(Un)intended game mechanics

EVE is not the only game where unintended game mechanics emerge, but it is a great example of how creative players can be.

Map OPC1 in Quake 3 ArenaFor example, have you ever heard of “strafe jumping” in Quake 3 Arena or other games on Quake’s engine? It’s a technique which allows players to move around the map much faster than originally intended by the developers. A whole “trick jumping” community emerged around this unintended gameplay, where players would learn and share creative ways how to move from point A to point B on original or custom Quake maps.

Reading forums I stumbled upon a post, which complains about Incursion mothership sites being closed “prematurely” by a group of players and how this is “griefing” the whole incursion community. Players who claim to know EVE and its game mechanics quickly replied that this way of playing incursions is in fact the orignal way intended by the developers. The question arises: is it really? And what should game designers do when players use game mechanics in an emergent and unintended way?

Before we answer these questions, let’s have a look at one more example: jetcan mining. New players might not realize, but Mining Barges didn’t always have such spacy cargoholds as they do now. One or two cycles of Strip Miners was enough to fill them completely. Bah, Mining Barges in fact didn’t even exist initially. Normal combat ships were used for mining, and because of their limited cargo space, players had to dump their ore rather often. Secure Containers (with up to 3900m3 of capacity) could be safely anchored in space and used as temporary 2005. before hauler pilots could pick the ore up and transport it to the nearest station. Each ship can however eject a jettison container, which has a capacity of 27,500 m3, which is far more than anchorable containers. Guess what miners started to do? They used jetcans as their temporary ore buffers. The downside of this was that anyone could take ore from jetcans, but back then it wasn’t very common to harass miners – the world of EVE was so big and there was many things to do more interesting than ganking mining ships.

Was this mechanic intended? Now we know that clearly it was not. But back then you had an alternative: either anchor a Secure Container, which you had to pay for first, and then spend 60 seconds on anchoring it, or simply right click and choose Jettison and get nearly 10 times as much cargo space for free. It doesn’t take a genious to realize it was (kind of) a design flaw, used by the players. Jetcans high capacity was intended for completely other purpose – to preserve all the cargo which survived the ship explosion, or when you wanted to transfer cargo between ships in space.

What could the game designers do if the mechanic of jetcan mining wasn’t intended?

First and easiest, they could simply accept the emergent gameplay and conisder it a valid use case. Secondly they could add bigger anchorable containers to game, so use of a jetcan would simply become less favorable thing to do. Unfortunately, this would break other game systems. Secure containers are “compressors” of sorts. They are bigger inside than they are on the outside by a factor of 1.3x. But if CCP added containers bigger than jetcans, there would be no ships in game that could carry such a big container. The first thought that comes to mind is “if containers are already bigger on the inside, let’s just increase their compression ratio, so they are bigger than jetcan but still fit in cargohold”. This however would affect hauling, making logistics a bit too easy.
“Well” you could say “Let’s just increase the cargo space of the mining ships then”. Which again is bad design decision if you look at it, because Mining Barges with huge cargoholds would simply be more favorable to fly than Industrial ships, making the latter obsolete.
“Wait” I hear you say “But mining barges in the end did get cargoholds bigger than jetcans”. Yes and no. Mining ships has got “Ore holds” which can only hold Ore, and cannot be used for any other types of cargo. This way Barges didn’t obsolete Industrials and Transports, which have general purpose cargoholds. But such specialized cargobays didn’t exist in game back in 2005, so game designers couldn’t use them to solve the unintended jetcan mining mechanic then.

Let’s get back to incursions. How are they supposed to work?

  • incursion consists of a constellation filled with random sites, which have varying tiers of difficulty
  • all systems affected by incursion have NPC induced debuffs
  • NPCs are tuned in such a way which prevents to complete it solo
  • with each completed site NPC imposed debuffs become slightly weaker
  • once players complete a specific amount of lower tier sites, a boss site spawns
  • to encourage players to complete sites, each participant gets the same amount of ISK after the site is completed.

2011.’s the unintended part? The rewards for completing lower tier incursion sites is high enough to make it the best ISK-making activity in high sec space. Players have no intent on completing the boss site, because farming Vanguard sites simply pays better. Now we’re back to the original forum post I mentioned at the beginning. Is completing incursions griefing? Or is it just playing the game the way it was intended to be played?

I am not the game designer, so honestly, I can’t know for sure. In most games farming is not desired, because it devaluates the rewards for the more casual players, who can’t invest the same amount of time (it would be ISK and Concord LP in incursions case).

If I were the game designer, how would I make sure low level incursion sites are not farmed?

There could be a couple of solutions, starting with a simple rule: If enough lower tier sites have been completed to spawn the boss site, I would reduce the rewards for completing the lower tier sites (even down to zero). This way I would make it undesirable for players to keep running lower tier sites instead of completing the boss site. If instead of a hard cut it was a gradual decrease, it would work even better.

One more approach would be to keep lower tier sites from respawning once the boss site has been spawned. Increasing reqrds for boss sites would be risky, because no one would attempt low sec or null sec incursions, if high sec mothership sites dropped the Revenant BPCs.

As you can see, solutions that would stop people from farming lower tier sites are simple. The fact that CCP didn’t do anything against incursion farmers means that this kind of player behaviour is not entirely unwanted.