EVE Evolved: How to fix nullsec territorial warfare

EVE Evolved title image
If you've been playing EVE Online lately or just following the major events in the game, it can't have escaped your notice that nullsec has become a bit stagnant. The lawless nullsec regions are supposed to be politically unstable territories claimed by hundreds of warring player-run alliances, but today they're dominated primarily by just two or three mega-coalitions. Individual alliances can no longer hold out against the combined forces of the coalitions and must either pick a side or be annihilated. The coalitions have even signed agreements not to take space from each other by force, and players are being bored to death as a result.

Two weeks ago, I examined the history of force projection in EVE Online and made the argument that capital ships and jump drives ultimately created today's nullsec problems. Increases in mobility have led to alliances teaming up over vast distances, making mega-coalitions an inevitable outcome. It's obviously too late to remove capital ships or jump logistics, but there are plenty of other ways to potentially fix the nullsec problem. We had some great discussions in the comments of the previous article about how this complex problem could be solved without making warfare the painful slog it was back in 2004, and I believe it's possible.

In this edition of EVE Evolved, I lay out some ideas for new game mechanics that could solve the current nullsec crisis and may meet CCP's goals for the eventual sovereignty revamp that's on the way.

EVE Evolved side imageDominion sovereignty needs to disappear

While blame is often heaped onto the playerbase for setting up massive non-aggression agreements and mutual defense pacts, a large part of the blame has to rest with the developers. EVE players are adept at finding the most effective way to play the game, so forming ever-larger groups was inevitable as long as the game mechanics permitted it. Though EVE has always prided itself on being a sandbox that doesn't impose artificial limitations, the only way to break the coalitions now is to design a system that kills the benefit of forming massive fleets. Players will always bring the largest force possible to every engagement as long as the outcome is determined by numbers.

The current sovereignty system revolves around shooting at structures, which then go into reinforced mode and become invulnerable for roughly between 24 and 72 hours depending on the structure. Both sides are essentially given a time to meet up for the final battle and have plenty of time to gather their full forces. This is the model of territorial warfare introduced with 2009's Dominion expansion, and it needs to disappear. As long as ownership of a solar system is determined by the outcome of scheduled battles, the largest group in any conflict will always come out on top. The ideal solution here would be to use a faction warfare style system where players compete to defend or capture military outposts over the course of weeks or months, creating a kind of interstellar tug of war.

EVE Evolved side imageEmpty systems need to disappear

The ideal territorial warfare system would naturally match the size of an alliance's territory with the number of active members it has using that space. The vast majority of nullsec systems are completely empty and left largely unused for weeks at a time, and those systems should be very difficult to hold onto. Dominion attempted to achieve this with extremely high ISK costs for system ownership, but as we found from the proliferation of supercapitals, ISK never works as a balancing factor in EVE. A high cost simply excludes the vast majority of players and puts yet more power in the hands of the game's largest alliances and individual trillionaires.

The solution must come from game mechanics that make it significantly easier to defend a system that's heavily used and harder to defend one that isn't. A small alliance of 100-200 active players crammed into one or two solar systems should be able to become so entrenched that it could successfully defend against a 3000-man coalition. If we can achieve that, then every alliance can stand on its own two feet outside of a coalition as long as it can keep its members actively playing and defending its space. Territories would naturally shrink to fill only those systems that the owning alliance could adequately defend, growing alliances would expand into neighbouring alliance territory for space, and empty or underused systems would be prime targets for newcomers aiming to make a small land grab.

EVE Evolved side imageBoosting system defense

To achieve this, we'll need a new game mechanic that acts as a force multiplier for defending a star system. Of course, successfully defending means more than just keeping your alliance name next to a little dot on the map. It includes thwarting attacks on important structures like starbases, keeping supply lines open, and keeping the system clear of hostiles when necessary to run economic operations like mining and ratting. What we need is a new range of personal deployable structures that can be placed anywhere in a star system but require the owner to be in the alliance that currently holds sovereignty in the system.

The new structures would be geared toward defense and force multiplication, allowing a smaller fleet to stand toe-to-toe with a larger one. We could have automated defense turrets that shoot only players, shield bubbles that prevent target locks to help miners stay safe, ECCM field projectors, and warp scramblers. We could even get an expensive stargate control that adds a cooldown to stargates to prevent large fleets from jumping in at once, anti-cloaking devices, or remote repair dampeners to break logistics chains. The structures would be purchased from a system's infrastructure hub and only last for an hour or so after purchase, so they couldn't be stockpiled. They'd also be deployable only in the star system where they were purchased so that you couldn't buy them in one system and deploy them in another.

EVE Evolved side imagePunching above your weight category

Since we want the new structures to help more in heavily used star systems, they would have to be bought using a new type of loyalty point system rather than ISK. Players would individually gain points in a star system by playing there, with rewards for mining, killing NPCs, completing exploration sites, or killing players. The points could decay at a rate of about 5% per day so that players would only have a decent stockpile of points in a star system if they'd been actively playing there within the last month. When a star system comes under attack, it would be up to the people who were actively living there to cash in their accrued points to help with defense.

The more people are crammed into the system, the more structures can be bought and the larger the force multiplication will be. To make this mechanic work, one star system will need to be able to support a much larger number of pilots. CCP attempted to increase the carrying capacity of star systems with infrastructure upgrades, but it doesn't really cut it. Instead, we could allow players to spend their accrued points in a star system to spawn new content. You could pay points to "scan down" a new asteroid belt, spawn a random cosmic signature, open a wormhole, or start a mission in space. Cram 50 players into a star system and when they've used up all the content, they'll have enough points to spawn a bunch more.

EVE Evolved title image
The past few years have seen nullsec stagnate into a handful of coalitions with non-aggression pacts that routinely organise non-territorial battles to blot out the monotony of peace. To break up the coalitions, we'll need a full sovereignty revamp that allows smaller alliances to stand on their own two feet against a much larger force. I'd like to see this solved through the introduction of new defensive structures that make economically active star systems very difficult to capture.

The mechanics I described above could be integrated into any sovereignty system CCP comes up with, and it comes with a whole host of added benefits. With predictable access to content like high-level missions and complexes, for example, it'll be much easier for nullsec alliances to schedule group PvE activities. Wormhole corporations already enjoy this due to the fact that there's always an outgoing wormhole to the same class of system, so why not give nullsec the same ability? PvP gangs into neighbouring alliance territory could also be incentivised by giving players points for kills in nearby enemy systems.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the bi-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.