2013-12-20

Stay Awhile and Listen: Growing the EVE Population with a Good Story

Some of EVE's perpetual zeitgeist is currently swirling around the topic of New Players. Getting them. Keeping them. Breaking into demographics only thinly represented in-game at the current time.
I want to talk about it a bit.

Welcome to the Grinder

I think it's fair to say New Eden isn't the most welcoming place. One of the first developer quotes I became aware of after I started playing went something like this:
"EVE isn't a game set in a grim, dark future. EVE is that grim, dark future."

I read this, grinned, and repeated it to my gaming friends. None were as amused by it as I was. Three years later, it's become clear I'm someone who's wired to enjoy the game that EVE is... and that what it is doesn't immediately appeal to the majority of gamers out there. Many try it - some more than once - but for most it just doesn't stick.

Why?

More to the point, how does CCP fix it?

The Problems

Swing a dead cat around the EVE blogosphere and you'll hit a half-dozen explanations as to why player uptake is so low.


The learning curve joke is funny, marginally true, but I don't think is a (or at least the) real problem - lot's of MMOs are complicated, if we're quite honest. My wife and I have been playing Lord of the Rings for seven years and we still have to call each other over to peer at a new item and try to figure out if it's actually an upgrade for the character in question. I'm a bit of a spec/fitting/stats nerd, and I still avoid some of the derived stats in that game.

[Melee Offense Rating = ((1190/3) * Enemy's Level * %) / (1 - %)]
... and it does what, exactly?
The players, if I'm going to be completely honest, make the game harder to call home, either because many actively drive off new players, are casually dismissive of a newcomer's struggles with the game, or simply don't care and ignore anyone not in their corp/alliance/whatever. I've long since gotten used to it - I self-motivate just fine, thanks - but I freely acknowledge EVE's players don't do the game any favors when it comes time to attract new blood; many take a real pride in being unrepentant bastards, and that can be pretty hard to swallow.


Still, this can be overcome if you manage to find a group to be part of in the game. MMOs are social - even EvE (especially EvE, really - you can't PvP if you can't find someone else to play with). If you can't make some kind of social connection - put down roots in some way - odds are good you'll leave. Now, here's a thing: it's not actually harder to put down roots in Eve than it is in any other MMO.

The thing that almost all MMOs have in common, however, is this: a new player is extremely unlikely to put down roots during a 14-day free trial.

In other words, until the roots actually take, you need to keep the player logging in simply for the enjoyment of playing the game itself.

And that's where EVE falls down.

First Day In the Sandbox?

Now, don't get me wrong: I love the way New Eden works. I love the self-determination. I love the personal projects and goals. I love that it's all up to me, and (although I grumble) I even love that other players can put my stuff at risk and influence when and why I log in. However.

All that stuff - that self-determination, those personal projects, and the effect I want to have on the landscape of New Eden and Anoikis - none of that actually happens until and unless I start giving a damn about the game - until I put down roots.


Very very very few MMO players new to EVE will immediately start formulating plans and goals for themselves when confronted with the blank sheet of paper that is New Eden. I don't know what the percentage is, but I know a really easy way to figure it out:
  • Solve X, where X is all MMO players.
  • Solve Y, where Y is all EVE players, today.
  • Y/X = Rough percentage of MMO playerbase who will start making plans in EVE before they've made any social connections.
In other words: the players who find Eve compelling enough to start sandboxing from day one are already playing the game. Everyone else looks at this star map:


... which is approximately half the total number of systems in EvE, once you count wormhole space...

And just say to heck with it.

So what do you do?

The trick here is not to tell every new player to join EVE University, Brave Newbies, or Red vs. Blue. That's been done (and is being done) and it's not making much of an impact. The trick is to keep new players messing around with the game long enough to get roots down with the people, and there's a really decent way to do that that EVE isn't using.

Better PvE.

Yeah yeah, I know. PvE is boring, lacks challenge, blah blah blah.

But consider this.

There are a LOT of VERY SUCCESSFUL "theme park" MMOs out there in the world. Some of them (like Wizard 101 and other Kingsisle titles aimed at kids, with very tight social controls) are pretty much only successful based on their game elements, not their social elements.

There are VERY FEW (maybe only one) moderately successful pure sandbox MMOs.

Are those themepark MMOs better than Eve? I don't think so. Different, yes, but not better. So what's the difference? How do they snag those big player populations?

They provide interesting content for (at least) long enough to get the players attached to the game. I believe that's the thing Eve needs to do to grow their playerbase.

I'm not talking about becoming a themepark - I am talking about making use of the rich lore of the setting as something other than wiki-filler.

Market Research

I came to this shocking conclusion after talking to my wife. Once upon a time (probably out of a desire to see more than the back of my head on nights I was playing) she tried out EVE. As with most players who tried it, it didn't stick, and before I started writing this piece, I asked her why. Specifically, I asked her what about the game would have needed to be different to get her to stick around. There were a few answers that weren't especially useful (the genre itself doesn't appeal to her very much), but the main thing was this:

There wasn't anything for her to do.

Yes, EVE vets, go on and have your knowing, dismissive chuckle: of course there's an infinite number of things to do in EVE. You're right, and you're very clever. We got it.

Now shut the fuck up for a second.


Pretend, if you're able, that you're a new player who doesn't know anything about Eve or New Eden. You look at that star map up there, and realize that every one of those little points of light is a system, and in each system is anywhere from 0 to hundreds of players, all doing things; 0 to dozens of stations, all full of agents; 0 to dozens of asteroid belts, all waiting for mining; 0 to thousands of ships, all waiting to to be shot. And you ask "What do I do?"

And someone says "Anything you want."

To use a writing analogy, that is one HELL of a blank page staring at you.

And, in all seriousness: why bother? I mean, why run missions, or mine, or anything?

"To make ISK."

"But... why?"

"To buy new ships."

"But... why?"

See, if you don't have something you care about in the game - some kind of root system digging in - everything that EVE's infrastructure is geared to support is utterly meaningless. It's a machine that only runs if you care about it.

So you have to get a new player far enough along to care.

Sure, the tutorials are fine - they teach you how to play the game (basically) - but they don't teach you how to give a shit about the game.

For that, you need a story.

The Current Missions Are Not Stories

With very few exceptions, there are no real stories within the missions of New Eden. And to be fair, that's not what the current mission system in New Eden is for: it exists to introduce ISK and resources into the economy, not engage players' minds and imagination. There are minor events that begin and end within the mission itself. There are jokes, and sometimes punchlines. But there are few - damned few - stories (only the epic arcs, and only barely even then - even the best aren't very memorable), and stories are the connective tissue that hold a game together long enough for a player to care - to stay.

This is what EVE needs to grow the player base: connected stories. Not to create a generation of carebears, but to get all kinds of players invested in the game.

Think about that star map above. Drill down into it and look at a just a single region.


It's full of stars...

Sinq Laison is important in Empire space, right?

Why? Your answer cannot include any mention of markets or player industry.

What's the region's story? What's going on there that isn't going on anywhere else? What can you as a god-like capsuleer do to affect that?

I very much doubt there is an answer to the first two questions (if there is, maybe only two lore-devs at CCP headquarters know), and I know that the answer to the last questions is "No."

But... shouldn't there be answers to those questions? Shouldn't there be an easy, accessible, new-user-friendly way of finding those answers out - of being told those answers even if the new player didn't know to ask?

Let's break it up more. Here's the same map, with the region broken up by constellation:


Taste the Rainbow

That's something like fourteen constellations, each made up of at least a half-dozen star systems. And of those, only one of them (Algintal) KIND OF has a story going on (if you count COSMOS missions) accessible to the players, if they know which third-party web sites to dig into for advice and walk-throughs.

The rest? The other thirteen constellations? No story. None.

What If...

What if every Empire-held constellation had a story? Nanite Paste production run amok on a previously habitable world. Serpentis drug cartels making in-roads in a largely domestic backwater area with an outmatched police force. A politically well-connected young governor that no one can touch, but who desperately needs to be taken down for the heinous crimes she commits with impunity.

What if the people there were just waiting for a capsuleer who would stay awhile and listen?

What if they sent a message to every capsuleer that came through their constellation (a pop-up option that can be disabled, obviously), asking for help and telling them where to dock up for information, and no one ever took them up on it... until you came along.

Leave all the current missions alone, and put in these constellation-specific storyline agents that have to be got through in a specific order and otherwise follow the rules for those once-in-16-mission missions.

What if players had the opportunity to change things, even small things - even just thank-you eve-mails from people in that constellation the next time you come through... or months later... or years later. Some decorations to mark the story - mementos, whatever.

What if you could change sides? Take a political powderkeg and light a match that leaves the area reeling and you making off with a big payoff and a new set of masters. Turn on the locals and side with the pirates - tank your standings with the Caldari government but double it with Mordu's Legion...

What if you could play for months, just exploring each constellation of each region, seeing what was out there, what's going on... what the story is...

... talking with other players about it. Making up crazy theories connecting the industrial espionage in Everyshore and the underground slavery ring in Fror...

Making friends. Putting down roots.

Sticking around.

What if.
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