Player Retention: It’s the People, Stupid

Bill McDonough 2016-09-19

The coronation of the new Empress of Amarr draws near, and CCP has released a new PvE event. Called the Purity of the Throne uprising, it is part of the ongoing story of New Eden. This event is the latest in a series of similar small, automated events CCP has unveiled. It and the introduction of free-to-play Alpha Clone accounts in two months represent CCP’s efforts to goose the activity numbers upward and get players old and new alike engaged in EVE Online. One of them won’t work. The other? On its own, it won’t work, either. That doesn’t mean it can’t be part of the solution. It just means that the problem lies not in the mechanics of the game, but in the approach CCP is taking.

Let’s just get it right out of the way: EVE is Dying™. It’s always dying. When EVE’s playerbase was expanding  by leaps and bounds, EVE was dying. So you don’t have to tell us EVE is dying. We know. So, now that that’s over with . . .

Playing an MMO is a voluntary arrangement. It’s obvious. It’s undeniable. We hear it all the time in the phrase ‘vote with your feet’. If players don’t want what you’re offering, they go do something else. This will always be true. No matter how militaristic the setting or the activities within a game, you can’t force someone to stay in a group that’s not meeting their needs.

It’s also true when talking about the game itself. If your game doesn’t give players the things they’re looking for, they’ll move on. When World of Warcraft’s developers dropped the ball with the Warlords of Draenor expansion, players complained of stale, unengaging content. The size of the active playerbase dropped. By all accounts, the work they put into Legion shows they learned their lessons with regard to player engagement, and those numbers have rebounded. It’s a lesson other companies should learn.

Over the years, CCP has come around to realizing that they have a problem with player retention. Most of their efforts to address this problem have been focused in two directions: the New Player Experience, and the game mechanics. While both have yielded some improvements in the process of gameplay, neither one has made significant progress in retaining players. In fact, some mechanics changes have been widely seen as hurting player retention. It should go without saying that those changes were meant to improve the game.

A STORY OF THE WARS . . .

For example, Faction Warfare was meant as a way to provide consistent content-drivers to low-sec areas on the borders of traditionally hostile empires. Introduced in 2008, it attracted low-sec alliances with already-established loyalties, such as Praetoria Imperialis Excubitoris (known to most as PIE), and Ushra’khan. It meant that players who enjoyed the story of New Eden—especially the role-playing community—would be rewarded for flying for one of the Empires.

You can see where the inspiration comes from. New Eden is a cluster of four great Empires locked in struggle with one another. It has been since it was released. At the same time, Blizzard’s successful introduction of Battlegrounds in 2005 had demonstrated a clear market for controlled PvP with clear rewards.

At first, everything looked fine. Faction Warfare saw an influx of new entries into the PvP arenas of EVE. The ability to actually flip systems from one Empire to another brought with it a sense of agency. But the long-term effects didn’t actually improve player engagement or retention. Why?

FW increased the number of people flying ‘for the Empires’, but it didn’t increase the actual investment those players felt toward their faction. In fact, the way it was designed couldn’t help, over the long run, but do just the opposite.

EVE’s Faction Warfare system is designed to be a pendulum, with the warzones swinging back and forth. Both sides win, so both sides can benefit, which then increases participation. The rewards earned scale with how successful a faction is. The more one side wins, the more they can upgrade systems. The more upgraded a system is, the more rewards combatants get. In theory, the most rewarding systems are highly-upgraded enemy systems. These are where the upgrades mean stronger NPC defenses, and presumably, player defenders are the most active. That would let reward scale with risk. Additionally, LP rewards like modules are available at a reduced cost to offset the cost in LP needed to upgrade a system.

That works in a closed environment, with relatively evenly-matched forces. Over the long term, though, outside forces can wreak havoc. Early on in the Amarr/Minmatar warzone, for example, Minmatar forces were consistently competitive against the Amarr. At a certain point, though, the balance of power shifted, and the Amarr began to dominate the warzone. That shift didn’t come from an influx of Amarr loyalists, but from a change in allegiance by Minmatar pilots.

That change coincided with a change in game mechanics—which is a thing that should not affect player faction loyalties at all. The change? Cloaked ships would no longer decloak one another. That one change had a huge effect on nullsec.

Before that change, the nullsec fleet battles included both shield- and armor-tanked battleship doctrines. One of the mainstays of the shield-based fleets was alpha-strike doctrines. Ships like Maelstroms dedicated their low slots to damage mods. The idea was to make enemy ships vanish with a single volley, leaving logistics pilots unable to save them.

That changed with the cloaking mechanics, though. Stealth bombers, previously an extremely niche tool that few FCs could use to great effect, suddenly became an effective and unprecedented threat. Shield tanking a ship increases its  target signature, and thus the amount of damage bombs will do. As a result, entire Maelstrom fleets could be wiped out by just a few bombing runs. The age of the Shield Battleship was over.

EVE is a complex, interconnected ecosystem, and that change in the meta out in nullsec appears to have had unforeseen consequences in Faction Warfare. As the meta shifted, demand shifted. The overwhelming primacy of armor-tanked doctrines in large-scale warfare meant a stronger built-in demand for faction armor modules. Stronger demand means better prices for a seller, and with Faction Warfare getting discounts on LP costs…

The LP farmers chose the predictable side. The effect was visible in the Caldari/Gallente warzone as well. Some systems that were once highly contested haven’t changed hands in three years.

CCP looked at that and saw no problems with player engagement. The farmers were engaged with going out and defending complexes for LP, after all. Where’s the problem?

The problem comes in longer-term attachment. With the warzones no longer in flux, the perennially-losing sides began to wither. This meant less actual activity for the ‘winners’. For people who weren’t just looking to farm LP, that meant less engagement. They wanted to engage with the setting CCP had created—the entire purpose of FW in the first place.

So who stayed active? Two groups: the farmers, and the zealots. The farmers stuck to running complexes, earning LP and making their money. They generally don’t give a crap about engaging with the rest of the playerbase (except, you know, for the occasional solo combat in a small complex).

At the other end, the zealots clung to the original vision of lowsec warfare between the factions. When they ran complexes, it was to poke at the other side’s zealots. They were showing the flag, more than anything else. And as often as they could, they’d form up fleets to go and fight the other side’s fleets. Often, the game mechanics of Faction Warfare got ignored in favor of actually engaging in warfare against other players.

There remains no meaningful way to get incoming players engaged in the ‘faction’ part of Faction Warfare, though. As a result, the zealots’ numbers have declined. New players coming into the Warzone receive little guidance from CCP. The automated systems tell them only how to use the automated systems. As a result, those new players get funneled into the ‘farmer’ mindset, and don’t often become engaged with those around them.

Let’s look at our other example: Aegis Sovereignty, and the changes in nullsec warfare.

A lot of the vocal criticism of Aegis Sov has been expressed as ‘Dominion was boring as hell, too, but at least we got to shoot things’. I believe that’s an oversimplification. I think people express it that way because they don’t think about what got them invested in the large-scale warfare in the first place. They don’t have to. They went out, they shot things and people, and they got killmails. That’s understandable, though—players shouldn’t need to think about what’s causing their investment. That’s the devs’ job. Players should simply be swept up and engaged in the events around them.

That happened with the large nullsec wars because people were there, on the field, on both sides. Think of the fights people tell stories about—the ones they remember. B-R was a thing. 6VDT was a thing. Z9PP was a fat-fingered thing. 3WE-KY (The Lazamo) was definitely a thing for anyone who was involved. Think about the things you’ve done in EVE that have stuck with you, the memories that give you a feeling of investment.

How often do you get it from exporting Electrolytes to a POCO? How many of those stories are ‘so I orbited this node and got LP’, or ‘so this one time, I was soloing Worlds Collide Level 4, and I killed a bunch of rats’?

How many of them are all about interacting with other people? Laughing with them, joking with them, outsmarting them, outfighting them, even scamming them? CCP’s own numbers show that new players are more likely to be retained if they get blown up. Why’s that? ‘They’re invested’, they say, and they’re right. But what got that new player invested? Their ship blowing up? No.

What got them invested was “that jackass who shot me”. Because they’re interacting. They’re connecting—even if the connection is antagonistic. A chance for payback down the road, a chance to be the guy who puts that scum down. . . that’s a story, waiting to be told.

It does make for a terrible marketing slogan though. “Anti-heroes: Kill the cheerleader. Save the World.” It just doesn’t sing.

And for those of you saying ‘but wait, entosis warfare still has fleets trying to stop you!’? Sure. It’s got a bunch of individual ships spreading out and watching out for an enemy gang coming to shoot them. When someone does, run away. It’s about as engaging as sitting on a titan for an hour and a half.

What real engagement comes out of entosis warfare is all a result of provoking the other guy. It is the same engagement the zealots get from showing the flag in FW. Maybe. Or maybe the defender just tells the attacker to smeg off and gives them nothing. Now the attacker has 2 days to wait and loses what little surprise the initial hack had. If the attacker even shows up for the timer, the defender can just use ECM to jam the hackers again and again. He can do that, denying the attacker a fight, until node decay wins the contest. He can do that because the attacker will have at most three hackers on a given node. An entosis link has a long spool-up period before it has any effect. At most, the defender needs to jam each hacker once every two minutes. That didn’t work when the way to poke someone and provoke a fight required actually bringing a fleet and pounding on an SBU. One or two jamming ships wouldn’t account for more than a drop in the bucket of applied damage. If the defender wanted to stop an attacker, they had to stop them. They had to engage. That’s where the stories come from—people engaging with people.

TELL ME A STORY . . .

That’s not to say that CCP hasn’t done anything right over the years. They have. They’ve given players many things to drive engagement. The list includes actual agency and the ability to organize. When player corporations started working together, CCP took a step no-one else in the MMO world had: corporate alliances. The introduction of sovereignty brought infrastructure like I-Hubs and jump bridges. These made it possible for players alter the landscape they live in, upgrading space and streamlining travel. The mechanical changes, though, weren’t the only things CCP got right.

CCP was once far more invested in getting players interested in the universe of New Eden. They engaged the players in larger, more involved, interconnected live events. An example of those events was the Defiants story.

Without getting mired down in the details, a Republic Fleet officer engineered the theft of an entire fleet from their moorings. He and his men made off with a Hel, 2 Nidhoggurs, and their associated battlegroup. They set up shop in lowsec, attacking Amarr assets and forcing a deployment of Amarr Navy forces. What followed was an extended campaign of attacks and counterattacks, defensive engagements, and strategic strikes on enemy infrastructure and command and control capabilities. Capsuleer alliances affiliated with both groups, like Ushra’khan and PIE, got involved in the fighting in a pretty large way. As someone who wasn’t involved, it certainly seems now that CCP’s events staff may have been coordinating military action with those player alliances on a strategic level, both to keep the fighting going and to make sure it proceeded in a way that would let them resolve it as they wanted. In time, the fighting did end, two years after it began—just in time for the release of Faction Warfare.

Similarly, when the former Minmatar Prime Minister and Chief of the Sebiestor Tribe, Karin Midular, was assassinated in Gallente space, capsuleers were involved in the confrontation that erupted when NPC (played by CCP, obviously) Republic Fleet officers jumped a detachment of Nags into the Gallente system of Colelie and started demanding the assassin be turned over to them.

Actions like these build player engagement. But it’s not the game mechanics at work. It’s the people.

HUMAN(ISH) INTERACTION

The measure of engagement comes in stories. From the earliest tall tales to internet fan fiction that gets made into major motion pictures, stories tell us what people care about. We tell stories of moments and events that stay with us, that resonate and matter. The stories that players tell about their experiences reveal what parts of the game stick with them, where they’re invested. By the same token, it shows how likely the game is to hold their interest. The more invested they are, the more stories they have. The more recently those stories have happened, the more likely they are to keep playing. When the This is EVE trailer came out, players called it the best marketing the game ever had. They also called it one of the most misleading trailers that CCP had ever released. Even as people looked at it and said ‘that’s not what’s going on most of the time’, those same people had to admit, the trailer spoke to them. Why?

Because the trailer is about people. The trailer showed the players’ moments. Even now, two years later, the moments connect. The trepidation in the question ‘will we be able to take on Guardians?’, followed by the calm assurance of ‘don’t worry about that’ connects. You get it. The experienced player’s been both of those guys. The new player hears, immediately, people relating to people. That whole first minute and a half is people interacting with people, culminating in ‘This is where we fight’.

Then we get to the ‘solo’ sections of the video. Even here, pay attention to what’s going on. We’re introduced to pilots talking about what they’re doing. Talking to the viewer. Connecting. And talking about what they’re doing not as ‘I’m grinding out some crap’, but in terms of people. The explorer is talking about how there’s a guy chasing him from system to system. The miner is mentioning that his haul might not be a lot for some folks, but for him. . . .

That’s personal engagement. That’s people inviting you into their experience.

And then we’re back to the fleets. We can hear the ‘yeah, jack-all happened today’ in that HERO fleet’s voices. ‘Yaay, sov is so much fun’ is flat. It’s a moment that feels like it shouldn’t be there… except for what happens next. Like the guy in the video says, “Oh look!” Just like that, the moment changes. It had been ‘yep, nothing to see here’. It had been a boring day. But in that instant, they’re laughing, even as their ships are getting blown up. You can hear the helpless grins on their faces. “That. . . . is Rooks and Kings right there” just nails that moment. Not even ‘that happened’ but ‘yup, it’s those guys’. It only keeps building from there. I know so many pilots who laughed out loud at the words, “Oh my god, that’s a Titan!” The  raw excitement in the newbie’s voice brings people back to when they felt that way, too. One bittervet even clapped when he heard that pilot dissolve into delighted laughter at seeing his first Doomsday.

We connect because they’re people. That’s what human beings do: we instinctively, immediately, connect with people.

It’s worth noting, while we’re on This is EVE, that planetary interaction was completely glossed over—just a moment of screen time in the closing montage. Why? Well… you never interact with people. Orbiting a FW complex in space? Didn’t even get that much. CCP’s marketing department gets it, even if their developers don’t.

Automating systems to increase ‘player engagement’ does not work. Faction Warfare brought farmers, and in the long run it, like its bastard child Aegis sov, have reduced the level of emotional investment and ‘engagement’ the players feel toward what’s going on, either as Lore/RP storylines, or wars and empire-building in Null.

Look, Candy Crush gets a lot of superficial play-time. It’s a great way to chew up a few hours with your phone. But nobody cares about it. Compare that to Pokemon—almost as shallow and fluffy a game, it took off because the players  were playing with other people. Now, of course, Pokemon’s got 20+ years of conditioning the masses. They could follow up Go with ‘Pokemon: STOP’, where you literally do nothing and every six hours a mutated yellow lightning-gerbil pops up and makes an unintelligible noise. Not only would people buy the game, they’d play it for days straight, including the microtransactions that let you do things like change the expression on Pikachu’s face when he pops up. ‘Do you want smiling, or smiling and WINKING?’

That’s because they’re already invested, though. What gets people invested in the first place is people. I keep coming back to that, I know. It’s almost like it’s the whole point.

In a more structured game, like WoW, the storylines of quests give people reasons to care. It’s cheesy as hell, but anyone who played Vanilla WoW on the Alliance side remembers the Onyxia fight in the Throne Room of Stormwind. It was the culmination of a long storyline that (with a break in the mid-levels that was never filled) started for human characters literally at character creation. After a heroic rescue, they get to march through Stormwind escorting this great hero. When the player gets to the throne room, all hell breaks loose. They find themselves fighting alongside another great hero of the Alliance. After the fight, he sends them into what was then the final part of that story with the quest to go kill the dragon.

That’s investment. They took the time to put the work in, and craft a storyline that gives you something that feels like a moment. That paid off even later in Wrath of the Lich King—if the player has done that quest chain. There’s a point where Bolvar Fordragon, the hero the player fought alongside, comes running in to rescue a situation that’s going south in a hurry. If the player has done the throne room fight, Fordragon greets them by name and says ‘I still haven’t forgotten what you did for me in Stormwind’.

It’s a tiny thing. It’s a cheap thing. But it’s investment, and when those moments come, either in the throne room or in Northrend, they’re wearing a human face, a name, an identity. It’s an illusion. But it’s the illusion of making contact with another human being, and it works. It works because the game is structured, with a story for the players to get invested in.

OK, SO . . . ?

In EVE, those stories come from two sources. Those sources are the players, and the work of the dedicated but understaffed live events team. Players stories come from interacting with other players. Right now,  CCP’s focus on mechanics is for ever-smaller groups. That doesn’t keep people engaged. It disengages them from one another. Instead, they should be trying to find ways to make it easier for small groups to hook up into larger groups. The model already exists. Militia alliances allow FW corps to join an NPC alliance and work with other member-corps. It was definitely one of the good things that Faction Warfare did. CCP needs to find ways to achieve the same kind of natural accretion in other aspects. Upwell Consortium could have an Upwell Affiliates alliance, for example. Small-time mining or industry corps could band together and pool resources, improve efficiency, reach critical mass of miners, boosts, and guards in dangerous space, or even just socialize. When they feel ready, those corps could move out into their own alliances, together.

At the same time, let the empires in null build themselves into empires. Most sovholding groups have praised the ADM mechanics of Aegis sov. They answer the primary complaint about stagnation in nullsec and ‘the blue donut’. ADMs create the occupancy system most of the long-term nullsec players were looking for. They shrink the footprint of even the largest groups. Just get rid of the parts of the system that don’t engage the player at all. Get rid of the entosis system. It’s bad, and CCP should feel bad. Give sovereignty structures a damage cap and a minimum damage threshold, like citadels have.

Then let people shoot the damned things. Look at citadels. People have to shoot them. Because people have to shoot them—and have to do it with more than one or two guys—people show up in numbers to defend them. They engage one another. They generate the memories and the stories and the feeling of investment. That’s what keeps people interested, and keeps people playing.

The live events side of the equation has seen their storylines allowed to rot on the vine by CCP. They need more people, and they need more investment from management. But they weren’t always left in the lurch like this. The Defiant storyline (those renegade Republic Fleet guys with the Hel etc) was part of the unfolding story. The invasion by the Elder Fleet, and Jamyl Sarum returning from the dead to defeat them, ended with the Elder Fleet retreating back into lowsec. They only escaped because of last-minute intervention by the Defiants. After six months of quiet, they returned for one last glorious stand. The stolen Hel that had started that story died in that rearguard action. Its destruction came despite—and because of—capsuleer involvement on both sides.

After that, though, CCP began to abandon the grander scale of telling stories. The sense that direct player involvement shaped the outcome faded.  For example, players panned the Battle of Luminaire event. Nobody felt like they could have affected the outcome. The Elder Fleet invasion served as the prelude to Faction Warfare. It also saw the mysterious Minmatar Elders liberate huge numbers of enslaved Matari. One of the results of that was the reintroduction of the Starkmanir Tribe. Thought lost centuries earlier in a global genocide, the Starkmanir have nothing. They are refugees in a nation that claims to be their home. And then nothing happened.

In the real world, a refugee crisis in a single small nation has massive rippling effects all over the globe. It has produced nations gritting their teeth and opening their doors as part of a sense of national duty to humanity. It’s fomented renewed and growing fears of ‘other’ and rising nationalism. In the eight years since the Elder Fleet, we’ve seen almost none of that kind of fallout. The Minmatar Republic has had significant internal turmoil. They’ve had to undergo a complete reorganization of their government. But that was over other political issues. Other than the appointment in YC115 (2013) of a Tribal Chieftain, the actual story development of ‘so what’s going on with those millions of Starkmanir, and how are the Republic’s ongoing efforts to help them find their feet doing?’ has been all but non-existent.

The only thing CCP’s done lately that’s even come close to the level of personal engagement that went on then has been the death of Empress Jamyl. Jamyl showed up at live events where the Amarr Empress should show up. She talked to players. She recognized groups for their loyalty and devotion. As a result, people got attached. They got invested. When CCP killed her, people were jolted and upset. They were unsettled. Yes, the drifter attack resulted in a player tournament. But most of the players ignored the invasion of the Amarr Empire by an unstoppable alien menace with superweapons. That ‘event’, the Drifter incursions, saw maybe 50–100 people doing anything with it. 30 players, maybe, actually got involved to any significant degree.

Why? Automated system. As an automated system, it becomes all about time/effort vs tangible reward—loot drops. And there just wasn’t shit coming from the Drifters. That lackluster presentation could have been prevented with a larger Live Events team. Even just 2 people for each Empire would give CCP a stronger position. The entire team would plot out what the larger arcs would be for the game. Then each pair could dig in deep to produce the details to bring those stories to life in their faction. That would mean more than doubling the current size of the team. At least one person for each Empire should have the lore/story/events as their primary focus, as well. As it is, the events team is trying hard, but they’re stretched too thin to be able to do much without relying on the automated content.

Had there been more direct involvement from a larger event team, more could have been done. CCP live actors could have run the Imperial Navy fleets. They could have called for help from capsuleers over the incursion channel. Even just freaking talking to people in local would have helped. With that little feedback and interaction, the RPers would’ve embraced the Defense of the Throne Worlds even more . They would have had more of a sense of contributing—a sense of agency. That’s what CCP actually did in the build-up to the assassination of the Empress. For that, the faction-oriented players bought in. That even included nullsec faction groups like CVA. It’s the difference between going out and running a few ratting sites, and playing Mass Effect. More than that, though, it would have given the players a sense of being appreciated.

With an active, engaging event, players feel like they were part of the story. They’re not an afterthought, not observers. They’re not just ‘playing a game’. They’re doing things. They’re shaping the game, as sure as the blocs shape the game out in null. Those players tell their friends about the cool stuff the devs are doing. They talk about how a game that feels alive. They don’t talk about a game that feels like nobody bothers, where the devs used to do awesome stuff, but now? Except for a handful of people, nah, they just don’t care.

Which of those games do you want to play?

UPDATE: The original text of this article listed the Lazamo in 4-EP, not 3WE-KY, cuz the author missed the damned fight until like the 4th reinforcement fleet. Fortunately, someone else demonstrated that they do, indeed, Remember the Lazamo, and the text has been corrected.

(Author’s Note: This article grew out of a couple of comments on the Purity of the Throne article. This is why I don’t turn those long comments into short articles, Alizabeth. They just get longer.)

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