BB33: Widening the Net - Accessibility, Activity, Adventure

"...we want to make the first days, weeks and months in EVE enjoyable and not just something ‘you have to plough through in order to get to the good stuff’" [and the newly formed Player Experience team will focus on] "...where and why people lose interest in EVE... We invite you to pour your heart (or guts) out and tell us what you think is good or bad with the current new player experience and what you think could be done about the problems."
- 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...
A new player to any MMO signs up on the strength of his preconceptions. Preconceptions he will already have formulated based on what he has read, seen or heard from others. With EVE Online, he may have read nefarious tales of internet spaceship skullduggery, been coaxed to join by existing players or been entranced by slick video footage of grandiose and cinematic spaceship fleet clashes.

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.
However, I get ahead of myself. By the time the rookie player is exposed to these kind of experiences, he'll already be hooked by the community alongside whom he fights. CCP know they already have this angle covered.

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.
The new avatar-based introduction does a fantastic job of allowing the player to feel connected to the game-world with what will be for most gamers a familiar third-person MMO view. It is here that Incarna shines, with the initial Captain's Quarters providing a comfortable transition from other MMOs to New Eden's more space-based affair.  However, it won't be long before they must do battle with the repulsive user interface which, even with the recent updates, is an archaic carbuncle on the early EVE experience.

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.
As soon as the basic orientation is over, the player is directed to the career agents to learn more about particular play-style choices and Aura falls silent, with nothing but windows and text to relay the rest of the information. Archaic and off-putting, to say the least. At this point it really is a battle of visual beauty versus mental frustration. I cannot help but wonder how many will have made it this far. I suspect already, many will have become disillusioned and are veering toward the decision that their experience is an unpleasant one due to the unintuitive and alien nature of the interface and controls.

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:
Until the User Interface is brought into the modern era to be elegant, effective and intuitive, it will always deter potential subscribers.

The Waiting Game

If they make it as far as the first tutorial mission, there is at least a chance new players have forgiven EVE some of the negative points previously mentioned and have found enough to keep their interest. It is then that EVE's second great deficiency rears its head to frighten off more potential subscribers.

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.

Active/Passive Gameplay

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.

Audiosurf (2008)
WarpingA simple Audiosurf/Wipeout minigame allowing the active pilot to shave a few seconds off his warp time by riding warp-pulses and avoiding counter-flows. This could provide interesting ramifications in the PvP environment, possibly giving an interceptor pilot a fraction longer to tackle an evading enemy or aiding a hunted pilot in getting away.  It might even spawn a warp-racing culture. If nothing else it would give the new player something entertaining and rewarding to do whilst flying from place to place.

Pipemania (1989)
Mining – A simple timed puzzle whose completion before the end of a given mining laser cycle would result in a slight increase in yield. This puzzle could vary from ore-type to ore-type and the speed in which each mini-game round is completed could be directly relative to the yield bonus (eg. if a mining cycle is 10 seconds, completing the puzzle with 2 seconds to go would give a 2% yield bonus). Completing a number of puzzles successively could provide an additional Streak bonus. Not only could this make mining more interesting, especially to the new player, it would give human miners an advantage over botters (or at least give the bot-programmers an interesting new challenge).

Paradroid (1985)
Salvaging/Hacking/Archeology – Successful completion of a minigame for any of the mini-professions could benefit either the cycle time or the chance of success. As with mining, each attempt at success should be confined to the duration of the module cycle time, putting the operator under pressure. The mini-game should vary according to the profession.

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

The final new player deterrent that EVE is guilty of is perversely also the jewel in its crown. The open-ended sandbox nature of New Eden can be incredibly daunting for a player groomed on more on-rails experiences. There needs to be more attention given to easing a player from their likely theme-park roots into EVE Online's vastly more free-form environment.

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.

Why not have a "theme-park" nursery slope tutorial mission arc that betrays him and spits him out into hostile low-sec, or a storyline mission that sees hordes of rookies converging on a single structure to repair/defend/attack it (you know that won't end well)? Sooner or later he will come of age and learn of other ways to play the game, in the meantime, why not give him what he wants, but at the same time provoke an emotional reaction. EVE style.

In Conclusion

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.]

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