EVE Online's Biggest Challenge

I've been listening to the consistently well-executed and highly informative interviews of candidates for the upcoming tenth Council of Stellar Management (CSM), conducted by the CapStable podcast crew, with great interest. Even better, they have also assembled a knowledgeable panel of noted EVE-O-philes and pundits who are conducting a complementary series of roundtable discussions about the candidates - these are even more interesting than the candidate interviews themselves.

A Quick Tutorial on the CSM

If you are new to EVE Online, and you don't yet know what the CSM is, you only need to understand this: the CSM is a group of EVE Online enthusiasts elected each year by subscribers to represent player interests in CCP Games' plans for ongoing development of the game. Since the founding of the CSM nearly ten years ago, it has become an useful stakeholder in most, but not all, of CCP's development decisions. The CSM is unique among MMO games - no other game community has a similarly representative body.

While some CSM'ers and players complain that the Council has issues with uneven communications with CCP Games, there is little argument that the CSM has become a valuable sounding board and focus group for many devs. Thus, the CSM's level of influence has grown, especially over the last three years. This is why voting for the CSM is important for everyone who plays EVE Online.

Concerns about 0.0

Each of the CapStable CSM interviews follows a consistent series of questions, with some variations depending on the positions and interests of each candidate. One of the standard questions asked of every candidate is: "What do you believe is EVE Online's biggest challenge over the next year?"

It's a good question, and helps us to understand the priorities of each candidate. So far, the nearly universal response has been some variant of "Improving the sovereignty system in null-sec space."

Anyone who plays EVE Online regularly anticipates that 2015-2016 will be the Era of the Great Null-Sec Fix. CCP devs have been quite open about long-term plans to update how null-sec space works. There is an established team of developers, the Nullsec Working Group, focusing on this: CCP Scarpia, CCP Fozzie, CCP Ytterbium, CCP Rise, CCP Bettik, CCP Delegate Zero, CCP Masterplan and CCP Nullarbor, among others. EVE Online's Executive Producer, CCP Seagull, indicated that null-sec sovereignty mechanics are a development priority in an interview conducted by the Hydrostatic Podcast team just last week. In the latest CSM winter summit minutes, an entire session was focused on these prospective changes - and blocked from publication under non-disclosure agreement limitations.

And so, null-sec residents are collectively holding their breath, waiting for the pending changes to appear, with both dread and anticipation. The large null-sec political blocs have been promoting an "occupancy based" approach to sovereignty, a concept with many merits worth careful consideration. Regardless, CCP Games has not revealed their full intentions yet - at least, not publicly.

It's little wonder, then, that almost all of the people running for a position on CSM X would be primarily concerned about the importance of changes to null-sec space.

And it is indeed very important that CCP Games get the changes to sov mechanics right, or else they will disenchant a large segment of players who enjoy living and fighting in the outer regions of New Eden. That is indisputable. There is great pressure on CCP Games to make adjustments to 0.0 only in ways that enhance and uplift the quality of the gaming experience there - and they really only have one shot to do it well, lest they risk losing hordes of subscribers forever.

Nevertheless, the CSM candidates are wrong. Fixing null-sec is not EVE Online's biggest challenge. It's not even close.

EVE Online's Biggest Challenge

At last year's Fanfest, I attended a session presented by CCP Rise about the new player experience. It was refreshingly frank and revealing. He acknowledged that the initiation of new players into the harsh environment of New Eden was sub-optimal, without a doubt, and the result was that over half of new players were dropping out of the game after about a month.

No matter how you look at it, losing a majority of new players who try the game is an ugly statistic. It bodes very poorly for the future of EVE Online.

CCP Games' move last year from a bi-annual release schedule to more frequent releases, one about every six weeks, has had some positive effect on the average daily log-in numbers, but not so much that the game's subscription base is yet growing at an impressive rate. In fact, the average number of players logging in each day has hovered around the 30,000 figure for several years.

Now, imagine if CCP Rise and his team are successful at guiding new players towards richer experiences in their early days in New Eden, and they are able to cut the awful drop-out rate by half - from about 50 percent leaving after a month to around 25 percent. Further, for the 40 percent of new players who opt to play primarily solo or independent activities, many of whom get bored and leave after a while, imagine that half of this number are also successfully introduced to more engaging and rewarding experiences, encouraging them to stay subscribed as well. These two changes combined would produce an increased retention rate of 45 percent of new players joining EVE Online, and propel the average daily log-in numbers into sustained, double-digit growth rates.

With such an increase in new player retention, EVE Online could withstand even a massive departure of players from null-sec, who may very well feel disenfranchised and choose to leave no matter what kinds of changes CCP Games ultimately unveils. In fact, I sadly predict that no matter what CCP chooses to do in null-sec, a significant number of residents in 0.0 will not choose to adapt, and simply drop out of the game. Change is hard for most people - even if that change is good for them - and the most typical response to imposed change is to evade it, if possible.

But if a constant, vibrant stream of new players are joining us in New Eden, then any vacuum left in 0.0 would be filled quickly by players eager to try their luck with the new sov mechanics. The rapidly rising tide of new entrants into EVE Online would sustain the ongoing success of the game.

The new player experience affects everyone who plays EVE Online - a strong and healthy influx of new blood enriches every kind of space: high-sec, low-sec, wormholes, and null-sec. This is acknowledged by nearly everyone who served on CSM 9, including null-sec representatives.

Hug a Noob Today (So You Can Kill Them Later)

Many new players were encouraged to try EVE Online after the fantastic "This is EVE" video was released. According to some of the CapStable interviews with incumbents running again for CSM X, the initial indications show that the retention rate on this surge of new players has been good, although it's too early to tell if they will yet follow the typical trends and leave. I'm encouraged, however, by what I see from the player community to support and engage these new entrants in a welcoming and friendly way - and to collectively overcome the limits of the current, highly ineffective new player experience.

Imagine what kind of growth we might see in EVE Online if we were to combine these player-driven retention efforts with an improved and more engaging new player experience.

Taking good care of null-sec is important, to be sure, but it is not EVE Online's biggest challenge. Taking good care of our noobs, in whatever kinds of space they choose to fly in, is far more critical to the future success - and perhaps even the survival - of EVE Online.

Fly safe! o7