“Risk” has become somewhat of a buzzword in the world of EVE. It seems to insert itself into any discussion of game balance or proposed changes. Which is appropriate, in some ways; in the pvp-centric game world of EVE, every activity you do is governed by the risk of potential loss. This has to be balanced against the potential return from that activity, which is why you see so many discussions concerning “risk vs reward.” Often these discussions descend into bickering arguments where both sides point to “risk,” or lack thereof, to backup their side. With so many interpretations of what risk in EVE means, or what it should mean, the concept of it is becoming muddled. I’m going to attempt to analyze my interpretation of risk as it relates to gameplay, and present my opinion on how it should be balanced.
To provide a framework for this discussion, I’m going to define some starting premises: 1) every form of legal gameplay is equally relevant; 2) risk = (stakes) x (chance of loss); 3) reward = (potential return) x (chance of success; 4) risk can be centralized or decentralized.
Elitism is Just a Social Construct
You hear it a lot. You may have said it or thought it yourself. “PvP is superior to anything else.” Elitism is prevalent in EVE. EVE players consider themselves superior to players of other games. Low sec players consider themselves better than high-sec players. Null-sec players consider themselves better than players in low/high. PvP’ers consider themselves better than PvE players. Not everybody feels that way, but I think it’s fair to say that describes the general trend of attitudes.
That’s all well and good. Personally, I disagree with that kind of elitism, but people will feel how they feel. That’s fine. But elitism is and should remain as only a part of the game’s social landscape. Elitism should not spill over into balancing gameplay mechanics in favor of one play style over another. Indeed, such a thing violates the very sandbox principles upon which EVE is based.
This is why I believe that we have to accept that every form of legal gameplay is equally relevant. I stress this point because, entirely too often, players attempt to marginalize the relevance of other forms of gameplay when discussions of risk and game balance arise. You’re welcome to your opinion that suicide gankers or high-sec wardec’ers are griefers whose playstyle should be nerfed into the ground; you’re welcome to your opinion that miners are a bunch of sad newbs who should only get to mine if you decide to let them. You’re welcome to your opinion that you should be able to catch every single ship that passes through a gate when you’re camping it; you’re welcome to your opinion that CONCORD should preemptively annihilate anyone who looks sideways at your hauler.
Your opinion on which type of gameplay is “better” means nothing when it comes to balancing the game. All gameplay that doesn’t violate the EULA is equally relevant in the sandbox. Balancing gameplay to favor one type of activity over another isn’t really balance.
Risk and Reward
The biggest problem with discussions of risk in the game is that it means something different to each person. One person’s idea of risk may be biased to a type of gameplay, and even a relatively unbiased view may include connotations that another’s idea does not.
My interpretation of risk is that it is an equation of what’s at stake modified by the likelihood of actually losing it. Let’s look at some basic examples: (speaking in relative generalities for the sake of discussion; whatever the values you assign to stakes and chance of loss, the equation stands)
If I’m a suicide ganker, I’m flying a relatively cheap ship that’s guaranteed of being destroyed by CONCORD. That equals low stakes with a high chance of loss. We can ballpark the risk for that activity as being moderate.
If I’m a hauler, I could be flying a cheap or expensive ship, but factoring in the cost of a cargo, we can set the stakes for a hauler as being high. The chance of losing your ship and cargo to other players is moderate. We can ballpark the risk for that activity as being moderate to high.
And then you have the reward equation, which I define as potential return modified by the chance of success. When you’re looking at the risk/reward balance of an activity, you obviously want to do whatever you can to minimize risk while maximizing reward. Let’s look back at our examples: (again, sspeaking in generalities for the sake of discussion; whatever you would assign as the specific values of potential return and chance of success, the equation stands)
A suicide ganker’s chances of success are low to moderate. They have to successfully tackle their target and successfully down it. But their potential return is moderate to very high. We can describe their reward as moderate.
A hauler’s chances of success are moderate to high. The threat of being ganked is ubiquitous, but you can always fit your ship and tailor your route to maximize your chances of getting through. Their potential return is moderate to high, depending on what they’re hauling. So we can describe their reward as generally moderate to high.
So in our two examples of competing playstyles, we have the suicide ganker with moderate risk and moderate reward and the hauler with moderate to high risk and moderate to high reward. It makes sense for the risk of an activity to be roughly equivalent to the reward. Even if you respect our first premise, some will look at these examples and want to say that the risk/reward of one should be equivalent to the other.
I disagree. I think that it’s perfectly acceptable for the risk and reward for differing activities, even ones that are in direct competition with each other, to be asymmetrical. However, there’s another aspect to risk vs reward that doesn’t seem to be discussed as much. That is the centralization or decentralization of an activity’s risk.
To put it another way, does an activity need to be successful many times to counter one failure? Or can an activity fail many times because one big success balances all of those out. If it’s the former, an activity’s risk is centralized. If it’s the latter, its risk is decentralized. To return to our examples, a suicide ganker’s activity is decentralized. The ganker can try and fail many times because that one big loot pinata kill makes up the difference. On the other hand, to be profitable, a hauler has to succeed many times in order to pay for that one loss. You can also look at it as a hauler’s reward is decentralized, whereas a ganker’s reward is centralized.
In these examples, you have predator (ganker) and prey (hauler). The pvp’er and the non-pvp’er. The biggest disconnect between these two communities when discussing risk is that the centralization/decentralization of risk is not taken into account. So the predator belittles the prey with disparaging remarks about being “risk averse” or carebears, etc.
In their opinion, the prey needs to htfu and learn to take a loss and not expect the game to be handed to them on a silver platter with zero risk. On the other hand, the prey wants better methods for avoiding losses. If you don’t take the centralization of risk into account, it paints the situation as black and white. But it’s not.
As an activity’s risk becomes more centralized, its tools for mitigating that risk need to increase. Otherwise the ratio of success to failure goes down, throwing an activity’s risk out of balance with its reward. This is why things like Higgs Anchors and more ehp on the Bowhead are legitimately important. Predators look at these things and think these players are weak for being “risk averse.”
The problem is they’re projecting their decentralized risk paradigm onto a group of players who have to manage their centralized risk in an entirely different way. At the same time, those who engage in prey playstyles have to understand that their greater set of tools to manage and mitigate risk can not be so good that it disrupts predetors’ internal risk/reward balance.
An activity needs to have a relative balance internally between its own risk and reward. Both in terms of concentration (X risk to Y reward) and centralization. Internal balance of concentration of risk and reward for an activity can be largely player-managed (e.g. not carrying more than X isk worth of goods on a single hauling run). External balance of the centralization or decentralization of risk/reward is largely developer-managed (e.g. providing the necessary in-game tools for a player to manage centralized risk).
Arguments concerning risk/reward and game balance are not productive, or even entirely valid, if an argument attempts to marginalize the relevance of another type of gameplay. This works both ways. For example, gankers need to leave their elitism at the door, while haulers need to respect that suicide ganking is an entirely legitimate activity. Whenever you’re talking about a different type of gameplay, the type of risk and how it has to be managed also completely changes. Your experience is not the only consideration.
Game balance in general is notoriously difficult because of the interconnectivity of the elements in play. Things get even more difficult when you’re trying to balance elements which themselves are systems with internal and external balances that must be respected. So, next time you find yourself reading a dev post about proposed changes and you know that it’s completely stupid after considering it for (let’s be generous) a few hours, remember that you’re probably only seeing those elements that affect you and aren’t considering the unholy mess that is the whole.
Furthermore, next time you find yourself belittling the arguments or considerations of a player with a different type of gameplay, take a moment to step outside yourself and consider that they may be working under a totally different system of risk management, which is necessary to that type of gameplay. Judging one type of gameplay by the standards and paradigm of another is nonsensical at best.