II – The Real Skillpoints: Vertical vs. Horizontal Learning in EVE Online

EVE Online has a development problem.  No, not from the developer, CCP Games, but in how its players are asked and encouraged to develop their skills in-game: specifically… they’re not.  This both makes the Day One experience of a new player more like the opening of “Predators”[1] than your average kindergarten, and also limits the possibilities for advanced players to keep getting better at the game.  This problem of skills development is responsible for the challenges in developing new Fleet Commanders, in switching in-game careers, and creates a feedback loop in large alliances, where players don’t grow new skills an are not asked to grow new skills.  The problem, in short, is that EVE usually asks us to scale the skills we already have horizontally—across more accounts and assets—rather than learning vertically, getting better and better at the game.

This framework could be applied all over the game and the community.  I’ve planned several posts about this, including one next week on how this affects EVE’s monetization – but because I plan to get my money’s worth out of this concept, I first want you to have a strong foundation of what I’m talking about.

In real life, I work as a teacher, and use a teaching style known as “metacognitive skills pedagogy.”  That’s a term worth quite a bit in student loans, which essentially refers to the current trend in teaching.  Basically, it puts two branches of teaching together, for an exponentially greater effect. 

The term “skills pedagogy” refers to how most sports and musical instruments are taught.  Essentially, it means breaking down complex processes into the individual skills it takes to accomplish them, then designing exercises to strengthen those skills, then putting it all back together.  The teacher’s primary job is to keep breaking processes down into the most granular skills possible, then scaffold the process of practicing them and building back up.  This can also be referred to as “vertical pedagogy” – that is, learning new skills on top of old ones.

The word “metacognitive,” or thinking about thinking refers to a practice of asking reflective questions, so the student learns how they learn, and can become their own teacher.  This is commonly used in English classrooms, such as a journaling exercise at the end of a class that asks “How do you think about this book differently than you did an hour ago?”  The teacher’s job in this case is just to hold these conversations.

Commonly, sports and music education lack the metacognitive reflection, limiting students’ ability to see the big picture and teach themselves.  Humanities classrooms often lack an attention for individual skills, instead asking students to scale their current skills horizontally, just like EVE Online.

Let’s take a few examples, one from EVE and one from the real world, side by side:

Let’s think about playing a certain drum beat as a complex skill.  You can break it down into smaller skills, such as expression, reading, and coordination between the limbs.  You can then break these down into even smaller skills: coordination includes independence of the limbs, counting, and possibly moving between different drums quickly.  Expression includes dynamics (volume level), where you hit the drum, and counting.  Reading includes counting, multitasking, and knowing the notation.  As you see, when we break it down to this granular level, the basic skill of counting time helps in every area.  This is why music teachers often focus on that so heavily.

The complex process of Fleet Commanding (FCing) in EVE is similar to playing drums, in that it is a quintessential expression of multitasking and muscle-memory.  We might break FCing down into a few smaller skills: grid awareness, decision-making, clear communication.  We can then break each of these into smaller skills.  Grid awareness includes manual piloting skill, knowledge of the meta and of fittings, and an ability to use advanced overview tabs, such as angular velocity.  Decision-making includes knowledge of meta and fittings, knowledge of fleet-members’ competency, and understanding fleet goals.  Clear communication involves regulating your own emotions, filtering useful and useless information, and perhaps also the complex process of decision-making. 

If you were to teach someone to FC, you would start by isolating the smallest level of skills.  For example, you might take manual piloting and design a racetrack where a pilot has to focus on only that one skill with their full attention.  Once they are performing that task successfully, layer in an element that requires them to read angular velocity, then layer in asking them to communicate that velocity to someone else, and so on.  This is how you would vertically develop someone’s skills into being a Fleet Commander, bit by bit.

EVE doesn’t do this.

Yes, I know, it’s a sandbox game.  The problem is that in many parts of EVE, there is no natural bridge towards more complex skills.  Beginning players are asked to scale their current skills across more accounts, and more assets, not learn new skills, and wind up like Nick Andopolis and the giant drumset he can’t play[2]

Let’s keep rolling with the example of FCing.  It would appear that the natural step below FCing is being a linemember in a fleet, just as the natural progression to a more advanced drumbeat would be a simpler version of the same beat[3].  A natural process would be for linemembers to learn some, but not all, of the skills of an FC, so that when they take the leap, they have fewer skills left to learn.  But in reality, the linemember isn’t actually asked to learn most of the skills of an FC. 

Clear communication?  Linemembers are told to keep comms clear.  Decision-making? Linemembers, by definition, are given orders.  Grid-awareness?  Not really, as most linemembers set ships to automatically follow the FC and follow broadcasts either for friendlies who need help or targets to shoot. 

Linemembers are given a checklist, not a scenario to interpret, and just need to react efficiently and quickly to orders.  The only way to become a better linemember is, once able to comfortably check these boxes on one character, to start doing it on two, or three.  Thus, there is a way for a linemember to do more but not actually do better.  The linemember is asked to scale a rudimentary set of skills horizontally, not learn new ones.

This is the exact same trap most essay-based classes fall into: in a three-paper semester, the first paper might be 5 pages, the second 7, and the final 10.  In most cases, students are not asked to write a better paper each time, but are asked to write a longer paper at the same level.  (That’s right—multiboxing logi[4] on a strat op is the same as writing a 10 instead of a 5 page paper!  Quick, print this out and give it to your mom!)  This standard course plan is also horizontal skills development.  A vertical skills approach would be to ask for three 5-page papers, each one at a higher level, or using new skills.

Thus, the path to becoming a Fleet Commander does not naturally run through being a fleet member.  From a teaching perspective, this makes about as much sense as if the path to painting professionally required you first learn baseball.

This also means that for a linemember to volunteer to FC, they have to take a blind leap into a whole new set of skills, all at once.  Given that FCing also happens in front of a whole crowd, this is like asking an amateur guitarist who likes to play at the campfire to volunteer to play an extremely hard piano solo in a packed Carnegie Hall.

Put in these terms, it seems pretty reasonable that a lot of people don’t want to do that in their hobby time. 

So what would the path be?

I’m not here to be an armchair developer, and thankfully I don’t have to be.  There is actually a playstyle that teaches many of the skills of a bloc FC at a more granular level: smallgang[5] pvp.

In a small gang, you have to manually pilot your own ship, pay attention to advanced overview metrics, communicate with fleetmates (there usually is no single FC), and know what to engage.  (There are also skills that don’t map as vitally onto big-fleet FCing, such as managing heat damage on your own modules.)  Broadly speaking, one could learn many of the skills involved in bloc FCing by doing smallgang pvp.  These skills include those involved in a more complex fleet role such as the logi anchor—communication, manual piloting—but also build on them. 

Thus, the natural vertical progression to being a bloc FC, if designed by a teacher, would be:

Linemember -> logi anchor -> smallgang pilot -> bloc FC

In this case, three levels of the vertical development could occur in large fleets, but a huge amount of skills would need to be learned in that missing link of smallgang pvp.  In this sense, I think it would be advantageous for more blocs to encourage their pilots to do smallgang pvp, as they would be able to help more junior FCs take that leap.

Whereas the progression for the smallgang player would be:

Damage role -> support role -> tackle role -> multiboxing roles

In this case, the progression is simply from simpler (note: not easier) to more complex roles within the same progression.  Contrary to popular belief, smallgang is thus actually more helpful to new and developing players who want to get better at the game—it more resembles how a teacher would build a game.  However, whereas horizontal branching into more accounts in the big-fleet career path can occur at the first step, “linemember,” horizontal branching in smallgang can only occur at the final step, as piloting an individual ship is so much harder and requires so many more skills.  That’s not for everyone, and that’s ok.  The game also needs good linemembers!

So, what’s the problem?

I’m just going to say it: EVE would have more players if it was designed in part by a teacher.  EVE would be a better game if it was designed in part by a teacher.

FCing is one example.  Is it a problem that the game only encourages linemembers to do more not better?  Arguably, no.  That’s how many of us want to play the game, and that’s great.  Is it a problem that the game doesn’t naturally develop FCs?  Many current FCs think it is.  Fewer FCs means more burnout, less content for linemembers, and less activity in the game overall.

We can also apply this framework to many other areas of the game, and see how some are issues and some are working just fine.  I’ll do that in later posts.

But there are definitely places where, in my opinion, the game is hurt very badly by promoting horizontal over vertical skills development.  For instance, broadly speaking, ships get easier to fly the bigger they get.  The natural progression to flying an interceptor well would actually be:

Titan -> Carrier (sirens) -> Lachesis -> Interceptor

Obviously, this makes the game hard to get into for new players, as proper piloting of the ships they can fly first includes more skills—knowledge of the meta, angular vs transversal vs radial velocity, heat control, etc.—than most ships that come after them.  It hurts on the other end as well, such that Titans are extremely easy to scale and run simultaneously.  Titan pilots are not asked to grow new skills, but to expand their asset base horizontally; and moreover, expanding their assets doesn’t usually require new skills either.  CCP Falcon once made a brilliant suggestion[6] for how to make Titans harder to fly—making them worse for bad titan pilots and better for good ones, neither a nerf nor a buff but an expansion of the skills needed to fly them—and I think everyone should check it out.

This also creates a Catch-22 for blocs, such that what is best for them today is to get everybody multiboxing DPS ships, and to protect their moneymaking space so people can afford more DPS ships, but what is best for them (and the game) tomorrow would be to invite smallgang conflict in their space and encourage pilots to grow, so that some can make an easier leap to FCing. 

Also, new player missions are a pedagogical disaster[7].  There’s a lot to discuss here, and in future posts I’ll apply this framework elsewhere in the game.  Between this, and the framework I set up in the first post for defining what makes art, we’ve got a lot to work with – and, probably, most of our readers on life support.

But for now, this post is already too long.  (Sorry.  I learned that habit from all those classes that asked me to write longer papers every time.)


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xO32-jqYdq8

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CqOtEz6PfA

[3] Here’s a good example of layering skills on other skills, and a really damn entertaining video even if you don’t know anything about music!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1j1_aeK6WA

[4] For non-EVE players: “Multiboxing” refers to playing several game clients at once, a common practice in EVE.  “Logi” refers to Logistics ships, the game’s term for healers.

[5] For non-EVE players: “smallgang” refers both to fleets of usually less than 10-20 pilots, and the tactics used by those fleets.  Commonly, with fewer people, everyone is encouraged to share information during fights, and decisions are made much more collaboratively than in larger fleets, where communication would be too cluttered with everyone talking, so members are asked to stay quiet while one person (the FC) calls all the shots.

[6] The comment has since been deleted (or I can’t find it) but the essence was: remove guns from titans and let them fire a lance every minute.  In addition to the changes to the skill ceiling mentioned above, this would also implement a diminishing return on dropping mass numbers of titans.

[7] Among many, many others, but perhaps the most thorough: https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/hcpfnu/an_analysis_of_eves_new_player_experience_by_a/

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