"[Small gang PvP in EVE] wasn't relevant the moment a trapped 20-man gang was jumped out of a dead end system by their pet titan."
So says Jim Rossignol, famed EVE Online evangelist and a corp mate of mine in the game for nigh on five years, after a discussion on the state of EVE on our old corporations private forum. He's not wrong. EVE's player population has grown and grown over the last seven years - the record for most EVE players online at any one time was a scant10, 744 in September '04, not long before I started playing, but that figure was dwarfed by the 60, 453 in June 2010. Similarly, within that melting pot of ever increasing player groups has come a concommitant increase in the size of what we call "the small gang". When I were a lad, and StateCorp was at its peak we could perhaps manage as manage as many as 20 people in the corporation chat channel at any one time, although you had to bear in mind that 10 of those would be alt characters.
Our gangs were small, our tactics tried and tested and our pilots ever willing to lose ships in the name getting some killmails. We ran with our tails between our legs on many occasions, either after defeat or to avoid it, but we won more than our fair share of battles, sometimes outnumbered, sometimes outgunned and sometimes both. Our secret was simple - good intelligence. Knowing your enemy and outfitting your own ships to counter him is the best way to win. Or, as Sun Tzu probably would have said "The bastards are flying auto-canes, get me a Falcon with a full rack of Minnie jammers."
Getting good intel is one rule of EVE that has never changed, but these days it's becoming less important for the small gang. Actually, that's a lie. It's not that it's less important at all, it's more that you don't need as much intelligence before you can decide whether or not to commit to a fight. These days there are two main things you need to know: 1) Do they outnumber us and, if so, can we get enough people so we outnumber them and 2) Are they known to hot-drop with capital ships at the first sign of angry shuttle pilots?
EVE has become a numbers game, more or less. Back in the day a twenty- or thirty-man gang usually meant there was something really momentous going on, like a sovereignty battle. Nowadays a twenty-man gang is what you get on a rainy Tuesday evening. There's an alliance known as Rooks & Kings that are notorious for baiting with what, these days, is called a "small" gang of twenty or so ships and then using their Titan pilots to portal in another thirty or so ships as backup once they've engaged. They're not an isolated case. The tactics that used to drive PvP and make it a subtle, pliable beast have been replaced with sheer blunt trauma and excessive force. Ganking is now de rigeur, but it's no longer just pirate gangs sitting on a low-sec entrance gate, it's virtually the only way to guarantee PvP, non-consensual or otherwise.
The backbone of PvP in EVE has always been The Fear - the fear of losing your ship, the fear of losing a head full of expensive implants, basically the fear of losing all the assets you've worked your ass off to gain. It's something that has been absolutely integral to the games appeal, and those combat shakes are why I've played it so long and why, after all this time, I've had to try and find other ways to spark the same flame. It seems, however, that for many The Fear doesn't exist.
Perhaps it's another symptom of EVE's growing playerbase. All these new pilots need more and more ships to fly, more and more modules to fit to them. They mine more ore, they build more items, they expand the economy naturally and progressively and this is A Good Thing. But the flip side of that comes from CCP's desire to rid EVE of the problem of Real Money Trading that plagues other MMOs. The Game Time Card and its ingame equivalent, the Plex, have allowed players to legitimately use real world cash to buy in game money. No longer does the average EVE peon need to grind his way from nothing to afford his first cruiser or battleship - now you can just throw a credit card at Shattered Crystal and become an instant billionaire, able to afford a hangar full of replacements, neatly sidestepping the worry and stress and sheer adrenaline that PvP should create.
This proliferation of easy money - along with all the other ways CCP have made it easier to make ISK ingame, like wormholes and invention - has led to a potentially game-killing infestation of capital ships and jump capable sub-caps. It makes PvP a minefield. You may think your gang of twelve can have a good fight with that fifteen-strong mob of bad-guys, but when a cyno is lit within seconds of engagement you know it's time to run, cos here comes the backup. I'm not shy about admitting that I've used the same tactic myself but you know it's become a real problem when you have to gauge every single fight on the likelihood of enemy reinforcements coming in from 5-, 10- or even 20-jumps away.
Some will say it's the natural order of things, a reflection of combat in the real world. After all, why bring a knife to a gun fight when you can pack a rocket launcher? With more players come bigger gangs, harder fights, needing better fleet commanders and more committed players. Except fights are harder to get because it's harder to find a cluster of hostiles who'll commit to any battle when they're not sure they'll win easily. Ten-versus-ten, twenty-v-twenty, fifty-v-fifty even... they're all the basis of a good fight to me but the tide in EVE has turned and it seems that you'll only get a guaranteed fight when you're on the short side of ten-v-twenty or twenty-v-thirty or... you get my drift.
Combat in EVE, the PvP that kept me playing for so long, is gone. It's a different animal now, and I feel like a middle-aged Dad trying to understand why his son likes that god awful noise they call music these days. The game has moved on, partly due to the designs and desires of the developers, and partly due to the pressures created by a player base who all want to be the toughest kid on the block.
I never wanted to be the alpha dog. I would have grinned like a madman if someone told me that seeing my name in local worried them, I would have laughed like a maniac if I was told that people avoided my fleets if they knew I was leading them... but that's speculation and hope and daydreams. I would love EVE to still be the EVE of 2005, or 2006, or even 2007, before the capital age took over, but it's not to be. It's like wishing your ex-girlfriend dropped all the habits that always annoyed you and came back into your arms as the perfect woman you always imagined she could be. EVE wasn't a casual fling for me, like my dalliances with WoW and WAR, EVE was a relationship, almost a marriage. But my lover has changed, and it's time to move on.