The NPCs that spawn in a system's asteroid belts will depend largely on the system's security level. Systems with a security level of 0.5 or above will have barely any NPCs in the asteroid belts and almost all of them will be frigates with tiny bounties. Low security systems with a security rating of 0.4 to 0.1 are significantly better. The asteroid belts there spawn packs of cruisers, battlecruisers and occasionally a battleship. Unfortunately, this isn't really enough to outweigh the risks of encountering roaming pirates. It's a lot safer to run missions in high security space than to venture into low security systems, and level 4 missions will make considerably more ISK per hour.
By comparison, the lower population density of most nullsec regions makes them much safer and the NPCs here are prime for farming. In the relative isolation of nullsec, you can often go ratting for hours without encountering another player. All nullsec systems can get spawns containing battleships, with bounties ranging from 500k to 2.05 million ISK per ship. Some star systems will tend to get higher bounty battleship NPCs and more triple battleship spawns than others, with a higher chance of getting valuable faction commanders.
Picking a system
The magic number that determines how likely you are to get the higher bounty battleships is a system's true security rating. On the in-game map, all nullsec systems are listed as having a 0.0 security rating, but they actually have a hidden negative security rating in the range from -0.01 to -1.0. This is a system's true security rating and it can be found on various map tools and websites. The lower this number is, the more likely you'll get high bounty battleships, triple battleship spawns and faction commander ships. A system with a true security rating of -0.44, for example, would be a significantly better spot for ratting than a -0.06 system. You'll also want to pick a system with plenty of asteroid belts so you never run out of NPCs to shoot at.
A special rule exists for systems in an NPC pirate faction's home region which forces them to spawn NPCs as if their security rating is -1.0, the best possible type. The extremely rare officer NPCs that can drop some modules worth billions allegedly also only spawn in their pirate faction's home region. These factors make NPC pirate regions like Stain and Venal very lucrative for ratting. More importantly, the regions are littered with NPC stations that anyone can dock at. If you plan to go ratting in NPC systems, keep in mind that they're often hot-spots for piracy and have a higher population density than most nullsec systems. To find somewhere you can remain hidden, study the in-game map or out-of-game map tools to find a quiet system with very few jumps over a 24-hour period.
Strategies: Security status
As you spend any length of time blowing NPCs to smithereens, you'll notice your security status slowly climbing. Increases to security rating used to be given for every NPC killed but this made it a little too easy to recover security status after performing suicide ganks. Currently, you get a security rating increase once every 20 minutes based on the highest bounty NPC ship killed during that time.
The 20-minute timer is separate for each star system so to speed things along, you can kill a battleship NPC in an asteroid belt near a stargate and then jump into another system to repeat the process. If you find a nice triangle of systems to jump between, you can get three security rating updates every 20 minutes instead of just one.
If you're farming NPCs for ISK rather than security status, emphasis will be on maximising your income. There are two main strategies for this, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. The simplest method is to warp from belt to belt killing every NPC ship in sight. This has the drawback that you may waste a lot of time killing small ships and waiting for replacement spawns to appear.
Each new spawn has a chance of being a rare faction commander, a hauler spawn that drops minerals or even a super rare officer NPC. Cosmic anomalies full of NPC ships can also be found near planets with the built-in scanner, which can be more profitable and still carries a chance of faction commander spawns. Nullsec systems held under player sovereignty can be upgraded to guarantee they will always contain plenty of cosmic anomalies.
If you've got a few hours to spare for a ratting session, chaining NPCs can provide a lot more ISK than a standard blitz method. Chaining works on the basis that as long as at least one ship in a group is left, any other ships in the spawn that are killed will respawn after a 20 minute wait. The basic idea behind chaining is to blow up only high-bounty battleships and leave everything else alone. If there are no sufficiently high-bounty battleships in a spawn, kill the whole group so a new one will soon respawn in its place.
Since each battleship will respawn after 20 minutes, the ships in the first asteroid belt should have respawned by the time you're finished with those in the last belt. You're essentially provided with a constant stream of high-bounty battleships, but this comes at a cost. Since you're not finishing off entire spawns, there's no chance of getting a faction commander, hauler NPCs or an officer spawn. The battleships that re-appear will always be exactly the same as those that were killed. This is a popular strategy for those looking to make a large, stable income in nullsec.
Ratting in nullsec can be a great way to make ISK and improve your security status. In next week's second part of this two-part guide, I'll look at the best ships to use for ratting and give some important safety tips that will help keep your ship safe in hostile territory.
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at massively.com. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you want to message him, send him an e-mail at brendan.drain AT weblogsinc DOT com.
Special thanks go to reader "Benicio" for suggesting the topic for this guide!