the 6th of April, everyone's warp speed will be increased in lowsec (particularly battleships, which can otherwise get the runaround from smaller ships) and blowing up other players there will earn bigger rewards, as they'll drop a greater share of their precious loot.
"Lowsec" is shorthand for any star system designated by the game as not secure enough to be held by powerful NPC forces (highsec), nor wild enough for player alliances to build and fully claim as territory (nullsec). They've long been dangerous areas, rife with gankers and trouble makers. It's fitting then, that like the rest of this quadrant, today's update is very much focused on PvP combat. But I'm curious what specifically they're trying to achieve with this update.
"At Eve Vegas last year we talked about a lot of areas of the game that we were really keen to give a bit of revitalisation to. Faction warfare was one of them," says Rhodes. Players have been asking for a long time that faction warfare gets some attention, which aligns with what I noticed in game a few years ago.
The basic idea of faction warfare is that two of Eve's main story factions (the plot-specific ones you choose from when creating a character, as opposed to player-built organisations) are at war with the other two. Players who opt to join this war will go to specific areas and fight over static complices to decide who's winning the war, gaining loyalty points that can be exchanged for rare items in addition to loot and prestige.
I never got into faction warfare myself, but it was always tempting, something I almost got into. It was great idea in need of some kind of shakeup. Rhodes confirms this: "We finally took the time to go through some of that feedback and make the most strategical changes we could. We think they're really going to make PvP much more valuable and rewarding in factional warfare, as well as just really fun. We want to get everybody there again."
This year's updates so far struck me as a bit more aimed at established players, but I've always interpreted factional warfare as something of a bridge from starting out in Eve towards a move into the more demanding PvP - a lower stakes, less daunting sytem than the free-for-all ambushes and huge fleet battles Eve is famous for. It turns out I'm partly mistaken.
"It's definitely easier to get into, and lower stakes than some of the large fleet combat that you have to join organisations to be a part of", says Bayer. "One of the great benefits of FW is that you can hop in and out of it. You can join without aligning yourself with another big group, or convincing your existing group of friends. But I wouldn't say that it's necessarily a stepping stone. People can treat it as that if they like, but it's also something for people who've been playing for a long time, or something you can stay in permanently."
Bayer is himself one of those people, and he points out Eve is very non-linear when it comes to player progression. He personally spent a lot of time in factional warfare, then moved on to big nullsec organisations (the big fleet fights with thousands of players). But he later came back to faction warfare, attracted by its smaller scale, where individual choices matter more.
Lowsec sometimes has the feel of being more of a buffer zone than a distinct place of its own. Some people go there to do specific things, but don't tend to be set up camp. A bit like factional warfare, it's been in need of some tinkering for a while, to make it more of a defined place of its own. Bayer agrees, though he notes that there's always room for improvement across the board in a game like Eve.
"Lowsec is in a lot of ways is like the wild west", he says, "highsec is more like an established civilisation with rules you can follow or break and face the consequences. Nullsec is a game of politics, organisation, and co-operation. While lowsec is the area where people have a lot of freedom to be a pirate, or form a milita, or just collect resources on their own or in small groups. It's an area of homesteaders. That's something that definitely appeals to some people, and we're trying to make it interesting to more people so that they can get involved."
It's that place where you're always tempted to go. Even as a soft-hearted, non-hostile carebear, I would often jaunt into lowsec, tempted by untapped asteroids, salvage, or a chance to shift goods to a neglected market. And that's where you get ganked. But it's good to hear that it'll be getting a bit more of an identity.
Rhodes chimes in with specifics. "We'll be increasing the loyalty point payout for PvP kills, so it'll be much more rewarding when you find a good target. We're increasing those payouts to Tier 5 across all of FW space, so players will get a decent payout anywhere in the warzone, instead of having to go to specific systems."
They're also adding a new complex for players to capture, meant for the battleship class of ships. "Battleships are important for us because we're adding the frigate escape bay to them, which gives players something to take their battleship out for and get into FW.
CCP are also taking cues from bug exploits, thanks to an old trick known as gate sliding, or "Hans sliding", which players used to make ships temporarily invulnerable on their approach to a complex. Fixing that bug made some players reluctant to enter faction warfare sites, so they're introducing their own official version of it to tempt players back in.
Bayer also mentions the frigate escape bay, which he expects to work particularly well in lowsec and factional warfare, but will be usable anywhere. As dog-rescuing news wizard Natalie Clayton reported, this is pretty much what it sounds like: instead of a defenceless escape pod, battleship pilots can now eject post-explosion into a smaller frigate class ship, offering a better chance to flee, or continue the fight from a new angle.
This is an example of what seems like a new approach for CCP in the last year or so. We've all seen updates about a game making some tweaks like faster engines or louder guns or more rewards, but changes like the frigate escape bay or last year's Drifter invasion (or, while I've got you, Planetside 2's carriers) capture the imagination. It's a concept even non-players can grasp and feel intrigued by, and I'm curious what kind of response they've had from players.
The escape bay debuted on Eve's test server late last month, and Bayer seems particularly pleased by how it's been received. Players were surprised, but feedback's been overwhelmingly positive. He characterises much of it as "I had no idea that this is what I wanted the whole time".
For newer players, this update offers a route into combat without committing anything long term. Faction warfare is by design always open to all players, with no need to find another person or worry about letting anyone down. For returning players who may be out of the loop, Bayer emphasises that Eve is changeable, with this update focusing on a system added in 2008. "The things you used to love are still here, and they'll be even better than they were before". Of course, not everyone is interested in PvP. But conflict drives Eve's economy, so even players who just want to hang out and mine and trade will find more activity and more demand for battleships at the very least.
Rhodes pipes up to bring larger alliance players into the update. Champions of Lowsec is a 5 day event starting this Thursday (26th March). It's "basically a 24 hours a day killing spree" in lowsec space, after which the corporation or alliance that blows up the most money will be crowned. Again, this can be low-commitment, since simply dropping back into the game for a couple of fights is enough to contribute for your side.
Eve's player numbers noticeably dipped last Autumn, but have more than recovered since, and it certainly seems like CCP's recent efforts have paid off. Rhodes is particularly happy with the rapid pace of releases, and their slightly experimental nature. "We learn a lot from trying something that sounds a little crazy rather than taking perhaps sometimes a little too slow and methodical an approach. Overall each small but substantial release has been really successful for us. Hopefully that will continue and we'll see more people joining and enjoying the game."
Bayer adds: "One of the things that's worked really well from this first quadrant is taking work we'd be doing anyway, and tying it in with a common theme." He points out that players who aren't interested this time can look forward to the next one instead, something that's harder to communicate with less coherent updates.
I have to ask if we can get a preview of the next quadrant. Rhodes and Bayer laugh diplomatically, well aware a supervisor is lurking in the background of the call, possibly while cloaked, "We know where we're going, but..." is all they can say without risking a podding.
What about in the future? Is there any chance of a Full Chaos quadrant? Maybe randomise system security, or swap blueprint ingredients around for a few weeks for the hell of it? Rhodes doesn't take the bait, but doesn't rule anything out, either. "Anything is possible. Eve can go anywhere", he says. That's a very positive message for a game that has a very chaotic reputation. But it does match what I've found: players are often surprisingly cheerful and impish in Eve considering its reputation for skulduggery. It's one reason why it's one of the best space games ever.
As we start to wind down, Bayer senses an opportunity to talk me round, and goes for it. "You mentioned earlier not having a tonne of time..." he says, "A lot of things you can do in Eve take a lot of time, but factional warfare is actually one of the features you can play in short bursts. It's one of my go-to activities over my lunch break - you can try to capture a complex and in about 20 minutes know that you'll have made some money, had a good fight, or both."
Rhodes was a long time playing before he tried FW too, and relates some advice that changed his mind - to get around Eve's classic "don't fly what you can't afford" rule, it's best to double up on everything rather than try to build that one mega-ship.
Before we sign off I ask if they have anything to say to you, our readers. "This new release is a really good opportunity to try out Eve for the first time, especially if you're interested in PvP where you can afford to lose a few ships and not worry too much about it. Faction warfare is great for that." says Bayer.
Rhodes simply says "...Play Eve?". I am definitely tempted.