EVE Evolved: Building a better empire

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EVE Evolved: Building a better empire
EVE Evolved title image: Building a better empire
It's often said that EVE Online is 99% endgame, with only the tutorials and epic mission arcs really providing directed gameplay. Once you get out into the open world, the game is dominated by sandbox laws and social interaction. This is most clear in the lawless nullsec regions where alliances war over territory and build their own empires in the void.

Last week I looked back at the early days of nullsec industry and examined the problems industry has developed over the years. With a massive nullsec revamp scheduled to begin this winter, I went on to speculate on how the game could be changed to bring back the glory days of nullsec industry. Although adequately incentivised local mining and production could transform player-created empires, those aren't the only areas of gameplay being revisited. Sovereignty mechanics, fleet warfare, small gang warfare, exploration and small-scale territorial control will all eventually be redesigned as part of the massive iterative overhaul.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at the history of EVE's empire-building and territorial warfare mechanics, some of the problems faced by the sovereignty system, and how those aspects of EVE could possibly be changed for the better.

EVE outpost imageBuilding an empire

Following the release of player-owned starbases in 2004, the lawless outer regions were colonised by alliances with strong industrial forces. Official ownership of a star system was automatically granted to the alliance with the most starbases installed there, but the huge fuel costs of defensible large starbases made them a challenge to maintain. Industrialists were given the task of turning sovereignty starbases into profit-making enterprises through moon-mining and reacting advanced materials.

Early colonisation efforts were largely unhindered by war as the effort required to destroy a starbase and the near-certainty of incurring massive losses rarely outweighed the value of a moon. When full-fledged outposts arrived on the scene, only a few alliances had the finances and manpower required to construct one. The 34.5 billion ISK needed to build EVE's first Gallente outpost, "ISS Marginis" in KDF-GY, was paid for by a huge list of public investors in the first ever financial IPO inside an MMO.

Today's nullsec is a different animal entirely, with rapid ISK inflation and the sharply decreasing build cost of outposts terraforming what was once an untamed frontier. There are now around 250 player-built outposts and 68 conquerable stations in the game, making it rare to fly more than a few jumps without bumping into one. Every moon was scanned long ago, and heavy industrial corporations are no longer required to support an alliance's sovereignty-holding efforts.

EVE dreadnought imageEvolution of war

In the early days of nullsec colonisation, it was more common for alliances to lock a system's stargates down and starve a starbase to death than to actually attack it head-on. When dreadnoughts were introduced, their jump drives made refueling a starbase possible even while the supply lines were under siege. Capable of dealing massive damage to stationary structures and tanking the damage output of a well-defended starbase, dreadnoughts also gave players the means to tackle starbases directly.

As dreadnoughts were stuck in place during a siege, and as losing one would cost an alliance several billion ISK per ship, they made tempting targets for the defending alliance. No commander dared commit dreadnoughts to a fight without a solid backup fleet, usually using a core force of up to a dozen dreadnoughts with a support fleet numbering in the hundreds. This setup initially worked well and produced some incredibly fun fights, but with the rapid proliferation of capital ships, things quickly got out of hand.

Alliances began to routinely throw fleets of hundreds of capital ships at each other, and for a time the titan's doomsday weapon even made support fleets all but obsolete. Today, it's the alliance with the most supercarriers and titans that wins fights. These once-rare ships designed as logistical tools and command platforms for nullsec warfare are now common and affordable, and they and fill the role of killing other capital ships with ease.

EVE starbase warfare imageJust a name on the map?

The core concept of nullsec is that it's a place for people to create their own homes and build their own empires from the ground up. CCP tried to achieve this first through the original starbase system and later expanded on that design with Dominion's territorial claim unit mechanic. The goal for the attacker has always been to turn up at a pre-arranged time and shoot at stationary structures until he wins. While some epic battles have definitely occurred under both regimes, CCP admits that these fights have always happened in spite of the capture mechanics rather than because of them.

If the defender chooses not to show up, the attacker currently still has to jump through the same hoops of shooting at structures with practically no possibility of awesome fights occurring. Bizarrely, even if an alliance functionally shuts down and exists only as a name on the map, its space still has to be conquered through long and tedious sieges. Mostly Harmless alliance imploded months ago but still officially holds sovereignty in two systems and owns two outposts simply because it would require an investment of time and effort to take over its space. Those systems aren't easy pickings because a large force is still required to conquer it in a timely manner and there's always a risk of being attacked by a third party during each siege.

EVE infrastructure hub imageAn alternative mechanic

CCP's new goal is to have official system ownership go to whichever alliance has de facto control over the system. Rather than forcing attackers to burn through a pre-determined set of roadblocks before awarding them complete control, the new mechanic would ideally determine ownership based on the current state of the natural war between neighbouring alliances. Imagine a nullsec system with dozens of different strategic points that can be attacked to win influence points. Sovereignty of the system would officially change over when the attacking alliance has more influence points than the defender.

Each piece of infrastructure built in a system would give the defender influence points, making a system that's heavily invested in harder to take over. Attackers could engage and disable each piece of infrastructure to naturally disrupt day-to-day activities and in the process capture the system a little. Potential targets include outpost services, moon-miners, sentry turrets, new anchorable structures and planetary installations, each of which could become vulnerable for short windows of time throughout the day.

After successfully disabling a piece of infrastructure, the attacker would periodically gain influence points until the defender restores the affected service. The attacker's influence points would decrease slowly over time, and to win he just needs to reach the same number as the defender. This doesn't necessarily mean he'll have to destroy or disable all of the defender's infrastructure, as certain objectives can be hit repeatedly or the system can be blockaded to prevent service restoration. This means if an alliance isn't actively defending a system, it could even lose the system to repeated hits by small roaming gangs.

Final thoughts title image
System ownership is the focus of EVE's entire territorial endgame, and yet for the majority of EVE's life it has been a distinctly underwhelming experience. With the upcoming nullsec revamp, we finally have a good chance to change system ownership for the better and redefine the form that our territory takes. While it may take some time to arrive at a solid sovereignty mechanic, CCP's current goals have put it squarely on the right track. It's now up to us as players to contribute ideas that can make those goals a reality.

With systems naturally being awarded to whichever alliance can assert real military dominance over it, war could be transformed from a boring roadblock to active daily defense of infrastructure worth fighting for. Minor targets could be designed for small harassment gangs to hit multiple times per day, testing the defender's ability to patrol his space and react to roaming gangs. Larger targets like starbases might require a full-scale siege but award a huge number of influence points. We might even see a functional border mechanic, with integrated intel systems for tracking hostiles within the heart of an alliance's territory.

Tune into next week's EVE Evolved as I continue to speculate on the upcoming nullsec revamp with ideas on PvE, fleet warfare and the potentially revolutionary personal infrastructure concept.

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.
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