Eroding the Learning Cliff

Since its early days, more than a decade ago, EVE Online has cultivated a reputation for being hard to learn and difficult to master, by design. In fact, CCP Games proudly proclaimed this as an advertising tagline, "EVE is hard", in marketing campaigns.

In the past, CCP Games actively promoted EVE Online as a hard game, and not for everyone - the result being that some potential players were likely scared away.

EVE Online's challenging reputation has always intimidated typical gamers. And for those who bravely downloaded the client, they were greeted only with a short video and then tossed into a tedious and heavily text-based tutorial system that was tough to navigate and a chore to endure, even after several incremental improvements by CCP Games.

It has been a long-established joke in the EVE Online community that while many multi-player online games have a significant learning curve, our beloved space game confronts players with a sheer learning cliff, which seems designed to weed out the faint of heart and the uncommitted as rapidly and as punitively as possible.

The relative difficulty of EVE Online - the "learning cliff" - has become an established meme.

CCP Rise spoke of this problem frankly and openly in a revealing presentation during Fanfest 2014. He described the principal challenge of new player retention - about half of all new players drop the game in their first month - and how an improved NPE could help to stem that outward tide.

The Tutorial Menace

An excellent examination of the inherent problems with EVE Online's NPE can be found in a new podcast, The Learning Cliff, which is following the adventures of a player engaging with EVE Online for the first time. I cannot recommend this podcast highly enough. While listening to the adventures of the novice Ruskeydoo as he attempts to surmount the difficulties of EVE Online, even under the patient tutelage of the experienced Rashabar Zemayid, I find myself alternately chortling and cringing. It's surprisingly enlightening and entertaining, even for experienced EVE Online players.

If nothing else, The Learning Cliff provides a case study of all the things that go horribly wrong with the old-fashioned, linear tutorial system, which assumes that players will docilely follow the defined thread of lessons provided by Aura, the tutorial agent. It also shows how much the current NPE emphasizes mechanics at the expense of explanatory color and background. In episode 9, Ruskeydoo begins to ask some critical lore-related questions. Are all capsuleers inherently evil? Why do the empires allow dangerous capsuleers to exist? The tutorial provides few answers, leading to his continued bafflement and confusion.

After listening to The Learning Cliff, it's very easy to see why so many new players give up so quickly on EVE Online.

A New Hope

At Fanfest 2015 a couple weeks ago, I attended a discussion session about recent changes in the new player experience (NPE) in EVE Online. Team Pirate Unicorns, the group of CCP Games developers who focus on improving NPE, talked about what they are doing to make it easier for new players to understand the game - and start having fun - faster in EVE Online. Their goal is to improve the retention rate of new players, converting more of these into ongoing subscribers.

I wrote about the highlights of that breakout session in an article for Crossing Zebras. (Also see Sugar Kyle's quick summary here.) Team Pirate Unicorns has made progress in improving NPE in numerous ways, including:

  • Adding pop-up tooltips with context-sensitive help
  • Incorporating a consistent game notifications system
  • Upgrading the star map, and integrating the system map within it
  • Adding new player landmark sites in starter systems
  • And many other small changes—such as starting a new player in a ship in space, instead of in a station, to get players engaged faster

But the most significant change is the addition of a free-form tutorial system called "Opportunities" that points out different play options to new players, introduced in their changing context of engagement within EVE Online.

The new Opportunities system prods players to try different aspects of EVE Online gameplay, without forcing them through a linear, inflexible and text-heavy tutorial.

The Opportunities system avoids many of the problems with the old hard-wired tutorials, and instead helps players to discover aspects of EVE Online more naturally, as they are playing the game. The Opportunities system simply points out different game play options, and provides encouraging nudges, with minimal text, to engage with different game mechanics. CCP's initial tests have been encouraging, and as a result, they are expanding the Opportunity system to encompass more aspects of the game. Eventually, it could replace the tutorials altogether.

Team Pirate Unicorn's incremental improvements in the NPE, and in particular, the development of the more responsive and reflexive Opportunities system, are helping to erode the steepness of EVE Online's learning cliff. I'm encouraged by what I see, so far, and over the next year, I suspect that we'll see new players guided gently through a broad range of options in the game. The end result should be a subtle but sustained increase in new player retention.

However, as much of an improvement the Opportunities system represents, I do not think it goes far enough. Further, there are still significant obstacles to new player retention that can't be solved by CCP Games, no matter how brilliantly they develop NPE features.

The Veterans Strike Back

Many of us who overcame EVE's learning cliff have become part of the NPE problem. Too many veterans actively resist CCP Games' efforts to simplify aspects of the new player experience.

For years, many experienced players derived great mirth from the poor souls who failed to absorb the harsh lessons of survival in New Eden, watching them fall unceremoniously into the abyss of non-subscription. Congratulating themselves on their higher level of perseverance and superior intellect, "bittervets" proudly displayed their learning scars as a badge of honor, and belittled those who sought an easier path.

A few people saw the problem and did something about it. Morning Maniac founded EVE University, and other organizations have since arisen to embrace and support the developmental needs of new players - RvB, Brave Newbies, OUCH and others.

Despite these laudable efforts, I'm always surprised at the legions of veteran players who react negatively whenever CCP suggests changes to make EVE Online more new player friendly. The introduction of the "safety button" in 2012 produced some classic forum rage posts from grizzled players, who complained that CCP was "dumbing down EVE". The recent change to provide an optional block to intra-corporation aggression generated a huge amount of consternation from veterans, who said the change made EVE "too safe". My recent article on Crossing Zebras about the possible elimination of character attributes and neural remaps produced similar tirades. I was even invited to debate the idea at length in an episode of the "Legacy of a Capsuleer" podcast.

I understand where this mentality comes from. Even though I try to support new players in EVE Online whenever I can, as a veteran with more than five years of experience, I find that my natural reaction to proposed simplifications in game mechanics is consistently negative, at least initially. After all, I had to overcome the old mechanics - why should new players have it any easier? And isn't that part of the appeal of EVE Online - the challenge of mastering it?

Only after some thoughtful reflection do I consider the possible value of improving the experience of novice players, balanced against what legacy features might be lost by veterans. I admit, however, that balanced perspective is not always my first reaction to change - and this is not inconsistent with what I see from many other veteran players.

Though some players would deny it, CCP Games is remarkably responsive to protecting the interests of veteran players. They see long-term subscribers as loyal customers, and rightly so. As a result, they are always torn between protecting the status quo, which favors the veteran mindset, and introducing changes to encourage the entry of new players, who represent new revenue for CCP Games. Veteran players know this, and they sometimes use CCP's dilemma to collectively, perhaps even unconsciously, resist the introduction of changes to EVE Online - changes that might encourage new players to remain in the game.

However, since the introduction of the six-week development and release cycle last year, CCP Games have become emboldened about introducing new-player-friendly features at a more accelerated pace. Whether we like it or not, the pendulum between preserving veteran interests and supporting new player interests is definitely swinging with increased momentum towards NPE.

The Attack of the Newbies

While the Opportunities system represents a major improvement in the quality of the new player experience in EVE Online, I do not think it goes far enough to provide an environment that maximizes the conversions of trial accounts into subscribers.

Last summer, The Mittani wrote a very interesting post on the poor state of the new player experience in EVE Online, in which he wrote:

Eve's newbie experience (the 'NPE') is notoriously awful. The most common newbie interaction with the game is to load Eve up, look around confusedly, and uninstall it to go play something actually fun, all within the first five minutes. Eve came out in 2003 and the NPE has been a goddamned disaster the whole time.

When I was with EVE University, we heard far too often about new players getting killed when they undocked to run the tutorial missions. While abusing new players in career agent systems is considered a major offense by CCP Games, it happens more often than it should. A wily predator can easily convince a new player to open a jetcan to get offered ammo or other "free stuff", thus making the new player a suspect and a technically legit target. This is a symptom of new players undocking without understanding the nuances of Crimewatch - they are completely unprotected against players with more expertise.

To create a safe harbor for new players, The Mittani suggested opening a reserved "Jovian newbie zone" - a space maintained separately from the rest of New Eden. In this zone, they could run tutorial missions, protected from the predatory instincts of unsympathetic players looking for easy kills.

It's uncanny how similar The Matrix's population and EVE Online's capsuleers appear...

It's uncanny how similar The Matrix's population and EVE Online's capsuleers appear...

I like this idea a great deal, but I would go one step further. I would make at least some of the new player experience and tutorial missions operate as a simulation, inside an in-game virtual space - think of The Matrix inside EVE Online (or, for you EVE lore enthusiasts, a virtual reality similar to a Sleeper construct). This provides the opportunity for new players to learn how to operate their ship in a completely controlled and safe environment, with no direct interference from other players.

The user interface could be simplified in these simulator-bound early missions, with more complex features added as the player's knowledge increases.

Also, learning to fly spaceships in a simulated environment is consistent with the lore of EVE Online - it presents less problems to the legacy lore than what The Mittani suggested, while at the same time, accomplish the same purpose.

After completing the basic simulator missions, a new capsuleer could then undock into the "real" world of New Eden with a full understanding that they do so with some scary players waiting for them out there, with all the potential consequences known.

Should we take a cue from the Sleepers, and start new capsuleers in their own virtual world construct?

Should we take a cue from the Sleepers, and start new capsuleers in their own virtual world construct?

I've seen some veteran players (ironically, they are usually members of the ganking community) argue that keeping new players separate would backfire, and that more new players would quit before they ever experienced the joy of encountering another pilot. They argue that player interaction is what keeps new players in the game. I would argue that a more controlled and protected NPE could actually help to encourage a larger proportion of players to join corporations and begin interacting with the community, if part of that experience includes a lesson that describes the benefits of joining a player corporation, how to do so, and what they could expect from teaming up with others for a common cause.

Throwing unknowing innocents into random interactions with likely hostile veterans is no way to welcome new players to EVE Online. That is what is happening today, and the poor results  speak for themselves.

Revenge of the Lore

Human beings love stories. A good story entertains and enthralls us. And while the main story of EVE Online is made by the players, it happens in the context of the lore of New Eden - a world as rich as any developed in science fiction.

I think CCP is missing an opportunity to use the rich lore of EVE Online to draw new players into the atmosphere of the game. Recall the previous example of Ruskeydoo from The Learning Cliff podcast - after learning some of the basic flight mechanics, he began to ask why capsuleers exist. What motivates them? What are their goals, and what obstacles do they face?

Ashterothi, of the Hydrostatic Podcast, suggested in an interview that the initial NPE could be more cinematic and plot-line driven, in order to explain the background of the story and the player's role in it. He envisions a series of missions designed to illustrate the potential paths a capsuleer might take, culminating in a giant fleet fight between two warring empire factions.

This fits well within the idea of providing these missions in a virtual world, instead of in "real" space. How many people read about the bloodbath of B-R5RB, or saw the "This is EVE" video, and wanted to experience a giant space battle themselves, only to be disappointed by the rather tame and undramatic NPE in a starter system? I suspect that the majority of those people decided not to subscribe, unfortunately.

We all want to see how a good story ends. CCP would be well served to bear that in mind as they consider development of the new player experience. Get new players involved in the story, and they are more likely to want to remain a part of it.

Return of the Players

There is one last aspect of the NPE that is largely beyond the control of CCP Games, and yet has already been proven to be one of the most effective aspects of retaining new players and convincing them to subscribe - the efforts of the EVE Online community to embrace those players and make them feel welcome.

CCP Seagull commented on this during the Fanfest 2015 keynote address, acknowledging that the "adopt a newbro" outreach to new players, whose curiosity was aroused by the ultra-successful "This is EVE" video, made a difference. That huge surge of interest was greeted by a plethora of initiatives from many individual veterans as well as from established alliances and corporations.

Veteran players volunteered to help in the Rookie chat channel. They gave away ships and modules and advice to new pilots. They directed them to new-player-friendly corporations for help. They provided resources and information and explanations. They ran open fleets. They provided special events, like free-for-alls and races. And much more.

As I was listening to episodes of The Learning Cliff, it struck me that if not for the patient guidance of Rashabar Zemayid, the novice Ruskeydoo would probably have given up long ago. Indeed, any player who tries to overcome EVE Online's daunting orientation entirely by themselves is likely to be overwhelmed by the experience. Only with the support of current, experienced players do newbros stand a chance of surmounting the learning curve.

CCP Games can only do so much to improve the NPE. The rest is really up to the rest of us who are already flying comfortably in New Eden.

Hug a newbie today. It makes a difference.

Fly safe! o7