New players are the lifeblood of any massively multiplayer online game. A constant supply of bright-eyed recruits is required to replace the inevitable bittervets, burnouts, and "people with better things to do." This is particularly true in a sandbox game like EVE, where burnout (when it comes) is fierce, and players derive most of their fun from interactions with other players, be it through fights, trades, tears, or pointless Jabber vomit.
Another fact of note: just as alliances and coalitions can suffer failure cascades, MMOs often go under in the same way.
When the number of players drops below a critical threshold - whether through developer error or simple competition - player interaction numbers fall, and the MMO stops feeling like a MMO. What it feels like is an expensive single player game with more frustrating mechanics. Various tricks (such as server consolidation) can be used to maintain player numbers, but the game will ultimately go into a death spiral that few recover from.
Most end up either shutting down completely or chugging along on life support, their servers as empty as my wallet. This happens to plenty of MMOs: the developer fails to realize that their most valuable asset is not their game mechanics, or even their IP, but rather their player community.
EVE has always had issues with accessibility. It has been justifiably described as being one of the least intuitive, least user-friendly, and least transparent MMOs ever released. Those that manage to scale the "learning cliff" view it as a badge of pride. "We hardened the fuck up and survived." EVE's dismal new player retention rate is often attributed to this obtuseness. To some extent, this is still true. In 2012, a new player has many options available to him, perhaps too many. There are plenty of guides and organizations out there devoted to shepherding newbies through the generally accepted "hoops" of the game. Unfortunately, it's rather more difficult for such a player to learn to navigate the social straits of EVE - and not play as a miner, solo missioner, or member of the other "trap" professions that tend to lead to boredom, burnout, and unsubscription.
This picture is mandatory in any discussion about EVE and accessibility.
Starting this week, I am running a survey designed to identify the reasons new players quit (or have come close to quitting) EVE. It's targeted at members of my corp, EVE University, as it is arguably the largest single collection of new players. Before I finish data collection and publishing, though, I would like to share some thoughts and anecdotes about the way newbies are treated in EVE culture, as it is, in my opinion, a great part of the reason for EVE's poor trial retention rate, and a contributor to anemic or downright negative growth.
(Graph courtesy of Jester. If you don’t read his blog, you should.)
I’ll date myself a little here; while waiting for Battlecruisers V to finish, I spent the last two weeks in Arnon helping newbies with the Sisters of Eve Epic Arc. Retribution has brought in a veritable flood of newbies and 14 day trials, and the SoE arc was the continuation of the tutorials. In the course of those two weeks, I killed Dagan about 40 times. Newbies ranged from people who knew what they were doing but lacked the SP to break Dagan’s tank, to those who didn’t understand game mechanics in the slightest (shooting blasters from 30km), to those that had ideas at least seemed "intuitive" (one guy mounted a dual 180mm AC on his Thrasher, as he was told “to fit the biggest guns you can”). There's nothing wrong with all this, mind you - it's to be expected of a newbie navigating his way through the unintuitive world of New Eden. Eventually they will discover the error of their ways, or be enlightened by a more experienced player.
What concerned me was the corporations these players were in. Half were still in the NPC starter corps, which is not great, but more worrying were the newbies who were pulled into corps advertising in the Recruitment channel. One specific newbie stands as a case in point, but there are thousands like him. He was recruited into a self-advertised “lowsec pirate corp" as an eager young space-swashbuckler. This newbie had joined up four days previously, and was told by corpmates to complete the tutorial and SoE arc. He was then left to his own devices.
The poor guy had trudged through the entire arc so far in a mixed gun, dual tanked, salvager (but no tractor) Cormorant. He had lost ships already in Burning down the Hive, and was struggling against Kristan Parthus (an NPC in a neuting battlecruiser). After a brief talk with yours truly, he was in a neutron blaster, shield tanked cormorant, and finished the arc soon after. What was missing? His “corp” recruited him as a newbie, then left him in the galaxy with no advice, no isk to buy ships and skillbooks with, and no guidance from veterans.
Barring my intervention, would this newbie have kept on and forged his own path in EVE? Maybe - but I'd bet a PLEX that he would eventually become frustrated with this seemingly impenetrable mess of a game and leave for World of Tanks, or Planetside 2, or Star Citizen when it releases. This was all from simple neglect - what of other players who actively seek out newbies and grief them for tears? There are people who bait newbies right off the Arnon undock (with sensor boosted Thrashers waiting behind the station). There are people scanning down newbies running missions, then killing the mission rat and holding the required drop ransom. There are people filling the starter station production lines with long term junk orders so the newbies are unable to finish the industry tutorial without buying from grossly priced orders. (I'm looking at you, 750,000 isk civilian afterburner.) One can defend this as emergent gameplay, sure, but is this particular brand of emergence ultimately good for EVE?
Now take what was written above, and contrast it with this.
(2:01:50 PM) directorbot: Hello my fellow goons and goonettes. Rare is my opportunity to make a broadcast about something auth related but alas here we are. We pride ourselves on a fair amount of accuracy when weeding out the pubbing j4g ****lords and the scammed masses that you people fleece dry of isk. Today however, this day, we have failed and a wee little newbee was accidentally booted from our fine establishment due to a clerical error by a shrimp-loving member of the auth team. As it is the holiday season, this newbee should not have to suffer the mistakes of the administration so I am calling on all of you to shower this little newbee with isk as penance for our sins.
The little newbee is [REDACTED] - go forth and make it rain on his wallet
*** This was a broadcast from [REDACTED] to all-all at 2012-12-14 19:02:21.772999 EVE, replies are not monitored ***
Ever wonder how Goons and Test manage to vat-grow an endless supply of warm bodies for their blobs? Well. Now you know.
E-uni makes do with of donations and a 0.1% tax rate; small corps have neither the time or inclination to train up newbies to the point where they can truly begin enjoying Eve. The ones with resources, that is, large nullsec blocs (outside of Dreddit and Goonwaffe), have stringent recruiting standards and justified paranoia of all recruits for fear of spies.
(Bad things happen to alliances who aren’t paranoid enough of spies. Image courtesy of Nerfnow.com)
We can’t rely on CCP to do anything meaningful to better prepare players for Everyone Vs. Everyone. This is a problem that has existed since the inception of the game. Iceland has attempted to address it mechanically. Some things have changed - the new tutorials, the rebalanced ships, etc - and that's great. Yet the problem remains. It's the community, stupid.
The cry goes out from players, journalists, and devs alike: EVE needs “new blood” to survive. How do we, the players of this game, those who have HTFU’d, actually treat the new blood? For many, certainly not as potential allies or even opponents - more like scum, or isk piñatas, or easy targets to green up their killboards. So, reader, I have a question for you. What can we do to make New Eden a more attractive place for newbies than Azeroth or Auraxis?