Tuesday, 31 July 2012

BB38: Designing the Future Experience

(or "Has CCP Thrown the Storyline Baby out with the Incarna Bathwater? A Tutorial Review".)


To address Blog Banter 38, I decided to get an insight into the current design philosophy behind EVE. In order to better understand how the revitalised CCP would be moving forward and addressing design idiosyncrasies in the future, looking at incoming improvements seemed a good barometer of change. After all, there's only one chance to make a first impression, so the upcoming changes to "New Player Experience" will be crucial to the EVE playerbase of tomorrow. How that first experience is received will determine who sticks around and who clicks uninstall.

Singularity, the EVE Online test server open to players, allows early viewing of new content coming to the "real" EVE Online on the Tranquility server. Yesterday, I played through the new tutorial to get an idea of the first impressions New Eden's new arrivals might have. The experience left me excited, impressed but ultimately sad and disappointed.

For those of you without the inclination to read through what has evolved into quite a lengthy post, here's the TL:DR;

New Player Experience = Technically Improved but Increasingly Soulless

For a deeper analysis, read on.

Necessary Sacrifice

The most fundamental change is immediately apparent, with the ship hangar view being used in favour of the Captain's Quarters [CCP Greyscale has pointed out that this is inaccurate - the new player still starts in the CQ, but the tutorial no longer covers the avatar environment]. This is a complete U-turn on the previous approach and I have mixed feelings about it. On the positive side it keeps focus on the core spaceship gameplay, but the "disconnected" feel is back in force. Established EVE players might not see the problem here, but that's because they've already adapted. For many players who have migrated from more traditional MMO environments, that humanoid avatar connection is vital to ease their transition into the universe of New Eden. However, given the current lack of meaningful content or player interaction in the Captain's Quarters, this was the right decision. It's just a wasteful shame.

The next thing that is noticable is the new tutorial window. Defaulting to the lower-right corner of the screen, it occupies a similar portion of the screen to its predecessor, but appears clearer and cleaner. The most welcome change is the auto-resizing. There was nothing more frustrating with the original UI than having a default window size that required you to scroll down to read the last line of text. I look forward to seeing this technology applied to other UI elements, such as item info and the Unified Inventory.

The flow of the tutorial has more pace and doesn't get bogged down in as many details as before. Without much ado, the new player will find themselves floating in space in their capsule, where they are quickly encouraged to understand the camera controls. This is a great change, with the needlessly bloated previous experience of drowning in windows banished and the disorienting initial in-space experience better explained. Basic gameplay elements are introduced as necessary, with just enough introduction to the overview without having them running for the hills. Ship fitting is handled well too, with a simple step-by-step process being presented in a rewarding manner. Once the rookie ship has been obtained from it's location in space, the rookie is guided to dock up to  fit a weapon and a shield module - the default civilian weapon and miner are gone! Sadly, the Aura voiceover has also been dumped, but it would no longer make sense with the new tutorial flow, I can only hope there are plans to record new audio.

Technical Triumph

The real jewel in the crown for the New Player Experience is the floating tooltip technology. This new system boldly directs the player's attention with a laser-pointer-like line leading to an encircled object of focus. This line is "rubberbanded" to a text box containing useful information. Not only is this an absolutely superb way of leading the rookie by the nose and avoiding that "WTF do I do now?" experience which was probably the single biggest cause of loss of interest, it suggests some exciting applications in the future. What if targeted items could be linked and highlighted in such a manner? Imagine a customisable heads-up-display with information previously crammed into the overview able to be presented dynamically.

In support of this new, fresher tutorial interface are some great UI elements streamlining interaction with agents and missions. An elegant Agent Mission drop-down menu hides in plain sight in the top-left of the screen beneath the system information. It cleverly avoids unnecessary screen clutter by being almost invisible until interacted with, when a number of contextual options appear as a dropdown. As with other recently introduced UI elements, it has a smooth feel as you interact with it.

The user interface improvements really are very promising for the future  of the client experience as a whole. It could herald the dawn of a more attractive and user-friendly interface throughout the EVE client. Exciting future possibilities are flooding through my mind as I write this. Anyway, I digress. At present, it's just a useful and effective way of presenting information to rookies.

All things considered, the tutorial is a big positive step toward better new player retention and the introduction of elements which could bring so much more to the game as a whole.

The (Un)Importance of Words

But for me, there's a problem and it's potentially a big one. Game-breaking even. It's not anything directly to do with the tutorial, which I think is a triumph. It is to do with the culture it represents.

Before CCP Greyscale's recent devblog on the tutorials was released, I posted my review notes to the Test Server forums. I was surprised and honoured to get not one, but three developer responses. I'm grateful to CCP FoxFour, CCP Sisyphus and CCP Greyscale for their feedback in which they explained most of their decisions behind some points I raised. The way the tutorial was approached and the design philosophy behind it makes perfect sense and as players we are lucky to have a developer-player culture that allows for this level of communication. This is something that CCP developers are clearly making an effort on, in response to criticism. Again, this is something we are fortunate to have - game designers who respond to player communication and input in a positive way. Great explanations were given for all of my concerns.

All except one, and I am happy to admit it is one that is a matter of taste. But from my point of view, there is  irony to be found in the fact that, as developer communication improves out-of-game, they seem to have lost the art in-game. For all their design-fu, their current designer-led use of language suggests a worrying trend.

Attack of the Designers

The written nature of the tutorial is as dull as dishwater. It has no character, it is like reading through an instruction manual. This is as off-putting as any design flaw. There is a lot of text to get through and if it's boring, new players won't read it properly. They'll likely start skimming, get lost, confused and reach for the off switch. That the tutorial is entirely text-driven will already be a mark against it in many player's minds. They are here to play a game, not read a manual or be taught a dull lesson.

I understand that a lack of time and resources meant that - at least initially - an entirely written tutorial format was the only viable option and may be improved upon later. Fair enough. With that in mind, I suggested making the new text more engaging, using EVE's rich lore to provide a bit of colour and the option to explore the backstory further. I hoped that I would be told that the existing text was simply a placeholder until it could be refined. That is not the case. The anodyne and unengaging text was a design decision. The key word here is "design". Stepping out from the shadows over which he formerly had mastery, CCP FoxFour wrote:

"This was also a rather conscious descion on our part. The tutorial is rather long as it stands and one of our goals going through the NPE this time around was to cut it all down as much as possible. There is a good chance we may have cut to much and finding the right balance between lore and length is a hard thing to do. Even adding a single sentence to each page adds up to a whole lot of extra text. Again though we went in with the primary goal of cutting the text down as much as possible and so we did. Hopefully in future iterations we can look at ways to bring that lore back into it without exploding the amount of text in it."

This all seems perfectly logical. It also shows a vision of the future of EVE; "simple", "effective", bland. These are individuals who are excellent at designing, at being given a target or a problem and engineering a path to the solution. God knows after over a decade of growth, EVE Online needs people like this to prune the features and trim the code. But they need the other kind too to bring character, flavour and depth to the EVE experience.

Oh wait, no.

That's now entirely the players' job according to CCP Unifex. As was stated in his interview with Gamasutra, despite having a lot of game designers, programmers and engineers, there are only four content developers, because apparently EVE development is all about...

"...building tools so that players can make the content, and that content is firmly rooted in interactions with each other."

I can't help but find this a little irritating and insulting. Having an active and creative customer base does not absolve a game developer from providing good quality content. It certainly doesn't mean that they should just skip over the details entirely. Given that it seems to be down to the players, I would offer to revise the tutorial text for a (possibly optional) canonical version, but I suspect it's an offer that would be ignored - besides, they've apparently got at least four people that should already have been approached to do that.

Teaching Doesn't Have to be Boring

To further underline CCP's emphasis on design over content, all my attempts to suggest the addition of flair were rebuffed with "design" reasons. I pointed out that simple text changes could still tick all the concise and clear boxes, whilst broadening the appeal and creating a degree of immersion.

Here are two examples:

IMPROVED TEXT EXAMPLE 1

The new tutorial text says:

"If you ever enter a station with no ships available, you'll be given a free Rookie Ship, so you're never stuck without proper transport."

No attempt is made to explain why a new ship should miraculously appear and the sentence isn't even that clear - the "no ships available" could mean on the market, not in the player's hangar as is intended. Furthermore, this is a perfect opportunity for a bit of colour to draw the new player into New Eden. In the forum thread, I suggested the following;

"If you dock at a station in your capsule and there are no ships in your hangar, a new Rookie Ship will be provided by the SCC."

This provides all the required information and does it more clearly and more succinctly. It also provides a link to more information that can be ignored or explored according to the new player's curiosity.


IMPROVED TEXT EXAMPLE 2

The new rubberbanding tooltip draws the new player's attention to the first hostile ship they've ever encountered with the text "This is an enemy ship (not as good as yours)". What? This trite and bland information, whilst doing the job, is incredibly uninspired and has no place in a professional MMO. I understand that what the designers want the player to realise is:

  • This ship is hostile.
  • Although it's shooting at you, don't panic - it's no real threat and you can take him.

What has either not been considered, or has been dismissed, is what players might wonder - why is it attacking? What makes it "not as good"? In the Minmatar tutorial, the attacking ship model was a Rifter, so our new player may now associate Rifters as being "not as good" as rookie ships. The text could easily be replaced with something like "Poorly maintained pirate frigate" - not only is this shorter than the existing phrase, addressing FoxFour's concerns about text length (33 characters instead of 44), it explains why the ship is hostile ("pirate") and why it might be easy to kill (it's "poorly maintained" - but maybe if it wasn't, you'd be in trouble).

However, CCP Greyscale explained why this was not something they would embrace:

"For now we're erring on the side of trying to focus very hard on teaching, and trying to throw in as few unnecessary concepts as possible. As a fiction-head I'd love to be doing more of what you're describing, but as a designer I'm not confident enough in our revised NPE yet to start throwing in references to the backstory and links to the wiki when our overriding goal is to get people through the tutorial as effectively as possible."

The Abandonment of Soul

So we have designers actively keeping any flair or lore out of the tutorial experience due to a lack of confidence. As a result, we have a design culture that puts EVE firmly on the path to providing shiny tools which will only come to life when players make the effort to flesh out the content. The myriad of designers who are working so hard to improve EVE Online are inadvertently sucking the life out out of it by openly avoiding its own history.

This smacks of CCP suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the failure of Incarna - it's almost as if they're avoiding all immersive content at any cost. If the tutorial acts as a filter to ensure the retention of the right kind of players and the repulsion of the unwanted, it seems quite clear that CCP doesn't want those with an appreciation for narrative detail, immersion, an engaging science-fiction environment or a grand space opera. What they are now looking for are players who can endure mediocre content until they find the right social hook.

This single-minded approach to focusing on the "social engine" leads me to interpret CCP Unifex's words to mean that we players are expected to embrace the community-driven stories or clear off. If we're really patient we might see the rare scrap of professionally-written narrative, but it's not a priority. The future of the EVE story isn't going to be in the form of quality science-fiction akin to the works of sci-fi greats like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, it will be EVE News 24. Sorry Mr. Lander, but if that's the case, count me out. I like a bleak and dystopian future as much as the next sci-fi geek, but I couldn't cope with endless clumsily-written jargon-heavy accounts of what the big boys in the space playground did to the slightly smaller boys in the space playground. Plug me back into the Matrix, please.

It seems that - when CCP accepted they botched the Walking in Stations concept and had their change of direction - they threw the storyline baby out with the Incarna bathwater. Now the crib is empty and the house is silent, so CCP has to keep inviting players to throw parties to fill the void.

The baby is still dead in the gutter though.

Sad times ahead. I think I'll go play Incarna: The Text Adventure to cheer myself up.



12 comments:

  1. Yikes, I had no idea. So thanks for the heads-up here on the changes to the tutorial.

    I have to say if CCP wants someone to go thru all the text and re-write it better AND shorter, there would be at least one volunteer. And I'm sure many others.

    NPE is important to the growth of our game, so I hope some changes are made.

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  2. They really need to ensure the lore is embedded. Little things like, "your original body has been humanely euthanized" ensured that people were aware of the lore, and that EVE is at heart a cold, heartless universe :)

    Let's start a thread to provide condensed, lore-rich versions of the NPE? I will start it when I get home in 9 hours: first a post with/for every text box, then a feast of whipping up alternative player-approved lore-rich alternatives, with links to the appropriate lore to ensure new players get thoroughly lost in the mélange.

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  3. The issue you adress in the last paragraph incidentaly is something I thought of as well. EVE players do generate events and stories that are as twisted and convoluted as mr. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, but the level of publications is cringeworthy to say the least.

    Maybe there could be a team of people who review and vet 'in character' versions of in-game history. There are pages on EVElopedia about most of the big alliances alive or dead. Some of them are not even that bad a read.

    If the "clumsily-written jargon-heavy accounts of what the big boys in the space playground did to the slightly smaller boys in the space playground" were distilled into a real story, that would create a narrative worthy being called that.

    Also, that could give players something to aspire to. You could see your own name up there in lights as it were, and become immortalized as part of New Eden's story.

    Now if players could only choose less ridiculous names for their characters ...

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  4. While I see your point about the lack of narrative in the NPE I think I prefer the clumsy player driven history to Eves back story. The Amarr-Minmatar stuff is especially saturday moning cartoon-like.

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  5. I agree. I love watching the nullsec metagame as much as anyone else, but making the whole game depend on that is a bad idea. At the end of the day, I also love being a space captain in my space ship in space. Not so much the lore itself, which I usually find irritatingly GRIMDARK, but just being in *goddamn space* as part of the old sci-fi-universe-simulator-thing.

    Now it seems like CCP is terrified to focus on anything other than spaceships blowing things up HTFU for fear of another Incarna. I just hope CCP doesn't shy away from ~my immersion~ for too long, I guess.

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  6. This has sort of been a long time coming though; there has been less and less effort put towards the content side, despite things like the fiction wiki articles, and the lore of the game is now almost completely divorced from the actual gameplay. It's one of the reasons I largely stopped playing despite the fact that I still have very strong feelings about the game and community.

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  7. @Mara Rinn, as much as we like the idea of there being a better introduction to the backstory of EVE, the designers don't at this time. I was tempted to go through the whole thing and offer them a rewrite that I think would be an improvement, but two things stopped me. 1. They already have people they pay to do that and 2. I feel CCP rely too heavily on players to paper over their cracks. I have no doubt that I could write a better version and whilst I'm very tempted to help you kickstart a community project, what would be next? Will we start rewriting their code for them? It's all starting to smack of the Emperor's New Clothes to me.

    I am tempted to do a satirical version though - a kind of sequel to Incarna: The Text Adventure.

    @Emergent Patroller There used to be a volunteer-written SCOPE newsfeed, but that's fallen pretty silent. I run Tech4 News which was the seed of a similar idea (IC news coverage from the non-capsuleer perpective), but community contributions are sporadic and of vary quality. I also wanted that to be a regular podcast providing a similar audio service, but that proved quite a challenge as a voluntary community-led affair. I keep it ticking over though, in case it can catch a wave worth riding.

    @Anonymous It's fine to have a preference, and I respect that you prefer the player-led news - that's the nature of a sandbox. Not everyone will embrace both aspects of EVE, but there should be room for both. But CCP's approach seems to be to slowly starve that aspect of EVE, in favour of the most vocal child. I'm just trying to stand up for the weaker kid - he needs feeding too.

    @Xervish I'm right there with you. I love the idea of the backstory colouring my experience without feeling the need to dress up in a kinky Minmatar slave outfit and wizard hat. But I also love the fact that some folk to go the whole hog. When someone plays a WWII-themed game or a Star Wars game, there is an almost universally-understood backstory which instantly adds weight to the experience. EVE doesn't have that luxury and it needs to be worked at.

    @Black Isis. Yeah, it is a sad, but increasingly apparent trend. It seems that the choice has been made somewhere high in CCP though. Of course, they can never come out and say that, for fear of an exodus of the suckers who are still hanging on for the next scrap of narrative.

    I interviewed CCP Dropbear and CCP Headfirst last year - they pointed out that the "RP" lobby is a strong one and the squeaky will will get the grease. This is me squeaking. I'll not go quietly.

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  8. Very well said. Remember, you can't actually win the Incarna Text Adventure. I already did.

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  9. If CCP is actually committed to user centered design (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXNsvPN_lrM&list=PLDDA989F65CD6E98A&index=11&feature=plpp_video), then I would hope that as well as using numbers to justify the changes they are making to the tutorials, they are also using feedback gathered from user testing. One of the key elements to user testing is to ask the right questions. If you have 5 new users testing out the tutorial and you only ask them questions relating to ease of use and difficulty then you will probably miss out on other key experience related feedback.

    In other words if they don't do their homework in regards to how important the immersive aspect of EVE is to new players then it won't show up as a reason for playing the game. And they could be missing out on some key reasons why new users don't continue playing.

    If CCP ever wants to get over the hump of their current subscriber and log-in plateau, I suspect that the immersive elements (UI and story) are going to have to be improved greatly. And I would also guess that proper user testing as to why people quit or don't even try EVE would reveal that the EVE universe just isn't convincing enough.

    The PVE experience from the tutorials on, is like those fake hollywood city sets. There is nothing behind the facade. And like those movies where you can tell its just a hollywood set, there's really no point unless the story is good.

    Asking new players to compensate for this by learning the game as quickly as possible so they can start contributing is foolish. There are a lot of video game players that would happily subscribe to EVE if they could log in and just actually play a game without making the extra commitment to help CCP do their job.

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  10. I also wondered what happened to the interstellar correspondents. I can still remember the space journalism of Angus McDecoy formerly of Fly Reckless podcast.

    Tech4News was probably the best thing that ever came out of the RP oriented community, especially the first few story episodes. Also the 'radioplay' which the people over at StarfleetComms did, when they were still around, was nice and entertaining.

    There are more great examples. Roc Wieler's autobiographical story including the forbidden love affair with a pirate (complete with soundtrack and breathtaking graphics) EveTravel, CVA and Ushra'Khan and more.

    What makes me sad is, that so many of the "cool dudes" ridicule such great efforts and degrade EVE to a mere mechanics game where it's all about making ISK, who can hotdrop with the biggest fleet and trolling eachother.

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  11. "What they are now looking for are players who can endure mediocre content until they find the right social hook."

    And that sums up CCP's original vision, their vision each expansion and their current future vision.

    I think if we all got together, overran the CSM and asked CCP straight up to outline a 'vision' the developers would merely cough up 'content' and expect us to be impressed with that as their response.

    Oh, i'm sure not all icelanders run about getting distracted by shiny things but i'm hard pressed to find one that ISN'T

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  12. Summed up like this, makes it feel so, so sad !

    I'm glad, then, I went through voice-over old NPE years ago. Had no idea how technically advanced yet hollow it has become.

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Lay it on me.