CCP has opened new space before with the addition of the drone regions in nullsec and some new lowsec systems for faction warfare, but it wasn't until 2009's Apocrypha expansion that we saw a true exploration and long-term colonisation effort get underway. I think the intoxicating draw of wormhole exploration was primarily due to the fact that the new systems were hidden and the information on them wasn't public. Just adding new solar systems to the existing stargate network wouldn't have had the same effect. Nordgren's vision may take up to 10 expansions to fully realise, but what kinds of features will we need in those expansions to recreate true exploration and deep space colonisation?
In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at some of the challenges CCP will have to overcome to make deep space colonisation a reality and what small steps could be taken in each expansion to get us there.
How might player-built stargates work?
The idea of scanning for unexplored new solar systems and jumping to them with a special kind of stargate really appeals to me, but I'd hate for something so epic to be built with a simple system like that used for scan probes. To keep the feeling of truly exploring deep space, I think it would be awesome if the new solar systems were completely off the grid and had to be found by players firing blindly into the void. Player-built stargates could be programmed with a rough distance for the jump and a certain declination and ascension angle in degrees and minutes. We could then literally fling players or deep space remote probes blindly to incrementally change co-ordinates, hoping to strike it lucky and land close to a new star system or some juicy oddity in deep space.
If the end point of the jump happens to be within a few thousand AU of a new solar system, the star would be visible in the distance and could be warped to. Actually finding a new solar system with this mechanic would be a tricky and drawn-out process but potentially incredibly worthwhile. After scouting a newly discovered solar system for resources, corporations would likely spend the time to find a more accurate fix closer to the parent star and build a return stargate on the other side. If we give players the ability to construct stargates anywhere in empty space, rival corporations could even build their own secret multi-jump routes of stargates in the void between solar systems to bypass enemy territory.
A new warfare dynamic
The ability to create individual stargates pointing in a particular direction without a return gate on the other side could create an incredibly interesting territorial warfare dynamic. All CCP would have to do is make it so that stargates are visible if you're within a few hundred or thousand AU, just as I proposed earlier for stars. An interesting strategic metagame would then arise, one in which corporations would search for each other's stargates and attempt to cut off access to the solar system. That's got to be more fun and meaningful than shooting at otherwise pointless territorial claim units and sovereignty blockade units, and it opens the door to some very interesting tactics.
Most corporations would want to have a return gate for easy logistics, but that could potentially represent a security risk if it's discovered. A rival corp might be able to hack the return stargate to gain access to its co-ordinates or find them out through traditional espionage and could then locate and destroy a vital part of the logistics chain. Attacking corporations might even choose not to build a return gate, effectively stranding its pilots in enemy territory and making suicide attack fleets. It would then be down to the defender to hunt down the attacker's stargate at its remote location and knock it out.
Keeping exploration accessible to anyone
New solar systems will always result in a land grab by established alliances, so the tricky part will be keeping this new exploration and colonisation gameplay accessible to smaller corporations and even individuals. This could be achieved by revisiting CCP Greyscale's 2011 ideas on smallholdings, a series of small anchorable structures aimed at individuals and small corporations that require very little or no fuel upkeep. These could be immediately destroyed and looted by anyone if they're discovered but would be very difficult to find, allowing individuals and small corps to operate in secret on the periphery of a larger alliance's territory without staking a visible claim.
For example, why not give individuals the ability to create cheap low-power stargates that can only fire once per day, or give corporations stargates that can transport up to 50 people per day? Other structures could include standalone item hangars, ammo factories, and refineries. The smallest and most limited versions of these should be very difficult to detect on their own, but larger structures or large collections of them within a 100-1000AU of each other should be much easier to find and destroy. This would make smallholdings useful for individuals but not let them scale up well to larger operations that would be better suited to a permanent starbase or station.
A new scanner system
To tie all the above ideas together requires that players be able to locate objects at ranges of up to thousands of AU, and we currently don't have a long-range scanner capable of that. What we need is a radar-like scanner designed to detect signatures in deep space, letting people see far-away stars, high-powered stargates, and even ships. Objects in deep space could be classified in broad categories like energy signatures for stargates, metallic signatures for ships and smallholdings, and deadspace signatures for any tasty treats that might be hidden in the void between star systems. Needless to say, the local channel would have to be disabled in deep space.
Objects would have a signature strength based on their size, which determines the maximum range at which they can be seen for a ship with a given radar-scanner strength. All the signatures within 100-1000 AU blocks would be grouped together, so a fleet of ships remaining in relative proximity in warp would appear as a large blob on scan to people a long way away. Small groups would then be able to avoid detection when moving around in deep space, but large fleets or capital ships would stick out like a sore thumb. This could also be used to make smallholdings difficult to detect, as people would have to get very close to an isolated hangar structure to see it on radar.
EVE Fanfest 2013, the crowd let out an audible gasp. We were presented with the ultimate sci-fi sandbox concept, but we were also reminded that it may take five years and so up to 10 expansions' worth of work before we get there. It can be difficult to see the small steps that might lead us to that future vision over the coming years, but it's such an exciting prospect that I can't help but speculate on it.
The ideas above are just a few of the possible new features that I think could also be added as smaller steps toward the ultimate goal of truly player-run deep space empires. CCP could open the deep space between stars for limited exploration, introduce smallholdings for nullsec, and maybe even let players build their own deadspace fortresses around small strategic resources. Opening new solar systems for colonisation is sure to be incredible when it does come along, providing a new strategic landscape on which to build empires, wage wars, and live stories we'll remember for years to come.
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.