EVE Evolved: Casual gameplay and public groups

I've always held a belief that EVE Online isn't really at its best until I get into a good group. A lot of the most fun gameplay I've experienced over the years has been in a small group of strangers, friends or people who would soon become my friends. The year I spent in faction warfare and the two years I spent on wormhole expeditions with friends were incredibly good times that I look back on fondly. I've even found that the parts of EVE that aren't specifically intended for groups, such as exploration, mission-running, and trading, are a lot more enjoyable if I take a few friends along for the ride. There's no doubt in my mind that EVE is primarily a group game.

Two weeks ago, I talked about how EVE is more of a giant social sandbox than a game and that it's EVE's social nature that really motivates people to keep playing in the long-term. The remarkable ability of social communities in MMOs to self-organise when faced with challenges could be a massive asset to EVE's development if used well. When faction warfare was first released, for example, players rapidly organised themselves into fleets. People who had never met each other, many with no PvP experience at all, were soon practicing core fleet maneuvers together as a cohesive unit and facing off against hostile fleets. With nothing but a war declaration, some cosmic anomalies, and a few medals, EVE turned thousands of newbies into four terrifying fighting forces. That is something I'd definitely like to see repeated.

In this week's opinion-filled EVE Evolved, I delve into the world of casual gameplay and ask whether new public group activities could dramatically broaden EVE's appeal and keep gameplay fresh.

EVE is a cold, dark, and harsh-- wait, what?

In the year I spent as part of the Gallente faction warfare militia, the most remarkable thing I saw was the generosity of public groups. After any successful fleet operation, the fleet commander would often ask players to donate loot or tiny sums of ISK to those who had lost ships. Collectively, the group's tiny sums of ISK added up to pay for whole new fitted ships. We often think of other EVE players as callous and competitive, but here they were spontaneously donating to help someone they had never met before that day.

It was an incredible bonding experience, and as a result of this generosity's becoming common practice, players weren't afraid to fill dangerous roles like electronic warfare specialists who tend to die early in a fight. This kind of banding together of strangers is something I had never seen before, but I have seen it once since then. That same spirit of cooperation was seen when players began tackling Sansha incursions, first during the invasion events leading up to the Incursion expansion and then later during the public fleets themselves.

On my first night in an incursion fleet, I lost an expensive logistics ship during the final mothership battle. Afterward, enough players sent me a small cut of their reward payout from killing the mothership that I could afford a whole new ship. Believe it or not, EVE players can be fantastically kind in public groups.

Group progress and casual gameplay

Group progress has long since become a major aspect of MMOs, and EVE is no exception. Fantasy MMOs often present guild-based raid progression or special guild achievements with unlockable perks; EVE's group progress is more freeform. Corps decide their own directions and goals, whether that's to run a successful research starbase, build a capital ship or just blow up as many players as is humanly possible. Something we've seen in the last few years, however, is that to attract a wider audience, MMOs need to be friendly to casual and mostly solo players rather than just groups.

For EVE, much of the casual gameplay has typically involved solo mission-running, mining, and playing the market. While these can all be fun activities in their own right, EVE's best and most entertaining gameplay involves groups. I think its important that all players be able to access those group activities in some manner, regardless of whether they typically prefer to do their own thing or play casually. If only well-established groups like large corporations could reasonably engage in things like gang warfare, level 5 missions, or starbase operations, that would prevent an entire section of the game's potential population from engaging in what could be very rewarding group gameplay.

Public grouping in other MMOs

I think the best trick for keeping an MMO's multiplayer gameplay deep and engaging for established groups like corporations or guilds without shunning casual players is to build mechanics around public grouping. In the past few years, we've seen several MMOs implement public group systems with a high degree of success. Most recently, RIFT launched with a seamless public grouping system for tackling rift events in which players are thrown together with complete strangers. Rewards aren't directly split among the players involved, providing a strong incentive to keep your group open to the public and let unknown players in.

On the older end of the market, Blizzard Entertainment has practically made an art out of lowering the complexity and barrier to entry of group gameplay in its fantasy MMO World of Warcraft. An automatic dungeon grouping tool makes it incredibly easy to get into a group of complete strangers and enjoy group gameplay. Players can hop into the game and get into a dungeon any time they like without having to schedule it in advance. Players also routinely run public raids throughout the week, letting guildless or casual players experience the same group content and get the same raid progression as their more hardcore counterparts. While not all of this translates into EVE, the core concepts surrounding public grouping are universal to all MMOs.

Public grouping in EVE

In EVE, faction warfare and incursions both did something that I hadn't thought possible in EVE -- making unscheduled group content accessible to everyone. You can currently log in any time you like, and there's a good chance that there'll be a highsec incursion in progress and ready to tackle. When you reach the incursion location, players will be recruiting logistics pilots, snipers, and assorted damage-dealers into their public fleets. If you only play for a few hours a week or your play time isn't guaranteed, it can be hard to get into scheduled group activities. In enabling unscheduled "instant-action" group play, incursions have given EVE something it's been sorely missing and that other MMOs have long since learned to capitalise on.

Faction warfare was a fantastic example of how players self-organise into public groups that support each other and how unscheduled public group play can even work in PvP. In the wake of Apocrypha, faction warfare rapidly became a great example of how to ruin that golden formula. When participation in the war eventually began to dwindle with players moving on to new and more interesting activities, CCP failed to re-incentivise PvP in the system. Instead, CCP incentivised the faction warfare mission system that had never become the flashpoint for PvP it was originally intended to be, turning faction warfare into a farmer's dream.

Expiration date

It's possible that public group mechanics like faction warfare and the Sansha incursions might never be suitable as permanent additions to the game. A certain density of motivated players is required for the features to keep running effectively without being a disappointment. Since players will eventually get bored of any content and move on to something else, it's reasonable to assume group features may not be sustainable indefinitely. In the same way we see fantasy MMOs make old content obsolete with each expansion to make way for new dungeons and raids, we may need to see EVE's current group gameplay replaced.

The war between EVE's factions may need to take a new stage and format, being redesigned to provide a refreshing new battlefield for casual PvP junkies. I also think it's only a matter of time before incursions start to see such a drop in activity as to make efficient public grouping unreliable. If incursions are fated to suffer the same activity drop as faction warfare, it may be better to have them eventually end before they fade into the background.

Time will tell whether CCP will be able to reinvigorate the system when that happens or whether the company might choose to replace the feature with something new before that point. We might some day see Sansha's forces pushed back, and in their place a new enemy might take the stage. Perhaps we'll be taking sides in a war against invading Gurristas pirate forces or pushing back an unholy wave of Rogue Drones threatening to devour a space station's structure.

Summary

EVE players exhibit a remarkable patience for public group activities, and they may be the key to capturing those elusive casual players to whom CCP has been trying so desperately to appeal. Casual players are a frighteningly large portion of today's MMO market, and it's going to take more than walking around stations trying on fancy hats to keep them interested. With two solid examples of the success of public grouping, I can only hope that we'll see more of it in future. With any luck, future expansions may introduce new and innovative group PvE and PvP activities designed with public grouping and unscheduled gameplay in mind.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to brendan@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.