VII – “Wait, You WANT the Response Fleet?”: Strategic vs Recreational Gameplay, Part One

We sit in the cold beauty of a pre-war Delve, sixty kilometers off the stargate.  We have two Osprey Navy Issues, a Confessor, and a Keres—a weak but nimble force, hoping to stir up trouble in the heart of EVE’s largest empire, then fight while running away like Mongol horsemen.  We also have a Stiletto on the other side of the gate, watching the enemy form up.

At this moment, they have about thirty ships.  About half of those are battleships, any one of which would be difficult for our gang to kill.  Mixed in, they also have all sorts of electronic warfare to shut us down, hold us in place so we can’t kite away—and as they sit there, telling us to jump in, they continue to trickle in enough fast tackle to blot out the sun.  At the center of it all is Lord Jaxom’s Bhaalgorn, a battleship fit, essentially, to deny targets any chance at escaping, or even shooting back.  As we sit off the gate on the other side, they’re talking to our Stiletto in local chat, telling us to jump into them.

Our Stiletto pilot is asking why they won’t jump in with 6:1 superiority.  They tell us they won’t because we’re cowards.  This is fairly normal banter in the home regions of big nullsec alliances, where doublethink is a way of life.  Then one of them says something unusual—something so frank, honest, and yet cruel that it’s still stuck in my memory, over a year later.

“Eventually you’ll get bored and come feed to us,” they wrote.  “That feels like less of a waste of your evening than going home.”

Our Stiletto asked them why they didn’t feel the same way.

“Because if you leave, we’re still protecting our space.”

Eventually, with their numbers close to fifty, and still refusing to come in to us, we did go home.  We escaped without incident—even our Stiletto—and closed our connection to Delve.  But they were right.  It did feel like a total waste of time.  We were left wondering why we had decided to play EVE instead of another game, where we were guaranteed gameplay, with the precious few hours of free time we had that day; and I at least wondered why I’d bother to play EVE with my precious time on this Earth, when I wasn’t even guaranteed to be able to do it.  Indeed, we hadn’t failed at the game, we had failed to play the game.  Normally, when you fire up a videogame, you take that part for granted.

What I didn’t understand was that this was not the case for our opponents.  In fact, we had failed even to play EVE that night, but they had played it very well.  The difference is in the nature of our objectives—the difference between Strategic, Recreational, and Competitive PVP gameplay.

EVE Online is not one game but many.  This statement rings true when considering the game’s intense complexity: any one career path in EVE certainly has as much depth as many standalone games.  But a game is an experience in which you overcome obstacles to achieve goals, and because EVE is a sandbox game, every player has to invent their own goals.  In this sense, someone whose goal is to visit every system in the game without dying[i], someone trying to collect every titan, and someone trying to become a master fleet commander, are playing games as different as Battlefield versus Farming Simulator.  Of course, they exist together, and often cross paths.  For this reason, we might better think of EVE as one world but many games.

The biggest tradeoff of this design is that, while it allows for utterly dynamic and unbelievably meaningful gameplay outcomes, it also incentivizes players of one playstyle to deny gameplay to those of another.  In the case of the PVP player and the PVE player, both cannot be “playing their game” at the same time.  The PVE player is denied playing their game while the PVP player is nearby hunting them, and the PVP player is denied playing their game when the PVE player doesn’t respond with a fight.  This is natural, and I would never suggest the sheep should not hide from the wolves, but…

EVE’s playability revolves around a healthy ratio of content-to-content denial, across all areas of gameplay.  That is, there is a threshold at which the PVP player doesn’t get enough fights, and decides to go play another game, and a similar one in which the PVE player doesn’t get to make enough money.  Neither has to be able to get their content 100% of the time.  And they may have different thresholds.  For example, a PVE player may not tolerate being denied their gameplay more than 20% of the time, while (speaking as a PVP player myself) if I was in a fight for 20% of the time I spent at the keyboard, I probably wouldn’t do anything else in my whole life.  (Seriously.  I would starve.)

Much of this has to do with mindset and self-conception as well.  For example, if I think of myself as a “PVP player,” then any time I’m not in a fight or preparing for a fight is time I am effectively not playing the game, at least as far as I’m concerned.  But if I think of myself as a “hunter,” then suddenly all the time I spend looking for a fight is also gameplay[ii].  My expectations become different, and so does the dopamine the game releases for me.  With a shift in mindset, avoiding hunters could also be a satisfying experience for the hunted, rather than the gameplay equivalent of a power outage.  I’m going to go into much more detail on this in the future, so for now suffice it to say that the goals we set in-game also define who we are in-game, and this is an immensely powerful force.

The difference in goals and mindset can also exist within an overarching playstyle, such as “PVP.”  This post is about defining PVP into three categories, Strategic, Recreational, and Competitive—and then showing how some of EVE’s most common and confusing interactions happen when they collide.  The difference in each mindset lies in its goals.

The Competitive mindset is the simplest to define: it is what you see in tournaments and tournament preparation.  Unlike most other gameplay in EVE, it is guaranteed, but also not dynamic—there are set rules and boundaries for all matches.  I’m not going to talk any more about this one, because it’s pretty noumenally simple.  In this case, the goal is to win a tournament.

Recreational PVP, like Competitive, is also fairly simple.  This is essentially playing EVE like a game—fighting other players to have fun.  That’s it.  That’s the whole goal.  If you have fun by fighting someone, you’ve achieved your goal.  More ambitious players might say, “if you’ve won a fight and had fun…” but that is a difference of degrees, not of nature.

Strategic PVP is a pervasive mindset that can attach itself to many areas of the game. 

In the case of that scenario in Delve, in which nigh-fifty Goons wouldn’t jump into four roamers, the disconnection was in the fact that we were practicing Recreational PVP, and they—even though they weren’t on a Strategic operation—were practicing Strategic PVP. 

In Strategic PVP, most engagements are a case of maneuver warfare—that is, an objective-oriented struggle, in which it is often the best tactic to avoid direct conflict and instead focus on the objective.  This can be very commonly seen in citadel fights with doctrines such as Initiative’s Boosh Raven fleet[iii], in which the fleet bounces around the battlefield at long range, keeping damage on the target and often ignoring the actual defenders.  Moreover, since EVE is a game, and morale dictates fleet numbers, it is absolutely ubiquitous for nullbloc fleet commanders to avoid uncertain fights.  Simply put, if they lose heavily, their fleet numbers will be lower next time, and they can very easily cascade strategically; but if they simply go home, their numbers should be about the same, at least as long as this isn’t done too constantly.  So, in some scenarios, Strategic PVP encourages denying conflict to focus on the objective, and in others, it encourages giving up on the objective to fight another day.  This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of nearly two decades of intricate doctrinal development, about which one could easily write an entire book—but even on this level, the dynamics of our little standoff in Delve are clear.

We wanted to get a fight, and they wanted to achieve an objective.  That objective was securing their space, which could be done through killing us, trapping us, holding us still and shittalking us, or by boring us and sending us home.  Notice, none of these options include fighting us—just killing us.  Were we to engage 5 v 50, we would have literally lasted about 30 seconds, so their numbers alone denied the possibility of a fight.  But a drawn-out engagement, while exhilarating for both parties, would be useless for their strategic goals.  Staying on the other side of that gate left all four paths open to them, while linking any of our possible actions to a path, so that they could simply wait for us to dictate their response.  This is very good strategy.  But what was their actual goal?

I wrote in passing last week, and will write in more detail in the future, about how the “empire building” era of EVE caused strategic significance to trickle down into even the most minute actions by bloc linemembers[iv] – this was also at play in our little Delve standoff.  The standing fleet is ostensibly there to protect the vital strategic resource-action of ‘krabs,’ i.e. PVE players who generate wealth for the alliance.  Thus, all they had to do was use one of the four paths I listed above to neutralize us, and they would achieve their goal.  Moreover, since every single asset in a nullbloc is imbued with strategic value, and nullbloc members are socialized by fleet culture to focus on battle reports[v], there was potential strategic loss in every single one of those 50 ships, but no potential benefit as long as they kept us in place.

It is undeniably smart to understand these terms of engagement, and any strategist presented with potential loss and no potential benefit would not engage.  This is what I didn’t understand at the time.  And I don’t want to be misunderstood like I’m lamenting this dynamic—this is the way to win at Strategic PVP.  The blog-worthy phenomenon is how that Strategic mindset gets overlaid on other forms of PVP, such that they were winning while we weren’t even playing.  And in the words of Admiral Beatty, “When you’re winning, risk nothing.”

We can compare this scenario to another local-chat interaction I had with a nullbloc member.  We had grabbed a Rorqual[vi] and were holding it to see what else would come. Our prey wrote in local, “You’re not going to kill me before backup arrives,” to which we replied, “Good.”  He then wrote me a nice title for a future blog post: “Wait, you WANT the response fleet?”

This interaction elucidates the common misunderstanding between Strategic and Recreational mindsets.  Our prey thought that he was the objective in a game of maneuver warfare, and interpreted that we would be happy killing them and escaping.  That’s a fair guess, as indeed many, even smallgang players, have this mindset when hunting—and I’m willing to bet nearly everyone in this pilot’s bloc friend group would think the same way.  And that’s a fine way to play the game.  But we were there with a Recreational mindset, with the goal of getting a fight.  Even holding this Rorqual, we weren’t really playing our gameplay yet.  We hoped for a response fleet that we could fight—usually we’re happy to fight up to 4:1 odds, at which point it is seldom tenable to stick around—and had made preparations, such as hiding our reinforcements so that they would actually engage, to try to cause that.  For those to whom this is an alien mindset, I can’t say this next part strongly enough—and I do mean it absolutely literally:

If we had killed the Rorqual without getting a fight, it would have been just as much of a failure as if we had been chased away without a fight, or never caught it at all.

If this is hard to believe, consider how much fun it is to play basketball by yourself.  It is marginally better to sink a basket than to miss, just like it would be some minute consolation prize to kill the Rorqual without a fight, but if your goal is to beat someone at basketball, making or missing the shot doesn’t matter at all.  For us, grabbing the Rorqual was like shooting hoops until someone challenges you to a game: it was just to instigate a conflict in which we could pursue our actual goal. 

But EVE is a pickup game where there’s nothing stopping fifty people from running onto the court, pinning you to the floor, and jumping on you like a trampoline while shooting basket after basket and gloating about it.  To be honest, that’s pretty cool.  There’s probably no other virtual world where this is possible, and if these social tensions weren’t possible, I’d have nothing to write about.  In the case of our standoff with the Delve standing fleet, we were shooting hoops hoping for a challenger we could match, with the goal of beating someone at basketball; their goal was to get us off the court, and there was nothing but the physics of the universe itself limiting their response.  So they could have shown up with 50 players and a sniper sitting in the stands, just in case we were able to score outnumbered.  In the end, they decided to let us shoot our hoops, get bored, and go home.  They won their game.  We never got to play ours.

I don’t want to sound like I’m lamenting this dynamic.  I maintain that EVE is a very punishing game, and the only reason to suffer through it is to do things you can’t do in any other game.  Having been on the other side of the nullbloc-smallgang divide myself, I know that it is utterly unique, and quite exciting, for your every action to carry strategic, and thus narrative, significance on the grandest scale.  That is an awe-inspiring possibility in a videogame.  To carry my analogy a bit further, if you wanted to play basketball 5-on-5, there are plenty of better games to go do that, but only in EVE can you have a totally different challenge every time.  As much as I enjoy the actual action of fighting in EVE, it is this open world that lends such weight to it.

The only problem is when the misunderstandings between these playstyles cause us to lose sight of the fact that we are all part of the same community.  I know bloc people who hate, I mean really hate smallgangers, and smallgangers who feel the same about bloc players.  While some animosity is good to drive conflict and imbue meaning in these engagements, it does often go too far.  We all exist in the same world.  At different times, we also play the same game.  Ursula Le Guin wrote, “We think we wish to join the wild animals in the jungle but will not tolerate the wild animals in our kitchens.  There are too many ants, we think, reaching for the spray, when it is equally true that there are too many humans.”[vii]  I am usually one of the ants in the kitchen of the nullbloc players.  But sometimes they are the ants in my wormhole. 

And of course, these mindsets blend together. That’s why a definition based on mindset, rather than on something like tactics, fleet numbers, or materiel, is so useful and durable. I wrote above how Strategic fleets have less to lose by standing down than taking a risky fight – but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose. As we saw in the war that just ended, though EVE is a really weird game, it still is a game, and repeated stand-downs can cause the same loss in numbers as one big defeat. Having been a part of those wars myself, I can attest to how showing up to fleets repeatedly and getting no fight can make you think “Why am I playing this game,” just like the Goon standing fleet was able to make our little gang . Thus, when Strategic fleets don’t provide enough content, they actually shift the mindset of their participants towards more Recreational thinking. Likewise, Recreational mindsets can be diverted by various factors, such as a hatred of the enemy (wanting to deny them good fights) or a lust for loot and bragging rights. In the case of smallscale evictions or mercenary contracts, for example, small groups can easily find themselves in a Strategic mindset, practicing maneuver warfare on a set objective, that will be gone once their goal is achieved. I personally left my last small-to-medium gang group in part because I disagreed with their two-wrongs-make-a-right mentality of ‘helldunking’ nullsec response fleets as they would do to us.  But even that—a PVP mindset oriented around gaudy battle reports rather than close conflict—is a beautiful niche in the EVE PVP ecosystem.

Next week, I’ll be refracting the Strategic-Recreational divide a different way, looking at psychological warfare, narrative, and how ‘spin’ is a legitimate part of one side’s gameplay and not another’s.  Maybe I’ll have more of an actual opinion in that post, but until then, I too will refuse to engage. 

[i] A feat performed by the great explorer Katia Sae:

[ii] Credit to my friend Welshy RL, a great Black Ops hunter, for explaining this to me.  I once asked him how he could justify hunting for three hours to create five minutes of gameplay when he caught something, and his response was simply, “Dude, hunting is my gameplay.”

[iii] A doctrine now phased out due to mechanics changes, but once dominant in the sphere of maneuver warfare.  This fleet was famously used in the siege of Fort Knocks, in which not only were the defenders wildly outnumbered, but also the attackers’ doctrine choices were objective, not fight-oriented:

[iv] TLDR, by pushing all of nullsec into an arms race for supercapital and citadel assets, CCP realigned the ‘default’ game goals around asset accumulation, rather than the development of skills, knowledge, or achievements.  Though the assets we most commonly talk about are the ultra-expensive supercapitals, all assets, no matter how cheap, do in some way contribute to the strength of the alliance, in the same way that each grain of sand contributes to the beach.  This means that, for many, the asset is worth more than the experience of using it; thus, players become more ‘risk averse’ as a matter of strategic necessity and community habit. 

[v] For non-EVE players: a link to a third-party website that compiles all the losses from a fight to create a sort of scorecard.

[vi] For non-EVE players: the game’s largest mining vessel, the backbone of all nullsec industry, and a significant investment for most owners.

[vii] Location 78.  Le Guin, No Time to Spare.  Mariner Books, Kindle edition.

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