Expert Systems: Newbie Help, or Bumbling Cash-Grab?

2021-03-08

Header Art by Cryo Huren

On February 25, CCP announced the upcoming Expert Systems feature. As INN has already covered, this will provide new capsuleers with temporary skill levels that expire after one week. CCP intends these skills to allow new players to try out different aspects of the game without potentially wasting weeks of skill training time. In a game as front-loaded with complexity as EVE, that should be a good thing, right?

However, EVE players are a suspicious and wary lot. It’s unavoidable; the environment of EVE often punishes trust and openness. So players become guarded, and get used to looking for hidden motives. EVE players also have long memories. Episodes like the Incarna fiasco and the ‘Greed is Good’ memo loom large in the background. As a result, any new feature that involves real-world monetization draws suspicion and critical examination.

The Expert Systems feature is no exception. CCP is planning to charge real money for them, and reactions have ranged from ‘this is great’ to ‘OMG, Pearl Abyss is ruining the game!’ But how does it play out? What considerations are there? What adjustments can be made to allay ‘cash grab’ concerns? Should they even be attempted, or is the current plan something players need to just get used to?

Expert Systems? What?

Just to recap quickly, Expert Systems will be a tool players can purchase through the EVE web store that will grant one character skill levels they have not trained, for a short period of time. The final form of the ES is, of course, not final, but there are a few that Hoboleaks has managed to unearth.

Obviously, the QA entries at Hoboleaks are just that: for internal QA use. And the Grand Prix ES is likely to only be available during the Grand Prix event. As a result, the focus should be on the others. Four of the six are just racial variations of the same idea: ‘HS Space Exploration’. These contain the skills needed to let a new player try exploration sites, and this batch is fairly well done. All of the skills appear to be ones alpha clones can train, and the racial frigates are ships new players can get in right away to get going. A hacking Probe runs less than 1.75 million ISK. That’s still a fairly hefty chunk of change for a new player, but if they go through the tutorials, it’s not prohibitively expensive.

That’s if they go through the tutorials. But more on that later. The fifth Expert System grants useful skill levels in the fourteen important fitting skills everyone needs. That’s great. It lets newbies see how important the ‘Core 14’ are. But there’s one more Expert System in the Hoboleaks dump, and this one’s a little different.

Mining Barge Operations Expert

Right off the bat, this one raises some questions. Alpha clones can’t use Mining Barges. Even if they train into the skill as an Omega, as soon as the account lapses, those characters can no longer undock in a Barge. Does this mean players who spend money on the Expert System bypass those restrictions? Or do they find themselves paying real money to get a temporary skill they can’t actually use?

Mining Barge: Can Newbies Even Get One?

The next question becomes ‘how well can they afford the ship?’ After all, these are new players. One estimate says new alphas come out of the career missions with about 17 million in assets. That’s not enough to afford the 33-40 million ISK for a barge hull, so the newbie needs to hang onto either a combat ship or a Venture (or both) to keep making money with.

Using a Venture hull fitted with a pair of 14,500 ISK meta mining lasers, an alpha fresh out of the career missions can make roughly 50k ISK in 10 minutes on mining missions. More money can be made in belts, of course, but belts are prone to being mined out, and tend to have NPCs trying to kill the miner. While a Venture can fit a pair of light combat drones to defend itself, that takes time, money, and SP. So if a pilot didn’t get that training done during the tutorials, running a few mining missions while drone skills tick over at least keeps the money coming in.

Once those basic skills for self-defense come in, though, it’s off to the races. As a result of CCP’s scarcity changes, the price of Mexallon has doubled in the last year. That means that a three day old Venture pilot who pulls Plagioclase out of belts in 1.0 systems way out in the hinterlands of Heimatar can make better than a million ISK in an hour. With the assets from the tutorials and career agents (which will just get lumped together as ‘tutorial missions’ for the rest of the article), that means it’s easy to get the money needed for a barge in a week—if the player is patient enough to get it by mining.

Hang On A Second…

There’s two hiccups with this, however. First, there’s the problem of ‘new players’. There are a certain number of MMO players that skip tutorials, especially on the first character. Everyone knows someone who thinks, “I’ll just jump in, see what I can figure out. If I have trouble, I can do the tutorial later.”

But if a player pushes the ‘skip tutorials’ button in EVE character creation, that character never gets the tutorials. They don’t get the 17 million in ISK and assets. Or the free ships, including the Venture. No free skill books. And no SP ticking over while they go through the tutorials.

Instead, they get a corvette. A special, starter corvette. One of the early tutorial missions gives players a civilian mining laser to go mine ore. That mission teaches new players about ship fitting, mining lasers, etc. But because the mission gives a Civilian Miner, the starter corvette doesn’t. So the new player can’t mine at all.

They can, of course, trash their corvette, and use the ‘board my corvette button’. That corvette will have a mining laser. To really get mining, though, the newbie needs to pull the laser off that corvette, trash the ship and get a third corvette, and fit that with both mining lasers. Then it will only take them 45-50 minutes per L1 mission to pull in ~50k ISK. At that rate, it’s only 40,000 minutes of mining to get that barge!

That’s One…

That’s the first hiccup. The second is much, much simpler. CCP intends the Mining Barge Operator Expert System to allow a player to try out a mining play style without having to spend all that time skilling into it. But to take advantage of the skills, the player needs to buy a barge, and to buy a barge, the most efficient way is to spend upwards of a week mining.

So in order to try out mining without investing a lot of time, first, the player needs to spend a lot of time mining. That seems to rather defeat the point of Expert Systems, doesn’t it?

Cash-Grab Concerns

There is a way around that delay, though. Instead of mining to get all that ISK, there’s another option: buy PLEX from CCP. 40 million ISK only takes about 17 PLEX (2.3 million per PLEX, selling to buy orders in Perimeter/Jita). But of course, the smallest PLEX pack is 100 PLEX. So new players will end up with extra money, right? What’s the harm in that? Simple: new players have no idea how to use that ISK. For those used to other games, that can lead to some pretty extreme misconceptions.

Best In Slot

The microtransaction model of game design led, early on, to the introduction of cash shop consumables. The most basic, and notorious, of these is, of course, ‘Gold Ammo’, ammunition that outperforms anything available without spending real money. CCP, to their credit, has never introduced Gold Ammo to EVE Online. But that doesn’t mean new players who are already spending real cash to get a leg up know that.

MMOs also tend to have different grades of equipment, and use colors to indicate what grade an item is. Common-quality items are usually ‘white’ gear, with green, blue, purple, and orange used for increasingly high-quality items that vastly outperform the ‘common’ gear. In EVE, this is preserved, as normal T1, T2, and even Meta T1 gear is ‘white’ loot, while faction (a step up) items are green, deadspace (another step) are blue, and officer modules are purple.

Modules of higher item grade perform better. They also cost more ISK on the market—a result of both high demand and often short supply. But the performance doesn’t keep pace with the price. A T2 Multispectrum Shield Hardener costs just under 3 million ISK in Jita, and improves shield resists by 26%. A Pithum A-Type Multispectrum Shield Hardener, the top-end blue version of the same item, improves shield resists by 37.5%, which is roughly 50% better than T2. They cost 730 million ISK in Jita.

50% improvement in performance, 21,000% increase in price. Which is exactly as it should be, because those prices are set by market forces, not by anyone at CCP.

Wallet Warriors

So what, though, right? This is EVE Online. HTFU, and all that jazz. The problem is how it all comes together. New players haven’t had time to learn how EVE’s particular diminishing returns impact ship performance. They also haven’t learned how to properly fit their ships, and no quick, temporary skills levels will fix that. This means some of them will always be looking for ways to ‘catch up’, or get ahead. And since they’ve already opened their wallet for the skill levels, and again for the ship, why not go all the way and just get really good everything to go on the ship?

And we’ve already seen how that mentality plays out. Incidentally, as of November 2020, that guy’s still at it. And that, too, is fine. After all, they’ve been playing the game for three years now. They’ve had enough time to learn what not to do. But those early losses warn us of exactly what’s to come: a new pilot, wallet-warrioring into expensive lossmails, over and over again.

So a new player comes in, and takes advantage of all of the cash shop ‘get ahead quick’ tools CCP offers. They figure they can save money in the long run, because this will let them use in-game money from mining to subscribe the account (i.e.: PLEX). How bad can it get?

The Avaricious Covetor

It can get pretty bad. At the time of writing, this Covetor fit appraises at almost 1.9 billion ISK. It gets 20.3m3 of ore per second. That’s four times what a new player in a Venture can get. It’s also the wrong hull for new players to learn in. They should use the Procurer, and its vastly improved survivability. Here’s a handy comparison of the Venture, this Covetor, a not-stupidly-expensive Covetor, and a Procurer. The improved yield just isn’t worth all that ISK. But of course, new players don’t know that.

Bling Covetor, Basic Covetor, Basic Procurer, and Venture, all using skills from Expert Systems or the tutorials.
The four comparison ships. Click the link above to get it full-size.

1.9 billion ISK also changes our math above, from the newbie buying 17 PLEX, to now needing around 900 PLEX. In USD, that takes the newbie from $5 (above the cost of the ES) to $40.

$40 US still doesn’t sound like a lot, but when that ship blows up, how many of those wallet-warrioring new players give in to sunk-cost fallacies, and plunk down another $40? Because it will blow up. CODE. and other groups will scan out the barge, see the bling, and descend upon it like hyena.

$40 US per ship, plus at least 2 of the Expert Systems, because it takes 16d for an alpha to train into Mining Bar… ohhhh, wait, alphas can’t train Mining Barges. So to keep using their ship, even before they can sit in it without the Expert Systems, the player has to pay for the account, and pay weekly for the Expert System. But hey, mo’ money, mo’ killmails!

Think Of The Children!

Yeah. That’s exactly what a lot of people are thinking at this point. ‘How bad for newbies. Think of the children. Christ, gimme a break’. But this isn’t that. This isn’t about making things better for newbies at all. It’s about existing players’ concerns that CCP is basically building this system with that intention in mind. It’s also about the very large likelihood that CCP is doing nothing of the sort, and all of these downsides simply never occurred to them.

EVE’s history is replete with developers getting an interesting idea, seeing the upsides, and not thinking through the worst-case ramifications. After all: Rorquals. The real issue here isn’t ‘what does this mean for newbies?’ it’s ‘what does this tell existing players about CCP’s priorities?’ Are they well-intentioned, or are they thinly-veiled cash grabs? Is this really meant to help newbies, or is it an attempt to squeeze every last drop of blood from every stone in reach?

EVE players, as discussed at the beginning of the article, are by habit fairly suspicious. But what could CCP do to allay those suspicions while still meeting Expert Systems’ goals of letting new players try out a certain play style before committing weeks of training time?

Introducing the Corvette Z28!

The answer may be simple in concept, though less in execution: give them the ship. It only lasts a week, has no value, and can’t be put on the market. When the ship blows up, the player can get a new one by pushing a helpful button in station. In other words, make it a corvette, just one that can’t be traded or refitted.

Instead, use the ‘community fittings’ feature to set the fit when spawning the ship. This lets the player see the differences between fitting for yield vs tank, or between hulls in the same class, and learn how that impacts their use of the ship. After all, with CCP giving the player temporary skill levels, the performance of a given fit is locked in.

Of course, steps would need to be taken to prevent abuse. The simplest step would be that Expert Systems function similarly to skill books: Plugging it in requires not having a given skill level. If players already have the ‘top’ skill level (here, Mining Barge Operations III), they can’t use the Expert System. Without the ES, no free ship. Give the ships Tech I, Meta 0 fittings, so they underperform, to motivate people to not just keep throwing cash at things.

Or, if they want to keep spending $5/wk (or whatever price point CCP sets) to avoid risk, let them. Just make sure the ships can’t gate into lowsec—no disposable ninja-alts for low-sec ores. There are, obviously, other concerns to balance, like ‘what kind of killmail does it generate?’ Still, CCP’s devs have been in touch with the small gang PvP / hunter community for a long time. Doubtless, they’ll hear all sorts of ideas for those concerns as well.

So Which Is It?

There’s nothing wrong with finding ways to help new players that also help the company’s bottom line. EVE Online is enjoying a year of fairly high activity, and that’s good. But significant contributing factors, like the war in Delve and the COVID pandemic, won’t last forever. And CCP has spent almost twenty years teaching players to be wary and mistrustful.

Are Expert Systems a laughably-transparent cash-grab, or a well-intentioned way to help newbies? The answer, almost certainly, is somewhere in the middle. How well the feature does may come down to how willing existing players are to recommend it to newbies. And how CCP approaches the balance between new features and monetization could have a massive impact on how many players who came back in 2020 stick with the game—and how many keep paying them. A company that still, a decade later, hears the angry cries of ‘Greed is Good’ is a company that needs to keep appearances in mind.

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Comments

  • Guilford Australis

    The rationale behind this seems to be an admission by CCP that new players can’t enjoy much of what EVE offers until they train certain core skills amounting to roughly 2M skill points. If that is true (and I think it is), and if the primary goal of this new system truly is to improve new player retention, then why not just give new players 2M skill points for completing ALL of the tutorials (NPE and career missions)?

    The beginner SP could be locked to only certain essential skills to prevent new players from spending them on skills that aren’t useful early on. That, along with the requirement that all tutorial content be completed, would deter veterans from abusing the free beginner SP to jump-start frivolous new alpha alts. Furthermore, this system would push new Alpha players farther toward the 5M SP limit and thus possibly encourage faster Omega subscriptions.

    There are, of course, other solutions that would promote CCP’s stated goal of improving new player retention. And I’m not so cynical that I think CCP doesn’t truly want to help new players get the most out of the game. But the fact that they implemented this as a confusing and unrewarding pay-to-play system leads me to believe that improving new player retention is not the primary goal here, and I’m not sure whether it’s more of a secondary objective or a justification to help deflect criticism – the old “will no one think of the children?” routine.

    Time will tell whether CCP makes changes to this based on the nearly universal criticism the announcement has earned them.

    March 8, 2021 at 1:41 PM
    • I agree. I think it would be a nice incentive for completing the tutorials and possibly the SOE arc by offering as the final reward a few million SP that they can market as “the start to your new career of choosing in New Eden”

      March 10, 2021 at 10:55 AM
  • Alaric Faelen

    To help newbs? Ever notice people that try to ‘help’ usually have a product for sale to accomplish that?
    Is CCP even capable of imaging a plan that doesn’t involve devaluing established players?

    This is a false narrative being sold by CCP to get more money. Newbs are obsessed with SP and ‘catching up’ to older players. There is zero reason for that, but it certainly benefits CCP to make players think they need to throw money at the game to have MOAR SP!

    I get it from newbs- they come from other games where this might hold true. However, CCP knows better but rather than tell new players that even a day one newb is valuable and can do a lot- they want those dollars from gamers who think they can buy victory. Make them think they need xxx amount of SP to even compete, then sit back and sell SP packs.

    People raised the alarm when CCP first started selling SP, but we were told we were being elitist or unreasonable. This is why– because it will never stop. These ridiculous monetization schemes that are the cancer of the games industry will only continue to dominate games until there is no such thing as skill levels or progression- just throw money down and everyone is equal, everyone gets a participation trophy.

    March 8, 2021 at 10:13 PM
  • Caleb Ayrania

    They say the devil is in the details. In EVE that is usually in Arrendis articles. Here it all is “Hail Santa”..

    March 9, 2021 at 11:40 AM