Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Numbers Game

So is he actually a threat? Or just a carebear who’s stared at an asteroid for too long?
—Sol, Clear Skies II
"Decent, honest, hard-working, G-d-fearing...oh yes, and profitable, too."

That was how my father described the life of an ore prospector when he agreed to put up the funds for me to attend the capsuleer's school at Hedion University. A traditionalist Khanid from a old and storied Unionist family, he didn't cotton to filthy notions like immortality-by-clone-vat, but he held it as G-d's own Wisdom from On High that there were two things that could wash away almost any impurity: hard work and profits. "Besides", he said, "if ye play it safe like I told ye and stick to Empire ores, not a one of them heathen 'capsuleers' 'll burn ye outta yer pod 'n' send me son's soul t' Hell."

Inevitably, I tired of staring at veldspar asteroids in Parses. Within a few months of graduation, the three sirens, arkonor, bistot, and crokite, called out to me from the null-sec Querious region. Just as inevitably, the predators that roam New Eden's wild frontiers caught me unawares one day, and I awoke in a clone vat, baptized anew in an unwholesome soup of biogenic goo. For a time I managed to hide from my father the fact that the fruit of his loins was now a frozen corpse slowly orbiting the RF-CN3 solar system—that the young man visiting him for the High Holy Days was a "G-d-cursed abomination". But then one day he happened to glance at my tablet and see an SCC email discussing the "recent renewal of your clone contract after a termination event." He never even so much as glanced at me one last time, just turned his back and said, "I don't know who ye are, but I'd take it as a kindness and a mercy if ye could leave me home presently and give this family time ta grieve the death of ouren son."

But enough of boring you to tears with sob stories. I just wanted to show you the kinds of thoughts that drift through a miner's head between strip cycles. Such woolgathering is the miner's worst enemy, for if it doesn't hypnotize you into forgetting to check your ship scanners, it turns you eventually to bloody-minded notions about hopping into a combat-ready ship and becoming a predator yourself.

There's one reliable cure-all for this mental malaise: calculating your profit margins. I'll use the Applied Physics Institute's little mining operation here in J124654 to show you what I mean.

Right now, my colleague Rol Prime and I are each in the driver's seat of a Covetor-class mining barge fit with three Tech-1 strip miners and two Tech-1 mining laser upgrades. Our mining lasers are trained on a big, fat arkanor asteroid, and we're busily transferring ore from our cargo holds to awaiting jet-cans after each strip cycle. Our third colleague, Amber Macx, is parked at the Ass End of Space HQ in an Orca-class industrial command ship, running two Mining Foreman Link modules, one of which allows us to get better range out of our mining lasers, and another which allows us to decrease their cycle time. So the question every miner wants an answer to while he's mining: How much isk are we going to make?

First, let's look at how much m3 in ore one strip is pulling in per cycle: roughly 1,160 m3 per 152 seconds. That's 7.63 m3 per second for one strip; multiplied by six (to account for the two covetors), we get 45.79 m3 per second. (Nota bene: These figures will vary, of course, according to your particular set-up.)

Now we need to find out how much isk we're making per m3. Checking the orders on, we see a plethora of prices we could arguably plug into our calculations. Which ones to use? For the sake of convenience, and because we don't know where our static low-sec wormhole will lead us to, let's assume we're operating in Jita. Should we use buy orders, or sell orders? If you don't care when you get paid, and if you don't mind monitoring the markets in The Forge, then by all means use the lowest sell order prices. Personally, I like getting paid right away, and I can't monitor Empire markets from out here, so I'm going to use the highest, large-volume buy order prices: 3,030 isk per unit of megacyte, and 1730 isk per unit of zydrine. (We're not going to worry about the price of the tritanium we refine from this ore, as it will be several orders of magnitude less valuable than the megacyte and zydrine.)

Plugging our values into Grismar's invaluable ore chart yields an isk/m3 value of 405.28. Now, 45.79 m3/second times 405.28 isk/m3 yields a total of 18,557.77 isk/second. We're not quite done, however; these values are only true if we get a perfect refine on our ore. Rol Prime, a master refiner, could manage a perfect refine if he were using top-of-the-line station equipment in Empire space owned by our very good friends, the Royal Khanid Navy. But J124654 is a long way away from His Majesty's RKN, which means Rol Prime is stuck with our sub-standard Medium Intensive Refining Array, a fact Prime never ceases to remind me of.

A common misconception of these mobile "intensive" refineries is that they regurgitate a 75% refining yield no matter what kind of refining skills you have. As Prime once indignantly reminded me, this is absolutely false. If, like me, you're the kind of person who hasn't a clue what's the difference between distillation and fractionation, and wouldn't know a crystalline-based refining process if it bit you in the ass, then pressing the "Refine Now" button in the control room of an array will produce a singularly craptastic result. Take it from me: Don't do it. Make sure you have a master refiner managing the process in order to ensure a respectable 75% yield.

Getting back to our calculations. Seventy-five percent of 18,577.77 isk/second is 13,918.33 isk/second. Multiplied by sixty seconds and then sixty minutes gives us a total of about 50,105,988 isk/hour. Not too shabby. "But, but, but" you say, "I can make XX percent better with two hulks, modulated strip miner II's with crystals, mindlinks, Rorquals, Harvester Drones, refining in stations" etc. etc. ad nauseam. Yes, indeed you could. But what will happen to your bottom line when a predator's missiles, lasers, and drones catch you unawares and turn all that fancy gear into scrap metal? And believe you me, it will happen. If you're lucky, it won't happen often enough to put you in the poor house, but I've never been one to count on luck overmuch.

There are only two more potential bottlenecks between you and your isk in this whole process. I'll discuss the first, refinery operations, here, and I'll leave the other one, getting the goods to market, for my next entry.

A Medium Intensive Refining Array processes 25,000 m3 of ore in 90 minutes. (Its larger cousin, the Intensive Refining Array, does 75,000 m3 in 180 minutes but can only be onlined at a large control tower, due to CPU/Powergrid issues.) Let's take our isk/m3 value for arkonor (405.28) and multiply it by the biggest sized refine we can process in the medium array (about 22,500 m3). That gives us 9,118,800 isk per 90-minute refinery cycle. As you can see from all the above, we can mine 50 million isk in ore per hour, but it takes us 7.5 hours to refine that much ore.

It's not as bad as it sounds. Running a refinery process is a relatively hands-off affair compared to mining. All Prime has to do is show up every hour-and-a-half to empty the processed minerals from the refinery and flip the switch to start the next batch. I like to think of the refinery as a 9-to-5 factory. It churns out about 50 million per day, as long as I keep fueling it with ore. Therefore, I only need to do about one hour's worth of arkonor mining per day to keep it fueled. (This has the added benefit of lowering my risk profile by putting my Covetor's and Orca-hauler in harm's way for as little time as possible.)

So there it is: 50 million isk per day. One-and-a-half billion isk per month. It's not the Comstock Lode or El Dorado (a couple of pre-Eve Gate legends I read about the other day). But for our small operation, it will do quite nicely.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Setting Up Shop

The wormhole I had found in the Maut system was a K162, in other words a generic exit, meaning the only way I could find out what was on the other side was by going through it.

Immediately after coasting through the gossamer veil separating known space from unknown, a generic warning popped up on my ship's interface, saying that local environmental phenomena in this solar system was mucking about with my ship's systems. The combat simulation modelers reported the following performance variants:
  • Armor EM Resistance +22%
  • Armor EXP Resistance +22%
  • Armor KIN Resistance +22%
  • Armor THRM Resistance +22%
  • Shield EM Resistance -22%
  • Shield EXP Resistance -22%
  • Shield KIN Resistance -22%
  • Shield THRM Resistance -22%
  • Signature Penalty 0.73
  • Small Weapon Dmg Multiplier 1.55
Most likely the strange companion to this system's normal sun—a Wolf-Rayet star—was causing these effects. Nothing to be too concerned about. The improved effectiveness to armor plating was even a bit of a boon.

The ship's nav computers automatically recorded a bookmark of the exit back to Empire space and then ran a check for the signature of the wormhole I had just traveled through. It registered as U210. This meant absolutely nothing to me, so I pulled up a search engine and plugged that in with a few keywords like "wormhole" and "New Eden."

This site was the first hit that came back in the search results. What a wealth of information it had! Plugging in the solar systems locus signature, J214654, yielded some good news. Not only did this system possess a static exit-point to low-security space*, but its generic, CONCORD-assessed danger rating was "Class 3", meaning that a small three-capsuleer operation like my own could take advantage of it without running too much risk or attracting too much attention.

After thoroughly probing and scanning the system for hostiles and finding none, I gave the go-code over the open comm channel for my two colleagues to warp to the wormhole and follow me through—one in an Orca fitted with a cloak and the other in a Viator-class blockade runner, also stealth capable.

For the next hour after arrival, the Applied Physics Institute (APHID) engineering crews worked double-time to get the control tower shields online, followed by guns, scrams, webs, hangars and the refining array. As they labored under the gaze of this system's twin suns, the men couldn't help but feel cut off from civilization and unnerved by the silence. Out here, the unceasing electromagnetic chatter one grows used to picking up on comm devices throughout known space was nowhere to be found. They missed Local Channel.

I wasn't so sure I missed it. Local Channel, the capsuleer's premier go-to intelligence tool, had turned us all soft and squishy. Had we forgotten how to use our ship's scanners? How to assess a threat profile? Another thought occurred to me: The fragile anonymity that this silent system granted could work in our favor; it would hide the predators from us, true, but it would also hide us from the predators.

The APHID crews evidently had a different perspective on the lack of civilization. Once they finished onlining the Gallente Control Tower and its mods, they christened it "Ass End of Space." Oh well, let them have their fun for now. They'll learn to like it out here eventually—especially when they see the size of their first paycheck.

The Wolf-Rayet Companion Star in J124654 system. Wolf-Rayet stars, presumably named after a pre-Eve Gate human astronomer or astronomers, are massive, hot stars which shed mass at a faster than usual pace by means of a strong stellar wind.

*How curious that a natural spatial phenomena should be so seemingly responsive to an artificial political construct like the security rating of a given solar system. The more conspiratorial-minded might see this as evidence that these wormholes are not so "natural" after all.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Unknown Space

One month ago, I thought I had reached the end of my travels in New Eden. My strip miners had cycled millions of m3 of ark-bist-crok through the cargo holds of hulks and into the holds of waiting haulers. I had made billions more isk as a T2 inventor and shipbuilder. I had thrashed backwater null-sec markets for billions more in trades. And I had fought and died with some of the best (and worst) corporations, militias, and alliances—everything from one-on-one frigate fights to massive battleship fleet fights.

There was only one problem with all this. I was bored out of my skull.

In response to such a confession, you'll often hear the capsuleer's refrain: "If you're bored, you're doing something wrong." Yet I truly believed I had seen all New Eden had to offer, and, though I hadn't been the best at any role (not by a long shot), the drawbacks of each and every profession had been turning pod-piloting into a chore. My litany of complaints will no doubt seem familiar to many:
  • Mining—In null-sec, you run and hide if anyone shows up in local. In high-sec, you pray you haven't been spotted by Jihadswarm or its imitators. Result: ISK and boredom.
  • Manufacturing—Buy, make, or mine products at low prices. Bake products in oven. Sell products in market at higher prices. Rinse and repeat. Result: ISK and boredom.
  • "Ratting", "Plexing", Agent Missions, etc.—Worse than mining, in that you look like you're a big tough fighter by shooting at things, yet the pirates are so dumb and predictable that they might as well be rocks. Result: ISK and boredom.
  • Gang PvP—Spin your ship in its hangar for hours upon endless hours while you wait for everyone else to get their shit together, then gang warp 20+ jumps while your fleet commander gets his shit together, and then, if you're lucky, a few minutes of "pew-pew gf gf" in local, and 20+ gang warps back home (unless you're podded, that is). Result: Overall, loss of isk, and hours of boredom, albeit punctuated by moments of sheer terror and fun.
  • Solo PvP—Fly 20+ jumps in null-sec hoping to find some ratter, miner, mission-runner too stupid to warp to a safespot when local goes +1. Result: same as Gang PvP.
  • Null-sec Alliance Politics—Don't even get me started. Just ask Hurley what he thinks about the Mayberry Machiavellis running most corps. Or consider what I call TheMittani's Law: The quality of his columns is indirectly proportional to the degree of self-regard he displays therein. Power attracts vainglorious nitwits.
TL;DR version: I was considering turning in my pod pilot's license and giving myself up to the biomass recycling tanks.

But then something sparked in me; call it the spirit of the frontier. Whatever it was, it was telling me to pull up stakes, gather up all my meager worldly goods, and strike out for the Unknown in search of fortune, glory, or bust. And these days, the "Unknown" means only one thing: W-space.

If I went, I wouldn't be bringing any road maps or guidebooks promising surefire ways to maximize isk profits for minimum risk. That would be missing the point, which was to make my own mistakes, learn my own lessons. So much of what had bored me to tears over the past couple of years was the fact that once you read up all of the FAQs and tip sheets there only seemed to be one way to do anything: The Right Way. To hell with that. To paraphrase another starship captain, I aimed to misbehave.

Frontier spirit thus awoken, I took stock of my tools:
  • two fellow pod pilots in the Applied Physics Institute (APHID), with mining, refining, and hauling capabilities shared between us
  • six Coveters with T1 strips, upgrades and scanners
  • some gas harvesters
  • one Anathema with scanning rigs
  • a couple of Iteron Mark V
  • one Apocalypse battleship, haphazardly fitted
  • one Zealot, combat ready
  • one Viator
  • one Orca with all the trimmings
  • lots of core scan probe launchers and probes of all kinds
  • one medium Gallente POS, with 8 small railguns, 2 medium railguns, 2 webs, 2 scrams, corp hangar, ship maintenance bay, medium intensive refining array, and a partridge in a pear tree
  • enough POS fuel to last about three months
It's not much, but it was all I had to hand. (Besides, I wasn't about to bring in any more gear with the Obelisk; the verifiably dullest thing in all of New Eden is watching the fat hindquarters of a freighter align for warp after warp.)

A wormhole was surprisingly easy to find. In the Maut solar system of the Placid region, one jump away from APHID's HQ in Osmeden, my Anathema's scan probes chirped to let me know that they had found a shimmering portal to "unknown space."

What would I find on the other side? I had no idea—and that's just what I was looking for.