More than a spreadsheet in space

17th April 2009 – 10.53 am

EVE Online is often described as a spreadsheet in space, which is quite fitting given that it rarely hides numbers from players, often presenting them to ten decimal places or more, and features a calculator built-in to the user interface, but it is disappointing to read people dismissing the game because of this description. Not only is there far more to EVE Online than crunching numbers it is unfair to label the game as a maths simulator without considering comparisons.

Whilst there is certainly ample opportunity to get involved with numerous calculations in EVE Online, to consider its position unique in the world of MMORPGs is short-sighted. Complex calculations are at the heart of all MMORPGs, the only difference being how transparent they are to the player and how much they can be influenced. EVE Online hides as little as possible from the player, giving significant data for almost every system and function available, whereas other games like World of Warcraft obscure some of the data behind a veneer of simplicity. However, presenting a simplistic interface to a complex system has its drawbacks.

In World of Warcraft players have to direct their characters to target dummies and put them through physical workouts to determine the DPS they can generate. Despite the availability of plenty of figures given on the character sheet and abilities there is no simple method of calculating the effectiveness of the set-up. Because of this, it can be seen as a benefit, not a drawback, to be able to calculate theoretically the tracking speed of your guns, the stability of your capacitor, or the effective strength of your ECM systems in EVE Online, instead of having to hit vacuum and determine the results through practical tests.

It may be that the complication of a third-party program is needed to perform the necessary calculations for EVE Online spaceship fittings, but that a utility is available again can be considered a benefit. Dedicated World of Warcraft players also rely on separate, third-party software to determine theoretical limits to damage output, running many iterations of attacks to calculate optimal combat ability combinations, or 'rotations'. But the number of people who actually work through the maths is likely to be small compared to those who only glean the results, or even don't bother with the maths in the first place, whatever the game.

Essentially, having to perform calculations only affects the player as much as the player wants them to. I have been quite content to fly around the galaxy in blissful ignorance of any optimal set-up as long as my shields hold up and the rats are exploding. If my shields seem weak I fit a booster or another extender to the ship. If the rats aren't exploding quickly enough I fit a module or look for skills to train in to increase my damage. And if my ship's CPU doesn't have enough available cycles I add a coprocessor, just as if my powergrid isn't sufficient for the load I add more juice. There is no maths here, just trial-and-error, learning from experience.

It is all a bit of a balancing game and I probably could save some mismatches by calculating power and CPU usage against module needs, but the point is that I don't have to. The numbers were abstract for a long time and, to be honest, still are to some extent. For example, I have in the past calculated the flight time of my missiles to determine their maximum range, but I am really content simply to fire at the rats to see if my missiles reach and make a mental note of the potential range than call up data sheets and crunch some numbers. After all, missiles are cheap.

I have probably spent more time with calculations and experiments in World of Warcraft than I have in EVE Online. When levelling up my death knight I spent time finding out what stats were best to modify and the optimal use of abilities, which was made more awkward by the opacity of the numbers and having to find out relations between the various stats and abilities. I am far from alone in delving in to the mechanics of a class, as a quick scan of articles written by progression raiders in World of Warcraft will show just how much maths is used when determining optimal equipment, which stat is most useful to squeeze out that extra 1% DPS.

All of this is not to declare that there is no maths in EVE Online, quite the contrary. There are large numbers of articles and guides for EVE Online with plenty of maths in them, but the ready availability of the numbers for any game mechanic makes it much easier to get involved. I wouldn't be surprised that if the numbers were more transparent in World of Warcraft more players would be willing to spend time optimising their characters through theoretical means. It is all because understanding the mechanics is a necessity if you want to experience the high-end content of an MMORPG, whether it is to battle it out in null-sec, or even in low-sec, in EVE Online or raiding the end-game instances in World of Warcraft. Either way, you had better be prepared to consider optimal configurations. The amount of mathematical knowledge required for EVE Online is no different than other games, given a fair comparison of playing styles.

Jumping in to a pod in EVE Online to run a PvE mission is as simple as fitting some offensive and defensive modules and getting a feel for what works, just as levelling up in World of Warcraft is as simple as throwing looted greens on to your character and seeing what works. It is only when you want to get serious that you need to start considering the maths behind the scenes. That EVE Online doesn't make players work to uncover relations between displayed and actual figures but instead makes it trivial to find the specific numbers and equations should be applauded, not denigrated. Calling EVE Online 'The Spreadsheet in Space' is not a disparaging term, but an affectionate one.

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