Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Uneven is not Unfair

The topic of asymmetric gameplay came up recently in a blogger who has gained a bit of notoriety in the Eve circles. Tobold has recently been posting about Eve and the problems he has with Eve's mechanics. From the tenor of most of his posts I have come to the conclusion he doesn't like Eve, but I also believe he has some pretty backwards notions about game play mechanics and game theory.

He's made analogies such as:
Much is being made of EVE being a sandbox game, but in reality the new players are just playing in the dirt on the outskirts of the playground. The sandbox with the fine sand and the nice toys is occupied by bullies, and if you even get close they are going to beat you up and kick you out. So the goal in life for EVE players is to become strong, gather friends, and be able to beat up the bullies, kick them out of the sandbox, and become the bigger bully.
This over simplification of null-sec combat is really idiotic. He makes several assumptions about how battles are won and lost. Anyone who follows the chronicles of some of the fights in null-sec and low-sec space can easily come to the following conclusion, it is not just about numbers and it is not just about gear. A smaller fleet with superior strategy can take down a larger foe. Numbers help, and if all else is equal number can carry a day. But with sloppy intel and poor fleet command entire battles can be lost. The carving out of null-sec space by large corporations involves far more negotiation and political intrigue than anything else I've seen in an MMORPG. Furthermore, Tobold assumes that you need to be a big bully to enter nullsec. What you need is to join a corp in null-sec and there are plenty of options there.

In other posts Tobold said:
That is a principal problem of PvP MMORPGs: MMORPGs by definition have character advancement, in one form or another. Whether it is time played, gear gathered, real time skill training, or skills used, a player of a MMORPG is always getting better with time. Which doesn't matter all that much if he is facing PvE challenges, which can be scaled to his current power level. But if he is facing PvP challenges, the new player is at a fundamental disadvantage versus the veteran player.
The point of flying into nulsec was to show that this asymmetric PvP in EVE is the rule, not the exception. And just about every EVE player commenting on that thread confirmed that in different words: Being ganked when entering nulsec is "normal". EVE is institutionalized bullying. There is no fair PvP in EVE 
 Here we truly get into the idea of symmetric vs. asymmetric gameplay. In a symmetric gameplay system all players are operating with the same advantages and disadvantages. There are plenty of games you could use as an example from Chess to a standard FPS Deathmatch. All players, typically, have the same traits and what determines the winner is luck, strategy, and physical ability. Most sports, board, and card games follow this model (poker, football, etc).

Other games are based of an asymmetric model. In an asymmetric model all players are not created equal, they have unique traits, talents, characteristics, or rules that do not apply to the other players. An example of this would be games like Team Fortress, Dune, or even Wow (racial traits make an Orc and a Tauren Warrior different). Pandemic is another great example where depending on the players role in the game they have unique rules that apply only to them.

Frankly, game theorists both love and hate asymmetric gameplay. It is much harder to model because the rules and conditions can be so varied. But Tobold doesn't seem to quite grasp what asymmetric gameplay is entirely, and he certainly doesn't grasp how it can impact all gameplay in Eve.

The first error Tobold makes is in his understanding of the skill system. I am obviously a miner, I have over 17,000,000 skill points and the majority of them fall in non-combat skills. Even through I have been playing Eve for over a year I could be taken out by a pirate who has been playing the game for less that 4 months. If Tobold's thesis was correct then I should easily be in the awesome sandbox with the bullies after playing the game as long as I have with my skill points, but he forgot a fundamental point of the design of Eve.

There are so many skill paths and options that the game requires you to specialize. Unlike WoW where all characters of an equal class level and gear level have the same access (primarily) to spells and talents, Eve is based off the idea of having countless options. Skill points, which equates roughly to character age, has no bearing on player ability within a specific skill set.

The second huge mistake Tobold makes is in his understanding of the combat mechanics of the game. When I mentioned Eve was asymmetric I meant it, in countless ways. Every single ship you can fly in the game has benefits and weaknesses. I am not just talking about the fact that different ships are weak against different types of damage and if you don't know what charge your enemy is using it is hard to pick out hardeners. I mean that even through I may be flying a battle cruiser I could be in a tight spot in I get swarmed by a bunch of frigates who can beat my tracking speed.

Sure, Tobold got popped at a gate camp, so what? I've been ganked outside of Southshore in WoW countless times. It certainly doesn't prove his point about the nature of asymmetric game play in Eve. That would be like if he sat down to play chess with Kasporov and was surprised when he lost, or if he marched in to Ulduar and was surprised when his raid didn't take down Freya on their first try. Getting podded in null sec was not a result of asymmetric game play, it was a result of lack of skill and knowledge about how to safely negotiate null-sec.

In closing Tobold said
Personally I don't like unfair fights. There is a deeper philosophical discussion to be had about the moral dimension of liking unfair fights in your favor against other players. But for now it suffices to say that I think it isn't very good game design, based on the assumption that good game design produces a maximum amount of fun for a maximum number of players.
 The notion that fights must be 'fair' is a strange one. Games have always been about a meeting of luck with wits and skill and knowledge. As I've demonstrated above Eve is not about Fair Fights any more than any other game. If you want a game that has 'fair fights' then stick to games like death match and go fish. These games have one thing in common, like most symmetric games they are simple. However, when you want to get into more complicated, more engaging, and more interesting game play then you need to enter into the realm of asymmetric games.

While Tobold may not find Eve 'fun' I think that is due to a lack of appreciation and understanding or an inability to the more complex concepts of the gameplay. But to the many people who play Eve the challenge of perfecting small skill sets and developing an understanding of game tactics that extend beyond "stay out of the fire" and "mash these buttons in this order" this is fun.


  1. Amusingly, EVE is actually has the most "fair" PvP system of all MMOs. In WoW, if you spent several months slamming your face on the wall to have appropriate gear for your hunter, you are at the whim of their GMs to hope they don't nerf your class into oblivion. When they do, you're screwed, and can either moan on the forums and hope for brighter days, or reroll and slam your face against the wall again.

    In EVE, on the other hand, there is nothing stopping anyone from skilling up to fly any ship they please, while still utilizing the entirety of their core skills, piloting experience, and existing income. The end result gives you more variety as well, not just another neglected character.

    So yeah, Tobold sucks.