Thursday, August 5, 2010

I'll play your 18 months

This is an article about risk and reward. The title of the post suggests I'm going to comment on the recent fiasco between CCP and its elected CSM representatives. We'll get there.

In any confrontation with the enemy, we have two options: we can take risks, or we can play it safe. Before we explain when we should take risks, I think it's a good idea to define what risk-taking is.

Playing without risk is choosing an action that will almost certainly succeed for some gain. It's unlikely to backfire on you. Playing it safe lets you slowly consolidate and improve or maintain your position. Doing nothing is a good example of playing it safe. If you're playing it safe, you're banking on your opponent doing something risky you can beat. If your opponent also plays safely, you need to be winning. If you're not winning and neither of you are taking risks, your opponent will eventually win.

On the other hand, playing risky is putting stuff on the line. You may not know for sure whether you're going to succeed, but if you do, the payoffs are pretty good. If the payoffs are bad, it isn't really a risky strategy. It's a stupid one. If you're going playing the wakeup game in a 2D fighter, you're playing a little risky. Your opponent could guess right and own you, gaining the advantage in a fight. Your opponent could also guess wrong and eat a big combo or a reset into another knockdown.

As you might have guessed, it's good to play it safe when you're winning. If you do nothing but play safe when you're ahead, your opponent has to play kind of risky. He might have to close within your attack distance, which is dangerous for him. He's opening himself up to losing, and most likely you can fend off his attack. As long as you don't lose your lead, you'll win.

On the other hand, it's a bad idea to take big risks when you're winning. Your opponent might be at really low life, but if you harass him recklessly he might defend strongly and counter your attack. If he gets the tempo advantage he might turn the match around! If you succeed you can seal the match right there, but is it worth evening the game up or getting into a losing situation just for that shot?

If you're behind, taking risks is not just a good idea, it's essential. If you're behind, you have to come back somehow. If nobody does anything you'll lose and you can't expect your opponent to throw the game away. You're going to have to go for that drop in the opponent's main base, or go for a risky 50/50 mixup or reversal. If you are behind, you have to play tricky. You cannot play a relaxed, cautious game. If you do, you'll lose.

What about the actual post title? What about EVE?

In order to explain this, I'm going to give the story of two non-EVE games.

Our first game is World of Warcraft. WoW is a big game. It's really popular and successful. Millions and millions of people play it! WoW has had pretty stable growth (or at least, it used to) over the years. When Blizzard releases expansions for WoW, they generally don't rock the boat. Although The Burning Crusade was kind of an exception (40 man raids gone!), for the most part, WoW expansions haven't changed much about the status quo. TBC was a risk, and fortunately it went well for Blizzard. WotLK was not a risk. It was polish on an already quality product. Cataclysm is also more polish. It isn't a dramatic game-changer.

Our second game is Star Wars Galaxies. SWG had a very ambitious beginning, and players were found not to really play the game in the way the developers had expected. SWG began bleeding subscribers - supposedly around 10,000 per month - and something had to be done. If a risk wasn't taken, SWG would fail. The developers issued in two changes, CU and NGE, to the game. NGE was a complete outrage, and most of the existing hardcore players quit the game as a result of this change. However, a small playerbase remained, and it stabilized. SWG slowly bounced back, and while it isn't a massive success, it is a reasonably successful business venture. It has a stable subscriber base now, and in the long term, SWG has survived due to the radical risks the developers took years ago.

Enter EVE Online. EVE has been incredibly stable and stalwart over its lifetime. It had a rough, indie start. Over time, EVE grew as players grew enamored with its truly open world and dynamic free market. Anything is possible in EVE, and you aren't bound by the will of the developer. You can make a living in EVE doing whatever you wish, whether it be running missions, killing pirates, or doing battle in a massive alliance.

EVE has been a very stable game. Every year, EVE reports overall subscriber increases from the previous year. Every year, EVE gets a little bit more successful.

For the last two expansions, CCP has not chosen to play it safe. In fact, CCP has continued to play at full tilt - completely ignoring the wishes of its playerbase. Both Dominion and Tyrannis have been dramatic, gameplay-altering expansions. The playerbase has echoed the sentiment countless times that content from previous expansions desperately needs attention, but CCP instead invests countless developer hours on an extremely risky tie-in console game (Dust 514) and a feature that has nothing to do with flying spaceships (avatar interaction).

In my opinion, Apocrypha was a lucky expansion. It had nothing to do with anything that currently existed in EVE, but players fortunately liked it. What if Apocrypha's wormhole system had been as annoying as Tyrannis' planetary interaction?

I'll end with this: If you've got the lead, work to maintain your lead, but don't try too hard to win flat-out. If you're behind, take risks to get in the lead and don't be too static.

I'm looking forward to World of Darkness, but I guess I'm a masochist.