Sins of a Solar Spymaster #61 - In Defense of Incarna

Like it or not, things are changing in EVE Online and Incarna will hail the first wave of many big changes to the space-based MMOG. The game will no long be just about spreadsheets and spaceships, but cosmetics and avatars as well. The Mittani is all for a bit of change and has something to say about CCP's plans for EVE in this week's Sins of a Solar Spymaster #61 - In Defense of Incarna.


I am going to write something tremendously unpopular, something which will get me accused of being a sellout (a function of my ‘free trip to Iceland’ as part of being CSM Chair, no doubt) or a CCP marketing shill. The tide of public opinion is firmly against me. Yet - perhaps out of sheer stubbornness or my tendency towards spite - I am going to defend Incarna.

EVE Changes

When CCP introduced the concept of ‘Walking in Stations’, which later was dubbed Incarna, it was considered by the playerbase to be a neat feature, something anticipated with some eagerness given the snazzy trailers associated with it. We were introduced to ‘Ambulation’ and the company’s marketing department developed an expectation that Incarna would see the light of day ‘soon’. Then - much like how ‘corp and alliance logos on ships’ were introduced at the 2007 Fanfest - four years passed. And in those four years, things got ugly.

The playerbase of today is a more jaded one than the playerbase who lauded Incarna when it was first introduced. We have experienced the Summer of Discontent, watched as the CSM developed from a nonentity to a force directly opposed to CCP, and seen a whole host of features added to the game only to be seemingly abandoned by the company - Faction Warfare, T3 Ships, 70% or more of the original Dominion nullsec revamp, and Wormholes, just to name a few. When CCP began to work on developing Incarna in earnest, they discovered that the mood of their customers had shifted from optimism to outright hostility - and much of that hostility has focused on Incarna and what it represents.

When at Fanfest 2011, I listened to both the EVE and the CCP keynotes and heard catcalls from the audience whenever Incarna features were advertised for too long. The refrain was catchy and infectious: “Where’s the f***ing spaceships?” In 2006, Incarna would expand EVE and add immersion; in 2011, Incarna is seen as a distraction from iterating on abandoned features, all of which revolve around spaceships. When CCP Zulu, now the ‘big boss’ of EVE, released a blog announcing how many devs were working on Incarna - more than 70 - compared to ‘Flying in Space’ - the part of EVE most of us consider to be EVE itself - the reaction from the playerbase was immediate and vehement.

Yet Incarna is not something which we can ignore. Not only is it inevitable, it is a fundamental necessity if EVE is to achieve any status greater than that of an awkward niche MMO from a strange, sulfuric island where people eat sheep’s heads willingly and believe in elves. Here’s why:

DUST 514 Command

The Immersion Problem: There is nothing immersive about a spreadsheet, unless you think that being an actuary is a fun line of work. Yet most of EVE is based around spreadsheets; the overview is a spreadsheet, the market is a spreadsheet, combat is full of squares and brackets and little colored squares on top of brackets. That’s crap - EVE is supposed to be a dystopian science fiction game/simulation, not a training ground for the next generation of accountants. At a psychological level, one of the ‘hooks’ of MMORPGs is the player coming to identify with their avatar and feeling attached to them; in EVE the only ‘character’ we see is a tiny portrait, usually hidden behind a minimized NeoCom. There is nothing particularly different about my various characters besides their portraits and the entries in another spreadsheet, the skill window.

As CCP and many players have discovered over the years, it’s very easy to walk away from a game where there is no immersion or emotional attachment to a character. Players in EVE may get attached to alliances, corps, and social bonds, but characters are bought, sold, and dropped as casually as CCP dropped the Gallente. If EVE is to advance beyond spreadsheets into evoking an alternate reality, avatars which players care about emotionally are crucial.

The World of Darkness Engine: When CCP acquired White Wolf and announced the development of a World of Darkness MMO, some EVE players expressed skepticism. Under the Carbon framework - set up to provide cross-compatible code between CCP’s various projects - the code for Incarna is, de facto, the base engine for creating environments within the WoD MMO. Those in the ‘Where’s the Spaceships’ camp resent the resources devoted to what they see as an entirely separate title; in their view, Incarna in EVE is an excuse for an engine test for WoD.

Yet this argument - keep EVE and WoD separate - falls apart when confronted with business reality. Having sunk millions into buying White Wolf and developing a WoD MMO, the code for ‘walking around with a pretty avatar amid beautiful environments’ is something which CCP is going to code come hell or high water; it has to be written for the WoD title to exist. The question is if this development effort can benefit EVE in some way. If WoD is to be made, EVE might as well gain from as much of that development as possible. It is foolish and wasteful to throw the toys that come from the WoD segment of Carbon out of our prams merely because said toys are not in the form of a spaceship. Other development studios don’t bother making their code cross-compatible; the alternative is to have a title like WoD, and all the resources which go into creating it, and yet EVE gaining nothing as a game from it.

EVE Gameplay

Where’s the Gameplay?: One of the most common criticisms leveled at the upcoming first step of Incarna - the Captain’s Quarters  - is that there is no gameplay involved. This was the topic of the outgoing CSM’s misguided ‘open letter’.  Yet Incarna isn’t a ‘game’ function yet; it is an immersion device. There is no ‘gameplay’ in the new Character Creator either- it’s a character creator. Similarly, the first version of Incarna is an avatar system designed to address the EVE’s immersion problem, as well as (in the form of the CQ) to smooth out the brutal and disjointed experience of newbies. If you have forgotten how awful the newbie experience is, I suggest you make a new character on Tranquility before CQ goes live and try to grind through the newbie crash course without wanting to log off and play World of Tanks instead.

The Gender Problem: It might be a ~bit~ hypocritical for a comically over-privileged white male such as myself to bring this up, but EVE has a serious gender problem. Where other MMOs have begun narrowing the gender gap significantly, EVE remains almost purely the province of neckbearded men. This is not a good thing, though you almost couldn’t hear that fact announced over the background misogyny of the playerbase - from the old bromides about EVE being ‘too hard for girls’ to the utter nonsense of ‘girls don’t like spaceships’. While it might be equally sexist of me to suggest this, my impression is that Incarna will bring more women into the playerbase. Not because it is ‘Space Barbies’ - and that willbe the line of the reactionary neckbeards, look out for it - but because of the introduction of a distinct ‘character’ in the avatar engine. For whatever reason, it seems that men are more willing than women to look past EVE’s spreadsheet problem and suffer through the learning curve, where many female gamers write the game off as a waste of time during the crash course.

EVE Character

The Microtransaction Monster: The MMO market is shifting away from the pure subscription model of revenue generation towards microtransactions and Free to Play. CCP has made it clear that they want in on this revenue stream; the fear that has gripped many EVE Players is that, essentially, we will find ourselves needing to buy in-game items in order to stay competitive - that EVE will be poisoned by ‘wallet warriors’ who buy ‘gold ammo’ for their spaceships. If this worries you, you should advocate strongly for Incarna, because Incarna provides a ‘safe’ place for CCP to dabble in microtransactions - selling clothing packs or fancy tattoos or other vanity items within the context of Incarna.

I Love My Niche: There is a segment of EVE players who extol the game’s virtues as a niche product and vehemently oppose any attempt by CCP appeal to a wider audience. They disagree with my core argument that Incarna will help EVE out of its niche and that this is a good thing; they would prefer EVE to remain arcane, pointlessly difficult, and more like a hazing ritual than a game.

If you’re one of this crowd, I have delightful news: you’re screwed. The release of Incarna and later Dust 514 is likely to make EVE’s subscriber base and revenue generation explode, which will - ideally speaking, of course - be reinvested in quality of life development projects such as Team BFF’s ‘Little Things’ or Team Gridlock’s War on Lag, which themselves improve the subscriber curve. EVE is coming out of its niche whether you like it or not, and Incarna is the first major step on that path.

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