EVE Skills III: The Myth of “Catching Up”

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As discussed in the previous part, the dirty secret of the EVE skills is that it really is a level-based system. The even dirtier secret is that it's almost the exact opposite of how most level-based systems works, and this is what trips up most casual observers. It's very easy to look at it and see the parallels: SP look kind of like XP; character builds look a bit like classes; skills look a lot like level-specific abilities; levels look a lot like… well, levels. As such, it's also very easy to make the assumption that more SP provides an inherent mechanical advantage, and that, since SP is accumulated over time with no power-grinding mechanic available, that this advantage is pretty much unassailable. An older player will have more SP, and that translate into more “power”, right?

Wrong. These assumptions rely on the common design that XP goes into higher and higher levels, and that every level gained is strictly better than the ones before it — the deeper you go into a class' progression, the harder it becomes to beat. EVE does not work that way. EVE has a very shallow level cap: five for every skill in the game, and the cost to get to a higher level is so staggeringly high that it is almost universally better to train some complementary skill instead. The skill system is designed to be wide rather than deep, and even if we ignore the training time, it is not always strictly true that a higher level is better — there are numerous skills in the game that provide higher stats on ships and modules, but under certain circumstances, those higher stats actually translate into a disadvantage. It is often said that more skills provides more versatility, but as the setups used in Part II show, this also means you have more guns to shoot yourself in the foot with: The Pragmatic doesn't need a fitting rig and can go all-tank, but that means he ends up in a slower ship than The Naïve — situationally, this may mean that The Pragmatic becomes much easier to hit and takes more damage, so she actually dies quicker…

Specialisation and The Price of Marginal Improvement

The stats shown in Part II of this series may seem like significant jumps in effectiveness in the ships. The Naïve to Pragmatic increase is particularly spectacular, but note the time required. Doubling the training time has given us less than half again the damage, and not even a fifth more in tanking ability. This means that in the time it took The Pragmatic to get those extra bonuses, The Naïve could have trained an entire ship setup (with zero overlap) to a similar level of usefulness as her Thorax. This could mean something as nasty and evil as cross-training to Caldari, dumping a whole lot of SP into electronics, and come back with a newbie Blackbird that would render The Pragmatic completely helpless, and since The Pragmatic is so combat focused, there's very little she can do about it. At most, she could use a somewhat similar ship with a different focus, such as the Vexor, to try to combat the ECM with more drones, but her options are quite limited compared to what The Naïve could throw at her.

The same problem arises for The Maxed — almost two years of training and getting everything to All V means she can still only fly Gallente combat cruisers. In the time it took her to get there, The Pragmatic could have cross-trained into five different races, ships, and roles, trivially finding a combination that renders those 17% extra damage all but useless. The result of this is the conclusion that “catching up” in EVE does not work the way it does in your average ordinary level-based game.

For one, in EVE, there is a strict limit to how much SP can be used for a given ship. In the case of these kinds of damage-focused Thorax fits, that limit is 35M SP. The player fielding that ship could have devh4xed his way to all 450 million SP the game has to offer, and he would still effectively only be a 35M SP character in this situation. For another, it becomes readily apparent that you don't need to catch up with someone to beat them. If we wind back time to when The Maxed is sitting at 25M SP and The Pragmatic is fresh off the newbie production line, the latter has every opportunity to pick a training plan that will kill the former every time the two meet. While The Maxed is collecting 10M SP to fill in those last lvl V skills, The Pragmatic has the time to pour 10M SP into something that specifically targets the weaknesses that come from specialising in T1 combat cruisers, and as the above example shows, you can go quite far with just a few million SP. Finally, there's the realisation that not only is “catching up” possible (and even quick and easy), but it is also inevitable. The fact that there is an upper limit to how much SP a ship can conceivably make use of, combined with the fact that pushing the limits of skill levels yield very marginal improvements compared to what you could do with your time instead, means that sooner or later, you will possess a ship setup that will handily beat the setup of that older, higher-SP character. It then only becomes a question of picking the right ship and fit to field at the right time. SP has long since ceased to be a relevant factor.

Wait, what?

…but isn't it a common advise to new players to specialise to overcome the supposed SP advantage of older players? Yes, but it comes with an often unspoken caveat: specialise into something that the older player is weak against. It does not mean that you should take him or her on head-on — you can't out-specialise someone who is already fully specialised in the same field, after all — but that you should find some niche where even a modest SP investment means you are now better at something. In the case of the example characters used earlier, The Maxed's focus on T1 combat cruisers can be circumvented by going for a cruiser-killer: the Battlecruiser. By simply going to the next step in the ship progression, the same medium weapon and tanking skills that goes on a normal cruiser are being used to arm a BC, which simply fits more of everything. If The Maxed does 17% more damage with a similar ships and fittings, simply don't use a similar ship and fit — go for, say, a Brutix instead, which handily solves the problem of the other guy doing 17% more damage by fitting 40% more guns. Or, as previously mentioned, take not of The Maxed's combat cruiser specialisation, and focus on ewar instead. If the other guy can't lock you or can't hit you, then his on-paper damage advantage becomes meaningless, and you can spend all afternoon chipping away at his HP.

That concludes this series for now, but as the debate keeps returning on the forums, there will undoubtedly be reasons to return for parts IV–LVIII.