EVE Online's sandbox approach to game design is one where where centralized, well-developed clusters of solar systems are controlled by NPC factions while vast, lawless tracts of space can be claimed by the players themselves. This 0.0 space (aka nullsec) contains some of EVE's most valuable resources plus offers complete freedom from the laws imposed in high security NPC space. It's the frontier -- the wild west -- that alliances of EVE's capsuleers clash with one another to control.
For all the freedom to use diplomacy, espionage, and outright warfare to get the most out of 0.0 space, players have long been hindered by the game mechanics of "sovereignty" -- EVE's system of establishing control over territory and reaping the various rewards that come with such control. The changes CCP Games are making to the game with the Dominion winter expansion aren't just about altering a few game mechanics related to territorial control -- they're about changing the rules of the sandbox itself.
Any sweeping changes to the entrenched sovereignty system could seriously unbalance the game, and the dev blogs from CCP Games leading up to Dominion seem to be largely focused on easing the playerbase into how the sovereignty revamp will play out.
CCP recently gave a broad overview of some of the changes coming to EVE, but now they're focusing a bit more on the details players have been waiting to read about. EVE Game Designer CCP Greyscale writes about this undertaking in the company's latest dev blog:
"We've been given a mandate to re-engineer the dynamics of nullsec. Which is exciting, and challenging, and maybe a little scary. We think this stuff is kind of important, and it's not like there's anyone else in the industry who we could talk to about this stuff even if we wanted to. Nobody else does - has ever really done - what we do here: it's undiscovered country."
He takes aim at the state of affairs in nullsec, ranging from the need for alliances to cling to high-value moons for the ISK; the nearly uniform warfare tactics employed by the various PvP alliances in 0.0; and the state of capital ship and starbase warfare that's become the norm.
The game as it exists today also makes it difficult for people to migrate from high security NPC space into the 0.0 frontier. Greyscale writes, "If we have a really compelling game experience, and we have players that want to try it out but can't, then we're doing something wrong somewhere."
The systems players have adapted to have necessitated some of this, of course, but CCP envisions a more dynamic environment in nullsec -- one that encourages more emergence in gameplay, says Greyscale.
Their goal, then, is to provide players with more tools and thus more options, enabling a system where the path to conquest is less about rote steps taken to control space. Dominance of this nature should be less about jumping through hoops and more about dynamic warfare, where players simply do what's necessary to defeat their enemies in a given situation rather than check off a list of prescribed steps to attaining sovereignty.
Changes to conquerable space stations, or outposts, are also part of CCP's plan to improve nullsec as well. They're aiming to make their solutions timezone proof so alliances with a stronger presence in, say, US timezones can take advantage of this fact when facing alliances largely active in EU and other timezones.
While the current state of sovereignty and outposts are major impediment to emergent gameplay in nullsec, there's more to the issue. Greyscale says that resource density and population density are factors CCP must consider. When you look at the total number of active characters in the game, it's a relatively small percentage living in nullsec. The few but the wealthy, thanks to the high value of rare moon minerals only found in 0.0.
Greyscale points out that having fewer players in 0.0, generally not tapping or fully utilizing the resources in their territories but holding space to keep rival alliances away from their moons, means that small fleets aren't particularly effective in nullsec. There are fewer small operations or soft targets to attack, and it's typically the huge fleet battles that determine the course of an alliance's rise or decline over time. But it doesn't have to be like this. He adds, "Here everything ties itself into a messy knot that can be unravelled in a fairly elegant way."
If CCP creates a system where players can better utilize their space and its resource density, these territories can support more players. This will give players more choices in how to build up their infrastructures. Of course, if moon minerals have ludicrously high values then no one would want to bother, so the devs will reduce the amount of income possible from moon mining operations. Greyscale says, "This means that the best way to raise funds for an alliance will once again be to fill your space with as many people as possible, upgrade your space as much as possible and watch the money roll in."
Ultimately, if the Dominion expansion changes work as planned, nullsec alliances will focus on tapping the potential of smaller swaths of 0.0 instead leading to less sprawl. More space will open up for new alliances to move in, and more of that large percentage of the playerbase safely ensconced in the warm embrace of high sec will have real motivation to head out to the frontier.
Then, Greyscale writes, new opportunities for emergent gameplay in EVE's sandbox will emerge. Having more players out in 0.0 could be good all around as the alliance warfare landscape could become more varied, and perhaps more realistic. Alliances that focus on industry will have more money than the military alliances which presently hold the greatest wealth because of those moons. Greyscale says, "[...] history (both in EVE and in the real world) shows that badass military organizations can't handle crop rotation without going soft and squishy. This dichotomy leads to more interesting conflicts; balanced but non-symmetic wars and political interactions between organizations with wildly differing objectives tend to be more entertaining than fights between largely identical groups."
CCP Greyscale's dev blog "Sovereignty: Emergence is Neat" actually goes into much greater depth on these issues. It's worth a read if you're an EVE Online player, whether you're a high sec dweller wondering what opportunities 0.0 might hold for you, or you're part of a space holding alliance and need to know how EVE's sandbox paradigm is going to change with Dominion.