EVE Evolved: Wormholes should be more dangerous

When unstable wormholes began forming all over the EVE Online universe in 2009's Apocrypha expansion, players approached them with extreme caution. The promise of riches in the form of new loot and Tech 3 cruiser components was balanced by the incalculable risk of facing a powerful new enemy in untested circumstances. Between the Sleeper AI that had been reported to melt players' ships in seconds and the player pirates taking advantage of the hidden local chat channel to sneak up on unsuspecting victims, we had no idea whether any ship we sent into a wormhole would ever make it back out again.

The risk of venturing into something truly unknown made wormhole exploration the single most exciting thing I've ever been a part of in an MMO, but the past five years have completely eroded that danger. Farmers now know exactly what to expect in every wormhole site and can efficiently farm Sleepers with the minimum of effort or risk, and PvP alliances can rapidly cycle through systems to find weak targets to attack. We've mapped and tamed all of the wormhole frontier, systematically reducing the risk to the lowest possible levels under the current game mechanics. Tuesday's Hyperion update aimed to shake things up with a few disruptive changes designed to keep wormholes dangerous, and I think it's a definite step in the right direction.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at some of the changes in Hyperion designed to keep wormholes dangerous and ask what more could be done to keep things interesting.

Mass-based jump distances

Perhaps the most contentious wormhole tweak delivered in Hyperion was an experimental new game mechanic that makes ships with higher mass appear further from a wormhole after jumping through. This controversial change is designed to increase the risk of fielding large ships like capital ships by placing them out of range to immediately jump back through the wormhole and so make them vulnerable to a well-timed surprise attack. Several corporations that specialise in wormhole PvP have rallied against the new mechanic, filling forum threads with complaints and even building a huge monument in Jita out of Mobile Depot structures as a form of protest.

This is the same blatant self-interest we frequently see from nullsec alliances that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. PvP corps enjoy the ability to rapidly hunt for targets by repeatedly collapsing their home system's static wormhole and scanning down the new one that spawns in its place. It's a strategy known as Rage Rolling, and it lets a group find easy targets to fight while simultaneously avoiding any bigger fish by collapsing unwelcome wormholes. The quickest and safest way to collapse a wormhole involves shoving a massive capital ship and a couple of Orcas through it, which is now considerably riskier. The slower method of running battleships through the wormhole also carries the risk of stranding a battleship and gives more time for people to notice you're trying to shut down the wormhole.

New frigate-only wormholes

When I say that EVE players have mapped out wormhole space, I really mean it. Through their work on Project Compass, Project Atlas and Project Snapshot, EVE players Mark726 and Faulx have put together some impressive data on wormholes over the years. Faulx was even able to determine with some confidence that a static outgoing wormhole didn't actually spawn its corresponding exit wormhole in the destination system until someone warps to the entrance. This meant that as long as nobody inside a system warped to its static wormhole and all incoming wormholes were checked out and closed as soon as they appeared, the system was guaranteed to be cut off from the rest of the universe and could be farmed in relative safety.

CCP's solution for this was to introduce a new type of random micro-wormhole that's incredibly hard to collapse. These new wormholes form randomly between any two wormhole systems and have jump mass limits of around 5 million kg, so only frigates, destroyers and heavy interdictors with active warp disruption fields can enter them. It would reportedly take over 100 frigates ramming through one of these wormholes to collapse it, and they actually regenerate their mass allowance over time.

In addition to providing some opportunity for large roaming frigate gang PvP, this means a cloaked scout could get into your system and there's very little you can do to prevent it. The scout can then use your static wormhole at any time to bring in a hostile fleet, preventing you from cutting yourself off from the rest of the galaxy and re-adding an element of risk to running wormhole operations. This also comes alongside a change that makes the incoming wormhole appear only when someone jumps through it rather than warping to it, giving the farmer less notice that an attack is coming.

Is this enough risk?

One of the core design philosophies behind EVE Online is to always balance the reward of an activity with its risk. The first players to explore wormholes shouldered a ton of risk while figuring out how to tackle the challenges thrown at them, but they made billions of ISK per week to compensate. I lost quite a few ships in the first few wormhole expeditions with my own small corporation, and we had some very exciting close calls. Incursions started out the same way, with high ISK payouts justified by the danger of the buffed Sansha NPCs routinely nuking player ships.

In both cases, the risks were slowly eliminated over time as players refined their strategies for tackling the new content, but the ISK rewards stayed about the same. EVE players are experts at minimising and eliminating risk, and today there just isn't enough exposure to danger or uncertainty left in incursions or wormholes to justify the monumental rewards. The jump distance change in Hyperion should help by adding more risk to Rage Rolling PvP operations, and the frigate wormholes will naturally stop farmers from locking their systems down permanently, but neither can ultimately bring back the danger of encountering an unknown enemy or exploration site for the first time or entering a wormhole and not knowing where you'll end up.

The tweaks in Hyperion have definitely injected a little more danger into wormholes for both PvP corporations and farmers, but I honestly don't think they're enough. The only way to rekindle the dangers of wormhole life is to add more uncertainty to the game mechanics that players have figured out. Developers have already shown that this is one of their goals by removing the wormhole system information from the API so that attackers don't know in advance which systems are currently being farmed or fought over, but there are other ways to add more uncertainty to the equation.

Farming could be made more risky by adding random spawns and behaviours to the now-predictable Sleeper AI and cycling new exploration sites in and out of the mix every month or so. Incoming wormholes could be made invisible to scan probes for a few minutes to prevent the Odyssey system scanner from being used as an early warning system. A system's static wormhole could even be changed periodically, and the mass limits on wormholes could be given a lot more variance to make Rage Rolling riskier. Wormholes could even have a chance to collapse randomly on every passage or to send the ship to the wrong destination. All that CCP has to do to keep things interesting is to periodically shake the ant farm and let us scramble for safety while the dust settles.

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.