Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Guest Blog: Cosmic Travesty: Or why something that's been broken for a decade remains broken

Forward to a Gust Blog: Back in September I was on track for getting the COSMOS missions on Team Space Glitter's roadmap as part of my goal of getting broken things that frustrate people fixed. I was very excited about this. However, other things happened and the time needed to go through these missions and clean them up vanished. On the flip side we have had an amazing lore experience and new and exciting changes to the Eve landscape.

The COSMOS mission system is old. That does not change that the COSMOS missions are broken. It does explain a bit of the reason why. It was added for the Eve Online: Cold War expansion back in 2005. Over the years they have started to break. Their items have become obsolete. Yet, they are full of lore and mystery. They should have been better then they are. But much of Eve's old content suffers the same problem. I haven't abandoned my goal to have them fixed. So when someone offered to write me a comprehensive 'this is broken' list I said, "Yes please." Zosius over at Cloaky Bastard has also been documenting them as well.

I decided to host Nivin Sajjad's write up. For one, he has no blog and I find the information interesting. For two, it lets me have a super easy resource to pull the information for future use when that day comes that COSMOS missions have their update in the sun.
-Sugar Kyle

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Cosmic Travesty: Or why something that's been broken for a decade remains broken

Once upon a time, when asteroids still looked like dirty ostrich eggs and L4 agents had yet to exist, CCP decided to add some variety to PvE by introducing a set of unique agents who would offer one time missions that granted massive boosts to faction standings alongside interesting payouts. Ever since then, the half finished perpetual train wreck that is COSMOS missions have become a time capsule of all that is terrible in PvE gameplay design.

Just how bad can it be? Well, I have been to the abyss and back more than once, and I have seen such wonders things. Welcome... to 2005.

Anyone who's done any number of L4 security missions is probably familiar with The Damsel in Distress. In this mission, you are tasked with looting an item from an exploding structure rescuing a young lady from a pirate stronghold while coming under attack from waves of pirates that spawn as you shoot her prison. Truth be told we're all pretty tired of rescuing the Damsel by now, to the point that CCP has made it into a running joke, but it does have one thing going for it.

That manna from heaven is instancing, and you have no idea how sweet it is until it's missing.
Now EVE is famous for having all its action take place on a single shard, but that only tells part of the story. Every time you accept a security mission, the game spawns an "instance" of what is essentially a tiny hidden room or series of rooms in some random point in space. This is a unique grid of objects the game makes just for you, which only you can warp to without needing to aim for someone else who's already there. Every time you go rescue the Damsel, there is a new Damsel, a new pirate stronghold, and a new set of rats.

Not so for COSMOS missions.

Thank you pilot! But our princess is in another cargo hold!

Welcome to the bizarro world of waiting for Godot rat respawns in public plexes. Rather than there being hundreds of Damsels in hundreds of rooms, each awaiting the arrival of their own gallant carebear, instead there is ONE room that everyone can see on the overview, containing ONE key ship or structure, that depending on type could respawn anywhere from once every minute to once every six hours to spit out a new Damsel for rescuing. So on the one hand, if somebody out of the tens of thousands of players currently logged on has already looted her this time around, you'll have to wait. On the other hand, a Damsel is a Damsel is a Damsel, so if someone else with vast intestinal fortitude decided to camp the respawn for a whole 12 hours, you can go buy up one of his spare Damsels on contract and "rescue" her all the same.

Psst, you want a one of a kind holy book for your agent? Just 25 mil a pop.

And I wasn't kidding about that six hours part. Some COSMOS rats will respawn after a few minutes, but the rarer ones only do so a few times a day. Hope you brought your poop sock.

Why did CCP do this? My guess is that it was borne out of a misguided attempt to force more people in highsec interact with each other. The reality, though, is much more likely to be you seeing a cloud of empty wrecks that point to an exciting future of twiddling your thumbs, or more absurdly, a complete absence of information that gives you no indication you're actually in the right spot, but that what you need will only show up again in a few hours. This, I think, is the first fundamental flaw of COSMOS missions. Item scavenging in slow respawn public complexes forces players into many long hours of futilely chasing after nothing.

Congratulations CCP, you have unleashed the purest antithesis of fun.

Now I mentioned some of the rats do have a respawn timer that is much shorter. Unfortunately, CCP has found a way to make this brutally unfun as well. First up, the kleptomaniac agent,

Scooping rat droppings is the life for me.

Did I mention this guy lives in a highsec island located behind one of the most frequently camped lowsec systems in the game? More on that later.

But that's not all. Sometimes a fast respawn becomes its own colossal headache,

I'm supposed to hack? Here? While they watch?

What you're seeing is a static COSMOS hacking site. This one in particular requires a mission reward gate key which will cause you to lock yourself out if you happen to die in there. In addition, each of those rats will respawn in a minute or two. As you can see, the full room DPS is near that of an L4 combat mission despite it being a hacking site. Some sites are even worse, limiting you to battlecruiser sized ships while having many times the spawns. You are expected to tank the incoming DPS of what are infinitely respawning and thus essentially unkillable rats while doing an RNG hunt on a separate interface for either mission items or Storyline module components. Once upon a time before hacking was revamped, you could at least orbit a can while letting your module cycle until they succeed. Now you don't even have that dubious luxury.

This and other factors have lead to a perpetually sidelined Storyline module market,

I'm not building any of these

COSMOS agents spit out a veritable fountain of strange little BPCs for strange little meta 6 to 7 modules that usually have the most generous fitting requirements in category, but come with performance stats that range from marginally worse than faction, to frankly bizarre.

Why is this a thing?

In spite of their often dubious utility, Storyline modules do fill a niche in letting people put together some extremely tight fits. But the market for them is miniscule, while the modules themselves are often horrendously overpriced and come with buy-sell spreads that are some of the largest in the game. So what made Storyline modules into the slightly poorer man's Officer bling in terms of lossmail mockery?

Several reasons. First, each COSMOS mission can only be completed once per character, and while some BPC drops are set, most are randomly chosen from a racial loot table. This greatly limits the BPC supply. Second, as previously mentioned, the static hacking sites that drop the actual components needed to build these items are often hard to access (their entry keys are also COSMOS rewards) and interactively unpleasant to the point of being utterly broken. Third, most of the modules require anywhere from two to five ranks in obscure skills such as Takmahl Technology or Yan Jung Technology to build, which you've probably never heard of and don't seem to have any other uses besides building Storyline modules. And finally, performance wise a lot of the items just aren't very good.

The result is that only a small handful of masochists are even bothering to collect the components, which are then sold at vastly inflated rates to the even rarer eccentrics numbering in the hundreds tens who just happen to possess both COSMOS BPCs and training in almost completely useless industrial skills. Meanwhile, every other sensible person out there who wants better than meta but can't quite fit T2 is buying the usually much more common, affordable, and better performing faction and deadspace modules.

Before I go any further, I want to talk about one of the rare things CCP has sort of done right when it comes to COSMOS missions. I bring your attention to the infamous Ihakana-Otomainen pipe.

You can almost taste the loot hauler tears

I am unabashedly risk adverse when it comes to my highsec carebearing. But even I have to admit the brilliance of placing most of the highest payout COSMOS agents in a highsec island that's only accessible through a single lowsec system. Now it was pretty sadistic of CCP to place them all in a stationless system, especially in the time before mobile depots, but beggars can't be choosers. And here's why,

A near complete Amarr/Caldari COSMOS run. Around 60% of the ISK value comes from just two Otomainen agents.

A place of countless dashed dreams, Ihakana is also a crucible that has pushed some highsec carebears into learning active risk mitigation techniques such as scouting ahead, flying in groups, cloaky gatecamp dodging, and various other creative means of smuggling PvE boats and their potentially billions in loot in and out of Otomainen. The skills, and the thrills, one gains from this tend to encourage people to start exploring other dangerous locales as well. I would know. I've fought and chatted with such folks in wormhole space before.

This arrangement wisely keeps the site where most of the combat and forage missions take place as a highsec system. It entices carebears with a balanced mix of safety and danger, while also giving the PvP groups that live in Ihakana a continuous stream of targets without granting them the means to exert a stranglehold on the mission system itself and prevent anyone else from attempting the unique PvE content. In comparison, the pirate epic arcs and COSMOS missions that largely take place in and around sov null don't work nearly as well in attracting people who aren't already up for extreme danger or are friendly with the locals.

But this arrangement is still far from ideal. Case in point, look at this smug asshole,

Sir Not Appearing in this Film

Guess what standings you'd need to gain access to him. 5.00? 6.00 Amarr Navy? You'd be wrong. It's unmodified 7.5 Amarr Faction, though you'd be hard pressed to guess that just by talking to him or reading his character description. But good luck finding him in the first place. This particular agent isn't referenced by anyone else in-game, and neither is he present at any of Otomainen's agent hangouts. Instead, he's hidden deep inside a static deadspace complex behind two separate rat infested rooms, in a place you'd have no reason to venture into unless you were either randomly exploring or already knew he was there. One of those rooms is also locked by multiple respawning battleships, which won't let you pass until they and everything else on grid are dead.

If by some miracle you do find Akemon and get him talking, you'll soon discover he needs three separate items to finish his heroic quest mission chain. In order, these are a widget from a rat that spawns once every 6 hours or so that's located in another system you'd have to cross lowsec to reach, a second widget in a structure next to him that may also take hours to respawn if somebody beat you to it, and finally, a 500m3 packaged fancy shuttle that's dropped at the end of a separate path down the plex inaccessible from his current location, which can only be entered using a gate key dropped in yet another room in the same plex. And of course the agent only informs you of what he'll need next once you've brought him the previous item, so unless you've read a guide and basically cheated your way into knowledge you had no way of gaining in-game, bought everything on contract ahead of time, and hauled it all inside your PvE boat, you're going to end up fighting through the same two rooms of L4 equivalent respawning rats again and again just to talk to him more than once.

This points to what I think is the second fundamental flaw of COSMOS missions. Aside from various other deal breakers I haven't even addressed yet, such as missions that take a half hour to completely spawn while leaving you with large stretches of nothing happening, or 22 jump highsec fetch quests thrown in between combat missions, or being asked to build a random item that takes close to 2 hours to finish in between combat missions, or vast swaths of content being wastefully self limiting when they're doable only once, or the wacky effort vs reward ratios for some agents that make no sense, or the fact that various agents are scattered in opposing faction space some 20+ jumps away who'll hand out missions suited for battleships, or the Gallente and Minmatar zones being left half finished... aside from all that and more, the second contender for absolute worst trait of COSMOS missions is the unforgivable extent to which the game goes out of its way to conceal vital information from the players. Most of the in-game info about mission order, standings requirements, or even something as basic as what you need to do next are either handed out in a needlessly delayed fashion or outright unavailable. Nothing outside of COSMOS points to COSMOS, and few of the agents point to each other. Even when they do, they can throw you into a nightmare dreamt up by the love child of Kafka and Rube Goldberg, where if you screw up even once somewhere in that mess, you're done for good.

An actual roadmap for Amarr COSMOS progress.

The one-two punch of waiting on multiple public respawns, and a "here's a rubix cube, go fuck yourself" design mentality, has lead to a bizarre situation where most people aren't aware of COSMOS missions enough to even know they exist, most people who know enough to at least try them won't have the knowledge to do them smoothly, and the sorry few who actually understand the missions in depth and want to run them will do everything in their power to have other players finish the worst bits so they can buy up the results on contract. If it wasn't for the isolated case of a few decent loot drops, or the sad fact that when all is said and done this is still one of the fastest ways to gain faction standing, then few people in their right mind would put themselves through a COSMOS run more than once. The whole ensemble is so badly put together that they make repeating L4s seem like a rewarding experience.

As it is, I'm already known in my alliance as that crazy person who would leave the wormhole once in a while to perform some kind of self flagellating black magic that summons A Lot of Money. Until most of the underlying design principles for COSMOS missions are revamped, they will continue to be just as obtuse and unpleasant to the vast majority of EVE players. Compared to recent improvements in PvE in the form of burner missions and Drifter AI blackboards, it's a shame to see a long suffering part of the game still remain so utterly broken.

-Guest Blogger, Nivin Sajjad

4 comments:

  1. Truly good tirade is difficult art. You, sir, are a master. Enjoyable read.

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  2. A concerned MinmatarFebruary 26, 2015 at 8:55 AM

    Notice that the protest LAR yields the same 61 armor/sec as the T2 LAR at a lower grid cost. Thus it is (arguably) slightly better. I get your point though.

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  3. Nice article. I once considered COSMOS the next logical step after tutorial missions (at least for players that were interested in lore, missions, good standings etc.) Not the best direction to point a new player to.

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  4. Ah, COSMOS. Bane of my existence. I swear I still sometimes get nightmares from back when I tried not only running Gallente and Minmatar-COSMOS, but also trying to get the parts to build all that stuff I got BPCs for.

    The day I learned how loot spew interacted with COSMOS-hacking sites hurt so bad I had to stop playing for a week.

    ReplyDelete