Wanting Off the Beaten Path
Hauling through new Eden

Hauling through New Eden

Recently I did a bunch of hauling for ILF and for myself, mostly to consolidate assets and get organized. This took me to various locations across New Eden, including a few systems deep into Domain where I’ve never been before.

Although the backdrop of space changed color the farther I travelled, all I really got to see were gates, jump tunnels, warp tunnels, the bright glowy butt end of my ship, and little triangle/house/turtle icons zipping past. There were a few interesting moments but for the most part these were uneventful journeys. Sure I could have hired someone to fetch all those cargo loads for me but having not been in game much recently due to offline stuff, I had a need to do it all myself, to feel useful.

Every so often a celestial beacon would show up on the Overview. Since it was unlikely I’d be coming this way again, I right-clicked and chose Show Info, the idea being to read a little about the landmark or whatever it happened to be as I was traversing the system.

Instead, Show Info was kind enough to tell me what a beacon is.

Great. Thanks.

So on I went, system after system, with quite honestly very little to do or look at.

That got me thinking.

Blind Signposts

Is it helpful for the Overview to tell me what a beacon is? Actually, no. Any reasonably educated human being can deduce that for him- or herself.

But if I’m new to the game, or to a particular area of space, or maybe I’ve been living under a rock and haven’t undocked much, how do I find out if the thing the beacon has identified is worth my precious and limited game time to check out? There’s only the name displayed on the Overview as the “hook” to try to draw me in.

So my first thought was that the Overview is kind of useless if it doesn’t give me targeted information about the stuff it displays to me as far as these beacons go.

What’s my next choice? I suppose I could dock up, ALT-TAB out of the game (IGB? Shudder), and then use the EVE Wiki or Google to see what information I can find. Maybe (probably) Mark has written an article about that landmark. Or maybe not. The other choice is to take a chance on the name itself and warp in, possibly to great disappointment. Possibly to be exploded into tiny little bits when I’m not actually prepared or interested in being exploded into tiny little bits.

Neither of these options is all that appealing from my gameplay perspective. The first one requires me to interrupt my in-game immersion to use out-of-game resources to educate myself. EVE has a lot of out-of-game resources and they are all wonderful, but when I’m actually running around in my ship, I want to be able to continue running around in my ship with as little disruption as possible. Plus, reading about something is never as good as experiencing it firsthand.

The second option requires me to make a leap of faith, otherwise known as jumping in blind. This is not necessarily a bad thing but there’s a difference between, say, jumping through a gate when you know you have no scout on the other side but you are nevertheless already prepared to brawl should there be baddies waiting for you, versus warping to a location because you are just curious and want to look. If Show Info displayed something about the destination rather than about the beacon, this would give players a better sense of whether or not they wanted to go see what that thing is all about (and/or were in an appropriate ship to do so).

So based on that, I decided the game needs improvement on seamlessly feeding me more information than it actually does in order to be more likely to draw me in.

But right after this line of thinking, my next thought was that it’s actually pretty silly to have these kinds of things listed on the Overview at all.

No Secrets

A player lands in any system and immediately knows essentially everything that is located there and roughly where all of it is in relation to their position at any given time. The discovery scanner makes this worse because it splatters the screen with indications of every single anomaly or signature to be had.

This means that unless players remove things like celestial beacons from the Overview and otherwise disable icons or turn off the discovery scanner completely, exploration and any sense of independent discovery is spoiled, every single time.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of other games.

A player loads into a new zone. Whether or not they’ve been in this zone before, they’re probably going to bring up the map at some point. Depending on the game, maybe the map displays the entire zone, or maybe (if this is their first visit) it only displays the portion of the zone that their avatar can reasonably see with line of sight from the entry point, while the rest of the map is hidden. If this is their first visit, possibly the map has a couple of markers on it for very important locations, such as a town, major raid dungeon, or an exit to another zone. Possibly the map has a marker denoting an area where a quest goal is located. The map, unless hidden beyond the immediate view, probably also has major paths or roads marked on it.

What happens next? There is no list on the player’s screen conveniently telling them where exactly all the landmarks are and otherwise what else there is to see or do in this zone. These other markers are only added once the player discovers them. Never travel close enough to find a certain place? It’s never added to your map.

Maybe there’s a cave over there with a boss that pops out if you touch the crystal protruding from the ground. Maybe up there on the mountain are some good harvesting nodes hidden in the ruins of an old temple. Maybe down by the river is a mob of creatures roaming around. Maybe there’s a convenient respawn point hidden behind that waterfall. Maybe there’s an NPC deep in the forest who gives quests for epic loot if you happen to find him.

What about smaller things, details that are in the game simply to add depth, immersion, beauty, delight? Where are the best views of the zone? How about that forest clearing where the light slants through the trees and a dev has added fireflies for effect? How about that brook where the fish can be seen jumping upstream? How about that battlefield that still has the corpses of the fallen lying in it? How about that inn where the player can burst in on…well, you get the idea.

How about when a game gives the player a quest to search for Y item or kill Z thing, but only marks a general area on the map where that thing can be found, rather than marking its exact location?

The point is, even if the map is visible, for the most part the player still has to physically run around to discover all of these things. The player has to take it upon him- or herself to explore and look and experience the zone to find out what’s out there. The zone is the great unknown until then and who knows what the player will miss simply by only sticking to the main routes.

EVE has “exploration”. It requires the use of scan probes. But unless the player is “exploring” for ships to kill, the probes only get used if the discovery scanner shows Cosmic Signature icons across the backdrop of the system. No icons? The probes stay loaded and the pilot moves on.

Pilots can also “explore” the game by embarking on personal quests to visit every system, or flying to every celestial beacon, or checking out every district satellite around a planet. Screenshots are popular in EVE because the game is beautiful.

But these things are still not the same as the satisfaction of discovering something for yourself simply by moving around a zone to see what’s there. We don’t have opportunity to do this in EVE; we already know what’s there. There’s a lessened sense of wonder and awe as a result. What’s in that belt? The same as every other belt: rocks, and maybe an NPC or two. What’s orbiting that planet? A POCO. Anything else? Maybe a random can that someone has dropped—but no need to go look, just check dscan. How about that moon? A hostile POS, if you’re unlucky—but again, just check dscan. Anything else? …

What about all that empty space in between the warpable locations on the Overview or the scanner? The sprawling unused space. Deadspace. What’s there to see? Nothing? Nothing.

But shouldn’t (couldn’t) there be…stuff? Stuff that doesn’t appear on the Overview. Stuff that people have to actually go exploring to find. Stuff equivalent to those fish in the stream, or that random boss trigger, or that awesome vista, those temple ruins, and so on.

I know I would really like that. In EVE I’d like to do the equivalent of bounding into the forest or across the fields, off the beaten path taken by other players, simply to see what might be there. Point my ship in a direction that isn’t a station, a planet, a POS, a POCO, a signature, a belt, or a bookmark, and just go see.

But if EVE were like this…how would a player get there?

All Off-Ramps Are Closed

Unlike other MMOs which give players actual legs and feet to run around on, EVE Online cages us in (mostly) very pretty metal behemoths. When our ships are in space, we point them at a destination and most of the time we hit the warp button. This shunts us into a warp tunnel that eventually collapses when we are near the other end.

Nothing happens while in warp. A ship can’t exit warp voluntarily; once in, you’re committed unless 1) your capacitor didn’t have enough energy to send you the full distance, or 2) you are in 0.0 space where someone else can kick you out of warp at a location of their choosing…so long as that location is somewhere along the warp tunnel’s predetermined trajectory.

Warp represents a period of time where players surrender total control of their time to the game. We have no ability to stop and see what might be along the route, nor do much of anything else, as Aura will remind us: You are in warp. You cannot do that while warping. There is no equivalent to running along a road and then deciding to take a cross-country detour through the trees and over hill and dale because something interesting caught your eye in the distance. Even the tunnel itself muddies up the view of whatever happens to be passing by.

In EVE, we have to warp to get anywhere of consequence. Sure you can undock from station and MWD or MJD to that gate, or to that belt, or to that POCO, or to that POS, or to that tackled battleship, or to that celestial beacon, or to that cosmic signature, or toward the second star to the right…but better check that your Life insurance and your subscription are both paid up because it’s going to take you ages to get there. Years maybe. As it rightly should: star systems are big, space is vast, and that’s realistic.

But at the same time, it’s a game and it would just be so much cooler to have more in each system than what we actually can get to. New Eden has a ton of wasted space, literally.

Spreading Out

This is Intaki:

The Intaki System

The Intaki System

It has a star, some planets, some moons, some asteroid belts, some stations, some gates, and some structures. Now and then it has a smattering of Faction Warfare sites, anomalies, signatures, wormholes, and PVE sites—pretty typical, like most other star systems.

So let’s say I undock. Where can I go? Essentially, from Point A to Point B, like this:

Star systems have a limited number of destinations.

Star systems have a limited number of destinations.

Where can everyone else who visits my lovely system go? Also from Point A to Point B:

Everyone travels the same roads.

Everyone travels the same roads.

Of course there will be some offshoots here and there for randomly-occuring sites, and the central area of the system is squished in too small to see properly, but this is the gist of it. Multiply this by the number of solo pilots, gangs, and fleets that could come into Intaki and the overlapping lines will get pretty ridiculous.

But… The lines between points represent warp tunnels, and warp tunnels are narrow uni-directional prisons that you can’t get out of. So let’s look at that image again:

Activity is restricted to choke points.

Activity is restricted to choke points.

What? That’s it? That’s the usable area of the system?

Or, put differently:

It's lonely out there...

It’s lonely out there…

The entire grey area, save for the holes created in the immediate vicinity of planets and the star as well as any random anoms, sigs, and mission sites, is all wasted. This is negative, essentially unreachable space. Sure, if players make bookmarks at signature sites, deadspace complexes, and so on, they can thereafter reach those deep space locations again, even after the site has despawned, but once there, there’s nothing to do but turn around and warp somewhere else. Point A to Point B.

Telling Aura, “I Can, I Can, I Can So!”

What if warp wasn’t something players were locked into?

What if having an afterburner on our hulls was the equivalent to the walk setting for an avatar (not going to get very far very fast, maybe suitable for toodling around in a belt or other “local” environment like station ruins and so on), while microwarp drives were akin to jogging (going fast enough to make some progress, maybe suitable for travelling between a planet and its station, moons, and belts), and actual warp was akin to an avatar sprinting or getting on a mount (going fastest, suitable for getting from one planet to another, to the local star, to the system’s “edge”, and every point in between)? What if warp tunnels didn’t exist and a ship’s trajectory could be changed during warp and a pilot could voluntarily stop?

After all, in other games, if you want to attack a player, he can run in just about any direction he wants, and you can ambush from just about any direction you choose. In most cases he’s not going to come at you (or vice versa) along the limited number of predetermined trajectories that EVE players are constrained to with warp. If you see him out there in a middle of a field rather than on the road, you have no choice but to go chase him down, and along the way you might have to avoid NPCs randomly moving around the immediate area, too.

What would EVE be like if I could (more easily) wander off in any old direction in a star system? What if I could actually orbit a planet rather than having to use the district satellites to get around it? What if I could explore a planet’s rings? What if I could orbit a moon? What might I find hiding over the horizon? What if I could lose myself anywhere in the system?

Maybe I would stumble across NPC pirates constructing an outpost in what we currently think of as “deadspace”, or hauling illegal supplies “off the beaten path”, or who knows what, and they would turn and aggress for having been found out. Maybe I would stumble across an ancient relic that I can hack. Maybe I’d get an escalation after that. Maybe I’d find a location where one or more planets eclipse the local star in just the right way, spectacularly revealing the corona that can’t be seen from anywhere else. Maybe I’d find a wormhole. Or a pack of rogue drones at a planet’s Lagrange Point. Or Sleepers. Or a Jove structure. Or Sansha, and trigger (or halt) an incursion. Or just a mob of Serpentis out looking for trouble. Or a random CONCORD patrol that happens to trigger aggro from that mob of Serps, so I can sit there and watch them obliterate one another, or go help, or crash their party. Or maybe I’ll find a mob of other players. Or some random space trash to salvage. Or a monolith. Or an old New Eden-equivalent to a Voyager spacecraft. Or who knows what. Then I can do something with what I’ve found: kill it, salvage it, hack it, mine it, [fill in the blank] it, and after I’m done and have moved out of the vicinity, that thing will eventually respawn for someone else to randomly chance across too.

This means EVE would have fewer choke points. Players could spread out in the systems they like to live in. I think this is a good thing. Right now, encounters are forced upon us all whether we want them or not because warp only takes us from Point A to Point B, and all of those points are predictable.

Where do fights happen? At or near gates, at or near stations, at or near structures, at or near complexes, and otherwise at or near any location that can be warped to. What if they happened anywhere? What if the thrill and anticipation of undocking came from not knowing where exactly anyone might be, and what NPCs might also aggro because they happened to get too close to your gang and its almost-perfectly executed ambush? What if gate camps didn’t actually have to be on a gate, but could be “hidden” in the shadow of a moon, or amongst the ruins of a station, or even behind a really big asteroid that I haven’t yet fully orbited?

What if probing had less to do with finding ships and other things far across the whole system, and more to do with providing a pilot with additional or enhanced situational awareness of the immediate area? What if we had to actually wander around to find other players, gas sites, combat sites, and so on, rather than having these things basically handed to us? What if probes were needed to actively determine what kind of asteroids those are and their ore quality, rather than having types on the Overview? And so on.

What if we didn’t have an Overview at all, at least in its current incarnation? What if it only acted more or less like a compass or radar/sensors? What if we actually had to use the map to figure out where we are in system, where we haven’t been, what we’ve discovered today, how close we are to the station we want to visit and so on?

Changing EVE in these ways would be a huge shift in dynamic for everyone, regardless of whether or not you are a pirate or a miner or only dabble in PVE or whatever. But NPCs would have more presence and I think systems would simply feel more…occupied. The backdrop of space would be less pretty art and more of an enticing mystery: What’s out there today?

For me? That is an EVE I think I’d rather play.