Unsure of what would become of it, I decided to try my hand at the 52nd installment of EVE Blog Banter, and tackle the following graph of concurrent logins to the tranquility server from the perspective of a rather freshly minted capsuleer.
You can find the full collection of blog banters here.
I’m not sure I’m even on time to the party, but here’s the graph:
Other Publishers’ Problems
While I may not have the most experience as an EVE player or blogger, I am a true believer in the wisdom a fresh perspective can bring.
Having played a cornucopia of bad online games over the past few years has led me to a pretty firm understanding of what is wrong with the majority of these current games. If I had to tease out a single thread, the fundamental problem would be a seemingly unavoidable story line most of these games seem to follow.
That storyline is one where the game slowly travels further and further down the line from crowded servers on release to an eventual loss of interest among veteran players who ultimately quit, and sees the remaining veterans now focused on how to replace lost playerbase by leveraging the game’s existing–and often flawed–infrastructure to support and nurture the repopulation of the game servers.
The problem with this all too common quandary seems to be that once you’ve lost it, you can’t get it back easily—“it” being people who actually want to play your game. Many new players have tried and failed to ingratiate themselves to the veteran players who are shouting from the rooftops about “low population woes,” and these same new players have failed to find anything more than a rocky perch they could not hold onto for very long. The majorities of both groups will soon get frustrated and quit. This “population death spiral” forms the basis for most of the economic problems major game producers have faced over the past decade.
EVE Is Different
CCP is different though, and so is EVE. Although it might be hard for some to believe, EVE is the exception to the above rule. The graph above shows us that that is the case, because it has plateaued rather than declining. That is to say that as EVE has seen its veteran player population remain stable or decline, it has conversely seen a sharp uptick in new player interest. This is evidenced in the graph I posted of active subscriptions in this post.
I will go so far as to argue that CCP’s design choices actually reflect intentions and willingness on their part to down-regulate the amount of time players spend within the game versus the meta-gaming that goes on outside of it. Skill queues are a good basic example. They demand of the player long term tenacity, which builds subscription base over time, but can also dissuade a player from spending more time within the universe than is necessary ( why play today at Gunnery III, when I could play in a week with Gunnery V? ). In short, skill queues are a simple explanation for how it is possible for EVE to be gaining subscribers, but not increasing total active logins: because mechanistically CCP has allowed the player to advance in absence of being logged in.
Clearly this is an intentional design decision, and one that appears to have been quite successful in maintaining a subscription model I might add. My point being, given the success of this mechanism, could we perhaps assume this is a design approach CCP has embraced elsewhere? For myself, I find this to be the case. Manufacturing, Station Trading, and Planetary Interaction are just three examples of highly rewarding activities that require little time spent logged in.
What Works for One
One thing that was blatantly obvious to me while writing the above two sections is how different the problems of other games were than EVE, and in conjunction with that, how different solutions needed to be in EVE. So I wanted to start at looking at what those other solutions were. As I mentioned, in other competitor titles a big part of a game’s successfulness is the “stickiness” factor for new and old players. It is frequently reasoned that old players leave due to a lack of end-game content, and new players leave due to a faulty new player experience. Producers and developers have responded in kind by making a large part of their focus and subsequent response center around these two issues.
The truth is that EVE is not immune to either of these factors, but it is much more sheltered from them simply because of a design focus that heavily reinforces “sandbox” style gameplay. As far as the new player is concerned, there has never been an easier time in New Eden to simply join the game and start shooting. The opening arc new players are fed through is overly generous. Organizations like Brave Newbies will give you a ship to pilot, a purpose to shoot someone or something, and ultimately encourage getting blown up as an organic part of learning the game.
I am going to file all of the above under the important question of why the simultaneous connections graph hasn’t gone down? Truly, I believe part of this analysis needs to look at the glass half full. CCP has actually done a good job keeping the fire stoked over all these years, considering the natural tendency of a game in this category is to lose players over time. The fact that the game has embraced new players, and added them in swaths really shows that CCP is aware of how vital these infusions are. It supports them with generous trials, retailer partnerships, and regular opportunities for discounts. Their referral program is part of the reason EVE has become one of the darlings of the reddit community.
So why hasn’t the graph ticked up?
I think the simplest answer I can give here is my theory that the “old EVE” is dying at the same rate the “new EVE” is growing. Veteran players don’t really seem to have much new content to show for themselves despite “new and exciting” changes being rolled out. The real end-game content in EVE is gaining and exercising political and monetary influence, and developers can’t due much once that game gets old. They are logging in less because there is less to log in for, but they continue to pay their subscriptions.
I am however not the expert on veteran players, so I will leave it at a theory and move on. I am however a new player, and predictably one who aspires to all the same things. If there is potential for an uptick, I am that potential. I’ll advance to my next topic, which is to get back to EVE’s fundamental design, and how potentially it is influencing whether or not certain curves tick up or down. I’m framing all of the following in the context of adding new players, and new player contributions to “quality time played.”
I mentioned earlier those concretions we can see in game design choices and overarching philosophy. Other evidence of this intentional design can actually be found when you look at how certain “economic ratios” are employed in the game. These ratios are the mathematical variance in price a player observes when he jumps from one tier (ship or module) to the next. You can see that this is already an integral part of how CCP presents choices to risk averse players. Different tiers of ships and their economic discriminators allow the player to systemically modify their exposure to risk at any point in time.
The brilliant illusion of EVE is that anything you are willing to work for can be taken away. The same however is also true for your enemies. This can either be a fact that lures people to this game, or makes them run the opposite direction. To use faction warfare as an example though, while we would love to believe in the “anything goes” possibilities it presents, the reality is that faction warfare it is a battlefield full of savvy players who carefully balance their risk vs. reward by primarily flying in groups or using smaller inexpensive ships fit in such a way that they can proactively bail out of an engagement before a loss occurs. There are exceptions, but as far as majorities go, this is where the lines have been drawn.
To the uninitiated, EVE is a world where new players are ripe for the picking, and everything a player can earn can be taken. Truly though, New Eden is a world of ship replacement programs. Where “blowing up” is a brave accomplishment even the greenest of newbies can now afford. It’s more likely for a new player to have their dignity taken than to suffer unrecoverable financial destitution. How much dignity does a newbie really have? I don’t believe that the outside world however grasps this concept, and it is precisely the management of this conception in potential players that will determine what direction the line moves next.
Getting Over Our Fear of Fun
If it isn’t obvious yet, I think this line can go up—way up. The main challenges to that I see are all what one might call “PR problems.” For starters, I believe if EVE took the approach of merely “injecting new blood” into the existing PVP climate, that line would actually go down. Existing “elite” PVPers that are already playing other games are the most fickle and hardest to attract. It is wrong to think that the most efficient means to expanding the EVE playerbase is to go after the people EVE would or could appeal to anyway.
The key is to figuring out how to draw new players into EVE on a superficial level, and get just enough traction there to keep them engaged while the more compelling facets of the universe can grab hold. In other games that “superficial” carrot is PVE, something that simply can’t work in EVE’s favor. For the most part what ultimately resides at the end of the stick for EVE is conflict, but this is where understanding the audience becomes especially important. EVE Online is a product that, to succeed, would need to appeal to a whole generation of gamers who have been indoctrinated into the MMO arena by a decade of ignorance—lackluster cookie-cutter clone games the MMO publishing industry has been shilling since before most young folks can remember. If you exclude EVE, that’s about the length of time since the world has seen a broadly successful full loot nonconsensual pvp title.
I mean it quite literally when I say that these folks have a fear of fun. Really it’s a fear of the unknown. If CCP as a company allows their potential customers to see the activity of hauling their goods out of lawless space as an insurmountable non-starter, then a quintessentially fun and novel challenge becomes bad game design in the mind of that customer.
But it’s not Bad Game Design
The issue is that a near perfect linear relationship between risk and reward IS good game design, and that is the most fundamental design tenet of EVE. It just depends on how you sell it. What this means in EVE terms is that as we travel through the different spheres of CONCORD influence, there are gradients of safety. “Don’t fly what you can’t afford to replace” is the mantra we so frequently repeat because it tugs at our most instinctual sensibility: that anything we have gained can be taken from us anywhere.
Sadly, that does not describe an intrepid journey the millions will clamor for. But it also betrays a truth I have come to know all to well. The foolish have the most to fear, certainly, but the shrewd will prosper. EVE is a game where preparation can equal protection. Safety is in and of itself a resource in this universe. It can be bought, sold, and rented. Fear can be obscured tactically with the likes of the aforementioned ship replacement plan. That mantra is our greatest fear, but to the smart player EVE is always a positive sum game. If you are willing to trade your time, you will find a way to make some proportionate ISK return, and do so in spades.
It is cultivating a new ideology of hope for fun rather than fear of loss that will drive that line north.
I mentioned before the poor player retention that plagues other titles. Perhaps what makes EVE truly unique is the effective two-pronged approach of in game mechanics that compliment the hard work new player organizations like EVE University have already been doing for a long time. If we the players continue to indoctrinate smart pilots into our game, the sky is the limit.