Sins of a Solar Spymaster #80: The Inferno Verdict

The Mittani weighs in on the pros and cons of EVE's Inferno expansion in this week’s Sins of a Solar Spymaster.

I have waited almost a month after Inferno’s release before attempting a review of it, giving CCP an opportunity to fix some of the more egregious errors in the latest EVE expansion rather than rushing to condemn it for a Tyrannis-style failure - like many commentators already have. Various excuses have been trotted out for the lack of enthusiasm about Inferno - the scope of the changes, the ancient codebase of EVE, or Diablo III (which is becoming the ‘dog ate my homework’ of the gaming industry). Yet even after hotfixes and patches, Inferno falls flat, both in player engagement (as charted by logins) and when compared to the previous expansion.

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Inferno contained three major features, an art revamp, and a handful of minor features. Each of the three major features were either unworkable or contained a fatal flaw at release. The minor features were a mixed bag, some positive, some foolish. The new art - from what is unquestionably CCPÂ’s most successful department - was stellar.

What is infuriating about reviewing Inferno is the inescapable feeling that, if CCP had only listened to feedback from the SiSi test server and delayed the expansion for a month to polish it, things could have been better - perhaps not great, but certainly not the shambolic performance weÂ’ve had to endure. Instead, the company obstinately clung to a hard release date, and the players have suffered for it.

The Major Features

Unified Inventory: A great idea, poorly implemented. The Unified Inventory is the most egregious case of a rushed feature since the Captain’s Quarters; it was obvious from SiSi builds that this reform, which impacts every single player in the game, wasn’t even half-ready. Much like with the Technetium bottleneck years ago, the playerbase loudly warned CCP of the risks of releasing, yet the expansion launched and CCP was forced to issue a number of rapid-fire patches in the face of a storm of player outcry and unsubs - all entirely avoidable. The Unified Inventory broke around some of the most common use-cases of an EVE player - POS inventory, corp hangars, and the needs of producers.

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Wardec Changes/Mercenary Marketplace: The fixes to the hisec war mechanics were to be the centerpiece of Inferno, yet like the Unified Inventory it simply wasn’t ready for launch. This new wardec system was intended to create a ‘mercenary marketplace’, but the design plan ignored the reality of how hisec works; certain corps and alliances are happy to work for free for anyone just to have targets - the ‘Privateers’ model. Under the Inferno mechanics, any war immediately attracted 30+ ‘defenders’ for free, with no one able to join on the attacking side with similar benefits. CCP has since backtracked - amid wild conspiracy theories - and added an escalating fee for defending allies; while this may remove the 30+ defender war mode, the first five allies in any war are laughably inexpensive, so the vaunted ‘mercenary marketplace’ - one of this feature’s core goals - will remain unrealized. The new Kill Reports worked out well, cleanly bringing the old killmail system in line with modern killboard reporting functionality, but the War Report system - intended to help keep score in the wars - ignores the key distinction between attacker, defender, and defender’s allies, making it difficult to determine how a war is actually progressing without referring to an external api-based killboard.

The Forge

Faction Warfare Revamp:  For the first time since Empyrean Age, Faction Warfare got some  love. The third major feature of Inferno, the FW revamp launched with a series of design flaws that allowed savvy traders in Goonswarm to print isk and Loyalty Points, creating more than five trillion isk out of thin air and simultaneously rigging the course of the Amarr vs Minmatar militia contest for weeks, unbeknownst to either side. When this was revealed, the media coverage overshadowed the actual FW changes themselves. The new FW gameplay, which adds a ‘LP dump’ system and consequences to capturing stations - locking out hostile militia members - seems solid enough; the community that remains in FW after years of neglect is extremely small, but it might now begin to grow. Of the three major features, this was the least broken at release, yet paradoxically it impacted the smallest number of players.

Minor Features

Datacore Nerf: Passive income took a 50% hit in Inferno when datacore prices from Research Agents were doubled. This is terrible news for PvPers who understand how flawed and boring EVE’s PvE is. The beauty of datacore farming was that it provided a relatively small but hands-off source of income, once an initial mission-grind was done. The knock on-effect is that invention of all kinds is now more expensive, further escalating the price of t2 good across the board. I would have more sympathy for this change if CCP had invested in developing EVE’s PvE towards something approaching ‘fun’ first.

New Modules: The first entirely new modules in years have been implemented, and even though there are only a handful of them - drone damage mods, injected shield boosters, lockbreakers, and adaptive armor hardeners - players are perhaps more excited about these mods than anything else added in Inferno. They work, they haven’t overwhelmed the balance of the game, and they make EFT more of an exercise in creativity than rote repetition.

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Frigate Rebalance: CCP Ytterbium continues the ‘tiericide’ reforms by granting a host of previously useless or suboptimal frigates, such as the Tormentor, Punisher, Incursus, and Merlin significantly greater stats and new slot layouts. As frigates are a new player’s first encounter with EVE, I can’t say enough nice things about these changes. Along with the new modules, ship rebalancing is one of the best aspects of Inferno, with more in the pipeline according to a new dev blog.

The Art

New Missiles/Turrets, Bombers, v3 Ships: CCPÂ’s Art Department carries the company when QA and design stumble. The new stealth bomber redesigns and shader models are absolutely amazing, and they illustrate the look of the new missile launchers and their effects perfectly. EVE remains one of the best looking games on the market. With the v3 process almost finished and every new turret now implement, hopefully we can look forward to more excellent ship redesigns in the next expansion (fix the Bellicose hulls).

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Inferno in Context

Inferno had a hard act to follow after Crucible, considered by players to be one of the best expansions in EVE history. But even taking regression to the mean into account, Inferno was lackluster  in a needless, preventable way. Companies don’t like to miss release dates because a missed release is a failure on the career record of the producers in charge of the product, yet Inferno desperately needed more work and more QA. Compared to the objectively bad EVE expansions - Tyrannis and Incarna - the feature spread of Inferno was solid and interesting, assuming they worked.

To succeed as an expansion, a release must actually grow the Eve Online playerbase; the blowback from broken features in Inferno appears to have removed any ‘Expansion Boost’ from the usual ‘spike/plateau/slow decline’ pattern of a successful launch - and no, that’s not because of Diablo III. CCP should be applauded for selecting solid spaceship features to work on in Inferno (there is very little irrelevant crap in Inferno, besides new skin shaders in the character creator) as they did in Crucible, but the lack of testing, polish, and the intestinal fortitude necessary to man up and delay a release that clearly isn’t ready is galling.

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