8: Newbies in Space

TMC Archives 2009-04-18

It was Janurary of 2006, and North Star Networks (NSN), a corporation in the elite Mercenary Coalition alliance, was running into trouble. They had been hired on a short-term contract with a simple mission: go to S-UA84 in Syndicate and slaughter Goonfleet, a corporation made up almost entirely of newbies unable to fly anything larger than a frigate. A small outfit specializing in fiendishly expensive and faction-fit Heavy Assault Cruisers (Technically, a ‘heavy assault ship’, but no one calls them this), NSN had anticipated easy pickings. Sure, Goonfleet outnumbered them by a ratio of 4 to 1, but they were newbies. Newbies in frigates couldn’t even touch someone in a HAC; they had no armor, did no damage, and had no skills. Yet as soon as NSN entered Goonfleet territory, things began to go wrong. Swarms of tiny frigates began to mob the HACs; twenty goons would be destroyed for each NSN pilot, but the ammunition being used to shoot down a frigate cost more than the frigate itself. A single HAC lost was the equivalent of two whole fleets of frigates. A loss to newbies was simply inconceivable; the rest of the Mercenary Coalition was called into Syndicate to help NSN against Goonfleet. Something seismic was shifting in EVE, though few realized it at the time; the failed NSN contract was the beginning of the end of the Old Guard in EVE, and marked the ascendancy of the newbie.

EVE has legitimately acquired a reputation as being the most Darwinian of MMOs, and for many years that perception was advanced by CCP’s unstated policy of doing their level best to make the game as newbie-unfriendly as possible. It seemed that the Icelanders affirmatively did not want the hoi polloi to play in their spaceship playground. In order to get past the barriers of entry, a prospective newbie would need to run through a formidable gauntlet of both tedium and frustration: nonexistent or incorrect documentation, a deliberately misleading playerbase, a character progression system inherently tilted towards the old guard, and quite possibly the world’s most boring tutorial ever conceived in any game, anywhere, ever. These were the Bad Old Days.

Assuming that a newbie made it past the tutorial – or skipped it midway through, which was the most common reaction – he entered a world where skillpoints accumulated over time, which meant that it would be literally impossible to catch up in power with an older player. The game forums were a minefield of players lying about how the game worked, and there was essentially no manual for the game at all – fundamental gameplay mechanics would change abruptly, and often the only way one would discover this is after getting blown up or surprised in some way. Economically, newbies were excluded entirely from the top level of the market because they had no way to acquire a T2 blueprint, which was the only way to produce a Tech 2 item or ship. These precious BPOs had been given out through a ‘lottery system’ in the earliest days of the game, and they granted a functional monopoly on production to the oldest and richest players. At an alliance level, T2 monopolies allowed certain sets of players to buy these precious items at or near build-cost, while on the open market they could only be acquired for up to two hundred times build cost – the Cap Recharger IIs spring to mind. With their superior knowledge of the game, higher skillpoints, and better economic situation, the position of the ‘old guard’ in EVE was unassailable.

Even in this dark era, however, it was possible for a single newbie to make a difference. Scorned and ignored in 0.0, a newbie who managed to overcome the endemic fear of losing his ship that plagued most Empire-dwellers could wreak havoc. Armed with knowledge and training, even though he lacked in skillpoints and isk, one pilot, Paradigmblue, managed to tackle and hold a Moros dreadnought barely four days into EVE. “Two points on the Moros” became a rallying cry of the power of the newer players against the old.

Several years ago there was a revolution of sorts at CCP wherein the developers realized that having more newbies in the game might result in both more profits and less stagnant gameplay. CCP merged with White Wolf, forcing the company to grow up. The developer responsible for the T2 blueprint system was caught in a corruption scandal and thrown under a bus. The T2 lottery was replaced with the invention system, which immediately meritocraticized the economy by allowing anyone who felt like it to produce T2 items. CCP even undertook strenuous and continued efforts to improve both the game documentation and the newbie experience. The formerly terrible tutorial and character creation system is now passingly entertaining, rather than a nightmare. Perhaps more importantly, it is no longer possible to completely ruin a newbie character with poor attribute selections before the game even begins.

Yet, even though the Bad Old Days are dead and gone, it is still difficult to be a newbie in EVE. The biggest risk to a newbie is sheer ignorance. EVE is horribly complex, and only recently did CCP begin addressing this through improvements to the in-game tutorial and documentation. You can expect to spend hours simply reading and learning the basics of the game. Once the learning curve is ascended, a newbie needs to begin to grasp the unwritten rules of EVE. As a sandbox game, those who cannot cope with the dangers of human interaction or navigate the inevitable hypocrisies of society will face greater difficulty, as there are no forces of law and order to keep the naive protected from the cunning and malicious, and all the deterrents against criminality in real life – imprisonment, death, pain, bankruptcy – are absent.

One of the first tests of a newbie’s adaptability to the sandbox comes from how they surmount the crippling poverty which afflicts anyone new to the game. Without isk, you can’t get far.

The vast majority of newbies join the game and begin trying to make money in Empire, usually through mining veldspar or running level one missions. I did this myself when I switched from playing WoW to EVE; I was given an Osprey cruiser and mined Kernite in Empire for a couple of weeks, and then I was finally able to afford a battlecruiser – which I promptly fit mining lasers on and began the tedious process all over again. I was bored silly after a month or so and quit.

By contrast, the streetwise newbie realizes that there are no rules in EVE, and as soon as he feels comfortable he sets about scamming anyone he comes across – or otherwise thinks a way out of the mining/ratting/missioning grind. Personally, I advocate scamming for all newbies. A single accomplished scam equates to hundreds of hours of mining veldspar. With an injection of capital, market manipulation or production becomes a possibility. Better still, the process of scamming teaches players about the underside of EVE; it’s easier to defend yourself against deception if you yourself specialize in it.

Another challenge for the newbie in EVE is finding something he enjoys to do. EVE doesn’t spoon-feed content or quests; to succeed, a newbie needs to have self-direction. Part of that involves seeking out things that one actively enjoys doing in the game, and that inevitably involves people. One of the worst mistakes a newbie could make is to play only by himself; as Yahtzee found out the hard way, going solo in EVE is a frighteningly boring experience. If you have no social contacts, I’d suggest joining a training corporation, such as EVE University, which specializes in teaching newbies the ropes and gives an initial social network to grow with.

Most newbies think that a terrible grind is required in EVE because newbies are ‘powerless’, or because other MMOs insist that you hit wolves with a sword for hours on end before you can level up. The greatest thing about EVE is that you are able to think yourself out of almost any situation; your best weapon is your mind, and you’re pitting your wits against other humans, rather than pixelated monsters. While in the Bad Old Days, the deck was stacked against the newbie, in this day and age the only thing holding back a newbie is a lack of imagination, daring, or cunning.

Commentary

Still doing a little ‘spoonfeeding’ assuming my readers know nothing about the game; it’s clunky and I’m glad I abandon it in later columns. You can’t really straddle the “knows nothing about EVE” vs “savvy reader” divide, and you just end up writing unsatisfying crap if you try.

Things have certainly gotten better as a newbie in EVE since 2009, though they’re still painful. While it was a disaster, the intent of the Incarna expansion was essentially to fix the New Player Experience and smooth the infamous Learning Cliff; every post-Incarna change to the game’s UI makes it less like a spreadsheet and more like a (gasp) game, and CCP has begun to actively advertise newbie organizations like Eve University, Agony Unleashed, and Red vs Blue on the login screen.

That said, EVE is still a nightmare for newbies, and I don’t envy the “Eve Born” who begin the game without friends and without an external community like Somethingawful or Reddit to slingshot past the terrible “mining in a Bantam” phase.

What really holds newbies back isn’t the ability to fit a ship, or buy the right ship, but knowledge; it’s tough to teach a complex game to players, and you can’t teach a stupid person. It’s easier to get a subscription from an idiot in a game like WoW than it is to hold a sub in EVE, no matter how polished the UI and tutorial become.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by The Mittani.

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