Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Frontiers and Force Projection

There is a debate in Eve Online circles about the role of small, independent corporations in null-sec. To wit, there really isn't one. Null-sec has come to be dominated by large empires. To move into null-sec, a small corporation must sacrifice their independence, and generally bow down to one of the major powers.

I think this issue is not specific to Eve Online. Almost every sandbox game ends up with a similar problem. People want to be out on the frontier, to stake a claim, and watch that claim grow. It's very much the myth of the American West. But inevitably, these games run out of frontier.

But Eve has hundreds of star systems. At first glance, it seems that surely a frontier can still exist. The problem in Eve is that it is too easy for an empire to project force anywhere in its claimed space. If at any given time, the empire can bring its entire force to bear without repercussions, then warfare essentially becomes about who is larger. And the empire will always win that battle against a small corporation.

Let's say you have a large null-sec empire. A small corporation takes one star on the border. What happens? The empire drops its entire fleet on that star. There is generally no real downside to doing that.

But imagine there was a downside. Let's say it takes two weeks of real-time travel to get from the heart of an empire to its border.  Now, the empire cannot send the entire fleet, because if another empire invades, it would take the fleet over a month to get back. Instead the empire has to send just enough ships to deal with the small corp. And the resulting battle might actually be won by the smaller corp, if the empire miscalculates.

The empire has to be able to be stretched "too thin" for smaller corporations to be able to exist alongside it. But so long as it is easy to project force, so long as distance does not really matter, the empire cannot be stretched too thin.

To be honest, I don't think this problem can be solved without significant travel time that lasts longer than a single play session. Significant travel time introduces logistics, supply lines and military strategy, as opposed to just military tactics. But significant travel time is highly inconvenient. I really doubt that anyone really wants to take two weeks or more to reach their destination.

But without significant travel time, it becomes a numbers game, and then a game of covert actions to influence that numbers game.

Frontiers cannot exist without meaningful distance. If you want your game to have a frontier, the price is the inconvenience of distance. And I don't think that players will accept that price.


  1. It's not a bad idea to make the distance between the center to the edge of a star empire be more than a single day's worth of game time. It would give the game a sense of space that would sorely be lacking if a player could travel from end to end of the entire game within a few hours. An RPG like Traveller took care of that by effectively bringing back the Age of Sail via the jump drive, wherein players are stuck a week in mid jump. Considering that jump drives could only go a limited distance, a fast courier ship going from the Spinward Marches to the heart of the Imperium would take months. The projection of Imperial power, consequently, was very difficult out in the border regions.

    The problem with this idea is the players themselves. Once flying mounts came to life, players have gotten used to zipping back and forth with tremendous speed. (Summons? Who needs a summons?) Asking players to --in effect-- give up instant travel would push some players out of the game.

  2. Good point.

    The other big thing is what happens if an empire holds an area and then either has internal dramaquits or a lot of the organisers just get bored and move on. In a lively sandbox, you tend to assume that as soon as one landholder slacks, others will come to quickly grab the undefended areas.

    But what if the smaller groups are busy holding their own land, or no one notices. You can easily end up with a map that looks as though every area is held, but a lot of them are just non active.

  3. Wormholes.

    You can only project force to 'connected' systems, but you will probably only be connected to a dozen systems at a time, and there are 2500 of them.

    Also, the force you can project is quite strictly limited - 3 capital ships is your limit, or 6 if you're prepared to bring them home the (very) long way.

    Did I mention that a wormhole connection never lasted more than about 48 hours?

    EVE has a permanent frontier.

  4. I've been doing some Eve research and I have to wonder at the second order effects. Big, stable empires are likely not in the best long-term interest of CCP or the players so something will probably be tried. If you simply increase travel time how does the economy function? From what I see the market is based on you going to the goods or someone moving the goods to you.

  5. One idea would be a non-trivial "fuel" cost of traveling large distances. This would hit attackers as well, so is pretty fair.

    Another is some sort of upkeep cost associated with territory, to approximate the general administrative costs that come with an actual empire without requiring all of the tedious legwork. So each system would cost some ISK per day, and if you ran short there would be some in-game repercussions. I speak as a total EVE outsider, so I'm not sure of specifics.

  6. @Spinksville, the issue is that there is no real concept of defense without significant travel time. So long as you can drop a fleet in from the heart of the Empire, you don't really need to defend an uninhabited system in the traditional manner. All you have to do is claim it, and not have your claim contested by another power with equal forces., from my understanding, the problem with wormholes is that the same factors which make it hard to project power also make it hard to grow. Growth is an essential part of the frontier dream. Can your corp become a 2-system kingdom in wormhole space?

    They can kind of do so, but because the connections between systems in w-space are not constant, it's not really the same. They're 2 independent star systems, not 2 parts of one kingdom.

    Wormhole-space is all independents and no empires. Null-sec is all empires and no independents. The grail is a space where there are some empires and some independents, and where some independents can grow to become empires.

  7. The thing with travel time is that it isn't very fun to have no access to your character for a week while it is travelling from one end of the empire to the frontier, especially if you get there only to find that the enemy went somewhere else so you don't even get any fleet action out of it.

    And imagine trying to be a guild leader who needs to encourage a decent sized PvP force of players to do this regularly to defend the borders.

  8. Another way to implement a similar idea (there is a delay involved in frontier fights) is to force the attacker to declare where the action will be a day or so in advance (I think pirates of the burning sea did something like that) -- you can explain this as their warp drives leaving traces or something. Or make attackers have to hold an area for 24 hours before it flips, to give defenders a chance to get out there.

    One thing you do see from all this is that a game needs to take a stance on whether attackers are favoured over defenders. Like, if you own and fortify an area, do you get defenders advantage. Could a small attacking force turn up at 3am and flip your whole empire?

  9. This also assumes that the other empire has no other constraints on its force allocation. My understanding is that this is probably untrue in EVE, since you can arrange for distractions for the enemy fleet (like, say, paying off another alliance to attack them).