Sometime in 2007, Somewhere in Placid -
Young pilot Kirith Kodachi and friends in a pirate corp hunt from system to system, checking the belts for targets of opportunities. Most systems are deserted but occasionally prey can spotted in local chat and the wolfpack shotguns the belts, each pilot hoping to be the one to get the tackle.
The fleet might dip into Syndicate, maybe even live out of an NPC station for a while, scouring the belts for NPCs to kill for ISK and target to shoot for fun. Parts of this region are barren quiet wastelands with the occasional alliance living in a pocket here and there.
Elsewhere in null sec, alliances send out fleets of up to 100 pilots to protect the handful of POS tower anchoring pilots as they try to gain dominance of the moons of strategic systems, with one or maybe two titans waiting in the wings to Doomsday the enemy fleet at a strategic gate.
* * * * *
Late 2012, Somewhere in Essence -
Experienced pilot Kirith Kodachi joins up with an open fleet of militia members that begins the move from Heydieles up to Nemmemalia to engage a Caldari militia fleet spotted recently. Some systems are empty but plex farmers can be found in almost every system, racking up the Loyalty Points for the next cash out. The fleet sends scouts into the plexes looking for slow enemy warp outs. Belts are empty.
In Syndicate Rote Kapellle has declared its time for a purge of all the corporations and alliances living there and engaging in massively risk averse PvP.
In null sec massive coalitions smash against each other with each side having multiple fleets of hundreds of pilots, with yet another fleet of supercarriers and Titans waiting in the wings, fighting over Technitium moons for massive profits to fund their ship replacement programs.
* * * *
The game has changed a lot in 6 years. The rate of change has accelerated recently with Crucible and Inferno expansions: new ship classes, refurbished ship classes, new mechanics, new income sources. Couple that with the increasingly top heavy population demographics of rich players and alliances, and you have a completely different game than when I started.
And the change will continue to roll in.
The death knell of small gang PvP rang 9 years ago when the game design was set in stone with no limits on number of people in any area at one time. We are merely seeing the design decision's impact play out now. That's not to say you can't jump into a ship with one or two buddies and go off and find a "gud fite", but it will increasingly be the exception rather than the rule.
Ironically, although Faction Warfare has decimated belt ratting and mining in low sec, it has provided a lot more opportunity for small fights than anywhere in the game right now due to its plexes and concentrated warzones and I hope the Retribution (ugh) changes do not negate that property.
The only constant is change.