Sunday, November 1, 2009

Putting the RTT in Rah-Tah-Tah ! (part 1)

[Continued from part 5 on Dominion]

Today's downtime filler is about making territorial warfare fun, something that CCP has consistently failed to deliver up to now, and a tradition they clearly intend to uphold with Dominion.

To be fair, and for once cut some slack to EVE's designer team, meaningful and fun territorial warfare is a legendary creature in the general MMO lore, so CCP is more or less on its own, plowing ahead in a field most MMO companies have long abandoned.

Zoom zoom zoom.
EVE is a very ambitious design when it comes to 'zoom levels': it's a RTS, a RTT, a BigMap wargame, a grand scale galactic conquest, a political RPG and a tycoon-type game, all rolled into one. It is also incredibly successful on the whole: the extent to which each distinct playstyle adds to the depth and contextual complexity of others aspects of the game is unmatched in the current videogame market.

Unfortunately, although the whole is impressive, many of its parts are terribly lacking on their own merits, and prove worth playing only insofar as they relate to a bigger picture that helps the player cope with a mediocre to miserable gameplay.

It's probably one of the biggest issues with EVE territorial warfare — besides not being a very exciting and fun RTS to begin with — that it's only worth playing as a commander or strategist, yet game mechanics force the huge majority of players to play roles a NPC wouldn't gladly take.

The RTS map of sovereignty warfare.
A glance at the typical territorial battleground in EVE is enough to see why that is: the array of roles available for players to fill breaks down to a handful: grunt, capital grunt, scout, capital tackler, healer, then elite unit (pointer scouts and supercaps), fleet commander, capital fleet commander, strategist.
OK, that's two handfuls + 1.
Sounds diverse enough ? I agree, it would, if not for the fact that the overwhelming majority of the head count will be crammed into two roles: grunts… and capital grunts.

Let's break it down with numbers:

  • Strategist: 1
  • Capital Fleet Commander: 1 (rarely 2)
  • Fleet Commander: 1-2 (sometimes 3)
  • Pointer scouts: 1-5 per combat group
  • Capital Tacklers: 1-3 teams of 1-5 each (sometimes embedded in the regular fleets)

Combat groups:
  • Healers: 1 team of 1-5 each per combat group (sometimes embedded in the combat group)
  • Supercapitals: 0-10 (likely to be merged into the regular capital fleet, post Dominion)
  • Capitals: 1-2 fleets of 20 to all you can field (typically around 30-50 each).
  • Subcapitals: 1-3 fleets of 100 to all you can field (typically between 150 and 400 each).

Back of the envelope maths:
  • Command: 4-6 (1 strategist, 1-2 cap FC, 2-3 FC)
  • RTT teams: 27, or 37 generously assuming the healers aren't handled as a single unit per team (13 pointer scouts, 5 supercaps, 6 cap tacklers, 13 healers)
  • Grunts: 500+ (60 caps, 450 BS)
To make things easy, let's assume for now a sufficient condition for a role to be fun is for it to be meaningful, and define meaningful in this context as a role where one more or less player doing his job well is enough to be tactically decisive. In simpler terms, your role is deemed fun to play if your individual skill and decisions can change the outcome at a tactical level.

Furthermore, let's state the obvious and say it: playing a grunt (a.k.a cannon fodder) is not brimming full of meaning from the player's standpoint.

Now it gets scary. By the above back-of-the-envelope calculations:
  • 1 player out of 110 is in a command position (meaningful ? check).
  • 1 player out of 17 (closer to 20 really, but who's counting…) is in a Real-time Tactical position (meaningful ? Mostly. Almost always fun).
That's one player for fifteen who's having a shot at making a difference in the course of a territorial battle, which doesn't look so bad, until you realize it translates to over 93% of participants virtually sitting on the bench for having no measurable personal influence whatsoever, regardless of their skill, smarts or dedication, nor what may be at stake for them in the battle (like losing your home station/system).

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