XIV – New Dawn: Horizontal Balance and the Nature of Pay-to-Win

Well, if you’re at all immersed in the EVE community, you know there’s been a bit of a hurricane since I last posted (no, not the battlecruiser).  After the recently announced ‘New Dawn’ industry changes, many EVE players have been in revolt.[i]

No doubt some of this has been driven from the top levels of nullsec leadership, whose industrial powerbase, built up over years of hard organizational and gameplay labor, would be gutted by these changes; but much of the angst also clearly comes from the bottom up, as basic industrialists see their long-term gameplay ceiling essentially both lowered, and shifted from a single-purchase to a subscription model (more on this later).  While I often find the echo-chamber of r/eve to have a depressive, self-destructive streak a mile wide, I think they’re right about one thing: these changes are one major step toward adapting EVE into the common gaming industry practice of cyclically buffing and nerfing items, coupled with sales, so that players can’t ever stay effective with what they have.  This sort of change has been happening in EVE for a while—most recently with the marauder buffs, which I’m sure will be reverted once everyone owns a marauder, and famously in the past with both Modru’s Legion and Tech III Destroyers, all of which were wildly broken at launch and then nerfed once everyone had them.  But in the case of those earlier versions, both Modru’s ships and T3Ds were nerfed back to a place of reasonable usability, and neither remotely approached the investment in training time, subscription money, or isk, that a Rorqual does.  Essentially, in these earlier versions, CCP practiced a softer, less obvious and more ethical version of what they’re doing with New Dawn, which itself involves nerfing the top mining ship of the last half decade into the dirt.  To make matters worse, CCP have tried to pitch this as good game balance by saying it opens up ‘more options,’ – which is like pitching that it gives you more choices to move your baseball team with a dozen Priuses than one bus. 

I’ve written on this blog about how I think EVE is the quintessential videogame, and a true work of art.  If nothing explodes in the next week or so, maybe my next post will be about a deeper concern I hold about this: that videogames, unlike music, literature, and all other artforms except for film, was invented under late Capitalism.  Videogames have never existed in another economic system, meaning that what discredits them as an artform to many—the microtransactions and fourth wall-breaking moneygrabs, for example—to me is not an issue with videogames as a form, but just what Capitalism does to art.  We have certainly seen music and literature change as they transitioned into Capitalism, and it’s fascinating to imagine what videogames would look like under an ancient patron system, for example.  This is, obviously, a whole can of worms that I’d love to get into in the future.  For now, suffice it to say that I’m upset by the New Dawn changes not as an industrialist, or even as a player, but as someone who sees late Capitalism gutting a groundbreaking and transcendent example of a brand new human artform.

But what I actually want to talk about this week is how these industry changes do nothing to fix the scalability issues that existed in mining before, and instead fit snugly within a gaming industry model for monetization by simplification, promoting horizontal skills growth.  To be fair, this is probably just a more granular explanation for what the more cogent elements r/eve have been upset about. 

But I also have a different spin to it: I believe Rorquals did exactly the same thing.  For me, this change is not moving from a good system to a broken one, but from a broken system to an equally broken, but more exploitative one. 

In my opinion, neither the old Rorquals, nor the new mining barges, are good for EVE’s gameplay or player development.  Both push the game closer to the simplified, pay-gated design of mobile games, in which you can’t solve your problems with skill, only more money.  To explore this a little deeper, I’m going to revisit the concept of skills expression and try to figure out just what we mean by “pay to win.”

What is ‘skill expression’?

You hear the term ‘skill expression’ getting thrown around a lot, often in connection with ‘skill ceiling’ or ‘skill floor.’  At its core, a game with high skill expression (that is, a high ceiling and low floor) is one in which a good player will always be better than a bad player; it is also one where a bad player can always get a little better.  Soccer has a higher skill expression than tic-tac-toe, for example, because David Beckham would beat me at soccer every single time, but we might break even at tic-tac-toe; you could take a lifetime getting better at soccer, but get about as good as possible at tic-tac-toe in a few minutes.

As I’ve said before, EVE Online is one world but many games.  Some of those games have the highest skill expression of any videogame ever made; some of those games are more like tic-tac-toe.  This feeds into a distinction I made all the way back in Post II (and again in Post IV) about the difference between vertical and horizontal skills development.  To summarize briefly:

Vertical skills growth is a teaching term for when one skill enables another, allowing a student to get better at a complex task by individually learning the elements involved and then putting them together.  This is like being asked to write a five-page paper for your midterm, then a better five-page paper for your final.

Horizontal skills growth is when a student is asked to scale the same skills across a larger project.  This is (unfortunately) the more common practice in schools, in which you’re asked to write a five-page paper for your midterm, then the same quality 10-page paper for your final.  All you’re learning is to do the same thing more.

To me, this might be the single most important concept in unlocking EVE players’ behavior.  Essentially, everything we do in EVE either asks us to get better and better at a set of interconnected skills, or do more and more with the same ones.  The example I used in previous posts was how smallgang PVP asks you to get really good at flying one ship with lots of different skills, while large fleet PVP asks you to multibox as many ships as possible, while only having to perform rudimentary tasks on each.  This is why, from a teaching perspective, smallgang makes you a better pilot, and fleet PVP just teaches you to multitask.[ii] 

In mining, there is simply no version like smallgang PVP.  Mining is, and has always been, an activity that only allows for horizontal skills development (multitasking) with a very limited expression of vertical skills. 

Of course, there are some small skills that increase mining efficiency.  Knowing when to mine safely, what ore to mine, and staying connected to intel channels or self-scouting are all practices that will increase a miner’s yield and decrease their losses over time.  Some practices like properly fitting your ship or hand-braking a Rorqual coming out of warp are actually the same skills used in PVP.  But the importance of skills expression in mining is just much lower.  If, for example, you don’t handbrake your dreadnought before sieging, you will keep drifting and might miss every shot you take, making you useless, whereas if you don’t handbrake your Rorqual, you will drift away from the asteroid and lose a margin of ore, but still be perfectly effective; knowing what ore to mine is also infinitely easier than knowing what ships you can fight.  Simply put, there is a vast difference between a bad and great PVPer and a small difference between a bad and great miner.

And that’s totally ok.

It’s wonderful that some people can play EVE because it makes them shake like they’re on a rollercoaster and others can play to unwind.  That variety is exactly why EVE is so long-lived, and has such immense payout for the immense buy-in it takes to learn.  It’s just important to note that, because mining has such a low skill ceiling compared to other gameplays, it incentivizes scaling across multiple accounts to a much grater extent.  This has always been true.  Whether in a barge or Rorqual, your gameplay is repetitive, simple, and much more scalable than FCing a fleet or flying tackle for a small gang.  Even comparing to fleet PVP, it will take you longer to master your first Muninn account than it will to master your first barge or Rorqual—a little ways down the road, someone who learned both fields from scratch at the same pace might be flying three Muninns and mining with twenty Rorquals.[iii] 

Phantomite has suggested a radical reinvention of the mining process to something called “prospecting,” which would make industry more like exploration: rather than getting steady payouts for minimal APM over time, prospectors would hunt actively through a sort of minigame for jackpots.  In general, these jackpots could be tuned to drop a similar value per hour to mining now.  But because it would be accessed through a minigame, it would open up the ceiling and floor for the activity, so that, while perhaps the average income would be the same as anyone’s mining yield now, a bad prospector would make less and a good prospector would make more.  This would radically invigorate EVE’s resource collection with a level of skill expression, allowing people to get better at it over time.

Putting aside the obvious investment of development time from CCP, there are positives and negatives to Phantomite’s model.  The biggest negative is that it would remove a core aspect of EVE’s purposefully low-APM, ‘relaxing’ gameplay.  People who wanted to harvest ore (and dopamine) while cleaning the house or making dinner would lose their gameplay.  This could be remedied by leaving the current mining system in place, but reducing its yield, and simply placing prospecting as a higher-APM, higher-income version.  Then, mining would have low-skill, horizontal development equivalent to big fleet pvp, and high-skill, vertical development like smallgang pvp.

The strongest positive to Phantomite’s “prospecting” is that it would build players’ attachment to the game based not on what they own, but on what they can do.  Personally, I believe that this is of moral importance, as it reflects how I believe we should assess our real lives as well, but I also see this as a much healthier means of player retention.  Rather than getting players to stick around so they don’t lose all their assets, it would get players to stick around because they really feel like they’ve gotten good at something, and expressing that hard-earned skill gives them pleasure.  In other words, it would be much healthier to reward achievement than acquisition—but, of course, a good prospector would still get both.

So one response to the New Dawn mining changes might be that, with all this time to develop a minigame, all CCP did was adjust a few values on some ships and ores.  Given that they teased a Rorqual balance pass this summer, it seems lazy to have spent all this time merely tweaking values.  As many in the community have pointed out, these changes also won’t be increasing resource flow or ending scarcity[iv] like CCP has disingenuously stated, so it does also seem that introducing prospecting as an even higher-yield resource collection, thus increasing resource flow in exchange for players learning new skills, would be much better at achieving these stated goals.

But, unfortunately, if we understand what “pay to win” really means, it becomes clear that increasing skills ceiling, prioritizing vertical over horizontal growth, is exactly the last thing CCP wants to do. 

What does “pay to win” really mean?

Hey, another buzzword!  Yes, after a month’s aristeia in the real world, I figured you deserve to be spoiled, patient reader.  Please, have all the buzzwords you want.  There’s a bowl of them on the coffee table.

Commonly, “Pay to win” is used in just about any competitive videogame, usually synonymously with words like “overpowered” or “unbalanced.”  In these situations, players are referring to an item that is both so good that it can beat every other item without much need for skill, and gated behind real-world money.  The example I always think of is gold ammo in World of Tanks.  When some friends and I started WoT during its beta, we spent a lot of time learning all the best places to penetrate enemy tanks, allowing us to fight outmatched.  Then, when gold ammo was released, so that essentially every tank could penetrate every other one, our skill and knowledge advantage was eliminated, because anyone could just spend money for the same effect.  This past spring, EVE’s buffs the marauders were also like this.  They allowed anyone who could afford a Vargur to beat brawling gangs with their damage and tank, beat kiting gangs with their mobility and projection, and do all of it without the need for skills like transversal matching or target-calling, and with reduced need for skills like ammo selection and fitting.  In short, a relative PVP newbie could hop into a mediocre Vargur fit and give a gang of five experienced players absolute fits just by pressing buttons. 

But it’s tricky to compare P2W mechanics in EVE to other games, for a few reasons:

First, EVE’s open economy means that no useful items are strictly locked behind real-world currency.  You could, theoretically, make all of your wealth in-game and reap all of the same benefits as someone who bought their items with cash.  This is different than in just about every other game.

Second—and because of this first point—we can’t think pf P2W in EVE as being an on/off switch.  Nothing is either P2W or not P2W; everything can be less or more P2W, but because nothing is locked behind real-world money, nothing can be completely P2W, like in other games.  This does not make P2W design in EVE any less harmful, though.

In the case of marauders, they were made very P2W in the spring, then nerfed.  I would still argue that they are one of the most P2W features of EVE right now, but at the same time, they can still be beaten.  But this is still not using the full definition of P2W.

“Overpowered” is a square to P2W’s rectangle: bad game balance is one major way things become P2W, but this is actually in service of a larger concept.  At its core, P2W design means simplifying the game so that problems can only be solved with money.  It works like this:

Any game presents you with a problem.  That’s its job.  Your job is to solve the problem.  If you can solve it with skill, you will do so every time.  If you need to learn skills to solve it, you will learn those skills or get frustrated and quit.

Enter monetization.  One way of monetizing games is to allow players to buy their way out of frustration with learning skills—to skip the learning process with money.  This is the P2W that we commonly describe as things being overpowered: you get to skip learning where to shoot a tank by buying ammo that makes it not matter, or skip learning what target to shoot by flying a Vargur that can hit everything.  This is, of course, a trap: you quickly find yourself outmatched in skill, so the only way to stay competitive is to keep spending money, almost like buying your way three levels higher in school. 

However, some games—especially mobile games—take it even further.  In those games, spending money isn’t an option that lets you speed ahead at the expense of skills growth, it is literally the only option.  Want to grow more crops?  Buy more slots.  Want to unlock that door?  Buy the key.  There is simply no way to solve these problems without spending more money, because there is no way to be better or worse at the game.  The game is just too simple.

So, while many people shriek “P2W” at bad game balance in EVE, I don’t disagree—but I think they’re not seeing the forest for the trees.  Overpowered ships is the example, the square.  Game simplification, and the limitation of skills expression, is the theory, the whole rectangle.  As much as I want to get more new players into EVE—because I do believe it can have a bright future—I am also wary any time CCP says they are simplifying something for newbies.  While that may be good to get people on board, it may also move us more in the direction of P2W design.

Horizontal game design is inherently more P2W than vertical game design.  By its very definition, the harder gameplay that requires more skills gives you more opportunities to solve problems with those skills.  Conversely, no matter how good you are at multiboxing a simple fleet role, you can’t fly three Muninns at once if you aren’t paying to subscribe them.  While I love the variety of playstyles in EVE and respect anyone who prefers to grow horizontally, it is clear that one of the most insidious and destructive forces in EVE today is the cycle of CCP incentivizing horizontal growth and blocs training people into it for their own benefit.  I love that EVE has these giant empires, but unfortunately, the gaming industry has found a way to make them complicit in the game becoming more P2W.  The New Dawn changes are just the latest manifestation of this feedback loop.

So, where does this leave us?

I’m not saying all mining is P2W because it is horizontally balanced.  I’m not even saying it needs to change from passive gameplay—although I think at least having a more active, lucrative option like Phantomite’s “prospecting” would be awesome. 

I am especially not saying anything is or isn’t P2W.  Some things are more, some things are less.

Rorquals, the way they were horizontally scaled and nearly autopoietic, allowed a horizontal feedback loop that forever changed EVE Online.  They were a perfect precondition for P2W design.  They made the game more P2W.

Barges, in their new iteration, do the same thing.  By moving the yield of a Rorqual from one expensive vessel and one Omega subscription to many smaller vessels and many subscriptions, CCP is just effectively increasing the amount of real-world currency required to scale horizontally.  AFK mining is still a nice relaxing gameplay for some people, but also a perfect precondition for P2W design.  The only thing changing is that the price to win just went way up. 

[i] One of many articles from mainstream gaming media: https://www.pcgamesn.com/eve-online/mining-changes

[ii] Please note – there is a long culture of snobbery from smallgang pilots for this exact reason, and I don’t buy into that for a second.  This is a game.  You get to be exactly as good as you want, and you get to play it however you want.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying big fleet PVP and just not developing your individual skills as much.  That gameplay can be very fulfilling, and often provides more narrative gameplay than smallgang, something I wrote about in Posts 7-9.

[iii] In both cases, there is a hard cap on actions-per-minute (APM) so that the growth can’t continue forever and, indeed, there is less APM in a Rorqual than in a barge. 

[iv] Because, although the resources are being increased, the ships that gather them are being nerfed. 

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