I feel a change comin' on

Well, now what's the use in dreamin'?
You got better things to do
Dreams never did work for me anyway
Even when they did come true

I was thinking about imminent changes in EVE Online, and I was reminded of Bob Dylan's cynical lyrics from his song, "I Feel a Change Comin' On". Before every new expansion, players' collective hopes run rampant, fueled by the CCP Games' marketing hype machine and rising torrent of enthusiastic pre-release dev blogs and forum posts. We hope for improved functionality, better gameplay, more options, new ships, cool modules, additional content - and more fun to be found in our chosen pastime.

And generally, CCP Games has delivered, albeit with a few stumbles along the way. (Just whisper "Incarna" into the ear of a dev at Fanfest, and watch them go into uncontrollable spasms - it's mean, but it's fun.) Regardless of what you may think of the quality of EVE Online at the moment, there's no doubt that the game has evolved and improved steadily over time. If you don't believe me, think back to what playing EVE was like a few years ago, and compare it to the greatly improved graphics, better integrated mechanics, improved usability and wider diversity of choices for players that are available in the game today. This is a principal reason why I continue to play EVE Online, five years after first giving it a try.

Yet, after every expansion, I hear players complain that the reality never quite lives up to the hype. I must admit I have felt this way myself. I had very high hopes for both Odyssey and Rubicon, but once they were released, I found them enjoyable but not quite as exciting or as engaging as I hoped they would be.

Before their respective releases, I speculated on the potential success of each of these expansions in prior posts, anticipating significant increases in player subscriptions and participation, but neither panned out that way. In fact, the general reaction to these expansions from the player base seemed to be something along the lines of: "Not bad - but meh."

As a group, we EVE Online players tend to be a retroactively phlegmatic audience. Many of us forget how good our game really is, despite CCP Games' efforts to impress us with each expansion.

Hail Kronos!

Today, CCP Games rolls out the newest expansion to EVE Online, Kronos. Once again, I feel excited, in anticipation of new features and new ships. And once again, I feel the usual hope about how this update will increase player interest in EVE Online.

And yet, at the same time, I feel this strong sense of déjà vu. I'm always excited about shiny new features and ships, and I always assume that everyone else will feel the same way. This time, I have to admit that while I like a lot of what Kronos offers, I am cynical about how it could attract a wave of new subscribers.

I'm most excited about the new ships. The Tech II variant of the Venture mining frigate, the Prospect, will be my go-to ship for gas mining in low-sec space, In addition to being able to fit a covert ops cloak, it's speedy and has more capacity.

The new Mordu's Legion ships - the Garmur, Orthus and Barghest - are just so stealth-bomberish and cool-looking that I must once again congratulate CCP Games art team on their terrific designs. They did an outstanding job with the Sisters of EVE ships in Rubicon, and the Mordu's Legion ships look equally amazing, but in a wholly different way. One of my highest priority tasks will be to collect of each of these, once Kronos goes online.

The new Mordu's Legion frigate, the Garmur - flat, black, and just plain cool looking.

The new Mordu's Legion frigate, the Garmur - flat, black, and just plain cool looking.

I like how CCP Games has set up the means for acquiring the Mordu's Legion ships. Most players will likely procure their blueprints from special spawns of NPC rats in low-sec asteroid belts. This provides a new reason for potential targets to wander into low-sec. I just hope that these special spawns aren't so rare that it becomes frustrating. I was excited about ghost sites in Rubicon, too, but they appear so seldom that I soon gave up looking for them. I have my fingers crossed that the frequency of Mordu's Legion NPC spawns do not suffer from the same malady.

Kronos includes a new set of ship balancing changes. On the whole, I think these are necessary and will be successful in revitalizing interest in certain ships, especially some oft-ignored pirate ships like the Succubus and Ashimmu. This is a good thing, generally, but I am less enthused about the changes to deep space transports, which get a bonus for overheating, a large fleet cargo bay, and the weird ability to fit the new medium micro jump drive - which no one will use because the spool-up time is so long that it can be easily scrammed and caught. I don't see people rushing to use DSTs after Kronos debuts. Perhaps if they had a bonus to halve the MMJD spool-up time, which would make it harder to catch, it could become an interesting hauler alternative in dangerous space. For now, I'll stick with my trusty blockade runners, which got some nice little buffs, for hauling in low-sec and 0.0.

Though I do not think most players realize it yet, the biggest changes in Kronos are to drones, which get some re-balancing also. I'm going to have to update my guide to drones in this blog, that's for sure, as there are a lot of little but very significant alterations to the status quo. For one thing, I think people will actually start to use Amarr drones as the preferred anti-shield tanking weapon. We'll hear no more talk of the general worthlessness of Amarrian drones, I suspect. We may also begin to see wider use of meta-level and navy faction drones as well, which get some nice buffs.

There are also a lot of little things in Kronos that will just make it nicer to use. Kudos to CCP Karkur and the rest of the team working on user interface improvements. The improvements in cascading-menu selection, color-coded broadcast messages, reload and repair icon progress indicators, among others, will all make interacting with the challenging EVE Online client more intuitive. The ability to control various sounds in the client is going to be very handy, especially if you multi-box several clients at once, as I do. And the new warp in/out visual effect is fun to watch - I don't think I'll tire of seeing it anytime soon.

The best little change in Kronos is the elimination of the frustrating loot spew mechanic in exploration sites. Thank you, CCP Games! I always hated that idea. I know this means we'll see a nerf to the value of sites, but I don't care. That click-fest requirement always drove me nuts.

The Boiling Frog

What's perhaps more interesting about Kronos is what is not appearing in this expansion, but instead is being delayed to the next one, Crius, which is expected on July 22nd. Specifically, all of the massive changes to industry and production, which I've commented upon in previous posts at length, have been delayed for further tweaking. This takes a lot of the impact out of Kronos, reducing it to a nice set of general improvements, but it also means that CCP Games is not going to rush a major revamp of a critical aspect of the game out the door before it is ready. I'm a little disappointed that we won't be seeing the massive industry changes in Kronos, but I'm encouraged that CCP Games decided to withhold it for further polishing.

And this is perhaps the biggest change coming with Kronos, though it is largely invisible to most of the player base: CCP Games has moved from two massive expansion releases per year to numerous smaller releases about every six weeks or so. This will give the devs more options without huge deadline pressures - if a new feature isn't ready, it can simply slide to the next release window. As long as each little expansion contains something of substance, I think this approach should help improve new feature quality. We'll know for certain if it was a wise move after Crius comes out in July - the play value of the industry overhaul will be the first true measure of the wisdom of this incremental development approach.

While smaller releases with greater frequency makes good practical sense, it does present a significant marketing problem for CCP Games. The degree to which they can generate excitement around a particular expansion will be greatly diminished. I expect that the volume of marketing noise around specific expansions will dwindle, and the marketing emphasis will change instead to a continuous low hum of messages about EVE Online's unique qualities - including its long-established track record relative to other MMOs.

This does not bode well for convincing the unwashed masses to try EVE Online in huge, sudden waves. It's unlikely that we'll be seeing any large swells of new subscribers inbound any more. Rather, it appears that CCP Games has decided instead to strive for long-term, slow and steady growth, by releasing smaller continual improvements, and by spreading marketing investment fairly evenly across numerous venues, instead of jam-packing new features and a corresponding hype machine in bi-annually concentrated expansion announcements.

The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing, but expect different results. The past practice of concentrated development effort in large expansions, with associated marketing promotions, has not produced big numbers of new subscriptions. In fact, the number of players joining and participating after each expansion has been somewhat erratic, with trends going up and down and the average numbers remaining fairly static - and in fact, some observers suggest that the number of subscriptions may actually have decreased lately. If CCP Games has decided on purpose to try to build the subscription base of EVE Online incrementally over time, that seems to be to be a saner strategy.

The danger, however, is that even though the game is constantly improving, each small release doesn't make a significant impact individually. The tired metaphor of the boiling frog seems apropos here - no one may really notice if the quality of EVE Online features improves slowly over time, rather than announcing them less frequently in big, dramatic blasts. It certainly represents a more challenging marketing problem, to be sure.

We EVE Online players may dream of cool Internet spaceship features, but we tend to take them for granted even when our dreams come true. What a difficult audience we must be for the developers and marketers at CCP Games.

Fly safe! o7