Header art by Redline XIII
During the past 3 years we’ve seen 3 consecutive different New Player Experience models. We entered 2016 with the traditional basis of the tutorial agents, which had been the core of EVE’s NPE for over 5 years at that point, but by the last half of it we’d seen the introduction of Team Genesis’ “Inception” NPE concept, which was well received by the community. This new, grand vision of a story driven NPE didn’t last long however, and in 2018 it was almost entirely scrapped and replaced with an “Agency” driven NPE. And as we sit halfway through 2019, the topic of the NPE is still one that’s paraded as a problem both by the playerbase, and more notably by Hilmar himself.
CCP’s thread of thinking on this is something we can start to pick up on as early as 2012, when the executive producer of EVE at the time, John Lander, spoke to Eurogamer about the intention to try and make the game more accessible to new players, with a focus on the Crimewatch changes that were being introduced at the time. But, no numbers were talked about until 2014, when we were given this rather basic chart during Fanfest.
It’s important to note that this was pre-Ascension, so there was a much bigger barrier to entry for players starting in the first place, as it generally required initial payment to do so. We don’t have numbers for how many people were trying EVE Online during this period as opposed to later on either, nor at what point “Retention” was considered achieved, especially given that the 2 hour bar was something talked about heavily in the years to come.
Still, this 50% retention rate was seen as a problem, especially as the wheels began to turn inside CCP to direct the game towards an expansion into the free-to-play model. Over the course of 2016 “Player Retention” went from something for CCP to worry about, to the kind of thing talked about on this very website, truly entering the public conversation in a big way.
As I mentioned in the intro, this came right in front of the first major revamp EVE has had to it’s NPE in a long time, bringing it up to the level of what I’ve seen from most other MMOs in terms of a story and set piece driven tutorial that eventually dumped you off in the game world. There was even a second patch to the feature a few months later that incorporated feedback from new player groups about what “life skills” their newbies were missing.
Now, it’s impossible to tell exactly what CCP was aiming for with this NPE redesign in terms of goals, but it’s clear over this period that retention – by whatever metric CCP was using to measure it – was falling.
“We were super nervous, both internally and externally in terms of our playerbase, when it came to going free-to-play,” said EVE designer Steven Clark. “Last year we were sitting at roughly a 50% retention rate, and now we’re much lower than that, but partially because we have so many more people coming in and trying the game. That’s always a good problem to have.”
CCP Rise to Destructoid, 2017
So, in 2018, after a year of updates, the Inception NPE was scrapped. All the voice acting and dramatic storylines were replaced with CCP’s new streamlined PvE toy, The Agency, which was expected to now bear the brunt of any New Player’s questions as to how to play the game. What this means, realistically, is that during the last half of 2017 CCP decided to simply start from scratch and develop an entirely new NPE, rather than iterating on what they had. And what did CCP (and, by extension, the playerbase) have to show for it?
Retention rates that were – by Hilmar’s admission – worse than they were before this new NPE redesign. This low retention rate being presented so clearly serves to both emphasise CCP’s internal focus, and justify to the community why the NPE needs to be reworked, despite the company having just spent 3 years doing exactly that. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a team is already, as I type this, working on bringing some new angle on how to coach new players through the first few hours of EVE to life.
Now, I’m not going to be the guy to sit here and write that CCP should abandon the newbro in the forest so we can make sure we get only the strongest, Spartan babies who can google their way out of any problem. Everyone loves Newbros, myself included, but I think CCP needs to realise that the New Player Experience isn’t the problem here. The Player Experience is, and constantly having a full developer team working to remake your NPE means that you simply don’t have the dev hours to significantly positively impact that, especially given how painfully few feature development teams currently operate inside the company.
So what I want to do here is to highlight a few areas of the game that CCP could be putting the weight of a full developer team behind that, because as Rise talked about in his original 2014 presentation on the NPE;
“A good NPE comes from good foundational systems, there are problems currently that affect all players, but new players more than anyone else.”
CCP Rise, Fanfest 2014, New Player Experience Vision
This is even something CCP seems to recognise as a necessary part of the drive towards improving the NPE, with changes like bringing PvE damage profiles into the game, so I hope this will serve as food for thought on that end. But my main thrust is that changes like these shouldn’t be the afterthoughts to revamping the tutorial, as it’s my opinion that the more intuitive your gameplay systems are in the first place, the less you need to explain in the tutorial that you’re designing.
The Skill System
Skill training in EVE is simultaneously one of its greatest assets, and one of its greatest flaws. On one hand, it’s the least restrictive system imaginable, where you can train whatever you want with no grinding. But that opens up its own flaws, with players feeling like they’re time gated, with whether or not “catching up” is even possible being by far the most common question asked of me about EVE. Combined with the arcane methodology by which skill training speed is calculated, the information overload given by showing you every skill in the game right away, and it being something you want to start doing in your first session of play, and it becomes this monolithic hurdle for new players to jump over.
Seriously. Pretend you don’t know anything about EVE, where do I click to see the basic skills? How do I find out what training a skill even does? How do I know what’s important for me to spend my unallocated SP on? How do I add more skills to be able to be trained? None of this is addressed in the current NPE at all.
I’ve pitched several “band aid” solutions to skill training over the years I spent on the CSM. From simply having players load into the game with a “basic” skillplan plugged in, in order to delay introducing the mechanic until later, to having a “basic” menu layout that’s easier to navigate which can be opted out of once you want to start looking at more advanced parts of the skill tree. But I think those band-aids would be just that, band-aids to cover over the fundamentally archaic backend.
Think about what could be done with a 3-6 month long dev cycle focused purely on bringing the skill system – not just the UI around it, but the gameplay core conceit of how it’s structured and works – into 2019. Would it be as marketable as a completely new NPE? Probably not, but think about all the problems you could solve with the system;
Remaps/Attributes requiring optimisation – How many times have you locked an alt into a crappy remap and regretted it for a whole year, and consider how many newbies fall into that same track.
Unclear paths for progression – Imagine having something like the “Share overview” or “Share fit” system but for skill plans, so you could easily help someone see what they should train, without forcing them outside of the client.
Poor sense of scaling – Small Blaster Specialisation V isn’t going to be the difference between you winning and losing in 99.9% of cases in a fight, but a new player often doesn’t see beyond “I’m worse”. With some good redesign choices, I feel like it’d be easier for CCP to encourage spreading out into a wider range of skills, rather than feeding the mindset of specialising in one particular thing.
Adding more player agency – Now, this is going to be controversial, but I’m all for giving new players more playtime based ways to catch up. There’s nothing I’ve found that’s more successful in keeping players around and interested than by dangling an SP carrot at the end of a string. CCP knows this, it’s why you can see the jumps in active accounts on the MER every time they do an SP Login event, which makes me ask – Why aren’t they using SP, or levels in Magic 14 skills as milestones for new players as they move beyond the first few hours of the game?
Early Game PvE
Like it or not, the majority of players who join EVE aren’t looking for the same PvP everywhere game that I assume most people reading this are involved in, and especially not during their first time playing with the game. Because of that, players generally get shunted right into the mission system, to chip away at the Level 1 to Level 2 grind. If you know what you’re doing, you can eliminate this grind by training Connections to level 3, but new players are unlikely to figure that out for themselves given the just discussed nature of the skill system.
So, new players who want to PvE are simply thrown into a mission system which hasn’t been updated in multiple years, with no indication other than through the Agency of how they might progress to other activities. Even then, the activities that are on offer for a player in their first month or so of playing are still some variation on the missioning system, until things start to branch out with Abyssals and the Epic Arcs.
I think there needs to be a great deal of introspection on whether or not the PvE gameplay of missions should be the main piece of content that new players are steered towards, and whether or not it serves as the most effective face of the game for weeks if not months to people CCP is enticing to try and stay active with the product.
If it is, great, but it needs to be brought up to modern standards of how engaging PvE can be in EVE. If it isn’t, then there’s a huge gap in terms of using the NPE to prepare and guide people towards good short term goals, and in the provision of good content to these potential long term PvE players in the first place.
The final Player Experience issue is one that I don’t think too many people really value enough, and that’s finding a player group to associate with, that will help new players with answers to the many things that CCP can’t cover in the tutorial. Not only that, but being part of a larger group and working together to do things has always been a huge part of EVE’s marketing, with pieces like This Is EVE and Invasion trailers emphasising the group play aspects of the game. We even know that people who join player corporations are more likely to stay in the game, although I suspect that could also just be that players who’re willing to put forth the effort to join a corporation were predisposed to wanting to continue playing anyway.
Given all that, it’s bizarre to me just how little information the client gives you when trying to pick what corporation to join.
No retention rates, no average pilots online, no looking at their kill history. Just a long list of everyone who matches your search filters, a member count, and a text box for the corporation to tell you why you should pick them.
There’s an argument that any comprehensive system like this would be gamed, and I don’t doubt that for a second. We’re all EVE players after all. But I feel like we’re woefully under-equipping people to start to search for corporations that meet up with what they want out of the game, and I don’t feel like continuing to just direct people to one of 4-6 big nullsec newbie corporations is a sustainable future for the game, despite the great job those corporations do. Not every player is going to want to go to Nullsec right away, and some people are always going to prefer smaller groups to integrate with.
This is a big problem and I doubt it would be easy to craft a solution that hits the right mix between informing rather than overwhelming. It’s especially true if you consider the overhead of trying not to provide an accidental form of intelligence. But if retention is CCP’s goal I can think of no better place to look for improvement than here.
Is It All Bad?
No. Like I said right up at the top here, CCP does seem to be aware that they need to modernise some systems, as can be seen in the push to make the fitting process have a few more handholds for new players. If that hadn’t been on the cards, I can guarantee fitting would have made it’s way into this article as a problem, given how little of it is properly explained. Concepts like “fitting resources” aren’t even explicitly introduced anywhere within the game except the fitting UI, but with features like Community Fitting, maybe that’s not necessary.
My concern is simply that CCP has continually tunnelled in on seeing the NPE, and therefore the only important driver of retention in new players, as just the tutorial CCP creates. Whilst that is undoubtedly an important part of player retention by getting them to want to stick around for the first few hours, there’s always going to be a sharp drop-off at that stage, and that’s not an EVE specific problem. 70% of trial players quit WoW, an undeniably more accessible game, before reaching level 10.
If CCP can see the forest for what it is, and work to keep the players who are still interested after the tutorial inside the game after that point, then I think we could one day see EVE regain the heights it used to have in terms of playerbase. But ripping out the current tutorial and replacing it with a new one, seemingly fishing for a “smash hit” that will solve all the retention issues with the game, smacks of the Jesus Feature mentality that brought CCP to its knees in 2011.
So, please, stop reworking the NPE.