The Problem with Selling Futures

On his consistently excellent and highly recommended blog, Jester's Trek, CSM8 Vice-Chairman Ripard Teg has published an insightful analysis of the impact of the Odyssey expansion, which was released last summer. Last May, just before Odyssey's release, I posted some speculations about the potential success for that expansion, and predicted the following:

Will Odyssey increase the average number of daily log-ins?
Yes, I think it will. Odyssey should be at least a moderate success. Weighing the positives against the potential negatives, it shapes up to be a good expansion, and should draw more interest in EVE Online. 

Boy, oh boy - was I wrong.

According to Ripard's analysis, Odyssey has been a relative failure. The number of average logged-in EVE Online players is trending downward since Odyssey's release. There was about a month after Odyssey's debut where the numbers remained steady at about 34,000, but since then, players have steadily lost interest.

The message behind this trend is: CCP Seagull, we are disappoint. 

Last week's announcement of Rubicon, the planned winter expansion to be released on November 19, does not inspire me with hope that this trend will be reversed any time soon. There are some nice tweaks and gameplay enhancements planned in Rubicon, and potential for some novel experiences with some re-balanced and new ships, but that's about it. I suspect we'll see the same kind of log-in curve that we saw with Odyssey repeated for Rubicon. At best, I think that Rubicon may simply help EVE Online to tread water and keep the average daily log-in count around 30,000, where it has been since the summer of 2009 - four years ago. This is not a good thing.

Selling Futures is Easy

Early in my Real Life business career, I sold business applications for a large software company. It was good money, but it was a highly competitive business. Whenever a potential customer started to think about switching to another software provider, we employed a simple but effective strategy: we sold the customer on features of a future release. 

Selling futures is easy - you can say almost anything. Will the new software include features X or Y? Absolutely - that is our plan. Will it be able to do tasks A or B? Oh, most definitely we think it will. Will it slice, dice and make julienne fries? Count on it - we're sure it's going to be great.

The intent of this approach was to introduce enough "FUD" - fear, uncertainty and doubt - in the mind of the customer that they were willing to stick with the status quo, at least for a while. It's easy to make people worry about change, so this worked almost every time.

This is the feeling that I get whenever I hear CCP Seagull talking about "the grand future vision of EVE Online" - one that promises exciting control of the universe by players, and the opportunity to explore and colonize new space - someday. Is it worth waiting for?

Absolutely - that is our plan. Oh, most definitely we think it will. Count on it - we're sure it's going to be great.

Whenever I hear CCP Seagull discuss the future of EVE Online, I feel a sense of déjà vu. Maybe it's karma, coming back to haunt me for past sins.

Reversing the Tide

CCP Games is trying hard to show that they have a plan - a multi-year development direction for enhancement of EVE Online. If reports from members of CSM8 are to be believed, the plan is ambitious and exciting - but they are prevented by their non-disclosure agreements to provide us, the general player base, with any specific visibility on the details of CCP's intended direction.

That is why the first part of the formal announcement of Rubicon focused on CCP Seagull, EVE Online's Senior Producer, repeating almost verbatim the same visionary positioning that she delivered at Fanfest 2013, last April. It's important to continue to sell the future, so that players buy into the limited incremental improvements in the next expansion. And it seems to be working. I know my first reaction was: "Well, there's nothing major there, but they seem to be going in the right general direction. I'll take it." Most of the player comments in the official forum echo my sentiments.

But what will it take for CCP Games to get the average number of daily log-ins trending upward steadily again? I have a few ideas:

  • Make PvE dynamic - missions, complexes, Incursions and other forms of player vs. EVE gameplay need to be variable and more unpredictable, in order to make them challenging and interesting. When you have a site like EVE Survival, which spells out exactly how every mission will unfold and exactly what you need to do to defeat them - every single time - then something is wrong with the system. I remember when people were excited about branching options in epic arc mission campaigns, just because they might provide a little more variety. Mission scenarios should be variable, forcing players to fit their ships for more types of combat, like for PvP. Success criteria should be dynamic, within certain ranges by level of difficulty. If CCP were to revamp the PvE systems, especially for missions, that would provide some exciting new content for players to learn and master, in whole new ways.

  • Balkanize null sec - the current sovereignty structure, introduced with the Dominion expansion in the winter of 2009, enables official ownership of systems in null security space. It is based on the construction and maintenance of specialized structures. The result has been the formation of large multi-alliance coalitions owning large tracts of space. The redistribution of nullsec resources introduced in Odyssey gave rise to some large-scale wars, for awhile. But now a new status quo is beginning to emerge, once again making 0.0 space less than the lawless space it is supposed to be. The old Dominion system needs to be scrapped, and replaced with an alternative that incorporates much more limited supply lines and less ability to project power, thus replacing the huge alliance coalitions with smaller and more fragmented corporate states. The problem with null sec isn't only a lack of "farms and fields" to raid - it's the current structure of sov ownership as well.

  •  Promote home ownership - human beings naturally desire a safe place to call their own. In EVE Online, that is currently impossible. While Player-Owned Starbases (POS) provide corporate bases around moons, they are difficult and complex to establish, manage and maintain, to say the least. CCP has hinted about a revamped "modular POS" system that would be easier to construct and manage, and which could provide individual player-owned bases anywhere in space. The Depot mobile structure promised for Rubicon is a potential step towards this new model. If CCP can build on that foundation, it could provide the basis for each player to establish their own, defensible and expandable home in space - and the beginning of real colonization (see next bullet).

  •  Open Jove space, or other unexplored space, or both - CCP Seagull has teased that players may be able to boldly go where no one has gone before, "if they could only build the right kind of stargate". If the Jove are truly dead, as some speculate, then there is a whole new set of systems, laden with exotic advanced ships and technology (more Tech III, or even Tech IV, perhaps?), just waiting to be found, mapped, and conquered. The new Sisters of EVE faction ships to be introduced in Rubicon would be the perfect science vessels to chart this new space. But why limit exploration to only Jove space? What about other star clusters nearby? Of all the things that CCP could do to expand interest in EVE, giving players brand new and different space to conquer and take for themselves is probably the most alluring feature they could offer. This is the thing that made Apocrypha so great - the introduction of wormhole space made that the best and most successful expansion ever.

The Problem with Selling Futures

There are plenty of additional things that CCP could do to improve the game, of course. Revisit and complete development on Incarna avatar-based play: a.k.a, "walking in station". Developing space elevators and allowing players to visit planets. Add more faction and pirate ships (which is probably inevitable). Introduce ship crews to add a whole new dimension to the game. Revamp industry. Fix corporate management (which is a complete mess now - as a Director, I can assure you of this). And there are a thousand other cool and interesting things that could be done.

Rubicon appears to be a light appetizer of what eventually could become an outstanding meal. But if CCP wants to increase the number of players in EVE Online, and also increase the level of engagement of current subscribers, then they need to actually start delivering more substantive fare. The next course, the spring 2014 expansion, better not be yet another appetizer, lest people start asking, "Where's the beef?"

As I soon learned in my Real Life sales career, the problem with selling futures is that eventually, you have to actually fulfill your promises. Otherwise, you start losing customers - and very angry ones, too.

I don't think that we are quite to that point yet. But the numbers and trend lines speak for themselves. And the clock is ticking, CCP - the clock is ticking. 

Fly safe! o7