Monday, April 12, 2010

Trying to understand the EVE skill system

I really have a hard time to wrap my head around the design of "progress" in EVE Online, especially with the skill system. A classic MMORPG works by pitting you against obstacles, lets say monsters you have to fight for a quest, and showing you at the same time how to progress to overcome those monsters easier: You find gear, you gain levels that come with new spells and abilities. So anyone who starts out as a new player in a MMORPG like World of Warcraft will have understood after a short while that gear and levels are the way to go, and that he should play more, do more quests, kill more monsters to progress.

Not so in EVE Online. For example I started out with a frigate that came equipped with a small laser for combat and a small mining laser. Then I find an abandoned container with a small laser. Great, I think, if I install two small lasers and put the mining laser in the hold when not mining, I should do better in combat. But when trying to equip the second laser, the game tells me that I don't have enough power for two lasers. I'd need just a tiny bit more, which I could get by equipping a cheap module that increases power or by learning a skill that decreases power requirements. Only that installing the module also requires learning a skill. And if I wanted for example to fly a ship bigger than a frigate, I'd need quite a lot of new skills. Plus the skills I need for the modules to equip the ship with. And then everybody advises me to first learn the "learning" skills, which make learning the other skills faster. So what my first days in EVE taught me is that the way to progress is by learning skills. Which are learned in real time, while offline. Actually playing EVE doesn't help all that much with skill progression, except for earning you the ISK you need to buy skill books (if I don't RMT those).

As Zubon from Kill Ten Rats once remarked, the net effect of that is that it feels like you'd be better of playing EVE Offline. The most efficient way to play EVE for me would be to buy a PLEX, exchange it legally for ISK, buy all the skill books I need plus possibly some implants, and then use an addon or website to make a list of the optimum skill sequence to get to a given point. Then for several weeks I would just log on once a day for 5 minutes to queue up the next skills. I would never have to actually play, or leave the docking station. Of course some people pointed out that while I could get to a Battlecruiser that way, I would lack the understanding of the game to use it effectively, and would just get shot down in PvP. But as I'm not very interested in PvP anyway, and even learning about EVE is faster *outside* the game by reading various websites than by playing, that "EVE Offline" strategy would work perfectly well for starting an economic career in EVE. And even for a military PvE career it would obviously be an advantage if I spent the first month offline and did missions after getting a fully fitted better ship.

I'm not into conspiracy theory, but when discussing Free2Play games many of my readers frequently mention their concern that game companies could design game features not to maximize the fun of the players, but to maximize their income. Seen in that light, the game design of EVE is suspicious. Playing in the more efficient "EVE Offline" way, I'd pay for a subscription, plus pay for a PLEX to finance the skill books and implants, but I'd not be online very much, so I cause very little cost to CCP Games.

Now I'm not planning to play EVE that way. I matured well past the point in my MMORPG career where I think that progress is actually important. Having fun with gameplay is. So what I will be doing is running missions, explore the universe, learn the various complex game mechanics of the different careers, and be hellishly inefficient in accumulating a completely unfocused set of skills, based solely on what I want to do next, without a larger plan or long-term goal. I am pretty certain that A) this is how most newbies would play EVE (as opposed to a second character of an EVE veteran) and B) this is more fun than first spending a month offline accumulating learning skills.

But I must say the design principle behind this EVE progress system bugs me. The game constantly reminds you that you'd be better off waiting for better skills than actually playing. For example I already found out one thing that one of my readers also advised me in the comment section: If you want to refine ore as a new player, you do *not* use the ore processing button like the tutorial tells you. You sell the raw ore, and use the money to buy the refined metal, as that will net you more metal than your low skill in refining gets you. I fully expect a new MMORPG to frequently point a finger at me and say "ha, ha, you n00b, get better before you try this". But when the only way to get better is to wait, that gets somewhat annoying.

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