Back in 2004, EVE was a very different place. The universe was sparsely populated and the cost of new ships meant most players avoided war like the plague. Mining was the primary moneymaking profession and dedicated mining corps were commonplace. While mining was just as boring then as it is today, it was the easiest and fastest way of gathering minerals for production. Today, mining is one of the least profitable professions and isn't even close to being the best way of gathering minerals for production.
What happened over the years that has ruined the mining profession? I'll tell you what happened...
The main problem with mining as a profession is that it's always been a low priority for CCP. Nobody comes to EVE for the mining experience, in fact it's probably the most boring thing you can do in the entire game. Additions to PvP and mission content have always been a high priority, with new ships and missions in every major expansion. In the past year alone we've seen overhauls to several key PvP elements such as electronic warfare and hitpoints. Most recently we've had the Empyrean Age expansion which brought with it the long-awaited faction warfare system. Miners aren't so lucky, occasionally being thrown a bone in the form of a new ship type, module or implant. The mining system itself is no more developed or less boring than it was at launch.
Being a low development priority isn't the only problem that the mining profession has encountered. Over the years, other sources of minerals have taken over in supplying the mineral markets. With mining being as boring as it is, it's no wonder people would turn to any alternative ways to gather minerals. Possibly the biggest alternative source of minerals is mission-running. Not only do missions provide tangible isk rewards and bounties from enemies but the ships drop loot which can be refined into minerals.
With the release of level 4 missions, battleship class NPCs became available to people in high security space. Players quickly discovered that refining battleship class loot produced massive amounts of minerals. Rewards and drop rates in level 4 missions have been tweaked over the years but they still produce massive amounts of minerals for export to the markets. Unlike mining in high security space, refining mission loot will produce a good spread of mineral types including expensive megacyte and zydrine. All of the minerals needed for production can be procured without leaving high security empire systems making mission-running better suited to gathering mineral for production.
The issue escalated when rogue drones first made an appearance in deadspace complexes and missions. Rather than providing isk bounties, rogue drones drop alloys which refine into minerals. It wasn't long before players discovered just how much they could make farming rogue drone complexes and doing drone missions. When the drone regions opened, the volume of minerals being exported to empire markets sky-rocketed and market prices of nocxium, zydrine and megacyte crashed across EVE.
Risk vs reward:
One of the basic design principles of EVE is a system of risk versus reward that gives the best rewards to those willing to take on the most potential danger. Mission rewards in low security space, for example, are much higher than those in high security space. Likewise, the lower security status systems have tougher pirate NPCs in asteroid belts that have higher bounty rewards. One of the main complaints about mining rewards is that the ore distribution system doesn't really follow this risk versus reward scheme any more.
Instead of finding better ore in lower security systems, you find different ore which yields different minerals. Veldspar, scordite and omber are common in high security systems and provide a lot of tritanium, pyerite and mexallon. The ores Hemorphite and Jaspet provide a large portion of Isogen and nocxium but are only available in pirate-ridden systems of security rating 0.4 and below. To mine large amounts of zydrine and megacyte, a player has to venture into the dangerous lawless areas of space where they can be attacked without penalty. Depending on the market value of each mineral, it could actually be more profitable to mine in a high security system than a low security one, breaking the risk versus reward scheme.
NPC base prices:
When EVE first went live and the mining profession was implemented, the asteroid distribution system described above actually did enforce the appropriate risk versus reward scheme. Mining in low security space made roughly twice as much isk as mining in high security space and deep 0.0 mining made an absolute fortune. This was because mineral prices were more strictly enforced through NPC buy and sell orders. Using those old buy order values, the yield in isk per hour scaled up smoothly as you went into progressively lower security rating systems.
Since the removal of the NPC mineral buy orders some years ago, the mineral market has tended toward its own prices based loosely on the laws of supply and demand. Market trends are able to pull mineral prices away from the old NPC values and upset the risk versus reward scheme. When the market for zydrine and megacyte crashed late last year and tritanium prices spiked at 3.6 per unit, the crummy old veldspar and scordite in high security space temporarily became one of the most valuable ores to mine.
The current ore distribution system only works well so long as mineral prices stay near the old NPC base prices. As it's clear that market pressures can push the prices away from these values, the ore distribution system shouldn't rely on them. I think it's about time for CCP to create a new ore distribution system which promotes mining in lower security level systems
Another big factor in the reward from mining is the number of players in the game. With over 250,000 players in one server, the markets have reached critical mass and always full of minerals for sale. Because of this, players who need minerals for production don't have to mine it themselves. They can simply make isk by some other method and then buy the minerals they need from the market.
Currently, a specialised mining character struggles to make over 8 million isk per hour in empire systems while a relatively unskilled mission runner can exceed 10 million per hour. With a good ship and some experience under their belt, a mission-runner can earn over 20 or even 30 million isk per hour. As expected, things pick up in 0.0 with a good miner being able to pump out 40-50 million's worth of high end ore per hour.
Mining for the sake of convenience or for local production isn't really viable either. Because of new additions to the game such as freighters, jump drives and the warp-to-zero mechanics, transport of minerals is very fast. It's much easier to transport large volumes of minerals from trade hub systems like Jita to your base of operations than it is to mine them. Because of freighters and the warp-to-zero mechanics, it's now as fast to move 900,000m3 of minerals as it was to move 15,000m3 back in 2004.
Five years down the line, I am forced to ask why CCP haven't completely revamped their mining game mechanics yet. It's no longer an effective primary means of mineral acquisition and currently yields less isk per hour than mission-running. When a specialised mining character with a year of industrial skills under their belt and an expensive tech 2 mining barge makes less than half as much isk as a six month old pilot in his first battleship, it's a clear indicator that something is wrong.
We've had complete revamps of ship hitpoints, ECM, missions and a number of other game elements and yet we're still using the same boring old mining system. The mechanics of mining are in dire need of a complete overhaul to breathe new life into a part of EVE that's gone stale with time. Plans for system-wide asteroid belts, comet mining and a more interactive mining experience have been laying on the drawing board for as long as I can remember. Isn't it about time those plans were implemented?