Balancing stones

Density, Depth and the Future of EVE Online

 

Former CSM member and ex-roboblogger, Ripard Teg, recently posted an analysis of the numbers of logged-in players on EVE Online on reddit, and the trend is not encouraging. Over the last year, the average logged-in player count has declined about 30 percent. In a Crossing Zebras article, Tarek Raimo explained that this drop does not indicate that “EVE is dying”. Rather, players are merely in a lull period, anticipating the full implementation of Fozziesov. Further, Tarek points out that recent changes in the game that discourage the use of multiple alt characters may also be affecting average player log-in counts.

Other EVE Online players, however, suggest different explanations. On his EVEOGANDA blog, Rixx Javix, leader of the Stay Frosty pirate corporation, posted two provocative editorials about the increasing complexity of EVE Online, and how this creates disincentives for new players to join and stick with the game. He also faults the state of the new player experience (NPE). According to CCP Rise in a recent reddit post, the recent revamp of the NPE, which introduced an opportunity-based learning system in favor of the old, linear tutorials, has not met player retention expectations.

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Increasingly, EVE Online players are growing skeptical of the value of new feature additions, saying the game is already too complex. Former CSM member Progodlegend (a.k.a, “PGL”) responded to Mukk Barovian’s recent call for the implementation of player-controlled ship crews in a Crossing Zebras article with, “[T]he game doesn’t need to be more complicated than it is already”. In the aforementioned reddit post, CCP Rise recognized players’ requests for removing attributes from the game, saying “…[W]e agree. [We] discussed removing them…awhile back, and it’s still something we are very interested in.”

Has EVE Online’s complexity made the game too inaccessible to new players? Have the increasing insertions of new features, especially since the initiation of a more frequent release cycle, become an obstacle to retaining players? Should CCP Games now strip away and simplify features in order to reverse the tide of decreasing player log-in counts?

The Swing to Simplicity

One of EVE Online’s greatest strengths is also its most pronounced weakness: the immense breadth of the game. EVE Online is big by design. CCP created the star cluster we play in, New Eden, to be expansive with more than 8,000 systems in known and wormhole space. There are dozens of ship types, hundreds of ship modules and an infinite number of ways to fit them. There are countless ways to play in a completely open-ended environment where emergent player actions generate almost all of the outcomes, and the victory conditions are left up to every individual player.

The sheer scope of EVE Online is both its most attractive quality and most off-putting defect. It is very easy to feel overwhelmed when first starting the game. Even veteran players struggle with learning new features and adapting to changes as they are introduced. It’s easy to see why more players are now calling for some simplification of game mechanics or for removal of seldom-used features altogether.

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CCP Games has become more sensitive to this issue. They removed the Teams feature from industry mechanics when they discovered that very few players used them. They have focused more developer time on small improvements to the user interface to make the game more accessible and easier to play. In fact, some of these small user experience improvements have proven to be some of the most popular features coming out of CCP’s more rapid release cycle.

However, it seems to me that many players, and perhaps some developers at CCP Games, are confused about the relative value of simplicity over complexity. As the average log-in counts show, making things easier does not automatically guarantee an increase in usage, nor does it necessarily translate into higher numbers of new players and subscriptions.

Density and Depth

This confusion stems from a fundamental misunderstanding: the difference between density and depth in the player experience. For example, players often criticized the old tutorial-based NPE because it relied on “walls of text” to convey important information. It threw a lot of words at the user in concentrated blobs, making it difficult for new players to take it in all at once. This is a perfect example of high density getting in the way of comprehension and internalization. The tutorial-based NPE is like dumping a bucket of water on top of a sponge in that most of the water isn’t absorbed – it just splashes off the sides of the sponge.

A certain amount of density is good. If something is too easy to master, we don’t feel any reward or sense of accomplishment in doing so. But that doesn’t mean more density is better. There needs to be a balance between difficulty and utility to make the effort satisfying.

Team Size Matters recognized this problem and developed the opportunity-based NPE as a better alternative. It provides information about game mechanics organically and in smaller bits, making it much easier for new players to understand. The opportunity-based NPE is designed to make learning EVE Online easier by dripping information into players’ brains in readily absorbable amounts, but the results so far have not yet met expectations in higher retention rates, a fact which CCP Rise acknowledged. Some players are even counseling novices to forgo the new opportunity system in favor of the old-style tutorials while warning them to do so at a deliberately measured pace.

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I hope that CCP Rise and Team Size Matters have recognized the simple deficiency in the initial release of the opportunity-based NPE. The system itself is working correctly. It has reduced density in the transmission of information to new players, but it lacks enough depth to fulfill new player expectations. What novices want is the ability to understand game mechanics fully, but they also want this information presented to them in easily digestible servings. At present, the opportunities system feels like little more than light hors d’oeuvres, not a multi-course meal. Stretching out the density of the old tutorials over a series of opportunities is the right way to go, but currently, opportunities just don’t go quite far enough. Sarin Blackfist suggests that opportunities should point at relevant career agents, or vice-versa, to provide both sufficient depth and density to players who want to master essential game mechanics.

The problem with EVE Online’s accessibility isn’t that the game has too many complicated features. It’s that many of those features do not adequately balance the values of density and depth to provide a consistently rewarding player experience. They either require absorbing too high of an initial density of information to use properly, or they lack sufficient depth to keep them interesting beyond the initial exposure.

An Example of Density-Depth Balance

A good example of a well-balanced feature in EVE Online is the in-game market. Once players understand the market interface, which is not difficult to learn, and how to place buy and sell orders, they can use the system at whatever level they choose with commensurate rewards associated with deeper levels of mastery.

The initial density of learning market game mechanics is relatively low, yet the potential depth is considerable. Players can train skills over time to increase the volume and types of trading they can do. As they gain more experience, they can eventually develop into sophisticated market traders if they so desire. Most players choose not to do this, opting instead to use the market to fulfill their immediate transactional needs. Becoming a master market manipulator is not a requirement for success in EVE Online though it is certainly one path to amassing wealth.

Few people complain about the difficulty or complexity of using EVE Online’s market. The inherent balance between density and depth in that feature is the reason why.

Implications of Insufficient Depth

When density-depth balance is lacking, however, players will complain about the experience or ignore it altogether. Such was the case with Teams, introduced with the Crius industry revamp. The intention of Teams was to provide a counterbalance to higher costs in systems with a lot of industrial activity. But few players ever bid on or used Teams, so CCP withdrew the feature.

At the time, I complained that the problem was not with the concept of Teams, but with the lack of depth in its implementation. In practical terms, Teams were not much fun to bid on, because the interface for them was too dense for players to use easily. It was a good idea but poorly implemented. I offered several suggestions for building out the design for the Teams feature into a complete system that reduced density and provided more depth. It’s my hope that one day CCP takes another look at Teams, and re-introduces them as a well-balanced feature with sufficient depth to make them both useful and interesting.

Likewise, CCP now wishes to drop character attributes from the game, citing it as a useless complexity that only confuses new players. We have discussed the pros and cons of this idea in Crossing Zebras before, concluding that the problem with attributes isn’t that they are a bad idea, but that they lack sufficient depth in their current incarnation to be an engaging feature. In their current form, attributes lack both density and depth, making them a good candidate for removal though I would prefer to see them redeveloped into a more robust and fully realized feature.

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I share the same frustrations with much of EVE Online’s player-versus-environment (PvE) content, finding it to lack sufficient depth to keep it engaging.

For example, mining is notoriously boring, and over the years, its depth as a feature has actually been reduced by CCP as a result of the effects of ship rebalances. The initial density of the mining feature has likewise been reduced, with an easier level of entry through the introduction of the Venture though that is probably a good thing. However, the simplistic mechanics of mining have not changed in years and are in serious need of some love and attention by CCP developers. The mining profession as a whole needs a lot more depth. In the past, we’ve heard hints of team-based ring mining mechanics from some CCP developers. This would be a very welcome enhancement to what is currently considered little more than an in-game chore by too many players.

On the other hand, I have been somewhat encouraged by CCP’s efforts to improve mission-running in the game. While the initial density of understanding required for mission-running has remained low, CCP did introduce more depth by improving NPC AI, providing more diversity in the types of missions (e.g., incursions, ghost sites, burner missions), increasing the likelihood of anomaly escalations and most recently, by introducing Circadian Seekers and Drifters. If only the core mission-running system could offer better variety by providing procedurally generated missions, then you’d have a feature with nearly infinite depth and a good balance in density. I suspect that CCP is working on this kind of capability now – at least, I certainly hope so.

Optimism for Structures

At Fanfest earlier this year, CCP Ytterbium described the plan for structures. It is a grand design, covering everything from small mobile deployables all the way up to massive player-built citadels.

What excited me most about the plans for structures is that they appear to balance both density and depth very well. It is a very scalable design. CCP plans to provide easy entry-level access to this feature while also giving it depth, enabling players to eventually build valuable bases for themselves or their corporations with a lot of useful functionality.

Compared to the nearly impenetrable density of learning to establish and use player-owned starbase (POS) towers and outposts, structures promise to be a dramatic improvement. POSes represent a very poor balance between density and depth, while the intent of structures appears to reduce density while increasing depth considerably. For this reason alone, I am convinced that they will be a tremendous success and very popular.

The Future of EVE Online

So how does balancing density and depth help the player base of EVE Online to grow? I believe that eliminating features or simplifying game mechanics is not the answer. Instead, the right question to ask is: how do we improve accessibility to all of the possible choices in EVE Online by reducing initial density while stretching the depth of each of those options to make them more scalable, engaging and enjoyable over a longer period of time?

Any feature that has too high a density of information or skill required will be generally out of reach of most players, no matter how lucrative or engaging that feature may be. In this regard, CCP has made great strides in reducing the initial density of features over the last few years. The system scanner, simplification of probing and the opportunity-based NPE are all examples of this though some veterans may complain that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of oversimplification.

I can think of a few features that would benefit from some tweaking to their initial density: advanced and exotic manufacturing methods, black operations, corporations and alliance management, bounty hunting and some elements of faction warfare. Generally speaking though, I think CCP has done a thorough job in bringing the density level of features to a more accessible level.

Where I do think veterans have a lot of room to complain is about the depth of features, many of which would benefit greatly from a concerted development focus. I’ve already mentioned a few: mining, mission-running, the opportunity-based NPE, teams and attributes, but there are many others.

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For example, I think we need a lot more depth in exploration. The current system is mostly a variant of mission-running combined with probing and a mini-game, and it can become stale fairly quickly. The new Drifter sites that require multiple pilots are a step in the right direction, but this isn’t enough. Space is supposed to feel immense and largely unexplored. This is one of the appealing features of Elite: Dangerous, where there are thousands of places that pilots can be the first to visit and investigate. As big as New Eden is, it is starting to feel very crowded, even in null-sec space. We need new space to explore in EVE Online with new opportunities and risks to overcome, and we need it soon.

I’m also concerned about the design of Fozziesov, which should make it easier for pilots to get more nullsec fights (essentially a result of a lower feature density thanks to the Entosis Link), but I’m not sure it will provide sufficient depth to truly revitalize sustained player engagement in 0.0 space. For that, we need substantive wars for control of territory in meaningful space. I’m worried that Fozziesov may only produce an endless number of smaller-scale, controlled tussles, and not the large-scale conflicts upon which alliances stake their fortunes or survival. Fozziesov may not be enough to increase the number of players drawn into the game.

Nevertheless, I’m still feeling optimistic about the future of EVE Online. I believe the log-in count downturn is a temporary condition, and can be easily and swiftly reversed if CCP Games continues to invest not only in reducing feature density but also in expanding the depth of those features as well. The danger lies in going in the opposite direction – over-simplifying and “dumbing down” EVE’s richness in a mistaken attempt to attract players unwilling to make a substantial emotional investment. While reducing feature density to improve accessibility is generally good, it must also be balanced by enhanced feature depth, in order to hold players’ long term interest.

Tags: balance, density, depth, future, Neville, NPE, rise, teams

About the author

Neville Smit

Neville Smit, a former director of education for EVE University, is now a non-violent space hippie in the Signal Cartel, living in wormhole space and making a meager living as an explorer. He has been trying to learn how to play EVE Online since 2009. You can read more about his misadventures in New Eden at NevilleSmit.com or on Twitter @NevilleSmit.

  • Kamar Raimo

    That was a dense read, but it had depth 🙂

    One thing I would not underestimate. No matter how accessible the NPE becomes and no matter how well it can prepare a new player for grasping the mechanics of the game, EVE has developed to a degree where many of the social interactions in-game have several layers of complexity that no tutorial can teach.

    That is a challenge that will remain and increase for every new player except if the players with 5+ years were to be vastly outnumbered by those with two and less years of playing experience.

  • Dirk MacGirk

    high article density; my sponge overfloweth. But good article depth with some interesting ideas.

    lol I then read Kamar’s post

  • Dmitry

    Numerous games went to the path of simplifying game mechanics. Check what happened. They transformed from deep universes with lots of connections in to arcades where the vast majority of the population are people with mentality EvE has never been tolerating.

    The New Eden universe is the result of it’s mechanic and the way people had to overcome complexity, not the opposite. So, please, be very careful when you will ask to change the rules and simplify something what has its own purpose.

    • GrouchyOldGamer

      I think the article is arguing against unnecessary complexity not complexity itself.

      • Dmitry

        There is a thin line between the two. And yeah, it is very subjective.

  • GrouchyOldGamer

    I do agree that CCP has to cut out the unnecessary complexity, attributes being a great example.

    What I’ve never really understood is why CCP does use video more in it’s new player experience? When Kerbal launched I found watching ‘let’s play’ videos a great way to learn the game.

    CCP has a great track record on producing videos as does it’s community. Something worth leveraging I would have thought.

    Another good example of over complexity are faction standings in faction warfare. I know many players that won’t even try FW because they are worried that it’ll damage their standings and recovering them is going to be painful.

    I don’t believe many people stop playing this game because it’s complex, but I do believe many are discouraged because it’s often unnecessarily complex.

    • Druik Arbosa

      I agree about FW standing penalties needing to be changed, I also admit that I like the idea of your actions having some kind of penalty if you take a side in a galactic cold war.

      • GrouchyOldGamer

        If there was a way of recovering the standings people could dip in and out of Faction Warfare if they fancy giving it a go. Maybe some sort of defector story arch. Whilst you are on a side I agree consequences for that choice should be evident.

  • l0rd carlos

    > As big as New Eden is, it is starting to feel very crowded, even in null-sec space.

    Huh? There are so many empty systems. Why do you feel crowded?

    • Neville Smit

      There is no place in New Eden that hasn’t been visited before – no uncharted new frontier. Some of the rooms may be empty at the moment, but they are all part of the same established house.

      • Druik Arbosa

        That is a very good point that I agree with strongly.
        If CCP added another five thousand system (or maybe not so much) would it become a frontier feel again, if so, how long?

        Would the gradual and constant addition of more systems also mean the possibility of removing local from Null Sec?

        • I like the idea of new areas being discovered for people to go explore and populate. Maybe the game is stale because it has been explored already. Maybe that will give the burnt out old timers and some of us newer people a chance to feel like we matter and not like Goon/CODE drones. I have been scammed, bad and yet I like the endless possibilities this game gices me. Yeah, the big coalitions are a drag on the game, yeah the new player experience can be redone, but overall I would rather play this than other MMOs

      • l0rd carlos

        Yeah, there might be something to that. But eve is not crowded. It’s explored, but not crowded. Single aeras or systems are crowded, eve as a whole is not.

      • I think the key here is “uncharted” more than “crowded.” If I find WH to somewhere in deep null I just pull up dotlan and it tells me all I want to know mechanically about what’s there. A scout can’t discover a previously hidden resource for his corp to exploit, for instance. I think part of the appeal of the current Lore push is that there is something unknown there, and even then it’s spoiled on Sisi long before it comes to Tranquility and people would have to risk “real” ships to explore it.

  • EveIsDeadAlready

    Did not know eve is dead already?
    Guess Eve player base wants to see it´s game dying, i mean so often the doom is called. If i am new and Google eve now, reading on the eve news sites everything tells me that this game is dead. Okay bye nothing to see here.

    Hop on a different game.
    Ever heard of self-fulfilling prophecy?
    Changes often lead to a drop in player numbers, as eve is not the usual casual game (what i like) but if you ask me its not dead and i hope i will last the next week.

    Have a nice day.
    Doom is upon us.

    • Kamar Raimo

      Eschatology is a phenomenon deeply rooted within the psychology of coping with the limited lifespan we all have to deal with. There is a certain part within us that wants to be sure that just as we ourselves die, so will the world we have known 🙂

  • Darqen

    EvE Online is crap and has Betrayed their older members
    EvE Online is in Decline because of the major griefing problem, hi-sec is more like grief-sec.
    I’m sorry EvE feels that other players need to dictate my playstyle.
    I managed to Sub and unsub within 12 hours. Thanks for the refund CCP, its about the only thing you’ve done right in the last 5 years.

    Good luck with this declining pile of steaming shit

    • Neville Smit

      I get the impression that EVE Online isn’t for you, perhaps? Good luck on your search for a game that better fits you.

      • Darqen

        How can it not be for me when I’m an established Cap pilot and 0.0 PvP’r. I, Sir, have been around since 2008. Spent many a day in outer ring. The game has changed into captain kirks evil twin from the Alternate universe. It is a perverse mirror image of what it used to be. high sec was mostly safe and lowsec and 0.0 were where the pvp happened.

        Now the mafia runs New Eden and you can’t do anything without being “Harassed” by other players who feel the need to dictate your playstyle.

        I say let eve burn. it deserves a slow death.

        • MrFoundryguy .

          Dude, chill out. It really sounds like your moreso disillusioned with the players than the game. Goons aren’t fun, CODE isn’t fun but you have the choice whether or not to interact with them by avoiding them and their space man. Sorry you got burned that bad over EVE, but the game doesn’t deserve to die, no game deserves to die like that.

          • Darqen

            Any game that allows the players to extort and scam other players should be killed. dead. GOODBYE .

            end of story. No sequels

  • Druik Arbosa

    I don’t know if I’m the exception, but it took me three trial periods to see if this was a game I wanted to play over a couple of years before I decided that it was a game I could get my head around and subscribe. Now that I have, I’m not going any where soon. ..

  • mmmmm

    What CCP has failed to recognise, is that as the old guard, player base gets older, they have less time to play due to family & other RL commitments & therefore less time to get involved in things that take a long time to do, which we took for granted in years gone past.
    CCP have also failed to recognise that the younger generations today, just don’t have the long term attention span & desire to play a game they cant get short term satisfaction from and therefore whilst they may initially be drawn to the game, they won’t hang around for long, because they are unwilling to invest their time into long term things.
    EvE needs a feature or activity (not mining or running mssions) that can meet the needs of both types of players, something that takes like 20-30 mins to do, something which they can draw satisfaction from and feel like they useful/contributing corp members in doing.

  • veldspar

    The game isn’t really all that complex. Lock things, get at the right distance or speed, and press a button. Easy.

    The trouble is, no-one can really play because CCP is always spilling your hand. The only people who undock are a smattering of foolhardy people, and those who believe they are holding Aces. The result is a stultifyingly dull, slow-burn experience. If it weren’t for boredom, baiting and elaborate deception, very little would ever happen.

    CCP needs to re-evaluate what information players actually need, and make them use up more resources for the rest. If they can make space big, unknown and completely necessary, then there would actually be a game here. The reason most people only stay for a few months is because that is how long it takes for them to figure out what is fundamentally wrong. Those who stay longer can’t let go of the what-if that drew them in the first place.