EVE Online is a delicate game, and sometimes I have to wonder how CCP can ever make changes because anticipating and understanding how drastically those changes can affect its ecosystem would probably require its own degree. Yesterday during the EVE Online Nottingham (EVE_NT) meetup, it was revealed that a fairly major, and much asked for, change is finally being implemented into the game: The watchlist is being removed. Now, if you're not deep into EVE, this change might seem rather miniscule. When adding someone to your in-game contacts list, there is an option to add that person to a watchlist, enabling you to immediately see whether they were online or not. Now that the feature is supposedly getting the axe, what's the big deal, right?
Removing that function seems like a rather small change, but it has huge implications for how information is gathered in EVE. Sifting through the comments where the plans for the change were first revealed, it seems that the response is largely positive. After all, being able to tell whether a character is online or not is a huge tactical advantage—especially if you're in the business of ruining that character's day by camping their usual hunting grounds.
In EVE Online, the simple act of logging a character into the game can have huge implications. This isn't an MMORPG where players typically play just one character, instead having several that each serve a specific purpose. So when a known enemy capital pilot logs in, you're going to have a pretty good idea of what they might be up to.
But the change, and how it impacts the game, also touches on a bigger problem in EVE Online, one that I explored on in an article I wrote almost a year ago for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. The problem is, how does CCP make changes to the game without also making a commentary on the right way to play EVE Online? For your average MMORPG, that problem isn't that big of a deal. But in a game that markets itself on the philosophy that players are encouraged to manipulate and rely on the tools at their disposal in order to devise new ways of playing, removing or tweaking tools can have interesting consequences.
The big thing is that, in EVE Online, the way you play the game isn't just a preference, but an identity. Most MMORPGs don't really offer that much degree of choice in how you play, you're usually either killing something or crafting something, and the consequences of each action are largely not that interesting to another player. But EVE Online is sprawling, and each of its avenues of play cater to people of different tastes in a way creates sub-cultures within EVE Online. It's also a game that is, at its core, is about conflict, and so what one character is doing is always largely of interest to many others.
There are players that adore the art of scamming, others who are dedicated to stirring the hornet's nest in wormholes, and then there are those who just want to enjoy a quiet evening mining in high security space. And while each player has their own opinion of the identity a player might adopt, like the gankers in CODE despising the way that non-aggressive "carebears" enjoy the game, each one is largely seen as valid in CCPs eyes. After all, they created a sandbox that encourages players to build these identities, how can they not protect the sanctity of each way of playing without invalidating the integrity of EVE Online's core philosophy?
But here's the thing, every time they introduce changes to the game, CCP is, in some small way, doing just that. In many of those cases, that infraction is worth it for the greater good of the game—and that might very well be the case with removing the watchlist. I can't imagine too many people were incredibly upset about the notion of never having to spend hours shooting at a structure when the sovereignty system of null-sec was overhauled to inject a sense of fun back into war. Change can be a good thing, but it can also compromise a way of living for certain players that can have negative repercussions, even forcing them out of the game entirely.
Now, I don't want anyone to mistake what I'm saying here: I'm not saying that removing the watchlist, or any other pain-points in EVE, are inherently good or bad. But I find it fascinating the way such simple changes can have huge impacts on how players approach the game. With the removal of the watchlist, which is basically an incredibly overpowered intelligence gathering tool, plenty of metagame aspects relating to everything from spying to wormhole shenanigans are going to have to adapt. And players are either going to embrace this new way of life or reject it.
EVE Online is such a strange game because so many people only derive a sense of satisfaction from it by automating many of its more mundane features. For years, CCP have been waging war against AFK gameplay by nerfing the ways players engage in it while also making great strides to eliminate botting and the use of third-party tools like ISBoxer, which let players run several instances of the game simultaneously with ease. For a large portion of the player base, all of these are considered huge wins because it forces players to actually play the game. But as CCP slowly pulls out the scaffolding that either they or other players have built to make EVE Online more palatable, forcing players to work harder for the same reward, they also need to be making sure that the reward becomes more desirable to compensate.
When you put the axe to the watchlist, that's going to severely impede the methods that many players have been invested in using for a long time, and if I've learned one thing from playing EVE Online, it's that people hate being forced to change their ways—even if it makes the game more fun in the long run.
I don't envy CCP in the least, as they seem constantly stuck between the dichotomy of making a product that makes money and making a game that gives players the freedom to enjoy it how they please. There's no doubt that there is a balance to be struck there, but finding it is another thing altogether. When even the slightest changes to the game can risk the integrity of that latter philosophy, CCP is constantly having to wage a war against certain cultures within the game. And while most are mature enough to understand the logic behind these changes, there's no hiding from the fact that CCP is in a position where they need to tell certain groups that, sorry, the way you're playing is no longer valid. You can either learn to adapt or you can go find something else to play. And that's an ultimatum that I'd never want to give.