Nullsec offered absolutely no protection against player attacks, and the only safety to be found was in sheer military force. The biggest and best corporations hoarded these gold mines for themselves, locking down the few entrances into the regions and patrolling the skies for unwanted visitors. Low-security space offered a middle-ground between these two extremes, a place where the everyday pilot could enjoy increased income and pirates were easier to spot. At some time in the past nine years, lowsec lost its place in the game and became simply not worth the effort. But how did that happen, and what can be done to fix it?
In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at why lowsec systems are now ghost towns and suggest an alternative design philosophy that I think could revitalise these under-used areas.
Risk vs. reward
While every new piece of content that's been introduced to lowsec has followed the classic risk vs. reward design philosophy, lowsec hasn't been generally seen as worth the risk since around 2005. I think that can be traced to three main trends: the increase in EVE's population, the growing safety of stable nullsec alliances, and the increase in highsec PvE options. All three of these have directly impacted either the risk of living in lowsec or the value of the rewards you can get there.
As EVE's population grew, the probability of being caught when entering lowsec or doing something there dramatically increased. You used to be able to run mining ops for hours before a suspected pirate wandered into the system, but today you'd be lucky to last 10 minutes in a belt or complete one mission before being spotted. Nullsec is intended to be more dangerous than lowsec as there are fewer constraints on PvP there, and so it's there that the best rewards can be found. But since nullsec space is occupied by stable alliances, it's considerably safer to farm there than in lowsec.
Grinding for income
Since the introduction of level 4 missions in 2005, players have enjoyed infinite streams of NPCs in high-security space. Level 4 missions provided highsec players with a way to grind up large sums of ISK in a way that was previously reserved for miners and nullsec ratters. Since then, CCP has employed several tactics to convince players to run missions in more dangerous areas, to no avail. Mission rewards in lowsec are significantly higher, and the most profitable missions are far more common there. There are even special lowsec mission hub systems with several top-quality level 4 agents, and highly profitable level 5 missions are limited to lowsec.
The near-certainty of piracy is enough to render all of those benefits moot for most players. People overwhelmingly prefer to run missions in highsec, often speeding them up by using expensive faction ships and modules that nobody in his right mind would risk in lowsec. When incursions were released in 2010, we saw the exact same effect. Lowsec incursions typically remained unchallenged until they finished, while those in highsec disappeared with such alarming speed that the major incursion corps had to set up a tenuous accord to artificially delay their completion. Lowsec just isn't worth the risk.
A new design philosophy
I don't think it's possible to make lowsec financially attractive enough on a pure risk vs. reward basis to cause people to move there from highsec. It can't provide a larger ISK stream than nullsec or the major political entities would take over, so there's a limit to how much you can financially incentivise living there. What we need is a new design philosophy that offers a fundamentally different playstyle in lowsec than is found elsewhere in the game. It should be a den of criminality, with smuggling, extortion, and illegal deals going on outside police jurisdiction.
Both highsec and nullsec provide a relatively safe home and stable income streams, the only difference being that nullsec safety is maintained by being on the winning side of a political war. Lowsec will never be safe, and so it doesn't work as just another place to grind a stable wage. Instead, I think lowsec should be somewhere that the gamblers of EVE can go to try to strike it rich. Chance-based mechanics have already proven themselves with the popularity of EVE's exploration system. Players will often spend hours scanning through systems hoping to find a rare exploration complex that will drop rare loot, even though they'd make more ISK grinding missions or incursions during that time.
Most of the current content can be easily converted to use similar jackpot-style mechanics. Instead of mining asteroids, you could plant drills there that drill to the core and detonate a bomb, smashing the asteroids apart to reveal anything valuable inside. Most asteroids would be empty or low-value, but the occasional one would reveal a hidden fortune in minerals. Once the drill is attached to the asteroid, it should have to be manually charged up to an amount of energy based on the volume of ore inside the asteroid; this would make blast-mining consume the same time and effort investment as mining
Missions could be augmented with a new set of underground agents who sell information and ask for criminal favours in return. The favours would just be new missions that ask you to smuggle items into nearby highsec systems, plunder local drug labs, and root out CONCORD spies. You'd be rewarded with loyalty points you can use to buy information, access to temporary smuggler's stargates, and lowsec-only drug manufacturing equipment.
The types of information you could buy could include details of where and when an illegal deal is going on that you could intercept for a chance at a big find. Smugglers could buy access to temporary smuggler's stargates or get the week's customs officer shift schedules for a system, revealing when the gates will be unprotected and when they can sneak illegal goods through. Manufacturing and smuggling could be further criminalised with new combat boosters, radioactive ammo, and rapidly manufactured knockoff modules that are illegal until laundered by criminals hidden in high-security space.
I imagine a lowsec where some players run drug labs or dangerous manufacturing plants and others make a living smuggling illegal products into highsec for laundering and sale. I imagine players doing favours for local criminal agents in exchange for access to smuggler's stargates and valuable information. Criminals could even rack up a bounty with every crime they commit and become vulnerable targets for antipirate players invading from highsec. There's a lot of potential in a lowsec-focused expansion to add a very real lure to lowsec, giving would-be smugglers and gamblers a place to strike it rich and giving pirates some much-needed prey. We can only hope CCP decides that lowsec deserves this kind of attention in a future expansion.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.