EVE Evolved: Looking forward to the winter expansion

EVE Evolved title image
Since EVE Online's release in 2003, CCP Games has been the center of one of the most interesting success stories in the games industry. Produced by a tiny indie development studio on a frozen volcanic rock, EVE was the perfect example of how to do things right. The game's publishing deal with Simon & Schuster allowed CCP to buy back the rights to the game several months after its initial release. With no publisher taking a cut of the profits, CCP ploughed subscriptions back into the game's development and grew the development team organically. As a one-game company, CCP worked closely with players to make EVE the best game possible for its loyal playerbase.

In a recent letter to the players, CCP CEO Hilmar laments that somewhere along the line, things changed for the worse. The CCP of today bears little resemblance to the "little indie studio that could" of 2003, not just housing over 600 employees in offices around the world but also developing upcoming MMOs DUST 514 and World of Darkness. Resources are spread thin, and EVE Online has suffered for it. Last month I looked back at the blockbuster Apocrypha expansion and asked why every expansion since then has cut down on the in-space development players want. Hilmar's letter and its accompanying devblog answered that question this week with a solid plan for iteration on flying in space features during the winter development period.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look forward to the winter expansion and explain why each of the issues being tackled in the coming expansion is a big deal to players.

EVE side-imageSupercapital nerf

Supercapitals are a perfect example of how to wreck the balance of fleet warfare. The Dominion expansion aimed to bring more small alliances into nullsec by making it difficult and prohibitively expensive for large alliances to defend the vast regions of space to which they have historically held on. Unfortunately, nullsec wasn't iterated on following Dominion's release almost two years ago. In that time, the balance of power has shifted even further toward the alliances with the most financial wealth and thus the most supercapitals. Titans and motherships were meant to be kept in check by having massive build costs, but cost is never a viable limiting factor in availability of a ship for long.

The biggest alliances now routinely trot out fleets of over a hundred supercapitals, making it practically impossible for a poorer entity to successfully invade a rich alliance's territory. Capital ships are on the chopping block this winter, which comes as a relief to the players forced to migrate from nullsec to empire or wormhole space. What form this nerf will take is anyone's guess, but I'd love to see the role of titans and supercarriers transformed to take away the advantage of fielding dozens of them. Titans could be turned into a deployable base of operations for an ongoing war, a dockable station that can be loaded with ships and other war supplies. Supercarriers could be similarly transformed into deployable tools for sovereignty capture or used as defense platforms for an invading titan.

EVE side-image Tackling the big issues

The summer of 2008 was a fantastic time for me as an EVE player, as faction warfare offered instant-action PvP on a small scale. In the months following its release, faction warfare had initial success marred by slight issues that were never revisited or iterated on. A lack of consequence for system ownership caused the Gallente to abandon systems and the Caldari to give up on PvP. When rewards were introduced, the whole system turned into farmer's dream, and the small-scale PvP we enjoyed in 2008 became a thing of the past. Faction warfare is finally due for some proper iteration this winter, though exact details of the revamp have yet to be released.

Ship spinning makes its glorious return this winter, with developers finally admitting that Incarna should be an optional part of the game and not something players should be forced to use. Players will be able to board or unboard their ships manually to switch between the Incarna environment and the old ship hangar, and the server will remember the last option selected. Two weeks ago, I spoke of the return of ship spinning and explained why it's such a big deal to players. The fact that it's making a return this winter hopefully signals an end to the adversarial relationship CCP has cultivated with players over the last few years -- a clean slate for developers and players alike.

Last week I discussed EVE's ongoing war on lag and the new time dilation feature that literally slows down time within the game when the server reaches its maximum processing limit. Early tests were evidently so promising that CCP has committed to rolling the feature out to the live servers this winter. Fleet lag may be a thing of the past when time dilation goes live, allowing battles involving thousands of ships to proceed normally but at a slower pace. These slower fights may even prove to be more popular than smaller battles, as slowing down time means people will have time to get a new ship and get back in the fight if they're stationed nearby.

EVE side-imagePet peeves

Over the years, a few small issues have dominated discussions on development resource allocation. Blasters, assault ships, and black ops battleships are badly in need of balancing, and they form part of what players and the CSM call the "low-hanging fruit" of development -- issues that would require very low development time but would be very well received by players. As far as players are concerned, these are issues that could be solved in a single day as they require only minor changes to values in a database. There's obviously additional testing work to be done, but much of the balance discussion has already taken place on the forum and some great ideas have been laid out before the public eye.

The winter expansion will rebalance blasters, fix the role of assault ships, and introduce a new font. While not major issues, these three things represent a goodwill gesture to players more than anything else. The fact that these things haven't been looked at for several years has made them symbols of the problems with CCP's resource allocation. The official line on these issues has always been that they would require more effort than players realise to resolve, but when Team BFF began blasting through similar issues in record time this year, it became obvious that this wasn't true. Resolving to fix those little issues that players have been bringing up for years is a solid move, and I hope it speaks of things to come.

EVE side-image More captains quarters

Incarna has been something of a monster at CCP, eating development resources and consistently going both over time and over budget. Several prototypes have been scrapped over the years, and an entire new development framework had to be created just to make the Incarna we have today feasible at all. Incarna is an incredible technical advance in the industry, but unfortunately it was unveiled with the absolute bare minimum of content. To make Incarna fit within a tight summer expansion launch window, CCP reduced it to the basic playable unit: a single non-customisable room we can walk around in by ourselves. That's not an MMO expansion -- it's a tech demo.

We expected to see more captain's quarters released by now, but as with everything Incarna-related, the work involved seems to have been severely underestimated. CCP has now committed to releasing more captain's quarters by winter, which at the bare minimum means we'll get the basic one room per race we should have had by now. As Incarna rooms are built using a modular system of interchangeable walls and objects, building new rooms from existing assets shouldn't be too much work once the first of each race's rooms have been produced. CCP recently showed off a video of the four racial captain's quarters, which indicates that we might see new, larger quarters released during the winter period. I wouldn't be surprised if upgraded quarters turned up in the cash shop, but to be honest I'd rather spend $20 on a new room than on a pair of boots or a shirt anyway.

Final Thoughts title image
Over the years, CCP has gone from impossible success to impossible success, last year accruing more subscriptions than the number of citizens in the developer's home country of Iceland. Somewhere along the line, Hilmar admits, CCP began to take that success for granted. In pushing to hit two big expansion releases per year despite the company's internal iterative development methodologies, several expansions have been rushed out incomplete and never iterated on again. Hopefully Hilmar's letter signifies a return to the old CCP that had its finger firmly on the pulse of the EVE community and developed for the players.

In addition to the above items, the winter expansion slot will see a starbase logistics overhaul, new T2 modules, new electronic warfare drones, and an update to tech 2 rig manufacturing. To accomplish all of this, CCP is reducing development on Incarna. Instead of pushing out an unfinished multiplayer establishment feature to an unenthusiastic reception, CCP will be concentrating on the in-space features we've been asking for first and trying to do establishments right. Player now wait to see if CCP can deliver on these promises over the next few months, but we wait with an optimism I thought lost in this summer's drama.

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.