- CCP Legion, Player Experience Team
EVE Online as it stands provides a peerless experience in some respects, but an underwhelming one in others. I think the fundamental answer to the “new player problem” lays with CCP's target market. The essence of EVE Online's player retention challenge is concerned with what kind of player CCP intends to attract to EVE Online. This needs to be clearly defined before appropriate steps can be mapped out to retain them.
EVE Online is unique in that it provides an unrivalled social networking platform centred around a grand science-fiction environment. As EVE's gameplay and communities have evolved, the core focus of all EVE Online activity has quite rightly remained on the combat, with all other in-game tasks feeding that ultimate purpose. After all without conflict, there is no story.
The Only Fish in the Pond
The messaging in almost every piece of EVE marketing generally involves two concepts; being in big fleet battles and being a devious bastard. Indeed, EVE's game universe certainly provides opportunities for the individuals attracted by these precepts. This market is well-advertised, well-serviced and is the mainstay of EVE Online's existing culture. A culture often resistant to being more inclusive of other play-style cultures.
If CCP's intention is simply to continue to dominate this mass-player e-sports cultural niche, then the new player simply needs to be able to easily find a path to the player communities which provide access to the PvP content they seek. Ergo, iteration of existing game mechanics and improved tools for player-driven communities would continue to fortify this subscriber spine. The new player will soon find or be found by a corporation or alliance appropriate to his gaming needs.
However, this is a subscriber market already exploited. No other MMO is seriously contesting EVE Online's dominance in this field and players seeking the core player-versus-player spaceship combat experience are likely to be satisfied with what they find. EVE is supreme in its niche and with renewed focus on the underpinning mechanics, it looks to be digging in to defend its position for a long time to come.
But beyond this niche, there are vast swathes of players looking for a different MMO experience. EVE claims to be a sandbox, but does it provide entertainment beyond PvP combat to the appropriate standard? Can it and should it compete for the attentions of players stepping beyond the mainstream clichés, looking for a fresh online gaming experience that doesn't involve elves or World War II might easily be seduced by the idea of a living, diverse sci-fi universe?
Lured By Lies?
|They come looking for this...|
The first two of those lures will bring forth a rookie player under few illusions about the harsh realities of New Eden; they come to participate in the more amoral activities available and furthermore, the community-invited player will be coached and aided by more experienced players. However, the lone player attracted to EVE for it's promise of magnificent space battles and epic sci-fi opera, as suggested by countless promotional videos, is destined to be crushingly disappointed.
This is not to say that the experience that is encountered by the new player is without merit. There is a different, more personal and majestically bewildering initial experience to be had. But it is not the one that is advertised and likely not one that will be enjoyed by the influx of players seeking the instant shock-and-awe gameplay shown in the videos.
I'm not suggesting that large fleet fights don't exist, but they are rarely accessible to the new player and even when they are, are nothing like the impressive cinematic experiences shown in the promotional videos. The power of the stunning visuals is completely lost as tactical needs and technical limitations require the player to forsake any real eye candy.
|...but instead they find this.|
So it is to the kind of player who might more easily be repulsed by their early EVE experience that we look. The Star Wars: Galaxies refugees, the WoW-weary masses, the MMO neophyte. And here it is in the first few minutes of gameplay where much of the retention battle is won or lost.
Death by Windows
Many players who might find themselves potentially entranced by the sedate depths of their first few hours in space have first got to overcome a number of unnecessary and potentially deal-breaking hurdles that might have them all out to (the Dune) sea or even running for the hills (of Azeroth).
|Familiarity breeds subscriptions.|
Much of the tutorial segment of the early experience is adequate, if lacking excitement. There is enough to engage the new player, in fact if anything the sheer volume of information is a likely deterrent for those players not prepared to persevere.
The recent addition of a fully spoken Aura tutorial is excellent, further engaging the player and providing some solace from the squads if hideous boxes that will soon pollute the screen. It is here that EVE really does itself a disservice, with the initial positive experience starting being ruined by what feels like your art teacher giving you written homework. To worsen the experience, the default size of the tutorial text window is often not quite big enough to contain all of the text displayed, demanding unnecessary interaction with a fiddly scroll bar. Within minutes of following Aura's instructions the new player will find themselves drowning in ugly little windows, all inappropriately sized to show the information within (and un-resizable in some cases). Nonetheless, with perseverance, the player will soon be prompted to undock where the stunning visual experience will sadly be marred by the frustration of fighting against disorienting camera movement and a fussy right-click drop-down control system.
|Five minutes into the first tutorial - more windows than a greenhouse.|
Nothing short of a complete overhaul of the user interface will resolve these issues. In a world of infinite time and resources, I'd love to see the following:
- A better alternative to awful right-click menus.
- Windows that are fit for purpose.
- Audio-dialogue driven missions/events.
- Refined tools to replace the overview.
- Intelligent and customisable camera options from cinematic to tactical.
- Context-sensitive HUD overlays.
- Picture-in-Picture Target Monitoring.
- Race/Ship/Module specific HUD elements.
The Waiting Game
Having previously worked in the building industry, one of the entertainingly cruel things that would be inflicted on the young apprentice was being sent to the storesman with requests for fictional items like a “skirting-board ladder”, a “box of sparks” or, more relevantly, a “long weight”. The clued-in storesman will then depart, having instructed the rookie victim to wait for him to return with his requested “long weight”. The storesman will then go to lunch or find some other equally lengthy task to do, leaving the apprentice to unwittingly endure his Long Wait. Whilst highly amusing for the undoubtedly sniggering pranksters, it is far less so for the victim.
In EVE, the Long Wait is a game mechanic, but I'm not sure who is doing the sniggering.
I'm not referring to the skill training mechanic, which is an innovative alternative to the level-grinding process prevalent in so many other MMOs, but to the countless other instances where you are “playing” EVE Online. Except, by “playing” I mean “watching”. You watch as your ship aligns and warps (repeatedly over long journeys), you watch as your mining laser/salvager/tractor beam hums about its business often repeatedly cycling, you even just watch as your ship orbits and repeatedly fires its weapon. In some respects, EVE's gameplay is not far removed from that of Don Bluth's 1983 laserdisc video game Dragon's Lair, which saw players watching segments of footage and occasionally making a decision, prompting more footage.
Now I'm not saying that this mechanic is always bad. The sedate input:event ratio of much of EVE's gameplay is in some respects a strength. Being able to multi-task or AFK play is an integral part of EVE's gameplay culture (just ask the suicide gankers). Also, some people I'm sure enjoy the passive gameplay mechanic EVE offers. But for the new player who is looking to be entertained it is dull. Relying on their admiration of the pretty visuals will only wash for so long. A way should be found to preserve the existing charms whilst offering something more engaging for those who seek it.
A possible solution could be the introduction of mini-games to enhance the performance of routine passive activities. These could serve to provide some stimulus for those new players fond of a twitch-based mechanic whilst allowing existing passive preferences to remain unchanged. Here are some mini-game examples that could work.
I would suggest similar mechanics for aligning and aspects of combat (active effort to increase capacitor/shield recharge anyone?), but this would affect the delicate balance of PvP and would undoubtedly result in foaming at the mouth and freshly-sharpened pitchforks from the “don't change my game” brigade. However, other, more sedate interactive puzzles could be applied to process like manufacturing and research in order to boost success or reduce time. The process already exists in principle with research agents offering a mission to boost output. Ultimately, my purpose here is simply to suggest small ways in which to give the somewhat sedate and under-stimulating aspects of the new player experience some additional spice.
Use Your Rails
Whilst some vague prejudices and motivations are hinted at early on in the character creation process, the remaining tutorial is so careful to leave the player to make his own decisions that it may just leave him lost. Granted, there are endless boxes of mission text he could trawl through in order to get a better idea, but if he really wanted to read that much text, he'd probably have bought a book rather than a computer game.
The tutorial combat missions, whilst fulfilling their purpose, are lacklustre. Again, this is as much a failure of the UI as anything, the quality of the writing is great in general, but I wonder how many players actually read it. Not many I bet. There are more and better ways to draw the player into the story. He needs to feel emotionally invested and part of the grand narrative. He should be swept along and led to new play-styles if that is how he prefers it.
I would hope that by addressing the key elements of UI repulsion, passive-gameplay-induced boredom, lack of direction and emotional investment, new player retention could be improved. Of course I may be misinterpreting things and these issues could in fact be “working as intended” to filter out the kind of subscribers we don't want. But somehow, I doubt it.
Ultimately, the strategy should be to ensure that the initial game experience is good enough to keep trialists involved until they become emotionally invested in their character, the storyline and/or the community. In order to target resources at the right demographic and cast the right net, it would be good to know who CCP's intended target audience is. Is there room in EVE for people who also like Call of Duty? World of Tanks? Everquest? Hello Kitty?
EVE is a sandbox, right? There's room for everyone.
[This was a Blog Banter entry, other entrants can be found here.]