Thursday, October 15, 2009

Getting Started in EVE Online

I have a couple buddies who are a week or two behind me in EVE Online. I figured I'd type out a couple tips here so they're in one convenient place. Most is wisdom gleaned from elsewhere, but I've thrown my own thoughts in there, too.

Almost all of this can be done on a trial account. And if an MMO hasn't hooked you by the end of the free trial, it doesn't deserve you, your time, or your money.

Take Time on Your Portrait and Name
You'll be staring at it as long you're playing EVE--and there's no way to change it. So get something you want to look at. One other thing to consider: Much of the time, you'll be looking at a small, icon-size version of your portrait. Make sure the three main elements (your head, your shoulders, and the background) aren't equally light or equally dark. Shoot for light/medium/dark, split up however you like.

Likewise, you're stuck with your name. So make sure it's cool.

(Note from the future: As I was typing this, Tycho from Penny Arcade was thinking in parallel. Check it, yo.)

Play Through the Tutorial

The "Crash Course" tutorial is pretty good. It takes a couple hours, depending on how much you explore the interface. When you're done, you should have some cash, a ship--and most importantly, you'll have a decent idea of whether EVE is for you. If you're intrigued, keep going. But if that wasn't interesting, move on to some other game.

Play Through the "Career Advancement" Missions
You'll get three dudes who each have an eight-part quest line. Play all three, all the way through. The order doesn't matter, probably--although I did the soldier one first and got a combat-worthy frigate that I used in the mining and trading mission strings. You'll get several ships and some new skill books with these missions. And more importantly, you'll get a taste of the different roles you can play in EVE.

Buy Skill Books
At this point, the gravy train of free stuff is largely over. Visit the market and buy whatever skill books you want/need. The certificates screen is a useful guide. Certificates don't do anything in and of themselves. It's a useful way to describe "skills you'll need if you want to fly that badass cruiser," though.

Learn to Learn
Your first priority should be to acquire skills that enable game activities. For example, if you want to outfit that new Tristan with a scout drone, go ahead and get the Drones skill and spend the minutes required to get level 1 in it. But early in the game, you don't need higher levels of the skills. The NPC ships you face early on...well, they aren't exactly ninjas.

Instead, train the Learning skill and the five Attribute-specific training skills (Iron Will, Eidetic Memory, and so on) up as high as you can, as soon as you can. Why? They reduce your training time for every subsequent skill you learn...including themselves!

When you visit the market, you'll also see five other Attribute-specific learning skills that are crazy expensive (from your vantage point as a noob, anyway). Those stack with the basic five learning skills, and you'll max those out when those prices aren't quite so daunting.

Don't Fly Anything You Can't Lose
Yes, get insurance, and yes, you should watch your accumulated skill points so you know when to upgrade your clone. But don't rely on clones and insurance payouts to get you back on your feet. Your hull may be insured, but you'll lose all those fittings and whatever's in your hold if somebody blows you up. And if they destroy your escape pod, your clone will wake up just fine, but you won't have any cyberware you bought. ('Cause it's a clone, see?)

My initial thought is to keep three-quarters of my wealth in my wallet and fly around with the remaining quarter. But that's just a rule of thumb to guide my newbie explorations. Once I'm established, a better metric would be something like, "Fly around in something that takes no more than x hours of foo to replace." I'm not sure what my tolerance for x is. And "foo" is an activity: mining, courier missions, Traveller-style trading, missions, "ratting" (beating up NPC pirates and taking their stuff), or whatever my chosen "pleasant and reasonably lucrative grind activity" is. Speaking of which...

Find a "Pleasant and Lucrative" Grind Activity
This task is where I am in the game right now. I'm spending an evening or two doing each of the following, keeping track of how much ISK I make. It's not the most scientific undertaking, and the "answer" doesn't have to hold for more than the medium term. It's as much an exploration of different roles as it is an exercise in finding economic efficiency.
* Mining, probably in a 0.6 or 0.5 system. I have neither the firepower nor the friends to go for the really lucrative stuff. But I'm a noob, so that's just fine.
* Missions. Telling my starmap to show me systems with available agents was a revelation. Lots to do there.
* Ratting. Gotta spend a little on salvage sensors, etc., but this might be right up my alley as a grinding activity.
* Trading. Again, I have neither the capacity nor the knowledge to make a killing on the market. But me and my freighter can probably make a "bruising."
* Contracts. The courier stuff is what I'm thinking here. You can't do this stuff on a trial account. This is a "can you read the contract and adequately assess the risk?" as much as anything else.

Out of Context: "Why do I have to be the salt shaker?"
Music: Jeff Buckley, Grace

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

More on Eclipse Phase

When I'm not at my weekly D&D game, playing EVE Online on the PC, or playing Left 4 Dead on the XBox, I'm goofing around with Eclipse Phase. I'm thinking about starting a minicampaign--either with the supplied rules or after a wholesale conversion to something more like 4e. That's not a knock on the existing Eclipse Phase rules. It's just that my supply of available players tilts heavily toward expert-level 4e players (wonder why?), and they're mostly older guys who have an innate resistance to the timesink of learning a new rules set.

As I said last month, I'm intrigued by Eclipse Phase for two reasons. First, the game itself is simultaneously cyberpunk, postapocalyptic, and hard SF. But those elements don't seem stapled together. The backstory makes them cohere rather nicely. Second, the reusable body as an answer to the death question...that's fantastic.

There a few quibbles I struggle with, of course. Reasonable game designers differ on whether it's better to start a core rulebook with character generation and only a veneer of world detail, or really spread the world out in front of the reader, then get on with character generation after the game has established its context. I'm militantly in the former column, and the fact that I don't get even a whiff of the actual game until page 114 and no character creation until page 130...well, insert exasperated fist-shaking here.

Second, I have a problem taking uplifted animals seriously--and that says more about me than it does about the concept. I loved Startide Rising, to be sure, but I can't help but consider chimps and dolphins as comedy delivery devices, not menaces. Like I said, it's a problem that exists within the nest of vipers that is my head.

Out of Context: The life of this clean desk is perpetuated in righteousness.
Music: Pearl Jam, Backspacer

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

EVE Online is for Noobs (In a Good Way)

I downshifted my World of Warcraft and Aion play this fall so I could survey a bunch of different MMOs--partly out of professional curiosity and partly because I'm ever hopeful of a transcendant game experience. (Yeah, yeah, every junkie's like a setting sun; I get it.)

I played some nifty games. In general, MMOs have their collective act together. But the one I'm continuing to play this fall is EVE Online. And frankly, no one's more surprised than me.

My expectations were low. I'd heard about how hardcore it was--how unforgiving. I've long had a fascination with the EVE community; it's great to observe as a spectator. And the game itself is an outlier by almost every measure. The game design, the UI, and even its player population curve all confound the MMO norm. So EVE is an interesting case study, and it's fun to read about all the warfare, espionage, and skullduggery. But is the game any good?

My answer is an emphatic yes! (But keep in mind I've been playing only a few weeks.)

Here are two key things that surprised me about EVE.

Hardcore, My Asteroid
Everyone says this about EVE--fans and critics alike. The EVE community wears EVE's "hardcore" nature like a badge of honor. But it's not hardcore in the sense that it's hard to learn or complex to play. In particular, if you're comfortable theorycrafting as an endgame raider in WoW or being a dungeonmaster in D&D (any edition), you're going to find EVE...well, not easy, but you'll be totally comfortable with its complexity. Really, if games are your chosen hobby, there's nothing in EVE that's crazy complicated. In some respects, it's easier. The game is less timing- and twitch-oriented than WoW or Aion (to pick two examples), and I'm basically a spaz, so that's good.

The other way people describe EVE as hardcore is that there are big swaths of the galaxy that are full-on PvP zones, and there's no expectation of fair play. Go there, and you'll get squashed like a bug. But really, it's not that bad. New players have tons to do in equally big "higher-security" swaths of the galaxy. If you follow one simple rule--don't fly around in a ship you can't afford to lose--you'll be just fine.

It's Terrific for Deep-Immersion Roleplay
(This space left blank for the obligatory "Wait, what?")

In EVE, your "character" is a head-and-shoulders shot on a viewscreen, and so is everyone else. You never walk around your ship or the space stations you visit, much less the moons and planets. When you interact with others (PCs or NPCs), you see them on a viewscreen or read an email from them (or maybe you'll voice-chat if it's another PC). You don't even have a crew on your ship, NPC or otherwise. Eighty percent of the time, you're looking at your ship flying in space, and the other 20% of the time you're looking at your ship floating in a hangar (or at least it's in the background while you work the stock market and get business done).

With your character at arm's length from you, how can this be a good roleplay environment?

I think the answer lies in EVE's interface, and in particular how it meshes with its genre.

When I'm playing EVE, I'm looking at a close exterior view of my ship. I have a window that shows my sensor array and lists what ships, asteroids, etc. are nearby. I have another window for communications, and a HUD near the bottom that shows the status of ship systems like weapons, shields, and thrusters. The game will superimpose friend-or-foe data on anything I can see on my viewscreen. And I have delightful contextual menus for things like "autopilot," "approach," "dock," and what have you. I'm not hitting a thruster button and doing manual roll/pitch/yaw for my ship. The computer does all that for me.

In other words, Dave-the-player's UI for his computer is almost exactly what Dave-the-character's UI for his ship would be. Play EVE in a dark room, and you're experiencing the game world almost exactly as your character is. And that's a recipe for immersion.

Contrast that with WoW, where I see things my character doesn't, like the minimap in the corner of my vision, the health bars of my adversaries, and their names and guild affiliations floating over their heads. With EVE, it's a freakin' computer, so of course you'd expect it to supply navigational data, battle damage reports, and ship IDs on mouseover. Your expectation is different because it's a hard SF game with a hard SF mindset.

So Are You Hooked, Noonan?
Not yet, but color me intrigued. I remember telling people all the time, "The thing about WoW is that the game changes at 60." (Now it changes at 80, I know.)

EVE will undoubtedly have those horizons, too--lines that change the game once you cross them. I have no earthly idea whether I'll like the game I find beyond those horizons. I still can't fathom that one PC game (WoW) fascinated me for four years, and I certainly don't expect other games to pull that off. But I can tell you this--the noob experience for EVE is a lot friendlier than I'd heard. And you can really immerse yourself in the mindset of a capsuleer.

Out of Context: "We need to tell her she's a particle."
Music: Fitz and the Tantrums, Songs for a Break Up, Vol. 1

Monday, October 12, 2009

It Ain't Easy Being Broken

I don't play D&D for a living anymore, but I still play D&D. And my half-orc rogue was recently petrified, so it was time to make up a new character. (We still have a rogue in the party, so I didn't lobby too hard for a "rescue the statue" effort.)

We didn't have a controller of any stripe, and I wanted to roleplay a sophisticate, so wizard was perfect. The party had been dealing with the githyanki all along, so my githyanki orb-of-imposition wizard was born.

I stacked all the save penalties I could find--and there are quite a few. Right now I can impose a -10 save penalty once a day. Give me another level, and I think I'll be up to -14. That's what I call a lockdown, and it makes simple stuff like the sleep spell pack quite a controllerish wallop.

I'm not the only one who's ever discovered this--I subsequently saw the Character Optimization board thread on the Orbizard. This character lets me scratch an itch I've had ever since I worked on the wizard, long before 4th edition saw print, and I wondered whether you could stack the save penalties high enough to make it a sure thing. (Answer: Yes!) Recent additions like Adventurer's Vault and an invoker paragon path make it potent from the early teens onward.

But it's interesting to actually play with a "sure thing" like that obscene save penalty. Playing the character becomes fraught with tension. Because I know I've got such a strong combo, I have to carefully assess each combat situation and really deploy it where it counts. That's often harder than it looks. Right now I have an "I probably win" button, but knowing when to press...that pushes some other skills pretty hard. So it's not as much of a gimme as it appears.

I'm reminded of my days as the managing editor of the Magic: The Gathering magazine, during the Urza block. Until the banhammer came down, there was an extraordinarily strong deck in Type II (Standard) constructed play called "Tolarian Blue" or "Academy" or something similar, depending on whom you were asking. The engine of the deck was pretty simple--throw out a bunch of no-cost or low-cost artifacts, use the Tolarian Academy card to get one mana for each artifact in play, then use Stroke of Genius to either draw a bunch of cards yourself (if you didn't have enough mana or cards to pull off the win yet) or force your opponent to draw so many cards that he ran out. Oh, and you'd use Mind Over Matter and discard a card to untap Tolarian Academy twice in a turn.

When you look at the pieces of the combo, it's not too hard to grasp. It wasn't until you actually built the deck and tried to play it that you realized how tricky it actually was. You had to know how many of the key combo cards were in your library and what your chances were of pulling them with a given Stroke of Genius. In the hands of a Magic Pro Tour regular, not a big deal. But you could beat a lot of ordinary civilians who'd assembled that deck, because it was bah-roken, but it wasn't easy mode.

So that's the feeling I'm getting with my orbizard right now. The question of threat assessment is keeping it interesting for me.

And since I'm crossing the streams anyway, I think there might be a powerful D&D build that uses Magic's concept of graveyard recursion. There are already some ways to get those per-encounter and per-day attacks back into your proverbial hand. Are there enough to be fully recursive? Probably not...yet. But I'll bet that build emerges in another year or two, as more parts of the combo see print.

Out of Context: Brains!
Music: Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Watch this video twice

Dan Pink talks about how to motivate people. It's a 20-minute chunk of a lecture. Go watch it here. I'll wait.

(Pause for you to watch it. Really. Seriously.)

Cool stuff, huh? I'm usually not much for business-guru-of-the-week stuff, but I appreciate Pink's reverence for actual academic study, rather than just collecting a bunch of anecdotes and calling it "Succeed to Motivate, Motivate to Succeed" or something like that.

As a guy whose career has been firmly ensconced in the right brain, suffice it to say that the notion of a work setup with lots of autonomy, mastery, and purpose...yeah, I'd sign up for that.

But that's not what intrigued me the most about Pink's speech. Try this experiment: Watch the video again, but every time that Pink says the word "business," mentally bleep it out and dub in the word "games."

(Yeah, another pause. Really, dude, go watch it again.)

If you accept the conceit that games are motivation structures (they're more than that, but they certainly are that), then a lot of the lessons from all those studies Pink cites hold for game design, too.

In other words, unless your game is largely mechanical (like, say, Asteroids), you probably shouldn't be keeping score. As one of those studies said, as soon as you demand rudimentary cognition, the score is going to mess people up more than it's going to motivate them to keep playing.

And that's not such a radical notion, really. What's the best-selling computer game of all time? The Sims, right? It's a sandbox game--lots of autonomy there, reasonable amounts of purpose (even if it's self-directed), and mastery...hmm. Maybe not so much mastery there. But still--there's no score in the upper-right hand corner.

And what was the best-selling PC game of all time before that? Myst, I think. No score there either. Hell, that game (which I adored) barely has a visible UI.

The notion of designing an electronic game with lots of autonomy, mastery, and purpose--I'm not sure that's any harder than it is to design a sharply balanced, mechanically intense game. MMOs pull off the autonomy/mastery/purpose thing with greater or lesser degrees of success all the time.

And tabletop RPGs...this is where D&D players break their arms patting themselves on the back. "We've never kept score," they'll proudly say. "We're all about the autonomy, mastery, and purpose." And for at least some tables, that's largely true.

Here's what I wonder, though:

• Electronic games of all stripes are rife with achievement systems. Is this just traditional scorekeeping with a fake beard? And all the gamertags out there festooned with achievements, medals, that just a metascore? We assume that achievement structures motivate. It's true that they direct behavior, but do they truly motivate the way we think they do? I'm unconvinced. I think they might provide more direction than thrust.

• Tabletop RPGs are notoriously difficult to teach (and they aren't helped by traditional RPG intro products). I wonder whether that's because it's harder to "teach" a rules set with autonomy/mastery/purpose than it is to teach a rules set with contingent motivators.

Out of Context: "I seem to have a lot of nutty professors in me."