Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Is EVE's New Rapid Release Strategy Working?

EVE is changing, and quite rapidly it seems. Whether this is always for the better is a subject of much debate.

The new, more frequent releases have been belt-fed out of CCP's doors at a rate which I've found almost unsettling as a veteran player used to the old, bi-annual schedule. I remain uncertain as to whether I prefer the new process, which barely leaves time for the traditional cycle of anticipation and investigation of the new features before adapting accordingly.

However, the approximately 6-weekly releases, of which we've seen 3 thus far: Kronos, Crius and Hyperion, have each targeted a particular area of gameplay alongside the grab-bag of rebalances and quality of life tweaks. In a way, this means that it's unlikely that every release will directly impact any given player in a major way. That said, everything in EVE is linked organically, and each ripple in the pond is likely to have some overall impact.

Over these release periods, I've watched with a mix of trepidation and schadenfreude as the much vaunted close relationship between EVE's developers and players has been put to the test. It's quite clear that not everyone is happy.

Observing largely from the sidelines means I don't have a dog in this fight, other than hoping for EVE's continued success. I certainly wouldn't want to see invested players become disenfranchised, however, after reading through the release specific feedback threads and various other places, some of the changes have certainly left some players disgruntled.

Kronos (3rd June 2014) 
[30 pages of issues and feedback in 13 weeks.]

Highlights:

  • New Ships: Mordu's Legion Command Garmur, Orthrus, Barghest & ORE Prospect expedition frigate
  • Customisable sound levels
  • New exploration content
  • Removal of loot spew mechanic
  • Previously useless drones revitalised.
  • New station skins individual to each NPC corporation.

Pain points:

  • Freighter/jump freighter rebalancing/nerfs.

Judging by the EVE-O forums and elsewhere, Kronos seemed to be relatively well-received despite the originally planned industry revamp being bumped to the subsequent Crius release. The remaining content included the fleshing out of the Mordu's Legion faction lore and the introduction of new ships alongside new and revised content contained something of interest to many current players as well as having enough verve to perhaps catch the eye of some passing trade too.


Crius (22 July 2014) 
[96 pages of issues and feedback in 6 weeks.]

Highlights:

  • Revamped industry UI and mechanics [1]

Pain points:

  • Buggy release (much of which has been subsequently addressed). [1]
  • Lack of ability to scale industry UI window, which occupies 80% of the screen at 1080p (although the bottom 1/3 can be reduced and double-clicking the top bar minimises the window in-situ). [1] [2]
  • Loss of invested time in researched blueprint originals. [1] [2]
  • Loss of invested time in grinding faction standings to allow high-sec starbase deployment (although high standings still contribute to reduced costs).
  • Taxing industry jobs at player-owned starbases. [1] [2] [3]
  • Inflated costs for industry gameplay due to blueprint revisions. [1] [2]

Long-time industrialists who had invested time and effort to hone their blueprints to a incredibly high ('perfect') levels of time and material efficiency, taking months or even years, found their efforts cast aside by the new capped system introduced in Crius. Where previously blueprint originals could be researched ad infinitum (despite ever diminishing benefit), the new system maxes out at 10 levels of research, meaning those months (or sometimes years) of blueprint research beyond 10 levels which some players had undertaken had been summarily disregarded by CCP's revisions (early discussion saw CCP considering some kind of compensation, but they eventually decided otherwise).

That's not to say the reception of Crius' industry revision has been entirely poorly received, the feedback thread is also dotted with positive comments about various quality of life changes, as well as responses to the disgruntled, inciting them to 'adapt or die'.

Hyperion (26 August 2014) 
[24 pages of issues and feedback in 1 week]

Highlights:

  • Challenging 'burner' missions against single, powerful NPC ships.
  • Shareable overview settings.
  • Wormhole gameplay changes, including environments exclusive to small ships. 

Pain points:

  • Disruption of the wormhole playstyle status quo/ignoring player feedback. [1] [2] [3] [4]
  • Loss of previously stored overview data. [1]
  • Mass-based spawn distance for wormhole travellers. [1] [2

Mirroring Crius' industry shake-up, Hyperion dropped a boulder into the tranquil pond of wormhole life, delivering changes to the dynamic generation of transient wormhole connections, purportedly rendering some established playstyle habits extinct (although possibly creating others). In Hyperion's case, a significant amount of player feedback was received prior to release (including this 91-page threadnaught), and although CCP devs amended their original designs, wormhole player dissatisfaction has apparently remained high enough for many to reiterate their concerns in the post-release thread.

Brendan Drain offered an interesting counterpoint to the complainants in his recent Massively article, Wormholes Should Be More Dangerous, citing 'blatant self-interest' as the motivation for most of the objections to recent changes with a disregard for what might be good for the game at large.

Damned if they do...

While work on the content of each expansion presumably runs concurrently, with dev teams having individual schedules aimed at different releases, Kronos evidently benefited from starting out as a traditional expansion and had more meat on its bones. Comparatively, Both Crius and Hyperion seem to have had a much more troubled start in life, delivering seismic changes to industry and wormhole environments respectively, each leading to vocal dissent from a proportion of the veteran players representative of those playstyles. Sindel Pellion's A Tale of Internet Spaceships metaphor of CCP shaking the ant farm springs vividly to mind.

In neither case can I claim to be an expert, having simply taken the pulse of the forum communities where invested players have voiced their concerns both during the pre-release test phases and subsequently after the changes have gone live. There's no shortage of disenfranchised and frustrated comments from players claiming that they have lost the will to continue pursuing their internet spaceship hobby.

Without access to hard numbers, it's impossible to say whether CCP's new, aggressive and frequent ant-farm shaking policy is having an impact on player subscriptions with either a positive or negative trajectory. Certainly the best external source is Chribba's EVE Offline server monitoring website, but any indication of a player response to the new development regime is obfuscated by the traditional Summer slump and the fact that unrenewed subscriptions may take some months to expire.

The following graph shows the average weekly concurrent users since 2006, with this year's Summer high being 26,458 on July 24th.


According to that graph, high points from previous Summer periods are as follows:

31,849 on 8th August 2013
30,251 on 9th August 2012
30,957 on 21 July 2011
33,695 on 1 July 2010 (or 31,961 on the 22nd July if you want a more similar date).
29,861 on 3 September 2009
24,947 on 17 July 2008
21,539 on 3 July 2007
17,507 on 24 August 2006

So we have to go back to 2008 to find comparable Summer numbers to this year's (although admittedly, this Summer isn't over yet). This would suggest to me that, at the very least, there are some teething problems with the new release process. It is possible that the releases are either not addressing an expected decline or are perhaps even contributing to it. In any case, the average user count is down by about 20% on the previous 5 Summers.

However, also worth considering, as CSM member Mynnna pointed out on Twitter, is that the Summer period also has an impact on CCP's development resources as many devs flee the spaceships (and the volcano) for more relaxing vacational pursuits. This might go some way toward explaining why some release features may have been delivered with less polish than would have been optimal, perhaps also compounded by a degree of low morale due to the recent lay-offs. But if that's the case, does this expose the lack of wiggle room in the new rapid release strategy? Mynnna also offered some other insight into the presentation of the recent releases:


Admittedly, it's easy to become negatively influenced by the famously demanding and "toxic" EVE-O forum culture, and I should perhaps take the acrimony to be found there with a pinch of salt. But in doing so, would I be falling into the same trap as CCP developers who have been accused recently of ignoring feedback?

In any case, in true EVE player form, I figure that one player's broken game experience is another player's opportunity. If industry veterans are really throwing in the towel en-masse, it may be a good time to revisit manufacturing to exploit any void they might leave. Also, first-hand experience will be informative in ways that forums full of rage, trolls and apathy can never be. I've recently been flirting with the new industry experience in the hope I might be able to exploit the dissent (more on this in a subsequent post).

I'll reserve drawing any conclusions for now, as it would be premature based solely on some nebulous numbers and a few forum threads. In the meantime, what's been your experience of CCP's bold new release strategy? Has it shaken up your gameplay experience in a good or bad way? Are you finding the constant changes exciting, daunting, or tiresome? It'd be very interesting to hear from those who've got the good sense to avoid the EVE-O forums.



15 comments:

  1. Release strategy of many small ones is itself good thing. They actually get stuff done and there's less of wasted time. However, this should be married with better communication with players in advance. I don't mean that everything should be broadcasted at planning stage, but if something is deemed by CSM as serious potential for bad reception (like the wormhole distance thingy), they should reserve a few extra weeks (one expansion?) worth of time for finetuning at SiSi. If it is found that the idea is really bad, there has to be the option of scrapping the idea at final stage.

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    1. I agree, but I wonder if they've got the time and resources to adequately communicate and act upon post-prelease feedback. I should imagine it's a bit of a pressure-pot working environment. I've certainly seen a number of incidents in which a poorly received or buggy feature has provoked a player response and the CCP communication policy tends toward belligerent silence. Once a feature is out, the plan is presumably for the dev team to move onto the next project. Any demands for post-release iteration and polish is unlikely to find much purchase as the schedule just wouldn't allow for it. We've seen this trend on a number of clunkily-delivered features, from the unified inventory to the tooltips and the tracking camera.

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  2. You can't please all the people all the time... and I doubt you could please the EVE playerbase with an expansion that came wrapped in real Bacon and gave them all a handjob...

    You just KNOW they'd forumwhine that "...the Bacon was too crisp!" or "the Bacon was too soggy!" and "FFS CCP used their LEFT hand????"... so meh

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    1. This is true. The game experience taken alone is still as deep, complex and engaging as ever, but the irony is that it's endless pushed as a player-driven game and therefore the expectation is to engage other players and the community at large. The forums are the natural place to start for many and that's when it all starts to go downhill...

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    2. And here you hit one of my personal nails on the head as twere... "...game experience..." The ways in which we each experience the game are as wide and varied and the number of people playing... As I have said before over and over.. "One man's rich, fascinating game play is another man's boring, needless complexity."

      The INTERACTION in EVE is almost all player driven... the MECHANICS however are 'supposed' to be the same as the real world's 'Laws of Nature'... In the real all we mere mortals can do is kill a goat, genuflect and pray for rain... leaving whether or not we starve up to unseen, all-powerful, (and according to all the stories, often childish) deities...

      However the Gods of New Eden CAN be directly engaged via email, forums etc. and are no more 'perfect' and truly godlike than their ancient counterparts...

      Mebbe the gods of yore had the right of it ne? If you don't answer, when the peasants starve you have plausible dependability.

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  3. I must admit I've ended my subscription since Crius. The industry changes just seemed so baffling to me I couldn't be arsed with it any more. Nine years solid I've played it, but all good things come to an end.

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    1. I'm sorry to read that, but I can entirely understand. I cannot be bothered with getting into endless calculations and hours of reading just to play a game. That said, I'm attempting to participate in industry without having to start a degree in business studies and advanced mathematics, so I'm almost certain to be terrible. Wish me luck.

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    2. Matt, if I may... Once again you hammer my own point...

      "I cannot be bothered with getting into endless calculations and hours of reading just to play a game.",

      I can... and I did and I still do... When I was but a nubbins I spent at least 2 to 3 hours reading and googling and researching about EVERYTHING I ran into ingame for every single hour of actual gameplay. And I loved it... every single minute of it.

      You can please some of the people some of the time...
      but CCP can't please all of the playerbase ever.

      "One man's rich, fascinating game play is another man's boring, needless complexity."
      TurAmarth ElRandir

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  4. The new release cycle isn't in full swing yet. We have the vacation time of CCPers and two releases that had most of the stuff scheduled in the old system rolled out. But for now I'm quiet happy with the development and the faster pace of updates. Yes the bug killing your overview settings was bad as are any bugs. They happen and that won't change. I think we will have an advantage form this new schedule as the little fixes are done and shipped much faster. Tweaking existing stuff will never make everybody happy, I agree here with TurAmarth who I think is absolutely right about the mentality of players. The same players screaming for changes, start screaming once there part is made harder or even impossible. Why can't I get the Mining Ship that empties an entire belt just into my freighter alt, that isn't too hard to implement is it? No it isn't hard but it will break the game.
    If you talk to gamers like us as a game designer they will always try to get the good stuff and leave the risk out of it. Many players claim that eve is a brutally hard game. Really? Incursions are totally secure with all spawns known perfectly. Wormhole mechanics are researched and documented only thing you can't predict seems to be where the next WH leads to.
    Just like so many other games, the players have become very risk averse (and I count myself in) and it seems almost impossible that if Apocrypha would happen today the frontier spirit would be there. With the current mentality we don't deserve new dangerous content.
    I sincerely hope that CCP uses this more frequent update path to add more random effects to all aspects of the game. There should happen a lot more random dangerous stuff. Eliminating the NPC in relic and data sites catered to that risk averse mentality. As does the totally predictable going of missions, anomalies, DED complexes and incursions. I don't think you should loose a ship at any occasion that appears at random, you don't need to be tackled and dead every time. But a nice “WTF what's that NPC dreadnought doing in my belt” effect would push the excitement.
    It isn't bad content if I have to run off that mission because it developed unexpected. But I need an agent reacting on that development. A common sense of earning ISK seems to be “give me the ISK as easy as possible so I can do the fun stuff I want”. If you just need the money unsub your alts and sell plexes. Oh dear that one got long and looks more like a rant... so to the end.

    A final note to Industry. I have something about 600 bpos and I'm very sure I lost some hours of research to the new system and the opportunity to get high value BPO to 10 before the patch. But in general the new industry UI is good and a lot easier to handle. It stores the job data so I can just reinstall regular production with just one click. The size of the window is good for industries only view but could be a bit more modular for adjustment to different screen sizes.
    It has become very easy to copy the materials needed out of the client and using it for calculations and the new system without waste is a lot easier to teach to new ones.

    TLDR: industries update headed in the right direction and I hope ccp makes use of the fast release cycle to add more frequent and random events to spice up day to day actions.

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    1. It would indeed be great to see further dynamic content (which isn't just the players). I'm hopeful that the trend of revisiting PvE content will continue - we've seen new exploration sites and random belt encounters, tweaked incursion sites and now even some movement on missions. Fingers crossed the evolution will continue.

      I totally agree that the industry interface delivers a far more pleasant experience. I've not had too much of a problem with it. I just have a degree of sympathy for players who feel short-changed by ongoing development.

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  5. Wrote a few posts about this myself lately. Where is the excitement? Where is the big feature for the gaming press to publicise the game? What will generate new subscribers? What will bring ex-players back? What is there to look forward to?

    I cannot see the mini-expansions generating the same level of interest as the old style twice yearly ones. I know half a dozen or more players who quit over the last six months. Are there new players to take their place? Not sure there are.

    Eve needs another Empyrean Age or Apocrypha soon. Those really shake up the ant farm. Currently CCP are hardly flicking the side.

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    1. I agree... I do not believe that we can have either 2 big expansions or just 6 small ones... It should be balanced...

      Long term continuous patches, the small easy additions / improvements / fixes pushed out on a regular short cycle should IMHO be mixed with a once a year Big Jezuz Feature expansion.

      Yes, more difficult and makes for more work, but one hopes that would be offset by the increased new accounts / returning players coming back for the Jezuz Features... which we do not have now. Jezuz features are as important as Huge Nullsec Wars for publicity and to generate interest for new players as well as vets.

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    2. “returning players coming back for the Jezuz Features... which we do not have now.“

      Well I would argue, that we just don't have those Jezuz Features, yet. If ccp was under the old cycle the industry update would have been that feature. Obviously we won't see every release to be a big one but I guess ccp has some Jezuz Features in the baking which will take another 2 or 3 new release cycles to be finished and will hit at the December release with good impact.

      Just because there are more regular release windows for all development doesn't mean there happens only development that fits into that window. To see whether ccp can deliver big features with this release plan needs us to wait at least until November when the first stuff is announced.

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    3. Chiana, I agree... we all know that CCP is working us towards the Jezuz Feature of Player Built Star Gates, and the current smaller patches are fixes and changes to (1) improve the game overall and to (b) support the PBSGs...

      But they have been adverting this as a change from 2 big expansions to 6 smaller, easier patches without any word of "...but we will also be bringing you some MAJOR new stuff in the future too..."... They need to advert that they are still gonna come up with some Real Big Stuff (TM) say once a year... which they are not doing.

      Small changes fixes are nice, but they don't draw in the crowds like the 'Big Stuff' does and that is plain for anyone to see in the PCU count before and after every expansion...

      I too hope that CCP has more in the way of PBSGs in mind for the future... as you say, we'll have to wait and see.

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Lay it on me.